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The Owlbear Gang

The Owlbear Gang

I’m the Comics Ninja and I haven’t played Dungeons & Dragons since junior high school. In fact, most recovering addicts I know haven’t rolled a twenty-sided die or fretted the frailty of a first level magic user in nearly a quarter of a century but that doesn’t mean that the game still doesn’t hang all over us like a suit of chainmail plus three.

With that said, I have found it curious that despite the fact that D&D is deeply ingrained in our shared popular culture it has never gained the same level of acceptance Star Wars or other popular staples of the fan boy nation. For example, in polite society it’s perfectly acceptable to play the Darth Vader March after scoring a touchdown or chalk up an inexplicable one night stand to a Jedi mind trick. But, call somebody a kobold or tell them you are going to summon your flesh golem and, more often than not, they’ll look at you like you have pixies crawling out of your ears.

Exhibit A: several years ago I was suffering through a tedious staff meeting. To make matters worse, I suddenly found myself called on despite my efforts to hide behind my Chewbacca coffee mug (note, hot liquid in a Sasquatch head is deemed perfectly acceptable in a professional setting). My boss, Mr. Hitler (not his actual name) was asking questions about data storage or some such thing to which I felt I was giving sufficiently constructive answers.

Clearly, Mr. Hitler felt differently, expressing his opinion simply as “nope, unsatisfactory.” After the fifth “nope,” my hide became officially chapped and I shot back, to quote, “Well I don’t know, Mr. Hitler, maybe we could store all of the data in a magic bag of holding.”

A perfectly reasonable response in my mind but the room went deadly silent. Finally a portly gentleman at the end of table named Gandalf (actual name… no not really) began giggling. I pegged him as a fellow former D20 roller and shot him a smile. He returned a nod which of course egged me on.

“Maybe my third level thief could sneak about in Elvin boots gathering data from our staff?” I added hand gestures and a hunching of the shoulders for visualization purposes. More giggles from Gandalf, more mouths agape around the table, Hitler began turning a dangerous shade of red. Never being one to quite while ahead, I continued.

Data Demon!
“Perhaps we could use our Pscionic abilities to send the data to the third level of hell. A lesser demon could watch over it or something. Would that work, would that, you know, be satisfactory?” Yup, too far, it was cloak of invisibility time, but I think you see my point.

My outlandish behavior aside, I do have to ask the question, where did D&D go wrong? Why was D&D forced to the dark corners of America’s collective basements? Maybe it was the whole pagan gods and sorcery thing? Back then people really did seem pretty open to the idea that maybe Satan himself served as the grand dungeon master.

In my neighborhood, the DM was a skinny kid with glasses, marginal social skills and a charisma of 8. If you squinted real hard I guess he could have passed for the great horned one, I mean, he did torture us with that whole “roll for picking the lock” thing every damn time.

Anyhoo, back in D&D’s heyday some Christian groups completely went over the reality cliff and associated D&D with everything from witchcraft and suicide and murder to, worst of all, drawings of naked boobs. As a side note, let it be known right here and now that D&D was cool enough all on its own, throw in the boobs and it had me at hello. But seriously, associating D&D with witchcraft, murder and suicide? Come on, the only thing getting murdered was the poor gamer’s chance at hooking up with a real live girl. It was only fair to let them have the ecstasy of their hand drawn boobies.

Anyway, no matter what the root cause was and is of D&D’s second class social status, its devotees have since the game’s inception in the late 70’s continued to be portrayed, without fail, in popular culture and the media as the guardians of geekdom and, God Bless them, they don’t tend to help themselves. Take, for example, a quote from the dearly departed fantasy man Gary Gygax:

“You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the entire universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow.”

Um, O.K. With that said, is it a shocker that even today people such as politicians and others gleefully bash the misunderstood fantasists? Even during the 2008 presidential campaign a McCain staffer named Michael Goldfarb felt it necessary to diss gamers on his blog when he wrote:

“It may be typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman’s memory of war from the comfort of mom’s basement, but most Americans have the humility and gratitude to respect and learn from the memories of men who suffered on behalf of others.”

Say what? Look, neither I nor anyone else understood a lick of what Mr. Goldfarb was trying to say but what does come through is that it was meant as a negative connotation and I assume because these people were playing D&D in their basements. Now, irrespective of whether I supported Obama or McCain during the last election, I am firmly pro my mother’s basement, so to you Mr. Goldfarb, I say game on, somebody roll for initiative.

Moving on, as recently as January 26, 2009, the Associated Press ran an article titled Game over! A convicted murderer serving life in prison in Wisconsin has lost his legal battle to play Dungeons & Dragons behind bars. As you can imagine this article garnered my rapt attention. The Associated Press article stated:

“Kevin T. Singer filed a lawsuit against officials at Wisconsin’s Waupun prison after a policy was initiated in 2004 to eradicate all Dungeons and Dragons game materials among concerns that playing it promotes gang-related activity.

The 33-year-old Singer is a devoted player of the fantasy role-playing game that involves recruiting others to play as a group. He argued that his First Amendment rights were being violated and demanded that Dungeons & Dragons material confiscated from his cell be returned. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the prison’s policy was reasonable.”

Wait, gangs of gamers? Dudes with the strength of 9 are roaming the prison yards throwing gang signs? Have they adopted monikers like the Owlbears or the Mind Flayers? Are they horning in on the territory of the Bloods, Crips and the Brotherhood?! Actually, this sounds like the makings of a great advanced level campaign but I digress.

Some readers may point out that Mr. Singer, a D&D devotee, is serving a life sentence for bludgeoning to death another human being with, according to my later research, a sledgehammer. To that I say, it was a sledgehammer. Had he used a D&D appropriate weapon like a mace, a pole arm or a crossbow then we’d have something to examine closer. Case closed, sort of. On another note, had Mr. Singer used a light saber to do his dirty work, I’d bet my dice bag that everyone would have just given him an understanding nod and moved on.

Now, my personal campaigning days have been over even before the full onset of puberty, but that’s just because something else came along called GIRLS. Before I knew what had hit me it was time to retire Sir Galahad, my seventh level knight (in hindsight I may have lacked originality at that age), and started aiming my, ahem, magic missile elsewhere.

Even with that enlightening bit of information, I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy getting back into some good old fashioned dungeon crawling some day. In fact, I think it would be a blast. At my age and considering the company I keep, the activity would inevitably include beer and, as we all know, beer makes a lot of things better. By the end of the night the guys would be hitting on Medusa, attacking the Platinum Dragon just because and storming the Keep on the Borderlands on the off chance that the tavern might still be open.

I think the reason D&D is still relevant to me after all of these years, the reason the game’s culture hasn’t simply flittered away like so many other fads is because I and the other former players haven’t left it. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s when the game really hit, me and the rest of the Gen Xer’s were becoming teenagers and D&D was an escape and sometimes a social life for misfits, dreamers, geeks and perhaps the overly studious. Society’s geeks, castoffs and prepubescent had a subculture with its own language, heroes and references that were never completely hip.

1982 Shippensburg College Dungeons & Dragons Summer Camp.

Star Wars clicked on so many different levels with so many different people that it became mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but being part of the D&D underground was a real badge of honor and still is amongst the aging and not so aged devotees.

According to an article I recently read, Liz Schuh, the D&D brand director, claims “When we look at our player base and beyond into our fan base, we see 24 million people in the U.S. 13 to 45 [years old] that played D&D at one point.”

That’s a pretty big group of people who like to step into a second level dwarf’s boots now and then or can name, off the top of their head, every spell a fourth level Cleric has available. Even more so, that’s a very large subculture with a social stigma that lands them downstream from a seat at the cool table. It was and is a punk movement in its purest sense if you will, before all of those punks showed up in their regulation Doc Martens and perfect Mohawks.

So, yeah the force is with me and my Star Wars figures still have a reverential status, but I will also hold onto my punk side and throw out the occasional reference to the Fiend Folio here and there just to remind myself of who I am and if you have even the slightest idea of what a Fiend Folio is then perhaps there is spot waiting for you in the Owlbear gang as well.