Once, long ago, before smart phones, the internet, and social media, there lived a bright young man, full of curiosity, passion, and a love for bettering his mind.
That person, alas, was not me.
I was a child of the turbulent ’70s, coming of age during a period of time that nuclear annihilation seemed all but assured. For me, school felt like a waste of time; some would say the education system failed me, but it would be more fair for those educators to say that they knew futility when they saw it.
The person mentioned in the opening paragraph of this story was my friend Jay, who was, even at the age of 14, widely considered to be a genius. He was on track to graduate from high school at 16, and eventually went on to MIT, where I am sure he did extraordinary things with his wit and intellect. Jay’s family, his teachers, and clergy despaired at our friendship, assuming that I was going to drag him down a dark path. And they weren’t wrong.
Jay and I had a secret, you see: We played Dungeons and Dragons.
Volumes have been written about the religious hysteria aimed at D&D in the 1980’s, so I won’t bore you with the details. Jay’s family, like the families of many kids during this time, were convinced that playing Dungeons and Dragons would lead to worshiping devils and consorting with Satanists (if
only!), so we would meet under the guise of other activities, and I would merrily drag our group down myriad dark paths of adventure.
Every week, our “study group” would meet in the same way, with Jay supposedly tutoring our mutual friend Garth and I in some academic subject or other, and I would run a module for our group, or take them through a dungeon that I had created. We would also indulge in other rituals of the time, like ordering pizza and listening to Rush, but I don’t want to terrify the more squeamish of our readership.
This went on for years, with one constant: I ran the adventures. I had the imagination and narrative skill to take our group on wild journeys through fantastic realms, and I would spend hours each week crafting new adventures. But, one week, Jay asked if he could be Dungeon Master for the next session.
It seemed like an innocent enough thing to ask.
The following Friday, our group met at Garth’s house, ordered some pizza, put on some Rush, and rolled up our characters. Jay was excited, positively giddy at the adventure he had put together for us. We finished our character sheets, turned down the music, and settled in for the magic.
Our party had left the tavern, and was about half way to the dungeon when reality set in. Jay, it turns out, had written an adventure that only Jay could solve. We were hounded by riddles, ambushed by Latin, and vexed by mathematical equations. Our little group plowed on, stubbornly working through the cerebral quagmire that had been placed before us. It was worth it, we thought, since Jay was having so much fun.
Eventually, we made it to the dungeon. We entered, cautiously, hoping against hope for a horde of kobolds to slather some murder sauce on. Maybe a squad of goblin ninjas to kick around. Perhaps, (dare to dream!) a couple of Ogres to work over before we got to the real meat of the dungeon. What we were met with, however, was the stuff of nightmares.
The doors slammed shut, trapping our party in a narrow stone hallway. A dim, eldritch light appeared on the wall, and a Magic Mouth appeared. It smiled, then told us that in order to progress, we would need to answer a riddle. My blood went cold. I didn’t want to answer another stupid riddle. I wanted to skewer a pack of orcs, or go into a berzerker frenzy on some reanimated Beach Boys fans. Jay smiled. I knew we were doomed.
“What is the square root of Pi?” he asked, assuming the role of the Magic Mouth. Grates above the hall opened, and water began to fill the hallway. Garth and I looked at each other, panic setting in. Square root of Pi? What the sacred name of Geddy Lee was Pi, and why did it have square roots? Why was I suddenly hungry?
The water level grew increasingly deeper, and my desperation grew with it. Neither of us really took to math, having settled on a steady pursuit of comic books, D&D modules, and Rush albums. We were doomed. For 30 more minutes, Jay kept asking his stupid “riddle”. For 30 minutes, Garth and I tried to figure something, anything out.
Eventually, our characters drowned. Jay looked at us, confused as to why we weren’t thrilled. I stared back at Jay, realizing that I had witnessed the origin story of the lamest X-Men villain of all time unfold before me. Garth got up, sighed, and left his own house. An hour later, realizing he wasn’t coming back, Jay and I left, too.
That was the last time our group got together to play, at least as far as Jay knows. Garth and I still managed to play, always in fear of Jay discovering our clandestine games. Eventually, we all finished school, and I never saw Jay or Garth again.
I try not to think about that night; about the adventure that almost destroyed my love of D&D, but it creeps in from time to time, taunting me about my lack of mathematical prowess. I shudder, and think of that horrible session, our innocence destroyed at the hands of a nascent mad scientist.
The news torments me now. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, I wonder to myself: was it really just an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or Rush cover band? Really?
Or was it Jay…