Some get initiative, some get property, some are just It
DO not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Tag, you're It!
Roll for initiative.
Those first two phrases you probably recognized from common games, Monopoly (from Parker Brothers) and tag. Does anyone actually have fond childhood memories of those games?
Your cousin shrewdly invests in hotels and bleeds the rest of you dry and it stops being fun after 15 minutes, but he insists on finishing the torment and no one ever wants to play with him again. Or you think you've found a great hiding place, but it locks from the outside and no one can find you and you cry for hours and your mom has to call the police.
"Roll for initiative" might not ring a bell. It's from Dungeons & Dragons, which you generally discover in adolescence or not at all. It's like Weird Al. Despite years of resisting, or perhaps because of them, I played for the first time this month. And the world feels new again.
For a long time, I dated a guy who grew to prefer socializing via role-playing games to our consensus reality. I tried in vain to get along by myself in his apartment, strewn with pennies and aromatic with college-student noodles. We started off in the same world, and then he moved to his own sphere, where he could be a vampire, a paladin, a peer to the heroes his friends played. I felt like an alien in their improvised world.
I'd scoffed at role-playing games in the same way that a nonreader might scoff at my love of novels. It's all fiction, so how can the fun be real?
As an outsider, I just saw players rolling dice and yelling at the results. Playing math at each other, I called it. As awoman working in a tech field, an Indian in the U.S. and a nonplayer gamely trying to hang out with obsessed gamers — I'm used to being the unique intersection in lots of Venn diagrams dissing everything I can't master.
So these new friends didn't know that D&D was on thin ice with me. They needn't have worried. It turns out that a role-playing game can be a hack-and-slash thriller, or a collaborative story-telling ritual. I love Atlas Games' Once Upon A Time game because the constraints of the cards make it easier to tell stories. D&D makes it even easier.
Before the game begins, the players roll dice to randomly create strengths and weaknesses for their characters, and the dungeon master (D.M. to the initiated) designs a world in great detail. (I was Vera, an ugly thief, and I lived in the Baltic region in the 10th century AD.) Then the game begins, the master lets the players loose in the new world and the decisions that the characters make automatically create a story.
In the game I played (with a wise D.M. and experienced players), I finally felt, viscerally, all I'd known in my head about the power of gaming. I made myself a hero or a coward, and my actions had immediate consequences.
When I ran away from the fight in fear, my turns got boring. But when I came back and threw darts at a monster or felt along the ceiling for traps, I saved my team from injury.
In poker, you play the cards you're dealt; in D&D, you play the statistics you've rolled. Vera had great dexterity but very little strength or stamina. I found myself avoiding risk, creeping around walls and up trees, scurrying to tell my findings to the team. A game of D&D gives me more explicit lessons about teamwork and initiative than 100 seminars.
"Roll for initiative" comes up when the dungeon master springs an attack on you. You roll the die to find out whether it completely surprises you or you can take the initiative to defend yourself. Vera surprised me. As weak and inexperienced as she was, she got and used initiative frequently.
I realized that I'm even more risk-averse than she is and vowed to change.
Tag and Monopoly have only a few lessons to offer. Why not use a flexible game world to learn about yourself and to make something? Dungeons and Dragons is more creative than reading, more intellectually engaging than tag and more ideologically sound than Monopoly. Of course, it's only as good as the people you play with, but what isn't?
Great literature is escapist, but it changes you, and you come back to your world with new eyes. D&D is the first game that's ever done that for me.
Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at email@example.com.