Ned Vizzini on Discovering Role-Playing Games at 28

Ned Vizzini, The Other Normals
photo: Sabra Embury

Well, this guest essay takes me back; when I was in junior high school, I was into the idea of Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t know anybody else who was, so although I had a copy of the Monster Manual, all I ever did was read it (and maybe populate some fantasy story treatments with the inventoried beasties). Ned Vizzini knows what that feels like, and he’s drawn upon it in shaping the teenage protagonist of his new novel, The Other Normals. But this story goes in directions Ned’s life never did. (At least I don’t think it did…)

Ned will be at the New York Comic Con this weekend; he’ll be signing copies of The Other Normals on Saturday, October 13, just before takes part in a panel with screenwriter/director Chris Columbus where they’ll be talking about their new project, House of Secrets.

I always wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons when I was a teenager. Why?

  • It seemed like an appropriate thing to do for a person who looked like I did then.
  • I had a suspicion that the people who played would accept me for who I was.
  • I loved the books!

Number three was most important. I really did love those D&D rulebooks. I had an uncanny ability to sit and read them and imagine what my characters would be like, and draw up charts and maps, and buy weapons for a big adventure… all without ever having another person to play with!

It makes sense now. The part of other teenagers’ minds that was turned on by the parsing of data (I’m thinking about baseball cards and comic books; two decades later, this escapist instinct is exemplified by the cataloging of vast media archives) was satisfied for me by these books. They all got food in their spines and eventually rotted apart.

But I never found anyone to play with.

In part it was my fault. I was a cantankerous, self-hating teenager, and if a particularly good-looking or popular person threatened to include me in something they were doing, I kept away. I hung out with a small collection of freaks and weirdoes for whom Dungeons & Dragons would be shockingly normal behavior. Of the friends I can remember—

  • One was ranked the #5 Warcraft player in the world (the original Warcraft, not World of…) and therefore had no time to play Dungeons & Dragons, or even attend school…
  • One actively spoke of shooting the school up with an automatic weapon (this was two years before Columbine; I suppose I should’ve taken it more seriously).
  • One avoided capture by the FBI after a hacking excursion by passing a giant magnet over his locker to destroy the data hidden inside.

These weren’t the sort of people you could force hobbies on.

Eventually, though, I did manage to sit down and play Dungeons & Dragons with some pasty, barely-multicultural kids in Brooklyn—and the game was such a drag! It wasn’t exciting. People kept interrupting to go to the bathroom or eat. The rulebooks (like AD&D Player’s Handbook 2nd Edition) make the game seem like seamless group storytelling:

DM: You’ve been following this tunnel for about 120 yards. The water on the floor is ankle deep and very cold. Now and then you feel something brush against your foot. The smell of decay is getting stronger. The tunnel is gradually filling with a cold mist.
Fighter 1: I don’t like this at all. Can we see anything up ahead that looks like a doorway,or a branch in the tunnel?
DM: Within the range of your torchlight, the tunnel is more or less straight. You don’t see any branches or doorways.
Cleric: The wererat we hit had to come this way. There’s nowhere else to go.
Fighter 1: Unless we missed a hidden door along the way. I hate this place; it gives me the creeps.
Fighter 2: We have to track down that wererat. I say we keep going.

But games always turned out more like this:

DM: Okay so we’re starting a game and I’m the dungeon master and—
My Friend: Hold on, aren’t we doing the Pagalog campaign?
DM: No, Ned’s here. So we’re starting a new campaign.
My Friend: With a 1st level character?!
Me: Should I buy rope at the store before my character goes on this adventure?
My Friend: Rope! What’s wrong with—BRRRING BRRRING—hold on my mom’s calling!

But something strange happened to me decades later. I was working at the Park Slope Food Coop—this was a dark time in my life—and I was on checkout duty. I have a feeling that more than a few of the people reading this know about the PSFC and checkout duty but I’ll explain anyway. The Food Coop’s volunteer workforce takes turns manning the checkout stations, which they do with a combination of disdain and confusion.

Why? Because it’s actually really hard to tell the difference between kale and chard on those little screens. A few trips to the Food Coop will remind you of the tremendous benefit that professional check-out people add to your life. It always took me forever to check people out and sometimes they got mad at me and I shrugged because I wasn’t getting paid to work there anyway.

On one of these days, I brought my old, rotted-apart Monstrous Manual to pass the time. One of the Food Coop customers saw it.

“Hey, a Monstrous Manual! Do you play?”
“I don’t really, I just read the books…”
“My husband runs games! You should come and play!”

Two weeks later, I was playing D&D with a half-dozen guys in their late 20s and early 30s.

The players spanned professional backgrounds—although like those first kids I’d attempted to play with, they were almost all white: a Craigslist gig-hunter, a corporate lawyer, and a fantasy artist who has gone on to some success. The leader, the dungeon master, was a preschool teacher who I’ll call Bryce. It was his wife who spotted me with the Monstrous Manual.

Bryce ran a mean game of D&D. He didn’t follow the letter of the rules; he followed the spirit. He let us keep rolling dice until we got characters with decent ability scores so we wouldn’t all die immediately—and then, to keep things interesting, he killed us off with abandon. (I once died because giant lizard carcasses fell on me.) Bryce had the ability to herd us gamer cats into some semblance of group storytelling, and he always kept the game going. One time, when we were fighting a minotaur, someone farted, and he said, “The stench of the minotaur envelops you!”

These games were good for me, but elsewhere in my life, things were falling apart. I was supposed to be working on a novel—I was working on one—but it was terrible. I was burning through money and a souring relationship. One day, playing D&D, I got a call. It was someone I worked with in Los Angeles.: “Ned, what’s happening? When am I going to get to read this fabulous new book of yours?… Oh… You’ve abandoned it? So what are you working on now?”

I looked at the table of gamers. I was working on battling the stench of the minotaur.

I got off the phone and told Bryce and everyone else that I had to go.

“Why?” “What’s up?” “Where are you going?”
“I have to, uh… get some things in my life together.”

I grabbed my coat and went to the door. Bruce saw me out, and when he did, he gave me the kind of look that I found rare then and that I avoid even today—an honest, kind look right into my eyes. “You know, Ned, if something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not just your DM, I’m your friend too.”

I wish I’d found those guys sooner. Shortly after I left that game, I abandoned my terrible book and wrote The Other Normals—and if I didn’t owe a dedication to my father, I’d have dedicated it “To Bryce and the Park Slope Late-20s Early-30s D&D Crew.”

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12 October 2012 | guest authors |