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Friday, October 19, 2007

Treasured Geek Traditions Passed on to the Next Generation

Yikes. More than two months since my last post. That's about as long a break as I've ever taken, excepting the time last year when I figured I was going to have to give up the blog entirely. Anyway, not that I imagine there are many people out there who have pined away for my musings, but in case there are any such, my apologies.

Late as it may be, I need to talk about our family reunion last August, as I promised several people I would, it having been such a momentous occasion and all. As the Fox family grows ever-larger, gatherings where all of us--siblings, spouses, nieces and nephews--can be in one place at one time is pretty momentous all by itself, but it wasn't that mere fact of the vacation, not all the things we did and old friends we saw, that made it memorable. No, for all my geek brothers and I, what really made it cool was this:

If you have eyes to see, then you've already figured it out. Yes, that is a Dungeon Masters screen on the table in front of my oldest daughter Megan (she's the red-head with glasses pointing) in the first photo. And yes, that same table is littered with scribbled-on paper and dice in the second photo. After years of listening to me and my brothers reminisce about our Dungeons and Dragons days, Megan decided she wanted in on the action. So she organized an adventure with as many of her cousins as she could line up--and as you can see, she managed to line up quite a few. They played for hours, spread out over a couple of days. I couldn't possibly be more proud.

There were limits to whom she was able to drag into the game. The three oldest cousins (all well into their teenage years now) opted out, preferring to hang around the pool and the volleyball courts and talk about boys. And there were plenty of younger cousins that wanted to be cool and get in on the adventure, but were denied permission by parents, if only because we knew how late at night these games are liable to run. Still, that left just about every cousin in the extended family between the ages of eight and twelve participating. Megan came up with the adventure, helped everyone design their characters, taught everyone the rules, and generally played ringmaster to a bunch of kids getting their first introduction to role-playing. And, mind you, this was a authentic, old-school, paper-and-pencil, straight-out-of-junior-high-role-playing-game (all the rule books she used were Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, if you must know). We wouldn't have had it any other way.

When did the Fox brothers themselves become initiated to D&D? (And in our various campaigns over the years, it always was the Fox brothers, for better or worse; our sisters never participated, either by their own choice or our exclusion of them or some combination thereof. In this sense, Fox Family D&D: The Next Generation is already an improvement over the The Original Gang, as they've a got a nice gender mix of 5 nieces to 3 nephews, in contrast to anywhere from 2 to 5 brothers hanging out while eating donuts.) The original seed, way back when, was planted by a goofy uncle of mine, a computer nerd back in those benighted days being a computer nerd had no immediate cultural or financial upside to it (so, say, around 1980 or so). He'd been taught to play D&D at college, and he shared it with us, his nephews sometime soon after. Back then I was already a budding weirdo, the sort of sixth-grader that spent recesses walking along the outer perimeter of school fences avoiding bullies and composing what I have long since come to recognize as primitive fan fiction stories in my head. I was instantly attracted to this strange new kind of intellectual play (indulge your fantasies by pretending you're someone else, while also subjecting yourself to hundreds of pages of complicated rules! brilliant!), and became even more convinced it was the game for me once I started hearing all the rumors about it which were so common back in the early 1980s. (My mother was partially convinced that we would be sucked into a fantasy world and would run off and live in a sewer somewhere, obeying the bizarre voices in our heads, just like that one crazy kid supposedly did, the one who became the basis for an early Tom Hanks movie.) We started with that wonderful old beginner's set, the one with the dragon on the cover, but soon graduated to the classic AD&D First Edition rule books, and those kept us going for years. Mainly it was my older brother Daniel and I, with my younger brother Stuart occasionally joining it (when we let him; we were pretty tight, Daniel and I were--I was always the Dungeon Master, and he would play up to six characters at a time). But in time, with only a few interruptions along the way, all of the Fox brothers became players with one version of the game or another. Of course, all that ended when we went our separate ways to college and missions and jobs and marriages. The one thing we never managed to do, through all those years, was all play an adventure together. That came later.

Our first attempt to resurrect D&D with the whole bunch of us together took place about ten years ago; most of us were married by then, and some of us had kids, and the time seemed right to attempt to get together time at an upcoming family reunion and see what we could pull off. It worked okay, for a while. But some of us were still busy with trying to get careers off the ground or finish an education or settle down with someone, and after a few attempts it came to a halt. I was partly to blame for that; after having spent a decade or so away from a game I'd played for all of the 1980s, I was fired up by the prospect of re-engineering a whole world, and went into DM overdrive, creating all sorts of complicated scenarios. Bad move, especially when you're talking about a bunch of players that are only able to get together once a year or so. So that fell apart....but then, about three years ago, two of my brothers (who live near each other in Salt Lake City and for a long time worked together as well, and thus had plenty of time to talk), came up with a new plan for putting together a campaign, and they were (with not too much effort!) able to pull me in. Our goal was to pick single-shot adventures, high-level stuff that we'd never worked our way up to before and which we thought to we could get into with little backstory or campaign preparation. We decided to go for Against the Giants, a classic set of modules that we had at one time owned in their original versions, but never played. We tracked them down on eBay, and started getting organized. In 2006 we managed the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and this past summer (in the photo you see above; I'm the one DMing in the hat at the table in back, and, yes, two of our brothers had to bow out of the final night's session) we managed the Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, which turned out to be one of best gaming experiences I've ever had. Of course, this means the Hall of the Fire Giant King is waiting for us next year. After that, who knows?

Now as I was pulling stuff together for this year's gathering, Megan started pouring over my 2nd Edition books, asking all sorts of questions. I gave her pointers on designing an adventure, and bought her one of the new beginner's sets they have floating around. (I have to say that as snazzy as they look, I'm not sold on Third Edition, which is why we decided not to bother with an upgrade. Is it true they're going to be releasing a Fourth Edition now?) She started reaching out to her cousins, beginning with Daniel's daughter Cambri, who had absorbed tons of this stuff from her dad, as Megan had from me. (She's the dark-haired girl wearing a red shirt and smiling at the camera in the second photo.) After they decided they were going to have their own adventure at this past summer, they started e-mailing a bunch of other cousins, getting their respective dad's to initiate them into the mysteries of D&D. (Why did none of us marry anyone who had interest in role-playing games? I have no idea. Maybe it has something to do with D&D being, for all us brothers on some level, a male bonding experience. In any case, thankfully, the last couple of times we've done this wives have been mostly understanding, so long as we confine our adventuring to sometime between 8:30pm and dawn.) By the time the reunion rolled around this past August, Megan was ready to crack the whip and get their show on the road.

It was hilarious and nostalgic to watch them play. They didn't really know how, which is what made it so creative and crazy and fun. How much does the DM lead the players in their decisions, how many do-overs do the players get? They would get all hung up on the thrill and drama and stress of what to pack in one's saddlebags. ("Do we have enough rope?!?" C'mon, you know you wasted a good half-hour on that question when you first played, don't deny it.) They would argue for twenty minutes about whether or not they'd done everything to check a door for traps. (Usually, nope. Megan is a mean DM.) Rather than falling into conventional and tried and true patters of heroic playing, they'd delight us all with doing stupid stuff that, hey, if you can roll your dexterity, it might just work! (My favorite was my nephew Clark, whose character was a thief, and who during fights would choose to climb the walls, then the ceilings, and then drop his sword on monsters. Fabulous! I doubt I was that creative when I was in fifth grade and just starting to get this stuff down.)

Abraham, Clark's dad, actually gave us a call a week or so after the reunion, thanking me for my part in getting Megan and the rest of The Next Generation going; on the way home, he and Clark talked and talked and talked about adventures and encounters and monsters--sure, just fantasy stuff you say, but when your subject is a somewhat introverted kid, anything that makes it possible for parents and children to share and connect with one another is a good thing, especially when it opens up the possibility of deeper, more engaged topics of conversation. Which is what it was done with all of us, as well, over the years; my dad has sometimes speculated that it was the shared experience of D&D as much as anything else which has kept seven brothers such good friends (a surprising conclusion on his part, considering that he'd once banned it temporarily from the house). Megan and I have, I think, a pretty good father-daughter relationship, but being invited into her imaginary world, as an adviser and old hand and co-conspirator in planning fabulous plots, and seeing that help pay off as she presents something so fun and fulfilling to her cousins, creating another little circle within the larger family right there...well, it was a source of tremendous joy.

I hope they'll keep it up. If they lose interest and go on to other things (or worse, start playing solely on the computer or over the internet....yeech), well, I'll survive; it's hardly the one true form of geek/intellectual entertainment out there. (We can always watch The Lord of the Rings together.) But this summer, at least, we saw a bunch of our treasured kids have a blast with something we used to have a blast with (and sometimes, when the conditions are right, still do). And that made us feel old, and young, at the same time. Which, I suppose, part of what having traditions, and passing them along, is all about.


John B. said...

Thanks for this. I never got into D&D myself: I was already geeky enough in high school without having to draw still MORE attention to myself; but I frankly didn't grasp the whole role-playing thing, and, as you note, the air was full of creepy rumors about kids who got waaaay too deep into it. But your post makes D&D sound, well, wholesome: The family that plays D&D together stays together.

Anonymous said...

Coming to this late, but -- so cool.

I have three little boys; the oldest is /almost/ old enough to start. Fingers crossed!

And yes, Fourth Edition comes out next May. It's been eight years since Third came out, after all.

Doug M.

Rob Perkins said...


Thinking of you, Russell. Thinking of you!