Despite the complete darkness, I sensed where I was: standing on the edge of a crevasse deep underground. I felt the rough rock under my hands as I waited for my friends to finish crossing. Then I spotted him. He was a member of the party, our paladin — and also my target.
Slowly I loaded the poisoned bolt into the hand crossbow I kept at my side for just such an occasion. The lack of light was no obstacle for an archer of my talent; the bolt flew steady and true. It slid through a gap in his plate armor with a satisfyingly meaty thwack. I knew the bolt wouldn’t kill him, but I hoped the poison would.
You’ll shoot your eye out, kid
I held the BB gun tightly in my hands as I stood in the tiny backyard of Kevin’s house. I had never fired a BB gun, but Glenn assured me that it was easy. I had met Glenn only 10 minutes earlier, and now I was taking firearms advice from him. I pumped the gun a couple of times to fill its chamber with air, took aim, and completely missed the flower that was our mutual target.
Shooting daffodils in a backyard wasn’t a normal activity for me, especially not with someone I had just met, but our mutual friend Kevin had convinced us to start playing some game called Dungeons & Dragons — D&D for short. We were outside while Kevin was busily creating a character with another one of my friends.
I was 12 years old, and talking to new people filled me with dread. It didn’t come naturally, so I needed a hook. Hence, there we stood shooting flowers and getting to know one another.
Now Glenn is one of my closest friends. Whenever we talk, we pick up as if our conversation on that day almost 25 years ago had never ended.
D&D made that friendship possible, and it also equipped me with the tools to handle just about any social situation without an overwhelming sense of impending doom, or at least slight social anxiety.
Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game; in fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the roleplaying game. All that’s required to play the game is a couple of rulebooks, some pens, paper, dice, a few friends, and a lot of imagination.
The books contain the set of rules that the Dungeon Master (DM for short) applies to the world he or she creates. The DM is god — all the gods in fact. The DM runs everything in the world, with one critical exception: the player characters (PCs) who are the heroes or villains of the adventure. Each person gathered around the table takes the part of a player character. The characters themselves are much like those from a play or television show, formed within the rubric of the D&D rules by input from the player, the DM, and chance.
Player characteristics — known in-game as stats — like wisdom, intelligence, and dexterity are traditionally assigned scores based on the roll of three six-sided dice. Characters are granted powers and abilities from the combination of a class (cleric, fighter, magic user, and so on) and a race. All your favorite fantasy races are accounted for, as well as some that you’ve never heard of unless you’re a D&D player. (I’m partial to tieflings myself.) Each player takes a character and roleplays as it, reacting to situations as the character would.
While a character is just a piece of paper with some writing on it, roleplaying makes it live. The best roleplayers breathe life into their characters and make them their own. The character becomes an extension of the player.
The waves toss the ship under my feet and I struggle to grab onto the railing to avoid falling into the water, which would mean almost certain death. The gigantic sea monster had come from nowhere and attacked the ship. We’re all just trying to stay out of the water when it happens: the monster swallows our cleric whole. There’s no way that he’ll survive for long in that monster’s belly.
I muster up my most explosive spell from memory and go about getting to the one place it’ll do the most damage in the quickest way: the belly of the beast. With nary a second thought I jump down the serpent’s gullet and manage to survive long enough to say the words to my spell.
I hope the cleric remembers me fondly.
Talk amongst yourselves
I had no idea what I was getting myself into that afternoon as I made my character with Kevin. I didn’t know I would return to his house every Friday night for the next six years and gather around his decidedly non-ergonomic coffee table with a group of guys whose ages ranged from 16 to 30-something (which seemed very old to me then) to adventure for fame and fortune, with an emphasis on the fortune.
I soon found that the common goal of the group within the game gave an introvert like me something to talk about no matter the differences in age or experience between myself and the other players. The very nature of the game also helped me feel more at ease interacting; everyone has a specific turn in which they state their actions.
Applying this structure to something that is usually unstructured (that is, the real world) gives you time to think and an obvious cue to speak. Despite that, the most enjoyable games I’ve played in have included healthy doses of tangential banter.
Twenty-sided die! Die! Die!
Playing a character frees me to say and do things that the real me would never consider, like shooting a friend of mine in the side with a poisoned bolt while underground. I would never go spelunking.
My most successful characters reflect and magnify parts of my own personality. They also tend to be incredibly evil or annoyingly good. (Anyone who has played in a group with a by-the-book paladin knows what I’m talking about, and I only play the strictest stick-in-the-mud paladins.)
Unshackling myself from doubt in the game allows me to open up and take charge of situations. In my day-to-day life, I tend to measure my words for a long time before speaking. I overthink almost every one of my actions to comedic lengths. Loric, the happy fellow who shot that poisoned bolt, doesn’t suffer from such meddlesome restraints. As a blind Drow elf archer (really), Loric answers most questions quickly and with the same response: an arrow to a vital organ.
I don’t ask myself “What would Loric do” when I’m in social situations — answer: whatever he wanted — but I do try to disengage my various anxieties and be in the moment, as Loric always is.
Six seals’ sick sin
The chamber we’ve returned to contains the six broken seals. Seals that weren’t broken until we visited them the first time. Having traveled across six dimensional planes, we’ve recovered the pieces of an artifact to repair the damage to the six seals holding back the legions of hell from our reality.
I hold the completed artifact in my hands. Because I am the only character in our group who has any arcane ability and knowledge, it falls to me to activate the artifact and repair the seals. That’s what I’ve promised the group that I would do. There’s a slight problem: I sold my soul to the devil years ago, and the devil has other plans.
As the group battles a variety of monsters to protect me, I complete the complicated magic required — not to repair the seals, but rather to siphon their power into me. I feel a twinge of regret. Maybe I should do what I promised? Nah, I need to rule in hell, and this is the only way to do that. Besides, I won’t kill any of my friends…if I can avoid it.
Despite the fact that my characters often do horrible things, I’ve made a number of good friends at the D&D table. When I moved to Philadelphia 10 years ago, I didn’t know anyone. Chances are my social circle would be much smaller if I hadn’t found a welcoming D&D group that I still play with.
My current gaming group has changed configurations and locations since I joined, but one thing remains the same: every Friday night we slip out of our regular lives and don armor to battle evil together. It is a surprisingly effective way to get to know people. The players around the table range from devout Christians to radical atheists, college students to professors, and extroverts to the shy, but we are all friends because we pretend to be elves together.
Applying the lessons I’ve learned from D&D to my life has made me a little less introverted. With cues taken from my various characters, I’ve created something of an alternate Scott McNulty to play when interacting in social situations. Social Scott is very much like Real Scott, except that he makes an effort to engage in conversation and doesn’t spend the entire time he is at a party thinking about books.
Social Scott isn’t a hero or villain, but he does let me accrue valuable experiences — life points? — that would normally pass me by. Most importantly, Social Scott makes Real Scott a better and more believable character.
Scott McNulty is a writer living in Philadelphia. When he isn’t rolling to save versus social awkwardness, he can be found reading, participating in the award winning geek culture podcast The Incomparable, and spending time with his lovely wife.
Illustration by Matt Bors.
This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared inIssue 35. We publish individual pieces regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.