“Can I commune with the swarm of acid-infused spider bees if I cast Beast Bond?”
“Uh, no. I don’t think that’ll work.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll just swat them with my tentacles.”
It is well documented that, for whatever reason, human beings love playing games. For kids there is hopscotch and tag. For the athletically inclined teenager there’s badminton, hockey or basketball, while the more socially awkward and weedy have chess, video games and tabletop RPGs.
Adults enjoy playing and watching games, too. Some of them play very seriously. The German writer Walter Benjamin was obsessed with word games, and French philosopher/loafer Guy Debord enjoyed war games so much that he devoted pretty much the entire latter half of his life to creating his own.
For those who love over-thinking things, fields of academic endeavor like Game Theory (the mathematical study of strategic decision making) and Transactional Analysis (the psychological study of human interaction) have looked at why we might be so keen to play the games that we do and how something as seemingly simple as a ‘casual conversation’ is loaded with little games*.
But what happens to those adults who never quite grow out of their ‘socially awkward teenager’ stage? Some of them join chess clubs, some of them just buy a PS4 or Nintendo Switch. Some of them, it turns out, meet up at nighttime in Beijing apartments to play Dungeons & Dragons.
I wasn’t specifically looking for a D&D group here in the Jing. Honestly, I wasn’t! But when somebody mentioned that he played with a small group, and that he was putting together a simple one-shot game in Andingmen, I felt a sudden urge to roll the D20 and return to those halcyon days of my early teens**, where an evening of troll-slaying by candlelight was an evening well spent.
The biggest change I noticed after a more-than-fifteen-year absence from the land of make-believe was just how much of it is done on computers. We used to keep track of hit points and dexterity on a scrap of paper, but the other night it was an online character generator that created for me a half-orc Druid from the Circle of the Moon. Maybe if I was Guy Debord I’d have understood exactly wtf all that means, but as it is I was just pleasantly surprised at the option of shape shifting into a flying giant octopus in order to avoid being digested by a sentient cube.
I must have seemed like a rank amateur compared to my fellow players (see above conversation), but I think we all had a productive couple of hours kicking in doors and plundering caverns for treasure.
It had been with some trepidation and a little social anxiety that I had first approached the (very real) lion statues outside of a hutong apartment complex, but conquering fears is what Dungeons & Dragons is all about, right? And if I learned anything during my time as a hermetic spell caster fluent in two non-existent languages it’s that the real treasure comes from within.
Within the belly of a malevolent gelatinous cube.
*(Anyone who’s had a mother or a long term partner has surely played the “I’m not angry, I’m just very disappointed” game).
**(before I had met any women and/or beers)