Once a week, I quest to take on necromancers with four friends — determined to find some gold, destroy some goblins, and then go back to work the next day. Dungeons & Dragons in adult follows a familiar pace: lose yourself for three to seven hours in the fantasy “self” you want to be, then return to reality after a good night’s rest.
It was after one of these sessions that I had my weekly phone call with my mom. Five months of playing D&D and I’d kept it quiet after my dad had jokingly called me a nerd. But this time I was too excited about a recent level up and a new pet I’d found to keep quiet. I told my mom all about my character and the mission we were on, and of course, the jokes that come with roleplaying.
Of all of the responses I could have gotten — feigned enthusiasm, quiet interest, and so on — I never would have expected what I heard next. “I remember that game,” my mom told me. “I played when I was a kid!”
Back in the Day
My mother is from a rural town in Indiana which can now, in 2019, boast having a four-way stop and a Piggly Wiggly. She came to Florida, got married, had two kids, and lived the American dream — separation, running a single-parent home, and working two jobs.
In 2009 she was kept in the hospital for almost a year without a firm diagnosis. It took fourteen months for us to get the term “dysautonomia” for her condition. At eighteen, I was left to make the drives to the ER and to monitor her seizures when the home health nurse wasn’t there. We bonded during feeding tube sessions and conversations about doctors or college. In 2014 she moved back up to the small town of her birth, adding 1,124 miles to the distance already between us.
Despite sharing her medical issues with me, my mother has always kept a great deal of her history a secret. I know the basics, the scandals, what all my cousins know, but very little about her childhood. She’d always been reluctant to share until, on that phone call when I couldn’t contain my excitement about my half-elf ranger, we realized we were both the same kind of nerd.
My mother started playing D&D forty years ago. Since there was nothing to do but watch cows, play outdoors with friends, or do school work, anything else came as a welcome diversion from the boredom of her slow-paced town. She was thirteen, and her best friend Connie had heard about the game from another person. Soon enough, they were huddled around “weirdly shaped dice”, a cardboard map, and character stat sheets. “We were the only kids who heard about the game,” my mother told me. They didn’t have big books or someone to teach them to play. They didn’t even have a Dungeon Master, just some space and the main idea. It was just Connie, Connie’s little brother, and my mother.
My mother remembers playing as an elf and says they went from “beast to dungeon to beast” over and over again. She told me there was no roleplaying or conversations with NPCs. She never did anything beyond attacking monsters, exploring dungeons, and attacking again. So maybe it wasn’t quite the same as my experiences, but the core elements were there.
Bonding Through Adventures
My best friend Will and I first got interested in playing D&D after watching Stranger Things. I’d already gotten tired of the night out options in my town and jumped at the opportunity to try something different. I created a half-elf rogue, got my first pack of dice and prepared my own character sheet — mirroring my mother’s experiences decades earlier. For whatever reason, we were both drawn to elves.
Just like my mother, I was also looking for an escape. I explained to her that playing D&D allowed me to forget about the harsh realities of bills, work, and the struggle being an adult is. She agreed that playing in Connie’s basement allowed her to get away from her own issues at home. Back then, she had to manage her three younger sisters, “making sure they got to the bus on time, cooking dinner, and cleaning”. Her childhood was difficult, overwhelming, and in many ways, she had to be an adult from the time she was ten.
My mother slowly started to share more snippets of her teenage life as we talked about the game and what she remembered. I got to know some of the skeletons in her closet and felt more comfortable asking questions about her memories. She’s also able to interact with me in a new way.
Lately, when I am overwhelmed or stressed to the point of crying, I give her a call and she walks me through possible solutions as if we are in a party together trying to take on a Minotaur or another Big Bad. We plan in hypothetical and find ways around the challenges facing us. Using D&D strategies have allowed me to place trust in her once again and see more options for jumping life’s hurdles.
A Special Alliance
Outside of the friends I play D&D with, there are few people who know or care that I play. I felt isolated at first with no place to share my excitement, but now my mother and I have something that is just for us. Even when we don’t speak on the phone every week, I can text her and share my excitement about a new level or event in D&D and receive excitement in return.
It’s a sharp difference to how I felt growing up. My mother spent a great deal of time playing sports, coaching my sister’s soccer team, and teaching. There was never enough time in the day for us to have any type of quality conversation or to bond over the little things. Now we can set aside time in our texts or phone calls to talk about what my party has achieved, how my character is doing, and what she’d like to do if she were to play.
D&D has allowed us to come back together and reshape our relationship with one another in a way that is open on both ends. I no longer dominate the conversation with my daily happenings and she no longer takes a passive role. We share in equal amounts and have a better respect and understanding for the troubles and triumphs that take place in each others’ lives.
Joining the Party
My two living grandmothers are the foster mothers my mom lived with from age sixteen on. One of my grandmothers reminded me when I met her for lunch last week that I “am just like [my] mother, even if [I] don’t like hearing it.” It used to be an offense to me, something that kept me from being my own person. Now, I can see what she means. My mother and I have more in common than I ever would have imagined before our conversations about D&D allowed us both to share more about our lives.
I’ve asked my mother why she stopped playing, especially when she enjoyed the escape from her sisters and homelife. “When we started high school, I became a jock and got a different group of friends. I didn’t have as much time outside of sports and school either”, she explained. She’s told me she’d like to play again, especially with the new aspects of the game that she would be able to explore.
My mother is planning a trip down to visit me in Florida soon. I’m hoping to have the chance to surprise her with a short D&D session so she can see how it’s evolved and so we can overcome the forty-year hiatus she’s been on and play together. If we can bond this much over talking about a game that has changed as much as a person in forty years, I’m sure that playing together will bring us even closer to one another.