Of G.I. Joes and D&D

At the school where I work, students are required to end each quarter with a speech that reflects on their learning that quarter. But during a recent School Congress, the students proposed and passed a new law stating that one staff member had to give a speech reflecting on the quarter as well. And I drew the short straw. So, here is the speech I made a few nights ago in front of my students, their parent(s)/guardian(s), and some of the other staff members. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was a kid, I played a lot of G.I. Joes. For those of you who might not know, G.I. Joes were 3-inch tall action figures made from die-cast metal. Each figure had a name, a personality (detailed on the back of each box), and some kind of weapon or accessory. The conceit was that the G.I. Joes were a special service in the American military, kind of like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers, but these guys were the elite of the elite. Their task was to defend the world against COBRA, a terrorist organization whose goal was to wrap around the entire world like a giant cobra.

Unlike most action figures at the time, which could (at most) move their arms at the shoulders and their legs at the waist, G.I. Joe action figures had joints in their necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, knees, and ankles, which meant you could pose them in almost any position you wanted. Not only were these elite soldiers, but they were also elite action figures!

Now, the way I used to “play” G.I. Joes was with a couple of my friends, Eric Goodwin (who I lost touch with back in middle school) and Adam Champion (who is still my best friend today). We’d usually spend at least an hour “setting up” the game, which meant figuring out exactly what the scenario was that day (maybe there was a kidnapping, maybe there was going to be an assasination attempt on a G.I. leader, maybe there was a raid on COBRA’s headquarters, whatever). We’d then take each of the action figures (which probably numbered close to 50) and themir assorted vehicles (which probably numbered more than a dozen) and place them around my bedroom or backyard, all in prepartion for the scenario.

This was the best part of the process, because we’d spend so much time trying to figure out where each character was, what they were doing, why there were doing it, and what they’d do once the action began.

Then, once everything was set up, we’d put the scenario into action. And about five or six minutes later, we were done. One hour of “set up.” Five minutes of “action.”

And that was how we played G.I. Joes.

Fast forward about a dozen or so years, and see me sitting in my boxer shorts at my computer in my tiny little home office, a window fan blowing on me, music playing from my little speakers, sweat pouring down my face and back. My wife is asleep upstairs. It’s about three in the morning in the middle of August, and there’s no relief, not from the heat, nor from the deadline for my creative thesis for graduate school.

And what am I typing away at so furiously? An anti-novel, a 360-page “set up” for a novel, but not a novel itself. I’m developing characters, giving them motivations, placing them in intriguing, highly-detailed settings, and surrounding them with a larger story having to do with the secession of Vermont from the United States.

But what am I not doing? I’m not writing the actual story of the secession. I’m hinting at it, imagining repercussions from its various stages, and predicting outcomes, but I’m not giving the reader any of that stuff. Instead, I’m spending hundreds of hours — HUNDREDS of hours — “setting up” a story, without giving any time to making the story “play out” for the reader. This is what I mean by an anti-novel: it’s all book, no story.

Fast forward again, to April of this year, when several students needed a staff member to play Dungeons & Dragons with them, and try to feel my excitement at the prospect of finally taking the time to play this really dorky game that I’d heard so much about but never had the wherewithal to actually play.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is this kind of weird game where each player creates his or her own character by choosing a race (such as elves, gnomes, humans, halflings, etc.), and then giving it a class (such as wizard, fighter, bard, cleric, etc.). That character then becomes an “adventurer,” and gathered together with the other players, you all set out on some kind of quest.

The quest is run by the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM. The DM acts as the narrator for the quest. The DM also plays the roles of all the non-player characters in the story: from the innkeeper in the out-of-the way traveler’s lodge who can point the adventurers in the right direction or the evil wizard who is trying to open the magical gate that will set some hellish monster free.

So, this quarter, I got to play this game, Dungeons & Dragons, with Brandon, Damian, Dan, and Codi. We found a bunch of quests online that we could play, we printed them up, and then we got down to it. I was the Dungeon Master for our first quest, and I loved it. I was able to flex my fiction writing muscles a little bit as the students moved through the quest, making up descriptions and sound effects for all the various stages of the adventure. Unfortunately, all the characters got killed before they could finish the quest.

For our next quest, Dan took over as DM, and I created a character to join the others, a little gnomic bard named Wrenn Timbers. Over the next six weeks or so, our little band of adventurers completed two different quests, and with each success, our powers and abilities got stronger and stronger.

But now we’re at the end of the quarter, and our twice-weekly D&D game is going away (at least for a little while), and that makes me feel a little down. But our experiences this quarter have inspired me to try to build my own quest from scratch, and hopefully sometime this summer, our little band of adventurers will gather together once more to venture out into the wild to try to conquer the forces of evil.

What I love about Dungeons & Dragons is that, just like my G.I. Joes and just like the anti-novel I loved writing for graduate school, the process is all about setting up the scenario. It’s up to the DM to develop the world, create a series of potential plots, and put the various encounters in place, but then the DM takes step back and the characters take over.

The reason I’m talking about this though is because what I learned this quarter — or rather, what I was reminded of — is how important it is for me — how vital it is for me — to use my imagination in an active and creative way each day.

I mean, yes, I am an advisor here at LiHigh School, and I absolutely love my job, but in my heart, the thing I like to do most, the thing that makes me me, is to create wild and imaginative scenarios and then see how they play out. That might mean writing a fiction story, or designing a quest for D&D, or creating some kind of wild, school-based scenario where students can participate in a democratic system that gives them complete control of their own education — but whatever it is, it’s what I love to do, it’s what makes me me. And I want to thank Brandon, Codi, Damian, and Dan for helping me to remember that.

Thank you.