trange things are afoot around here.
I declined an invitation to join my friend's kickball league because I didn't think they took the sport serious enough.
I tried to convince our real estate agent to bid on a totally inappropriate, small house in serious need of an HGTV make-over in our sixth-choice neighborhood because the open house drew such a frenzy of serious buyers I felt compelled to beat down all of their offers.
I almost came to blows with a woman in my canning class debating the nuttiness factor in cannellini beans vs. Great Northern beans.
People who take canning classes should not be acting this way. So why am I?
I blame Dungeons & Dragons.
I am not this spirited by nature. In fact, I always fancied myself someone who isn't a competitor—maybe to a fault. I am convinced my opposition aversion cost me several gold medals, evident during the two weeks this summer I spent watching Lolo Jones and Allyson Felix try to break records I probably could have set.
"That could've been me," I told Bart, as I helped myself to another serving of cheese fries. "I could have been a contender."
You see, in fifth grade it was discovered I was a really fast runner. Like, freakishly fast. Faster than girls, faster than boys, faster even than Mr. Bradley, our gym teacher, who was probably pushing sixty-five at the time, but whatever. In gym class when he said go, I did, being somewhat of a rules follower. I ran from start to finish in the time it took most of my classmates to lace up their kicks. And then stupid Mr. Bradley had to go tell my parents about my freaky talent, and of course they went ballistic.
She can do something! Poor parents. They were always delusionally full of hope. I never thrived in any of the activities they stuck me in. And yet, my parents still thought I was a little savant-in-waiting. Hearing that their child had promise—as judged by a relative stranger—only steeped them deeper in this fallacy. When my dad asked me if I might want to consider joining a track team, I quickly shot him down.
"No, of course not!" I said. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Because when you race in gym class, you beat everyone—even the boys!"
"But I'm not racing. I'm running." I mean, duh, Dad.
It was too late. As soon as I realized people were trying to beat me, it was over. The playground was no longer my safe place. It was an inky, black death-stage. It was the Hunger Games twenty-eight years before the Hunger Games. My running career was thwarted more thoroughly than if I'd torn an ACL.
My parents were devastated.
I was so relieved.
Since then, I've lived several decades blissfully spectating sports, letting my friends date guys I had designs on, laughing it off when my Pictionary teammates couldn't guess "broken arm" from the sad-eyed stick figure I drew. Who cares? It's all fun and games, right?
Or at least it was until R&D had to start designing board games.
It started off innocently enough with the Adventure System games.Not only were they cooperative, but there wasn't even a human Dungeon Master to contend with. Then Conquest of Nerath whetted my whistle by introducing me to that whole "playing against your friends" deal. And it got really, really bad when that wicked little temptress, Lords of Waterdeep, rolled into town.
"Oh I see how it is," I said after my first time playing. "Beat everyone. Win all the glory. Make them feel bad about themselves. Take their lunch money. Insult their mothers. This is D&D now."
"Think of it as an expressio of D&D," Laura said. Yes, Laura was working on marketing copy.
"But I like it when we're playing D&Dtogether. Not against one another."
I realize I sounded like the naïve kid in an After School Special, about to learn a valuable lesson from a knock on the chin from Dad.
A couple of weekends later, I found Bart's copy of Lords of Waterdeep in the living room.
"Who brought this in here?" I asked, pointing at it like it was a dead animal offering from Zelda, our cat.
"I thought maybe you'd like to play it again," he said all innocently.
Maybe it was because I was stuffed with banana pancakes, maybe it was because the stupid dog-sitter deleted an entire season of Bridezillas from our DVR, maybe it was because we're married now and I have to acquiesce to things like this from time to time. Whatever the reason, I agreed to give it another shot.
Oh yes, the take-down, build-up, earn renown and glory aspect of the game was there. But so was something else. This game was fun, and not just because I won.
That's right—I won!
Sure, you might say, beginners luck. That is why I insisted we play again. Surely it wasn't beginner's luck the second time I beat him . . . or the third, and even less the seventh time.
Once I got a grip on the rules, the strategy came pretty easily. I wondered, "Could I be a skilled strategy board gamer?" There was only one way to find out. That's when Bart made the mistake of feeding the game bully inside of me with Ticket to Ride.
"You love trains!" he said, all sweetness and unbridled enthusiasm. Poor little lamb! He had no idea I'd relish railroading as much as I love railroads.
"Hey, why'd you build there?" he asked. There happened to be smack in the middle of his New York-to-Seattle line. "None of your lines go anywhere near there."
"Not yet," I said. "But they might. Someday."
I liked these games, but I knew liking a game didn't guarantee you'd be good at it, and vice versa. There are lots of things I haven't excelled at, but still enjoy—dancing at weddings, things involving scissors and glue, winning and not being a total jackass about it. But these games were everything I thought I wasn't—competitive, strategic, European. (Even when I drink wine in the middle of the afternoon I cannot pass as European. Sigh...)
Soon, I discovered these games were merely gateway drugs. I needed more wealth, more power, more outlets to unleash my cunning plans. I went to the local game shop and reunited with my old favorites. The ones my brother ruined because he was too competitive.
"Please," Bart pleaded one Sunday afternoon. "It's been your turn for eighteen minutes. Just make a guess."
We were embroiled in an intense game of Mastermind —my ultimate favorite. This wasn't just a matter of a red peg next to a blue peg next to two white pegs. This was a matter of breaking my personal best record. Two tries. That's right. Two. This would make me the best Mastermind player in the whole house. (Yes, there are only four living creatures in our house—and only four thumbs total—but still.)
"I AM THE MASTERMIND!" I shouted. "Two tries, sucker!"
It took Bart six tries to crack my code, but who's counting? Oh that's right—I am!
As if beating down your husband wasn't bad enough, I went after my own mother. Don't feel bad for her. Judy is the ultimate trash talker. One time she got a seventy-point word in Words with Friends and the little green bubble appeared indicating I had a message.
Boy, you really suck. How are you my daughter? she wrote.
I must have been very, very bad in a past life. I wrote back.
But then one night, I played the word quiz and got a triple word and a triple letter on the Z for a total of 129 points. I was so overjoyed by my awesome linguistic skills, I couldn't just let her discover this fact over her morning coffee. Oh no. I needed to call her and tell her to her face!
She answered on the first ring, no doubt eager to congratulate me.
"Jeez, chill out. It as just a game," I said. "Feel free to resign so you can spend more time in your bush leagues."
Silence. Wow, I thought, my mom is a really sore loser.
"You're calling me at two in the morning about a game?"
Two in the—? Oh. Right. Time zones.
A few weeks later Laura and I sat across from each other in a conference room while Chris taught us how to play Dungeon Command. I couldn't wait. It had been at least three days since I beat someone.
"Wow, this game goes really fast," I noted. "Or is that just because I'm way better than Laura is?"
"I'm trying to be tactical," Laura said. "But your panting and heavy breathing is very distracting."
"You mean my skillful warband leadership is distracting?" This must be how Lolth feels all the time.
"Whatever," she said, rolling her eyes at Chris.
A few days later, I overheard her talking to someone from Sales in a rather excitable and animated way. Something about how much fun the two of them had had playing Dungeon Command.
"You played again?" I asked, swiveling around in my chair. "Why didn't you tell me so I could play too?"
She stared at me as I wrung my hands greedily, and my feet did an excited little tap dance around the runners of my chair.
"Oh come on!" I said. "You're still mad because I crushed your hopes and dreams like they were styrofoam under a 747?"
"Yeah," she said. "That's just what it is."
"I'm happy to give you a rematch anytime," I said, turning back to my computer, knowing full well it would never happen. That's probably okay—constantly doling out beat-downs to your boss may not be the best career move. Besides, I was ready to move on. I had my eye on a new prize.
"Are you sure he's old enough for this game?" my friend Dee asked, reading the box copy on the Dungeon! board game.
Her son, Liam was seven going on thirty-five. He's overly mature, exceptionally smart, and dresses like a newscaster. Seriously. What kid wears a blazer if he isn't forced to?
"He's plenty ready for this," I told her. "Bart first played when he was Liam's age and look how well he turned out."
It's true—Bart did have a copy of the original Dungeon! when he was a kid. It's what got him (and countless others) into D&D in the first place. I'd heard a lot about this game, but that pleasant Saturday afternoon at Dee's house would be my first time actually playing it.
Slightly less dubious, Dee agreed on the condition that she could play, too. I suppose to make sure Bart and I didn't lead her little anchorman down some shady path.
When we picked our heroes, Liam was instantly drawn to the wizard. Normally I'd tell the kid to respect his elders and back off, but this game was so astutely designed it contained two wizards.
He got lucky this time.
Bart chose the fighter, and Dee a rogue.
We began with a quick overview by Bart.
"It's pretty straightforward. We're heroes exploring a dungeon, looking for lost treasure. The first one who gets out alive with enough treasure wins."
"Alive?!" Dee asked.
"Well, sure," Bart answered. "There're monsters in the dungeon, and you have to fight them."
"Cool!" Liam said, and for the first time he didn't look like he was about to tell me about rising gas prices.
When you find yourself in a room, you draw a monster card to determine what you'll be facing off with then roll two six-sided dice to determine if you beat it. Dee was loving the math but still wasn't sold on the whole fight monsters and potential "hero death" thing.
On my first turn I fought a hill giant and took it down in one fell swoop. I was well on my way to acquiring the 20,000 gold pieces my wizard needed to win the game.
"Check out the bitchin' ring I just scored," I said, showing it off to my fellow dungeon dwellers. "That's worth 3,000 gold."
Dee shushed me. "Language, please."
Liam's turn found him face to face with an evil wizard.
"He can't fight me. I'm a wizard too," Liam said, clearly expecting some camaraderie here.
"But he's an evil wizard," Bart explained. "He knows not what he does."
"Then I'm evil too," Liam announced.
Dee was alarmed. "You are no such thing, young man!"
"It's okay," I said, patting her arm. "Its just fantasy. He's not a wizard either, remember. He's a future Emmy-award winning broadcaster."
Moving on, it was clear Liam was not only picking the game up quickly, but really relishing it. Dee even started to relax once she managed to take down a werewolf and earn a bejeweled cup worth 2,500 gold.
Things were cruising along just fine until I discovered I was only 3,000 gold away from my goal. Because every hero needed a different amount to win, and some people were so coy about how much treasure they were accumulating, it wasn't easy to determine how far along everyone else was. And we didn't just need the right amount of treasure—we still had to get out of the dungeon.
I had to get one more big treasure item to put me over the top, and to walk on out of here without drawing attention to myself. I knew Liam, being a wizard as well, also needed 20,000 gold, but that little sneak kept his treasure cards close to his vest. Literally. It wasn't until he wound up face to blob with a gelatinous cube that I sensed he was closer to the goal than I was.
Clearly, he was playing us all for chumps with that whole "I don't get it" shtick.
Fortunately for me, the gelatinous cube kicked his butt.
"Uh oh," Bart said, randomly selecting a treasure from Liam's hand to discard. "He's going to take your Jade Idol. That sucks."
Liam was heartbroken.
"Aw, honey, we can get you a new one," Dee said.
"I'm sorry," I said, breaking up the pity party. "When did you get a Jade Idol? That's like 5,000 gold."
"It was going to be a surprise," he said. "For my mom."
Liam wasn't done with surprises either. He decided to face the gelatinous cube again on his next turn.
"Honey, are you sure you want to do that?" Dee asked.
"I want my Jade Idol back," he said with all the determination of a seven-year old who wants to impress his mother by giving her a pricey jade idol. I mean, please!
But alas, again he rolled too low to succeed. The gelatinous cube took his Magic Sword.
"You lose a turn, too," I said.
Bart and Dee glared at me.
"What? It's in the rules!"
What was with these softies? Kids these days don't need to be coddled. I could do a great thing for American society by taking the chance to firmly instill this lesson into the future anchor of the nightly national news.
Now, if I could get my hands on the Gelatinous Cube and take it down, I could get that Jade Idol. I would be back in the Great Room with the required points to win before the others even finished dusting Liam off. It only took a couple turns for the group to notice my wizard's new path across the board. But Liam wasn't going to give up the idol so quickly.
"You can't have it," he said.
"What are you going to do about it?" I asked.
He took a deep breath and rested his corduroy patched elbows on the table. "I'm going to fight for it."
And that he did, again barging into the dreaded room and bellying up to the Gelatinous Cube.
"Oh, Liam, don't!" Dee shouted.
Because this is not an After School Special, he rolled a 3 and the monster, of course, rolled a 12.
"I died?" the J.V. wizard asked. "I'm never getting my idol back?"
"Are you happy?" Dee asked. "He stayed in that awful dungeon with that awful beast because you were threatening to take his treasure. And now my son is dead."
Even Bart looked embarrassed.
"Your son's character," I clarified. I was not going to be made to feel ashamed because I outsmarted a . . . well, a seven year old . . . but a really smart seven year old!
"It was a really good strategy," I said. But words are weak when they're up against a little boy's broken heart.
Great. Not only did I get him killed but I probably soured him on D&D forever. That did make me feel bad, but not nearly as bad as when I looked across the table and saw not Liam there, but rather the dragon-loving, fantasy-book-reading, seven-year-old Bart tearing into his first copy of Dungeon!
What if some bitter, old harpy hell-bent on cramming four decades of cutthroat competition into one casual board game drove him into the arms of a Gelatinous Cube and ran off with his mother's gift?
"I'm so sorry, Liam," I said. "That was a crappy thing to do. And look!" I said, rolling the dice. "I only rolled a 7. The monster bops me over the head with the jade idol. It rolls off, into the hallway, right into your hand. Its magic powers heal you right up and let you teleport right into the Great Hall."
"It's okay," Liam said. "I don't want to win the game by cheating. And it's obvious that winning is more important to you, anyway."
Oh, is that so, Liam? I want to tell him to go to his room and write an expose about it. Instead I try defending myself.
"I'm not cheating," I said. "It's called improvising."
Liam shrugged and kept telling me it was okay, that he wasn't that competitive anyway.
"But that's what D&D isn't!" I insisted. "That's why I like it too!"
Now I had lost them all.
"But isn't this D&D?" Dee asked. "It seemed pretty competitive to me."
"It doesn't have to be," Bart smiled. "This game is usually pretty casual. Someone just got a little carried away."
"Think of it as . . ." What was it Laura said, "an expression of D&D! And what do you mean 'carried away'?"
Liam insisted he didn't mind losing and it was all okay. But it wasn't. I felt like one of the monsters we encountered.
I spent the rest of the day guilt-buying Liam everything on his Amazon wish list and paying extra to have it overnighted to him.
"Don't worry, buddy," Bart said to me later that night, as he watched our grocery fund get funneled into a pair of binoculars and rollerblades. "There's no shame in liking games and being good at them."
"I do like games," I admitted. "And I might actually be pretty good at them. But I don't like being a sore winner. I'm going back to my passive, 'no, you first', non-competitive ways. I'll just sit here and play Bubbleshooter. Alone."
"Or you could play different games depending on what you feel like. Lords of Waterdeep when you want to issue a smack down, and straight up D&D when you're feeling like a little camaraderie."
"Hmm . . . D&D for every mood." When did this guy get so smart?
"I also think maybe you say you're not competitive to avoid having to compete, because you hate losing so much." Bart continued.
"Nope." Scratch that last comment about being so smart.
"Okay," he smiled. "Just putting it out there."
He was wrong of course. But I take the job of instilling life lessons into Liam very seriously. I added a few more items to Liam's order—the latest edition of the D&D red box, Castle Ravenloft, and his own copy of Dungeon! If I couldn't teach him about being a graceful winner, maybe I could teach him the true spirit of gaming.
About the Author: Shelly Mazzanoble has not made a kid cry in days. The same cannot be said about her co-workers.