I got lucky in 5th grade. No, not that kind of lucky -- it was 5th grade! I got lucky in the teacher lottery the day I found out I was in Mrs. Dancy's class. Everyone loved Mrs. Dancy, especially kids who were not lucky enough to be in her class. Mrs. Dancy could teach math like no one's business. She made a game out of learning our multiplication tables by using flash cards and pitting classmate against classmate to see who could answer fastest. And she was always up for a round of Mum Ball -- the game where you sat on your desk, beamed a big, red kickball at one another while keeping your trap shut. I get it now. This was a ploy to have some peace and quiet for the teacher, but to us it was a blatant show of adoration. Mrs. Dancy loved us, and we loved her.
Sometime before Christmas we got terrible news. Ms. Troy, our principal, came to class, which was terrifying in itself. She had severe black hair and red lips and went so far as to paint a mole on her upper lip. Very Madonna, even before Madonna (and yes, some of us grew up in a time when there was no Madonna! Can you imagine?)
Anyway, on this fateful date, Ms. Troy came to tell us Mrs. Dancy was not going to be our teacher anymore. As of tomorrow. Tomorrow? There wasn't time to learn short division, let alone process in our nine year-old heads why we were being abandoned. Mrs. Dancy sat behind her desk, nodding along with Ms. Troy's words. Was she upset? Did she want to leave? Would there be a party?
I don't know. Maybe she was fired. Or clinically insane. Maybe she won the lottery and couldn't wait to ditch our sorry butts to live the high life in Belize. It didn't matter. We promptly burst out crying.
Mrs. Dancy had just taught me Life Lesson #1: Things change. (Or as I now call it, Nothing Gold Can Stay, after learning the same lesson about a year later from Robert Frost by way of Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders.)
I continued to cry the whole way home. Past the little shop my friend pilfered Bazooka gum from, through the shortcut I was usually too paranoid to take, into my front door, past my mom, and under the covers of my pink canopy bed. Mom was baffled. Did dating disasters happen to 5th graders?
I could barely get the words out.
"We were supposed to make the longest construction paper chain in school history!"
"Mrs. Dancy drew names from a hat for kickball so nobody felt last picked."
"I was supposed to turn ten in her class! I already picked out my outfit!"
Mom wasn't nearly as devastated. In fact, she burst out laughing, which made me cry harder. Not only was I losing my beloved multiplication table sensei, my mother was a block of ice. I'd never make it to 6th grade with this kind of nurturing.
Life Lesson #2: Build a bridge and get over it. (Thanks, Mom.)
Mrs. Dancy didn't run off to Belize. She ran off to the mall, where I bumped into her around Christmas. She seemed happy, if not a bit burdened under the weight of her shopping bags. She asked how I was doing, was I looking forward to the holidays, and how was school? School? The nerve! Never have I felt so betrayed. And she was wearing jeans!
A couple months later I turned ten in Mr. Mohan's class. My birthday fell on the same day we had to take the dreaded Standard Aptitude Test -- a test to determine if we were even worthy of being tested. In an effort to untaint the day, Mr. Mohan declared it Dress-Up Day.
This was his attempt to teach Life Lesson #3: Look your best on the outside, and you will protect your inside.
I wore an emerald green mini-skirt with purple leg warmers. Mage armor for the 5th-grade soul. Mom brought in a sheet pizza and two mortifying cartons of orange juice when all the cool kids were drinking soda. Mr. Mohan said he loved orange juice. We played Mum Ball every day at 2:00. I got an A in math.
And then, over two decades since Mrs. Dancy abandoned me, I lost another primary figure in my life -- my first and only Dungeon Master. It still stings.
It was Teddy who taught me how to roll up a character and fire a magic missile. He was genuinely proud when I leveled and took great pride watching me flip through the Player's Handbook and choose my new spells. Without Teddy we were just minis on Formica. We were unemployed adventurers, trust fund slackers, with nothing better to do than spend our gold pieces at the local ale house and reminisce about the good old days when pain-in-the-ass Lady Elaydren would send for us after finding herself in another "uh oh" situation.
We missed Teddy but we were itching to play. We'd see one another and stick out our bottom lips and whisper, "I miss D&D." We'd be in meetings together and commiserate because it was Monday at 3:30 and we knew where we should be. We'd lapse into remember when's while waiting for a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen. Remember when that giant gorilla ambushed us in the ziggurat? Ah, to swing a bastard sword again. And although it felt like a betrayal to Teddy's memory, we had no choice. We put the call out for a new Dungeon Master.
7 unruly, unfocused PCs ISO of Dungeon Master. Must be willing to answer a lot of questions varying from, "Where are we again?" to "Who was your favorite cast member from The Outsiders?" Must be into sound effects and won't get ruffled when we kill your NPCs for sport. Super crunchy autocrats need not apply.
Do DMs exist in a secret society? Is there a support group? Do they have a covert hangout like the clubs in airports for super premier airline members? Perhaps our reputation preceded us because the offers weren't exactly rolling in. I pictured Teddy gathered among his fellow peers, nibbling on cashews and sipping miniature bottles of Pepsi while lamenting how he came up with three brilliant encounters only to have us get stalled over the decision to kick down the secret door or keep walking. Maybe Teddy was happy to be rid of us and did what so many of our parents only threatened -- pull the car over and leave us on the side of a dirt road. I was supposed to get to 10th level in his game!
Life Lesson #4: Don't take things for granted. (Even a D&D game when you work at Wizards of the Coast.)
About a month ago word came back there was interest. We were thrilled but skeptical. Who was this guy? Did he have experience? Did he know about us? Does he know who Ponyboy and Sodapop are? He did. In fact, our new prospect was, dare I say, excited about our group. And he was no slouch in the DMing department. Not only was he experienced, he studied under the dry erase marker of Mr. Super-DM-himself, Chris Perkins. Were we worthy? Was this some kind of final exam for a Dungeon Protégé? Before he can earn his stripes as true master he must make us focus. Make us finish three encounters per session. Rough us up a little. Make us call him Master.
I didn't care why he was doing it. I was just glad to be playing again. But I have to admit I was nervous. Teddy understood me. He was even sort of charmed by how much I loved Astrid. And although he didn't favor her, he didn't exactly go after her in a dark alley with an axe. What if this new DM was different? No! I don't want to be roughed up!
But I know this guy. He's nice. He has dimples and two sweet dogs. He likes to cook and uses Aveda hair products. Could someone who smells like rosemary and mint be that vindictive? Well, if you think someone who runs around the building in all his perfumed and dimpled glory, shouting, "YOU'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!" and then writes things on his blog like "I can't wait to slaughter the little piggies! TPK here I come!" (or something to that effect -- I may be paraphrasing) is vindictive, then yes, it's possible.
Then one day he snuck up on me in the parking lot and warned me "not to get too attached to my new character."
"Why?" I asked. (I've got -8 in Streetwise, okay?)
"Because she's going to die."
Teddy never said my character was going to die…
Despite New Dungeon Master's bullying, we were still excited to play. Now when I saw various members of my group we'd announce in salutation, "We're playing D&D again!" I even took myself shopping for new supplies -- mechanical pencils, erasers that smelled like the fruit they were shaped like. I had yet to roll the new set of dice I got at Gen Con. I even bought a new notebook figuring I might wind up in therapy from all these dead characters, and it might be helpful to pinpoint where all my issues began.
The air was scented with fresh herbs and dry erase markers when I entered. New DM was busy writing notes on the board. He has nice handwriting, I notice, but no! This man wants to kill my character! I won't be fooled by pretty hair and nice penmanship!
When the rest of the group showed up, New DM welcomed us (ha!), tells us he's excited to be playtesting with us (ha!), and wants us to know this is serious business and we should all treat it as such (huh?) This is not so much a game as work. Our opinions are important and we should be vigilant and articulate with our feedback. Scott pretends to stick a pencil in his eye. Adam begins taking notes. Marty mouths, "this sucks," and I fire off a magic missile. We're all on the verge of suddenly remembering a meeting we're late for, when New DM blares, "Just kidding! I made brownies!" and shoves a 9x13 nonstick pan of gooey goodness onto the battle grid. Homemade brownies?
Two hours with New DM flies by. We're high on sugar and marshmallow, and already planning the food fest for next Tuesday. Be gone Kashi and snap peas! You're no longer welcome here! New DM lets us refer to the "bad guys" as frat boys. He made faces to illustrate the drake's slow, painful death. He did sound effects for a mace hitting a shield (schwiiiiiiing!) And much to New DM's dismay, no one died. Good thing, because I already love my new temporary character. This may be the 4th edition of D&D, but it's the second edition of Shelly, because something weird was going on. My Dungeon Master is gunning for my whole party and yet I don't feel the need to take my mini and run of the playmat. I want to keep playing if for no other reason than to spite New DM. Hear that, New DM? Talk to the burning hands!
I ran into New DM in the stairwell a few days ago.
"Your character is going to bite it," he promised.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I said. "You're all talk." Hey wait. Who said that? Who is this mysterious, trash-talking, slapdash roleplayer?
New DM laughed. "You're not supposed to get attached to your character. It's a playtest, you know."
"But I like Tara," I said. "I don't want her to die."
"Too bad," New DM answered. "She's going bye-bye."
And then like a charging orc, it hit me. New DM's faux antagonizing is part of what's making this fun. He's giving us a reason to invest in our characters, to strategize in battle, to keep coming back. He's giving us a villain -- himself -- sacrificing his cute dimples to give us something to hate. He doesn't want to kill us. He wants to keep us.
But still, I want my character to make it. "If Tara survives one more game, will you make us more brownies?"
New DM stopped mid-step and pondered this. "Okay," he finally said.
Life Lesson #879: That which does not kill you makes you brownies.
Now I just need to plan my outfit. In case Mr. Mohan was right about Life Lesson #3, Tuesdays are officially Dress-Up Day.