It’s Not How You Play the Game

Author: Jonathan Malesic

“We should play Dungeons & Dragons,” my friend Anne proposed one night more than a decade ago, apropos of nothing. She brought it up at a gathering of friends who either worked at the college where I taught or were married to someone who did. Anne had never played before, and her idea might have lasted only as long as the last drink of the night if I hadn’t volunteered to run the game as its dungeon master.

I needed a hobby, something to keep me from taking it personally when my students plagiarized or didn’t do the reading for the required and resented theology courses I taught. I had played D&D in middle school during the 1980s; it seemed appealingly absurd to dust off my trio of rulebooks — the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual — and play again as a fully fledged adult and tenure-track professor. I hoped D&D could offset my frustrated fixation on the live-action role-playing game we call work.

We soon began meeting one Friday a month around a dining room table scattered with papers, dice, plastic figurines, pizza slices and beer glasses. I sat at the head of the table behind a laptop, orchestrating and refereeing the narrative we played out in classic D&D settings: a royal city filled with palace intrigue, an underground maze with monsters and treasure at every turn. I role-played the adventurers’ friends and foes with theatrical zeal, giving them distinct voices and catchphrases. My goal was to turn my colleagues into a sharp-witted improv troupe in a Tolkienesque setting.

I became obsessed. I spent hundreds of dollars on secondhand rulebooks and miniature orcs and sorcerers. I imagined new realms the characters could visit, designed castles and villages and searched iTunes for musical cues to accompany the action. Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” introduced a psychedelic minstrel. Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs portended a harpy attack. I bought a roll of gridded parchment paper for making maps. I bought a chain mail pouch to carry the dice.

It wasn’t easy to keep everyone on task. One friend always started our meetings enthusiastic about the game but lost focus as the night wore on. As he grew tired, his gnomish warrior drifted toward nihilism, resolving even friendly encounters with the sword. Others lost track of the story and their turn in combat scenes while they laughed at YouTube videos. One or two members of the group were always engaged, bringing their full imagination to the table. But they weren’t enough. To make the game fun for everyone — well, to make it fun for me — I needed everyone on board.

I left most sessions exasperated. I had to pay attention the whole time. I couldn’t indulge in side conversations. And I was the one putting in all the work.

As my frustration grew, I sent emails to the players between our meetings, encouraging them to study their character sheets and the rules so they could come up with strategies to try out the next time we met. “It might also help, if you’ve taken notes or drawn maps, to take a look at them in between sessions,” I wrote in one message. “Keeping this stuff in mind will make for more successful and enjoyable adventuring.” 

I set up a campaign website and posted summaries of previous sessions and suggested what might be in store. In one posting I promised experience points to any player who figured out some secret I planted in the gameplay. “No experience points for lucky guesses — give a rationale,” I wrote. “And let me know if anyone wants to borrow a Player’s Handbook.”

I now recognize the tone of those messages. It’s exactly how I wrote to my students: cheerful and encouraging but always with an assignment and a subtle guilt trip if they didn’t do it. I was putting in hours of preparation and getting little in return, which only led me to invest more of myself in the game. The role I played in D&D turned out to be the same one I was playing in my job.

One time Anne missed a session, so I sent her an email that dripped with condescension, as if I were chastising a wayward student. She never responded. It took years to repair the damage I had done to our friendship with my behavior in the game. She had just wanted to pass the time with her friends; she didn’t sign up for Dungeoneering 101 with the meanest professor on campus.

During the 1980s moral panic surrounding D&D, the game’s critics alleged that it fostered violence and witchcraft because it blurred the line between fantasy and teenage players’ real lives. Supposedly kids would so strongly identify with their characters that they would murder rival players or commit suicide when their characters died.

The purported link between D&D and violence was bogus. But as I learned while failing at my hobby, the roles we play at work do carry over into other areas of life, often with bad consequences. And yet there are no fuming pastors or breathless television news anchors fretting over how our jobs make us callous or impatient or inattentive to the people we love.

After a year and a half as dungeon master, I folded up the game. No one seemed to mind. It wasn’t fun for the players, and I needed to quit for the sake of my mental health.

Several years later, I quit my job, too. The frustrations I had brought from the classroom to the tabletop only mounted with each passing semester. I had orchestrated what I thought were brilliant classes filled with challenges and opportunities for students to exercise their best capacities, but they spent our meetings texting. I grew more cynical and despondent. Eventually, I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings. I had burned out, with little hope of recovery.

I wonder now if my subconscious mind got me to obsess over D&D so it could show me how self-destructive my obsession was with a job that rarely gave back what I put into it. The fantasy game wasn’t an escape from my real-life problems with work. It was the dress rehearsal for leaving them behind for good.

Jonathan Malesic’s essays have appeared in America, Commonweal, The New Republic and The New York Times. He is the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.