The Night Grandma Played D&D

My paternal grandmother was one of a species now endangered as the white rhino: the devout Christian liberal. Any leftist organization in need of $20 had my grandma’s address as an emergency measure; at the merest touch a check was in the mail. By my estimate, she paid for about 50% of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II.

But that should not be taken as a sign of a hip lifestyle. To the end of her days, Grandma shared the traditional Methodist suspicion of small pleasures, right down to her attitude toward sugar (she was a huge William Dufty fan). She forbade my father in his youth to read violent, juvenile-delinquency-inducing comic books, although she did allow him nonviolent Mad magazines. She fed me cod liver oil; she took it herself. These things were not in contradiction to her liberalism, they were part of it.

During summers in the late Eighties, my cousin Mike and I, in our early teens, were left at the family cottages in New Hampshire, under Grandma’s theoretical supervision. In practice, this entailed us doing mainly what we wanted. We were in separate houses, under separate schedules, and Grandma had no real control over us save to nag—which she did, enthusiastically. She tried to wake us up in the mornings after we’d been up until 1AM; we locked the doors. She tried to give us wake-up calls; we left the phone off the hook. With filial shame do I recall this now, but at the time, we were as water flowing around a stone.

The reason we were staying up until 1AM was that we were playing Dungeons & Dragons, the Red Basic and Blue Expert sets. I DMed, and Mike played two or three characters at once. The level of story was very Monty Hall, but to unjaded 14-yr-olds it was brilliant, and there was no one to tell us we were doing anything wrong. We spent hours a day, growing in power, in spells and magic items and monsters and gold.

Grandma never thought the game was Satanic. That’s not the kind of Christians we were. What she thought was that is was violent and a waste of time and probably an incitement towards juvenile delinquency. The net effect was a great deal of clucking and scolding. So imagine our shock when she said she wanted to play.

“I want to see what fascinates you boys so about these ‘role-playing-games.'”

Uh…OK.

Though at first taken aback, we quickly warmed to the idea. We loved our grandma, and the idea that we might be able to make some connection with her through Dungeons & Dragons seemed strange and tantalizing. I set to making a small dungeon that might show off the game’s mechanics to best effect. It was resolved that the game should take place that evening after supper.

We met in the little cottage, where Grandma was staying, her home turf. The lamp hung low over the small table in the single main room, attracting a variety of moths and mosquitoes battering against the picture window, which were in turn feasted upon by immense (though not Giant) spiders. I got out the rule books and dice and the random pieces of cardboard I was using as a GM’s Screen.

“See, Grandma, the first thing you have to do is make a character. It’s like a role you’re pretending to be, like an actor does.”

There was a touch of skepticism in her eyes. Now that the empirical reality was here, we couldn’t tell if she thought her initial outreach had been a good idea or not.

I explained character attributes and guided her through rolling the 3d6s. When we got to the question of class, I talked very quickly past the other options until I got to cleric. I felt like I was trying to guide someone through a minefield, in Tibetan. Finally, we reached alignment.

“See, there’s Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic. You can just put down ‘Lawful.’ The next step–”

“I want to be Chaotic!” she said.

Mike and I were gobsmacked.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

Neither of us had ever played a Chaotic character. Chaotic characters were bad. I considered trying to talk her out of it, but I didn’t want to discourage her. So Chaotic it was.

I told Grandma to pick a spell for her character. Strictly speaking, 1st level clerics in OD&D weren’t supposed to get spells, but I always thought that was stupid. If Grandma was going to go to the bother of doing this, she should get a little magic.

“Hmmm…I want ‘Cause Fear.'”

That was the Reverse of “Remove Fear,” but she could use Reverse Cleric spells, because she was Chaotic. Maybe Grandma was getting the hang of this.

So Mike and Grandma lined up at the entrance of the eldritch crypt, lit their torches, prepared their iron spikes and 10’ wooden poles, and descended.

“You see a werewolf! Roll for initiative! Grandma, that means roll to determine who gets to go first.”

They did, and Grandma won.

“I cast my spell! I want to make him afraid!”

The monster failed its saving throw miserably! The werewolf went yelping back into the depths of the crypt! Yay Grandma!

And then…

“Why do you spend all your time with this when you could be learning a musical instrument?”

The delicate suspension of normality that had fueled the evening popped like a soap bubble. Grandma had seen enough.

I hadn’t really expected anything else, but that moment of connection was worth it. A door may have slammed shut, but I never expected that door to be open in the first place.

My beloved Grandma T went to glory over a decade ago. This will always be one of my favorite memories of her.

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2 comments
  1. This reminds me of Alex Shvartsman’s story “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma,” and also the stories Terry Pratchett used to tell about showing the right wing secretaries at the nuclear power authority how to play D&D. Pratchett said once they got the hang of it they were merciless.

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