With the recent ascendance of geek culture, of comic book blockbusters, and long-running fantasy television series, perhaps it was inevitable: Dungeons & Dragons, recently revamped by its designers and the subject of any number of popular podcasts and streaming online video shows, is having a cultural moment. It’s the subject of popular internet streaming shows and podcasts, has out-and-proud celebrity players who are high profile actors and late night talk show hosts, and even in a time of quarantine, virtual tabletop games continue to flourish, connecting isolated work-from-homers to their in-need-of-some-time-away-from-the-real-world friends.
Any number of writers I’ve spoken to about D&D over the years have copped to the fact that their early expressions of creativity came from imagining fantasy characters and playing tabletop role-playing games with their friends. And any number of them have found their way back to the game over the last few years—like me, for example. Philly novelist and teacher Andrew Ervin—author of Burning Down George Orwell’s House, a novel, and Bit by Bit, a nonfiction dive into the history and impact of video games—is another such. Recently, he and I have connected more deeply because of respective weekly online games and shared nostalgia for the game’s earlier days, the old school boxes, nerdier reputation, and brief Satanic Panic about kids pretending to be casting spells over Mountain Dew and Doritos in their friend’s basement.
As with any good writer, Ervin followed the thing capturing his attention, and decided to use it to create a narrative—he sat down and wrote a D&D module (a scenario used as the setting and set of encounters for a group of players) of his own, one that combined the game with another thing near and dear to his heart, the Philly punk band The Dead Milkmen. First written as a one-off adventure to play with his friends before a concert by the band, the module has been expanded and fine-tuned, very successfully kickstarted with the help of writer Justin Sirois’s RPG concern, Severed Books, and will soon be available for your home games. I asked Ervin some questions about the project, and about role-playing games in general.
Matthew Simmons (Rail): What was it about The Dead Milkmen that made them and their music an inspiration for a fantasy role-playing module?
Andrew Ervin: The Dead Milkmen are excellent storytellers. Many of their songs have fantastical characters (such as “The Woman Who Was Also a Mongoose”) and fictional narrators (“Hello my name is Billy Bob and I don’t give a damn”) and even monsters (such as “The Big Lizard in My Backyard” and “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies”). They sing about unusual places. Their songs lend themselves perfectly for an interactive storytelling project like a fantasy RPG module.
In a talk given at Oxford in 2002, Philip Pullman said, “[T]he way to tell a story, as I’ve said before, is to think of some interesting events, put them in the right order to make clear the connections between them, and recount them as clearly as you can.” He was being coy, of course, and yet that sounds to me like the perfect description of a Dead Milkmen album. The clear connections from “Bitchin’ Camaro” to their new cover version of “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” derive from a consistent anti-establishment ethos that revels in absurdity. The fact that they accomplish all of this storytelling in the vernacular of three-minute punk and post-punk songs is definitely—as you put it—an inspiration.
“Lost Tomb of the Bitchin’ Chimera” began as a site-specific Dungeons & Dragons adventure I wrote for three friends during the summer of 2019. Back then it was called “Into the Burrow of the Owlbear” and I ran them through it in the historic Laurel Hill Cemetery before a Dead Milkmen concert. I crammed in as many references to the band as I could, including the burrow owl mentioned in the song “Stuart,” which is a personal favorite. We had a great time that night: the concert was a blast and there was no reason to suspect that my adventure would ever again see the fading light of day. Expanding it and getting it published wasn’t part of my thinking.
Rail: I fondly recall time spent in my basement during the winter months in Upper Michigan, skateboarding and listening to Big Lizard in My Backyard. Speaking of fond recollections of youth, my relationship to Dungeons & Dragons goes back to around that same point in my life. And then I had a long period of my life where I didn’t play. I only picked it up again maybe nine years ago when a writing project rekindled my interest in sitting around a table, throwing odd dice, and pretending to be a dwarf with a group of friends. I know you play weekly now, too—what’s your history with the game?
Ervin: My trajectory with the game is similar to yours. I was in elementary school when my mother bought me the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. It’s the art that I remember the most, those wild paintings and drawings by Erol Otus. Perhaps strangely, I don’t remember actually playing the game all that much. I had a few friends at school who were interested, maybe a kid or two in my suburban neighborhood, but most of my early experience of the game was reading the books alone and rolling dice and drawing dungeon maps on graph paper. It was only when I got to college that I began playing organized and planned campaigns.
After graduation—and this is a major plot point in the novel I’m writing—I stopped playing entirely and got serious about reading and writing literary fiction instead. It’s embarrassing to think about now, but in my mind at that time those two things were mutually exclusive. I wasn’t able to appreciate the beautiful things that literature and tabletop RPGs have in common, like creating memorable characters unlike (and like) ourselves and building worlds from scratch. Now, most of my favorite literary novels contain elements of the extra-real, and my D&D campaign benefits from knowing how to create complicated and conflicted characters. For example, I play a character now directly inspired by Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Rail: What brought you back to the table? When and why did you start playing again?
Ervin: That’s actually a terribly sad story. I teach part time in the MFA Program and the Honors Program at Temple University. Maybe eight years ago, I had a student named Joshua who was one of the most blazingly intelligent people I’ve ever met. I studied with people like Richard Powers and Jane Bennett, so I’ve been around some brilliant minds in my time. At 20 years old, Josh was one of them. Unfortunately, he was having trouble at home, which included several deaths in the family in a very short period of time, and he was struggling to put himself through school by working at Walmart. He was in two of my classes and then we drifted out of touch for a little while. When I went to find him again to check in, he had dropped out. I found him on Facebook and reconnected, only to learn that his mother and grandmother had both passed away and he was entirely on his own. The poor kid.
I knew Josh had, years earlier, played D&D with his father. In April of 2014, I reached out to a few friends I hadn’t seen since college and we put together a D&D game for Josh. I hoped to provide him with some structure. If nothing else, we would get him out of the house and fed and socializing every week or two. And it worked, until it didn’t. We played for a few months and then he stopped showing up. That winter, on the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death, he killed himself.
His final post on Facebook was titled “Waste” and it read:
Forgive me or forgive me not
What is left is all you’ve got
Leave me lost, condemned to rot ...
The rest of us continue to play more or less every week. These days, we meet online. It’s truly an amazing group of people: our dungeon master used to work for Games Workshop and possesses a staggering body of knowledge about the game. We also have three players with PhDs (two medievalists and a physicist), a former Stegner Fellow in poetry, and then me. I would do anything in the world to get to play with Josh again, but his lasting gift to me is a new group of great friends, new and old, with whom I get to roll dice and make up stories.
Rail: That is a heartbreaking story, but such a kind gesture, Andrew. There’s a vulnerability to role-playing, and to create a space of nostalgia and safety as a way to try to connect is large-hearted.
It makes me wonder about the contrast between individual storytelling and collaborative storytelling, and its power to connect us. You write novels and you collaborate around a table with friends in order to create group stories—do each of these creative endeavors come from the same place within you, do you think? Are they impulses in harmony with one another?
Ervin: You’re right that playing D&D is ultimately a collaborative storytelling project—and so is reading or writing a novel. In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell makes a great point that I try to remember and to teach my MFA students: “Novels are vigorously interactive.” I’m no expert on reader-response theory, but it’s clear to me that my intentions as an author, while I hope are not completely irrelevant, aren’t as important as my readers’ individual interpretations of what I write. In my fiction, and in “Lost Tomb of the Bitchin’ Chimera,” I hope to meet my readers halfway. A forest I might describe on the page and the forest you picture in your mind are two completely different places. That’s why I love reading and writing; those activities allow us (often complete strangers) to meet in some new place we’ve constructed together. That’s such an absolute joy. Perhaps the main difference in writing an RPG adventure is that more people participate in constructing that forest together.
Rail: Since you mentioned Extra Lives, I would bring up this—in that book, Tom has a story about playing the zombie shooter Left 4 Dead online with, if I am recalling it correctly, a group of strangers, and how it led to a personal moment of heroism, where he went back for a trapped comrade in arms and saved them from the horde. Do you have any recent stories of tabletop heroism you’d like to share with us? Or, barring that, would you like to tell us about your all-time favorite character?
Ervin: Individual accomplishment isn’t a particular interest of mine in D&D, but that’s not to suggest that there exists some correct way to play the game. Personally, instead of just looking out for myself or my character, I enjoy contributing to and uplifting the entire group—not that that always works out. A lot of people roll characters to be as powerful and skilled as possible, but I’m much more excited about rolling—and writing—flawed characters. Characters with significant weaknesses and blind spots. In my long-running game, I play that pyromaniacal and chaotic monk inspired by Mishima. I’ve never in my life played a character this long—he’s at Level 12 now—and I’m particularly fond of him. There’s no problem our party can face that he doesn’t want to solve with fire. That can cause all sorts of trouble.
We also have a series of alts, secondary characters we play for short or one-shot adventures or other conceptual games that we take turns dungeon mastering. For example, we just finished the module The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan online, which is one of those gonzo dungeon crawls from the game’s early days, based loosely on Mexico’s Olmec civilization. For those sessions, I played my accidental warlock: a sailor who was going to be executed for revealing some political chicanery and was forced to make a pact with Demogorgon. He has all these magical powers he doesn’t want; although I try to play him as a pacifist, he must do terrible things to placate his evil master. Those sorts of tensions are fascinating to me.
My all-time greatest failure with a character, though, was in a recent adventure. Our group ran through Lawrence Schick’s classic module White Plume Mountain. (And getting his blurb for “Bitchin’ Chimera” was one of the greatest moments of my creative life: “No, in fact, you will suffer.”) I had the—terrible, as it so happens—idea to play a barbarian named Pisst who, while in prison, had recently converted and become a fanatical devotee of the god Ilmater. Because we all started at Level 6, I multi-classed him to Level 4 as a barbarian and Level 2 as a cleric. That seemed to fit his backstory. Pisst had forsworn his old brutish ways and was now a self-described man of peace. Well, the rest of the party wasn’t amused to find themselves in a Level 5-10 dungeon with a Level 2 healer who couldn’t heal.
As in fiction, I have a particular fondness for flawed and unlikeable characters. In writing “Lost Tomb of the Bitchin’ Chimera,” I tried to meet the players and their characters halfway, and to leave them plenty of room to make mistakes and inspire each other. That’s the fun, and it’s not entirely dissimilar from what I hope to accomplish in my fiction as well.