Can Dungeons & Dragons help you rack up experience points in real life? Is D&D is more welcoming to girl gamers now, compared to the dark days when few females were allowed into the basement? And what is it like to work at the D&D Mothership Lair, Wizards of the Coast?
I had a chance to talk to Shelly Mazzanoble, one of D&D’s fiercest advocates. Her first book, Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girls Guide to the Dungeons and Dragons Game, was nominated for an Origins Award and won the 2008 ENnies Award for Best Regalia. Her second and latest tome, Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons: One Woman’s Quest to Turn Self-Help for Elf-Help, came out this September. It’s a light-hearted memoir showing how what many non-geeks consider to be a frivolous game, D&D, can change lives. (FYI, this is a a topic near and dear to my heart.)
Mazzanoble’s short stories and essays have appeared in The Seattle Times,Carve, Whetstone, Skirt! and SomeOtherMagazine.com. Her plays have been produced in Seattle and Manhattan. You can read her ongoing column, “Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard,” every month at DungeonsandDragons.com. Originally from Upstate New York, she now lives in Seattle with a bi-polar cat named Zelda, a step-dog named Sadie, and a very patient man who has turned “Harpy” into a term of endearment. Check out more about Shelly at her website. (Full disclosure: She also works for Wizards as Associate Brand Marketing Manager for Dungeons & Dragons.)
GeekDad: Your book is full of ideas of how D&D can help you in “real life” and how life-lessons can be gleaned from game time. If you could name the top three things “you needed to know” for life that come from D&D, what would they be?
Shelly Mazzanoble: One: Not knowing what’s inside every dungeon before you enter is part of the fun. Two: Men can’t resist a lady in an “I Brake for Owlbears” T-shirt. Three: You will not win Citizen of the Year for calling out people who take 17 items in the 15 items or less express lane.
GD: During the narrative of the book, you begin to DM (aka “to Dungeon Master,” or referee) some D&D games. As a first-timer to DMing, you must have learned some key lessons. What did that experience teach you?
SM: DMing is much like hosting a party — something I am very familiar with. You need to have the right mix of people, provide a comfortable atmosphere, and be flexible so you can respond quickly to your guest’s needs. If you’re having fun, your guests will too. However, also like DMing, I tend overcomplicate matters. I really like cooking so I make every little thing from scratch. Why buy a chutney when you can make your own in 16 easy steps?
Once, at a dinner party I hosted, I labored over making my own butter. I mean, seriously? I live 38 seconds from a Safeway but I insisted on making butter. It was delicious — garlic and rosemary infused — and of course in the flurry of all the other activity such as enjoying my friend’s company and shoving puff pastry pizzas into my face, I completely forgot to serve it. The same thing happened in a D&D game I ran where I insisted on writing the whole adventure myself. I had every monster strategically hidden away, ready to pounce when the PCs dared step in its aura. Only my gargoyles were hidden a little too well and I forgot about them. All that work and they never even saw combat. In both cases, no one was the wiser. And my butter-making days are over. I feel so liberated.
GD: You also make a rather grand pronouncement at that beginning of your book: “That’s the thing about D&D. It changes lives. And was about to change mine. Roll for initiative, universe.” So, without giving away too much, how did it change your life?
SM: Well, you and I both know how much D&D can change a person — for the better, I might add. Even before I wrote this book D&D had changed my life because I’ve met some of my best friends and most inspiring people because of it.
I have some… quirks… shall we say, and thought I might benefit from working on some of them. During the course of writing this book, I tried to live my life the way my D&D character would and it has helped me to loosen up, lighten up, and even in some cases live it up. I seem to spend more time in taverns now.
GD: Talk about your childhood. Were you a geek? What role did pop culture have in your upbringing?
SM: Pop culture definitely influenced me when I was a kid. I had a very religious babysitter who overheard my brother and I playing with his Star Wars action figures. When he said “May the Force be with you,” I said “And also with you. Let us pray.” And we did pray. Or at least bowed our heads as we were instructed to do in Sunday School. Our babysitter was not amused — which was fine because we were not trying to be funny. She called our mother who was at work and told her of our blasphemy. My mom was amused, thankfully.
I’m no different than any one who grew up in the ’80s. Movies and TV played a huge part in my upbringing and, yes, did shape some of my ideals today. Growing up, the Bible stories I heard at Sunday School never really resonated with me so I didn’t look at church officials as spiritual advisers. But I did see Mrs. Garret from The Facts of Life that way. She was a fountain of wisdom, doling out advice and good sense about issues that did resonate with me to girls I could relate to.
GD: You might say that the teachings and sayings from geek culture — scifi, fantasy, gaming, etc. — have become “life philosophy” for many geeks because traditional culture — church, parents, government, community — have failed to offer moral or spiritual guidance to a generation of folks. Examples include intricate rules for role-playing games, which try to quantify the great unknown, to themes in fantasy novels like fellowship and sacrifice, to wisdom received not from priests but Yoda and Gandalf. Your book obviously speaks to this.
SM: Sure, movies like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Harry Potter feature strong fantasy role-model-type characters who help guide and mentor the story’s protagonist to perform heroic deeds. Who wouldn’t want to live next door to kindly old Gandalf? Wouldn’t you just love visiting Grandpa Obi Wan at the senior center? Who doesn’t want to be a hero?
In D&D, the hero you play in-game often gets by with a little divine interaction too. When creating a D&D character you are offered the option to choose an alliance and a deity to worship. Both of these aspects inform a lot of what you do as your player character. I know people who spend more time thinking about the spiritual side of their D&D character than their own beliefs.
GD: So D&D might provide some players with a sense or semblance of a religious life?
SM: Outside of D&D, I’m not sure that there’s less emphasis on religion, but that more people are finding it harder to identify with just one religion. People seem to like piecing a religion together from many different ideals. It’s kind of like choosing items from an a la carte menu at a restaurant. Some of these principles, plus some of this belief, coupled with his or her god or goddess.
Again D&D does this well. While there are several deities and while it’s not entirely common, you could choose to worship more than one. Even though it’s a roleplaying game that is steeped in fantasy, when playing a character who worships a particular deity, I am often challenged to think about my actions (or rather the actions of my character) much more so than in my everyday life.
GD: If I recall, you only began playing D&D since working for WotC. Tell me a little about the stereotypes and reactions you’ve encountered since “coming out” as a gamer, especially a female gamer.
SM: I got called out on Facebook once from a guy I went to school with. He was like, “Hey, you used to make fun of Peter and me for playing D&D when we were in 7th grade! Now look at you!” Honestly I don’t remember making fun of them, but I probably did. If it wasn’t Sweet Valley High or The Outsiders, I didn’t get it. But, yeah, now look at me. I love telling people I play D&D! I’ll march my high-heeled clad feet right up to any hater and wag my manicured finger in their face while touting the benefits of playing D&D. How is this different from poker night or fantasy sports? My brother who plays fantasy hockey makes fun of me and I have to say, “I’m as much an elf as you are the GM of a five-time Stanley Cup championship hockey team named the ‘Spazz Mazzes.’” But still no one is more surprised about my hobby than I am.
My girlfriends do not play D&D. They claim they wouldn’t touch it if their Sex & the City DVD collections depended on it. At first they assumed I was playing because my job forced me to. Let’s be clear, I was encouraged to play, but never forced! Sometimes the girls will treat my “”secret sorceress side” like a giant pimple we can all see but no one points out because it’s embarrassing. Other times they out me at parties because they think it’s funny to make their girly girl friend talk about her latest D&D campaign. One of them introduced me as a 100th level “power ranger.” You got to love her. She at least tries.
GD: Do you think D&D is more welcoming to female gamers now than in years past?
SM: I’d like to believe it is. I think the D&D community realizes that more people, regardless of gender, playing and creating a healthy community, are what we need for it to thrive. I know Wizards has taken steps to make their community more welcoming for women. I’m definitely seeing more women online, in forums and message boards. Some of the most influential bloggers and reviewers are women, which is always great to see. It’s also becoming less of a novelty to see a woman in a hobby shop. I have also noticed a better selection of dice at my local shop, which makes me think perhaps the two are related.
GD: How did your mother, Judy, feel about being so central to your book, and in some cases being the dramatic foil to your life story?
SM: Well, as it turns out my mom is a bit of an attention lover. She keeps asking when her book tour is starting. Her book tour. Apparently she’s a solo act now. My parents were the kind of people who celebrated everything my brother and I did. “You lost a tooth!” “You got a B+!” “You didn’t get pregnant in high school!” So just imagine their delight in me publishing two books. Needless to say, they are very, very proud. And Judy is very pleased with how she is portrayed. She’s a big fan of the old adage, “The mother is always right” so in her mind she is central to not just my book but also my life. This book was inevitable.
GD: Your mom comes off as quite the comedian. In your book, are all those transcripts of chat sessions and emails and dialogue between you and her for real? They’re hilarious.
SM: My mom is hilarious. She is also challenged in the short-term memory department so while she does say those things, she often doesn’t remember. She’ll read something then call me and ask, “Why did you make me say that? I would never say that!” and I’m like, “Umm… you said that four hours ago.” Admittedly I wasn’t typing while talking to her so some of what I write captures the spirit of the conversation maybe more than the actual words but, yeah, we’ve had all of those conversations. And I’m sure there will be many, many more…
GD: It sounds like the WotC offices are a hoot to work in. Many Wired.com readers I’m sure have dreamed of working for a game company. Can you give some inside scoop on what the environment is like at the D&D Mothership?
SM: I can’t lie — it’s a great place to work. I always thought we should be open for tours, especially on Halloween. As you might imagine, that’s a big deal at Wizards. Every department gets a budget to decorate and most people dress up as part of the theme. We’ve had Nightmare on Sesame Street, Freak Show Carnival, Gamma World, Under the Sea, Candy Land. It’s very competitive and winning is quite the coup. Gaming is always going on. Several times a day we hear the sounds of dice hitting conference room tables and cards shuffling. Our beautiful art is showcased on the walls, and a huge dragon named Mitzi hangs in the lobby. (She even has a secret tattoo.) Wizards is full of creative, passionate people who really take pride in their work. I often sit in meetings where we’re debating the angle of an elf’s cheekbones and think, I wonder what my friends at Ernst & Young are talking about now.
GD: I love the doodles on the back of your book. You did them? Had D&D brought out the inner artist in you?
SM: You like them? Thank you! I was pretty reluctant to do that because of an incident with a critical kindergartener when I was in 5th grade. I volunteered to be a “big sister” and got paired up with this little boy who said he wanted to learn how to draw a dog. I loved dogs so I thought, no problem! But… well… he wasn’t impressed. He actually said to me “You suck at drawing.” (This is only one of the reasons children terrify me. See chapter 7 if you want to know why else.) D&D may have expanded my doodling repertoire but I’m pretty sure my inner artist is still too scared to come out.
GD: You met your husband via your job at Wizards — congrats. Sounds like a D&D love story. Can you talk a little about what it’s like falling in love with and marrying a person who “gets you” as a gamer?
SM: That is probably a better question for him as he’s been a gamer all his life. The fact that I have ever even seen a d20 is a huge bonus as far as he’s concerned. I think it’s important in a relationship for each person to have their own interests but something like gaming can be really good for couples. Gamers are passionate people and gaming can take up a considerable amount of time, so it’s really nice to have your significant other sit next to you at the table. Consider it bonding. While I don’t think it’s appropriate to work out your issues “in game” it is kind of nice to have that outlet. Maybe I don’t care about wet towels on the new duvet but my character sure does. BAM!
GD: One of your favorite monsters and why?
SM: I have always been partial to beholders. Maybe because I can draw them. Maybe because they always look like they’re smiling. Maybe because I am secretly terrified of them and calling them my favorite is a half-baked attempt to make them like me?
GD: Who plays you in the Hallmark Hall of Fame version of this book? Who plays you in the Michael Bay-directed version?
SM: Oh wow! What if Michael Bay and Hallmark finally teamed up?! It’s a dream come true! But then I guess Megan Fox is out of the question? I think Zoey Deschanel would work in both versions because unlike me, she has this amazing ability to make awkward, goofy, and neurotic somehow charming. And we both have dark hair.
GD: Rumor (or truth) has it that you all at Wizards are revising D&D’s rules again. (This would be D&D edition 5.0). What do you think needs fixing? What for you is your least favorite aspect of the game or least favorite rule?
SM: My least favorite rule is the one that says for instance if the DM rolls an 18 against my AC and my AC is 18, then the DM hits. That’s crazy! Everyone knows the tie goes the player! At least that’s how it always was on the playground. If you got to first base at the same time the guy playing first did, the tie always went to the runner. Well, the PC is the “runner” in D&D. At least in my games they are. Remember when R&D changed magic missile from auto-hit to having to roll to see if you hit? Then they changed it back to auto-hit? Well, I like to think that’s because of my constant griping. I’m kind of like a lobbyist for magic users. So yeah, I guess you can say we’re always revising rules. I make it my mission!
GD: Any final words of wisdom for those seeking ways to apply D&D wisdom to real life?
SM: A really good nugget of advice that I learned from Dungeons & Dragons is from the tagline, Never Split the Party. It’s essentially saying, “Everyone stick together — things might get ugly.” Personally, I think those are words to live by and have found myself quoting them on more than one occasion. My family and some of my friends don’t play D&D so when they hear this they might just cock their heads and raise and eyebrow but they get it. I have their backs and they have mine.