Hail and well met, adventurers! I feel like I get to call you adventurers because this is clearly a different kind of article. Here I am, talking to you in the first person all casual-like, on this platform full of statistics, lore, and depth that demands a more academic approach. By reading, you qualify as a participant in an adventure. Okay, the “hail and well met” part was a bit much—but hey, I was trying to establish tone and all that. My name is Dan Telfer, and I’m here to write silly things that are, coincidentally enough, about Dungeons and Dragons.
I’ll be writing regular pieces for D&D Beyond, and I’m so nervously excited it’s as if I’ve cast dissonant whispers on myself. I’d like you to get to know me better as a contributor, so for my first piece I’d like to take a bit of a risk. I’m going to throw my own history with D&D onto the grill so I can cook up a thesis of sorts. That thesis? That I’ve learned three valuable lessons from playing D&D, all of them rather painful… which makes them funny! And so expressing the genre of fantasy inevitably leads to comedy.
Dungeons & Dragons is inherently funny. Perhaps you’ve noticed after your dungeon master set up a foreboding passage about a vampire’s lair, only to have the entire party snicker when he said “dank.” Perhaps you had someone like teen Dan Telfer in your party, trying way too hard to seem odd and interesting. I mean, it was at least funny in a disconcerting kind of way.
Here’s the first tale, a tale about the glory of declaring magic is about to happen. A real human “casting a spell” out loud, in front of real humans. If you’ve played D&D, like me you’ve probably enjoyed it, and I’m sorry to say but that is extremely funny. Try to remember the very first time you said it. What a leap of faith you took, adventurer! What’s that you say? It’s strange to have me once again call you adventurer? Well, I revel in my ability to have fun with my own innate awkwardness, so gird thy loins!
The Offline Age of Man
The continent: North America, midwest region. The year: 1988-ish My age: About 11 years old. Back then, human folk like me had to live out a grittier version of Stranger Things. Look, I can believe that somewhere out there, in some idealistic Indiana town, children could count on Winona Ryder’s unconditional love. There they might gather in a warm, dry basement with not even limited flood damage for supportive group storytelling. But in my very real Illinois suburb, nerdy pastimes were spoken about in hushed tones. Like arcane secrets I’d learned in a forbidden library, I could not WAIT to say something out loud about something fun, but the opportunities were non-existent.
Adventurer, tell me, have you ever tried to impress a 6th graders with your theories about why Smaug is commentary on class warfare? Why, of course you did, you’re reading this on D&D Beyond for Bahamut’s sake. Lo, the grand luxury of writing this piece is not lost on this writer. The point being, this was before the age when the internet could unite me with a community, offline or otherwise.
Nintendo did not yet have a Game Genie full of secret codes that you could eagerly swap with classmates to create a conversation. My parents ranted about such games as if they were brain-devouring parasites, worse than the ones you could get from using tap water in your neti pot. Compulsively, lonely young me would blurt nerdy things out at random intervals, like a short-circuiting Teddy Ruxpin with a Stephen Hawking audiobook stuck in it, amusing many but confusing many more. Comedy was happening, in that people were laughing, but I had not mastered it. Yet.
I did not yet have a Nintendo to rot my cerebral cortex, but I did have a little brother. Aha! Did you see the sly riposte I just let fly upon my sibling, whom you do not even know and is not here to defend himself? To be fair, I like him now, but at the time, YEESH. Robb was his name, an odd creature, younger yet more confident, howling bravely with his saxophone lessons whilst I tried desperately to read my copy of The Uncanny X-Men. But even that awkwardness was amplified, for I had a parent get remarried, and I inherited two new step-brothers. The younger one, Keith, was supportive of all my tastes, but I myself didn’t have much of a tangible personality yet, so that was a little confusing. The other one, Rick, was just a few months younger than me, and he had some interesting books.
Indeed, adventurer. Here comes the reveal. Rick had tomes full of dragons and eyeball monsters. And instructions on how to... meet them? You can imagine the tension boiling in my young brain as I considered the delightful possibility of bailing on this whole “being a kid who has to deal with other kids” thing and just hanging out with monsters. Rick was more than a step-brother, he was a gatekeeper to another plane. Which has some unfortunate connotations considering how into the Ghostbusters I was at the time and how much I resembled a young Rick Moranis, so just know that all I mean is that he had a book I really wanted access to.
I kept asking to borrow these books from Rick, and when he relented I took weeks to reread them. It was hard to reconcile with all reading I had done before. This was a rich story that I could... be in? With other people? Yes, I am using a lot of ellipses in this story, but O, the inner turmoil they must convey! This young shut-in had ingested a few dozen Choose Your Own Adventure books, so I had a rudimentary grasp of what was being implied by these… pushy books. I heard them call to me, their promise of adventure enticing. But I was particularly bad at that “other people” part of the game at this age, and so why were these very bossy books yelling at me to talk to other people?
Rick could see that I was struggling with the social aspect of D&D, and so he invited me to his friend Gene’s house, where he intended to play a round of Dungeons and Dragons in the near future. As soon as I was invited I said yes, then like a curse from Umberlee herself, my pores began to burst forth with sweat enough to ruin my Sears Toughskins. And I ask you, my heroic reading companion, is it or is it not funny that some of us adults get to gather around some pizza and talk about floaty eyeball monsters? Fair enough, maybe you do seaweed chips and liches, you do you.
My brother Rick and I walked to Gene’s house, and for a while this group just wanted to… chill? I did not know how to “chill” (arguably, I have still not figured it out). This kid named Hank wanted to talk about King Kong for what felt like years. I had a backpack full of pencils, notebooks, and monster drawings and no idea how to use them! WHY WERE WE NOT SHOWING EACH OTHER OUR MONSTER DRAWINGS YET? So loud was the voice in my head, that the voice in my mouth said nothing at all. I had created a were-badger and had invented rules for it and I needed a platform for it.
Finally Gene’s mom kicked us out of the house and we sat at a picnic table in Gene’s yard and it was declared that dungeons (and hopefully some dragons) were about to happen. To his horror, though, young me realized that this group would not going to be passing notes and drawings around like Monopoly. How was I going to pretend to have a second, only indirectly related personality? I barely even had a real one!
I was walked through the process of making a wizard, scolded for not having done it at home (who just makes a wizard at home, I thought, thrilled that I was being scolded for something as amazing as not making a wizard fast enough.). Sadly, I was not allowed to be a were-badger. Thank Bahamut for the 21st century’s homebrew community.
There was squirming, giggling, eye rolling, and barely any rules were observed the “proper” way. By today’s standards I am still not sure Dungeons and Dragons happened. But for me it did. And I can tell you this: when I shouted “MAGIC MISSILE” for the first time, it was a thing of ridiculous beauty. As of that day there were no "viral internet videos" of players shouting such phrases at each other in the woods to make me feel embarrassed. I only hit for 3 points of damage but it was as if something silly inside me was unlocked. I thought my voice was doing the damage somehow. I thought nearby patrolling police officers who read Chick tracts would overhear me, and I would be arrested. How worth it that arrest would have been. I was reborn, perhaps not as a were-badger, but as a person who could be silly and not feel bad about it. Basically what I intended were-badgers to be.
I hope you enjoyed Part One of my miniature Fantasy and Comedy autobiography, which hath just endeth! And I also hope it’s something you’d like to see more of around these parts. You’ll see Parts Two and Three soon. But in the meantime you might also see me write pieces about alignment, traps, and other more specific aspects of Dungeons and Dragons as well. May the road rise up to meet you*, adventurers!
*I am only a tiny bit Irish but I enjoy that phrase.
Dan Telfer is the Dungeons Humorist aka Comedy Archmage for D&D Beyond (a fun way they are letting him say "writer"), dungeon master for the Nerd Poker podcast, a stand-up comedian, a TV writer who also helped win some Emmys over at Comedy Central, and a former editor of MAD Magazine and The Onion. He can be found riding his bike around Los Angeles from gig to gig to gaming store, though the best way to find out what he's up to is to follow him on Twitter via @dantelfer.