Shelly Mazzanoble is the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons: One Woman’s Quest to Trade Self-Help for Elf-Help, a humorous yet emotionally honest memoir about finding fun and meaning in America’s best-known fantasy role-playing game. She recently took a few moments to speak with about her experiences as a newbie D&D player, her close relationship with her mother and why everyone should find their inner gamer.
It might surprise some people that your first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons came through your job at Wizards. What kind of reaction have you had from veteran gamers?
One of the first things I learned about D&D is that the people who play it are extremely welcoming and friendly. The more people who play the game, the better right? It became abundantly clear that if someone is sincerely interested in learning, it’s not hard to find someone out there willing to teach you.
This certainly countered my perception that D&D was nothing but rules and funny accents and I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed by that. No one at my first game did any sort of accent. I was a theater major after all and have spent years perfecting my Count Chocula accent.
Your book is so emotionally honest. You’re dealing with so many existential issues here: God, love, finding meaning in life. How did it occur to you to use Dungeons & Dragons as a way of exploring these things?
Working on the D&D brand for the past six years and writing my column for Dragon magazine for 4 has afforded me the opportunity to see how D&D has positively impacted the lives of so many. I find it absolutely fascinating that this game has been around for nearly four decades and is still going strong—with a lot of same people who played since the beginning who are now sharing it with their kids.
I hear countless stories from people who credit D&D with helping them discover their creativity or introduced them to their lifelong best friends. We hear a lot from teachers and librarians who use D&D as a teaching tool in the classroom and find that the kids who are intimidated speaking up in class or have challenges with math or reading absolutely flourish when they’re playing D&D. The whole “learning” perception is lifted when you’re playing a game. I mean, something this fun can’t possibly be teaching you math, science, reading, analytical or social skills, right?
As someone who came to the game late in life, (but still has a lot to learn,) I was curious to see if any of D&D’s wisdom and good practices could rub off on me. I had already experienced some of this through the friendships I formed with my D&D group. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life because our time spent adventuring together. In fact, the cleric in my D&D party was the officiant at my wedding!
I also wanted a reason to challenge my mom’s love of self-help tomes and her (often) unsolicited advice. There are so many life lessons you can learn from your D&D character. “Be prepared to expect the unexpected.” “Never split the party.” “Sometimes you’re the hero and sometimes you got to let someone else shine.” So I took on the experiment of living my life more like a D&D character might to see what lessons I could learn, or relearn in some cases.
The chapter on exploring your spirituality through the D&D pantheon was inspiring, yet it still triggered this vestigial frisson of “Oh no! She’s going to get us in trouble with the evangelicals again!” Then I read your “soapbox” entry in which you reject those old prejudices about D&D equaling evil. How much were these old controversies on your mind as you wrote that chapter?
They did a little because of the subject matter, and I felt like it would be a jarring oversight to not mention them. D&D has become like this little brother to me. It’s something I care deeply about and want to protect. If someone is talking smack about my D&D, I’m going to stand up for it!
Honestly, it breaks my heart a bit to think people still have those misconceptions. Especially when I think about all the ways it has so positively impacted people’s lives.
Through my own experiences as well as reading through several memoirs about D&D (Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks), I’ve discovered that a lot of us gamers come from challenging home environments. You’ve written about your own struggles here. How has your mom handled the way she’s portrayed in the book?
I think it’s important to note (for my mom’s sake!) that we have a very, very close relationship. I love her dearly and feel truly blessed to have her in my life. That being said, I think we have a relationship that will be very familiar to a lot of women. Mother knows best and isn’t afraid to let her daughter know it.
Fortunately my mom has a wonderful sense of humor so she thinks she comes across as hysterical and well-meaning in the book. Just like she does in real life. When she read the first draft she would call me and say, “I have to read you my favorite part” which was usually something she did or said.
I think the “fame” is starting to go to her head though. I was on a radio show the other day and during the interview I got a text from her saying, “The call-in line is busy! Tell them Mommy is calling and I want equal billing!” Yes, ladies and gentlemen my mom is available for interviews. Please send all booking requests through me.
Were I to ask you to make the case for playing D&D for someone who has never played it, what would you say?
I would ask them to first put aside any preconceived notions they may have about the game and tell them what it’s really about. D&D is an immersive story-telling experience. That you, along with your party and Dungeon Master will collectively spin a fantastical yarn. If you can imagine it, you can probably find a way to play it. I would highlight the fact that they can create their very own character that gets to exist in this world. They can be pretty much anything or anyone they want—Jack Bauer, Medea, Gerard Butler in 300. (We got a very reluctant friend to play D&D by telling her she could be Harry Potter and have her cat as a familiar.)
I’d make sure they know that it’s okay to not know every single rule. Or even any of them at first. Someone will be more than happy to show them the ropes. The most important thing, hokey as it sounds, is that they have fun. Which they will.
Then, because I work in marketing I would tell them about D&D Encounters, our weekly in-store gaming experience that is perfect for new and experienced players. And of course point them to the D&D Store and Event Locator on DungeonsandDragons.com to find a store to play at. (That message was brought to you by my boss.)
Oh, and I can’t resist asking you this: Tell me about your character!
I would love to tell you about my character! As we were about to start a new campaign, our Dungeon Master challenged the group to play characters we typically wouldn’t gravitate to. For me, that’s anything outside of wizard or sorcerer. I tried playing a cleric once but I’m terrible in emergency situations and kept running off without healing anyone. My career as a fighter has lasted about 48 minutes total. While I appreciate the ranger’s role to kind of keep in the background, I found the bow and I never connected. So for our new campaign I rolled up a halfling rogue named Pandora. She’s…well… a bit on the clumsy side. She almost always fails her stealth check, has failed to noticed 99% of the traps in her path, and once set off a trap while trying to pick the lock on a door that wasn’t even locked. But wow—when she has combat advantage, watch out! She’s pretty swift with a dagger considering she only weighs 32 pounds.