I first encountered Dungeons & Dragons as a shadowy ritual happening upstairs, in Tony’s older brother’s bedroom. Following my eleven-year-old friend up the carpeted steps of his family home in Tierra Santa, California, down the afternoon hallway, into the dank boy cave of Larry, a long-haired teenager whose dwelling place was lit only by cracks in curtains and glowing green computer screens. Larry sat cross-legged on his bed, atop a horde of strange books and sheets of graph paper with numbers and maps scrawled all over them. A small statuette of a red dragon on the dresser, a table sprinkled with polyhedral, transparent dice, fake gems tossed around by the older brother, whose tight pair of dark jeans he seemed to wear every day, whose brown hair was greasy, and whose face was fey. He was, I was about to learn, a Dungeon Master.
Then I saw a televangelist doing a presentation one Sunday morning so early cartoons hadn’t even started; I watched with my younger brother as a man with a mustache and curly hair, in front of a dark curtain, behind a lectern, lectured on the dangers of D&D, describing it as a satanic game leading children to devil worship and suicide. He held up the cover of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for scrutiny: a knight with a sword and his friend, a man in a blue robe – whose hair was the same style as Larry’s – stood below a glowing, red, naked, devil man wielding a giant scimitar across his muscular naked body, giant red pecs and abs and arms articulated by the artist with great precision, a loin cloth hugging the big demonic loins, the monster’s face distorted and pointy toothed, horns yellow, and in his other hand a naked blonde lady in a gold armor bikini, holding a little dagger. When my brother and I told my parents that we wanted D&D, they seemed to feel that it was a good idea for us to play it because Born-Again Christians, of which there were some in our actual neighborhood, thought it was devil worship and anything they condemned, anything that scared them, my mother and father suggested, was probably good.
My brother and I went to the game store with our mom, and she bought the books and the dice and even some lead figurines, and my brother and I set about learning the rules of the game, its mythologies and fictions culled together to form its pliable mise en scene. As the older brother, I became the Dungeon Master, but when the Sega Master System entered our home, my brother was lost to me as a player, and I was a Dungeon Master without a campaign, a lonely thing to be. And so I set about looking for people to play the game with, at first following other boys from the bus into their little rooms and their little scenarios, limited by their narrow interpretations of the game, always a search for magic weapons: swords that suck your soul, armor that cannot be penetrated, and spells to eradicate entire cities in balls of fire. (One time, on the bus, the bus driver, a chubby guy with a wispy mustache and hair like Larry’s but thinner, taught me a lesson: I told the kids that they were confronted by a “bugbear.” They said: “What is that?” I assumed they knew already and became frustrated that they hadn’t read the Monster Manual thoroughly. The bus driver said, “You have to describe the monster. It’s like a bear with a beak, and then they will know what you are talking about. The name doesn’t matter to them. Just to you.”) Also on the bus, I found a pair of sisters who had always wanted to play but felt weird about the boys who played it. I invited them over and played D&D with them.Their characters had names like Fyrne Meadowblossom and Claire de Lune. And so Junior High was spent in dreams based on Shakespeare and Ursual LeGuin, ElfQuest comics and Dragonriders of Pern and all the other feminine genres of fantasy of the pre-Harry Potter era.
In 9th grade, in large part thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s success with The Phantom of the Opera, I decided that Broadway Musicals would be a more productive obsession around which to orient my aspirations. After securing my position at the top of the drama club as its president in 11th Grade, I suggested ironically that we play D&D and ironically, everyone agreed. Around my parents dining room table, teen sex angst and insubordinate aggressions were worked out and worked over: most of the kids decided that their characters were aligned chaotic evil, lawful evil, chaotic neutral and true neutral – rarely, chaotic good (which is still my philosophical outlook) or (like one kid) lawful neutral (just to be weird). I had to keep the players – like the inexplicably popular dark-haired sociopath Beth who played an evil elf – from killing each other – as she did to Cesar, the cute also dark-haired sociopath, slaying his gnomish thief in the middle of the game, which lead to wrestling in real life between the two, their lust so entertaining to me, and all the more interesting as I was, after all, the Dungeon Master who had put it into play. I would help Sean’s true neutral ranger with hints on how to find treasure, so that Sean, with the blond sideburns, sad eyes and a big nose, would be more inclined to sleep over after, and we could listen to the Smiths together in my bedroom.
I played Dungeons & Dragons, a convivial, relational game form based on chance – as in the rolling of oddly shaped dice – and role-play. Nerds gravitated toward this pre-virtual RPG, asocial, awkward, but together, at our parents dining room tables, we could collectively imagine another place, ourselves another group – racially diverse band of elves, half-orcs, gnomes and dwarves – of whatever gender we chose. And it wasn’t a coincidence that these gatherings would often end in a slumber party, and that the games themselves took on a queer coloring, if repressed by adolescent anxieties and complicated by the homophobia of the Reagan Era and the beginnings of AIDS. A storyteller always, I often served as the Dungeon Master. This game is one of the origins of my own understanding of myself as a person, a queer, and this may be what I am reenacting in making the work that I now think of as art.
(Above: Shakuntala DuBois, 2012)
Alexandro Segade is an artist based in Los Angeles who, apart from his work with the performance group My Barbarian, has presented his own performances and videos at LAXART,REDCAT and Artist Curated Projects in Los Angeles; Migrating Forms at Anthology Film Archive in New York; Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco; the 2014 Whitney Biennial; and Vox Populi in Philadelphia. His project, Replicant vs. Separatist, is a science fiction genre discussion of gay marriage, which received a grant from the Durfee Foundation in 2010. He received an Art Matters Grant in 2011 for a collaboration with artist Wu Tsang. Segade earned a BA in English from UCLA (1996) and an MFA in interdisciplinary studio art from UCLA (2009). He currently teaches performance, video, sculpture and public art at the University of Southern California and serves as performance faculty at Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts.