Last year I started playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. As a D&D newbie I was nervous. Would I have to wear a costume? I didn’t even know how the game was played.
For those new to Dungeons & Dragons, here’s how it works: a narrator (the dungeon master) reads out to a group of people descriptions of a place or scenario. The group decides what to do, and the narrator unfolds the story based on their decisions. At certain moments players roll dice to determine the outcome of a decision. It’s basically a free-form, collaborative Choose Your Own Adventure story.
At the same time I started playing D&D, I was transitioning into a new job as CEO of Kickstarter. I initially started playing to hang out with the Kickstarter team. Over time the game has become much more. Here are three things I’ve learned playing D&D.
1. Know who you are
Knowing and accepting who you are is the most important thing to do in D&D and life in general.
In D&D this is quite deliberate. When building a character you’re first asked to declare whether you are Lawful, Neutral, or Chaos. My group began by declaring ourselves Neutral, but events soon revealed a darker edge. After a particularly gruesome encounter, it was obvious: we were Chaos.
Accepting our Chaotic nature was a literal game-changer. Rather than debate how to respond to each situation, it was clear how to act. Once we knew who we were, there was often only one real course of action.
2. Know what you want
In our adventure we began hearing rumors of the Master, the root of evil in our world.
One day I made a proposal to the group. We would find the Master. We would pay tribute to him as his subjects. And then we would slay him and become the new Masters ourselves. We all agreed to this audacious plan, and everything about our game immediately changed.
D&D is typically about exploration. You search rooms, open doors, and explore terrain. Once we declared our mission, things took a different shape. We explored, but with a purpose.
We began to see anything that wouldn’t ultimately lead us to the Master as a distraction. We encountered countless corridors and mountains of treasure. We ignored all but those that seemed likely to lead us to the Master.
The impact of our focus was startling. Questions of tactics and strategy continued to arise, but we approached them with an obvious purpose. Once we decided who we were and what we wanted, it was clear what to do.
After much searching, we finally found the Master. We declared allegiance as planned, and soon found ourselves in battle. After a long and difficult fight, we were victorious. We took the Master’s seat.
3. Parlay first, fight second
When we started our quest, we would engage in battle as soon as we encountered an enemy. We won these battles but they were painstaking. We had to fight enemies one at a time. Our characters were weak and inexperienced. The risk of death was real.
Over time we began to take a different approach. We would first try to parlay with the enemies and convince them to help us or surrender. We used appeals, threats, and tricks to get them to lead us to the Master.
Parlaying had much bigger rewards than fighting. By parlaying we could impact an entire group of enemies, not just ones we physically fought. Soon we began every encounter with an attempted parlay. We would fight only if that failed.
Thankfully I don’t have any literal application of this lesson to my life, but it reminds me of how important it is to scale your actions. It’s satisfying to roll up your sleeves and try to fix every problem yourself, but big picture it isn’t sustainable. There’s just too much to do.
Instead, parlay by sharing the challenge with your team. Even if the efforts come up short, the team has gotten more experience, and your performance in the next challenge will be much improved.
I’ve come to see our Dungeons & Dragons quest as more than a battle with monsters and mazes. It’s been a test of character. The obstacles we faced gave our group purpose and helped define who we are.
Who are you? What do you want? These are the questions to answer. We can’t control events, but we control how we respond to them. Who knows? With a little bit of luck, you just might find yourself the new Master.
I wouldn’t have survived to learn these lessons without my brave compatriots. Thanks to Liz Cook, George Schmalz, Taylor Moore, and John Dimatos for their wits and wit. And thanks to our incredible dungeon master Luke Crane for guiding us on our quest.
I shared a draft of this essay with the group before posting. Liz responded with her perspective. Here’s her take:
Thinking about taking down the master/becoming the new master was both hilarious and undeniably the right move. It was also very risky — and I think that risk played an important role. It made staying on task feel even more crucial. We were aware of our scrappy first or maaaybe second level brigade and that feeling of being ill-prepared propelled us to stay on target…cause we had to. Don’t you think it could’ve felt different in circumstances where we came with higher levels or more powerful spells or just knowing what to expect? I also wonder if we felt brave because we didn’t feel like we had so much to lose yet. We hadn’t leveled up a number of times. Maybe our lack of experience made us less likely to fear what we had to lose. Maybe it was the fact that we weren’t safe peddling around the caves and could die at any time regardless? I don’t think any of this takes away from our glory or bravery and certainly not our determination to reach our goal however.
Some of my all time favorite moments in the game have been the parlay encounters. A big part of why I enjoy them is the human-ness that it brings to our D&D world. Fighting is definitely fun but even when Luke does such an amazing job painting the battle scene, it can still feel very anonymous to me. A parlay invites emotion, spontaneity, and an unpredictability in outcome that just delights me to no end. This holds true in real life as well.
I couldn’t agree more.
A few weeks ago I decided to take a road trip out West. I booked it planning to go alone. Later that day I had another idea.
I have two half-brothers, Stephen and Dylan, ages 22 and 17. Stephen and I share a mother, and Dylan and I share a father. Even though they live in the same town in Virginia, they’ve never met.
I called each of them two days ago to break the news that we were going to take a road trip together. Forty-eight hours later we were standing together outside baggage claim in California. This is our story.
At 11pm on Saturday night 300 people were gathered in the fountain bowl in New York’s Washington Square Park. Half the crowd (myself included) sat cross-legged in the bowl floor while the rest stood on the rim above. The group had gathered after the day’s Occupy Wall Street rally in Times Square and it was debating whether to extend the occupation of the Liberty Square location to Washington Square Park. The movement had a very New York problem: it needed more real estate.
The gathering had urgency. In 45 minutes the police would be there “doing whatever it takes” to enforce the park’s midnight curfew. In other words arresting anyone who stayed.
The group couldn’t make up its mind on what to do, but it was also adamant that it wasn’t supposed to. Whether to stay or go was each person’s decision. The procedural leaders who guided the meeting, however, seemed to suggest that we would occupy.
This had been the sentiment of the earlier, smaller group I observed as well. “How many would stay if the group stayed?” someone asked, meaning likely get arrested. Most of the group raised their hands. Some meant it but others’ hands said, “I hope I’m the kind of person who stays if the group stays.” That’s why mine was raised.
Many of the speakers were NYU students calling for occupation. “We have NYU all around us. The school will protect us!” “I’m an RA and my hall has volunteered their meal plans!” “The whole world is watching!”
Others were skeptical. A young man named Max stood up and suggested that the movement’s goal should be to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. What would breaking the law accomplish? Are we protesting the fact that parks close at midnight?
“Mic check! Mic check!” someone yelled from across the fountain. Though there’s an official list to speak a “mic check!” can grab the floor.
Man: “I just wanted everyone to know”
(echo one) I JUST WANTED EVERYONE TO KNOW
(echo two) I JUST WANTED EVERYONE TO KNOW
Man: “That three police buses”
(echo one) THAT THREE POLICE BUSES
(echo two) THAT THREE POLICE BUSES
Man: “Have pulled up behind us”
(echo one) HAVE PULLED UP BEHIND US
(echo two) HAVE PULLED UP BEHIND US
The clock continued to tick – just 25 minutes to midnight. The conversation drifted. Someone wanted to relay a message from Occupy Austin. Someone talked about Israel and Palestine. If we stay, said another, it needs to be a sexism-free occupation.
Maybe you've been asking yourself whether you should participate. I wanted to from the beginning but was hesitant. I’ve gone twice in the past week and I’m glad I did. I will again.
The crowd is both what you think and “better” than you think. Certainly there are true believers, kids, activists, and people advocating for stuff you may feel is irrelevant. Sometimes someone will be embarrassing but everyone is sincere.
And also, well, you are there and probably some people that you know too. You’ll see some funny signs that you agree with. You can listen or you can speak. People ask questions. Some conversations are about upending the power structure and others are everyday New York stuff.
If you go will you get arrested? No. The intimidation is real but you can easily stay out of trouble. The NYPD pretty clearly defines its boundaries. In Times Square tourists cheered and waved. Around the city people smiled, cheered, or did the normal New Yorker thing.
It’s true that there aren’t answers being offered on how to fix corporate greed, the wealth gap, or the other issues. But why is it this group’s job to find them? These problems are decades-long and they’re baked straight into our society and politics. Nobody has an answer for what to do about them. Stepping out to say “I think we can do better than this” is a reasonable start.
What should Occupy Wall Street do in the future? In my opinion, make participation simple. Lower the bar. Step outside for 90 seconds at a specific time. Carry a newspaper a certain way. Wear a pin. Something small and ubiquitous can feel enormous, and it can find the silent majority. This is going to get bigger.
Back in Washington Square eighty cops circled us with loaves of plastic cuffs under their arms. Finally someone suggested a poll. Who will stay? A handful of arms went up. Who will go? The rest reached high. Though we weren’t supposed to seek consensus the answer was clear. At midnight the park was empty.
Today I read a book by someone I know. To call him a friend would overstate it, but we’ve spent time together. He’s always intimidated me but not in an unpleasant way, and not through any conscious effort on his part. He is simply apart – naturally so.
The main way we would spend time together was playing poker. It was a small group of us – five or six guys, all around 24. This was almost a decade ago. We would play for small stakes: $10 to play, $5 a big pot. But at the time – first jobs, new to the city – it was just enough to be meaningful. A $10 or $20 loss would sit in your stomach until morning. It was a thing that we could do that made us feel like grown-ups, some agency in our lives.
Jesse was a fantastic player. He was unpredictable. When he would enter a hand you could feel it, but still you felt like this time you might outsmart him. It would rarely happen. Always he would walk away the big winner. But no one begrudged this. He liked us fine and clearly enjoyed the company, but his mind was simply somewhere else.
For a few months he moved to New Mexico or Arizona and was a blackjack dealer. I wasn’t aware that he was doing this, that this was happening. But one day he reappeared and said that he had been dealing blackjack in New Mexico. This made plenty of sense. Our lives felt smaller.
He married an Icelandic woman. There is some relation to Bjork in some way, a fairly direct one but I’ve forgotten the particulars and it would make this to be something that it is not. I have never met this person but I imagine her to be steadfast, reserved. Very intelligent. Big, specific thoughts spoken late into the dark. A woman like that.
I say all of these things about Jesse, talk about him in this way, but know that it is not particularly my place to do so. These are simply the things I remember and I want to record them here. This small backstory.
Jesse has written three books. The second was called Samedi the Deafness, and it was a strange, fragmented novel about a stranger in a strange land. But the story was different from that. The way the story was told was lightly sketched and highly explained. Emotions and moments are detailed very plainly and with effort, and in their directness there was epiphany, but all else was void.
It’s been a while since I read it but I remember being moved by it very much. Afterwards I sent Jesse an email telling him how much I loved it, and he responded kindly. I sent another message, this time offering a theory about what he was trying to say. I don’t think he ever responded. Despite my disappointment I liked that.
This new book, The Curfew, the one I read tonight, is similar only it aches. There are a few pieces of art that actively make me want to be in a very deep love, an infinite horizon. “Ache,” “actively” – these are specifically chosen words. This book is one of them.
It’s a lonely book. A very lonely book. It is parsed, with spaces poetry-like. It overflows with sadness and love that is protective of others but most of all itself. The point of the love is the love and that is a very fragile thing in a dangerous world and that very much includes this one.
These are words that get used so often when people mean heartache and desire. Yearning, wanting, that aching thing again. All of these are right, except imagine that they are being defined for the very first time to mean precisely this thing. They mean all around you is a world that you are of and you have feelings about not particularly one way or another. But inside of that world is this other world, this other thing that does not make you special because many people have this feeling, but one that is special anyway precisely because it is yours. That kind of love.
This feeling makes the world smaller. We pair up, find happiness, look inward, both inside our own minds and hearts and then into our partner’s and then, finally, into that space that is created together. That space.
There’s beauty in this. I am particularly attuned to this love, I feel. But at the same time I fear its reductiveness. It makes the world special and mine but the world should not be mine. It just simply isn’t true, and the attractiveness of that falsehood brings anxiousness.
I’m sitting on an airplane having just finished it and I am overwhelmed with this understanding. I’ve had these feelings before. Most have been during autumn, a walk at night and the wind picks up through the trees and there’s that extrasensory thing that awakens and you travel through yourself and see the dim outline of truths that one day you will discover.
That’s what this book is. It’s called The Curfew. It’s written by Jesse Ball. Read it. Find love.
There are crazy days and then there are days like yesterday. Kickstarter has experienced some frantic hours but nothing like what happened in the 24-hour span between Wednesday at 6:54pm and Thursday at 6:44pm. Two million-dollar projects, a major political speech involving Kickstarter, an amazing band launching a project for a comeback 20 years in the making... the list goes on. Here's a minute-by-minute breakdown of the day's events.
This week, a website that I co-founded opened its doors. It’s called Kickstarter, and it’s an easy, feel-good way to raise money to do anything: make a record, produce a book (which is what I am doing), invent an invisibility cloak, put on a show… The possibilities are endless.
Below is an explanation for what motivated us to start this, and where we hope to see it go. If you’d like to be a part of Kickstarter, just email me at yancey at kickstarter dot com. Word.
The Beatles were turned down by nearly every record label. George Lucas couldn’t find a movie studio that would make Star Wars. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post were two of the only reporters assigned to cover Watergate. John Kennedy Toole went to his grave with A Confederacy of Dunces still unpublished.
Anecdotes like these have become folklore, as have their lessons: good ideas go unrecognized, experts get it wrong, perseverance prevails. All true. But as we marvel at the elixirs of skill and luck that have brought the few enormous fame and many endless heartache, it’s also worth considering that maybe this judgment system that seems to get so much so wrong is outdated. That it doesn’t speak for anyone except itself. That a good idea, well-crafted and pursued with passion, doesn’t need a gatekeeper’s stamp of approval to succeed.
The gauntlet that is fundraising (for everyone who doesn’t have a rich, benevolent uncle) sees only profit or predictability. Not art or passion or talent or an incredible story of inspiration.
Kickstarter aims to give each one of us a chance to fund our ideas, starting directly with the people who are closest to it (friends, fans, community-fellows). And it’s a way to break beyond the traditional methods — loans, investment, industry deals, grants — to discover that we can offer each other value through creation without a middleman dictating the product and terms.
Age 4 – Gets into the Beatles.
Age 6 – Writes first song, entitled “I’m A Guy Who Likes Potatoes,” a taxonomy of the ways they can be prepared. Still my finest composition.
Age 7 – Started a Beach Boys fan club consisting of me and my two cousins. No one cared as much as me.
Age 7 – Tell my dad I want to learn how to play the guitar like him. I don’t, but know he will like hearing it. Lessons commence and I am miserable.
Age 10 – Really hear hip-hop for the first time as my step-brother Tommy (he lived with his mom) makes me wear his headphones and plays “Nightmare on My Street” on his Walkmen while he dances in front of me mouthing the words. I was blown away.
Age 11 – Dad teaches me “Blackbird.” Suddenly I love playing guitar.
Age 13 – I become the replacement drummer in my dad’s Southern rock band, Rock Bottom, for the summer. We never play out, but I do develop a life-long affection for the Marshall Tucker Band.
Age 14 – Nirvana
Age 15 – I buy Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain to impress the dudes who work at the Record Exchange, my local record store. I begin buying indie rock when I can afford. I never like it, but the clerks like that I’m buying it. Or I think they do.
Age 16 – I hear “Web in Front.” Now I “get” indie.
Age 16 – Get an internship at WUVT, the Virginia Tech college radio station. Upma is the station manager and I badly want her to like me. Her favorite band is the Fall. As much as I try, I cannot get into them. We don’t click.
Age 17 – Play two songs on my guitar in front of the whole school at a choir concert: Beatles, “Girl” and Oasis, “Married With Children.” And yes, I did the pot inhales in “Girl.”
Age 18 – New Years Eve, back from college. Gang all together again at a cabin in the middle of nowhere singing “A Long December” by the Counting Crows as it turns midnight. Will never forget it.
Age 19 – Write my first piece of music criticism. It’s for a new site called Pitchfork. It’s terrible but they take it. Six weeks later I am (justifiably) fired for a really bad review of Joe Pernice’s one record as Chappaquiddick Skyline. I included more than one Ted Kennedy joke.