Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week, she talks with a group of friends who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons together for nearly 30 years. They all went to the same high school in Huntington Beach, California, in the late 1980s. While no one is quite sure when this exact group began playing together, they have two campaigns that have been going continuously since the early ’90s, with the same characters. In this interview, they introduce some of their characters and discuss how the game has served as the glue for their friendship, giving them an excuse to get together regularly, even when life is busy.
Dongheon Cha, 48, a manager at an adhesive-tape company who lives in Whittier, California
Tony Flynn, 48, a marketing researcher who lives in Los Angeles, California
Ken Godbille, an opera singer and IT worker who lives in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany.
Dennis Kudlik, 48, a dentist who lives in Placentia, California
Chuck Sanderson, 49, a project manager for a software company who lives in Beaverton, Oregon
Greg Squires, 47, a gymnastics coach who lives in Anaheim, California
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: So how did you all get interested in Dungeons & Dragons?
Greg Squires: Remember, we grew up in the ’80s. It was a huge fad in the ’80s. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, everybody was playing it at recess and lunch. It hadn’t yet acquired its nerdy or geeky reputation. It was just this fad thing that all the kids were doing. I was playing with another group until I met these guys.
Dongheon Cha: I did play some in elementary school, with my cousin, off and on. I really didn’t play too much until I got into high school and Tony introduced me to the rest of the guys.
Ken Godbille: Usually lunch didn’t take the whole 50 minutes, so you were left wondering what to do. And after school, we would continue the game. When you start a game of D&D, typically it’s a story. So think about reading a novel. You pick up a novel, you can read like 10 or 15 minutes of it at lunchtime, before your next class. And then you go home, and if you can get everybody together, you want to finish it.
Beck: When was the first time that this group played D&D together?
Dennis Kudlik: It would probably have to be Greg’s freshman year. Because that is the only time we were all in high school at the same time.
Greg: The nature of the game makes it so you don’t have to have the exact same players every time. A player and their character can be absent for a game session. It’s kind of like an episode of a show where one character doesn’t appear in it. So it’s hard to say exactly when the first time the eight people that regularly play together now were together in the same room.
Ken: I had 1988 on one of my characters. I was just looking.
Dennis: We’ve been doing games fairly consistently since then. How D&D normally works is that there’s a game master who is running the game. They’re the narrator of the story. And the different people are the different characters in the story. It’s an interactive story—the dungeon master will tell you, This is going on; this is what you see. And then you get feedback from the players on what they want to do. It can be a never-ending story. You’ll use the same characters as long as nothing horrible happens to them. Of the characters that we’re playing right now in this current game, one was created in 1990. We’ve been playing with a lot of these same characters for 25-plus years at this point.
Beck: When did the campaign that’s ongoing now start?
Greg: We actually have two of them that are that old. I think my Greyhawk campaign started in 1990. And the other one, the Racteria campaign, started in 1991. Greyhawk and Racteria are the name of the worlds that they’re set in. Greyhawk was the original campaign world that Gary Gygax made when he wrote Dungeons & Dragons. It’s kind of the historical campaign setting.
Beck: Is Racteria one you guys made up yourselves?
Greg: Yes. That’s the one that we created ourselves.
Beck: Do you use the same characters for both of those campaigns, or do they each have their own unique characters? Have they both had a continuous story line this whole time?
Chuck Sanderson: There are different characters for each campaign. And for Racteria, we each have multiple characters. We have campaigns for high-, low-, and mid-level characters, which were all started at different times. The high-level one has been around for 25 years. Each category of levels has different challenges. When you’re the all-powerful high-level character, you can save every village from everything.
We also have rotating game masters (GMs) in Racteria, whereas in Greyhawk it’s just Greg. So everybody has taken turns GMing for Racteria. Generally speaking, we tend to be more about how many things we kill and how fast we can do it and what treasure we get. It’s less about role-playing in terms of character voice-acting. We don’t do as much of that.
Dennis: You were asking if it’s the same story. Essentially it’s the same world. It’s like if our campaign was set in the United States. The United States is a big area, and we could have something going on in Southern California, and then we’ve got to travel to Colorado and deal with some horrible blizzard monster or something like that. Or then we need to travel to Florida to pick up X, Y, or Z. It is all the same world, and each individual module is like its own individual story. Like someone wants to hire us to rescue a fair maiden from the dragon.
Chuck: The hero’s quest.
Dennis: And then once that’s over, we still have the same characters, it’s still in the same world. Now we’ll just go on to the next job. And there’s two completely separate worlds. There’s the one that Greg is in charge of, the Greyhawk world. And the other one, basically whoever has an idea for a module or a game can run it. And we have a couple different groups of characters to choose from, as Chuck was saying.
Sometimes it’s harder to write modules for super-powerful characters than it is for people that are just starting out. Because when you’re just starting in D&D, you can’t do a whole heck of a lot. But if you’ve got characters that can do anything under the sun—cast wishes and fly and destroy mountains—then you’ve got to have a different level of being able to write that story so that it’s not completely boring.
Greg: It’s very much like a television series, where there are different episodes and different seasons that follow different story lines. The word module, it basically is an adventure or a story. Dungeons & Dragons used to sell dungeon modules, which were published adventure ideas. So we still call them modules.
Beck: I would love to go around and have everybody describe one of your characters for me.
Greg: I don’t have a Greyhawk character, because I’m the GM for that one. In the Racterian campaign, my oldest character, with the January 1991 start date on him, is Wylo the Traveler. He is a wizard, a very powerful one now. An arch-mage. At the time when I made him, I had a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of the rules. So it’s a very meta-game concept. He was an arch-mage that was once really powerful, lost a titanic battle, lost all of his powers, and then started again at first level and was determined to fight his way back up. And he’s done that. That gave me an excuse to be very wise and knowledgeable even for a very low-level character.
Chuck: From Racteria, I have a high-level bard. His name is Jonathan Wolf. I just wanted the challenge of trying to play a bard. The bard character is difficult, so it was really hard to do in terms of staying alive.
Dennis: I’ve got a high-level magic user in the Greyhawk campaign. That one’s probably my favorite. Anthriathorn the Awe-Inspiring is his name. Now he is well known throughout the world. So wherever we go, I just say my name and people all know who I am. D&D was very unbalanced at first, and some character classes had more power than others. Once you get to be a high-level magic user, that’s probably one of the most powerful classes you can have.
Tony Flynn: I’ll talk about my Greyhawk character. He is Pierce the Protector. When I was originally making the character, I wanted to be a fighter or a thief, but we didn’t have anyone stepping up to be a cleric. So I became a fighter/magic user/cleric. So I’m a little bit of everything. He’s the jack-of-all-trades, so I constantly step up to fill in roles.
Ken: I can talk about Father Metallica. He’s part of the Greyhawk campaign. I’m also a cleric, which is sort of a priest. He’s a fighting priest. If you’ve watched Lord of the Rings, you know the dwarves? So he comes from the mountain. He is very familiar and at home in nature. But he’s a little bit unusual because he’s left his natural home to go hang out with the rest of the group. His ethos is there’s not too much of a conflict with making use of what you find. So he has a little bit of sticky fingers.
Beck: His name is Father Metallica? Like the band?
Greg: Yes, exactly like the band. The character was named in front of a Metallica poster.
Tony: If I remember correctly, we were sitting at another person’s apartment. We were already involved in the first story line. Ken joined that group a little late, after we had started. And then became the cleric. There was a Metallica poster on the wall, and he was like, Oh, perfect. There’s my name.
Dongheon: One of my favorite characters for Racteria is Landor Lightbringer. A paladin. I’m interested in justice and law and having the authority to mete that out. So that always appealed to me.
As far as character names, I think our other friend Jack has one of the most interesting character names. It took him at least 10 years to come up with his name. He couldn’t think of a name for his character, so he always had a question mark where his name should be. So after 10 years of not having a name, his name became Master Question Mark.
Beck: Does the dynamic between your characters in the game kind of reflect your friendship dynamic?
Greg: There are different styles of playing Dungeons & Dragons, and some people like much more of a role-playing experience, where they are play-acting and really get into the role of their characters. Our group is not so much like that. Ours is more there to play the game, and problem-solving is big with our group.
That being said, a lot of us do play our characters according to our own personality. A good portion of Wylo and Wylo’s decisions is me with some other quirks and personality traits thrown in. And then occasionally characters will have quirks that conflict with each other or get along well with each other. And so we will role-play the characters as having arguments, friendships, grudges, something of that sort.
Beck: Even if you’re not doing a super-heavy role-playing version, I’m curious to hear more about how your friendship dynamic plays out when you guys are playing. Like if somebody is always the one who wants to run into the scary-looking cave or whatever it is.
Greg: Well, yeah, that’s Chuck.
Ken: I think that our characters sort of dictate particular functions within D&D. For example, Father Metallica, because he’s the guy with medical knowledge, he’s not the one who’s always running forward. If I had a different character, if I were a fighter with a big sword, then I might be in front. Where our own personalities tend to come out, I think, is more in the quiet moments. In the problem-solving sections.
Chuck: For example, Ken is more colorful. He tends to elaborate on what his character does and his life in general. Even in this conversation we’ve had with him, he’s elaborating more; he’s trying to think of things from a colorful point of view. He brings that into his characters. That’s his personality outside of the game, that’s his personality inside the game. I play more by the numbers. Dongheon is even worse. He plays super by the numbers.
Beck: Could you tell me a bit about how your friendship outside the game progressed after high school up till now? Did you guys stay in close touch that whole time? Were you always geographically near each other?
Dennis: Overall we’ve stayed fairly close together in our locations. People have gone here and there to school and stuff. More recently we’ve had people move away. Ken’s been in Germany for a long time, and Chuck’s been out of state.
Beck: And you two Skype into the games, is that right?
Chuck: If I can’t make it down. I occasionally get to fly down there.
Dennis: But most of the group, we’ve been pretty close together. We try to get together as much as we can. Even if it’s not a big enough group for D&D, we’ll play some cards, board games, stuff like that. We just enjoy hanging out with each other and chitchatting. Even when we do get together for D&D, it’s not like we’re sitting there hard-core playing this game. Half the time we’re talking about what’s going on in our lives and the hot topics of the day.
My wife will say it’s very different how women talk about things and how guys talk about things. Your guy friends are there to talk about guy things and not get all emotional. But we’ve been around for all the weddings and kids, and a couple deaths to deal with. We’ve all been around through thick and thin since we started gaming together. That hasn’t really changed other than how often we’re allowed to get together, because everyone’s got family commitments to deal with and whatnot.
Chuck: A bunch of us were all roommates post–high school. There’s a lot more going on in terms of our friendship. D&D is just what brought us together.
Beck: Over the many years that you guys have been friends now, is D&D something that kind of serves as a structural support to make sure that you all get together regularly?
Greg: Yeah, I would definitely say that. That’s always the most common email we have: When can we get together for the next game? We could just say, When are we going to get together to hang out again? But it’s an excuse for us to constantly keep in touch and not drift away.
Beck: Do you think you guys would have remained as close without the game?
Dennis: Possibly not. Especially as we started getting families, it’s easy to get sucked in with your family life. There’s always something going on with your kids. I don’t know ... this is the only kind of friendship that I’ve really known. I’ve got other random friends here and there. But the ones I really try to get together with are these guys. D&D was what I did growing up. All the things that you’ve done when you were little are the things that you like. This is the comfortable thing for us. This is what I want to do when I have free time.
Ken: Just like any group of friends, we’ve got so many stories about road trips to Vegas and going camping. But I agree with Dennis that gaming, whether it be cards or D&D or whatnot, has really been a key framing factor for, Hey, let’s get together.
Greg: It’s really hard to speculate on what would have happened if we didn’t have D&D. But I do know that what we have really seems to be unusual in this world. I know a lot of people who, once they have gotten married and have their jobs and kids, they don’t keep in contact with the same group of friends. Also I talk to a lot of gamers online, and having one continuous group that everybody has stayed with for close to 30 years, that’s very unusual too. A lot of people are constantly in a state of flux, trying to find new players, or a new game to join. So I think we’re really lucky in that.
Ken: Because it’s been so long, we have some shorthand when we interact with one another. Sometimes when we’re playing a game, there’ll be just a couple of words referring to something that happened 10 years ago. And everybody will laugh or everybody will know exactly what it is that the person is trying to say.
Beck: Do you have an example of one of the shorthands?
Ken: Dennis, Dennis, Dennis, how about the thing with the sea hag?
Greg: “And what if I don’t?”
Dennis: So early on we came across this sea hag on one of the early modules that we were doing. And she threatened us. To leave or go back or something like that. And I said, “If we refuse?” And she killed my character.
Beck: Oh no.
Dennis: That was one of the more amusing things. So oftentimes when people threaten us or ask us to do things, the common response is, “What if we don’t?”
Greg: Sea hags have a death gaze, apparently.
Chuck: Killed him on the spot, no questions.
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