The Absolutely True Story of How Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

The Absolutely True Story of How Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

13 min read

This is a companion to this week's podcast, available May 22.

That title is a tad click-baity, so I want to clear some things up front.

Dungeons & Dragons didn't push me from the path of an oncoming car. The hardcover didn't stop a bullet meant for my heart. Other than during my first and only screening of The Rise of Skywalker, I have never contemplated suicide. I would probably still be here if Puff was the only dragon I knew.

The facts remain.

If you are part of Gen X or identify as a cross-generational Xennial (born '77-'83), chances are your parents divorced.

It's usually inaccurate to make sweeping statements about an entire swath of Americans based entirely on the years they were born. The aggregate obliterates all nuance and ignores socioeconomic and regional discrepancies. But when we talk about generations, what we're really referring to is shared experience and familiar touchstones, from which we derive a sense of belonging, if not meaning.

Generations are cliques.

I can say, "That's Freedom Rock, man," and some internet stranger who is roughly my age and was also raised by television will respond, "Well turn it up, man." Everyone else will look at us like we're mad. We won't care, because the objective has been met. A gauntlet was thrown, someone picked it up, and now we are both lost in the brief glow of nostalgia, which is the true purpose of haggling over generational divides.

The steepness of this cutoff was made apparent recently. On a group text with some older Millennials (but not quite Xennials), I made a passing reference to the salsa commercial from the '90s—if you know, you know, but here's a hint: "New York City?!"—and was met with the textual equivalent of blank stares. It was a shocking development. I thought about dropping a "Wassup?!" but my heart would probably give out if that also fell on deaf ears.

Apart from this shared lexicon of corporate adspeak—is it weird that I have sharper memories of 80s & 90s commercials than I do of the shows they interrupted?—the quintessential Gen X experience is not grunge, flannel, or The Breakfast Club.1 It's divorce.

The data backs it up.

U.S. historical marriage and divorce rates chart
You didn’t know I was gonna come with hard data. Image: Washington Post

In the early 80s, there was roughly one divorce for every two marriages. That's staggering. This systematic unfamilying2 begot the other uniquely Gen X experience: Being regularly left to fend for ourselves. Latchkey kids. We came home to empty houses and were trusted not to set the place on fire until Mom and Dad got home.3

That my parents divorced before I lost my baby teeth is not remarkable. There were literally millions of us trying to cope with the sudden, irrevocable obliteration of home. And in its place: Two houses, neither of which could fill the void. It was the inverse of Thunderdome, minus an attendant crowd of howling near-mutants.

Everyone copes in their own ways.

I started stealing money from my stepsister.