One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Sam Lipsyte’s The Dungeon Master made the extended list.
On my first read of The Dungeon Master, I thought it was a sprawling mess. The idea of marginalized kids living through the game of Dungeons and Dragons should make for an interesting story. I’ve not played the game myself, but only heard bits and pieces about the intensity of the game – the parallel universe in which players become absorbed. Only after giving it a second read and writing out some notes, did the structure pop through.
The opening lines reveal the duality of these kid’s worlds.
“The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda.”
Each of the kids that gathers to play is an outsider in their own right. Their young lives have been marred by some type of tragedy. “I don’t want to die this way,” Cherninsky says. A short time later, “Maybe he’s thinking of people who have really died, like his baby sister. She drowned in the ocean. Nobody ever mentions it.”
But the Dungeon Master is the glue in the story, the older teen who draws the kids in, provokes them to take chances, and then shows them no mercy. “…the Dungeon master makes certain they die with the least possible amount of dignity.”
When the Dungeon Master’s father appears at the door, he freaks out. “Father,” the Dungeon Master will say, “stay the fuck out of my mind realm.” When they ask the Dungeon Master about detention, he denies it. “Today, bold ranger, I watched a sad little pickpocket bleed out on a bakery floor. That’s the only thing that has happened today. Get it?”
The story is laced with continuous hints the Dungeon Master has serious mental issues. Rumors float around he “hit some kid with an aluminum bat.” Someone mentions he’s been in a mental facility. The narrator’s sister heard the Dungeon Master once set his turds on fire in the school parking lot.
Yet, the teens return to play the game over and over. The thrill of being drawn into a fantasy game and stepping up to the line of death, cheating death, is the most exciting part of their lives. For as the narrator explains, “I don’t really have better things to do.”
One afternoon, the Dungeon Master leads the players into an intense duel with a dragon and the narrator’s game character is slain. Name calling leads to a fight and the narrator breaks his wrist. After that he avoids the Dungeon Master’s house and starts playing with the school club. This proves not to be as exciting.
Later, the Dungeon Master picks up the narrator in his Corvette. He concedes most of the rumors about his mental health are true. He talks about how alarmed parents are about the Dungeons and Dragons, but believes they don’t understand. “The game doesn’t create suicides. If anything, it postpones them,” he says.
They drive to an overhang, where the Dungeon Master revs the car as if he might drive them off the cliff. “His fingers drum on the gear knob. We’re going to fly a dragon, after all. Part of me is ready.” The Dungeon Master laughs at having put the fear into him.
The themes of teen angst while searching for meaning in their lives, role playing games and suicide do resonate upon a closer read of this story. I recall once as a teen hearing a friend tell his brother, “I’m going to kill myself.” The little brother egged him on, “Why don’t you?” To which the first brother responded, “I would, but there’s a new Hardy Boys on this Sunday night.” While these brothers were joking, the idea that a day’s entertainment, a TV show or a continuing role playing game, is their perceived reason for living a true but sad insight into the lives of many.