The game, as Mr. Rogers and his crew play it now, is simple: The boys roll the dice, and he, serving in the role of Dungeon Master, does the same. The young men’s fate depends on how high they roll, compared with Mr. Rogers, who invents a plot twist on the spot. The boys still shudder to think of the time they rolled poorly after killing a wizard and ended up sliding down a shaft into a purgatory filled with slime.
The game, played around the dining room table, started with his setting the stage: The players were starting out in “a small, elegant mine” in the throne room as the king sat on his hand-carved wooden throne. Henry, in the role of king, stood and commenced with a rousing speech, urging them to battle for glory, ending with a modern spin: “And also, any women who want to join our army, it’s all cool, fam.”
Ordinarily, Mr. Rogers takes off points when the kids break character. “They really want to be in the fantasy, but there’s this other layer that gets in the way,” he said later. “It’s irony, it’s pop culture.” In this instance, his son’s overall performance outweighed the slip-up. “I’ll give you a plus three on that, it was pretty good,” he said.
At moments, the game was a PG version of “Game of Thrones”; at others, pure Asterix, comic and visual: When Nikola, who specializes in kitchen accouterments that can double as weaponry, suggested that the soldiers all hold massive bags of flour they could use as bludgeons, Mr. Rogers had the fighters landing on the flour to cushion their fall down a steep drop. He somehow conjured perfectly what that sound would be; from there, he imagined the gnomes’ confronting the terrifying sight of an army, their faces eerie and ghostlike, covered in the white powder that was expelled from the bags with the fall.
Whenever given the choice, Henry opted for bloodletting. “Troops, troops, we’re going to surround them and slaughter them all,” he said, punching his palm with one fist. “They need to die!” Leo giggled, giddy at the prospect of their awfulness.
Out of earshot of the boys, Mr. Rogers’s wife, Rebecca Ashley, a photographer, reflected on how much they had grown up since they first started playing; Henry used to run circles around the dining room table in his excitement. “They really have to work together as a group,” she said. Lately, with her husband’s career taking off, demanding more time away, the game has also offered a reliable way for father and son to connect. “They sit down to play, and they’re right there again,” she said. “Some people go fishing. They play D&D.”
By 5, the fate of the gnomes was still unclear, but Mr. Rogers had to leave; the gnomes would live to play another day. His most devoted fans sat around the table and tried to think about how to capture what it was like having a playwright and actor on hand to serve as Dungeon Master. Maybe it was like having a great novelist write to you at summer camp. (“The object of love is the best and most beautiful,” John Steinbeck wrote his teenage son at boarding school. “Try to live up to it.”). Or maybe it was like having a great chef pack your school lunch. “It’s like having Beyoncé sing you to sleep,” Liam suggested.
There was a moment of awed silence as the boys contemplated such a thing, and then a burst of laughter. Whatever they had just experienced with J. T. Rogers, it was not quite that; but still, they all agreed, it was better than video games.
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