One night in the winter of 2017, I did the worst thing I’ve ever done. Over winter break, I had gotten together with some of my best friends for a night of games, drinks, and mayhem, with the intention of making those memories that can keep you warm for the rest of your life. As the evening progressed and everyone became more relaxed, grateful for the company and the camaraderie, something started to boil inside me until I just…snapped. In the span of fifteen minutes, I broke my word, attacked my friends, and put innocent lives in danger until I was forcibly restrained–an event so violent and unexpected that I permanently lost the use of my left arm.

Luckily for all of us, this event took place inside the world of our Dungeons and Dragons game, our year-long weekly ritual which had helped us all to keep in touch despite the never-ending location Jenga comprising our early twenties. It wasn’t me, but my character, Ajax Canno, who turned on his friends and loved ones, all out of a selfish desire to rob this created world of a happily-ever-after. It was the party he had betrayed, a distant world with distant stakes, where every choice is guided by choosing  the path of most entertainment. My friends were surprised, shocked even, that I had broken the pleasant rhythm of our shared ritual, but through this unexpected conflict, the game changed, bringing a sense of reality that would put that night down in legend for years to come. It was the night our game got serious, the night I fell in love with Dungeons and Dragons. After the session ended, we geeked out over pizza about how cool the story had been, and I was reassured repeatedly that the choice I had made was a cool one (though to be fair, I did keep asking for reassurance). When we all went home that night, I lay in bed running over that decision over and over again, because for me, that decision was not about what was cool, or about my friends or even the game itself. It was about what felt right. 

I had created Ajax roughly a year and a half earlier, while I was home on a different break during my junior year of college. As a frustrated actor, devoted fantasist, and dorm-designated “board-game-guy,” I had danced around the periphery of the DnD-verse since childhood. Occasionally my brother and I would work up the gumption to collect a group of nerdy friends to give it a try, but we would get swamped by the game’s difficult learning curve and our own lack of commitment. This time, however, I was invited to sit in on a short adventure that one of my friends had made for another’s birthday. I knew everybody involved, it was just gonna be for a couple of hours, and all I had to do was come up with a character I wanted to play. In an effort to avoid getting overwhelmed by rules and choices, I stuck to the simplest design imaginable: human, champion fighter. No magic, no weird races, just a big guy that hits things hard. Adding a dash of flavor and making him more fun to play, I also made him a fallen paladin (basically, a defrocked crusader) and gave him a bit of snark so that I could crack whatever jokes I wanted to. 

I am infamous in my family for investing a lot into anything I make, be it a play, an assignment, or a game of monopoly. I had already been a published writer for years at that point, and had spent enough time living in my imagination that slipping between the real and imagined was fairly second nature to me. But I loved playing Canno. I loved his aggression, his sarcasm, and the battered decency he hid under layers of false greed and a bone-deep hatred of authority. Most of this personality did not come out in that first session, but I could feel myself finding it, pushing me through this imagined universe my friends had built. That session turned into two, then three, and before I knew it, I was Skyping with friends on a fairly regular basis to slip into Canno’s skin for a few hours every month. While some of us were more invested in the game than others, we all prized this oasis of creativity in our lives, but for me the obsession went deeper. And older.

When I was four years old, I was paralyzed from the waist down. Miraculously, I learned to walk again, but never at one-hundred-percent, which had me spending a lot of my childhood in nurses’ offices and hospitals. Despite this harrowing adventure, I have never thought of myself as disabled, really, because I had seen how lucky I was compared to the other kids in those hospitals. I refused to equate my inconvenience with that kind of horror. Learning pretty quickly that my body could not be relied upon to navigate the world, however, I fled into my imagination, consuming and creating stories to engage with a world that I felt would always be a hair’s breadth beyond my reach. Without ever feeling like I belonged anywhere but with my family, the world became something for other people, and I leaned into my body’s failures to withdraw as far from the things I didn’t want to deal with as I could. Actual medical maladies transformed into faked symptoms, dropping out of high school and then college on account of a staggering level of denial that split my reality in two, between the one I felt somewhere just out there and the one I would allow myself to live in (or others to know about). 

By the time I started playing DnD, I had already begun grappling with a lot of this (though my friends did not know that at the time). I had returned to college, confessed my real and imagined sins to my family, and was struggling to cope with who I was capable of being. Already on the surface, Canno was a welcome juxtaposition. For my entire life, I gravitated towards the big, strong characters in movies and television, as I love empathizing with people who could rely on their bodies in ways I never could. Canno fit this tradition beautifully, and he used his strength not only to survive, but to change the world around him, bending the world to him through his own will. Where I was weak, he was strong, and I could exalt in flexing a kind of confidence I had never been afforded. However, a troubling trend began to surface through the first few months of the campaign: Canno was an asshole. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but no: I’m not an asshole. At least, not in Canno’s way. Canno was mean. His snark wasn’t just fun, it was harsh, incisive, and took no prisoners. His cynicism overflowed into a contempt for sentiment that had him seeking out joy simply to snuff it out. In the game, this was often hilarious because he was lambasting imaginary characters and institutions, and I was also pretty good at it. But Canno wasn’t doing it for the joke – he was doing it for the point.  As the game grew broader, our DM, my friend Ed Rosini, told us to make our characters’ backstories, and I filled Canno’s not only with tragedy but with failure. He had chosen wrong, and because of those choices, he had become a monster. He had left his church because of its failures to help people, only to hitch his wagon to a political movement that turned into the fantasy equivalent of the Nazi party, forcing him to turn his back not only on his beliefs but on the adopted family that he was convinced he had lost. Beneath Canno’s casual arrogance was a wellspring of rage and pain in which his survivor’s guilt had curdled into a death wish that would take the world away with it.  

At the time, I found this about turn for my beloved character fairly stressful. I believe that the only real job anyone has in this world is to not be an asshole to cope with your pain, and to help others cope with theirs. I had accepted that life was unfair when I got to leave an ICU and nobody else did, so everything that I believe in revolves around trying to make the world fair for each other. While Canno asked for no pity, he took out his pain on others, even dragging the gods and the cosmos into his all-consuming hatred. In his mind, the whole world had failed not only him but all the people he in turn had failed. He was capable, strong, smart, and even beautiful in his youth, but every one of his choices had led to someone else’s pain. When he tried to do the right thing, innocent people died, even when he was doing nothing at all. And yet he continued, being forced to live, make more choices, kill more people, because that was all he knew how to do and all he believed he was capable of. He hated the world for that and hated people for pushing a different reality upon each other which would always be doomed to fail.

This conflict bubbled underneath the surface of my thoughts about Canno, and for most of the game he continued to be vaguely an asshole, but also kind of endearing in the right circumstance and always entertaining. As the game continued, we all got better at it. The world became more fleshed out, we started making emotional connections between characters and finding quests we wanted to succeed. As more reality bled into our world, I found it bleeding into Canno too, and I could feel his discomfort growing. He hated all the tropes of DnD: the found family, the righteous quests, the good and evil. This world was not Canno’s world just as it was not mine, and he was not going to let anyone make him a hero against his will. Even his creator.

Maybe some people would be able to let that go…okay, most people would probably let that go. Canno was imaginary, a tool to have fun with my friends, and if the tool doesn’t fit the task, you dump it. I would have hated the thought that I was accidentally using this fun time with my friends as Nicky’s therapy hour. If the world we were creating together was not that dark, Canno should “lighten up.” But I wanted Canno to be a true hero. Not some sanitized, half-assed hero of inertia and plot-convenience, but someone who learned to find hope again after losing it. I needed his sins to be real,ugly, and vicious, so that his redemption would be real too. Canno’s discomfort soon became my own as I hungered for a chance to make of his character what I wanted to see in the game. I could never find a way to do it. Some of that was due to the casual nature of the people playing but most of it was due to my own insecurity in taking the game somewhere new and risking more than I wanted to risk.

This all changed that night in 2017, in the Deadwood. We were finishing a series of quests that had come to a head in a climactic battle for the soul of an entire forest, its magic bent and corrupted until not even the trees were entirely alive. This had been a major upgrade in our game the past few months, as my friend Ed began to plan the story ahead of time, so that our choices would flow directly into the shape of the narrative. This time, we were fighting to collect a rare artifact and save the people who had lived in this cursed forest, and running  into plenty of victims and villains which pulled at our heartstrings along the way. One of them, a non-player character named Naomi, even began to look up to Canno, activating memories of his assumed-dead daughter from long ago. At the end of an epic hours-long combat, filled with surprise twists and deadly sword fights (plus one explosive gnoll), we were victorious, returning the artifact to the people of the forest, restoring the natural order and bringing peace back to the Deadwood. And I couldn’t take the win.

I could have interpreted the Deadwood arc as a chance for Canno to rediscover his humanity, and certainly my DM thought this could be the case. Saving people, seeing I could be a hero again, even the pride our traveling companion Naomi took in my protective nature could have inspired something Canno thought was long dead in him. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. I couldn’t let Canno just be the hero. Not after all the choices he made, the bodies he left in his wake, the carnage it took to bring him here: he couldn’t just sing kumbaya and move on. There was no moving on. And so, Canno snapped, taking the artifact for himself, supposedly to sell it (not that he cared), and in doing so breaking a magical oath he made to a dragon with the same contract rules as Satan,  dooming the forest and its inhabitants back to Chernobyl times. Canno resisted the entreaties of everyone else in the party to return the artifact, and when his surrogate-daughter-figure Naomi attempted to stop him, he cut her down in a rage, almost killing her in the process. When he was stopped, it was because the rest of his friends turned on him, the dragon swooping in and taking off his arm at the shoulder.  

I could feel the energy changing in Ed’s living room while the scene unfolded, as I continued to reject easy out after easy out to escalate the situation further. My friends went from victorious to confused to fairly wigged-out, and yet Canno continued to resist the happy ending until he was physically incapable of going on. And he did this because he decided he would rather die than believe in something again. 

I could feel myself becoming taut, having no idea what was going to happen, desperately hoping that Canno would survive this but unable to let him do anything but plummet towards his death. Even afterwards, he remained unrepentant, laughing to the point of tears at the absurdity of doing all that only to fail to die again. Now he was crippled, but still deadly, still chained to his past and his future, doomed to choose wrong again and again while others suffered from his mistakes.

Eventually, the conflict was resolved, and I played that game for another year with only one arm, eventually becoming the reluctant hero that our stories crave. For his part, Canno was forced to reckon with the simple fact that the world continued to spin. He had failed to die again, and he was going to have to reckon with a world that would not release him of his burdens no matter his crimes and the company he kept that would not allow him to run from his mistakes.

 But even today I look back on that moment in the Deadwood and think: “What the hell was that?”  Why wasI so dead-set on doing the math for Canno’s character, even when that math led me into open confrontation in such a silly, cooperative game? I feel embarrassed that I cared so much about that moment and guilty that my friends had to deal with something they didn’t know they were signing up for. For the game, it turned out to be a fantastic choice, but I made that choice alone and for my own reasons. 

I’ve made other characters since Canno, some for longer campaigns, but he was my first, and I am convinced my best. Canno never apologized for the events in the Deadwood because he never thought he could be forgiven. But what he learned from the Deadwood was that forgiveness didn’t matter. He was beyond it, damned by every metric, but he was still here. Still alive, and still bound to a world that continued to take from him when he felt he had nothing left to give. Because, whether he thought so or not, he did have something left to give. He could be a hero not because he deserved to be but because he was what was available. And so out of resignation, Canno allowed himself to let down his guard, open himself to a world that would find him no matter where he ran, and he found people worth risking salvation for. Though he never learned to think very highly of himself, he learned to accept that there were things worth fighting for anyway.   

Because I made Canno from such a place of ignorance (remember, human fighter), I had no idea what kind of personality he would have. As we played, parts of me slid into that gap. While Canno’s journey was specific to his story, his anger was mine. I hated myself for the things I had done, and the suffering I could not change in a world that could never live up to my imagination. I was never strong enough, never smart enough, and that constant drum beat of failure drove me to strip every comforting illusion from my own life until I was paralyzed in my own head, unable to trust myself to be capable of what others allowed themselves to take for granted. Unlike Canno, I always had loved ones I could draw strength from, even live for when I could not live for myself, but in Canno’s mask of deceit I saw another version of myself. One more confident, perhaps, but no less scared. One who could no longer accept that happiness could come from a lie, and yet had no faith in the truth to replace it. 

I’d like to say that through DnD, I learned to love myself again, but I didn’t. This wasn’t therapy, it was a game I played with my friends every couple of weeks for a few hours that ended more than six years ago. I still play DnD, and I still love it, but no character I’ve played has ever come close to the stress of playing Canno, nor the reward I felt for earning him a happier ending. As much as fantasy can seem like the real world, it is not, and I have never had Canno’s audacity for good and ill. I have talked to my friends and my parents about what I was going through,  but I’m not sure I will ever be able to trust myself again. What I owe Ajax Canno is that on one night in 2017, I believed he wanted to be something better than he was, and even today, I think that is possible. Because after all I put Canno through, everything he experienced and the damage he did, I left him less of an asshole than when I found him.



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