As most gamers know by now, this year marks the 40th Anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. I couldn’t possibly sum up everything D&D has meant to me as both a gamer and a person in just one post. So I’m not going to try. All through 2014 I’ll have a series of posts about D&D: my history playing the game, its influence on me, funny and potentially libellous anecdotes. But to start, here is a piece I wrote over five years ago about my introduction to the game which would change my life. Set the TARDIS for 1980 and hold on…
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Bio of a Gaming Geek
Chapter One: The Beginning
October, 1980. A Monday. I remember it was Monday, because at the tender age of ten I found it odd that anyone did anything on a Monday night. It was late fall in Fort McMurray, which meant there was already a foot of snow on the ground and I had started wearing the parka that would be my coat de jour for the next seven months. I was trudging my way to the library, unaware of how much my life is about to be irrevocably altered.
That snowy Monday night in October was my first exposure to a little game called Dungeons & Dragons.
As many life-changing moments do, this one began innocently enough. Some days earlier I was with my mom at the library, picking up my “weekly” supply of books. My mother, for draconian reasons of her own, restricted me to weekly trips to the library. This was for my own good; left to my own devices I would do nothing in my free time but read. The maximum number of books I was permitted to sign out from the library as a juvenile was eight, which taught me two things at an early age: sometimes rules are just dumb, and delayed gratification is not all it is cracked up to be.
So during my weekly oratory against the injustices of public library management, I notice my mother no longer paying attention to me. Curious as to what could possibly be more important than her eldest child’s merest rambling, I look over at the bulletin board she is perusing. While she stands enthralled with some “For Sale” ad or other, a posting catches my eye. It’s the artwork that grabs me, and I recognize it as the cover for a copy of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, which I had finished re-reading just last week. Then I start reading the poster. Role-playing game? Wizards and warriors? Storytelling? I have no idea any of that is, but it has the King Arthur stamp of approval. It looks like it could be fun. Plus whatever it is is being run here at the library, by one of the librarians. My Mom will let me go, because it is bound to be educational (everything that happens in a library is, by my Mom’s reckoning, educational). And it gets me amongst my beloved books one more time during the week; even if it sucks, I can go read.
Having hatched my diabolical plan for bibliophile domination, I swiftly put it into action. I oh-so-casually pointed out the notice, and allowed that, as much as it would be a terrible imposition on my time, attending the event might provide some slight diversion. My mother read the notice over, then checked with the librarian to make sure that a ten year old was welcome at the event. Blast! That might be the sticking point, the flaw in my cunningly crafted plan. For reasons beyond my understanding, there were some things that I was not allowed to do because I just hadn’t put in enough time. As far as I was concerned this was just an example of the adult-parental complex trying to keep me from fun.
But fate, often so cruel in a young boy’s life, smiled upon me this day. The librarian explained that kids my age were not only allowed but encouraged to take part. I was so elated by my unwitting accomplice’s aid, I ignored the kid part. Despite my mother’s standard “We’ll see”, I knew I had succeeded. Sweet library action would be mine!
And thus I found myself trudging through the snow towards the library, the keen anticipation of a few illicit hours with my books (yes, mine) driving me onward. I had already dismissed the event itself as nothing of import, and was planning the best use of my time once inside the library. There were a few books in the children’s section I wanted to read first, then on to the sci-fi juveniles. Once I was finished there, I could…All too soon, I was passing through the doors, and into the warm embrace of my “second” home.
Removing the shell of clothing that protected me from Fort McMurray’s Hoth-like environment (I had seen The Empire Strikes Back that summer which led to several winters of imagining Fort Mac as a rebel outpost on Hoth, despite a disappointing lack of tauntauns), I used the moments usually wasted by this chore to survey the terrain. Yes, yes, this would be doable, I could even see some books that weren’t there the last time. But first, I guess I should at least put in an appearance at this thing. That way, under later interrogation by my mother, I wouldn’t have to lie. Not completely, anyway.
I made my way to the activity room, ignoring the siren call of the stacks (soon, my pretties, soon). Running this thing in the activity room was already strike one. Every kid knew that nothing fun happened in there; it was the domain of “educational films” and “reading camps”. My mother enrolled me in one of that last, just once. I had an immediate and violent allergic reaction to anyone forcing me to read something I didn’t want to, which spread quickly to the other kids. It was suggested to my mother that “reading camps might not stimulate Brent’s imagination enough”, and my time as a biblio-Spartacus was at an end.
But as I entered the room, fearing the worst, some of that old familiar dread went away. No film projector for one thing, so that was a good sign. Steve, the librarian that was obviously in charge of things tonight, saw me at the door and directed me to grab a seat at the table. There were about a half-dozen other kids, sharing books and scribbling things down on various sheets of paper. Paper? Pencils? Wait a minute, I’ve been tricked! Where’s the board, the little plastic or wood pieces? This isn’t a game at all, it’s some sort of…it’s homework! Well, to hell with you, Librarian Steve, I’m not going to sit here and do homework like a chump. I began slowly sliding out of my chair, one eye on Steve the Betrayer lest he catch me making a break for the library proper.
“Hey, Brent! I didn’t know you were into D&D too.” My current best friend from school, Kevin, grabbed the seat next to me. Kevin and I did pretty much everything together, including a few things that we instinctively knew our mothers never needed to know. I mean, it isn’t dangerous to jump your bike over an old sewer culvert, it’s only dangerous if you fail. (Mothers just don’t understand that)
“What’s D&D?” I asked him by way of hello.
“Dungeons and Dragons? You know, the game we’re here to play?” Right, I had forgotten about the so-called game in the flush of my fight-flight response. Hmmm…well, I’d never known Kevin to particularly like homework, maybe there was something here I was missing. So I let him take me through some arcane ritual called “character creation”, and endured the flood of mystical mumbo-jumbo he began spouting. Hit points, armour class, THAC0 (“Which some of the kids call THAC-zero, but that’s so lame”), alignment…as Kevin helped me make scribbles on a sheet of paper, I tried valiantly to assimilate this barrage of new terms and strange usages. Great Obi-wan’s Ghost, what kind of game took this kind of preparation? I mean, I trusted Kevin, but this had better pay off or I would seriously consider changing the password on our tree fort. Maybe some time trapped outside while the Empire was attacking would set him straight.
Once we finished that process it was time to play the game, and one thing became clear almost immediately: I would not be changing that password.
Steve starting spinning his intricately woven tapestry of adventure (which I’m sure was something as simple as, “You guys are in a town on the border of a kingdom, and nearby there is a dungeon that needs to be cleared of monsters. Do you go?”) and we were off! I was brave Sir Arthur (the king had to start somewhere, right?), a newly-dubbed knight valiantly defending the world from evil (the fact that we were defending the world from evil by going to evil’s home, kicking in their door and taking their stuff wasn’t a conundrum I would consider until much later). At that moment we were the Good Guys of Much Goodliness, and if defending the world from Most Vile Evilness meant pulling off a series of armed B&Es, then by all the Gods Great and Small that is what we would do. Huzzah!
That was at 7:15 pm. By 7:25 Sir Arthur was dead, victim of foul kobolds and their insidious net trap. I was despondent! What had I done wrong? Now my character was dead, and I probably had to leave or something. So overwhelming was my grief and despair, that I never even considered going into the library to read. How could mere stories, simple words on a page, compare to this? Any schmuck could read a book. I was living it! Except that I wasn’t anymore, my avatar in that world having met a horrible and ignoble end.
Luckily for me, the game and Kevin seemed to have a solution. “Here,” he said, handing me the book. “Just roll up another character. Steve will fit you in when you finish.” Could it be that easy? I flashed through the five stages of grief for poor, fallen Sir Arthur in the time it took me to create Anathriel, Elf Warrior/Mage and Defender of the Woodland Vales, and I was back in the game! Elves were cool; they could fight and cast spells. That was obviously the flaw in my poor, pathetic knight. After all, if the game uses magic, I should too, right? Anathriel was the obvious solution, a character to last the ages! And the ages ended at about 7:43.
The rest of that night passed in a haze of brave adventure, hurried eulogizing, and even more hurried character creation. I left only reluctantly, and then only because Steve turned out the lights (it was an embarrassment to me that, as much as I loved the place, I couldn’t stand to be in a darkened library). I recounted my courageous deeds to my parents while getting ready for bed. Though they hid it well behind the same veneer of tolerant boredom they used when I described every story I read, I could tell that they were suitably impressed by my exploits.
Impressed enough for my mother to allow me to go back, week after week, month after month. The numbers of kids grew, until we were storming the caverns of The Keep on the Borderlands with a veritable army of adventurers, sometimes twenty strong. We were not so much a “merry band” of adventurers, more a merry, angry mob. Looking back, I’m surprised the monsters didn’t just run when they heard us coming. But eventually we cleared out that dungeon, and Steve directed us to other locales in our shared world. It seemed there was an epidemic of small, out-of-the-way towns and villages suffering from dungeon infestation, just waiting for our mob to come along and clear them out.
This pattern continued for a while, as I mastered the nuances of the game. Steve was our Dungeon Master until there were just too many of us to easily handle at one table. Then he deputized some of the more experienced players, and we had several groups of stalwart heroes bravely committing home-invasions and robbing tombs all across the world (which I later discovered was called “Greyhawk”. Gawd, even the name of the world was cool!). Steve ran our club until about the time I entered junior high school, and then moved away. By that time I was playing with my friends at home, and sometimes at school where one of the teachers turned out to be a Dungeon Master as well. And then I discovered Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and that sealed my fate as a geek and ensured I would not feel the touch of a woman until Grade 10. Luckily, it meant I wouldn’t really care about the touch of a woman until then, either.
Looking back on it, I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I had not discovered Dungeons and Dragons. It was such a seminal event in my life, giving rise to so many of the other decisions and interests that filled my adolescence, that I cannot picture the person I would have become without it. I know that, for anyone not hooked into the role-playing game experience, it might seem like I’m overstating the game’s importance. But when I say this game changed my life, it isn’t hyperbole, just simple fact.
Consider my reading habits. I was a voracious reader, it’s true. But I was very prejudiced about what I wanted to read, and the thought of reading just to learn or that learning could be enjoyable was anathema to me. But Dungeons and Dragons changed that; suddenly, there were things I wanted to know more about, even if just to know more about something than one of my peers. That led to me reading books on subjects I would normally have never touched. Over the years that range of reading has grown to include, but is not limited to: history (various periods covering approx. 6000 years of human existence), mythology (slanted towards Western myths, but with a smattering of everyone else), comparative anthropology, linguistic history, music theory and history, history of warfare (various periods, including methods, materials, and tactics), political science, psychology, sociology, macro- and micro-economics, forensics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, logic, game theory, grammar, survey of literature (several periods, several cultures), philosophy, comparative theology, biology, animal behaviour, wilderness survival, agriculture, history of cooking, painting, art history, leatherworking, woodworking…the list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the point. I studied everything on this list because of D&D and the other role-playing games that followed. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on any of these subjects. But barring an individual who has specialized in one of them, I probably know more about them than a high school grad with three years of college could honestly be expected to know.
And then there are the less tangible things that D&D taught me, like developing imagination, storytelling skills, socialization (a thing not usually associated with D&D, but true nonetheless), problem solving, active listening, acting/speaking skills. Of course there are other ways to gain these skills, but what one activity will grant you experience in all of them at once? Add to that the number of people I’ve had the privilege and the misfortune (add diplomacy to the list) to meet through the game over the years, and the gains column starts to look very full indeed.
And if all of that isn’t enough, then suffice it to say that I have derived more simple joy playing this game over the last
27 35 years than I have in a great many other activities so far. Not bad for a chance meeting in a library check-out line, eh?
Now, why don’t you snag that rulebook, and we’ll see about rolling you up a character. See, the nearby town of Ashenford is suffering from an infestation of kobolds, and they need a brave adventurer or three to come clean them out…