Wednesday, 30 September 2015

One man and his d20 (Part 1)

Someone once said to me that when it came to roleplaying, my house was a shrine to D&D.

I think he meant it a little disparagingly, but all it did was fill me with pride.

Damn straight it is.

Like many others, my first taste of fantasy role-playing was the Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone Fighting Fantasy game-books. The first one I played, ironically, was Starship Traveller, bought as part of a school scheme to encourage us to read outside of the class-room (can you imagine a game-book being part of such a scheme now?!).

Traveller was one of the hardest and least rewarding of the series, but it certainly got me interested. (By the way I absolutely refused to cheat my way through, and still, to this day, have never completed it!)

I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Afterwards, pocket money, birthdays, and Christmas were all earmarked as occasions to fill out my Fighting Fantasy collection. There was no internet to learn about release schedules. My search engine was a weekly trip to the John Menzies' book department.

That period ended with Sword of the Samurai, the last Fighting Fantasy book I ever bought. It had been an exciting ride, cresting with the superlative Sorcery! series. This was a four-part, super-sized, standalone series which brought proper role-playing sensibilities to the Fighting Fantasy framework, including multiple classes, spell-books, and a character which persisted throughout all four books and advanced in capability. I couldn't get enough of those books and replayed them constantly. Little did I know that the groundwork was being laid for a better understanding of what was to come (was that your plan, Mr. Jackson? Insidious!)

By then, something had happened at school which was to mark the end of my love-affair with Fighting Fantasy and permit my graduation into an altogether "higher" form of role-playing. My friend Steve had asked me, one bored lunch-time, if I fancied playing this thing called "Dungeons and Dragons". I'd never heard of it, but like I said, I was restless, it sounded pretty cool, and because it was pissing down outside, the alternative was a lonesome wondering of the school corridors until the bell went.

In one of the first-floor classrooms where we were allowed to spend our lunch-times, he introduced me to half-a-dozen people I had never met before. They were sitting around a table piled with lunch-boxes, bits of paper, and weird-looking dice with too many sides.

It was a great game, with friendly people. I can still visualize some of the die rolls I made with that original, crayoned set of dice, lazily reclined in the manner of a nervous ten year-old trying to look cool in front of the older kids. I don't know for sure, but I like to imagine I rolled my first ever natural-20 on that desk.

More games followed. A couple of birthday presents furnished me with the necessary equipment to build my own PC's. Squared paper, readily available wherever there was double-Maths or Geography, started to pile up in my Basic D&D Red Box. Endless lines and right-angles, describing deathtrap dungeons all of my own.

But I hadn't yet summoned the courage to run my own game. We had a couple of DM's back then, running the usual dungeon crawls or gladiatorial PvP contests between hopelessly mismatched characters (but who cared?). Like my fiends, I thought DM'ing was a mystical calling, requiring encyclopedic knowledge of the rules and extreme roleplaying skills. I had a friend who could give me the page number of literally any rule in the book. How could I compete with that? Whenever I was asked, I turned it down.

Then one morning, before registration, three of my friends wanted to pit their PC's against Tiamat and needed someone to adjudicate. Just your average pre-registration apocalyptic show-down. The usual show-runners were absent or uninterested, so like Doc Brown soon after, I figured, what the hell?

The setting: a flame-wreathed cave deep in the Abyss. The combatants: two PC's with awesome (and entirely illegal) weapons of their own design. Their foe: the Queen of Dragons, Tiamat herself! Fight!

"I cast earthquake!" said one of the the guys, scooping up his dice. This person's name was Jason, and he had equipped his Magic User with Hank's bow from the D&D cartoon.

Different times.

"Er, okay," I answered, getting ready to make Tiamat's saving throw...

But then something occurred to me.

"Earthquake? Are you sure?"


"Okay, roll damage."

Clatter! The dice were cast!

"Okay, so Tiamat staggers back--"


"--and then the cavern starts to collapse."

"What? No it doesn't."

"Sure it does. You just cast earthquake in an underground cavern. The roof's falling. Take--" (clatter) "--25 damage."

"But-- Expletive!"

It maybe doesn't sound like it, but that was a big moment for me. It's why I remember it with a kind of religious clarity. Not only was my young ego greatly enriched by the fact that I had done something new and unexpected and had caught those guys out, but I knew I had become more than just the dice-rolling monkey behind the DM's screen.

I had engaged my imagination, considered the situation, and concluded that doing something so stupid should have consequences. I had been an actual Dungeon Master.

And then, even though the bell probably went off and terminated the fight more effectively than any five-headed demi-god, I like to think that I asked the question that separates role-playing games from all other forms of entertainment:

"What do you want to do now?"

I might as well have been asking myself that question, because from that moment, I was absolutely hooked.

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