D&D and Me
My first experience of tabletop role-playing games - commonly referred to as D&D (even though that was, strictly-speaking, merely the abbreviated form of the proprietary name belonging to the most popular RPG) - came about, essentially, because of a quarrel with a friend over a girl. My best friend in my first couple of years at university was ‘Bristol Boy’ Jeff. It was his romance with Carolyn, the girl who would later become his wife - a girl whom I also fancied - that led, for a time, to a pronounced cooling in our friendship. It resulted in my seeking out other friends, living on the opposite side of campus.
Initially, the common denominator I shared with these new friends was one that I had also shared with Jeff, Carolyn and my original circle of university friends: we were all members of the Christian Union.
But even by the time I was getting to know them, they (like me) were becoming somewhat discontented with the evangelical certitudes of the CU. And, one night, I discovered that most of them had an abiding interest in a hobby that was decidedly frowned upon in conservative evangelical Christian circles.
They were role-players.
Role-playing had first burst onto the indoor gaming scene as an offshoot of miniature war-gaming, with the launch of the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. When I was at grammar school, between 1977 and 1982, there was an after-school war-gaming club which also hosted some role-playing. A couple of the boys in my class attended: but at the time I had no particular interest in it myself, and so the increasing popularity of role-playing as we entered the Eighties initially passed me by.
Probably the first time I ever had a glimpse of a game in action was when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982. An early scene in the film shows the central character of Elliott, his older brother, and his brother’s friends, all playing a game of D&D. (Interestingly, Spielberg had run a D&D session himself for the young cast members prior to the production of the film). It’s not a long scene in the film, and at the time I certainly didn’t attach any particular significance to it. My own first encounter with role-playing was still four years away…
It’s strange, in a way, given my love of both fantasy and science-fiction - the two most popular milieus for early role-playing games - that it took me so long to become a role-player myself. The most likely reason for this, looking back, is the rather more conservative Christian viewpoint, on all manner of issues, to which I adhered in my mid to late teens. This was the early to mid-Eighties, the time of the most pronounced ‘moral panic’ about role-playing games, and their supposed ‘dark side’. As well as E.T., with its positive - or, at least, neutral - portrayal of RPGs, 1982 was also the year in which the preachy and antagonistic Mazes and Monsters was released. The film starred a young Tom Hanks (in his first leading movie role), as a young college student who suffers from psychotic episodes that are supposedly brought on by his obsessional interest in role-playing. Subtle? It was not.
And so it was, one evening in 1986, that I had my own ‘initiation’ into the strange world of role-playing. It was a Friday night, and I was at a loose end. I went and knocked on the door of my friend Gary, who happened to have the largest student flat in his particular hall of residence. It had become a natural place to hang out for me and a number of other friends. And that evening, I discovered a bunch of them huddled around a coffee table in his flat, covered with graph paper on which a make-shift plan had been drawn. Small miniature figures were positioned on the paper. Next to the figures were some peculiar dice - not the usual 6-sided cubes which I normally associated with board games, but a pair of polyhedrons with 20 sides each. In their hands, Gary and the others were holding sheets of paper which seemed to be filled with a bewildering plethora of statistics. It all seemed most mysterious.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, curious.
‘We’re playing a role-playing game,’ replied Gary. He looked slightly shamefaced, as if I had caught him and the others in the act of indulging some esoteric vice. Then he added the words that were to really perk my interest. ‘It’s set in Middle-earth, the world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Have you read it?’
Had I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnus opus? What kind of daft question was that? It was only my favourite novel of all time, after all, the very pinnacle of the mountain of works of fantasy and science-fiction that I had ploughed through during my teenage years.
‘Of course I’ve read it. So,’ I continued, ‘you’re playing D&D?’ Now I’ve got it, I thought to myself. This is a session of the fabled Dungeons and Dragons in progress.
But Gary shook his head, and explained that no, this wasn’t D&D. Not as such. There were many different role-playing games, operating with different game mechanics, and set in different milieus. This particular game was called Middle-earth Role Playing - MERP for short. It was a game tailor-made for Tolkien’s fantasy world. Players could play dwarves or elves, humans or hobbits, undertaking together chivalrous and daring quests, battling orcs and trolls, wargs and giant spiders, even perhaps a dragon or a Balrog; all lovingly crafted and carefully adjudicated by the referee, or game-master.
The next words from my mouth almost took me by surprise - let alone Gary.
‘Can I play?’
‘Well– ’ Gary hesitated for a moment, and looked across the room. ‘That’s not really for me to decide - what do you think, Tom?’
Tom was the one there that night whom I knew best. He - like my now-estranged best friend Jeff - was on my course, so I saw him in lectures several days a week. He was a short, softly-spoken and somewhat shy young man. I was surprised that Gary - a confident, charismatic and even slightly domineering individual - should be deferring to him, especially as they were all sat in Gary’s flat. I noted that Tom was sitting at another table, slightly set apart from the others, pencil in hand, with what appeared to be a couple of rule-books, and reams of hand-written notes. On his table was another pair of the strange, 20-sided dice, a box containing a jumble of miniature figures, more pencils and an eraser.
‘Tom’s the GM - our game-master,’ explained Gary. ‘It’s his campaign we’re playing. It’s his call whether or not you can join.’
I looked expectantly at Tom.
‘Well,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘This is merely the second session of the campaign, and we only started half an hour ago. I suppose we could shoehorn you in - it would be better with four characters, actually. But I don’t have time to explain the rules - you’ll just have to muddle along for tonight. And we don’t have time for you to roll up a new character either. I’ve got some pregenerated PCs - those are player characters that come with their game stats already prepared. What kind of character would you like?’
‘What’s everyone else playing?’ I asked.
And so, briefly, I was introduced to the other characters. Matt had created for himself a laid-back mattock-wielding warrior dwarf of very few words. Phil’s character was a hobbit - but a rather serious ninja-scout who was a lethal dab-hand with a sling, far-removed from the rather more jolly Shire-dwellers of Tolkien’s novel. Finally, there was Gary’s character. He was a noble, though slightly down-on-his-luck Dúnadan ranger - a high man of the same stock as Tolkien’s heroic king-in-waiting Aragorn. His character was clearly the de facto leader of the group, a role with which Gary himself seemed very comfortable.
‘Can I play a hobbit?’ I pleaded.
Tom smiled. ‘Perfect. The party are about to arrive at a small hobbit community. They are taking refuge there, having just survived a combat with some wargs in the wilderness. The dwarf– ’ he gestured towards Matt, ‘was badly wounded. They’ll need to rest for a few days. It’s the ideal way to introduce your new character, if we make him a member of this community. I say “him” - but of course it needn’t be him. Do you want to play a male or female character?’
I was surprised at the question. The idea of playing a female character hadn’t occurred to me - and seemed downright odd.
‘Um - definitely male.’ I looked at the others in the room. ‘You’re all playing male characters, after all, yes?’
Indeed they were. As I was to discover, female role-players are almost as rare in gaming circles as female dwarves are in Tolkien’s works. The only time our group included the occasional female character was when one or two of the more confident players were willing to play against gender. Matt was the first to try his hand at this, playing a supplementary character for a time alongside his dwarf, a female healer of noble birth. She was a Maid Marian of sorts to Phil’s new secondary character, a complex wandering minstrel (possessing elements drawn from both Robin Hood and Alan-a-Dale) with a shady past. I always stuck to playing male characters. When I eventually had a go at GMing, I found myself perfectly at ease devising and controlling female as well as male non-player-character roles: but that was nothing like as intense as seeking to inhabit the skin of your own player-character.
And so I acquired my first character - a hobbit who I deliberately made a more exaggerated version of the fun-loving halflings of the Shire - a kind of cross between Merry and Pippin, with a penchant for pink pantaloons - in contrast to the darker, brooding and slightly sinister personality that Phil had developed for his hobbit. We might have come from the same race, but from the outset we weren’t particularly friendly towards one another, as characters. We later found out Phil’s character was actually in thrall to an evil magician; duly liberated, he developed a much more likeable personality, as far as the rest of the adventuring party were concerned. Gary’s noble Dúnadan was far more straightforwardly heroic, and counterbalanced Matt’s somewhat cynical, anti-heroic dwarf rather well. Their characters clearly had a strong affection for one another (even though they would have denied it), and in so doing they mirrored Gary and Matt’s long friendship - both had attended the same grammar school before coming to university.
I bumbled along, as best I could, having the most important rules explained to me along the way. Despite the initial strangeness of it all, I was soon immersed. Tom was a consummate storyteller, and very skilled at describing each scene. The combat sequences were thrilling, and it was made very clear to me that it was perfectly possible - either because of a poor choice on my part, or simply through an unlucky roll of the dice - for my hobbit character to come to a sticky end. There was no script immunity at work. And if we were to have our best chance of survival, then we had to work together.
Thus I began to have an insight into the moral value of role-playing games - in complete contrast to the hysterical nonsense spouted about them by religious fundamentalists. At their very best, role-playing games teach the importance of cooperation and problem-solving, and encourage their participants to take on the mantles of heroes. And that first night, I remembered that our adventure was taking place in Middle-earth: even if only in a small way, we were playing our part in the great struggle against the Shadow that was Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself. We were following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien, inspired to let our imaginations run riot within the world he had brought into being. What could be a finer way to apply our creativity than this?
We’d been playing for an hour or so when another knock came at the door. Another friend, Ken, had cycled round to Gary’s flat. He - like myself - was curious to see what was going on. Fortunately for our poor game-master Tom (who thanks to me had already been forced that evening to accommodate one new character into his campaign), Ken wasn’t interested in taking on a role for himself. He was content to watch, quietly amused by the unfolding drama of Tom’s storytelling, and our engagement with it.
At about three o’clock in the morning, my first ever game session concluded (on a suitably thrilling cliffhanger). Ken had given up and ridden home by now; but the rest of us, ravenous, headed off to where we knew a burger van would still be open, supplying hungry (and often drunk) students with sustenance well into the early hours. We weren’t drunk - we’d been imbibing from a deeper, richer draft, I reflected in a heady moment, as I munched upon my double-dog with cheese, mustard and fried onions.
I borrowed a rule-book from Tom - I was determined that by our next session I would be fully-familiar with the rules. A few days later, I felt ready to roll up a secondary character to my hobbit hero - one whose characteristics I could tweak and shape for myself. A Beorning shape-changer, this first character I’d devised from scratch was also the first of our characters to come to a bloody and untimely end, after only a few sessions. Thus I learnt, early on, what Tom had warned me, right from the beginning: in good role-playing, there is no script immunity. Just like life itself.
Over the next few weeks, two other friends who were also gamers joined our group: Jack, who was interested in all things Oriental, and usually played warrior-heroes with a strong moral code, somewhat akin to the bushido ethics of Japanese samurai; and Tristan, who unlike the rest of us was a postgraduate student, and a devout Roman Catholic. He chose to play a Gondorian ranger-prince, the most high-born of the ten player characters that featured at one time or another in our MERP campaign.
As our band of adventurers grew, so our exploits became more epic, taking on a grander, more mythic turn. We travelled far and wide across Middle-earth. Our enemies became more dangerous: we moved on from fighting orcs, petty rogues and cutthroats to battling malign spirits, Nazgûl and even a water-demon (a terrifying adversary who succeeded in immolating one of Jack’s two MERP characters, a largely self-taught mage from a commoner background, by reflecting one of his own fireball spells back against him). One of our most colourful foes was a malevolent sorcerer from the royal line of the Northern Kingdom of the Dúnedain, who was originally designed as a one-shot opponent, but who ended up becoming a formidable returning villain. And then there was the adventure in which my happy-go-lucky hobbit had a momentous encounter with a lost Silmaril - one of the wondrous jewels that gave their name to Tolkien’s posthumously-published final great work, The Silmarillion. It was an incident that utterly changed him, every bit as much as Frodo was transformed by the burden of bearing the One Ring.
Over time, most of us took our turn at game-mastering. Sometimes we used published scenarios from gaming magazines; more often, our adventures were of the GM’s own devising. We were the Magnificent Seven - one game-master, six players. We started playing other RPGs besides MERP: science-fiction games like Traveller, Star Trek and the darkly comic and dystopian Paranoia; superhero games like Champions and Golden Heroes (where my character was a reincarnated Welsh druid with magical powers); the wonderful steampunk Space 1889; fantasy games like Rolemaster, Runequest and - even - D&D itself. But you never forget your first love, they say - and my affection for MERP remained, long after we stopped playing it on a regular basis.
The following academic year, we moved into student digs together (all except for Phil, who unfortunately was kicked off his course at the end of his second year). We had obtained a house for seven: and in place of Phil, it was Ken who joined us - our token non-gamer. Ken aside, we continued role-playing. Meanwhile, I mended bridges with Jeff; and though I was never quite as close to him as previously, we became good enough friends again for him to ask me to be his best man, when he married Carolyn a year after their graduation.
In my third year at university, my father fell ill. During that year, I needed all my university friendships - old and new - more than ever. Three months after his cancer diagnosis, he passed away. In life - just like role-playing games - I was reminded: there is no script immunity. And there are some Shadows that cannot be overcome in real life, however much one might wish to change the outcome of the throw of the dice.
Towards the end of the year, I was game-mastering once again. Graduation was approaching for most of us. Our Fellowship, inevitably, would be breaking. Determined that we should go out in style, I devised one last grand scenario for our Middle-earth characters - those that were left, anyway, having not as yet perished on the battlefield, been retired (like Phil’s hobbit), or experienced elevation to quasi-immortality (the fate of my own once-humble halfling character).
The final tale was imbued with the essence of Arthurian romance. The death of my father undoubtedly played its part too, subconsciously, as I wrote the outline for By the Sword Divided, the concluding chapter of our characters’ adventures. This was to be our Le Morte d’Arthur, in which we dared to rewrite the work of the Master, Tolkien himself. Tom had taken over playing Phil’s minstrel with the mysterious past. He’d been revealed in previous chapters to be the bastard scion of a noble Dúnadan house, and had become an inadvertent kin-slayer, twice-over. His impetuosity and arrogance now became the trigger for a cataclysmic civil war, and the downfall - three hundred years earlier in the timeline than Tolkien had envisaged - of the Northern Kingdom. Talk about destroying canon...
I played Holst, Orff, Mahler and Wagner in the background as the battle-scenes on The Field of Lost Dreams played out. I’d deliberately stacked the odds against the characters, and one after another, their inevitable deaths came. Matt’s laconic dwarf, his mattock buried deep in the chest of the dread Black Reaver that he and Jack’s bushido-warrior had vanquished together, at the cost of their own lives. Gary’s Dúnadan stalwart, going down against a dozen foes still yielding Ologcrist, ‘Trollbane’, the wondrous sword that had once been gifted to him by Glorfindel of Rivendell.
Finally, there remained the kin-slaying bard, facing his hateful and treacherous father as he had once faced his two brothers. ‘Come, father, let us embrace,’ intoned Tom grimly, with impeccable timing, quoting Mordred’s last line from John Boorman’s wondrous 1981 film Excalibur. It was the concluding combat. The dice practically rolled themselves.
One character alone survived, to tell the tale - Tristan’s Gondorian prince, remaining just like Bedivere, the last of Arthur’s knights left standing on the field of Camlann, as the blood-red sun disappeared beneath the horizon. The curtain had descended on the most complex, and involved, role-playing campaign I had ever been part of. It was our Götterdämmerung. And it was glorious.
Forty years have passed since E.T. came out, giving me my first glimpse of role-playing. And now, the fourth series of Stranger Things is about to be released - a nostalgic television drama series set in the 1980s, the very first episode of which, just like E.T., practically opens with a group of teenage boys playing D&D. I was a few years late coming to that particular party myself - and it’s been five years now since I last played in an ongoing campaign (the sad reality of friends moving away, and drifting apart, is something that gamers and non-gamers alike would recognise). But I still have enormous affection for the friendships forged and strengthened across a graph paper map of caves and dungeons, strewn with miniatures representing heroes and monsters, and dice of a variety of shapes - some with 20 sides, others with 12, or 10, or 8, or 4 or even common-or-garden 6 sides.
Maybe, one day, I’ll pick up those dice again. I’ll generate a character or two. I’ll find some friends, and go adventuring again. I’ll open the doorway, and I’ll see what paths our imaginations can take us down, once more.
Though somehow - without the three o’clock in the morning, post-session trek to the burger van - it will never quite be the same.