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[This is the third part of my autobiographical "Growing Up Geeky" series - click to read "Part I: Prehistory" and "Part II: The Early Years." (I know: the second half of the "Part II" post is missing. I've skipped ahead a bit here, but rest assured: the Star Wars/Atari-years post will be here - some day.)]
A recent post at Grognardia got me thinking about my first days in the hobby. As I get older, I find I have more trouble remembering things, especially the days of my youth. Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to get this portion of the "Growing Up Geeky" series down - before I lose the memories all together. So, to that end, here's a meandering piece of personal history/nostalgia expanded from my comments on James' blog post:
As with most aspects of my childhood (growing up as a nerd in rural NY) I learned to role play (Dungeons and Dragons, of course) in a vacuum. I was raised in farm country, several miles from the nearest town. I had friends, but they lived in town, so I couldn't just hop on my bike and go over to their houses (and vice versa) whenever I wanted to hang out. Trips to each others' houses were planned excursions, and were becoming more infrequent by the beginning of the 1980's. (This infrequency was partially due to growing older, but also partially my fault, as after being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in December of 1980, I'd suddenly become inexplicably uncomfortable spending the night at my best friend's house. To this day, I can't explain it...)
I had no other friends nearby, as all of the kids who lived closer to me were just that: "kids." (One just didn't consort with a schoolmate more than a grade - two at most - lower than oneself. That sort of thing was simply bad form.)
The seclusion wasn't something I gave much thought to, however. I'd been raised with it, and I'd become very adept at keeping myself entertained. Furthermore, I had my nephew, John, to keep me company on a regular basis through the later 70's and early 80's. Although I call my friend Brian Z. my "best friend," the truth of the matter is that John was my best friend through most of my teens. He spent many summers at my house, and my brother and his family moved next door to us sometime around or shortly before 1980, IIRC, after which I saw John even more frequently. We basically grew up together.
Unfortunately, my memory of 1980 and the surrounding years has grown extremely fuzzy, so exact dates are impossible to determine. For a long time, I had thought that I'd been introduced to role playing games in 1980, but I've realized in recent years that it must have actually been 1981.
And, as I've mentioned before, my first hobby-related possession wasn't a set of D&D rules. Or any other role-playing game rules, for that matter. No, my first hobby-related possession was a D&D module: A3, "Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords."
It was originally bought as a birthday present for a friend. But my mother was curious what "this D&D thing" was all about, so before gift wrapping it she opened it and read it with my nephew and myself. Or tried to read it. I still recall finding it to be full of bizarre, unfamiliar terms and acronyms - kind of like reading a tech manual for a SR-71 or something. But it piqued my interest, and she asked if I wanted to keep it and we'd get my friend something else. (That "something else" turned out to be a "Sick" magazine that had something to do with Star Wars. I know: it's nowhere near as nice a gift. He wasn't that close a friend. :P)
Based on the fact that the aforementioned friend's birthday was in December, and that - according to the Acaeum - A3 was published in 1981, I'm guessing the date of this event was late November or early December of 1981. That crunches the timeline I'd originally envisioned for my entry into the hobby, which I'd thought had run from December 1980 to Christmas of '81. But those years have blurred with the haze of time and age, and I perceived the passage of time far differently as a youth than I do now. The days passed more slowly, then; a month then is like six months now.
Anyway, that enigmatic orange-yellow-covered book with its wonderful maps and imagination-sparking illustrations was my first step into the world of D&D. Mind you, it wasn't the first time I'd heard of the game. I'd seen and been moderately intrigued by the books in KayBee Toys in Riverside Mall*. (I was especially enthralled by the cover of Eldritch Wizardry - go figure.) So I'd known about the game for some time; it had been on my radar, but wasn't something I had any interest in.
For some reason I'll never fully comprehend, my demeanor toward the game changed drastically around mid- to late 1981. With the simple discovery that the aforementioned friend's older brother and his friends (who would have been the "freaks" if my life at that time were an episode of Freaks & Geeks) played the game, I suddenly found my interest in it blossoming. I imagine this was partially fueled by media hype surrounding D&D (the new "fad" was - it seemed - forever appearing in various news outlets back in the day), by the ever-growing line of products for the game, by the growing buzz surrounding the fantasy genre - and probably more than a little by my Hobbit-loving 8th-grade English teacher.
Shortly thereafter - according to the revised timeline - I discovered that the local lawn and garden supply/toy store (yes, they sold toys next to the riding mowers) sold the yellow-box series of Grenadier miniatures for D&D. I bought (read as: coerced my mother into buying for me) my second piece of D&D paraphernalia there: the "Specialists" boxed set.
As Christmas approached, I began to think more and more about the game. I envisioned my character (before I knew that term, as it pertains to the hobby) - the paladin from the Grenadier set - descending into a valley on a narrow path through a dense forest full of giant mushrooms**, a beautiful princess at his side as he used his gleaming sword to hew his way down the vine-choked stones. He was an elf prince himself, called "Moordow."
So, when C-Day came, it seemed like a no-brainer that D&D would be nestled under the tree. I say "seemed like" because it wasn't an unheard-of occurrence to not get what one wanted most for Christmas. Parental concern and other factors could always trump youthful desire, and such statements as "You'll shoot your eye out!" or "You'll become a Satanist!" could easily supersede a child's "I want that!" Sure enough, though, it was there - in the form of a lurid pink box bearing a brilliant Erol Otus cover.
I spent a good portion of the following days delving into the red rule book that lay within, whose fantastical illustrations made most of those in "Aerie..." look mundane by comparison. I devoured the rules, and was ready to get to playing within a few days. (It would have been less, but I also received Milton Bradley's "Dark Tower" that year, and it was a serious contender for my post-Christmas attention.)
My friend Brian had also gotten a D&D box set for Christmas, and during the Christmas break we planned for him to come over to my house so we could play our first game. I think it was either shortly before his arrival that day or the day before that my nephew and I rolled up our first characters. (I don't recall Brian being there, although it's possible my hazy memory has failed me yet again.) We made a pair each, and Moordow was of course my first.
When Brian came over, it was agreed that he'd be the Dungeon Master, as he'd read B2, "The Keep on the Borderlands" - the adventure module that had also come in that lurid pink box - and I had not. (It wasn't until many many years later that I was comfortable running prefab modules. I always made my own - I think I was afraid of screwing something up if I tried to run someone else's material.) Our four characters, and two of Brian's, embarked on their first adventure...
And it was an abysmal failure.
The newness of the idea of role playing, Brian's lack of familiarity with the role of the DM, and our uncertainty about what our characters should be doing led to the game being an awkward exercise in theft, burglary, and murder, as our characters robbed and looted everyone in the Keep. It would be several weeks before I read the module myself and discovered that we were intended to go outside the Keep and kill things... (I also think that Brian's version of the rules were part of the problem he faced as DM: he had been given the Holmes' basic set, and I did not realize at the time that it differed so fundamentally from my Moldvay set. I'm sure this contributed to the challenge he faced as first-time DM.)
We abandoned our first session of D&D after a few encounters, slightly disillusioned (at least in my case), and opted instead - I think - to play Dark Tower. But it didn't matter. My imagination had been ignited, and it would take more than a bad initial game session to deter me from enjoying the Hell out of the game. Subsequent sessions with just my nephew and myself - with me as DM/co-player, running "modules" of my own creation - fared far better.
My foray into D&D that began with an alien "adventure module" could have ended if that book had gone to its intended owner. It could have ended if I'd not received the game for Christmas. It could have ended after an initial game session of criminal mayhem.
Despite all of these possibilities, it blossomed into a lifelong hobby...
[More to come in the next post in the series: Growing Up Geeky, Part IV: The TSR Years.]
(*Ah, Riverside. Gods, how I miss that place. It was our first mall. And my first mall. So many of my late-70's childhood memories spring from within its walls. The mere mention of its name brings to mind a flood of memories: from trekking up and down its brown-tiled floors - up ramps and down stairs, past fountains and the giant clock; to lurking in Kay Bee Toys while my mother conducted her business in Ormonds, Barbara Moss, or some other woman's clothing store I couldn't stand to be in; to choosing an iron-on transfer to be steamed onto a t-shirt while we waited in Montgomery Ward (Yes, kids: transfers and tees used to come separately, and you could mix and match at will. Those were the days!); to playing my first video games in the video arcade; to taking the leisurely stroll the length of the mall, which seemed to take hours, as we shopped and window shopped, stopping at the near-halfway point to eat at Burger King. The mall was laid out in one long strip, and the concept of the food court had not reached this area prior to the mall being designed and built; food establishments were scattered around the place. My favorite was "the pizza place," but it was inconveniently located at one end, on one of the entrance wings. Thus, the more centrally located Burger King (before it became "BK" and the king went from a short, cute cartoon character to a creepy "real" person) was the establishment of choice for the lunch break on our Saturday strolls through "The Mall." Riverside was supplanted by a larger, more logically designed mall in 1980, and at the time we all thought the newcomer was better. The Mall died a slow, painful death as a result, and today it has been mostly torn down and replaced by an eyesore of a strip mall. Its rival still stands, but holds far less nostalgic value for me.)
(**I'd equated giant mushrooms with fantasy for many years, long before I'd even seen the cover to B1. In fact, I recall the exact moment when my interest in writing was sparked. It was sixth grade, and the teacher - Mr. King - assigned us a project to write our own piece of fiction. Prior to that moment, I'd never considered that as a possibility. Surely, I'd thought, writers are consummate professionals, and only achieve their status as "Writer" after long years of education and training. But suddenly, I could be a writer. And I would write science-fiction/fantasy. (The two were pretty much synonymous in those days.) In my mind's eye at that very moment, I envisioned vividly a colorful forest of giant mushrooms sprawled out beneath a black blanket dotted with glittering white stars. Yep, giant mushrooms meant fantasy, even then. Maybe it was some lingering Alice in Wonderland influence - although I'd never read that book...)
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