It started innocently enough.
It was 10th January 1981. My parents, knowing that my brother was a fiend for Tolkien, bought him a new game for his birthday. It had a dragon, a wizard and a knight on the box. That’s like the Lord of the Rings, right?
I was just shy of my 5th birthday, an obnoxiously curious little nipper and desperate to know what all the fuss was about. Holy hell! Check out those fancy dice! They were the coolest things I’d ever seen.
Now, I’d played games with dice before. My grandmother was under the impression that Pop-O-Matic games were the height of child entertainment technology, so I had played endless rounds of TROUBLE! on our many trips “Up-State”. But these dice, these dice were different.
That first night, while my brother and my dad sat at the kitchen counter trying to muddle through the rules, I sat at their feet in rapt attention. After what seemed like hours of bickering, my brother had his first character (a Level 1 Elf) and my dad had a reasonable grasp of the rules. Finally, they were ready and my father began to read.
"100 years ago, the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower on the low hills overlooking Portown."
For the next five minutes, I listened to the story unfold. Power-mad wizards. Haunted ruins.Green flame. Monsters which stalked the night. The images took hold of my young imagination like meat hooks. I had NEVER heard anything like this before.
They were halfway through the first encounter (a skeleton attack at Room B, for those of you following along at home), when my mother decided enough was enough. Animated skeletons, she felt, were a bit much for my not-quite-five-year-old brain to handle. And, as is often the case with mothers, she was correct.
I don’t remember the nightmares I had over the next week, but I know for 100% certain that they were metal as hell. They had to have been... because from that moment on, I decided I was going to be a D&D Kid. But not just any D&D Kid. I was going to be a Dungeon Master.
I wrote my first module 3 years later. I didn’t know the rules (my mum wouldn’t let me read them), and I didn’t know the setting. All I knew is there were things you drew on graph paper called Dungeons, and your friends journeyed through them killing monsters and looting cool stuff. It was 1984 and the big summer movie on at all the cinemas was Gremlins. I wasn’t allowed to go see it (too violent and scary, of course) so instead, I recreated it. The Gremlins took over my dungeon.
I still remember my first game session. I hesitate to call it “DM-ing”, or even “D&D”, because I made it up as I went along. There were no dice and no rule books. There weren't even any character sheets. The action came out of my head; if I wanted something to happen, it happened and, if not, it didn’t.
The venue was my friend Ben’s house. He and my other friend, Matt, had agreed to help me test my module. They were a bit reluctant (Matt was cross that I wouldn’t let him play a wookiee, and Ben was worried because his mum had given him a dose of the “Satanic Panic” and he thought we were summoning the devil), but, in the end, they settled down to give it a go.
It was an utter catastrophe.
They got as far as my first room. It had three gremlins in it, guarding a treasure chest. I know this, because my graph paper “map” had three gremlins and a treasure chest drawn on it in crayon. Matt demanded that I allow him to kill all three gremlins in one go, while Ben didn’t like that the gremlins had swords. (He had seen the film, you see, and was an expert in the subject of preferred gremlin weaponry.) The argument lasted just long enough for Ben’s mother to knock on the door and, immediately, all talk of dungeons and/or dragons ceased. We decided to go out and play in the sprinklers.
You would think that would put me off. But it didn’t. Instead, it stoked the flames. Matt and Ben didn’t share my vision... but some day, I would find the right group and then it would be MAGIC!
That day came in 1987. The 2nd September 1987, to be precise. That was my first day at Washington Middle School. And that was the day I discovered... the Dungeons and Dragons Club.
I had spent the intervening years brushing up on the rules. I had read the Players’ Handbook and Monster Manual back-to-front about 3 times each. I had pored over Deities and Demigods (when I was sure my mum wasn’t around because whooooooaaaa Nelly!) and I had even ventured into the Dungeon Master’s Guide... though not too deeply. To an 11-year-old, the DMG for AD&D was like a doctoral thesis.
But now I was ready. I had my story. I had my setting. I had my group and it was ON. The next several years are a blur, but I can honestly say that I played Dungeons and Dragons at LEAST three times a week for the better part of 5 years.
By the time I came up for air, sometime in the early 1990s, the world had changed. The first wave of AD&D had weathered the Satanic Panic and ushered in an entirely new era of Role Playing Games. Games which appealed to both niche interests (Paranoia) and incredibly broad interests (Rifts). TSR, once quite literally “the only game in town”, was now being challenged on their home turf. And D&D wasn’t doing so hot.
2nd Edition was a fine RPG; thoughtful, well-executed, streamlined, engaging. But, to my 15-year-old mind, TSR had made one huge mistake. In a market now crowded with interdimensional slave lords, cyberpunks, battlemechs and mutant turtles who were simultaneously teenaged AND ninjas, TSR had decided to release a fantasy RPG which put a grittier, more realistic spin on fantasy. Gone was the psychedelic thrash-metal module art and, in its place, realistically-rendered chain armour and arquebuses. (Arquebi? Arquebustiam?) Somehow, it seemed... sterile.
And then White Wolf happened.
Vampire: The Masquerade was a game-changer. To hell with rules! Story was key! You could play a 230-year-old concert violinist and enjoy a story just as compelling as your friend who was playing a 19-year-old, shotgun-wielding gang member!
It blew my mind. Vampire, and even more so its sibling Werewolf: The Apocalypse, surfaced at a time when I was questioning my world. I was looking at my elders and saying,“really?” I was going to church and feeling out of place. I was longing for danger, and drama, and sex, and a little bit of chaos.
Dungeons and Dragons, like an old toy, went onto the ash-heap of my youth. I got rid of all of it, or rather, my mum did. I had “put away childish things”. Now I was tragically hip and angry; but not angry enough to mess up my perfectly-tousled hair. It was a decision I regret to this day.
The World of Darkness held me in its sinister thrall for many years and, in the end, it was they who ended the relationship.They blew it up, you see. The brought their own world to an end... following through on a decade of apocalyptic prophecy by actually going through with the apocalypse. The entire world was wrapped up, and I was left in the lurch.
Things in the real world were exploding, as well... and as a newly-minted member of the United States Air Force, it was my duty to facilitate some of said explosions whilst attempting to prevent others. Being an active participant in two major military operations naturally cut into my roleplaying schedule, and I snatched at escapism in small doses. Video games, particularly MMORPGs, helped me to escape and gave me back some of the social structure I had lost when the World of Darkness ended. But computer games never quite scratched the itch.
As time went on, I spent more and more stolen moments attempting to re-ignite my love for RPGs. I tried dozens of systems... from Legend of the Five Rings to Deadlands. I even played in an enjoyable 3rd edition D&D campaign whilst on deployment to... someplace warmer.
Then one day, a gamer buddy got in touch. He had an attic full of old 1st and 2nd Edition D&D books that he was looking to clear out, and wondered if I wanted them. For some reason I said yes, and a few weeks later I found myself sat at the gaming table, running the first game of 1st Edition D&D I had run in over 20 years. And it felt really, really good.
Little by little, Dungeons and Dragons came back into my life. That fumbling return to 1st Edition became an entire campaign that ended around the time 5th Edition hit the shelves. Having read good things about the D&D Next project, my wife and I decided to pick it up. After successfully running a newbie party through the Lost Mines of Phandelver, we splashed out for the Core Books. A series of one-shot holiday games followed and the momentum built. D&D was, I realised, was something I wanted back in my life. I needed it. I missed the world-building, the collaborative creation, the pure imagination of it all. Those other games were good, well-written and often compelling but, at heart, I was still a D&D Kid.
Critical Role gets the credit for finally luring me wholly back into the fold. It showed me the game I had dismissed so many years ago as tired and dull could be just as vibrant and exciting as I, the Dungeon Master, wanted it to be. My adventures could have the atmosphere and emotional depth of Vampire and Werewolf. They could have the breathless action I’d found in computer games. And, as in MMORPGs, they could bring people together, forging friendships between diverse players who may otherwise never meet.
But most of all, my return to Dungeons and Dragons has helped me rediscover me. It has given me the tools to claw my way back through decades of discontent, fear, cynicism and selfishness. This game, little more than a stack of books, some paper, and some really awesome-looking dice, has helped me channel that 8-year-old kid again, drawing gremlins on graph paper and sharing adventures with his friends.
- Kevin the DM
25 August 2018