I remember the first time I played Dungeons and Dragons – it was the early eighties and my Dad had a copy of the Basic box set. I must have had sight of it to read before hand and read it through but we didn’t play until one afternoon when my uncle and aunt, and some friends of my parents were round (I think) – and we played through the introductory adventure in the rulebook. It was a simple thing by today’s standards – lights seen in a deserted tower, brave adventurers investigating, bandits (or possibly goblins) lying in wait.
I played as a first level wizard and was killed by a giant spider – which was a bit disappointing as the whole concept of a character that could improve from game to game had me hooked. Barring playing another game where my Dad put on a game for me and some friends for my birthday that was it until I sold my brothers on the idea of playing. It all kind of bubbled along from there.
Going away to boarding school was the time that roleplay games really got their teeth into me – there was a Wargames club that embraced this new phenomenon and suddenly I had a steady roster of fellow misfits to play along with. Dragons were slain, mistakes were made, and a slew of new legends populated our conversations. I may have struggled sometimes to get the hang of economic theory and physics equations, but probablity calculations and mental arithmetic became second nature – and I could recite whole blocks of statistics and rules interpretations.
In retrospect I got a bit fixated on the game systems and the minutiae of the rules and features and how to interpret and present them in a narrative. I also found friends and a camaraderie that insulated me from the wider pressures of not being particularly bothered about sporting activity in a school environment that positively idolised it.
We met to play most days – a few hours here and there as time allowed in the afternoons between rugby, cricket, or cross-country running. The problems of scheduling times to meet didn’t exist because we were at a boarding school – there wasn’t anywhere else to go and this was a form of rebelilon that didn’t require hiding in bushes to avoid teachers, or persuading people to buy things we weren’t old enough to get for ourselves.
As a very closeted baby queer, it also opened my eyes to the concepts of choosing our own selves and values. In the game I could be flamboyant or hidden, a rogue or a paragon – and doing so wasn’t reliant on family or circumstances beyond what we could make for ourselves. It was aspirational and non-judgmental – and most importantly was played by people who banded together against a rigid push to behave in some arbitrary “normal” way that absolutely held no draw for any of us. We were a band of outlaws in our own eyes. We were polite and generally well-mannered rebels who each had our own peculiarities and just wanted to be left alone to get on with things.
There was no stigma to exploring new personas, gender expression, or sexuality – in some ways that felt like just window dressing to the experience of exploring these fantasy worlds and beating the villains. There may be a degree of rose-tinted spectacles over these memories but it is what has stuck and what has informed my journey onward and my expectations of the tables I play at and the people I play with.
An expectation of openness and acceptance for all at the table became part of my expectation of the people in my life – and perhaps there’s a measure of the valiant knight protecting the land that has come forward in how I try my best to champion and support the people around me at work and in my home life.
Today I went to see the new Dungeons and Dragons film – Honour Among Thieves – and was overjoyed at the energy and acceptance, the humour and the heart, the detail and the warmth that permeated the whole thing. Its been a hot minute since I’ve seen a film, got home, and wanted to go straight back out to watch it again. The found family of imperfect losers scheming and trying their hardest to do the right thing through increasingly over-complicated and morally dubious schemes just chimes with the gaming and life experiences of the boy I was, and the very odd man that I’ve grown to be. That’s no small thing for me.
My first character got killed too, in the first encounter, failed a save versus poison gas. End of story. I wasn’t hooked till a year or so later with a GM who presented a more balanced challenge.