Remembering the Bard

Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787

When most people encounter the epithet “the Bard” in text or speech, they automatically assume it refers to William Shakespeare, who is known as the Bard of Avon. But there is another who has acquired that particular sobriquet, and deservedly so. I’m of course talking about Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, and the national poet of Scotland.

Perhaps most well known for having written the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne”, that nostalgic ditty only half understood by so many and yet sung the world over on New Year’s Eve, Rabbie, as he is often affectionately called, was born in 1759 near Ayr on the 25th of January, the son of a tenant farmer. Later hailed as a folk hero and collector of Scottish folk songs as well as Scotland’s national poet, the Bard “is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism” [Wikipedia].

You may know him by a few other of his poems which have been set to music, such as A Red, Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss, and my personal favourite, The Banks O’ Doon, which gave us the song “Ye Banks and Braes”. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I put together a YouTube playlist for Burns Night you can grab a wee listen of. Just note that I also added a number of songs that he didn’t write the lyrics to, as part of an overall celebration of Scottish culture, music, and history.

And what is Burns Night ye might well ask? Well, ’tis first and foremost a celebration of Rabbie’s life and legacy amidst a feast known as a Burns supper, replete with Scottish food and music, a toast with fine Scotch whisky, and of course, readings of the Bard’s poetry and singing of his songs. Central to the supper is almost always the haggis, Scotland’s national dish, a savoury meat pudding which Burns eulogized most eloquently in his famed poem Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my airm.
Haggis on a platter – By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18155691

Yet the Burns supper is not merely a celebration of the Bard’s birthday, confined to that one night only. It can be enjoyed anytime, and regardless of whether or not one is Scottish. One need only have an appreciation for the works of the Bard and/or Scottish music, poetry, food, and culture in general, just as the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” that ends the feast isn’t only for the year’s end, as reminiscing about days gone by is a perennial thing not necessarily tied to any season or date on a calendar.

If you’d like to learn more about Robert Burns, his works, and the traditions of Burns Night and its celebratory supper, below you will find a few good links, as well as a fascinating documentary video of a modern facial reconstruction of the Bard as he might have actually looked in life.

How I Became a Dungeon Master

Some of my D&D stuff from not so long ago

When I started as a player of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, as an androgynous half-elf thief named Valerian (I was very much a fan of the movie Dragonslayer), I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the role of Dungeon Master. It not only looked like fun, it seemed right up my alley. I’d always been a storyteller, from the time I was small.

So back home I tried to start a D&D game of my own. I created worlds and characters and scenarios and imagined prospective players playing them out. I roped my friends who had never even heard of roleplaying in and ran one-on-one adventures for them. But I was never able to get a group together. I didn’t really mind though, because it was great to just be able to play; to take my characters to the next level, and the next, and tell their stories to the DM and the other players.

See, players are storytellers, too. Never forget that. And a good DM helps them tell their stories. Well, I was blessed with good DMs, and sometimes I longed to be one of them, though if given a choice between one or the other I would’ve chosen to remain a player. Still, ideally I would’ve liked to have been both, roleplaying in one campaign and running another. But as it turned out, that was never meant to be.

Anyway, I continued to gather materials and resources, study manuals and modules, invent worlds and monsters and scenarios, map areas and come up with side-quests. All for imaginary players who might never materialize.

Then I got distracted by life, as did the other players in our adventuring group, and even to a certain extent, our DM. I think he started to get discouraged by the ever-increasing scheduling difficulties. Our last session lacked closure. We never picked that storyline up again. We never all got together in that capacity again. It was like a television series got cancelled mid-season before it could be wrapped up.

By the time I got back into D&D again I was a college dropout. Third edition had introduced the d20 system. That piqued my interest. I created a Bard character I was excited to play. But no one I knew was interested in D&D anymore. So once again I tried to start my own game. I did my best to recruit players, and was mildly successful. Underwhelmingly successful, to be honest.

I went back to sleep. Years went by. Fourth edition came and went. I read the online comments on it with passing interest. I got my D&D fix by playing video games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights.

Then 5e made its quiet debut. I couldn’t ignore the improvements. The streamlined game mechanics. The elegant balance between combat and roleplay. I started to ask around, and lo and behold, others had suddenly become interested in D&D again. Next thing I knew I was reluctantly agreeing to DM for a local would-be mercenary party when what I really wanted to do was bring my Bard PC to life. Oh cruel fate!

No matter–that character would be the first NPC the party met. Sometimes you just have to take what life offers you, and make the most of it. 😉


How I Got into Dungeons and Dragons

The dragon Smaug from The Hobbit animated film by Rankin/Bass Productions (fair use)

Since J. R. R. Tolkien’s 127th birthday was this past Thursday I thought I’d date myself by telling you all the ancient tale of how I first got into D&D. It started with Tolkien, though not because I’d read the books. When I was a kid, back when we had idiot boxes instead of smart TVs, I saw the televised Rankin/Bass animated films The Hobbit and The Return of the King, and also Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, and immediately became immersed in the Professor’s strange yet endearing world of high fantasy. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t end up reading Tolkien’s works until I was sixteen, but that’s a tale for another time.

In those days I was a short, scrawny, quiet kid with glasses and buck teeth, painfully shy, nerdy, and anxiety-prone. School was a special kind of hell for me. I got bullied and picked on a lot. I was very much an introvert; far more so than I am now. I lived mostly in my head, and from the time I could pick up a crayon I’d been drawing worlds and characters to inhabit them, telling myself stories about them–and later writing those stories. So once I’d been introduced to Tolkien’s Middle-earth through those films, my inner world became fiercely populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and the like.

Seeing how much I liked to draw, one day my mother bought me a sketchbook and a pack of magic markers in an array of colours. It was a step up from crayons, and I was in world-building heaven. I’d sit for hours on the floor of our living room mapping out underground tunnels teeming with goblins. The goblins were represented by dots not much bigger than a pinhead, but they were colour-coded. One shade of green indicated a foot-soldier, another a guard, another a warg-rider, and so on. I never tired of this.

In school my favourite subject became geography, but only due to my fascination with maps. The first day of class one year I sat next to a girl who would become my best friend in the sixth grade. We bonded over our fondness for all the multi-coloured maps in our geography book, which we were made to share due to a shortage of textbooks in our over-crowded classroom. It started with a made-up game in which we were rulers of the world. As in the board game Risk, the joys of which I had yet to discover, we chose which regions of the world would be our territories and then started marking things like military bases on the maps–yes, we desecrated a defenseless textbook. But it wasn’t long before we began drawing our own maps of worlds that had never existed until then.

Then there was this boy in our class who was the class clown, but also the biggest nerd. I eventually became friends with him as well, and would hang out with him at his house from time to time. We’d play Zork on his personal computer, and I would map our journey. But my first experience with anything D&D official was through the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons video game we’d play on his Intellivision. Like most kids back then I loved video games, but this one was different. As you explored that world, you could only see so far ahead; a bit of realism which I would learn many years later from playing Baldur’s Gate was known as the fog of war.

My second encounter with D&D wouldn’t come until the following year, when I attended middle school. My mother, who was on the PTA, got me into a nerdy school with only around two hundred students. But I was still too shy to make new friends and I was feeling pretty lonely, until one day after class as the lunch period began I noticed a group of other kids had stayed behind and started pushing desks together and arranging chairs around it, accompanied by an older kid I’d never seen before. So out of sheer curiosity I lingered, sitting in the back of the classroom, drawing in my sketchbook. And that was how I witnessed my first real D&D game.

I can still recall one of the Dungeon Master’s exchanges with his very green twelve-year-old players, who all had first level characters, after they had comically blundered through one of his dungeons without a light source (they kept falling down slopes and taking damage even before they’d encountered any monsters). Having come to a small room lit by torchlight, they spied a chest in one corner.

Player 1 (to the DM): What’s in the chest?

DM: Do you try and open it?

Player 1: Um…

Player 2 (to Player 1): Don’t, it might be trapped.

Player 1 (to the DM): Well… what might such a chest contain?

DM: You don’t know. You have no idea. It could be anything. It could be treasure or a pile of orc shit. You won’t know until you open it.

We all laughed, and as the game continued I felt emboldened enough to sit a little closer, where I was able to look on with fascination at all these strangely shaped many-sided dice, rulebooks, character sheets, and crudely drawn maps on graph paper. And then to my utter surprise and eternal delight, as everyone was leaving after the session was over, the Dungeon Master–an eighth grader and thus infinitely cooler than I was–kindly asked me if I would like to join next session. Of course I said yes! And so began a glorious lifelong adventure, and one I’m happy to say I’m still on to this day.