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.