Growing up I was shy, quiet and very reserved. These days, I’d be labeled an introvert but back when I was growing up I was a considered a nerd and had very few friends. I’d tried Hockey but it wasn’t for me. I’d tried Cubs and it wasn’t for me. I’d tried soccer and I liked it but I wasn’t amazing at it. While I was never picked on or harassed like the extreme end of the nerd spectrum, I wasn’t ever part of the cool kids cliques either. I was a blip on the school radar and that was it. Which made me very happy. I enjoyed the invisibility (though the slew of 80s teen movies had me secretly dreaming to be the hero of my own story). I survived by telling stories inside my head and hanging with the few friends I did have.
My mind was a far better place than this drab reality that we currently subscribe to. My cousin had turned me on to Tolkien and Lewis and they fueled my early imagination. Narnia and Middle Earth were my homes away from home, along with Treasure Island and a thousand other fantasies. My imagination roamed these worlds created by others and dreamt of something more. Then, in the summer of ’84, I met a kid named Brian Henderson and everything changed.
Brian was an awkward, skinny kid with glasses. Your classic ’80s nerd. I can’t honestly say how we met anymore, though I suspect our mutual relegation to the outskirts of the elementary school hierarchy drew us together fairly quickly. Brian had an older brother who had these books about a game called Dungeons and Dragons. Wait…. Dungeons!?!? I knew about dungeons…
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep, and caverns old
And I knew dragons too. They were named Smaug and hoarded treasure stolen from dwarves.
Needless to say, we got along like a house on fire. If Tolkien was the gatekeeper to my imagination, D&D became the key. No longer was I relegated to just imagining the stories in my head. Now I could take an active part in creating a story.
Brian and I formed a “club” at school. We played D&D in the library after school on Wednesdays with the teacher’s blessing. Looking back, I have the deepest respect for the teachers who encouraged and supported us: Mr. Fellows and Mr. Mandrusiak said yes, when a lot of North America was quivering in fear from the religious zealotry and bad press that plagued D&D in the early years. I won’t discuss the stigma and misconceptions about the game here, that’s a post for a different day.
Brian moved away shortly after grade 5 ended and without him the club fell apart because he had the books. But now I had a purpose. I scrimped and saved every penny I had and bought every book that I could find. Scouring the various hobby shops and bookstores that I knew carried the sacred texts to my freedom. I was never a kid to go hang at the mall, but I knew every game store in every mall in a 50km radius and would jump at the chance to make a trip to any of them with my hard earned allowance.
Once I had my own books, I started creating stories around my characters. At first these were purely derivative. I made a lot of Rangers (cause Aragorn is the Shiznit!), Thieves (Mr Baggins I presume) and Wizards (Gandalf DUH!) and looking back, they were all Mary Sue (or Marty Stu if you insist on gender specificity) characters, but back then I had no idea that the term even existed, let alone what it meant. I just wanted to be be the hero of the story and was too young to know that people (and characters in stories) are defined by their flaws as much as their strengths.
Invariably, I co-opted my friends into joining me on adventures and happily we created characters, slew dragons and rescued princesses every Saturday that we could. We lived and breathed D&D. While I loved playing a character, I often had a hard time not always being able to tell the story I wanted to tell and would drift into the role of Dungeon Master. No one complained and together we stumbled through the worlds of Gygax, Arneson, and Greenwood with the enthusiastic wonder of youth with THAC0 tables memorized and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of monsters and their weaknesses.
** Shout out to Shane, Brock and my brother, Colin for being my first test subjects and inspirations. You guys kept coming back for the stories no matter how bad or weird. Thanks. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you guys.
As time has a tendency to do, it passes and I grew up. I hesitate to say matured because even today I don’t think I’ve “grown up” and I’m still a kid at heart. I abandoned D&D for a time, but I didn’t abandon the passion for roleplaying or storytelling. I drifted to other games with other friends: Top Secret, Marvel Super Heroes, Gamma World, GURPS, Vampire (both LARP and tabletop), Shadowrun. The constant with all of them was that I loved telling stories. I loved fleshing out characters and giving life to the worlds around them.
Even today, character creation is still one of my favourite things to do. Even if I never play the character, I love creating the background. The story. The why. If you ask, I can tell you the story of any character I’ve ever created. The why of it. Where they were born. How they were raised. Why they hate the ruling mago-aristocracy. I might even be able to tell you what they had for breakfast yesterday.
When I was twelve it was all about wish fulfillment. Thirty years on, it’s all about breathing life into some simple words and numbers on a page. Flaws and all.
I’m still telling stories. Not going to stop. Can’t make me!