There were two groups I used to play Dungeons and Dragons with. One was an after school group which would be at Richard’s house. He had a little conservatory at the back of his house near the hospital. We would go there after school and his mother would give us a tea and biscuits and we would become Elves, Dwarves, Wizards and Warriors.
There was Richard, Simon, James, Paul and me. Richard was great Dungeon Master material. He knew the rules, was very science-orientated, tall, posh-ish accent, globular glasses and priest like embarrassment that girls existed. Everyone in the group was classically nerdy, apart from Simon and me. Simon was more like a class clown, very funny and brave with his humour as well. I was nerdy in terms of the glasses and unpopularity, and by association but without the positive attributes of being academically gifted at the subjects I was interested in. I wanted to be good at science, maths etc., but I wasn’t and my fellow RPG enthusiasts found my inability baffling.
The other group I sometimes played with was two years older than me. This group met at Leo’s house, in the utility room. They were a huge group because Leo was so popular and the kids were no nerds. Far from it. He was the kind of kid that could bless any activity with his own glamour and make it popular and so the kids were raucous, high-spirited, intelligent and popular. They were the kind of kids who without Leo’s protection would have merrily bullied me, if they’d noticed me. But I was blessed with Leo’s friendship. In D&D terms Leo had a massive Charisma score. Whereas Richard’s sessions were somewhat plodding and mission based; Leo’s were anarchic and full of wild magic. Adventures would often end in a maelstrom of betrayal and counter betrayal, spells would be planting talking bombs inside opponents and the dark wit of Dungeon Master Jasper would be lurking behind the twists of the quest, often spelling annihilation for everybody as a fitting climax, played out to mock shrieks of horror and the kind of laughter that hurt. There was always the possibility of inebriation as well. We got piles of toast and pop. It was hard to go back to tea and biscuits.
Role Playing Games had got me. They were perfect. I read White Dwarf and saw Games Workshop as a holy place. Before I already loved Tolkien and Science Fiction and RPG was very much about bringing alive those alternative fictitious universes. The Imperium in the SF RPG Traveller, or the Middle Earth lite of D&D, or the Lovecraftian dankness of the wonderful game Call of Cthulhu. Initially, the Fighting Fantasy books hooked me when I was eleven, each decision sending you to a different page. Though Warlock of Firetop Mountain was ruined by a tedious final labyrinth. Turn left? Turn to page 23 Turn right? Turn to page 117 until you ended up tearing pages out of the book to make sure you didn’t have to return.
But the principal of interacting with a book, telling your own story, spoke to my deeper ambition of being a storyteller myself. I dreamt of creating a universe as rich and interesting as Frank Herbert’s Dune series or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. In fact, I volunteered to write up the games we were playing as stories and that was the end of my role playing. As soon as I began writing up the adventure of course I wanted to change decisions we had made, add details that had been left out and simply take the story in the direction I wanted to go. So the collaboration, the game actually became an impediment to what I really wanted to do. As a writer I could be the Dungeon Master and every player and non-player character as well. And I didn’t have to roll a twenty sided die to see what happened, who won or lost. The revolution in my life that was to happen when I was fifteen would see me ditch all my former nerdy pursuits as Pink Floyd gave way to punk, science fiction to the Beats and Sartre, RPGs to drinking and getting stoned and girls. When I got to VIth Form I consciously avoided all my former friends. Leo and his group – being two years older – had already disbanded for university and were out of sight, gulped down by the smiley faced, loose-fitting rave scene. I could make some clever point here about how life is one big Role Playing Game, and of course like all clever points, it isn’t really that clever. But I suppose this blog post is a note of gratitude to a pursuit much maligned. All of the things I would get rid of would eventually come back in one form or another and RPGs are still locked somewhere in the deep dark dungeon of my imagination, waiting for a band of unlikely adolescent adventurers to rescue it in the guise of warlocks, elves and warriors. Role two six sided die to see what happens next.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.