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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where It All Began

It would have begun in 1977, I believe.

I was twelve that year, going on thirteen, and very, very impressionable. I grew up in a Texas cow town out in the middle of nowhere, and the main thing this taught me was that I don’t ever again want to live in a cow town in the middle of nowhere.

As a family, we’d take a trip out of town every other month or so. I lived for these trips. I read a lot, then as now, and I was so starved for new reading material, whenever we set foot in a B. Dalton’s or Waldenbooks, it felt to me like I’d entered the Library of Alexandria.

On the months we didn’t leave town, I haunted the paperback racks and magazine shelves in the local convenience stores and drugstores, hoping something interesting would turn up. Every single week, I did this.

It was sometime in 1977, I believe – the year Star Wars came out, the year I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, the year I turned thirteen, the year I had my first job and my first independent spending money…

… that I stumbled across a new magazine on the racks. It was a collegiate sort of thing, published by Rolling Stone, trying to spin off a sister periodical. I don’t remember what it was called, because it didn’t last very long, but I bought the first issue.

It had this article about something called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

This was one reason I’d bought the magazine; I knew it was some sort of new game, and I’d been hearing mysterious mentions of it in other magazines I read. It was apparently pretty new, and different… and kind of subversive, somehow. Some people didn’t seem to approve of it.

It apparently had something to do with knights, wizards, and Lord Of The Rings. And it was apparently quite unlike Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, or any other game anyone had ever heard of…. No board was used. No cards, no nothing, although dice, table, paper, pencils, and sometimes miniature figures were mentioned. Apparently… the setting for this game… was largely in the mind.

I devoured the article. I examined the pictures. I read it again, and again. Plainly, this game must be pretty major, because we had college students playing it. A LOT of college students. And they got into the game pretty heavy. I barely remember what the article said, any more. The bits of it I can remember seem like the article was as much reporting on the phenomenon as making fun of the geeks who played it… but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that this game was certainly where it seemed to be happening, and I wanted in.

The next trip out of town we took, I hunted. I don’t remember where I first found the boxed Basic Set – it might have been B.Dalton’s, or Waldenbooks, or perhaps Spencer Gifts… but I grabbed it with alacrity. Ten bucks, as I recall. So little money, such a major thing. I read the basic rules, figured the game out despite the awful editing, and was put off by the fact that the game required “polyhedral dice” but did not actually include any (the old Basic edition came with “randomizer chits,” little laminated numbered tokens you were supposed to cut out and pick out of Dixie cups whenever you needed to generate a random number.)

But it opened up a whole new world. A game where you could literally recreate yourself, be Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Merlin the Magician, Legolas the elf…

The following year, I remember taking another trip to the mall in Laredo with my saved pay from my job at the newspaper. All at once, I bought the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual, three rather expensive hardback books (the PH and MM were $12 each, and the DMG was all of $15), as well as something I’d wanted for a long time – my very own home video game system, the Atari 2600 Home Gaming Console, complete with free Combat cartridge with 26 games!

Truly, a time of miracles. I was a game geek in the making. I just didn’t know it yet. I remember buying those three books more sharply than I remember buying my first car.

Not long after that, on a trip to Fort Worth, I finally found a store that sold polyhedral dice. I also managed to get a copy of Dragon #47, the first one I’d ever seen… and it was a mindblower. An entire magazine, complete with ads, all devoted to The Hobby That Can Eat Your Life.

Not long after that, they released the Deities and Demigods book, the old one, the one that had the Cthulhu Mythos and Elric in it. I was blown away to see my old friends from H.P. Lovecraft’s books in there. The D&DG inspired me to go out and hunt for Moorcock’s Elric books, as well as the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories that were also referenced therein.


Weirdly enough, I corrupted a mob of players in church. I commandeered a church youth group meeting, did a presentation, handed out pregenerated characters, and dared a group of kids to try it. They did. A couple were unimpressed… but the others were downright interested. Soon enough, we had a weekly session organized and rolling.

Meanwhile, I read Dragon magazine, and subscribed. There was no internet back then; this was the closest thing I had, my one continuous monthly connection to a world out there that wasn’t stranded in a dry Texas cow town out in the middle of nowhere, a world of geeks and magic, where anything was possible…

I began mail-ordering miniatures from The Dungeon, the retail outlet for D&D’s mother company, TSR. The catalogs were wretched; mimeographed or Xeroxed, most weren’t illustrated, and I bought more than a few miniatures and items sight unseen, based on a misspelled description. The packages began to arrive, to my parents’ bewilderment. I began to learn to paint miniatures.

It was in 1980 that I about lost my mind wondering exactly what an orc looked like. I knew what an orc was; Tolkien had described them, kind of, in the Lord Of The Rings books as goblinlike, degraded monsters, shaped from tortured elves by the evil of Morgoth. But what did they LOOK like? The Monster Manual showed them as pig men; this struck me as more comical than frightening, and certainly not what Tolkien had in mind. What did orcs look like?

I bought some minis claiming to be orcs, and painted them. They were so badly sculpted and molded that even when they were done, you still couldn’t really tell what they looked like.

Ralph Bakshi released his animated Lord Of The Rings, a film which I hoped would answer the question. It didn’t. His orcs were basically actors in rags painted shadowy black with glowing eyes and large, walrussy fangs added in postanimation. Of course, his Balrog had butterfly wings, too, so I didn’t take it too seriously…



I left home in '82 and left the dry, red, rural distance of deep south Texas behind forever. I will never be a city boy, but I was never meant to be rural, either. And I took my place as a citizen of The World... and as a member of geekdom, as well. I made monthly trips to Dragon's Lair in Austin, back when it was on Guadalupe street, and trips to The Dungeon in San Antonio, back when there was such a thing, out on Walzem across from the mall. I was there when they opened Alien Worlds in San Antonio, as well.

And in time, I grew up.

When I had to start making a living, gaming fell by the wayside for a bit. Didn't have the time I had had when I lived in the dorms. Women, wine, and other things took a bit of a priority.

But sometimes, I found time. I never gave it up entirely. Enough so that I can say I've played about every major system out there, and many of the minor ones as well.

It's been a life, and it's been a good one. And it ain't over yet.

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