Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The face that launched a thousand adventures.

Most definitely, NOT, Helen of Troy.
My first exposure to a Dungeons & Dragons product of any kind was in a bookstore in an industrial town called Sasolburg in the northern Orange Free State. Let’s just say it was an interesting place to have lived. I was trawling the shelves looking for something to buy when I came across a blue, sliver of a book called, the ‘Mountain of Mirrors’. It caught my eye and my attention, so I picked it up. Right there, on the cover, it said, ‘You choose your paths to adventure’, and it was all in capitals too so it must be important. Also, it said, paths, plural, so there must be more than one way to adventure...
The cover I thought was awesome, and left me wondering just who the huge dude holding the tree trunk was. Why was he blue? Why did the dragon look nothing like I was used to? This one was white; Smaug was sullen, smouldering, and ember red. Curiouser and curioser...

I bought it and began to read it on the long car trip home. By the time we reached the garden gates I was hooked. Like ‘crack’ hooked. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen, let alone read. I loved reading, and as far as I knew, books went from the front to the back, full-stop, but not this one; this one went all over the place! It was awesome and I bought a few more the following week.
 It made reference to a game called Dungeons & Dragons. I was intrigued. Obviously I was playing the book version, but what was the real version like? I had to find out. But as I have said before, that was easier said than done.
I carried on reading the books, loving the fact that my choices dictated what happened to me. From the ‘Mountain of Mirrors’ I remember a Frost Giant (aha, that’s why he was blue), a white dragon who breathed frost, (aha, that’s why he was white) a talking door made of ice, some giant mushrooms, some shriekers, and I am a bit hazy on the rest. The others I had were just as good, in fact, if you have seen the cover to the ‘Dungeon of Dread’, the one with the water-weird bursting out the well with the creepy carvings on, well I still use that in my games to this day, nearly thirty years later. In fact I used it about a month ago in a game I was running for a friend. They key they needed was in the well, and, yup, you know what happens next.
Anyway, I got a bit older, ‘Choose your own adventures’ became all the rage, they moved away from just being fantasy and ventured into other more, mundane spheres of existence like Scuba-diving or mountain climbing. Then in early ’84 I stumbled across ‘The City of Thieves’. I was hooked, all over again. Not only did the cover grab me, but the fact that it had a severed head on it impressed me greatly. Up until then, all these books had been safe... this one definitely wasn’t going to be like that at all. And you used dice to fight stuff! Man, this was heady stuff, not only could you choose your path but it was also a game. I think the cover, and the story, sealed my fate. If there was ever a ‘lightning rod’ moment of clarity, this was it, Zanbar Bone, on the cover with a scythe doing a Grim Reaper impersonation. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I knew these books were never going to pass for ‘literature’ and that’s fine, I had a pretty good sense of what I liked to read anyway, but if you wanted something more fun than a comic, then this was it. The artwork inside was brilliant too, really well thought out and so in-depth and evocative.
We want You!

Needless to say Fighting Fantasy books were popular at school and we swapped them amongst one another, but yet somehow I still felt a bit cheated. Sure you were given options and choices in the books, but...I was left wanting something more. I wanted to be able to make my own choices, and I wanted to do it with my friends beside me. So, what did we do? Simple really, we stripped the mechanic from the game and replaced the ‘book’ with a DM. Oh, and we wrote our own adventures of course. The rules were for combat mostly, but there was a luck mechanic that we used for picking locks and checking for traps, and when it came to saving throws, it was even simpler, a roll of a 1,2 or 3 and you were doomed, 4,5, and 6, you weren’t. We used the creatures we found in the books and as for characters, again, they were modelled on what we found in the stories. You never really went up levels but your ‘Stamina’ score did increase over time. The cool thing about all of this, was that we were doing it way before we actually got play D&D proper, it was all just youthful intuition, and a deep seated desire to role-play with my mates. We had no clue that Fighting Fantasy was developing their own RPG at the time, with ‘Out of the Pit’ and, ‘Titan’.

Little and Large.

Of course, when we actually played D&D, well, that was like moving from a Sopworth Camel to a fekkin’ Rocket Ship, but the seed of self reliance had been sown at least two years before that. It stood me in good stead as a DM too, having to get by with the barest of rules to govern any situation, and it left us all with a huge DIY streak that I still have to this day. It also gave me a firm realisation that you really don’t need half the shit they churn out these days, just do it yourself, use your imagination, and remember that necessity is the mother of all invention.
So, in closing, the cover of Mountain of Mirrors got me hooked, the cover of City of Thieves got me started down a thirty-year-odd path of gaming, the cover to the Red Box sealed the deal, while the cover of the AD&D DM’s book stopped me in my tracks and stole a bit of my soul, (Chick Tracts, would be proud!) All of them are tiny bits of flash-paper that ignited something that burns to this day. They are Iconic impressions to me about a hobby that I really enjoy. Gaming, you gotta love it... I know I do.

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