Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Descent into the Depths of the Earth (In more ways than one)

 The year is 1992 and I had moved to Johannesburg. Hillbrow to be precise. Apparently, this used to be a somewhat bohemian neighbourhood when it first came into existence. Perfect little coffee shops in which to have an existential crisis or two over backgammon and cappuccinos. It was down the road from Wits University, and so, it became a hotbed for political dissent and railing against the oppressive regime of the time. It was a place for people of all colour to hang out and just do whatever it is that people do. I experienced a little bit of it in its heyday, and let me tell you, it was great. But sadly, when I was living there, it was fast becoming a cesspit littered with crime, drugs, and whatever else makes a neighbourhood go bad. But hey, the rent was cheap, so what you gonna do?

I had just finished my spell in the Army. It was compulsory. National Service and all of that. The Border War had finally ground to a halt, and all members of the SADF (South African Defence Force) had withdrawn from the fighting in Angola, and what would later be called Namibia, or South West Africa as it was still called. The ANC had been unbanned the year before, and Nelson Mandela was now a free man. There was a promise of better things on the way.

It was now of course that the National Party began its Third Force activity. Get all your enemies to fight one another and they will have no time to fight the power. It’s an old tactic, but it works. The ANC were locked in a deadly tit-for-tat battle against the IFP, and the AWB were threatening civil war. It was a bloody time. A terrible time. People were being ‘Necklaced’ daily. If you want to know what that is, Google it. But I must warn you, it’s fucking horrific. Yet despite all this mindless bloodshed, things were happening. Good things. Positive things. Yes we were a country tearing itself apart, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. These could be considered birthing pangs. Contractions if you will.
I lived in a huge block of flats just off the main road that cuts through Hillbrow and Braamfontien. We would sit on the roof sometimes at night looking at the Joburg skyline. It’s not London, or Paris, or NYC, but it does the job. Sometimes there would be these insane marches coming up the road. People stretched out for miles, dancing, singing, waving placards. There would be police choppers buzzing over the city like angry hornets, and squads of spotters and snipers perched on all the tall buildings in the area. It was mayhem. Plumes of tear gas and smoke from burning cars blotting out the sun. Shootings, stabbings, the whole gamut of what man can do to man when angry and riled up.
It wasn’t always like that. If you weren’t a complete dickhead Hillbrow could be pretty cool. They had the legendary Hillbrow record store about three blocks from where I stayed. Wall to wall vinyl. I loved it there, between the stacks and the bins looking for music. Then one day, on my way home from buying some milk, I spied a door…

It was at the bottom of a set of stairs leading under a building. Curioser and curioser, I must explore and see what it is. I shot down the stairs and opened the door and was immediately hit by the smell of lavender incense. It was a tiny underground shopping mall of sorts. Carpeted floors, tiny passages, low ceilings, spotty lighting, and eye wateringingly fogged with burning incense. It was fucking great.

It was like the kind of place your parents worn you about when you are a teenager. A den of inequity. There was a Head Shop, selling bongs, T-Shirts, Rizla, and the usual drug paraphernalia. Then there was a tattoo parlour adjacent to a small record bar that seemed to specialise in Metal, Goth, and anything else we in SA would call, alternative… There were clothing shops that flogged knock off Slayer and Sepultura shirts, 8-hole Doc Martens, the works. Having spent most of my life in a small town, having access to this sort of stuff was near impossible, but now having it a stone’s throw from where I lived was just brilliant. And then I saw it, the sort of shop I had been searching for all my life… Gargoyles & Goblins, and they sold nothing but role-playing games.

Shelves filled with I.C.E, D&D, Warhammer Fantasy, you name it, and they had it. They also had a second hand section brimming with modules and rulebooks. I chatted with the owner, a bearded long haired dude, who spoke with just the right amount of contempt for his patrons to remind of ‘Comic Book’ guy from The Simpsons. I didn’t care, I wasn’t here for him, I was here for his loot!
I rifled through the merchandise and found two modules that I had only ever heard whispers about, D1-D2 and the D3 set. Descent into the Depths of the Earth in all its Gygaxian glory. I had to have them, that’s all that mattered. They were twenty Rand a pop. Now that might not sound like a lot, but up until them I had only been earning 130 Rand a month having reached the lofty heights of a two- liner in the Artillery (that’s being called a Bombardier for those in the know) and money was tight. So, what do you do in times like this? I bought them both.

I scurried home, broke, and fearing someone was going to jump out of the shadows and liberate them from me. I made it to the flat in one piece, threw open the door and assembled the horde. I spent the next hour or so going over the first module while the rest of the players rolled up characters and got themselves ready. We were in for the long-haul. No one was leaving these four walls until we had finished them. Luckily, it was Friday afternoon.

I was in my room boning up on the game, and you could see from the very first encounter that E.G.G wasn’t messing around when he wrote this, it was going to be carefully orchestrated carnage if the players weren’t sharp enough. After I felt I had a handle on how the game should go, I dimmed the lights, put some Tubular Bells on the Hi-Fi, and had at it. It was epic. Characters came and went, Drow were slain, treasure was acquired, and magical items were found, then stolen, then found again. Characters levelled up, got killed, were raised from the dead, got killed again, while their players fought exhaustion and emotions, trying to stay alive.

It was Sunday evening when we finally put our dice down. I was fucked. Tiny amounts of sleep was the only reprieve I had had away from the table. And even those catnaps were being intruded on by giant slugs, shriekers, and the underworld itself. I looked around the room. It was grey with smoke and cluttered with bits of paper, beer bottles, pizza boxes and exhausted adventurers. But we had a blast, an absolute blast. We headed up to the roof to clear our heads and watch the sun go down.
Hillbrow is still there, but it has changed. I wouldn’t dare set foot in it now. The record store is gone, so too is the underground mall I discovered, and that means Gargoyles & Goblins is gone as well, along with ‘Comic Book’ guy. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. It’s the universal law. But I still have the memories of a great weekend, and I still have those modules too, and if you look at the top right-hand corner of the creased cover, it still says twenty Rand.


  1. Great post.

    I used to love the hole-in-the-wall stores for their second-hand collection, even though the owner was often a jerk and new exactly what he could charge. Ebay changed things, at least here in the States, I think. Many of those places went under.

  2. Fitting post for Earth Day, don't you think? D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth was the very first module I ever bought for D&D - before I'd ever even played my first session of Holmes Basic. I just loved the title and the cover. Ironically, I've still never played it.