Friday, May 6, 2011

Such, Such Were the Joys

Grandpa D&D is going to tell another story today. When I was a kid, modules were a nickle and...

Because I put it down for so long, I forget sometimes why fantasy gaming held such a powerful hold on me in my preteen years—and why it has recaptured me decades later. Alan Fine in his uneven study of fantasy role-playing games in the early 80s talks about some of the supposed psychological underpinnings of the attraction of these game to us. According to him, “it is sometimes suggested that [fantasy roleplaying] games are similar to which participants act out reactions to psychiatrically significant events.”

I don't need to fork over a hundred bucks and lie lengthwise on a comfy leather chair to get at the psychiatrically significant events that led me to take up D&D in 1980. They were a combination of both the negative (the crash, bam, boom of my parents divorce) and the positive (the where, what, and when of my childhood following it).

Lucky for you, I won't inflict you with a long whine about the former, the stick. The carrot that attracted me to the game was the simple fact that I was positively swimming in fantasy when I first cracked open that Holmes basic set.

See, right after my folks split up, my father (yes, my Vietnam-vet, D&D-playin' dad) took off to the sunny environs of Southern California to try and make it as a writer. Trying his best to keep a connection with us, he started sending us a serialized fantasy novel in his letters that starred my brother and I. The book was called the Tumbo, after the Africanized evil tree spirit that dominates the book as the nemesis. My stand-in character was named The Professor, my brother Wild Bill.

Our literary alter-egos were whisked away into this fantasy world after climbing a diseased pecan tree that had been polluted by the Tumbo. I forget the rest, but there is the meeting of a young woman who masters songs that have powers to fight the evil and other adventures.

Linked to the Tumbo book in time were these series of summers we started spending with dad out in LA. The first two were straight from a children's book--at least in setting if not in plot line.

My dad was struggling, working odd jobs some in the film industry, some painting houses. He moved in with one of his best friends from school days in Austin, David. David was (or is still I suppose though he teaches at UNLV) a classic B movie director. 

David's house was this ramshackle three-story mansion built in 1902 right into the side of a mountain. It sat--perched really--on an acre of land all at a steep 30-degree angle to the road, which itself plunged precipitously down to the end of the canyon.

And what an acre! It was completely, outlandishly overgrown with dense bamboo groves, lemon trees, live oak, poison ivy, and chaparral higher up where the more native desert mountain environ encroached. In other words, it was paradise for a boy inclined to an overactive imagination.

The house was the same and more. It had a seemingly innumerable amount of rooms: rooms that opened onto big sweeping balconies, tight little nooks of rooms under staircases, mysterious locked basement rooms with dusted over windows.

Slightly creepy in the day, at night it became downright terrifying to that same kid with the overactive imagination. Between each of the floors of the house were crawl spaces and in those crawl spaces were all kinds of animals. Racoons? Possums? Rats? Never really knew, but it makes me shiver a little to think of it even now. I slept on a bunk bed on the top and would hear the patter all night. Couple that with all the creaky, spooky noises an old house perched on a slope can make when the wind is up and I would be so scared shitless I couldn't sleep.

That bedroom was where we first started playing the game. How could you not imagine fantasy alter-egos battling and exploring your way through vast, eerie dungeons and haunted thickets in such a place? Fantasy hung in the air, it was a daily encounter. Under such conditions, it bored its way straight into my psyche, let go for a good long while, and then came back in full force years later enough to make me dream, play, and write even about it as a much older man.

What a game.


  1. Wow. Like your previous post on your father, this was a great personal story. My own background of my entry into D&D is much more prosaic; I was just an overweight, overread sci-fi geek who was dying to play this great new game his older friends buddies were talking about.

  2. Thanks. I should have prefaced the post by saying that half of it was printed as a story in a literary magazine about seven years back.

    There was of course a lot that of that prosaic thing going too. I already loved Choose Your Own Adventure books and minis (though mostly those cheap plastic Airfix figures) going into that summer.

  3. These personal stories have been well done. Maybe it is you letting your hair down but I think it helps unlock your writing and makes for a very enjoyable read.

  4. this is fabulous, thank you. You're telling me about setting and I want to read more. That's some alchemy right there.

  5. That house sounds like it was a fabulous place to game. How could you not be inspired?