Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Play with Me, She Breathed

During the years I had a subscription to Dragon magazine (approximately 1991 to 2000), one of my favorite regular features was the First Quest column. The idea behind First Quest (other than rather cheesily referencing a game line TSR had put out at the time) was to invite game industry professionals to write about how they got into gaming way back when.

Some stories were duds, but most were at the very least informative and/or illuminating. I've already written a bit regarding the First Quest article that perhaps exerted the most influence on my gaming style--Roger E. Moore's entry, entitled "Verix Dwarfstompter Made Me Do It"--but that is not, ultimately, my favorite entry in the series. That honor belongs to Ed Greenwood, creator (for better or worse) of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting/media machine.

Say what you will about what the Realms became, you can't argue with the fact that Ed had perhaps the most cinematic, romantic introduction to RPGs that one could possibly have. In a hobby where most people are grandfathered in by a Harris Trinsky, Greenwood pretty much hit the jackpot. See for yourself (from Dragon #218, June 1995):

The lamps were low as Elminster put me into the armor. "Ouch," I remarked intelligently.

"Belt up," he ordered gruffly. "If ye weren't crazed enough to spend entire days writing fancies about my world for those TSR folk, 'keyboard spread' wouldn't afflict ye quite so prominently and ye just might still fit into this."

Recalling what befell the last time I last got into a suit of armor, took sword in hand, and sallied forth to battle in the SCA, an inability to get into armor might not be a bad thing.

Whenever I think of getting into armor, my mind always leaps to that moment in a sun-dappled ravine in Don Mills, Ontario, on a fern-strewn, sandy bank of Wilket Creek. My friends and I were wont to take our original, big-board DIPLOMACY and KINGMAKER games, and our model soldiers and Donald Featherstone rules to while away glorious weekend afternoons. We discussed Middle-earth and the works of Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, William Morris, and Fritz Leiber. We argued “what if this happened,” and what hadn'’t we been told about what lay there, and longed to know more about things in Tolkien's Middle-earth, Lovecraft's Kadath, and many other fantasy worlds--longings that led, eventually, to the Realms. Later we discussed Roger Zelazny as one Amber novel after another came out and each was devoured. We dreamed of seeing his hard-to-find Dilvish stories published in a collection--—and of all the other classics of fantasy, and, well, of girls. (More about that in a moment.)

Lin Carter at Ballantine was bringing all the great English-language fantasies back into print, culminating in the splendid guide called Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine, 1973), still required reading for anyone who wants to know what's what in fantasy. These, plus a steady diet of Conan and FANTASTIC magazine (later amalgamated with its sister publication, AMAZING Stories) kept us wallowing in worlds full of swords, spells, dragons, beautiful princesses, crumbling castles, and fell wizards--and also kept us (despite re-reading everything several score times) always hungry for more.

I'd been a reader and writer from my earliest days, growing up on A. Merritt's tales, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the like, and had even tried my hand (in 1967) at writing jaunty Three Musketeers/Fafhrd & Grey Mouser-style yarns wherein swordsmen exchange witty repartee as they carve up endless bad guys in the proto-Realms. The first sentence in which the Realms came to life? "Now in all the lands ‘twixt bustling Waterdeep and the sparkling waves of The Sea of Fallen Stars, no men were more loved--and feared--than the stoic swordsman Durnan, the blustering old rogue Mirt, and the all-wise, ancient wizard Elminster." A pretty good summation of the heart of the Realms even today, and not bad for an eight-year-old, eh? Once Carter published New Worlds For Old, I was hooked.

Things might have gone along just fine if it hadn't been for Gary Gygax--and for September.

Oh, I bought Chainmail, adding monsters to our knights-and-castles wargames— already, thanks to Featherstone, linked into an ongoing battle-by-battle history of several imaginary kingdoms. And I bought the original D&D books, and played a game or two (in 1975, for those keeping score), but although we thought the rules were a great, nay, fascinating idea, they were still just sitting around together telling a fantasy story, which is what we'd already been doing, without rules.

Then the original Monster Manual came out...and September came to us. On reflection, the quality of this book (quantifying one mythological monster after another, and adding a lot of neat new ones to boot) and the brilliant Vanceian magic of the Player's Handbook (explaining precisely what spells do) were what made me change the Realms from a nebulous place of pretty maps into an AD&D game world. But what really got me hooked on the game was September.

She came to town to attend university, and she was quite the most beautiful being I'd ever laid eyes on. She loved fantasy and laughed heartily at the ungainly nerds she found fencing clumsily with homemade swords around the SF bookstores, quoting more fantasy writers than she'd ever read. September also saw in them someone to play her latest passion with: games of AD&D. And one of those nerds was me.

Three of us promised her a "great place to play" and loaded up a romantic cargo of pop, potato chips, and homemade dip (a tradition that continues to this day) before meeting her at the bus and taking her to (of course) our special spot in the woods. She loved it at first glance.

And we loved her. She stepped off the bus dragging a huge dunny bag and wearing swashbuckling boots and a cloak, and the moment we were in the woods, she announced that the trip had been long and that she had to go off by herself for a moment. Gallantly, we showed her the densest bushes, and a few minutes later we learned what had been in that bag.

September reappeared in splendid half-armor, cloak thrown back, leather gauntlets on her wrists. A real longsword gleamed in her hand.

"Come, play with me," she breathed huskily, reaching out her hand. All three of us stout lads fell over each other (and our steamed-up glasses) trying to kneel and kiss it.

Needless to say, she was the greatest Dungeon Master we've ever known, before or since. September believed in acting out all the NPCs, complete with funny voices, mannerisms, the works. Tears ran down her face when things grew sad, and she leaped around the clearing in glee when we tried witty repartee and clever battle-tricks--and ended up with slapstick accidents, just like the tales. Best of all, she believed in ending play sessions when we were still hungry for more, and she let us excitedly discuss plans and what might lie ahead (and thereby learned what we hoped for, so she could give it to us next time). She also allowed me to blossom slowly into our “idea man,” shaping the worlds we played in by probing and asking.

None of us knew that September would be dead little more than a year later, the cancer that killed her already eating away at her, inside. Like all first loves, she'll live forever, laughing, in memory.

I still try to DM the way she did, all these years later, though I've accepted the fact that I'll never have September's looks. I've tried to hold on to what we had, though: love, honor, and friendship.

Love is what the Realms has always been about; not just grand romantic passion, but simple, decent folk doing kind and noble things for others, up to and including laying down their lives for their friends.

As for honor, I still feel--project after project--that it's an honor to share “my world and dreams with gamers everywhere. I am, and will always be, grateful to TSR for doing so, from the pages of DRAGON Magazine #30 onward.

And that leaves us with friendship. The most precious thing the Realms have given me are good and true friends, from Dave, Ken, and Tim to Victor, Andrew, John (the splendid roleplayer), Ian (the first Lore Lord of the Realms), Jim, Anita, and Cathy of my stalwart players; to creative folks who've shaped the Realms with me: Jeff Grubb, Steve Schend, Rob King, Karen Boomgraden, and Julia Martin (among many, many folks at TSR), and fellow scribes Bob Salvatore and Elaine Cunningham; to the gaming friends I've met and made all over the world, from “Uncle” Wes, Grant, Leslie, Craig, and Nicole in Australia (and hello to all at Mack Campbell's Bookshop in Toowoomba!), to Chris and Leo in Sweden, to Chris and Lisa in Dallas, to Steve and Jenny in Peterborough, to Mike and Roxy in Pennsylvania, to Erica in Cobourg, to Terry, Steve, Helen, Lori and Doug in Houston, to Alex, Cheryl, and Merle in Toronto. The list can go on for pages. You have all made my life brighter, and you are why I keep on writing instead of being the (richer) doctor or lawyer my folks wanted me to be.

Besides, for me, it's become a duty: someone has to be Elminster...and I've mastered the bawdy banter. And if I sometimes get tears in my eyes when I'm running yet another Realmsplay session, it's because something has sent me back to that sun-dappled fern bower under the trees, and September's clear voice calling, "Swords bright!" in farewell, as she started her walk back to the bus. I'll never see her again, but in the Realms, I can meet her every day. Farewell, September--and well met!
Sheesh. What a story! If that doesn't deserve to be made into a movie or at least an After-School Special, I don't know what does. It reads like a gaming version of Stand By Me.

I was reminded of this column recently when yet another former co-worker of mine expressed an interest in playing D&D. She's told me that she'd tried to get into it in high school but was turned away by the all-male gaming group at her school on the grounds that they didn't play with girls. I'd find that hard to believe save for the fact that I've sadly seen the same attitude expressed by others over the years--even by adults! All I know is that if someone like September had come into my adolescent gaming life, my own all-male group would have reacted exactly like Greenwood and his buddies. Some people, you know?

At any rate, I hope to do my part in redeeming my unkown sexist co-hobbyists when I treat my old co-worker to what will hopefully be some first-rate D&D action in the very near future.
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