This may come as an absolute lack of shock to most of you, but growing up, I was not very cool.
As proof, allow me to present exhibit A.
That’s me on my birthday. And if the Aerobie, sunglasses, and sleeveless shirt weren’t enough of a clue for you, I’ll just mention that this was somewhere in the early 80’s.
So. Me: Not particularly cool. Really rather impressively not cool.
Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t miserable. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but then again most people aren’t. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I had a few. Besides, I lived out in the country, so it wasn’t like the neighborhood kids pelted me with stones or anything. There were no neighborhood kids for the most part. No neighbors. Just me and lots of books.
What’s more, I had the best pair of parents imaginable. Parents who, when I asked for a bullwhip for my birthday, actually bought me one.
And, as you can see if you embiggen the above picture, they also bought me a copy of the green D&D box set.
* * *
I first found out about D&D in the fifth grade. I saw some kids playing at school one day when it was crappy out and we were having recess inside.
I’d never heard of it before. It looked like a lot of fun. I asked the kids if I could play with them.
“No,” they said.
It wasn’t a hesitant no, either. It was a genuine, “No, we are certain we do not want you to play with us.” Whether or not they intended to, I was left with the distinct impression that I wasn’t cool enough to play D&D with.
Keep in mind that this was in the early 1980’s. Geek wasn’t chic back then. There was no internet. There weren’t huge comic conventions. There was no PAX.
These days everyone plays WOW and reads Harry Potter and Watches X-Men movies. Geek is mainstream now.
Back then? Not so much. Back then, you were picked on for reading fantasy novels. Or reading comics. Or rolling dice and pretending to be a wizard. Geeks were really far down the social pecking order.
Those people, those geeks, were the folks that didn’t particularly want to hang out with me.
So I arranged to get the D&D red box. And I read it all. And I made a character. And I played D&D with myself.
(It occurs to me just now that this might have been one of the first steps toward being a writer. Being an author is kinda like playing D&D with yourself.)
Later I got the other boxes. Usually as Christmas presents….
(I never knew about the Immortal Rules until just now….)
My parents didn’t really know what it was all about. Despite that, they were understanding. My mom was a hippie, so when I asked her to make me a cloak, she didn’t think much of it. She’d made cloaks for people before. The main difference was that the people she made cloaks for back in the 60’s had at least a distant possibility of having sex.
Then I found this at the Madison public library.
It wasn’t this actual book. It didn’t have this cover, either. Because of damage, or perhaps as a nod to Christian sensibilities, the library had re-covered the book.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This book was different. It was weighty. It was serious. It was full of charts and tables. Let’s say you were adventuring in a swamp. And you wanted to know how likely you were to catch a disease. Well, there were rules for that.
I am all-the-way serious:
There’s something to be learned from this table. Honestly, part of the reason I live in Wisconsin is because of the -1% modifier for cool weather.
Toward at the end of one of the books was Appendix N – Inspirational and Educational Reading. That was where Gygax listed books that had shaped his views on fantasy. Books he thought other people would benefit from reading.
I found a nice scan of it online:
(Click to embiggen, if you’re curious.)
You’ve got some great names on there. Tolkien. Zelazny. Saberhagen. Norton. Looking it over now, I realize I still haven’t read half of these, and I feel like I should.
Back then, it was really interesting to see this list of books. But I was just a kid. I didn’t seek out books so much as I just devoured anything that was available at the library or the Waldenbooks at the mall.
Eventually I found some people to play D&D with. I played it all through high-school with several different people, most consistently with my two best friends, Steve and Ryan.
When I graduated from high-school, rather than have a graduation party, I asked my parents if I could go up to our cabin in the north woods with Steve and Ryan. They agreed, and for a week, we did very little but play D&D.
By that time, 2nd edition was out. That’s the edition I played the most of. The one I know inside and out.
I played in college too. That’s how I made my first friends here in Stevens Point. Most notably Endo, who introduced me to other friends. That was how I met my first girlfriend and other people I still know and love to this day. Though I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I’d like.
This year, as some of you might know, 5th edition came out.
I got to know this edition pretty well because I had to make a new version of Viari that I could play with Acquisitions Incorporated.
The book is beautiful. The new system is flexible but easy to use. Elegant and smooth in a way I couldn’t have appreciated ten years ago. Using it, I was able to make a thief that could hold his own in combat and survive jumping off an airship onto a dragon.
But I’m not here to sing the praises of 5th edition. I’m here because of what shows up in the back of this 5th edition player’s handbook.
Appendix E: Inspirational Reading….
There’s more books than before, you’ll notice. That’s only appropriate. The genre’s grown a lot since Gygax wrote his list back in 1979.
There’s still some of the familiar names on here, as there should be. Zelazny is still brilliant. So is Tolkien. And what’s that? Oh my stars and garters, there’s more than one woman on the list! Which is good, because these days a list that misses LeGuin and McKillip isn’t worth shit in my opinion.
We’ve got some new folks on there too. My friends and colleagues. Jemisin and Sanderson. Lynch, and Bear and Saladin.
I’m there. I’m in the book. In a small way, I’m *part* of D&D.
It’s hard to get my head around that fact. Words fail me, and I honestly don’t know what to say. Except that it’s wonderful, and flattering and so, so strange. My life has become so strange these last few years.
I think this must be what it feels like to be cool.