Friday, December 26, 2014

"From out of the cell runs an Elf..."

On Boxing Day 1984 a quiet revolution took place.

I am fourteen, and my newest alter ego, an Elven princeling by the name of Aben Silverstone has just been rescued by a party of tredidatious, no-nonsense adventurers led by a Dwarf with the unlikely name of Thorin Oakenshield.

It's a big deal for me to be playing Dungeons and Dragons with my older brother's group. Although also in attendance is my best friend Derek, and we're on neutral ground (Derek and his older brother's family home), it's understood that my presence there has been achieved by no small amount of wheedling and pleading by myself (and possibly some parents interested in some time out from their growing kids), and is at times barely tolerated. I am enthusastic, and equipped with the nervous rashness and oafery of a new, young player. I'm on best behaviour, because I am still somewhat in aweof these older boys I'm playing alongside with their quick wit and occasional ruthlessness. Nevertheless, my Elf stays with his rescuers, and we make it to the end of the module in textbook-style, with only one casualty, as I recall - a thief by the equally-unlikely name of Edmund Blackadder.

I've played this particular module before, of course, as it's the only one we own, Douglas Nile's The Horror on the Hill with its pine forest Jim Rosolf cover and slightly goofy internal Jim Holloway artwork. But that last time I was a different character, in a different party, and we barely scratched the surface of the dungeon. This was the real baptism of fire, and over that summer I'd join in at least one other game over several nights (Palace of the Silver Princess, a logical follow-up) before I would be dismissed with the directive to find my own group to play with. So Derek and I did, and that became a large part of my adolescence for the next two years until different friends, different priorities, and the inevitable girlfriends broke up the band. By then Aben had dropped his earnest folksy nickname and become Habenath Celebrant, moody Elven badass, and another story, really.

 Nile's module is simple fun, with some pitfalls along the way. It's less of a meat grinder than its obvious inspiration, The Keep on the Borderlands, but it has elements I'd reuse in my own original games later on (warring goblin or hobgoblin tribes in the same dungeon, surprise berserker NPCs, a magic fountain which gives and takes in equal measure) not to mention a pretty hefty end-of-game adversary, of which still I'm skeptical of our besting to this day. More significant of course are the things that my friends and me brought into our self-made games in the following months - bits of our teenage world, in fact, form the music we listened to, the books and comics we read, and the movies we watched. A shared world can be a strange wild-growing creation, but hold it up to the light and perhaps it's not that different from many other adolescent activities in retrospect.

Thirty years on I'm surprised that it can still be brought back by the odd Proustian trigger - a reliable home-made ginger beer, the new tase of that summer in Barbeque Shapes (they were better back then), the smell of old pulp paperbacks, and the incongrous contemporary tune. Funny things, really, but all part of the mix. This, then, is my true gateway to adventure.

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