Although my first direct experience with Dungeons & Dragons left me with a desire to delve deeper into the hobby, it would be a good four months before I got around to acting on that particular urge.
The most formidable obstacle on that front was the financial one. Role playing game stuff carries a steep price tag, and I was still dependent on whatever cash could be shaken loose from the increasingly shaky family budget. In theory, I was supposed to be getting twenty bucks a week from my parents to do housework and babysit my little brother. In practice, my parents were fond withholding my allowance as punishment for sins both real and imagined.
I’m not laying claim to any teenage martyrdom — because I was indeed an obnoxious brat — but it was a bit odd how these financial sanctions for my “out of control behavior” always tended to coincide with my parents running low on beer and cigarette money. Balancing my comics, junk food, and toy-buying habits in such precarious circumstances was difficult enough without tossing a new expense into the mix.
Halfway through the summer of 1986, the delivery boy for our local evening paper quit for more lucrative pastures and my parents volunteered my little and brother and me as his replacements. I fucking loathed the job and the destruction the ink wreaked on my cherished collection of Hawaiian shirts, but it did mean a certain degree of financial independence. I broadened my pool of regular funnybook purchases, vastly expanded my library of music cassettes, and finally plunked down the cash for a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.
I bought it at the Osco (now a Rite Aid) at Horn Pond Plaza, where it sat in forlorn repose in the store’s general merchandise clearance aisle. The box was beat-to-shit and had been opened at some point, but it still contained all its components (including the cheapjack dice and marking crayon) and was selling for half of what the mall bookstore was asking for a copy.
During the last couple of weeks before the start of classes, I must’ve read the set’s Player and Dungeon Master sourcebooks at least a dozen times each. When my aunts took the the gaggle of Weiss-side cousins out apple picking up in Essex County on Labor Day weekend, I stayed in the car and familiarized myself with clerical spells and armor classes. My brain was afire with ideas for character builds and devious dungeon designs. I even dropped three bucks at CVS for a bound pad of high-quality graph paper (that I still have somewhere in my collection of crap).
There was a slight problem, however. I didn’t have anyone to play the game with. The friends who got me into the game had either moved on or moved elsewhere, and the geek circles at my junior high were tribally defensive in the extreme. So I ended up press-ganging Lil Bro and our cousin Phil into playing the game.
Lil Bro became “Slipknot” the thief, while Phil took up the mantle of “Longsword” the fighter. Inspired names, I know, but none of us had been exposed to the fantasy genre outside Conan comics and Saturday morning cartoon fare.
The campaign only lasted a handful of sessions, because it’s difficult to get two ten year olds to sit around a table when there are forts to build and rocks to toss into the murky depths of the Middlesex Canal. The few games we did manage to run were exclusively hack ‘n’ slash lootfests against creatures chosen more for their coolness factor than narrative logic.
Kill a bunch of things to get things to help kill even more things. It’s the stuff that drives “serious” RPG enthusiasts to despair, but there’s a rough-edged purity in that simple formula that I’ll always find nostalgically endearing — especially during those times when I’ve been mired in a glacially paced interaction-heavy campaign. (And it could also explain why Destiny, Diablo, and Borderlands have sunk their digital hooks into me so deeply.
There was no official end to our proto-campaign. We just stopped playing at some point and moved on to other things.
I was never as close to Phil as my brother was, but I was a bit shocked when I got the news that he passed away a few years back. It was a sudden thing, his heart gave out while he was getting ready for work. He was the first (and thankfully only as of this writing) of the Weiss-side cousins to pass away, which was hard to reconcile with my mental image of us all being kids forever. It was also odd to realize that all that remains of him from my perspective are some increasingly hazy memories, some old photographs, and a Dorito-stained character sheet buried in the depths of a plastic storage crate.