Role-playing is a resource-intensive hobby. Aside from the ridiculous number of available rulebooks, supplements, pre-written adventures and so on, you need two things: time and people. I had plenty of time – people were more of a problem. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends at school, it was just that explaining D & D to them posed a problem. In fact explaining D & D to anyone posed a problem: no board, no winning, no losing, no end – ergo no point. Those absences were the very qualities the game wore as a badge of honour – the rulebooks for D & D, more than any other game, always had an evangelical tone: we few, we brave few who understand the freedom that role-playing games can bring are setting out to battle the primitive boardgames with their slim rules booklet and laughable single type of dice. (This emphasis on free-thinking was ironic given that D & D was notorious for encouraging strict enforcement of its many preposterous rules. But in the first flush of wonder I had no idea about that. I was a convert.)
I may not have had anyone to play the game with, but that was no barrier to the game eating up my time. A hobby whose basis is sitting around a table talking, role-playing nevertheless has a solitary, solipsistic side. There were rules to be swotted up, of course, but there were also characters to create, and the characters had to be written down on character sheets, which needed to be designed, and then of course you could start designing dungeons… the image of gamers as inadequate bedroom hermits was always a little unfair (RPGs are inherently social), but only a little.
Three months or so after I was given the D&D Basic Set, I played my first game. My parents used to take me to a group for Gifted Children which took over a school once a month and ran (in theory) lots creative activities. I don’t remember ever having to prove I was ‘gifted’ in order to attend these things and my suspicion now is that they were opportunities for right-thinking Mums and Dads to tell each other how clever their kids were and eat a lot of cake. The activities were puny: one potters wheel which was always being used by someone else, and a lot of chess. But one weekend someone had been allowed to run a D&D game.
How did I like it? I loved it. It was everything the rulebooks had promised – the secret of roleplaying is that if you’re an imaginative kid the referee hardly needs to do any work to ‘sell’ the story to you, you’re filling in the blanks all the time yourself. It was a simple adventure – two groups of monsters at war with each other, the players getting stuck into the feud, and I think that (yes!) a gelatinous cube was involved too, though I never encountered it. But it seemed incredibly rich and immersive – wounded and separated from the other players, I had to bargain for my life with a monster: I was the center of attention, the lead actor, except I had no idea what would happen next, and it was stupendously exciting. And – for a fairly shy boy – liberating.
The entire of my roleplaying ‘career’ was a mostly unsuccessful attempt to capture that feeling again, or to spark it in other people. Because by the time I got home I knew that I didn’t just want to play D&D, I wanted to be the person creating the magic that I’d just felt. I had to run games, and I had to do it soon.