Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The very first thing you need to understand is that my obsession with role playing games sprang directly from where and when I grew up. And what's most remarkable to me is that it was even possible. I happened. I didn't grow up in a big city. Not even a small one like Auckland, New Zealand where my parents came from. And it all started a long time ago. Before the inter-webs were even conceived. It was 1987. Thirty three years ago now. And I was ten.
Mount Hagen. The Highlands of Papua New Guinea. A remote part of a remote Island in a remote country. One of those places most people have heard of but couldn't find easily on a map.
I was ten and had been living (on and off) in a tiny community of foreigners from all over the world, since I was seven. Here I was exposed to all kinds of cultures, languages and customs and these experiences would have a geat effect upon broadening my mind. Learning empathy and tolerance for other people and their ways of life, traditions and even lifestyles. And as most ten year old kids I knew, I was utterly unappreciative and indifferent to it. It's simply what I had always known. Chewing sugar cane on the way home from school in the daily torrential rain. The threat of violence constantly in the background. But yet we didn't have or need guns. What I learned from my dad was simple. Don't act like a person who will get robbed and you wont get robbed. That advice has held up pretty well. In short ---- Don't be a dick.
My parents were teachers. Dad worked at the local High school, Bamboo Heights, and I went to my mothers school, Mount Hagen International Primary School. Strangely I recall we had some pretty advanced technology considering we were in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by a stone-age culture who were emerging, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century at the time. We had an AV room with projectors and Apple computers that could draw lines when you told them too. Outside the barbed wire fence people spat red stained betelnut juice on our cars. On the weekends I went horse riding or adventuring with the naturalist society (no not nudists) in a convoy of 4x4s on remote muddy tracks, winching people out of rivers and almost getting myself killed climbing cliffs and exploring caves. Looking back it was madness. Exciting--but all taken for granted. I had no appreciation for my childhood. Youth is wasted on the young.
What we didn't have, however was proper TV, decent movies, a cinema, recorded music. Just a few pirate VHS tapes from a local store and what ever else people shared. Compared to my New Zealand, Australian, English and American counterparts, what we had was virtually nothing. And that was before the internet. And so thus it was that under these bizarre colonial conditions I was to meet a young English boy from my class, Ben, who invited me to come over and play D&D with him one weekend. And I did.
I had no idea what D&D was at the time of course -- although I had seen the cartoon which hadn't left a very deep or lasting impression. No one really knew what it was where we lived. The two of us, being completely clueless, would have been the foremost experts on the subject for thousands of miles.
He explained I was required to make a 'character' and I recall how sophisticated and exciting that seemed to me at the time. Make a character, I thought to myself. It sounded authentic and artistic and very, very cool to my ten year old mind. It was even cooler than Tae Kwon Do at the local YMCA. There was something in the notion of making a "character" that hinted at some deep existential secret. Something that would somehow unlock the world. And it did. Instantly.
I'd already been told I had a penchant for drama. (I could be a right drama queen!) But despite this I was never called upon for school plays. Mostly my exclusion was punitive for refusing to do homework point blank. My parents were teachers and I was extremely suspicious of schools and education. I also had some kind of learning disability I was later told and I've spent my life debating this as either an excuse or a reason for my academic failures. These days I have been forced to accept I may have some mild form of autism. That's never been diagnosed but there is some kind of deep seated personality flaw that has never allowed me to simply "work for the man" my whole life. Now it must be noted that D&D was not the same as it is today. It was extremely underground and we were surrounded by people who had chosen to go and live in one of the most remote places in the world for a variety of reasons and honestly--some of those people were the most narrow minded idiots I have ever met. They were either there making huge amounts of cash exploiting the Papua New Guineans or they were there force feeding them religion, using coca cola and sugar as bait. Ben and I sat down that weekend with his only two D&D books, (AD&D 2nd Edition actually). Firstly, he had the now reviled 'Oriental Adventures' sourcebook, which we loved because we didn't know any better; and his monster manual, and we tried for the better part of the next year to decipher this intoxicating game. As with so many players of our generation, we had to literally work it out by trial and error and we had no guidance, no internet and no one to explain it to us. In fact for the first six months we would just sit around drawing maps, inventing encounters together, rolling dice, cheating like hell, and leveling up our Ninjas. My first ever D&D character was a Ninja-Yakuza called Aragorn. And he was awesome. Ben never told me his character's name because the rules said it was a secret . . .
My first ever D&D character was a Ninja-Yakuza called Aragorn. And he was awesome.
And so it was, some months into this rampant murder-hobo festival that one day I turned to Ben, after examining the books for a protracted period of time and I said,
"What If I drew the dungeon map and you told me what you were going to do?"
And that was when we really started playing D&D.
Six months after that moment, my family moved to the capitol city of PNG, Port Moresby and by a fluke of chance, Ben's parents also moved to PM six months later. Thus we were reunited. However what I had discovered in Port Moreseby was a thriving nest of Dragonlance players and other role playing games. It was here I learned to play Basic D&D, Advanced D&D, Palladium, GURPS, Top Secret, Mech Warrior and a slew of other games. And these kids actually did know what they were doing. Ah the old TSR days. We played Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk. Homebrews. We also knew the greatest secret about role playing games that there is: You can make up your own -- it's just not that hard. You don't even need dice. You can pull numbers out of hats if you need to. You can 'paper rock scissors'. You can just go with whatever works and sounds cool. In the end though, I stuck with Palladium----a kind of off-shoot from D&D before even Pathfinder existed----as I owned the books (I'd picked them up in Australia over a Christmas trip) and I was not mature enough at the time to play Dragon-lance with the older kids--which hurt me immensely. Instead I spent hundreds of hours designing my own rule books, games, modules, characters and worlds and if i was lucky -- I even got to run some of them for a while. That was in between the bullying and my own learning difficulties at school. It seemed like one huge spiral of shit and role-playing was my single refuge where I was in control. Familiar story to a lot of people. So I took role playing seriously. I never gave it up. In 1992 I went back to NZ to live and suffered immense culture shock. I got involved with the Auckland Sword and Shield Society and met people who played Rolemaster, MERPS and various other games. Some of which I'd played. Some I hadn't. Eventually I went into the film industry and started acting, got an agent and did some TV and theater. Along the way I ran into a huge group of people who played Vampire: The Masquerade and so through my twenties and thirties, that was my game! Vampire. I ran a single campaign with a small group of devoted players for over twelve years in Auckland. The Chicago Chronicles largely but also a number of protracted story-lines elsewhere including Gehenna and the Underworld. It was the single most intense and meaningful RPG of my life. And no one will ever know. Well eventually I decided to go and live in China for a while. I spent three years there using role playing games to teach ESL (and working on the side for an advertising company pretending to be their Art Director but that's another story). Soon after, I married an American, my wife Helen, and we moved to LA where I was shocked to find NO BODY KNEW WHAT MASQUERADE EVEN WAS ANYMORE! D&D5e was in and all other rpgs might as well have never existed. At least not in game stores and public spaces. Well that's when I decided to give this new fangled D&D5e a go. And honestly it was mostly due to demand. I couldn't find a game of Masquerade in my area. I made an Oath of Vengeance Paladin, named Braegan Erothani and from his backstory evolved my entire campaign setting, Sidarhael. And that my friends was the rather rambly and nostalgic story of how and why I play D&D. Sorry about the boring bits. It's late and I'm mostly writing for myself.