|My first D&D book!|
Once upon a time . . . there lived an elf named Hektor and a half-orc named Lattice. Hektor and Lattice were strolling through the woods when they came upon a group of lizard men. Lightning streaked the sky, and shortly after it began to rain, but the elf and the half-orc continued to spy on the reptilian gathering. The lizard men were standing over a stone circle set into the ground. One of them came forth holding a staff. He appeared to be a priest of some kind, enacting a ceremony. The circular stone was etched with runes, at the center of which was a hole. Now the wind was gusting and the lightning falling furiously. Hektor, being young and lusting for battle, rushed headlong into the scaly host, as Lattice, rolling his eyes at the predicament he was being drawn into, followed with mace in hand. A few bloody rounds later, all of the lizard men lay dead or dying, and the elf fighter and half-orc cleric victorious. But what was the ceremony all about? Was the staff meant to go into the stone circle, perhaps to open a stairway into some secret dungeon? It was at that point that the Dungeon Master, Michael Von Kreninsky III, got out of the booth, saying that he had to go. “But we only just started!” I complained. “Sorry, I’ve got a date,” he said, leaving my friend and I to wonder what would have happened to Hektor and Lattice had they completed the ritual. It’s been almost thirty years now and I am still wondering.
This was the summer of ’87, a primitive time before YouTube, iPhones or DVDs. All we had were Fridays at the movies and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the only thing worth playing was Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. My friends and I were getting too old for toys and desperately needed something to keep us busy for three months. That’s when we met Michael, an eighteen year old college student working for my dad as a pizza cook. He introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, giving me a binder of adventures he had made in the seventies, along with his beat up copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I held that book in my hand as if it were magic, because for me at least, it was. Such a book could open pathways to any place and time, allowing us to be anything, do anything. We were bound only by the limits of our imagination. Unfortunately, Michael did not stick around to teach us how to play, so I spent weeks struggling with rules, never realizing how poorly written those seventies books were, or that I was missing some key components like The Player’s Handbook.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition
Eventually, my friends and I learned the game. It was me, my friend George Lakiotis, and Mark Carlisimo. We would hang out all day in the back room of my dad’s restaurant, drawing maps and rolling dice. I’d always been an imaginative kid, but this was like a powerful hallucinogenic bringing everything in my mind to life, the DMT of games. And I was Sir Marek the Brave, a human fighter, who eventually became the “Nova Knight.”
|Sir Marek, drawn in 1988, photoshopped 2010|
George was a wizard named Heraldo, who looked a lot like the news pundit, and Mark was the half-orc cleric, Lattice. My first world, I’m ashamed to say, was Nick’s Realm. It included wonderfully inventive places like Elf City, Dwarf City and Human City. But we eventually set sail from Nick’s Realm to explore other worlds, hacking and slashing our way through countless dungeons and monsters. In Egypt, we suffered the curse of Anubis, after looting his temple. In Greece, we met with Heracles and Bellerophon, from whom Sir Marek earned his magical Spartan-like helmet. In Norway, we helped Thor find a magic jewel that had fallen from his hammer, Mjolnir. There wasn’t a mythological setting beyond our reach! Then, as we were preparing to storm the gates of Orcus, Prince of Demons, Sir Marek and Heraldo got into a fight. You see, for the longest time, I had been a jerk to my friend, putting him down for his lack of effort, even though he did manage to DM a lot, including the time Sir Marek killed a red dragon to gain a +4 Sword of Defending. I also tended to insult him when he couldn’t find a solution to a puzzle. But the larger problem was that we were growing apart. George only cared for skateboarding and hanging out with his skateboarding buddies. I owned a skateboard, mostly for his sake, and could do a 180 without much difficulty, but George excelled way beyond me, rail sliding down stairwells and ollying small dogs and doing other crazy shit I simply did not have the dexterity for. So, while I wanted to throw dice, he just wanted to gleam the cube.
|George had the skills. Me, not so much.|
But what really put the nail in Sir Marek’s sarcophagus was what would seem today utterly ludicrous, that thing being SATAN. No, I’m not talking about the impossible boss from Ghosts n’ Goblins, but the very real Satan, the same guy religious people believe in.
|That’s right . . . SATAN!|
At the time, my mother was forcing me to take Greek lessons, but when it came to God, my tutor was bat shit crazy. Now it wasn’t as if I had no experience with fundamentalism. For eight straight years, I attended a Baptist School, where I was forced to wear ties on Wednesdays and thank God for every damn pencil and eraser I brought to class, and where I was told not to watch He-Man or Transformers because they were satanic. But my Greek teacher took things to Scarlet Letter-levels of insanity. This was a woman who, after the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, told me, in all seriousness, that the astronaut crew was killed for “trying to reach God.”
|God’s divine punishment. Hey, who’s the good god here?|
She also refused to attend her own son’s wedding when he married outside of the Orthodox Church. So, naturally, when she learned of my gaming habits, she made it her mission to put a stop to it. As far as she was concerned, my friend and I were spending our weekends worshiping Satan. Of course, I could not have cared less what the batty old lady had to say, but my mother took the whole thing seriously. She forbade me from D&D, and what’s worse, George’s mother caught wind of it and did the same. Despite my attempts to explain RPGs, I could not convince my mother that the game was just a game and nothing to fear.
Unfortunately, I was still at an impressionable age, and being brainwashed both at school and at home, so that after a while, paranoia started to creep in, and I got to thinking that maybe there was something to this satanic stuff. After all, I’d been taught since kindergarten that demons were real. In retrospect, Dungeons & Dragons posed a threat not to my soul, but to my indoctrination. I mean, the Monster Manual treated demons and devils like any other made up creature. Logic follows that if the unicorn on p. 200 is imaginary, why not Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Plane of Hell, found on p. 10? This was especially challenging to my faith, because I was raised to believe in the Bible, not just the realistic parts, but even the Book of Revelation with its seven headed dragon. If some of it turned out to be fiction, so could all of it . . . and maybe even God was just another deity from Hebrew mythology. But I was far too young, and unprepared, to handle such an existential crisis, and it led me to having nightmares, and to tearing out the pages of demons and devils from my Monster Manual. Sure, it might sound extreme, but this was a different time, when even the media occasionally lost its mind over supernatural nonsense. I remember being in the library with my D&D books, when a strange lady stopped to warn me of the dangers of fantasy. Even journalists, who should have known better, got taken in by the hysteria. According to the article, “The Most Dangerous Game,” D&D can lead to suicide! Of course, this cause and effect argument is the oldest in the proverbial book of fallacies. Using the same logic, if you like to eat peanut butter and kill yourself, we can all blame peanuts for suicide. But remember, this was the eighties, long before Doom and Diablo and World of Warcraft, back when parents fretted over everything and anything their kids were doing that they did not understand, so even TSR, the makers of D&D, bowed to the pressure, releasing a 2nd edition without any mention of devils or demons (they went by other names).
Ultimately, I was forced to quit reading and writing and drawing and being creative in so many ways, but religion wasn’t entirely to blame; it was also my best friend, who had suddenly grown a conscious. And that was what really infuriated me. This was a guy who never went by the rules, a true rebel without a cause, getting an earring (a big deal at the time), smoking and even stealing his mom’s car. But when it came to D&D, he just had to obey. Despite so many happy memories, the game tore our friendship apart. Only later did I realize my role in our falling out, for putting him down all the time. We simply had different ability scores. His was for skateboarding, and mine for writing.
I continued Sir Marek’s adventures in my Novel of the Nova Knight series, but my gaming days were over. That was, until, my senior year of high school, and Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.