So twenty years ago, give or take, I’m standing on the schoolyard with a couple of friends and another friend of ours comes up to us. I’m in second grade at this point, six or seven years old – my birthday’s in October, so I was almost always the last one to “level up”. I say almost because the friend who had just walked up to us all was named Glen, and he had the misfortune to be born on the 30th of December. Meaning when he was young, and giftlust was all-consuming, he was constantly getting gypped by Christmas – and later, when it was all about the drinking, he was constantly being overshadowed by New Year’s.
Apologies. I digress. This post is not about how I imagine Glen might have felt about the chronological positioning of his birthday – it is about what he had in his hands as he approached us on the schoolyard, that fateful afternoon. In one hand he held a hardcover book upon the cover of which was a knight riding a white stallion, slicing backward with his sword at a gigantic dragon. On the cover? Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia.
I stand here, two decades later, to tell you that from that moment, right there, when Glen walked up to us holding that book? I can’t speak for the others, but for me? Yeah, it was on. We were not the cool kids. We were not jocks. Fuck football – let’s pretend to be knights, and do math motherfucker! Roll some dice? Butcher some goblins? Fuck yes!
Five or six years later we abandoned the paltry, pathetic, lame, loserfest game of Dungeons & Dragons – for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. We were teenagers by then, with the acne and three-hair mustaches to prove it, but we were still not the cool kids. But fighting dragons with “elves” and “fighters” was so 1980’s. Now we were kicking down the doors as paladins, or dwarven clerics, or half-elf bards.
And then? The shit got real. Glen – who had brought us into the world of D&D and AD&D outdid himself. He got something called “Dark Sun” – a setting to play Dungeons & Dragons in. A scorched world, where the use of magic is itself a rape of the land that leaves the world a wretched husk, where mighty sorcerer-kings rule from thrones built on the blood and bone of their feeble subjects, where the magic is but one pillar of power alongside that of the mind, where every breath may be your last, and where your dying thought will be “water…please…just one drop of water”.
Paladins? Fuck those do-gooders – there’s no place for mercy or kindness or generosity of spirit in a world where every element, animal and weather pattern is trying to kill you! Elves? No longer the keeper of ancient lore and wisdom – these days they’re a nomadic tribal people, moving swiftly across the desert sands. Bilbo Who? I don’t know about hobbits, but the halflings I know are a savage bunch of cannibals, more likely to eat a stranger than invite him in for tea.
Sometimes the things that shape us defy logic or easily qualification. These days I write. Sometimes even well. Once, even for money. But I write, and though I don’t find the time to write as often as I used to, I remain steadfast in my belief that I will write again – that one day I’ll have a couple hours free, sit down in front of the keyboard, and write write write away.
I’m doing that right now, if you want to get technical.
But the one thing I can’t ever know, but will always suspect? I write because, twenty years ago, Glen came walking up to me (and others, but this isn’t their blog, so fuck them) carrying a copy of Dungeons & Dragons, ready to set spark to my imagination. And if I look back at the work I’m most proud of? Dark Sun, probably more than anything else, influenced it. My love of alternate (read that as non-Tolkien) fantasy began on that squalid, desert-seared planet.
The Dark Sun product line was canceled in 1996. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast (owners of Dungeons & Dragons and Dark Sun) announced that they were bringing Dark Sun back as part of the launch of the 4th edition of the world’s first roleplaying game. Until this past Monday, when he and I crossed paths on MSN, Glen and I had been out of touch for almost four years – ever since he moved to China. But when I saw him online, my path was clear. I didn’t ask him about immersion in foreign culture. I didn’t ask him about his girlfriend I’ve never met or spoken to. I didn’t ask him about teaching (which is what he does). I didn’t even ask when the next time he’d be on this side of the ocean.
What I did was nerd the fuck out with him about the return of Dark Sun for fifty-two straight minutes, at which point he had to go. It was all King Kalak this and wild talents that. He hadn’t even seen the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which isn’t all that surprising, when you consider just how much a niche product English roleplaying books must be in China).
His and my talk, brief as it was, showed me one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: we still aren’t the cool kids. And that’s cool.
So here’s my blog, to talk about nerd things – named the City-State of Balic after a city on the planet Athas, also known as Dark Sun. Seems appropriate.