The first love of my life, apart from Jason the dachshund, was Dungeons & Dragons. It was 1981 and I was nine years old when my brother came home from school one day raving about a game he had watched some chaps playing in the playground.
“Several people can play. There’s not even any board. One guy is the Dungeon Master and he explains everything to the other people and they have to decide what to do. The Dungeon Master has maps and books with all the descriptions and rules in them. The players all pretend to be someone and they have to fight monsters and stuff. And they use these dice, with like twenty-sides and twelve and eight sides. It’s a fantasy game. It’s untold!”
He had, in fact, been watching people play for several days, sitting under a fig tree in the senior playground. His enthusiasm had grown steadily and, once he was hooked, he decided to recruit me so we could play at home. Naturally I was curious, and being the younger by two years, I often looked to my brother to introduce new things to me.
Aged nine and eleven we didn’t exactly have enough pocket money to rush out and buy the game rules, so to begin with my brother wrote an adventure, based on what he had seen at school. It was called the Keep of Terror and was, in every regard, what would later become known as a classic dungeon crawl. He drew a map of corridors, rooms, stairwells and underground caverns with an accompanying booklet defining the contents, replete with monsters, pit traps and even a pendulum blade trap. He had obtained a sufficiently rudimentary understanding of the rules to be able to help me create a character, and thus was my first ever avatar born: A Fighter by the name of Heedik. Without the appropriate dice, he approximated everything on three six-sided dice (3d6) and we sat down one afternoon in his bedroom to play.
I was instantly, and I mean, within seconds, totally and utterly engrossed. As I began to explore my first dungeon, armed with a long-sword, wearing leather armour and carrying a shield, my imagination came alive in a way that no story or film had ever managed to achieve. For first time ever, I was the protagonist. In the flickering torchlight and haunted illumination of the cobwebbed arrow-slits, my life depended not only on the decisions I made, but also the dice-rolls. When I opened a door to be attacked by three skeletons armed with rusty old weapons, I was thrilled, terrified and delighted, especially once I crouched over their shattered remains to pilfer a valuable gold necklace. My long, long, long and ongoing fantasy adventuring career had begun.
We replayed the Keep of Terror twice, then, that same week, pooled every cent we had managed to save, just under twenty dollars, and set off for Mind Games in Bondi Junction. We weren’t entirely sure what we should buy, but for some strange reason, rather than simply buying the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, we bought two adventures instead. In Search of the Unknown and The Palace of the Silver Princess, B1 and B3 respectively.
I had a few dollars more than Matthew and bought two dice as well – a D20 and a D8. We rushed home and got stuck into reading these “Modules”. In no time flat, my brother, ever the Dungeon Master, was taking me through In Search of the Unknown.
Like most modules back then it too was a classic dungeon crawl – the long-abandoned lair of a vanished wizard. After years of neglect, the place had been overrun by monsters and overgrown with strange, in some cases sentient plants. Other adventurers had tried and failed to explore this musty hideaway and the entrance corridor was grisly with their decaying corpses.
Feeling it was time to move on from Heedik, and now more aware of just how makeshift my brother’s initial crack at the rules had been, I picked a character from the pre-generated list at the back; a first-level cleric called The Mystical One. It was a crap name, it must be said, but I rather liked it at the time. Accompanied initially by a few more robust NPCs (non-player characters for the uninitiated) The Mystical One survived the challenges of In Search of the Unknown and, believing at the time that it was only possible to have one character at a time, I stuck with him.
It wasn’t until our birthdays came around that we finally got hold of the rules and things became a lot clearer. My brother also succeeded in recruiting his best friend Shah, and I got my best friend Gus on board, thus significantly increasing the player roster. Of course, they could hardly be there on a regular basis, but my brother and I played almost every day after school. One weekend, whilst the two of us were staying at Shah’s house, The Mystical One finally met his demise at the hands of a village of enraged Lizardmen on The Isle of Dread. I was somewhat upset about this, but also felt ready to move onto another character.
Needing a new avatar, I again turned to the long list of pre-generated characters at the back of In Search of the Unknown and chose a thief by the name of Luven Lightfingers. This time he stuck, and, despite being somewhat pissweak, he proved more capable at keeping himself alive. Within a year Matthew and I had bought the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, in the first edition of course, and we simply adapted our game to this far more complex and ultimately satisfying rules system. Luven, survivor that he was, would go on to reach 9th level over the next few years of gaming.
More than just a character in a fantasy role-playing game, Luven Lightfingers was my first true alter-ego. Cunning and resourceful, dextrous and skilled, intelligent and sharp, he was my hero. But, best of all, he was me. I imagined him looking rather lank and devious. The shady guy in the corner, a pick-pocket, a pilferer, yet he was also one who favoured helping the disadvantaged and tyrannised. He would, if at times in an underhanded and unconventional fashion, always try to put an end to evil where he found it. He had the common touch and was not fond of the excesses of the aristocracy. He was himself no assassin, was not an evil man, and appropriately this was reflected in his alignment – chaotic good. The Players’ Handbook, and here I quote from the 1989 2nd edition, has the following to say about the chaotic good alignment:
Chaotic Good is known as the “Beatific,” “Rebel,” or “Cynic” alignment. A Chaotic Good character favors change for a greater good, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. They always intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of alignment with the rest of society. They may create conflict in a team if they feel they are being pushed around, and often view extensive organization and planning as pointless, preferring to improvise. While they do not have evil intentions, they may do bad things (even though they will not enjoy doing these things) to people who are, in their opinion, bad people, if it benefits the greater good.
Around the age of twelve, with Luven rapidly approaching tenth level, my brother, who had started to display an increasingly mean streak as a Dungeon Master, tried to kill off Luven in Against the Giants. Having snuck his way deep into their compound in the mountains, Luven came upon a treasury, the centre-piece of which was a large, iron-bound chest. Naturally excited at the prospect of some quality loot, he proceeded to search for traps and found none. The chest was locked, yet the lock was not beyond his skill and Luven sprang it without difficulty. Sadly, however, there was in fact a poison spike trap which he had failed to detect, and as the lid popped open, a spike shot into his arm, tipped with a lethal poison.
I needed to roll a 10 on a d20 to make the “saving throw”, but when I threw that die I rolled a 9. My heart sank, and I looked at my brother as though to say, “Surely, no?” Yet I received no sympathy.
“Too bad,” he said. “Luven’s dead.” Indeed, he seemed almost to revel in the demise of my beloved Luven. We fought, there were tears, and I ran away and locked myself in my room.
The following day, however, still mourning his death as much as I had the death of Jason the Dachshund that same year, I remembered that Luven was in fact wearing a Ring of Protection +1, which gave him a positive modifier on his saving throw dice-roll and thus should have seen him survive the deadly poison. I took this information to my brother, but he refused to accept it.
“It’s too bad, he’s dead,” he said, re-iterating his cold response of the day before. “But,” I kept pushing, “we forgot about the ring. That’s the rules,” yet my brother would not budge. He must have decided he had had enough of Luven Lightfingers and wanted him to stay dead. Again, there was fighting, anger and tears and this time the situation prevailed for several days. Ultimately, my father was forced to intervene to try to convince Matthew that it was in the best interests of family harmony that he allow for the resurrection of Luven. My brother would not quite agree, but I at last decided that I didn’t, in fact, need his say so on this one. So far as I was concerned, Luven was still alive.
My attachment to Luven Lightfingers never quite diminished and he has enjoyed further resurrections over the years in various fantasy settings; especially in the many later iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, be it 2nd or 3rd edition, or in computer games such as Baldur’s Gate I & II, Neverwinter Nights I & II, Icewind Dale 1 & II and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I have, of course, used many other avatars, some of whom will be featured here, but so deeply nostalgic do I feel for Luven that here and there I can’t resist bringing him back to life in some form or another. I suspect he will crop up again in the future, in some as yet unforeseen campaign, although the pleasure I receive from naming characters will likely ensure he won’t be my first choice.
Dungeons & Dragons has shaped many aspects of my life and, since I was a child, role-playing has been my escape. When I didn’t like my situation, I would pretend to be somewhere else or go somewhere else; when I didn’t like myself, I would pretend to be someone else; and when I didn’t like someone else, I would pretend to take them out with an arrow. Dungeons & Dragons was no mere game and it rubbed off on me as a way of looking at the world. Ever since I first embarked on In Search of the Unknown I’ve never ceased to view people, including myself, as “characters”; some friendly, some hostile, some worthy of love. Just as I developed my characters during my obsessive childhood until I grew bored of their capability and started afresh with a new character, so it was with me and my associates. Characters in life have often seemed like commodities and when people, through overexposure, became reduced by waning interest to caricatures of themselves, I am often forced to go back out in search of the unknown in the hope of finding the novel.
When I became unhealthily obsessed with the MMO, Dungeons & Dragons Online in recent years, I found myself constantly switching “toons”. One character would have a good long run from 1st level up, then sit for a while as I grew restless with them and wanted to run a different build. So it was that I went through Hallifax Bender, Bethanie Brinsett, Jaspar Krait of Luskan, Snowfell Vanish, Summer Thingis, Honeydrop Sundew, Lusetta Sorrowdusk, Lucessa Rainsinger, Applefrost Loveblossom, Jyzze Badajon and the indomitable Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce, to name a few. Each of these toons had their own style and personality, and though hardly a game that inspired role-playing, being in groups, miked up and chatting with five other random strangers from faraway places such as Brazil, China, the US, Spain, UK and Israel, inspired a certain role-play in itself. Still, I could never quite work out who I wanted to play – healer or assassin, tank or buffer, crowd control or hardcore caster of arcane magics.
I found this restlessness with characters also translated to people, especially once I started using online dating websites. The profiles looked to me just like character sheets and I was torn in deciding which one I’d either like to “play” or have in my party as it were. Indeed, I soon realised that my obsessive switching between toons had shortened my narrative attention span so that I couldn’t date someone without already thinking about who I’d like to date next. Most people I met had a certain appeal, but perhaps it was insufficiently broad to warrant whole-hearted enthusiasm. I have always played multi-class characters, and I guess I expect people to have a wide range of interests and to be extremely versatile thinkers and conversationalists. They can judge me however they like too! I also have a tendency, both in life and in roleplaying, not to give much thought to the endgame. I’ve always far preferred the beginning with all its immersive excitement and novelty. I’d like to think that I have moved on from this phase now – one can but hope.
So, here we have it, the avatars. Luven first, as there could be no other first, despite his predecessors. I’d like to think that, unconstrained by the forces of entropy, they might live on forever. And so it is that I have chosen to commemorate them here.