As the boys at KES – King Edward High School – slowly oozed into their appropriate social strata I found myself with a diminishing range of options for inclusion. On the one hand you had the absolute nerds, those that were physically repellent, not especially smart and prone to acts of sheer vulgarity to get attention. To fall in with this group was a death sentence. Like a lobster trap, it was easy to enter but impossible to escape.
The next tier up were the psycho nerds, the kinds of boys who wore black and didn’t speak much, often coming from broken homes. Their way of attracting attention was bringing knives to school and carving desks. They like to talk about killing and torture and satanic rituals. Later they would evolve into Goths.
After that you had your classic nerds. Largely unattractive and badly styled, their major failing was their heightened intelligence, which made the jocks want to beat them, just because they could. Fortunately for the strong guys, everyone had to play rugby at some point, so even the classic nerds got a bit of the dumb treatment. I wouldn’t have been totally adverse to this group, except that I wasn’t studious enough.
Finally there were the Dungeons & Dragons players and fortunately, they were looking for members.
Fighting flaming dragons is a good way to spend your high school years. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of the mind in which you can be anything and do anything. You create a character and act in a consensual world of the imagination with your friends, the entire unfolding story orchestrated by the appointed Dungeon Master. You start at level one and work your way up. Some guys spend years developing their characters. When they lose them in battle, it’s like they’ve lost a family member. Not a sister or brother maybe, but at least a distant cousin.
In many ways it is an act of courage. It is the transformation of the mundane into the extraordinary and for a boy on the very edge of the social precipice it offered a delicious opportunity for escape. The other D&D crew were a sort of erosion from the main nerd groupings. Our group included smart guys, crass guys and most especially, psycho guys.
The appointed Dungeon Master, my most special friend, was Simon Anderson. He had introduced me to every facet of the world of fantasy and planted in my mind ideas that would grow to deeply influence me. He had lived on a farm in America where the parents and children lived almost completely separately. There he had learned of this wonderful game and built the core of our group at school.
Every break between studies we would gather behind the Technical Lab, sitting on the grass, eating tuck shop snacks and chatting excitedly about our characters. Often we would hardly even get to play the game before the end of break. Just discussing the inevitability of playing was exciting enough.
Having our own group gave us some measure of confidence and security. If a rugby creature had stumbled into our enclave, I reckon the lot of us could have taken him, cover him like a bunch of squirrels swarming a lion, biting and scratching him to death.
Cool as we thought we were though, we had another cool coming. One long, languorous break in the middle of summer, when time seemed to surround us like a hot haze that hid us from the world, I noticed a stranger standing by the fence.
‘Who do you suppose that ou is?’ I said to my friends, squinting through the time fog.
My friends turned to face him. He had long black hair, almost down to his bum, a pair of torn jeans, Doc Martins boots and a black T-shirt with an awesome red dragon covering it. The inscription read: DRAGONS GET BIG.
In short a sort of holy man.
He looked across the grass at us. He had inquisitive blue eyes. ‘Ist thou playing D&D?’
At that point Rene snorted through his nose as an exploding chuckle met a sip of Coke going inwards. Simon however seemed to recognise the code and responded quickly and quietly, like the diplomat character he always plays in the game.
‘Indeed Ranger, dost thou play?’
‘Why you ouens talking like that?’ giggled Kevin.
The stranger regard us sagely, took a card from his pocket and spun it through the air like a cardboard ninja star.
‘We have a crew operating in Yeoville. If you want to get some game time, phone that number.’ He flashed his glance across the group. ‘For those who are serious about the craft.’
Simon and I jumped for the card, tumbling over Kevin. When we looked up the stranger (Ranger?) was gone. Rene said he saw his foot sticking out from behind a tree but then the bell rang and we couldn’t go and check. I think he turned invisible but it doesn’t matter.
I would never have known it at the time, but we had encountered a Super Nerd.
We arranged to meet them on Friday. Afternoon lessons were so incredibly tedious that everyone started turning to jelly. Our final lesson, history, actually reversed the time flow and Gilman worked out how to talk backwards in slow motion.
Finally however, we escaped. The walk up the hill to Yeoville is a long one but Simon and I (the rest of the boys weren’t serious enough) felt like Elvish warriors going to battle.
As we turned into their road, flanked by huge Oak trees, we saw their car up ahead. Simon ran over to them in an embarrassing whirlwind of satchels and kit bags but I decided that I would maintain my dignity and strode slowly and imperiously, glancing around to see if anybody was noticing.
These guys are here for us, I wanted to say. This, my friends, is a real crew. They play D&D the entire weekend, without sleeping. They have their own transport.
As I got to the car however – nodding coolly at the three big, long haired guys chatting to Simon – and tried to open the door, they drove forward a couple of meters. I laughed in awkwardness and shuffled forward to grab the door again but again they moved forward, now all turned to me and having a good chuckle at my expense.
No! No! No! I looked around me again, this time praying that nobody had in fact been watching me. Why?
I kicked the pavement in frustration but one of the guys shouted out, apologised, told me to get in. With a rueful grin I ran over to get in the back seat and just as I got there, they jerked forward again. I was in a rage now and chased after them. They took off slowly and we continued down the road. I had thought Simon looked silly but as always, I took disgrace and crafted a Greek statue from it.
Welcome to the clan. Nice one guys.
Having said that it was an unbelievable weekend – The six of us were crammed into a stinky little flat in Yeoville, eating chips, not sleeping for two days. They gave us these cool pills which kept us awake.
We were a bunch of adventurers going on a journey. The thin guy was the barbarian warlord, the pale guy was the dark sorcerer and the hippy looking guy played the part of the nature loving druid. I played an assassin, a female one. Perfect.
In this game we had to take over an island populated by dinosaurs. In module play there is a sort of story line that the Dungeon Master can follow. The whole weekend was spent trundling around this imaginary dungeon in the middle of the island, being attacked by a whole host of mythical monsters. You had to roll dice to determine the success of your movements.
I learned more names of ancient Greek creatures in that game than I would have got in a month of Latin lessons. Pfaw! It was just amazing to think that you could spend an entire weekend thinking. How cool were we? It was like we had had a thousand chess games in a row, that’s how much thinking went on.
Late Sunday night we left. I had given my mom a list of names of friend’s mothers to cover the whole weekend but they were all moms without phones or who were permanently unavailable. I was safe. I could return home in comfort. The keep-awake pills made me feel a bit jumpy.
The next day however was just as rosy as you can imagine. I was half me, and half my beautiful elfin assassin girl. The road to school was filled with red shadows as the autumn turning Oaks transformed sunlight into colour. I was so switched on.
As I walked past the primary school, I lingered at the fence, watching a bunch of ten year old kids playing a game. They were playing D&D. I was floored. It was just beautiful. The craft was reaching the most sensitive minds, filtering through them to find a take, a kid curious about elves, about the wondrous book Lord of the Rings which I had recently read. I was looking at the next generation.
I reached to flip them a card but I didn’t have one. I decided I would have to get some business cards.