Many of my most vivid childhood memories are fictional. I’m talking about the days when having a good time meant going out with friends to the wild areas beyond the neighbourhood and stepping into realms that didn’t actually exist, but that mattered more than anything else. I remember our various ingresses into those invisible worlds, and how we would immediately set out to find the perfect sticks for the quest at hand. Sticks would be transformed into powerful implements and we would unleash our hidden might and magic to battle mythical creatures and explore never-ending worlds. We achieved greatness over and over again. We defeated armies with the fallen branches of trees.
There was no judgement attached to what we did and there was no question that our play was anything but natural, and even important. But those days are gone now. Long gone. I can’t remember the last time that I let loose and played in that way. Can you? I imagine that the last day a person truly plays is the day that they trade in their childhood for the slog we have named Adulthood.
What if I told you that the separation between play and maturity is arbitrary? Your imagination, though possibly underutilised and neglected, is still a huge part of who you are. If anything, your creative capacity is stronger and capable of much more than when you were a child. With all of the life you have lived and the experiences you have accumulated, you are more qualified than ever to achieve staggering creativity. You may feel slightly less comfortable in your own imagination than you did as a kid, for now. Remember the worlds that you created when you were younger? Trust me, they were amazing.
You may find the passage back choked off, overrun with tangled self scepticism that has grown up as you’ve grown up, but the path is still there, and I encourage you find it and walk it again. It’s time to revisit those long lost realms of your youth. I also encourage you to take some friends with you. Reacquaint yourself with these imaginary lands. They are you after all. Think of how empty your kingdoms have been without your attention. This is your formal invitation.
I was given an invitation like this one about two years ago. A friend of mine brought me to a D&D night that his high school buddies had organised. I had never played before, though I had always been curious. Like many from my generation (and each that has followed), I played video games from a very, very young age, and RPGs have always been my favourite style of game. But for all of my nerdy interests I resisted taking the first step towards actual tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Pathfinder, etc. I don’t believe that I was alone in my hesitance, either. My perception of D&D players was that they were all Aspergery, mouth-breathing misogynists who would not tolerate my inability to recite intricate details from the Silmarillion, or pronounce Cthulhu properly. I never wanted to think of myself as the stereotypical gamer, and being a self-professed people-person, I struggled with a dual fear that I might be branded with the stigma of being one of those people, while also being criticised by the very people I was judging. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. I took that hardest, first step and went along with my friend to play Dungeons and Dragons. On that night I was reacquainted with a part of me that had grown distant. It was likecatching up with a long lost friend.
What I learned through the process of creating my first character, learning some of the basic rules, and finally sitting down to play, was that I had been starving for this kind of outlet for longer than I could remember. We played for several hours that night and when it finally came to an end, no one at the table wanted to leave. Seven hours after we rolled our first d20s we were buzzing on the experience we had just lived through. Two years later I can still see it all through the eyes of my character. The suspense and fear that we felt was real and the excitement that followed our encounter with the villain was a rollercoaster as we watched our triumphant victory seized from us at the last moment, luring us back for another session on another night. Mostly, I remember how hard we laughed throughout the entire experience. I had finally found a sanctioned, sacred place to be theatrical, to tell stories, to collaborate, and to simply play in a way that I had not done for over 20 years.
I played for a while as a character and then got the urge to develop my own stories and run my own games. That’s when things got really interesting. At this point I have run tons of one-off campaigns, and I have managed to introduce over 30 friends to this kind of gaming. I have run an ongoing story for over a year with a core group that has tested my creativity, imagination, improvisation, problem solving, and management skills. What these games have come to represent in my life is a chance to collaborate with friends in order to create, explore, discover, and challenge ourselves (and our alter egos) within fantastic and imaginary spaces. I think of this kind of gaming as improvised storytelling on a group level, as a doorway to shared hallucinatory experiences leading to the production of something that is part play and part movie, but ultimately far more personal than traditional, passive forms of entertainment.
I am definitely not the most knowledgeable GM out there, but I have found that it really doesn’t matter. With a bit of planning and effort my players and I have achieved greatness time and time again. We have freed slaves from their cruel masters, and escaped by diving into vast, decaying sewers in order to find some sort of salvation. We went in as adventurers and emerged as heroes, baptised by darkness. We have made friends with fae creatures and enemies from evil empires. We are hooked now and look for reasons to return to the table, to test our wits, to try some silly voices, and to tempt fate with a roll of the dice. This is because there is always more to learn about the experimental, living, creative spirit that embodies the game itself. Of course there are a multitude of pathways that lead to this kind of experience, and I don’t really care how you get here. My friends and I have started using 5th edition D&D and we find it much more to our liking than the 4th edition. But that is not relevant to the wider story I am trying to tell you, and will continue to tell you through the course of writing for Hoop.
In articles to come I will explore my relationship with D&D and the processes of playing, writing, and running games. There are tons of resources out there and I encourage you to seek them out, because after all, this is about sharing inspiration, ideas, experience and the fact that I have rediscovered how to play again. For the second time in my life I am able to, with friends, create memories out of events that never actually happened. It feels amazing. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.