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I can trace my interest in Dungeons & Dragons to my sister who came home from elementary school one day to tell me excitedly about a game boys were playing in the classroom during recess. She said there was no board– only pencils and paper and oddly shaped dice. I clearly remember the fascination I felt. I remember her saying how she thought I would like it. She may even have said the game was called “dragons and something.” This would have been the mid-1980s.
We played board games. I liked watching movies. I had an active imagination– creating stories was something I liked doing at school and, sometimes, at home. I did not know what Dungeons & Dragons was, but the idea that you could make a game out of telling stories was something that stuck with me. I also remember repeatedly saying, “There’s no board?” I could not wrap my head around there being a game with no board.
I don’t know how much later, but later while still in elementary school I started telling friends “adventures”– spoken stories with decision points. The “player” made a decision and I continued the story. There was no dice, no rules, but also no paper and no pencils. It was me telling stories and someone else listening and making decisions. I made it up as I went along.
I remember one session where two friends and I remained in the basement for a whole afternoon– me telling the story and each of them having a cast of characters moving through the tale. The climatic finale was a set of doors they had to open. In one door was instant death. In another was victory– an escape. That is as much as I can remember of the plot, but I remember the feeling of sitting on the couch with two friends (they were brothers), me making up the story, and them making decisions. All afternoon.
I also remember one of the characters was named “Gump”, which was lifted from Ridley Scott’s Legend.
I was NOT a reader at this point. Not an avid reader.
I could read and I did read, but I did not read a lot. And yet I told stories, drawing inspiration from movies, and from Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were one of the few books I did read.
I moved to another city in Grade 6 and met a new set of friends. This was North Bay, Ontario. I only lived there for a year and a half, but I know this is where my storytelling games became more sophisticated. This is where my actual experience with Dungeons & Dragons began and where I started adapting that system into other genres. This is also where a girl in my class (Julie Neil) gave me a novel for my birthday. She knew I played Dungeons & Dragons. She thought I’d like the book. It was War of the Twins by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I remember not making much of a fuss at the time, but I did read it.
And it changed my life.
It made me a reader, which, in turn, continued to fuel my interest in role-playing games and storytelling, which, in turn, kept me interested in writing, which, in turn, kept me interested in discovering new forms of reading, which, in turn, got me to say “yes” when a friend in another city years later asked me if I wanted to borrow some comics, which, in turn, eventually made me get a comic file in another city many years later, which, in turn, is why many years later I am a published comics writer and now own a comic shop, which is how I came to be holding in my hands last week a copy of Freeway Fighter #1 written by Andi Ewington, drawn by Simon Coleby, and published by Titan Comics.
I brought a few copies in because of the cover art alone. I was surprised when it sold out on release day. The fact that the comic was branded as “Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter” struck me as odd, as did the Fighting Fantasy logo on the bottom corner of the cover. I did not dig into those names until the comic sold out the day of its release. There had to be a reason so I researched “Ian Livingstone” and “Fighting Fantasy”.
I was presented with a series of book covers that knocked me back to those days of my youth where I was exploring role-playing games and storytelling. I saw those covers and I knew I had read those books. I had forgotten about Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy, but now it was coming back to me in fits and starts as I browsed the digital images of the original covers, as Google showed me the character sheets included within, as I read about Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson and their impact on the gaming industry. These were things that I did not know at the time as a kid, but were now interesting and important historical facts of the industry in which I work.
My memory was sketchy– I had clearly forgotten about these books– so I reached out today to two friends who were with me during those early role-playing days. Brent was in the North Bay days– the grade 6 and 7 days in the late 1980s. Jason was in the 1990s days– the Assembly of the Dragon days. I figured if I had not owned these books– I felt I would have remembered them more clearly had I owned them– then it was highly likely I had seen these in the hands of Brent or Jason.
Turns out both of them remember having the books. Since Brent and I learned about D&D together I suspect he was the one who showed me Fighting Fantasy. The concepts of Fighting Fantasy and our early role-playing adventures are to similar for it to be otherwise. It is possible that years later in the mid-90s Jason still had these books and perhaps gave me a loan of them. These books sold millions so Jason also knowing the books isn’t surprising. Perhaps it was those books that laid the foundation for his interest in D&D.
Seeing and recognizing the Fighting Fantasy book covers was one of those moments where you are taken unexpectedly from the present to the past and are given the tools to engage in positive reflection. I now know these books have impacted me in regards to the storytelling I told as a kid. The covers, the illustrations within, the settings, the peril, the dice-rolling, the recording of stats. That was “dragons and something” in another form. That was the now me beginning to take form.
Freeway Fighter the comic was created to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of Fighting Fantasy. I’ve reordered issue #1 for the store and for me and have added the series to my pull-list.
Delving back into the archives of old school D&D character sheets, notes, maps, and art from my formative role-playing days in the 1990s, I came across a series papers titled “The Assembly’s Belongings”. These are– like most of the other documents in the old, faux leather folder– loose leaf sheets featuring my surprisingly tidy pencil printings.
The “Assembly” mentioned is The Assembly of the Dragon, the name given to the core group of player characters that went on adventures in fantastic lands while we sat in my basement, ate homemade caramel popcorn and mini Ritz crackers. The “belongings” is a list of possessions owned by various members of the Assembly of the Dragon. Over the years, the adventurers gathered wealth and used some of it to purchase manors in the land of Almor. These homes are where the player characters would spend some of their down-time between quests, but– more importantly– this is where they kept their accumulated swag. There is, after all, only so much you can hang off your horse. (I never was a fan of the Bag of Holding.)
The record begins with the following:
Each manor in Almor contains these rooms (special rooms not included):
- 3 servant quarters
- 5 storage
- 2 guest bedrooms
- 2 privy
- dining room
- common room
I cracked up reading this. It’s like cookie-cutter housing in a fantasy realm! Looking at this now, I wonder if each house had 3 servants or were there more servants and they, for example, slept three or even four to a room. I also find it interesting that each manor had not one but two indoor bathrooms– called a “privy” here to sound “classical”, perhaps. Surely, I don’t ever remember focusing on the particulars of bathroom breaks in the D&D universe, but perhaps the seasoned, well-heeled here would prefer to not have to walk outside to take a dump. Or, maybe, indoor plumbing was the creation of wizards.
The list of “The Assembly’s Belongings” continued with each player character’s possessions cataloged. I’ve not yet written about Cyric Lyonsbane (the character’s name is lifted from two characters from Richard Awlinson’s Forgotten Realms Avatar Trilogy), but he was one of the core player characters. Controlled by my friend Jason, Cyric was the dark, troubled member of the Assembly of the Dragon, with horrible facial scars and a long sword strapped to the stump of his right arm. Here is the loot lying around his “18 room manor in Almor” that sat on “20 acres of farmland”:
- Medallion – Defender of the King’s Justice
- 2 Aiel spears (Aiel is a culture lifted from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time)
- ruby hilted dagger
- Tigrarine spear
- Comoney armour
- whistle set
- sawed bastard sword
- Norghi bow blade (the Norghi were a monster– I can’t remember if I made them up or if I sourced them from somewhere; the bow blade was a lot like a Klingon bat’leth)
- two Retrecker swords
- suit of golden chain mail w/ plate chest
- steel capped staff
I’m guessing Tigrarine, Comoney and Retrecker were lands, monsters, or peoples encountered by the Assembly of the Dragon. The ruby hilted dagger tickles my memory, but I can’t conjure up the details. The sawed bastard sword was just like it sounds– a bastard sword where one side of the blade looked like a saw. So much of the hows and whys of these items have been lost, but perhaps future trips into the folder of old school D&D will reveal the details.
Many of the player characters were complicated dudes, with complex pasts that often came to influence the present. I do believe all of those characters were originals– that is, characters who had been with the campaign since the first adventure. As the DM, shaping stories for the player characters was a lot of fun, something to which I gravitated. Action has its place and I certainly did not shy away from dangerous foes, but I certainly took the most enjoyment from the character stories, especially seeing the players react to and use what I gave them.
One of my favourite player characters though was Salporin Charn, a character who joined the Assembly of the Dragon in a later campaign. He was a sailor who wanted to own his own barge. He was a drinker, womanizer, hearty eater and gambler. His story was simple yet I was very interested in him, in part, because of how Jason drew him: His conical helmet, his whiskers, and the fantastic bastard sword with the falcon hilt. I remember Chris and I marveling at how straight Jason had drawn that sword. He claims to have not used a ruler and we had no reason to not believe him. It was a treat to see the original drawing still intact in the folder of old school D&D material from the 1990s.
Looking at his character sheet, Salporin was a Level 8 Fighter. His weapon of choice was the aforementioned bastard sword. His shield was emblazoned with a “spear” and “bird”. (I don’t think that shield was ever drawn.) He wore a breastplate in the bluish-silver plate of the Assembly of the Dragon. His conical helmet was plate with a “leather back”. His boots were “brown leather”. His pants were “loose” and “dark brown”. His jerkin was “dark blue” and his cloack “long, dark blue.” I quite like that his gloves were recorded as “deerskin”.
The back of his character sheet mentions that his light grey, dark grey Dhurran horse was named Boulder. Jason also saw fit to record that one of the saddle bags was filled with “tea, cups, and kettle.” I seem to think that Salporin was the campfire cook of the bunch.
Here is his biography as written at the bottom of this character sheet:
38 years old; 6ft; 228lbs, born in the spring
He was born and raised in the port city of Vilekta. His father was a riverboat captain, so naturally Salporin felt drawn to the sea. When he was old and strong enough he was hired on as a crew member of a river trade ship. He hoped to save enough money to purchase a barge of his own, but he often spent most of his earnings on drink, gambling, women and food (the latter of which accounts for his rounded figure). He was on shore for a few days when the Assembly found him. He has taken up adventuring but the sea will always be his first love. He still hopes to buy a river trade ship and has recently started saving money he earns as the captain on one of Alon’s barges. Salporin loves a good laugh and a good story– not to mention good drink and fine women. At times, his sea-going manners make him appear rude and disgusting, but the Assembly of the Dragon accepts it all in good humour. He has recently found himself involved with one of Enid de Caela’s friends, a relationship that is looked upon not-too-favorably by some of the nobility. Those closest to these two, however, wish them the best of luck. Salporin’s body is muscle, covered by some fat. His dark hair is worn short with a bald spot on top. He likes to keep a scruffy face “to tickle the cheek of a pretty woman on a close encounter”, he says.
I find it interesting that Salporin’s dad never involved him on his own riverboat. It was similar for Aspitis Previs— he was a son of a nobleman who did not support his son’s interest in seafaring. I also like that in between quests Salporin worked as a captain on a river barge. (Alon was a player character who owned several river barges.) The final quote about tickling the cheek of a pretty woman is about as salacious as I’d ever be in D&D back in those days.
I distinctly remember in the late 1990s / early 200s feeling disappointed that we never “finished” D&D. Several of the later adventures were building to a final fight with the “Dark One”, a powerful, evil force that was starting to influence the world. I often wondered how it would have all ended. I don’t think that anymore. As I look through the binder now I think about fond memories of those days, but also envision what the characters would be doing. The younger me would have certainly have made it so that Salporin did save enough money to get his own ship. The older me feels like Salporin never did save enough money– he could not cut back on drink, food, gambling, and women– and thus remains as captain of a barge within Alon’s fleet. When old age gripped him, Salporin would become an administrator of the river boat trade, often conducting business in the dockside taverns, regaling the younger folk with tales of his time with the Assembly of the Dragon.
In writing about the player character Ren Treesinger (here and here) I came across a mention of a fallen character named Aspitis Preves. I have no memory of this character so I dived back into my old collection of D&D papers from the 1990s and uncovered more information about him, which I shared in a recent post entitled “The Mystery of Aspitis Preves.” It provided some answers, but I still did not remember the character. I remember a lot of details about other player characters so it is odd I cannot remember this guy. Tonight, I went back into the files and uncovered the reason why I cannot remember: He was met by the players in Adventure #11. As previously stated, he died in Adventure #12, which means he was only around for one adventure; but, it is very likely he was a NPC in #11, which means he was a player character that did not survive his first outing.
The image above is part of a hand-drawn map. It is labelled Adventure #11. You can clearly see “Pansis” on the island. Aspitis’ character sheet biography states he was from Pansis. I then found a passage in a story written by me entitled “Beginning Story #12”, which means it was the introduction I read to the players before we began Adventure #12. The story is written in ink, is shockingly tidily printed, and contains very few scribbled out words. The passage is as follows:
Ren and Illistyl spend time becoming more acquainted with Aspitis Preves, the newest member of the Assembly [of the Dragon]. The Assembly invited Preves to join soon after seeing the dwarves off to safety, but [he] refused. He knew he could not stay in Balta so he accompanied the Assembly to Almor where he would then decide what to do. In a new land, Aspitis felt the ties of an odd friendship he had made with the Assembly and he could not get himself to leave. Now he enjoys hunting with Ren and Illistyl. Oddly enough, Cyric has become very open toward Aspitis, showing him around the land of Almor and training him in swordplay. Maybe it is the fact that Aspitis, like Cyric, lived in darkness, but saw the light. Whatever the reason, the two have become trusted companions.
I had been surprised to learn I had used slave-trading in an adventure, but this passage strongly suggests the slaving was the main plot for Adventure #11. The mention of “seeing the dwarves to safety” makes me think Aspitis and the aforementioned villainous Morgan Eskalderne were antagonists in the quest, with Aspitis eventually turning his back on this “darkness” and perhaps even betraying Eskelderne. Redemption was a reoccurring theme in my old school D&D. I returned to D&D via 5th edition a couple years ago and in the limited number of campaigns– I don’t call them “adventures” anymore– I’ve run there has been no whiff of redemption. Often those that do wrong feel the bite of justice / vengeance even when they try to right the wrongs. If I really think about that I find that odd because I consider myself a forgiving person who believes people can change and redeem themselves. And if I think about THAT then I think it just boils down to crafting campaigns with emotional punch and not campaigns built around my personality. “I’m tired of happy endings” might be another way to explain it.
Across this span of years, the ending for Aspitis Preves might be the most unhappy of all those who perished in service to the Assembly of the Dragon. He changed his life and set out on a grand quest with his new companions only to have the details of his death forgotten. His character sheet is incomplete. His entry is the list of the fallen is incomplete. He never even had a chance to name his horse.
In a previous installment of Old School D&D I mentioned I could not remember much about a player character named Aspitis Preves. Tonight, I once again sifted through the folder of old D&D material and found two of his character sheets. One (seen above) is very tidily written but is missing his XP and Level on the front-side. The other appears to be the active character sheet, with modified experience, money that has been reduced, and stats that have changed, but the back-side does not list his skills or his biography. The skills and biography are on the first sheet.
I know I copied the character sheets between adventures, updating the biographies, skills, equipment, and so on, so perhaps I had started to do that with Aspitis but did not finish before a new adventure began. I may have also started copying the character sheet as the adventure neared its completion but abandoned the task when he died. Either scenario might explain why I kept both copies. Since this was more than 20 years ago I can only speculate. I had hoped finding his character sheet would jog my memory but it has only created more mystery. His biography is full of tantalizing information….
31 years old, 6ft 2, 188lbs, born in the spring
Born in the seaport city of Pansis, Aspitis was naturally fascinated with the great seafaring ships. As the son of a nobleman, however, he was not permitted to join a crew, nor did he really want to. Aspitis wanted to captain his own ship, so as a child he studied navigation and when he was old enough, he purchased the Wavewalker. How he fell into the evil of slave-running with the ruthless Morgan Eskalderne, he will not say. Before these dark years however he traveled the seas to distant lands, carrying exotic goods. He soon accumulated great wealth.
This biography strongly suggests Aspitits was a NPC who became a character, much like the sailor Salporin Charn or even the aforementioned Ren Treesinger. I think I can safely say Aspitis helped the players in a quest and decided to join them as a way to atone for his darker, slave-running days. That feels like something the teenage me would do. I am, however, a wee bit surprised that I had slave-running in my old school D&D.
Those of you who enjoy the fantasy genre might recognize the name Aspitis Preves as a character from Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy. I was quite terrible (and lazy) at creating names so I often borrowed from genre fiction I enjoyed, including Tad Williams’ work. Indeed, the surname Eskalderne is most likely a riff on the character Einskaldir from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.
Apsitis’ character sheet reveals he had a Shrack Axe (-2) slung on his horse. (I’d give negative modifiers for a weapon with which a character was not familiar.) This suggests Aspitis survived at least one encounter with a Shrack and thus may have, in fact, been predeceased by Ren Treesinger. (I had written earlier about how Ren and Aspitis died in the same adventure.) But I still don’t remember!
As a final note (for now) about Aspitis, I see that he never named his horse.