The Strange Places Inside our Heads

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

For me, it all started with a Little Red Box.

Let me take you back to the halcyon days of 1988. Steven Hawking had just published A Brief History of Time. You could see Die Hard in the cinema and Bruce Willis still had most of his hair. Axl Rose was actually cool instead of a shambling parody wrapped in a bright yellow overcoat. Shoulderpads were IN. In a big way.

Seriously, 1980s, were you just drunk the whole time?

I was in high school. Yeah. I’m that old. And I was a nerd.

Pro tip: being a nerd back in 1988 wasn’t all that much fun. The idea that you could see an X-Men movie in an actual cinema seemed as ludicrous then as those shoulderpads seem now. If you saw someone wearing black thick-rimmed glasses, you knew for a fact the poor bastard was legally near-blind, because no amount of hipster cred could compensate for the beatings his ass took at lunchtimes.

Now, I knew about Dungeons & Dragons. This was in the middle of the satanic panic, after all, and we heard that noise all the way over here in Australia. I could walk into a specialty bookstore and creep down into the darkened corner where the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books lay in wait. They had scary names like Monster Manual and had demons and whatnot on the cover. My parents were already worried about my burgeoning interest in hair metal (seriously, dem chaps). If I came home with a book called the Fiend Folio, I’d probably find myself in a convent.

But still, I was intrigued.

I didn’t quite know what D&D was, but the idea that you could share the strange places inside your head, get your friends and actually tell a story together, well, that blew my hair way back. I mean technically, my hair was already blown back. I had a mullet, modelled closely on Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘do in The Lost Boys. But you know what I mean.

Also I had no friends. Which was a problem, in as far as the “telling a story together” bit went.

Still, intrigued.

And then, I found the Little Red Box.

DD-Starter-SetSee, the D&D Red Box didn’t hit Australia until 1987. It promised the Dungeons & Dragons experience, without that scary “Advanced” word involved (for a gamer neophyte, “advanced” sounded intimidating—like there’d be a test at the end of it or something). It had a hero and dragon on the cover. No demons. No fiends. I had albums with scarier artwork than that, and my parents were (almost) cool with it.

I could pull this off, right?

The Red Box didn’t even have real dice inside. Just these weird half-baked things where you had to color in the numbers yourself—seriously, the box came with a fucking crayon in it.

But what it DID have were the rules to an entirely new kind of game. Something that took me beyond the pre-constructed adventures of the Fighting Fantasy books I so adored (still got my first editions, baby) and into the stories that dwelled in the strange places inside my head, DEMANDING TO BE LET OUT.

It also came with an adventure you could play by yourself. Which was neat for a kid with no friends. But eventually, my desire to play and share this game forced me out of the shell I’d built around myself and out in search of more weirdos like me.

I found them. Lots of them. I’m still friends with a few of them, decades later.

I told my first stories in D&D games. I built and destroyed my first worlds. It taught me about character and consequence. About the value of a shout and the power of a whisper. But along with the idea of telling stories together, and perhaps more importantly than that, D&D was a place for me to belong. It was a place that, while strange, I didn’t feel so strange inside, because there were other strange people in it with me.

We got older and grew our hair and went to university. Shoulder pads gave way to flannel, Bruce Willis went bald. The world changed, the game changed—AD&D 2nd Ed, 3rd Ed, 3.5, 4th and finally 5th, which, in a brilliant move playing preying on the nostalgia of an older generation of gamers, was repacked in a familiar Little Red Box.

We played other games. Cyberpunk and Vampire: the Masquerade. Paranoia and Champions. But at the heart of it, RPGs stayed a place to belong. A place where you could share the strange places inside your head. A place to make lame jokes and act like fools and just be yourself without judgement, because I hate to break it to you, ladies and gents, but we’re sitting around a table rolling dice and pretending to slay dragons here. So any pretense of cool you had got left at the fucking door.

We still tell stories together today. Me and my bestie and a group of my other best friends, NONE of whom I would have met without that wonderful gift called gaming. We sit around a table on a Thursday night and talk about work and politics, then get down to some good old-fashioned dragon slaying.

My bestie’s 10 year old son—a super-smart, super-quiet kid who reminds me a lot of me (the quiet part at least)—rolls dice for our Dungeon Master. He rolls crits against me a lot, the little bastard. He has a group of friends he plays with too, in a campaign run by his dad. A part of me hopes that in thirty years time, he’ll look at the friends he has around him and see some of the same faces he sees at his fortnightly game sessions today. Those people he belongs with. Those people he shares the strange places inside his head with.

All thanks to a Little Red Box.

nevernight-thumbnailJay Kristoff is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lotus War and The Illuminae Files. His new book, an epic fantasy about a school of assassins, Nevernight, is out now from Thomas Dunne Books.


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