Save Against Death

Marcus Katz

Save Against Death

When I think of Dungeons and Dragons, I think of 1980 and my brother’s half-orc barbarian wading his way through the sinking palafitte of an undead magician as the rest of the party covered their retreat by cleverly using the portcullis traps against the skeletal guards in pursuit. I think of the thin blue book I got for Christmas, after hanging around with sixth-formers (who seemed like adults to me) and learning to play the game each lunchtime. I remember shyly asking one of the coolest amongst them about a trap I had designed on a bit of paper and glowing for days in his kind words. I remember writing a BASIC computer program that acted as a random adventure designer on a PET computer with 8k of RAM. Fighting and learning to flirt (badly) in a manic bar-room brawl as a Cleric one afternoon at school, the only person from my year in the group of my 17-18 year old elders.

When I remember Tunnels and Trolls, I remember dying so many, many, times in Goblin Lake, with nothing but a pointy stick and a fishing net to my name. I remember creating more characters to play in solo games and learning the rules and the spells so I could recall them all from memory. I remember getting all the books I could on medieval cities and history, so I could create adventures of my own like I had bought with City State of the Invincible Overlord.

I remember Runequest, and the revelation of hit locations, and the obligatory brawl at Apple Lane, where we fought off a baboon attack, me with shuriken flying from the top of a roof – until a missed spear attack caused me to dodge, tumble and fall to my death from just two floors up. But then I remember Stormbringer and playing in the same world as Elric and Moonglum. And roaming the streets of Lankhmar, hoping to bump into Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

And Traveller – I remember the joy of rolling characters who had history, even if it were only a series of single lines describing their prior military service. And a code of – was it Hexadecimal – that in my imagination was an alien planet with its own civilisation, history and archaic religions.

And Starhound for ship-to-ship combat, first discovered by me on my very first overnight trip away from home to a wargames convention in Hastings, when I came back with a rucksack full of spaceships and stories. And Archworld! When I bridged into wargames, completing the circle from which role-playing had first emerged. And Call of Cthulhu, for which I had been primed for years on a diet of lurid paperbacks from the Eagle Centre market in Derby, which I still have on my shelves, despite their promise stamps on the inner cover of “part-exchange welcome”.

I remember hundreds of games, a four-year campaign where my friends played their way through my world and set up keeps, castles, towers, temples and guilds. All to the soundtrack of Rush, Dio, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Kate Bush before she went onto even stranger things. The tumble of dice, the fact that different dice were the thing that adults seemed most bemused by.

All of this is in my head, only a moment of recall away. All the nostalgia, the warm, fuzzy, glad-to-have-been-there feelingness of it. The taste of hand-rolled cigarettes as I went through that phase – the first kiss with an actual girl, that tasted of coke and promise. The weight of a Citadel or Ral Partha miniature in my hand when I got home after returning from an insane four-hour bike ride all the way to Nottingham and back every weekend.

The sliding door moment when I almost got a job at TSR UK and spoke to Gary Gygax on the phone, but was still too inexperienced to work out how to move to London. Conan. Legolas. The rich language of Jack Vance. The Stainless Steel Rat. Worlds and Wizards. Blades and Barbarians. Fortress Badabaskor. Seeing what might happen next. Laughter and Joy. A saving throw against actual death.

A moment away. But just a rulebook away now. Time to play.


  1. Hugh Foster
    Hugh FosterReply
    January 21, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    Word, man. My era. The glow never fades

  2. Stephen Wendell
    January 24, 2023 at 9:12 pm

    Welcome back, man! We saved your chair. Time to play!
    Had to look up palafitte. D&D makes us smarter!

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