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Once Upon A Time:
Coming from a large, extended, East London family, I spent a lot of my childhood hanging out with my cousins - all of whom lived just a few hundred yards away. Kevin is the eldest of six of us - and the only other real freak in my entire family.
Now that he's older he works in advertising, is married, has twins, and describes himself as a 'closet Goth'. He is a very lovable and kind man.
However, when he was 13 he was a geek with a capital G. It was the early 80's and I remember him wearing a grey V-neck pullover, ankle-flapper flares, white socks and a pair of thick black plastic specs.
He was my hero.
And I'm not being funny...
It was 1981, I was seven, he was 13, and he had just discovered Dungeon's & Dragon's.
Whilst my sister and his sister were playing with dolls and stuffed toys in another room, I would stand watching (probably sucking my thumb), whilst him and a few of his equally geeky friends sat around the table with pencils, paper and dice and made up the most fantastic bedtime stories I'd ever heard.
Best of all, when he was drafted into looking after us (me, my sister and his sister) he used to leave them with their dolls and girly toys; grab his pencils, paper and dice; and cop a squat on the living room floor with me.
I spent many happy hours creating characters with a flagrant disregard of the rules (I was seven!). But Kevin was never a rules lawyer - and he got his kicks from encouraging me to use my excessively vivid imagination (see: every school report I've ever had).
Anyway, once I'd created my character he would begin the story and I would listen - all big-eyed and goldfish-mouthed. He used accents and facial expressions and hand gestures and everything! Sometimes there was even singing!
But do you know what the best part was?
Every now and then he would stop the story and ask me what 'I' (meaning my character) wanted to do next.
Just writing that makes my stomach flip over.
The excitement is still so clear. 'I' was creating the story. When I closed my eyes I could see it all. I've been that way for as long as I can remember. Every story, every book, plays itself out like a movie in my head. I was seven years old and I was the star - no, not just the star, 'the heroine' - of my own in-brain movie.
And that was it. I was hooked forever.
But I was seven, and a girl, and I probably did stuff like offer the Orc beating the door down a makeover. I may even, occasionally, have wandered off to play with dolls. I pestered him time and again to let me join his group.
Obviously, that never happened.
So finally he lent me some Fighting Fantasy books and I was appeased for a while. But FF gets boring after a couple of years. And, you can only get eaten by the same tree in the Forest of Doom a certain number of times before you tear the sodding book to shreds!
A little later of course, came make up, and boys, and shoes. The love of the game never died, but it went on the back burner. Although every time there was a family get-together I would drag every scrap of information about role-playing out of Kevin that I possibly could and he was always willing to oblige. I think he appreciated the rapt audience - what GM doesn't?
Eventually I hit 16 and moved up into the school sixth form to start my 'higher' education. My school had a California-style-clique-thing going on. So, naturally, I was stereotyped, found wanting, and assigned to the group innovatively entitled 'The Freaks'.
I found myself - along with my 'Silent Bob' best friend, Simonne, and stray 'new girl', Julia - in a group with six guys. We all had a few things in common - we liked heavy metal, we were the children of non-religious, liberal parents, we were creative and we all had an unconventional sense of humour. Oh, and we read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies - generally material with a fantasy, action or sci-fi theme. The guys also role-played, war-gamed and board-gamed.
So one night we were invited along to the obligatory parents' dining room, and I got my first real taste of proper role-playing. Too shy to be an actress and too impatient to be a proper writer, I fell in love with gaming.
But the months that followed were full of turmoil and heartache.
Three precocious girls. Six hormonally-rampant boys. Way too much time on our hands.
You do the math (actually don't do the math 'cos then it sounds really rude, and it wasn't actually quite 'that' rude)!
For two years we did a lot of fighting, snogging, growing up, and - oh yes - gaming. It was the worst and the best of times.
To hit armour class nought
But there was something rotten in the dining room. I found myself often confused. I knew I wasn't completely stupid but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't understand the rules. It made no difference how many times I asked one of the guys to explain rules like THAC0, it just seemed to get more complicated the more they tried.
They were also very precious about their books - almost anal. We could look at the pretty pictures from a distance but we weren't allowed to touch. And borrow them? HA.
Ha ha ha.
'To save time' we were told to just roll the dice and the guys would then determine our success or failure dependent upon what we rolled. When we asked to have the rules explained again we were told: 'it doesn't matter, it'll take too long to explain, just roll the dice and we'll tell you how you did.'
Eventually, despite being a little gullible and quite a lot naive, I began to realise that things weren't as innocent as they seemed.
My 'all humanity is inherently good' life-theory started to fray around the edges when I realised that this was a ploy to keep the 'wimmin' ignorant and to establish a male position of dominance and power.
So, I asked Kevin where I could buy some rulebooks and I went off shopping. I came home, got my head round the basic rules, realised how badly we had been misled, and then?
I left the group.
I didn't rave or rant or scream or shout. My intelligence was insulted and my pride had taken a knock. I decided these guys weren't the kind of people I wanted for friends. So I walked.
The girly bond survived however; Simonne - and Julia (who actually turned out to be a lot like 'Jay') - are still my closest friends today.
Our A-Level exams were coming to an end by then and the whole group was gradually drifting apart anyway - going off to Uni. or to get a job in the real world. I was frequenting a rock/metal club in my area on Saturday nights and had started to make some new friends.
By chance I discovered that the guys I was hanging out with at the club also role-played. Like attracts like I suppose. And lo and behold a new group arose like a fiery bird from the ashes.
The Dirty Dozen
At the outset there were 12 of us and we played twice a week in my parents dining room.
My mum was fine about a troupe of very tall, long-haired, leather-jacketed guys walking through her living room every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday night. As a kid my parent's house had always been the gathering place for every child in the neighbourhood - (my mum said she didn't mind as she got to keep an eye on what I was up to) and there seemed no reason for that to stop now I was a teenager.
Within weeks she was a second mum to all of the guys and they would buy her packets of Wine Gums and Minstrels as offerings for her advice and hospitality. There was many an afternoon I would come home an hour before the game started, and one of the boys would already be there telling my mum about his girlfriend troubles.
And every once in a while she would come in whilst we were gaming, sit down, and say: 'so explain this to me again' and we would all try, and five minutes later she would leave, flapping her hands and laughing: 'I still don't get it'.
Being a mum she didn't have to get it, she just had to be cool about it, and she was.
Dad was less impressed, but used to limit his disapproval by rolling his eyes and sighing. He had no problem with the gaming itself, but the guys' bullet-belts and biker books left scratches on his nice new dining room suite. (We're talking early 90's heavy metal attire. Think Guns n Roses.)
Going the distance
My life as a committed role-player had begun.
Within six months I was running my own 'ickle baby game (remember Hollow World?), I graduated later onto Ravenloft, tried out Shadowrun at university, and nowadays I'm the resident White Wolf expert (house rules, sans angst).
Through the last 11 years and approximately 30 players, two of us have survived the whole ride and consider ourselves the founders of our little band of merry men.
I'm one - obviously. The other is Duncan, or D as he is more commonly known. The first game I played with D I asked him to explain THAC0 to me. He used three simple sentences and I've never had to ask since.
He's my role-play buddy, my trusty sidekick and virtually family, and despite disagreeing on everything else in the world (religion, politics, society?) we always manage to get along by having this hobby in common. Our latest group is going through a rough patch at the moment, but I have faith that we'll survive in some form.
Regardless, D and I will continue on. I can picture us starting a gaming group in our old folk's home.
Role-playing isn't my life, but one night a week isn't quite enough and I still love this game as much now as I did when I was a seven year old finding the best new shiny toy ever.
And Kevin - with whom it all began?
Well, he doesn't play anymore. After marriage his wife complained - quite rightly - about her 'role-playing widow' status. Later he had to move away from our area for a few years and survived on 'play by mail'. Now he has twins who are a year old. He's a busy, happy man.
His last shout was with my group a few years back - GMing a freeform Cthulhu. He ran a six-hour adventure for us with no notes, no maps, no paper, no pencils, and only 1d6. We all loved it and he scared the pants off us.
He's an old pro - and still my hero. But if I mention that I'm off to a Con, he mists up and gets a stupid nostalgic look on his face. It breaks my heart.
One day his children will realise how lucky they were to have had someone like him reading their bedtime stories. I know that I'll never forget how lucky I was.
Self–confessed Ladette and geek, Claire still likes shopping, shoes, and sparkly things and can therefore be clearly defined as female. 28 years old, Claire possesses a naivety and enthusiasm for her interests which often belies her advanced years.
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