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Today’s post is from u/mattjh who recounts the memory of how he got into D&D.
My dad is selling the family house to move in with his sister, so I’ve been going back there regularly to sift through the mountains of stuff in order to salvage what I can from my life. Not much has changed there in 20 years. They never bought anything or threw anything out. Like, there are unused coupons from the 70s in there.
Of all the treasures I’ve found, I think this one affected me the most. I’m 42 now and this is one of those things I had truly utterly forgotten about until I saw it, and then the memories rushed in fast and relentless. The folder I used in the late 80s to keep my D&D notes and character records organized was basically an artifact to me.
I made this about a year after I met Mike. He was a new neighborhood kid in Northeast Philadelphia who was a year older than me and who’d literally walk around with a gnarled wooden staff. He was the most confusing person I ever saw. He’d just kind of wander around the neighborhood. You’d hear his staff. Pat-…-pat-…pat
I didn’t know about D&D yet, but one day Mike confessed to me that he was a wizard and could cast spells. He had a wry, deadpan way about him and he was a year older than me, and I wanted very badly to be able to use magic, so I believed him and I became his apprentice. The first thing I had to learn was how to meditate, because he said that was the key to replenishing my powers and learning spells.
So I would sit on my bed in silence for a little while every day waiting for spells to come to me, and then I’d write them down and call Mike and read them to him. The first few times he said that my spells sounded like gibberish and to keep trying, so I did, and one day he exclaimed excitedly at one of my spells that it was the “warmth” spell, and that it meant that it was true that I was capable of learning magic. “Yer a wizard, Matt.”
Then he had me search the creek that ran through a patch of woods in the John F. Byrne golf course to find my totem, which would be my magical item I should carry around with me at all times. It would be what I’d channel my energy into while meditating and what I’d draw upon while I was casting. He said that I could always use quartz crystal in a pinch, but that my totem would give the most powerful results. So I got my Reeboks soaked searching the creek bed and found a blue marble in the mud, so Mike said that was my totem.
Then he demonstrated the “warmth” spell to me. He had me touch his arm to see that it was cold, and then he cast the spell I had created and I touched his arm again and I really felt that it was noticeably warmer. I practiced “warmth” over and over on myself until I was convinced it was working. I used it in front of him and he said that I had mastered it, and to continue meditating.
And so on. There was warmth, balance, protection… this went on for weeks. When I learned the strength spell, I cast it on my fingerless gloves and showed my cousin how they worked. I challenged him to an arm wrestling match without them on and lost, and then I put them on and won. I wore them everywhere. I could pretty much lift anything as long as I meditated every day to recharge them.
Mike had a green rock he could use to make it rain, which he demonstrated in a playground right in front of me and it worked. He also said that his staff was infused with an energy that made it impossible to break, so at the playground he showed me how strong it was by propping it across the swing set chains and sitting on it and swinging back and forth on his gnarled staff. He lent me Wizards and Witches from Time-Life’s The Enchanted World series and told me it was important to study it and I did.
Then Mike told me how he had a master who was much more powerful than he was, and that this person was a werewolf named Ben. Mike said that he and Ben had been working on an underground lair in the John F Byrne golf course, and then he takes me to this tree with its trunk almost entirely hollowed out. He and Ben had been sneaking in there with tools trying to dig down past the roots, especially because Ben needed a place to stay when he was a werewolf.
Ben was intense. He listened to thrash metal and got into fights a lot, and the first time he came over, our overly-affectionate family cat ran away from him with his ears flattened. My mom, a Jehovah’s Witness at the time, was convinced that Ben worshiped Satan. Here are two photos mom took of all three of us on that day.. Mike is the impish sinister one in the middle, Ben is the one choking him, and I’m Taran Noah Smith from Home Improvement. These are the only photos I have of all three of us (so far).
My mom made me feel a little afraid of Ben, but I really wanted to learn more advanced spells, so I stayed over his house one night and we made amulets out of clay with a mold in the middle for our totems, and we carved runes into the sides before they dried. He said I could place my totem into the amulet to achieve more powers. The whole time we were listening to Kreator. He told me he got in trouble a lot because of the werewolf that had taken over him, but that I was safe. He said his den was somewhere in the John F. Byrne golf course. Ben’s Den.
As I was leaving the next morning, he handed me a book to read. It was the Dragonlance novel Legend of Huma. I became obsessed with Krynn quickly, and in no time I had devoured all of the core Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels. They were my Lord of the Rings, and Raistlin was my Gollum and my Sauron all at once. Then Mike suggested that we actually play Dungeons & Dragons and showed me his collection, which I now know as the BECMI boxed sets, but at the time might as well have been a mystical library. He had me read the Player’s Handbook from the red Basic set and we were off to the races.
It was also around this time that Ben determined I was ready to have my own staff, so we went into Pennypack Park and I found an amazing one that had all of these beautiful spiraling indented patterns all over it. It literally looked enchanted. I took it home and hid it under my bed so my parents wouldn’t see, and then one day my dad found it and it had worms all over it and he was so mad. The spiraling patterns were from these little slithery things eating the wood. But it really still looked enchanted to me.
It could’ve been that very week that I made this folder for my first D&D character — Varthistan, Paladin of Mystara. I never drew anything for fun, so this was definitely inspired by excitement. I wish I remembered the gaming sessions better, but it didn’t last too long. For me, it’s mostly a blur of rulebook reading and dice tossing and really just wanting to read all the sourcebooks. I wasn’t much of a tabletop role player, and I was also deeply into the now-classic SSI AD&D Gold Box CRPGs by now. You can actually see Mike holding Gateway to the Savage Frontier in this photo from several years later.
What I really remember is the golf course, and being determined to own a leather satchel, and reading Dragonlance with every moment I could steal, and the feats of balance, and Mike’s gnarled staff, and reading Wizards and Witches and the Monster Manual every night before bed, and casting warmth on myself while freezing my ass off waiting for the 20 bus to go to school in the morning, and helping to carve out that poor tree, and that feeling that any minute Ben might transform.
It all faded into an old memory so gradually that I don’t think I even realized it was gone until I found this folder. The next memories I have of Mike and Ben are from when we were teenagers, and none of it had anything to do with magic. This folder and the totem are all I have left to show from the before time, when the world was still shrouded in legend and mist. Thank you for reading about it.