Following up to last week’s first Formative Years post, is the second in a series where we look at what things, people, and places informed our geekdom here at GeekDad. Join Phil, Robin, and myself as we delve into our earliest memories and relive what made us geeks (or what we loved because we were born geeks).
Reading and Creating the Fantastic
by Phil Bacon
There was a lot of dust today, as I pawed through boxes looking for the things that most made me the geek that I am. Action figures, Lego, ray guns, and hardened Play-doh. But it was really no contest. It came down to two things.
I don’t remember reading “kid’s books.” I seem to have missed most of the ones that kids my age read–James and the Giant Peach, The Wizard of Oz… I remember that there were books by Judy Bloom and Dr. Seuss, but I can’t recall reading them. There was a complete set of Hardy Boys in hardcover on my parents’ shelves that gathered dust.
At some point, I veered over to my parents’ science fiction collection and landed on one book: Ringworld by Larry Niven.
I had to have been 10 or 11 at most, and this book should have been beyond me, but I read it cover to cover. I remember every part. I remember Louis Wu’s party guests scratching behind Speaker-To-Animals’ ears on a grassy lawn. I remember Nessus the Puppeteer tucking his twin heads between his legs to hide from the world. I remember the ride up the side of the anomalous mountain Fist Of God in a bid to escape the biggest artifact humankind had ever experienced.
(I remember trying to wrap my tongue around the word “risathra” and not comprehending what it meant.)
It sparked me. I read through nearly everything else on their shelves: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, JRR Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey. I’ve broadened ever since, but always staying with the fantastic. Robert Silverberg, Jim Butcher, Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, John Scalzi, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card… but I kept coming back to Niven. I have his every book. I have his autograph. I even introduced him at a science-fiction convention. And Ringworld made me a reader of the fantastic.
One day, when I was 12 or 13, my father gave me a present. It was a red box and there was a picture of a dragon on it. It was titled Dungeons & Dragons.
To this day, I don’t know why he gave it to me. This was the early eighties and the churches were still heavily concerned about this game turning people into devil worshippers. I don’t remember if I had asked for it, or even if I knew what it was until that day.
Reading through the basic rules though… it was the sun coming up in the morning. I read it cover to cover. I presented my bemused parents and grandmother with character sheets and ran them through The Keep on the Borderlands. My mom tells me she never totally understood what was going on, but they were very patient with me, seeing an excitement that I had rarely shown before.
In the thirty years since then I have never stopped playing. D&D lead to AD&D which lead to Paranoia, the Palladium games, Champions, The World of Darkness, Pathfinder… I still play in Mind’s Eye Theatre, a Vampire LARP, that has been ongoing for over twenty years.
And as much as I like to play, I like to create. I’ve designed a dozen worlds, created hundreds of scenarios. I’ve run players through dungeons, space stations, evil villain lairs, and radioactive death traps. I’ve found a passion in building worlds and sharing them with good friends around a table. Dungeons & Dragons made me a creator of the fantastic.
And I don’t see either ever changing.
Maps, Lead, and Funny Shaped Dice
It’s hard to know where the geekiness began. As soon as I started thinking about it, there were any number of obvious signs, but which were the first? I’ve picked out these things. I could have chosen a whole lot more, but whilst I like Star Wars, computer games, and comic books, compared with many geeks I merely dabble. The things I’ve chosen here are the things that continue to define my day to day: the way I like to spend my time now.
If it started anywhere it started with Usborne Books, purveyors of fine children’s books and still going strong nearly forty years after they sowed the seeds of my geekdom. They published books called Spotter’s Guides, and I was obsessed with them. The one that really sticks out, so much so I bought a modern reprint for my son five years before he could read it, is The Night Sky. This triggered a passion for astronomy. I couldn’t get enough of space, stars, and planets. Today, if I’m out on a clear evening, I look up and search out the constellations I learned from that book.
The other Usborne book I had was the Pocket Atlas of The World. It was filled with political maps that I endlessly traced and reproduced. It was filled with tables of capitals, currencies, and populations, which I learned by rote. This is the first book I can remember being wowed by its presentation of information, something that I carry forward today in my love of a good infographic. I used my atlas so much it disintegrated, forcing me to buy another. The Pocket Atlas of The World sparked my life long obsession with maps.
My dad was a huge influence on my geeky side. He bought me my first chemistry set, and together we worked through the experiments, one by one, until we had done them all. Then we picked up the next set, and the next. My love of chemistry continued throughout school and university. Even though my chemistry days are long behind me, the elegant beauty of the periodic table still causes a stir of excitement.
Dad also introduced me to The Hobbit, reading it to me night after night. This was probably the defining moment of my life. I was mesmerized by the story. Treasure! Dragons! Maps! It was the marriage of maps and fantasy that brought me home.
From there I struck out on my own. I don’t remember how I acquired my copy of Ian Livingstone’s Forest of Doom, but I had never encountered anything like it before. A book where YOU were the hero. It opened me up to the idea of stories that weren’t fixed–where the outcome was malleable. From there it was only a short hop to roleplaying games. I had a friend who already had the Dungeons & Dragons red box, and, if I’m honest, it wasn’t so much the revolutionary way in which you could work as team that drew me in, it was the funny shaped dice. These objects of geometric perfection were like magnets.
Since I couldn’t buy D&D (no point in my friend and I having the same game), which game would I choose? Again my dad stepped up, bringing home a book called Dicing with Dragons. This had descriptions of countless commercially available RPGs. In the end I went for Traveller, fueled by my love of astronomy, Star Wars and Space Lego. RPGs have been part of my life ever since, none more so than those produced by Games Workshop.
Back in the early ’80s, Citadel Miniatures had the rights for Lord of the Rings based figures. As a Tolkien addict, I bought as many of them as I possibly could. From there I heard about Warhammer, the fantasy miniatures wargame. I remember vividly the day in 1985 when I bought the box. The subsequent release of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was possibly one of the greatest events of my teenage years. I have played that game for countless hours, right up to the present day.
So there it is. That’s how I ended up here. I often think about how much of my geekiness I want to pass on to my kids. I have read the Hobbit to my oldest, and, on the back of this post, have just handed him my copy of The Forest of Doom. I am, as it were, raising generation 2.0. Or rather 3.0, because I have realized my dad was a geek long before me. He was an actuary, which is still possibly the geekiest of all professions. He programmed in COBOL, which I would later do. He worked in a chemistry lab, as I would later do. He collected Napoleonic War figures that I used to love to look at, and, before I was even thought of, he was an avid consumer of science fiction novels. He took me to see Star Wars when I was four; I do not think this was solely for my benefit.
All this reminiscing has added poignancy for me. My dad has suffered from Parkinson’s for some time. It is gradually stripping away the man I know and love. He is but a shadow of himself, his towering intellect shackled inside a malfunctioning body. The hands that painted Frodo, Legolas, and Gandalf for me are now frozen rigid and useless. We connected through the passions he passed on to me. In turn, by passing on my essence of geek to my children, a little bit of him will live on for another generation. A powerful and comforting thought to accompany our trivial pursuits.
Robots, Rocketships, and an Archer
by Will James
I thought that it would be impossible to trace a single line from my earliest memories to my geekhood of today, but thinking about and writing this up helped me to see that, while there may not be a single line, many of the things in my formative years were a lot more connected than I had realized.
My earliest toy memories circle around G.I. Joe, Sectaurs, and LEGO, but are centrally focused on Transformers. Transformers are the only toy I still collect on a regular basis, though the ones I save up for nowadays are a lot bigger, more expensive, and realistic. My love of Transformers and a childhood friend with a mother that lived in Hong Kong also led me from Jetfire to Macross and to the wider world of anime. My love of robots and anime led me into custom model building, especially with Gundam.
I was a reader as far back as I can remember, but in the mid ’80s, on a trip to a local liquor store for some candy, I glanced at the comic books on the newsstand. For some reason a hero with a bow and arrow (Hawkeye) caught my eye like no other had before, and a long love/hate relationship of collecting comics started with West Coast Avengers. My mom drove me around to the handful of local comic shops to find all the back issues, and that’s when I also became a huge Wolverine fan. Many years of collecting eventually led me to The Sandman, still my all time favorite and inspiration behind most of my tattoos, and the whole world of non-superhero comics.
Although we played a lot of board games growing up (Monopoly, Life, Booby Trap), none of those games really sparked the tabletop gaming bug in me. It was actually video games that lead to my love of tabletop gaming. Sounds odd, I know, but bear with me. We had a family Atari and Intellivision from before I can remember, and my love of those games lead to me wanting and getting the original Nintendo Entertainment System when it hit the market. My love of those consoles (I jumped from Nintendo to SEGA when the Master System was released and never went back to Nintendo except for a brief affair with my Game Boy) led to my first PC when I was 12. My brother’s friend took him to a computer show and helped him build a custom system for me–a 286 that was overclocked to 7 MHz with a 20 MB hard drive and VGA graphics! My first game (my brother is much older than me) was the original Leisure Suit Larry game. That game was quickly followed by all the Quest games—King’s, Space, Police–and my first D&D goldbox game, Champions of Krynn. I fell in love with D&D and played every game TSR and SSI produced. The computer games, of course, led to me buying AD&D 2nd Edition books and playing and even running my own games online on Prodigy. It took several years before I actually found live human beings to play with.
The last thing I want to touch on is tangentially related to those gold box game–programming. Today I work in the software making business and I trace my love of programming back to my friends and I hacking the gold box games, guessing at and making pages of notes of hex codes that would change character stats and inventory. But the other thing that drove my love of programming and science fiction was Star Trek: The Next Generation and, more specifically, Welsey Crusher. I’ve written a whole post on what ST:TNG and Wesley meant to me before so I won’t get into the details here, but suffice it to say that it had a bigger impact on me than probably any other single thing. And, yes, that is me in all my thirteen-year-old glory wearing a homemade ST:TNG jumpsuit.