Starburst Memories: Tired of reality?

You might consider that you wasted your youth. Perhaps you spent it shooting pool in some smoky hall, locked in your bedroom playing the guitar or just partying hard when you should have been studying.

That is not a waste. That is not even the beginning of a waste. When others were developing the ability to win a few quid hustling in a local bar, to lead a sing-a-long at a barbecue or just to speak to the opposite sex, what I got for my endeavors was a wizard with a frost wand.

Yes, I spent my youth playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Mark Barrowcliffe, The Elfish Gene – Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange.

Starburst 41 Cover011

After months of trawling through ebay I have managed to secure a copy of Starburst 41 from December 1981. I like to call it The White Rabbit issue as it lured me down a hole that I got lost in during my teenage-years (and beyond).

It was a Christmas Special that was promoting the delights of the newly released Heavy Metal, an adult orientated animated feature that’s promoted on the cover. There’s also a picture of Richard O’Brien – he was 80% man back then – in his SHOCK TREATMENT doctor kit. The film was billed at the time as a hit follow up to THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW (it isn’t) and is frequently cited by Mark Kermode as being ‘interesting’ (it isn’t).

It’s not the films featured in this issue that I have been interested in, it’s an article about Role Playing Games that I have been hunting down. When I read this article back in 1982, everything seemed to click into place, and those mysterious games that sat in the corner of Boydell’s Toy Shop in Bolton, became a tantalizing gateway into a new world.

Role Playing Ad 2008

It is difficult to appreciate now how much of a conceptual leap it was to play a game that didn’t have a board. This was before Fighting Fantasy (choose your own adventure books), before Zelda, before Warhammer, before Total Warcraft and before Second Life. Most people are used to hypertextual narrative games, they are part of everyday life, but back in the early 1980s it took leap of faith to move from Monopoly to playing mind-games with dice. Mark Barrowcliffe writes about it in his entertaining memoir THE ELFISH GENE: DUNGEONS, DRAGONS AND GROWING UP STRANGE. He does a great summary of how the games worked and why they were so appealing to nerd do wells and joy of being a Dungeon Master:

The person asking the questions is the dungeon master. Mostly he’ll be a harrowed looking youth with a god complex.

“We rush the ogre and attack him, “ you say, keen to see your warrior in battle.

“We should try to speak to him,” says another player.

“Too late, I’ve rushed him,” you say.

“Hard luck,” says the dungeon master, “there’s a covered pit full of tiny poisoned spikes between you and him”… (He) then watches you roll the dice with an expression on his face like a cat toying with a spider. You shake a 9 and your character starts to die.

“I told you we should have spoken to him. Why didn’t you listen to me?” says the other player, who is clearly honing skills that he will one day use on his wife.

It was the description of the game play in the Starburst article that lured me into the games and shortly after this issue I used some Christmas money to get Runequest, the first and best game that I played. Reading the article now, I realise that it was nothing more than advertorial puff written by Steve Jackson, one of the founders of Games Workshop. Along with his friend Ian Livingstone, he got the license to import a plethora of different games from the US and distribute them in the UK. They famously built their company from the fabled back of a van, selling the games to their friends. The company grew and grew until it was worth millions. Livingstone was part of Eidos who created Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise and is now a Tory peer, advising the government on how to develop digital industry (it could be worse, most of my childhood heroes have been arrested).

Role Playing in Starburs012

Role Playing in Starb 2013

At the bottom of the article there is the promise of future columns that never materialised and a chance to learn more by sending off for a booklet. Its clear that they were struggling to find an audience to grasp the potential of role-playing and to extract pocket money from teenagers. Earlier issues of Starburst had adverts that are still baffling: a row of symbols translated as ‘Games of Tomorrow’ or one featuring a Simon Cowell-a-like who is “Tired of Reality”.

Just think, if I hadn’t have read this issue, I would have done better at school, passed more exams, have a rich and interesting adolescence and made some thing of my life.

Instead, I get to live my life as a schnook; with funny-shaped dice.

Dirk Malcolm

Traveller Ad014

7 responses to “Starburst Memories: Tired of reality?

  1. Boydell’s, there’s a name that takes me back. I remember being a bit scared of going in there as the aisles were narrow and the shelves were stacked floor to ceiling; I used to have nightmares about being crushed under an avalanche of KerPlunks.

    • Ah, that was the fancy ‘new’ store. I saw a dwarven Boba Fett there once (the ewok costume was in the wash). Boydells was at the other end of Newport street back in the day. It’s now an amusement arcade. A bored looking woman would pass us Citadel miniatures ‘from the back’ as we shouted numbers from the catalogue, “to stop you and your mates from nicking them.”

  2. This is excellent! Do you mind if I post these pages on 2 Warps to Neptune? I do a running commentary on Golden Age D&D/TSR, and I’m also slowly scanning a bunch of sci-fi mags from the late ’70s and early ’80s, mostly Starlog and Fantastic Films.

    Have you seen these?

    Also, I’d love to get a different (non-American) perspective on D&D and all things nerd. Interested in doing an interview?

    • Hi,

      Thanks for the kind comments, please feel free to republish.

      I’d be more than happy to give a British perspective on role-playing. I love your hand-made scenarios. I still have some of the stuff that we used.

      My email is (in words to avoid the botters) : c dot a dot hart at mac dot com

      Cheers!

      Dirk

  3. Pingback: Geekery in the UK: Games Workshop and the Early Selling of ‘Mind-Games with Dice’ | 2 Warps to Neptune·

  4. Pingback: Interview with a Geek: Chris Hart | 2 Warps to Neptune·

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