As might be surmised from the title, A Long Time Ago, Gib van Ert's memoir explores the nostalgia of childhood and especially the profound cultural impact of Star Wars. Transitioning from Star Wars to other pursuits led Gib to comics—and Dungeons & Dragons. We spoke with Gib regarding his book, his time spent with D&D, and the dungeon delving habits of Jedi.
A Long Time Ago was reviewed at Wired's Geekdad. Gib himself blogs at thissortofthing.com.
Wizards of the Coast: In your book (A Long Time Ago), you discuss segueing from Star Wars obsession to other hobbies, notably comics and Dungeons & Dragons. To expand on this a bit, how did you become involved with D&D -- and how did an introduction to the game slide into hobby?
Gib van Ert: Basically I fell in with a gang of fairly harmless but, from my 12-year-old point-of-view, rather shady pubescent boys who loved the game. They didn't understand the rules, or if they did they ignored them. But they were very enthusiastic roleplayers, so our sessions were always lively. After a few months of playing with them I started buying the rulebooks (1st edition AD&D, Jeff Easley covers) and was completely hooked. I enjoyed reading Gygax's manuals nearly as much as playing the game itself. And I loved the pen-and-ink illustrations of DAT (David A. Trampier, I have since learned) and the other artists that decorated the books' interiors.
Wizards: With Star Wars, as you write, there's certainly a great deal of iconic storytelling devices, utilizing Campbell's A Hero's Journey and the like -- did you ever feel a similar connection with D&D? What first drew you to the game and kept you playing (whether iconic themes, storytelling itself, or otherwise)?
Gib: It's impossible to isolate one aspect of the game. I loved it all. The storytelling, definitely, but so much more. The dice. The tables and charts. The artwork. Gygax's crazy prose style. The history. The fantasy. The lead miniatures you could paint. Designing character sheets and dungeons and maps. I could go on.
Wizards: Considering the power of nostalgia, can you still recall any favored characters, incidents, or adventures? Did you all tend to perish in the Tomb of Horrors, or did you play more originally/home-created adventures?
Gib: My first character was a fighter/magic-user called Ren. He was the character I created under the tutelage of my Garfield DM (see the book) and, as a result of Garfield's ludicrously generous treatment of XPs, Ren quickly ascended into deity status.
Then I bought the rules and realized Garfield was taking liberties. I started DMing a group consisting of my sister and a few others. We played in Lankhmar where my buddy Andrew's character--Ned the Assassin--was the star of the show. When the first Forgotten Realms boxed set came out my mind was utterly blown. It was such a step up from previous AD&D material. At about this time I had also discovered the wonderful 1950s British TV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood. My group started a campaign in the Moonshaes based on rangers in the island's forests. My character was Derek Cape--a pretty obvious Robin Hood rip-off! It was a very involved campaign, really fun.
Wizards: Much of the Star Wars hobby was the collection of action figures. With D&D, was there any similar "collecting" that took place for you -- with the books, minis (at some point, there even were AD&D action figures)? Or was part of the hobby for you the fact that you created yourselves much of what was needed to play?
Gib: Collecting was a huge part of D&D. I lusted after the rulebooks. I wanted them all, and eventually I got them all. Then I wanted a great collection of miniatures. I spent a lot of time studying them on the racks at the comic book shop, carefully choosing which ones to buy on my meager budget.
But the other part of collecting in D&D comes in when your character collects things: weapons and armour and potions and money, of course, but also XPs and levels and new skills. Then as a DM, you collect non-player characters, popping them in and out of your party’s adventures at appropriate times. So there were collections within collections.
Wizards: Esoteric discussions of minutiae were a factor you discussed in Star Wars/hobby obsessions. What sorts of details and arguments did your D&D group engage in? Is there any connection (or later assistance) with such fine-toothed arguments and specialized knowledge, and your becoming a lawyer?
Gib: At its core, AD&D was a rules system. Like all rules systems, it could be abused by people who either ignored the rules entirely or applied them in unthinking ways. As important as the rules were, a DM also had to exercise good judgment. Maybe the rules were unclear, or didn't address the current situation, or gave an unappealing result in a particular instance. D&D forces you at once to learn the rules and to think about their limitations. I think that's great training for legal thinking, or for any kind of critical thinking.
Wizards: Was there ever any crossover between the two hobbies (I know there was in my earlier D&D games): character names, lightsabers as treasure, D&D scenarios based on favorite movie scenes, dabbling with sci-fi role-playing games? Or to ask a separate but nominally related question, if Han, Luke, Ben, etc., were a D&D party en route to save the princess, what sorts of D&D characters would you imagine they'd be?
Gib: In my earliest D&D days, playing with the Garfield DM, I easily talked him in to letting me create a Jedi Knight class. It made no sense in the quasi-medieval dungeon-crawling setting we were playing in. But Star Wars was still my reference point for all things fantasy at that time, so I suppose it was natural that I started by reaching for what I knew.
(Attached for your amusement is a cringe-inducing example of this failed crossover attempt.)
Wizards: How long did you continue playing D&D? Is this a hobby you might also shepherd your children into as you would with Star Wars?
Gib: I played steadily from about 11 to 18, when I left for university. I've hardly played at all since. I would love to play RPGs again with my children when they're old enough. If there was a simplified, Rated G version of the game I could start them on sooner than their teens, I'd be tempted.
Wizards: Did you ever track down your Rebel Trooper figure? Or are some Maltese Falcons better left unresolved?
Gib: So far I've resisted the temptation to eBay it. But sitting around thinking about D&D like this has given me some new ideas for nostalgic acquisitions. I wonder if you can buy DAT prints online?
Gib van Ert is a lawyer and author. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife and two children.
Gib's writings on the reception of public international law in Canada are frequently cited in law journal articles and other legal publications. He has taught courses on international law and reception law at the University of Ottawa and the University of Victoria. He is a frequent speaker at both academic and professional legal conferences.