First things first: I don’t write fantasy because of games. I was entranced by fantasy first, games came later. However, there can be a positive interaction between playing games, exercising imagination, and coming up with story ideas. There is one as-yet unwritten story cycle that is definitely based on something I wanted to do in a game, but never happened. Most of the rest of the time it is imagery, or atmosphere that has lingered in my mind and become part of the subconscious soup from which strange ideas can often emerge. The feeling of playing a good game, being immersed in it, is similar in some ways to being hard at work writing. That feeling does not come along often, but it is a lot of fun when it happens!
The first game that really hooked me, that I waited for the last day of each school term for because someone (Jimmy Law) brought it in and everyone in the class took turns playing, four eager players at a time, was Game of Dracula. Once again – it is the horror theme that allowed the fantasy imagination to flourish early on, when other avenues were not yet available! (We played with our own variations on the rules, I discovered years later when as a triumphant (and too old, but I didn’t care) thirteen year old I found it for sale in Woolworths, ran home for my paper round money, went back and finally owned my own version, which I still have to this day!)
In the game you ran around the thirteen unlucky rooms of castle Dracula, trying to escape while avoiding the bloodthirsty count and his evil minions, especially the green vampire, who was controlled by the first player to be captured by Dracula. (He only took sips of blood in this game, it being for kids and all.) So in this game was the excitement of creeping around a dusty old castle, the thrill of escape, and the embracing of a new role if you became the green vampire, (a first unrealized-at-the-time taste of role-playing, complete with cheesy cardboard mask that no-one actually wore!) who then chased the other players around, and if it caught another player, that player became the green vampire, and the person who had been it reverted once again to a person trying to escape. It was/is awesome. I occasionally inflict the game on my wife, who wins almost every time. In playing the game I was transported to another world of childish gothic horrors, long predating the Hammer movies, but perhaps helping to explain why they struck such a chord with me years later. This imaginary space was filled with monsters and terror, (the plastic Dracula and vampires were well detailed for the era, and made a very satisfying thunk over the simple playing pieces that represented the escaping players when they were captured) where you could safely become the monster too, for a little while at least. Despite the blood and horror elements, the game was never truly scary, just exciting, and it also promised a happy ending in the form of victorious escape to a flower filled field, the gloomy castle left behind. For me it is a simple classic, which when added to the competitive urgings of childhood, made the game wildly addictive. That game was the #1 draw each time we were allowed to bring toys in to school. Cheers Jimmy!
I liked that game so much that the first thing I made in pottery class was a mini castle, complete with corridors to run around in. It was far too small for playing pieces, and my maze didn’t actually work, but the thought was there! I kept that ugly thing for years, not for what it was, but for what it meant to me, the ambition to one day create a bigger, better version of that castle. Perhaps not with clay though – my sculpting skills were quite limited!
Games existed for me as another way, along with books, to investigate the unfamiliar, engage with the unknown or the supernatural, and to escape the ordinary world that seemed so lacking in the magic that existed in worlds of imagination. At first it was horror that led the way, but true fantasy soon arrived, courtesy of the Fighting Fantasy game books, and the grand-daddy of fantasy board games, Talisman. I’ll maybe talk more about them next time!