How many of us of a certain age, sit back and think about how our parents fitted into the picture as we found this rather arcane pastime.
I think there was generally a sense of genuine bamboozlement, curiosity and in some instance a fear that their offspring had stepped into a world of occult peril and were selling there tender young souls to the powers of darkness.
My first encounter with gaming (beyond the traditional Airfix soldiers and marbles method of combat resolution) was whilst I was being dragged around town during 1981 by my Mum & Nan, something that kids seem to have to endure much less these days. For the purposes of saving my fingers for the rest of this post, I'll let my book pick up the story for a little while
'In 1981, during one of the school holidays at the cooler end of the thermometer, I was making the weekly pilgrimage to Hopkinson’s, a traditional floor to ceiling type of toy and model shop in the city centre. It was an Aladdin’s Cave for the true toy connoisseur and Old Mr Hopkinson seemed to live for his store. I never failed to find something that drew my eye or sparked my imagination. I shudder to think the amounts that my family spent on me in there over the years. I remember that one week we saw a model of what was to all intents and purposes a model of London’s Victoria Station, and my nan decided that the next week it would be mine. However, when we went back, it had sold, having sat there on the shelves for years, untouched. Oh cruel fate! But I digress…
On this day I was starting to despair, having failed to find that essential next ‘must have’, when my innate ‘kid sense’ indicated that some subtle change had manifested in the very substance of this temple to the toymaker’s art. My mercurial attention was drawn to a wire display rack in a somewhat stygian alcove to the left of the counter. On it were a number of scruffy card-headed bags bearing the names Ral Partha and Citadel Miniatures in a variety of shades.
Okay… what’s a ‘Ral Partha?’ I mused and, like a shot from a bow - It would not become an elven bow for a few months yet - I crossed the intervening 6 feet to investigate.
Each bag contained one or more tiny figurines made from lead. I was the proud owner of a large number of old lead soldiers and so this was no real surprise to my young eyes. What was a surprise however, was the subject matter. Along with medieval knights, were wizards, dwarves, elves as well as smattering of space-suited figures armed with laser rifles. The majority of them were priced at 30p and unless I was able to secure additional funding via a prayer to the gods of spending money along the lines of ‘Oh go on, pleeeaaaassse…’ that was going to eat into the £3.00 that I collected in tribute each week from various parties charged with bank-rolling my childhood.
‘No,’ I mused, ‘I will not indulge myself today.’ After all, 30p was 30p and as a Yorkshireman in training, I was not about to squander it before I knew what a Ral Partha was in greater detail.
In fact, Ral Partha was, like Citadel Miniatures, a company producing beautifully detailed miniatures for use with fantasy games. Even 30 years down the line they are amongst some of the best examples of the sculptor’s art you’ll ever see.
With that firm ‘No’ still ringing inside my head, I went off with my Nan and Mum to have a chip butty (that's a sandwich to those of you not from the grim North of England) and glass of cola in the nearby (and now demolished, like most great edifices of a Sheffield childhood) Sheaf Market, in an establishment renowned for its skilful presentation of deep fried potatoes between two slices of well buttered bread. Quickly disposing of lunch via my mouth, I told my Mum I was going to go back to Hopkinson’s while she and my Nan chatted and finished their cups of coffee. I was going to take another look at those tiny figurines that were already beginning to telepathically call out to me.
It was apparent even this early on my life, that I was obviously a youth of taste and distinction. Ten minutes later I had spent the considerable sum of 75p after much soul searching and hand wringing. In possession of a paper bag containing two dour dwarves carrying a dead comrade on a litter made up of two shields and a pair of spears, I returned to my Mum and Nan, a little tingle running up and down my spine like the fingers of a nervous pianist.
That day, something had changed in the world. It was almost imperceptible but, at the very moment that I took possession of the paper bag containing those models, I felt that I had crossed some line into a secret world. Certainly, none of my mates at that time knew - or probably cared - about this new phenomenon, and I felt that I was indeed marked out for greatness, the leader of some new and exciting pastime - if I could only discover what that pastime was.'
Well, of course that was the start of what has been almost 4 decades of dice driven debauchery and an addiction to strong glues and finely ground acrylic pigments. I never really considered that had my Mum been in one of those moods that can be easily induced by a pre-teen who is intent on acquiring something that think is as important as life itself, my whole life would have been dramatically different and I would probably have been subsumed into a conformist life for the rest of my days.
My Dad had always made model kits with me, but as I became more and more engrossed in the gaming hobby in all of it's forms, we sort of became estranged. He had no point of reference - and understandably so, because this was not a hobby which existed too many years earlier. My Mum got involved after she found me painting a succubus from one of the Heritage mini-games and insisted that if I was going to paint naked bat-winged seductresses, then I should add nipples and pubic hair (ditto the Ral Partha winged gremlin and anything else where anatomy dictated hair or pertness should be visible.
This was quite an eye-opener, I can tell you.
My parents must have been scared witless when the mini Satanic Panic struck the U.K and in fact it nearly cost me my fledgling game collection as the local press frothed and foamed at the editorial mouth (remember that Sheffield had one of the first half a dozen Games Workshop stores, back when they were great places to waste a day or life).
My Mum also grounded me and confiscated my Runequest stuff, after I split with a girlfriend after she said 'It's that game or me', prompting me to do the only decent thing I could at the time, also being certain to ask when I could collect the dice that were at her house after I'd tried to get her to roll a character as well as roll on the carpet in that way which seems erotic to a blooming teen, but is more akin to a staged wrestling match in hindsight.
That was a low blow, I can tell you, but after 2 weeks of a silent protest, she broke. Let's face it, a silent and moody teen is a weapon of mass destruction, that nothing can stand against.
But where Mums in our rather large group came into a class of their own, was the ability to cater for 6 boisterous lads with appetites like locusts, descending on their hallowed dining and living rooms all through the summer holidays, literally taking over tables (or in the case of our sessions at Roger's home the entire floor) for 8 -12 hours, and then feeding them fit to burst at short notice.
We literally gamed day after day, and had a rota of which Mum would be afflicted by the pestilence on a given day. Those were bloody good days. In fact it was not unheard of for my Mum to have to put up with three or four of us for several days in a row as we sort of just gamed,ate,slept,repeated with my friends checking in with their own Mums to let them know that all was well and that they still had a son, but that his return t the family manse would be delayed for a few days because there was a Western Desert battle to be won or that Sir Thomas Fairfax was pretty much on target to break the siege in a couple more days of play...
As I said, I don't think we realised that all those seemingly routine gestures were allowing us to indulge in a world which was so different to the lads who played football, listened to regurgitated pop music and fought over who was the 'hardest'. No we were long haired dreamers, with one foot in the dice bag, smelling faintly of patchouli oil and our Mums gave us a safe place (with a few solid ground rules of course such as 'no breakfast until you all get showered and dressed!'.
Last night my Mum collapsed at home and despite the attendance of 5 paramedics, she's not here any more.
I needed to write this, because that last line has made me cry at last. And now if you will excuse me I need to sign off, and go and get a hug from my wife, because I am starting to hurt a lot.