Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Remembrance

If you haven't figured this out already, I'm an old school gamer. Since my early introduction to role playing games in the late '70s, I've been an on and off gamer for around 35 years now. I think I may be the only person I personally know who owned (and subsequently lost) the Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album. Before that I had been introduced to the many Metagaming Microgames by a co-worker of my dad's named Bill Walters. Since those early days, I've been involved in gaming groups in several different states and two continents. From my first adventure as an ill-fated magic user who, against his high intelligence score, stupidly attacked a giant spider with his dagger to being the dungeon master for a pair of half-orcs hunted by seven dwarves (yes, those seven dwarves, albeit hardened by their post-disney lives) to DMing my own kids and their friends this upcoming week as a band of Svirfneblin, I've done a lot of D&Ding (and Gamma Worlding, and Top Secreting and Tunnels and Trolling and Villains and Vigilanteing and Calling of Cthulhu and so forth).

In that time, I've gotten to know a lot of great people, people with whom I've shared good times and heartache, people with whom I've laughed and even cried and, many times, with whom I've laughed until I've cried! But there's one group I will always, always remember. When I came here to Madison to attend graduate school, I knew I'd need some sort of "out," some way to decompress from the stress of a very rigorous program in African History. I don't drink, and I have a wife and kids that I love dearly, so that limited my de-stressing options significantly, at least the de-stressing options that are so popular here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So I posted a notice on a board at the old Pegasus Games on State Street (now, sadly, located on the West Side - friends don't let friends live on the West Side, we East-siders like to say) stating that I'd like to be involved with a local gaming group. A few days later, I got a call and arranged a meeting with Cisco Bradley, an undergraduate student at the UW. He was forming a gaming group and asked if I might be interested in joining, which I was. I met Cisco and we hit it off quickly. We exchanged contact info, talked about our gaming history, and I felt like I had an instant friend. To make a veeery long story short, our gaming group consisted of a few core members, of which I was one for quite a while. After a couple of years my family, grad school, and subsequent work made my appearances less and less frequent until some of the core group moved out of state (or even out of the country) and the group was moribund. We were able to "meet" again online a few years ago, with Cisco again as DM, and engage in a different medium online in a sort of play-by-mail online game using Yahoo groups. Things have been quiet for the last year or so, for reasons I will share forthwith, but it's still out there, just very quiet at this time.

It was in this gaming group that I created and played my favorite character, Pheelanx Durrowphael, a half-elf magic user/thief who eventually migrated to a career as a wild mage, or a magic user who embraces the barely-controlled chaos that is called wild magic. The two other players who formed the core of our group were Branden Disch, who played Sharth, a drow-elf, and Bradley Kendall, who played Thoraim, a noble dwarf fighter, a dwarven paladin, really.

Brad was a little taller than me, but thick, beefy. He looked like a heroic dwarf, and I mean that in the best way possible. He was a person who I sensed felt deeply about others and about life. He had a hearty laugh and was, by all means, the very definition of a "good" person. In terms of his D&D character, his noble, loyal, chivalrous and upstanding dwarf, Thoraim, couldn't be more far removed in temperament from the whimsical, chaotic, and, some might argue, insane Pheelanx. Branden's Sharth, I suppose, was the intermediary, though Sharth and Pheelanx liked to go off and create a bunch of mischief whenever they thought they could escape Thoraim's watchful eye. There were other players who came and went in this party (a centaur with a penchant for kicking doors in, a hedonist-swashbuckler, a legless elf who carried prodigious amounts of rope on her back, and a psionicist who took himself way too seriously for the likes of Pheelanx, among several others whom I'm forgetting), but the three of us, me, Brad, and Branden, served as the core of this group under Cisco's fantastic dungeon mastering for some time. We had a wonderful time together. Those are some great memories.

Now, last night, I went out with my family to see The Hobbit. We have this tradition, around Christmas time, of splurging and going out for a movie (not cheap when there are six of us, all of whom count as "adults"). For awhile it was Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and now we have The Hobbit to keep us going. I quite liked the movie. I loved the book, I like the movie. Yes, the movie contradicts the book on key elements, yes, Peter Jackson took liberties, no, it's not the book. Until you have millions of dollars to fund an exact cinematic replica of the literary original, get over it.

One thing that surprised me about The Hobbit (the movie) was the feelings I felt while watching it. As a D&D geek, I was never really partial to dwarves. And, even having read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy all in a row, I never really warmed up to dwarves. So I was surprised by how . . . comfortable they felt as I watched the movie last night. It sounds corny, but I felt like I was among old friends. I'm an emotional guy, I get that, but why would a movie, mostly about dwarves (sorry, Bilbo - I'm sure your time will come in the next two movies) cause me to feel what I felt there?

Then it dawned on me. My friend Brad was gone. Gone for good.

You see, just over a year ago, on December 13th, I missed a phone call from Cisco. At first, I was amused. Cisco hadn't called in over a year, though we'd kept in contact via email. He was in New York City working as a professor of History. Why would he call me, other than to gab about old times?

When I listened to his voice mail, my amusement fled in the face of heartbreak. Brad, under great emotional duress, had taken his own life. I was stunned. A year later, I still find it difficult to reconcile Brad's usually happy countenance and his sense of chivalry (for lack of a better term) with the depression that must have dragged him down to the point of committing suicide. There were circumstances that pushed him into a very bad emotional place, but I can't pretend to ultimately know why Brad did what he did. But he did it. And he's gone.

Now, I am one of those religious freaks who believes in an afterlife. Your mileage may vary. I think that I'll see Brad again sometime and be reunited with him. No, we weren't as close as family, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Brad. I think I liked him more than he knew. His loss was heartbreaking for me.

I don't want to downplay the seriousness of what happened and trivialize the death of my friend by mentioning the anniversary of his tragedy in the same breath as I ruminate on a Hollywood (or in this case, New Zealand) movie. But I couldn't help but think of Brad as I sat in the movie theater last night. I thought of Thoraim and how he (and, by extension, Brad) would have fit squarely into that narrative. Noble Thoraim, noble Brad. My, how Brad would have loved to have played one of those characters, or even been an extra in the movie. And I bet he would have nailed it. Yes, I'm sure he would have nailed it.

Miss you, Brad.

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