This was supposed to be hilarious.
But at the age of 49, I’m sitting at my desk staring at hundreds of pages of character sheets, drawings, histories, blueprints, maps, Centaurian language notes, castle budgets, and constitutional documents I created for my imaginary Dungeons and Dragons world as a kid in the 1980s, and I’m overwhelmed.
Individually, every document is hilarious, full of sentences like, “The unicorns, primarily, pay no tax and roam freely.” I’m absolutely delighted with the kid-me who wrote hundreds of sentences like, “Goblins listed as citizens are a small tribe of neutral druidic goblins. They are generally accepted by the rest of the community, for they have none of the violent tendencies of their evil cousins.” I could write for days about all of this glorious detail and worldbuilding and how it clearly paved the way for me as an adult to write books like Planet Hulk, Kingsway West, and Mech Cadet Yu.
But the deeper I dig into these notebooks, the more stressed I get, a heady mix of embarrassment and protectiveness for the boy I was and the adult I’ve become.
In 1981, I was a half-Korean 12-year-old in Dallas, Texas, one of the only Asian American kids in my neighborhood and school, one of the smallest boys in my class, and a glorious nerd who wore corduroys and running shoes and whose enormous plastic-rimmed glasses were often literally taped together. I was bullied by a few jerks, sometimes racially. But I was also a Boy Scout who had a kind of ludicrous self-confidence, partly from the conviction that the promises of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Scout Oath and Law meant I was right and the racists were wrong, and partly because I was pretty sure I could survive at least 48 hours alone in the woods, if necessary.
I also went to a “Talented and Gifted” public school program that was basically a haven for nerds. I was a kid who drew and wrote—Ray Bradbury was my hero, and I’d planned on becoming a writer since I was nine years old. My teachers supported creative endeavors of all kinds, and I thrived along with a bunch of fellow nerds who all fell in love with Dungeons and Dragons around the same time.
So in every drawing, diagram, and notation in my old D&D notebooks, I see that awkward yet somehow fearless adolescent-me working through massive existential questions and challenges, and it’s alternately exhilarating and excruciating.
The first thing to note about the material is its vastness. Hundreds of pages describe an intricate fictional world spanning thousands of years and multiple eras. I wrote an entire fantasy novella when I was eleven called To Seek a Sanctuary that ended with a surprise merging with the Garden of Eden story. Some time in 1981, I folded that novella into my D&D universe as the foundational myth that preceded the current storyline by 4,000 years. So my files include a three-page, 4,138 year timeline, a detailed description of a kind of proto-Unitarian religion called “The Light,” and intricate maps that describe all of the major lands and cities in the world, along with their histories and leaders.
But even more overwhelming is the massive tome describing the holdings, alliances, economy, and government of Eyladril (sometimes spelled Elyadril), the domain of my main player character, the centaur fighter/cleric Galahorn Alaron.
The documents for Elyadril fill an entire two-inch binder and include ten layers of intricate blueprints drawn on graph paper for the main castle; maps of the walled domain surrounding the castle, including an accounting of the annual yield of the fields and orchards and the destinations of the exports; an operating budget for the domain; and a detailed census of the citizens and mercenaries within Elyadril and the various communities along the coastal countryside surrounding the fortress. Notes in the margins indicate that I didn’t just add things willy-nilly—everything in Elyadril was budgeted and funded through campaigning and gameplay. The massive octagonal wall surrounding Elyadril, for example, was 100 feet tall and 50 feet thick and cost 961,400 gold pieces, which I noted in bold letters was “PAID ALREADY.”
I look at all this detail now and laugh and then my gut aches for the kid who spent so much time all by himself creating a world that he so clearly needed to embody exacting internal logic and integrity.
My notebooks are full of evidence that I played D&D all the time with friends as well, that the game was raucous and social, that all this worldbuilding served as a backdrop for shared storytelling, roleplaying, and fun. My friends and I created dozens of characters who were clearly meant to be ridiculous—including Bump Bodko, a Chaotic Neutral fighter who was “totally chaotic and, due to his utmost stupidity, may do something incredibly stupid.” I see my friends’ handwriting throughout my notebooks, making jokes and notations, defining their own characters and stories.
But it’s also clear that I spent hundreds of hours working on my world alone, for deeply personal reasons. I remember quietly rolling dice by myself in the corner of a motel during a family vacation, taking notes as Galahorn killed evil dragons and racked up the millions of gold pieces he’d need to build his empire. I remember the secret excitement, the silent thrill in expanding my domain step by step. And I populated Galahorn’s domain with dozens of characters that I don’t think I ever used in campaigns with my friends—supporting characters with incredibly specific, revealing backstories, including the druid Branth Coerth, who “experienced much as the son of a black man and a female elf, and was ostracised [sic] by much of society.”
The connection here isn’t subtle. I was a half-Asian kid who was obsessed with half-elves and half-orcs and explicitly defined many of his characters as black or Asian or “Egyptian” or “Indian” at a time when no fantasy novel I’d ever read included people of color in non-villain roles. I remember being incensed when I read that only humans were unlimited in the number of levels they could achieve in various D&D classes. And of course my most beloved player character was a centaur. Centaurs were strictly non-player characters in standard D&D, but I wrote up at least three different sets of rules for making them player characters. In my notes for Galahorn, I ultimately made the biracial allegory explicit, describing him as “Anglo/Oriental.”
Unlike my joke characters, Galahorn was Lawful Good—a Boy Scout like me. He was the hero of the entire epic storyline that undergird all of my D&D adventures. And he built a city-state that explicitly welcomed the outcast and the different. Here’s a key passage from 12-year-old me:
Elyadril was founded by Galahorn Alaron in 4131 and completed in 4135. All of the intelligent, good (or neutral) races of the known world are openly accepted here—even those considered monsters. Due to these liberal ideas, Galahorn and Elyadril are not generally accepted by a great deal of the world’s population, though invaluable allies have been gained through the visitation of cities and encouraging adventurers to join.
And here’s the “Script of Eyladril,” the domain’s equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance or Scout Oath:
We of Eyladril stand by and accept these terms, defending them unto death if asked:
that all living intelligent creatures are created equal
that all such creatures cannot and will not be discriminated against if not evil
that evil remains a threat which cannot be allowed in Eyladril
When I talk and think about my childhood, I tend to downplay the racism. I had tremendous, supportive, hilarious friends and teachers, and I generally remember the best moments most vividly. But I also remember a pack of Cub Scouts surrounding me in a playground, pulling the corners of their eyes back, and doing the “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees” chant. I remember kids calling me “Eggroll.” I remember being accused by a classmate of being Jewish, as if that were the worst insult he could imagine and the only way he could make sense of my features. I remember… a lot… if I take the time to dwell on it.
I haven’t really dwelled on these memories in years. But when I sit here three and a half decades later and read all of these notes about Galahorn Alaron’s egalitarian, idealistic, lawful good utopia, I’m filled with a kind of parental terror, a keening fear of discovering some hidden trauma or horror or hypocrisy that’s warped or broken this vulnerable child. I want to protect 13-year-old me, to comfort him somehow, to tell him it’ll be all right. I want to give that kid a hug, or at least a fist bump. I want to tell him he’s not alone.
But then I keep reading, and I’m disturbed to recall that despite 13-year-old me’s insistence in the equality of all, he never questions fantasy tropes about royal blood and D&D rules that give different “races” different abilities—according to these notebooks, centaurs get +1 strength and constitution, but -1 intelligence and dexterity—unless they happen to be descendants of Chiron, in which case they get +1 wisdom and intelligence. Thirteen-year-old me writes up player character rules for satyrs—but specifies that they can only be thieves and must always choose a chaotic alignment. He classifies prostitutes as criminals, proscribes the severing of hands for thieves, and specifies that Eyladril is a “Monarchy/Democracy” in which “People advise, Monarch rules.” He makes brief, sociological notations about the custom of nudity among both male and female centaurs that I will never, ever quote in full because I might literally pass out from embarrassment.
So maybe my huge discomfort in poring through these old notebooks is really a 49-year-old’s terror of being stripped bare, returned to the vulnerability of adolescence and the still-devastating memory of old sins and shame, as if these documents can show me who the real me is, after all these years.
But then I keep reading, and reading, and reading.
[Galahorn Alaron’s] Tendencies:
Polite to all beings, never arrogant. Will listen, but if no sense is made, he will make it known. Optimistic, believes things will work out in the end. When a friend is made, he will trust and put great faith into that person. Appreciates all abilities and talents. Reluctant to kill at most times, but will if necessary. Will always give mercy if asked for. Always tries to make friends with neutral or good intelligent creatures, though he is cautious at all times, using “know alignment” spells often. Will heal the needy with spells, though he does not believe in resurrection. Has no pity for assassins, though he allows a small thieves guild under direct government supervision to grow, if not prosper. Likes wilderness, outside as much as castle life, if not more. Dislikes the sea, though he will venture upon it if necessary.
Forty-nine-year-old-me needs to calm down.
All your faves are problematic, and so is 13-year-old me, and so is 49-year-old me, but that’s part of the process of growing and learning.
Thirteen-year-old me is doing what kids do when they’re given the space, time, and the all-important cover of privacy: thinking, writing, exploring, and having fun as they dream about who they might become. He’s creating representations of his own experiences and imagining an inclusive world that the culture around him failed to provide. He’s thinking about how to hold himself, how to treat other people, how to do the right thing. He’s roleplaying, making use of D&D’s greatest gift to young people trying to make sense of the world.
But roleplaying isn’t just for adolescents figuring out how to grow up.
It’s for writers.
I’ve been taking every scrap of information in kid-me’s notebooks personally—as if every page were a window into my own soul. And maybe every page is. But even at that young age, I thought of myself as a writer. And it’s clear that with the thousands of details in those notebooks, I was grappling with the practical, necessary work of building a story. So D&D wasn’t just a game to me—it was a storytelling tool that I approached with a young writer’s thoroughness. Yes, those pages and pages of inventory, alliances, and constitutional documents might reflect an adolescent’s desperate desire for order and control. But they also show the process of creating a fictional world with its own internal logic and integrity, something I strive to do as an adult writer every day. And they show the process of creating a cast with a range of experiences, moral codes, and missions. Galahorn was my clearest alter-ego within the story I was building. But I created dozens more characters with a huge range of attitudes toward life.
Of course there’s a touch of me in every one of those characters—and in every character I write as an adult. And of course I’m compelled by certain ethically-driven themes that are intensely personal—and kid-me is already starting to figure that out, telling stories about misunderstood monsters and heroes who struggle to do the right thing in a flawed world.
But I don’t study every character I’ve ever written as an adult looking for the one, true revelation of exactly who I am. I’m a writer—I explore countless different possibilities and ways of thinking in my books. I’m roleplaying, not just to find myself, but to find my characters.
And so did kid-me.
He’s a young writer, a work-in-progress in the middle of a work-in-process, happily figuring things out on his own, and if he were here he’d probably glare at me over his shoulder, close his notebook, head into his bedroom, and shut the door to continue his work in privacy.
As he no doubt should.
I’ll probably bug him again before long, because I can’t help myself, because I’m still a work-in-progress, too.
But for now I’m going to leave him alone to do his work, and get back to mine.
© 2018 by Greg Pak