WORLDS IN A MAGICIAN’S HAT

Yesterday I ran a beginner’s dungeon for a group of children between the ages of 11 and 15 (plus an embedded 50-something). Today I’m recovering.

The convalescent state rekindled a process of memory-mining around my introduction to the prince of all role-playing games, an excavation that began last year when I read David M. Ewalt’s entertaining book on the history of Dungeons and Dragons, Of Dice and Men (Scribner, NY, 2013).

So this morning, staring out at a cold blustery Autumn day, I decided to see what could be extracted from the caverns of fossilised memory. Digging out my all time favourite otherworldly album, I dropped the stylus and descended into reverie.

*

Andre’s introduction to the role-playing game that would dominate our social lives for years was as hilarious as it was brief. The way he told it, he sauntered into the Undergraduate Lounge on the first floor of the Student Union building after seeing a notice in the daily bulletin advertising a new role-playing game club. What did that even mean? And a board game without a board? Set in a fantasy milieu? Hey, Tolkien ruled, OK?

Lowering his considerable bulk into a spare chair, Andre was fast-tracked through a bewildering process of character creation. “Roll these. Write down the numbers there. Your highest score is Strength, so you’re a Fighter.” Within minutes he was in an underground passage with a motley assortment of other adventurers. They enter a cavern and confront a Purple Worm.

“What are you doing?” barks a stern looking long-hair at the end of the coffee table.

“Huh?” replies Andre.

“Are you fighting it or what?”

“Er, I guess so.”

“Roll this. Hit. Now this. You’ve done eight points of damage.”

“Is that good?”

“The worm’s tail slashes at you.” He rolls several dice. “You’re dead”.

A few months later, Craig received the box set of Dungeons and Dragons for Christmas courtesy of his partner Anne and mate Andre. They were all sharing a house at the time so deciding to play required little organisation. Anne and Andre left Craig to learn the rules and went to make coffee. Periodically they stuck their heads around the door to see how Craig was going. What they mostly noticed was his deepening frown and sluggish progress through the rule book. “There’s a bit to get your head around,” he muttered. That was something of a worry, because although no-one spoke about such things, everybody knew much of the time Craig was the smartest person the room. If this game was making Craig frown, it must be really something.

Several hours later, they ventured back and were told, with some hesitation, they could probably have a go now.

I’m trying to remember why I was not around for that initial introduction to the world of D&D. The most likely explanation is that although Andre and I were thick as thieves and hung out together a lot, I had probably parted company (not on speaking terms) with the Optometry Department of the University of Melbourne by this point, with a resultant loss of daily contact. Being academically—if not ophthalmically—short-sighted, I had not realised there was more to passing exams than dozing through lectures and listening to music in the Rowden White Library. Luckily the store where I worked Friday nights and Saturday mornings offered me a full-time position or I would have been truly lost.

Having been given the address of a Friday evening game of D&D being hosted by a vague acquaintance, I consulted my street directory and drove there after clocking off at 9:00pm. Andre looked up and nodded as I entered the lounge room, trying hard to step over—rather than on—the extended legs and bodies sprawled on cushions. At a glance, there were four other males and a solitary female reclining on ancient couches or perched on large cushions all focussed intently on bits of paper covered in unintelligible scrawl and occasionally yelping or groaning as they rolled odd-shaped dice. The key figure was a fellow who seemed to be telling them what was happening while rapidly shifting his attention between a sheath of hand-written notes and a blue-covered rule book. I sat in a corner, totally confused but utterly transfixed as an adventure unfolded in the air out of nothing but voices, imagination, and a few bits of paper and plastic. When I got home at 1:00 am I got out a notepad and started designing my first dungeon. I could find out the rules later.

*

A quartet of decades on, I have to say I enjoy writing dungeons more than the actual playing. This is probably just as well, as the ratio of writing/preparation time to playing time is somewhere in the vicinity of 4:1. Still, the kids seemed to enjoy themselves and my mate thought it went well, so maybe there’ll be a repeat engagement.

Perhaps I could try something a bit different. One dungeon I was quite pleased with was called Coda for Melodyne where a musical theme was reflected in both the tasks and the design of the labyrinth (it was shaped like a treble clef).

What about a dungeon inspired by a record? Bo Hansson’s Magician’s Hat, for example?

The adventure begins in “The City”; bustling organ and horns, some dangerous slashes of guitar; a jazzy organ (a spacey Scandinavian Jimmy Smith?) leads us to a park where a group of acolytes sing a brief wordless chorus. Then out into the bustle again, people moving with jaunty confidence as synthesisers and other keyboards dance with sax and percussion. “The City” never sleeps, travelling restlessly through different moods, a smoky sax solo, a pattering percussive ending.

Rolling in triple time with acoustic and electric guitars, “Divided Reality” rocks between a folky dance and oceanic surge and roll. This lively instrumental music touches you with familiarity only to spin you into new world where magic surely lives. There is a restlessness, almost a kaleidoscope of musical ideas here that makes the record fizz like a Catherine Wheel in the night sky.

Magician’s Hat was released in Hansson’s native Sweden in 1972, and the following year everywhere else. Some of the pieces were leftovers from Lord of the Rings, but these are jewel-encrusted brooches rather than rusty cast-offs. The three short pieces completing side one hang from the neck of the longer opening pair like bright adornments to an exotic robe.

“Elidor” is flute driven over a sighing keyboard accompaniment, a turn for a moonlight glade where mystery flits in the shadows. (The name, incidentally, is from a children’s fantasy novel by the wonderful Alan Garner). “Before the rain” continues with flute, before changing complexion completely as sax takes the lead for a while. The next brief piece, “Fylke” continues the floaty flute, this time over guitar rather than organ. So evocative are these pieces you could well find yourself wandering unknown hills and meeting mythical figures.

“Playing downhill into the Downs” certainly sounds like a Tolkien title, and is reminiscent of a couple of the more forceful pieces from Lord of the Rings (“Flight to the Ford”, for example). Great ensemble playing with the wind instruments leading a folky Scandinavian progressive big band chart that fades too soon. Some moments evoke Lizard era King Crimson, or perhaps Islands, but with quite a different heritage.

The feel of the second side is the same; exotic progressive Scandi folk-rock with brief, pretty melodies that move to different rhythms. My favourite is the jazzy “The Sun (Parallel or 90)” with its loping baseline and gorgeous electric piano. When the guitar solos over the top, it’s like a Northern lights Mahavishnu Orchestra. Sublime.

Although it may not be everyone’s cup of mulled wine, there is a heady magic permeating this album, inviting you into unfamiliar yet entrancing places. I loved spending time pulling worlds out of a Magician’s Hat today.

SOURCES

Magician’s Hat (Charisma, 1973 LP)

Magicians Hat (Resource, 1993 CD)

The 1993 CD re-issue on Resource Records remasters and re-orders the pieces slightly. The extended version of the opening piece (now entitled “Big City”) is fabulous, adding psychedelic big band charges and a space guitar wig-out. Pity they lost the apostrophe though.

*

41 comments

  1. Heh. We really do have to have that coffee. I had a great circle of D&D friends, and we played regularly for many years back in the early 80s. Like you, I much preferred being the creator to being a player.

    I also had the actual vinyl of both Magician’s Hat and Lord of the Rings, which I loved – both stolen, sadly, in the Great LP Heist of 1982. LotR still pops up on my Rainy Day playlist from time to time, but I never did buy Magician’s Hat on CD.

    Nice post. Nice memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s brilliant. (Except for the Great LP Heist, of course, which is heinous). Yep, late 70s through to mid-80s were the peak D&D years for our group too. And now I’m inculcating a new generation!

      Like

  2. Having loved Stranger Things on Netflix, I’ve been more interested in checking out D&D. And I’m 45 years old.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is absolutely no age limit on imagination (on which D&D rides like a world on a turtle’s back). I wonder if we can organise a Skype game? I know a certain Welshman (apparently offline at present) still has his polyhedral dice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting read! I’ve never played D&D but have noticed its enduring popularity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s another world, Danica. I imagine D&D will survive as long as there are socially inept young people who would rather sit around rolling coloured dice and brandishing imaginary swords at mythical beasts than actually getting out there and doing stuff. I’ll be the doddering greybeard at the end of the table.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Haha 🙂 The doddering greybeard at the end of the table would make a most excellent D&D character.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s my life’s work. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. A job well done. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know much about D&D, so I learned a thing or two here. Like Mike, my experience, and intrigue, came via Stranger Things.

    Likewise, I know nothing of Magician’s Hat, but I’m interested in any album that has a bit of magic about it.

    Thanks for shedding light on both, Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A pleasure, J. I think perhaps I should check out ‘Stranger Things’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you should! It’s really pretty brilliant telly (and I’m not one for watching much telly).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. D&D has ben essential in my family, for some reason my adult children feel the need gather once a week to play although they don’t want this old graybeard at the end of the table anymore, this is their way of asserting their identity I think.

    Nice memories, brought back a lot for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Perhaps we need an international society of old bastard D&D players. I’m imagining an adventure where everyone in the party is over 50… both players and characters. “I swing at the orc with my walking frame…”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your stealth rolls could be affected by bad knees/backs etc.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hopefully compensated by a modest increase in Wisdom. Maybe.

          Like

        2. It’s all in the experience points at the end of the day.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. As always, I get a kick out of your way with words. “The three short pieces completing side one hang from the neck of the longer opening pair like bright adornments to an exotic robe” and “Northern lights Mahavishnu Orchestra” are particular favorites this time around. I like the images of the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat on the LP label, and how perfect is it that the drummer’s name is ‘Rune’?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks JDB. I don’t think the Charisma record label was that common in the US – perhaps only known to those who sought out import LPs.
      Yes, many of those Swedish names are delicious (and sound like D&D characters!).

      Like

  7. I was interested particularly here in the setup time: playing time ratio.
    My 3-year old has this honeybee tree game that probably has about that 4:1 setup to playing ratio too!
    I’m not sure if the TV show ‘community’ has made it to the Southern Hemisphere but they dedicated an entire season 2 episode to a D & D game.
    With that & your well-crafted post here Bruce (regardless of any writing time: reading time ratio 🙂 ), it’s an intriguing world that I’m learning about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will watch out for that series. Can just picture myself snorting and harrumphing over a TV script presentation of D&D. What fun!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My best friend in high school somehow ended up with a copy of the original LP, which was exotic even for us progheads in the 70s. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. Listening to it now, great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure Rick. I can easily imagine you digging this greatly.

      Like

  9. We used to play a game called Rifts in high school, man that takes me back. Love the writing here – this isn’t a review it’s a friggin’ dissertation!

    Also I forget where you are. You said it’s Autumn and I had to double-think. It’s spring here at this end of the world (though we still have snow piles in places)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the dissertation length post, mate. I did indulge myself a bit on this one.

      Like

      1. Oh no worries! You had a lot to say! 🙂

        How did you add the photo to a comment? I assume it’s in your media folder, but then what?

        Like

        1. Just arose this morning to see your trials, A. (Which I might delete if that’s OK).
          In the Library, each image has a URL. I paste that into a comment. But the trick is, you need a comment there first! Then edit the comment and paste the URL.

          Like

        2. Oh absolutely, delete away. Sorry to use your site as a test site! 😉

          I seem unable to edit comments on other peoples’ sites (which makes sense), but pasting the URL into a comment apparently worked!

          Anyway, that’s a heckuva distance (over 16,000KM) between us. But I’m Canadian, and not daunted by distances. I’ll be right over!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Excellent. I’ll put some beers in the fridge and get the “Digging Melbourne” record shop map ready.

          Like

  10. I see a few magician’s hat tracks on You tube to explore over Easter. (Lured by your excellent writing, including mention of Jimmy Smith; I’ve played ‘Back at the Chicken shack’ several times this week).

    Like

    1. Yes. Enjoyed.
      Re D&D, this was part of a course in small group behaviour that I did in the eighties and a fun way to learn. Imagine how different the world night be if Donald Trump and his various adversaries had done such a course. Laid to waste already perhaps? Or maybe not.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hard to say. For beginners I always insist on there being no Chaotic Evil characters. It creates chaos. So Mr President might not even get in the game.

        Like

  11. It’s been a busy week for me and I’m way behind on my usual old man’s pastimes. My fault for joining a group of wanna-be musicians, picking up a guitar and practicing every day in a probably vain attempt to play it. Among other things. But I did just want to say thanks for another great post and for reminding me why I never get into D&D.

    I shared a house with a moderately keen D&Der in the early eighties and he gave his housemates a taster. No dungeon (except, perhaps, in his head), no dice, no rules (that he told us), just a description of a room and our characters. All we could see was a wall with a door. It seemed there was no option but to grab the door handle and try to open it. When I did that I was told that my hand was disintegrating. At that point I complained loudly that this was unfair and I never ventured near a dungeon again. I still wonder if things would have been different if I had watched a real game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear. Easy to understand why your interest in further D&D waned. The story is, sadly, somewhat akin to the one I told above of my mate’s introduction. It’s a wonder anyone ever actually learns the blessed game.
      And given how long it took my old man’s brain to learn the new rules, I do wonder whether practicing the guitar would have been more rewarding. Still, the youngsters seemed to enjoy it.

      Hope the music comes together. Just remind me, how do you do an A7diminished?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A7dimished? I’d have to look that one up … No, it’s not in my book of guitar chords. In fact, I’m not sure it exists. There is an Adim7, also not in my chords book, but I’ve just worked out that it can be played as a 4-string chord at the fourth fret. Hmm. A nice suspenseful chord. I’ll add it to my repertoire. There goes another wasted hour 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Reading this has really brought back strong memories, both of enjoying Magician’s Hat (which I must dig out again) and playing Bruce’s wonderful dungeons. Just like great music, the games he created were always engrossing, imaginative and took you somewhere special.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you sir. Writing and playing this new dungeon for the kids brought back lots of memories for me too. And as for that folder of yellowing Character Sheets; a history in a sheath of scribbled sheets, several of which bore the name Bindi…

      Like

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