Over the last few days, old school blogs and forums have been ablaze with tributes to the late heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who died on Sunday from stomach cancer at the age of 67. I've talked before about how, when I was a younger man, roleplaying was one of the few places where metalheads and geeks rubbed shoulders amicably. My friend's headbanging older brother was an early gaming mentor of mine and it was through him that I first became acquainted with heavy metal music and culture.
I can't say that I had much liking for it; my musical tastes, then and now, are too staid to appreciate metal, I think. But I am at least more than passingly familiar with the music, bands, and personalities of heavy metal from the late 70s to mid-80s. Unsurprisingly, this period coincides with my formative years in the hobby. In those days, D&D and metal went hand in hand, both in the popular imagination and in reality. It was rare to find a gamer who either wasn't into heavy metal or had gamers in his group who weren't.
This association doesn't seem to exist anymore or, if it does, it's much less strong than it had been in my youth. Or maybe I'm just not paying close enough attention. Regardless, I find myself thinking back to the older guys and teenagers I met in those early days, the ones who inducted me into this "secret society" we call roleplaying. They're the ones who introduced me to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber and all these other authors "you have to read," because, according to my elders, "these games are all based on what they wrote." It was their way of sharing a common culture and a common vocabulary, so that, even when someone was slagging Lovecraft's stories in the heat of an argument, you knew at least that he had read them. He'd earned the right to criticize old HPL, because he was "one of us." I too wanted to be "one of us," so I immersed myself in all these writers and dutifully observed the ways of the grognards ...
And the metalheads too. Most of these guys were younger than the wargamers -- teenagers or college students generally -- but they were just as into Conan and Cthulhu as the bearded, middle aged Avalon Hill/SPI crowd. These were the guys who had Frazetta on their walls right next to their Black Sabbath concert posters. A lot of them were big into Tolkien too, oddly enough. They definitely had style gaming-wise: their characters were always interesting and their dungeons always deadly. Though they could be scary, at least to me and my buddies, they really did seem to possess a strange kind of ardor, sparks of adolescent brilliance that I found strangely compelling. And far from fulfilling the stereotype of teenagers who believe they are immortal, many of these guys had a peculiar melancholy way about them that came through in their doomed yet heroic characters. It's heady stuff when you're an introverted, nerdy kid in the early 1980s.
The metalheads were a big part of the common culture of the hobby when I entered it. Though I never shared their love for the music, they rarely made me feel as if I were an outsider. Many of my earliest gaming memories include a heavy metal gaming soundtrack, not because I was into the music myself but because my friends were and it was part of what it meant to be a gamer back then -- just like Conan or Cthulhu or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I really cherish those memories; they remind me of a time when the hobby was smaller and yet somehow felt broader than it does now. They were good times and I often miss them. So, I bid farewell to Ronnie James Dio alongside my fellow old schoolers and offer the horns in salute to him and to his many fans who gamed with me so long ago.