Look at that bad boy – the OWLBEAR.
Splendid, isn’t he? A towering, squawky mass of furry, feathery weirdness, ready to demolish the party. Wipe that grin off your face halfling, he’ll have you…
This image, an interior illustration from the famed ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ D+D module was pretty much the first ever rpg image I saw. I was immediately hooked at 11 years old. Before then I’d been fascinated with Greek and Norse mythology books, and any Ray Harryhausen films I could catch on BBC 1. The little scene above was something completely new to me – what *was* that thing they were fighting? And where could I get the miniature?…
What got me about the humble Owlbear image is that it was a monster personified. You go look up ‘Monster’ in the dictionary, and there he is. I love image because it screams ‘Owlbear’ but doesn’t particularly look like an owl, or even a bear. Bears don’t have long tapering tails, and Owls don’t have sodding great serrated beaks. In all honesty, this creature is more like a Raven Rat Troll. But I’d never dare class it as such. It is an Owlbear, hear it hoot!
Anyway, whenever someone says ‘Fantasy RPG’ to me, the image conjured in my head is this little number here. Not some grandiose image by the late Keith Parkinson, or Brom. It’s this drawing, by way of Richard Carpenter, and Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle blaring through a speaker fixed to one of the dungeon walls! (Don’t look, it’s hidden behind the corner anyway).
1982, that was the year for me – baby Dave, aged 11 and one quarter. Gaming was a magical thing back then. I’d gorged myself on Fighting Fantasy books, gaze at their covers for hours, copy the interiors with colour pencils, and cheat my way through the books Disgracefully. (Am I Lucky or Unlucky? Then turn to page blah blah. I cheated so bad that I’d back track 5 or 6 pages at time. I had 6 of my fingers bookmarking Deathtrap Dungeon in case I died. Ian Livingston, will you ever forgive me?)
I’ve made my living from roleplay and card games since 1992. Done all the things that as a kid I would have wanted to do ‘as a grown up’. But when it’s all said and done, I miss the bright, clear joy of the days when I first discovered gaming. Things have refined and improved since the eighties, and we all know the hobby better, but I look back on the early days with a sad, sweet fondness. It was smaller back then, but also much bigger.
It’s like being a junkie, always trying to recapture the sensation of that first hit.
We just have to look back at the super-charged cover of the latest monster manual from Wizards and compare it to the somewhat twee early Gygax cover, with the red dragon oddly hovering in the blank blue sky to see how far gaming has come on. And it’s a good thing, we know and understand it with more clarity. We’ve grown, and the game books we own have grown with us. Yet, I still look about to The Littlest Owlbear, munching on the low level adventuring party, and smile warmly. I pat it on its smelly, feathery head (a haircut that strangely reminds me of the Beatles) and sent it back down into the Borderlands, and my quaint little dreams.