So, it’s been a tough month.

IVF failed, and we’ve needed to pause and take stock, taking a deep breath before getting back on with life. Fortunately, life has been keeping me busy; We’ve had an offer on our house (making a tidy profit on the bargain basement price I paid a few years ago) and we’ve found somewhere new to live for ourselves; our offer has just been accepted on a nice three bed in a village in the South Downs (let’s call it Vicar’s Waltzing, just to keep it vaguely anonymous). Downside is, it’s bigger than our last place, and wipes out that nice little profit we made on selling the old place. Ah well, that’s the point of it, I suppose! I started my new job with the civil service last week, so until our house purchase goes through I’ll be staying at my Aunt’s for a while, kipping in their spare room. It’s wonderful; my aunt spoils me rotten and I get on very well with my cousins (all of whom are mid-late teens); the downside is that Mrs Astronomer is still working in Oxford, so I don’t get to see her during the week.

All in all, after a very rough year, everything is starting to get back on track. With the possible exception of 2013 (when I had something of a small nervous breakdown), since I left the air force and then my course at Oxford it’s been hard to remember a more difficult time. Fortunately, my new job is challenging, rewarding, interesting, well paid; it’s a lot better than the last one, which was dull, uninteresting, monotonous, and paid peanuts! It’s very unusual to be working somewhere with a flexitime system, as I’ve never done that before; it’s odd to think that I could turn up to work at 10am and no-one would bat an eyelid. I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders recently; I didn’t realise just how down my last job was making me feel, and it’s nice to work in an environment where my opinion is welcomed and my skills valued.

Mrs Astronomer is feeling better after the IVF failure of last month; a large part of it is that neither of us realised how worried she was about me whilst I was getting flogged at a job I wasn’t enjoying. For fairly obvious reasons, she was not in a happy place following the IVF, but she’s slowly coming back round to being her normal self, especially now all those hormones seem to have got out of her system. We’ve got an appointment with the fertility doctor in a few weeks to discuss the next steps for trying again (such as, what are we going to do with all our frozen blastocysts?), after which we’ll be better placed to make a decision. If we’re going from cold, there won’t be the need to harvest eggs again, which will cut down on a lot of heartache and hormones. She’s now job hunting, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes up.

Other than that? I’ve been busy with uni work, doing a group project making observations of binary stars using a robotic telescope in Tenerife (where it sits on top of a mountain and you control it from home via the internet), which has been rather fun, but now we have to analyse all the data and write the damn report, which is less so. The joys of distance learning, I suppose.

Now, one of the other major new changes in recent weeks is a hobby I’ve found. Yes, another one, to go with the reading, astronomy, distance learning, and what have you. It’s not for the faint hearted, or for those who fear being labelled a geek.

In fact, this is the Mount Everest of geekery.

It’s Dungeons and god-damned dragons. 

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Oh, Yes. It’s got a dragon on the cover. (Lost Astronomer, Apr 17)

Yeah, that’s right. Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short. Those of you in my readership who know me personally will probably be rolling their eyes in despair, including Mrs Astronomer. I know, I know. I’ve managed to get this far in life without ever rolling a 20-sided dice in anger, so why now?

First off, don’t knock something until you’ve tried it; I knocked it, then I tried it, and it is amazing. The basic concept of D&D is this: you get a group of friends (you’ll need 3 to 4 other people), and you use the game as a framework to tell a story. Any story. Want an epic tale of betrayal and revenge? Sure, go ahead. Want a love story? You write it! Want to bring peace to a shattered kingdom? Yup, that’s cool too. Want to defeat a dragon, overthrow corrupt leaders, go on a coming-of-age adventure? Providing you can imagine it, they’re all legit. One person acts as the story teller and game master, writing the plot and preparing the adventure in advance, describing the environment, the people you meet and the monsters; acting as judge, jury and all round god of the world you’ve all created in your collective imaginations. There’s no board, everything takes place in your imagination. Everyone else acts as a character in the story, and they make decisions based on what information the game master feeds them:

“You enter the room; there’s a locked door, a table with a map on it, a window looking out into the courtyard, and two chairs. There’s nothing else in the room”

“I’ll try the door with the key we found earlier”

“I’ll look at the map-“

“Wait, are we sure about the door – ?”

“On the other side of the door are seventeen rather angry looking goblins in a large room. They do not look happy to see you. One is making throat slitting gestures.”

“I slam the door and put my weight against it!”

“I grab the map and throw the chair at the door, shoving it under the handle….”

“See, I knew that door was a bad plan! Does anyone have any spells…?”

…and so on.

One game will take a chunk of an evening, but it’s up to you how long it lasts. Each game is sort of like an episode in a DVD box set; they tell their own little story, as part of a wider overarching theme; you come back a few (real world) weeks later with the same characters from last time and pick up where you left off. There’s no winning or losing, there’s just having fun and telling the story. There will usually be a quest (Hi there, dragon sitting on a huge pile of gold!), but you don’t actually have to follow it; in fact, it’s more fun when the player characters go off and do their own thing, although it’s a pain as the game master when you’re suddenly having to invent new characters on the fly for the players to meet. The players make decisions, and the game master describes the consequences of their actions based on a set of rules. It’s that simple.

And it’s brilliant fun! It’s a simple concept, and we all had a good laugh, relaxing in a way that I haven’t done for months. The only question is – How have I missed out up to now? Yes, there’s an undeserved stigma attached (hello, unwashed teenage boys in a basement! or, I may be a geek, but I’m not that much of a geek, ta!) – but that’s not it, I think. Geek is the new cool, after all, and it’s undeniable – there’s something liberating about sitting down with a group of mates (in this case Mrs Astro, my sister, and my best mate – Let’s call him Bart) in a world of make believe with a couple of beers, running through a quest to free a dwarf mine from invading goblins. I think the unwillingness comes from broaching it to others, of fearing to be so uncool as to propose playing it. What are we, 12? Who cares who’s cool and uncool? Well, I don’t care, and nor do my friends, and it’s a wonderful feeling. You can do anything or be anyone, you can tell whatever story you want and the only limit is your imagination.

I suspect that an evening of highly social escapism in a world of magic and dragons is exactly what the doctor ordered in an increasingly glum and depressing world, and I can’t deny that after a stressful few months it’s raised my spirits incredibly. I never thought I’d say this, but I really, honestly, hand on heart recommend it. The only downside is that moving to a new town means I won’t get to see my friends from back home as often, severely limiting the amount of time we’ll get to play the game right after we’ve discovered just how fantastic it is. Whilst I do have cousins in the area I can play with, it’s not quite the same.

Anyway, unless I can find other unwitting victims willing volunteers, once every couple of months or so will have to be often enough. There’s something wonderfully silly, in a gleefully good fun sort of way, to watch your best mate pretend to be a 4 foot tall hobbit, trying to convince a bunch of imaginary 8ft tall ogres to give up their gold without a fight… and then watching the snot get beaten out of his character whilst your sister and your wife look on with an air of “see, we told you that wouldn’t work…”.

Yeah, I’m a geek. And I’m proud.

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