I’ve been working on this post for a looooonng time. With the death of Gary Gygax, I think it is finally time that I wrap this up and post it.
Playing D&D can be a lot more fun than DJing. Yes, The Incredible Kid plays D&D. Dungeons and Dragons. Several times a month, with other players ranging in age from their 30’s to their 50’s. Currently all male, but with several female players over the years as well. None of us live with our mothers. All of us have jobs. And yes, all of us are total geeks on one level or another. No, we do not dress up, or act out our gaming sessions, but for the sake of full disclosure, I did have a distant interest (that never went anywhere) in the Society for Creative Anachronism when I was an adolescent.
For many years now I have wanted to write more about my gaming hobby in my blog, but didn’t want to drop some unsuspected RPG bombs without giving some context. RPGs being so commonly reviled by those who don’t play them, I felt like I wanted to present the life story of my involvement in RPGs, before just dropping random stories here and there. This life story has sat in my drafts and been edited over and over for more than a year. Now you can finally see the results of all my labor. You can also expect more game-related blogging in the future, should the fancy ever strike me.
In 1982 in 6th grade I was introduced to Choose Your Own Adventure books and Dungeons and Dragons. The Choose Your Own Adventure book I first adventured in had a time travel theme. (It was actually not “The Cave of Time,” and not an official Choose Your Own Adventure book, but a copycat publisher.) My first set of choices had me somehow keeping my parents from having me and thus I was never born, and I faded out of existence. Wow. What a headtrip. The head-fuck impact of this experience meant that I proceeded to try nearly all of the combinations of choices before tiring of the book. However, these books became only a minor diversion because there were a (very) finite number of choices one could make, and only a limited number of endings. This is most certainly not the case with my other discovery of that year: Dungeons and Dragons.
It was the Fall of 1982 and I was in the sixth grade at Fairview Elementary in Columbia, Missouri. A giant slumber party was coming up in honor of my friend Adam Holmes’ birthday party. His birthday was around Halloween and a big slumber party was thrown at his amazing lakeside home every year around this time. I had heard that this year we would be playing a game called Dungeons and Dragons at the party. I think my only knowledge of the game at this point came from references in the movie E.T. which had come out the summer before. Somehow I knew to contact Jeff Powell as the guy to go to for information about this game. (It turns out he was going to be the Dungeon Master for our session at the slumber party.) I called him up and asked if he could show me how to play this game, so I had a heads up before the party. He agreed and I biked over to his house one evening and we rolled up a Fighter character. I wandered into the Minotaur’s cave from the Dungeon Module “B2 The Keep on the Borderlands.” The Minotaur killed me. I wanted revenge, and I wanted it right away. We immediately rolled up a new Samurai character for me.
Now the Samurai character class was not a part of Basic D&D or even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons at this point. I know that my friend Adam (who played with Jeff) had a Ninja character as well. I always assumed that Jeff was responsible for the creative addition of these classes, or possibly his older brother, who I knew was a gamer at the time as well. Doing a little research just now I learned that the Ninja character class first debuted in Dragon Magazine #16 which came out in 1978. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the Samurai character class before the publication of the original Oriental Adventures in 1985, but I have a feeling it may very well have appeared in Dragon Magazine well before that as well. So maybe these weren’t spontaneous creations by a sixth grader, but additions from published supplementary materials. Regardless, they added some cool flavor to the game, much appreciated by a ten-year old.
At my insistence we started my new Samurai character right outside the Minotaur’s lair and somehow I managed to kill the Minotaur. I was hooked. At my friend’s slumber party we ventured briefly in dungeon module B4 : The Lost City. The boys got bored of adventuring fairly early and turned their attention to the original Atari game system in the house. I however, couldn’t get enough, and awaited my next chance to play.
I must have conveyed my interest to my parents because for my birthday in December of 1982 I receieved the “red box” Basic D&D set with the famous Erol Otus cover.
I read the rules booklet incessantly the first week I got it, even waking up feverish in the middle of the night to read it some more, before finally succumbing to sleep. I was completely obsessed. With the same group of boys I played a very unsatisfying game at my friend Yenie’s slumber party where older brothers of our group put us through an adventure that ended up with our characters surrounded by piles of cocaine and lots of naked women. Not my idea of escapist fantasy at the time.
I soon exhausted most of my friends’ interest in playing. While the game was at the height of its general popularity at this time, and all my friends played it, they also had other interests. I would want to spend all afternoon playing it with my friend Adam, for instance, and he would want to go outside and toss a baseball after a bit. Other than playing soccer, I never had any interest in sports.
D&D is designed to be played with 3-6 players or so and a “Dungeon Master” who exists as a referee: the ultimate arbiter of what happens in game play. Throughout my life I was lucky to find even one other person who would be willing to play. There were many times in sixth grade when I played both the player and the DM since there was no one who would play with me. Among others, I created an unorthodox winged character and challenged him with different monsters from the book. Eventually I would rip up the characters from these sessions, since I was “cheating,” and not playing the game the way it is meant to be played.
I resorted to extorting game time out of my little brother. I would do things for him in exchange for hours he owed me to play D&D. Eventually I had him up to days of “owed” D&D time, only to have my mother bail him out and tell me I could get a couple hours one afternoon and then he didn’t owe me any more. I had the most luck getting two subsequent across-the-street neighbors to play, Joey Boer and Terry Brennan. Terry and I especially got into it, spending the whole summer after sixth grade exploring X1: Isle of Dread, taking turns being DM.
When I moved to Portland in the Fall of 1983 I soon discovered the gamers in the neighborhood. They were very clearly on the absolute bottom rung of the social ladder. This was not necessarily a problem; that was always my position as well. Unfortunately they had internalized society’s hatred for them to such an extent that they spent their time together tearing each other down even more, in some sick competition to see who could be on the top of the bottom rung. I may have been lonely and friendless, but I had too much self-respect to want to have any part of this cruel social circle. I figured it was better to be creative and alone than play social pecking order games with society’s rejects. The few times I tried to play with these gamers they were so obsessed with what I saw as mundane strategy and tactics. I wanted to play things heroically and spontaneous, with gusto and verve. Their sessions left me cold and I only played a few times.
I had more luck with roping my younger brother in to play now that we were in a new city and still building social networks. To the extent that I could get anyone to play they were usually my brother’s friends, all many years younger than me. My youngest sister would often want to join in, but unfortunately she was simply too young to be much fun to play with at the time.
At one point several members of my family’s church community grew concerned with my hobby. They felt it was dangerous and satanic. Worried about my excessive devotion to the game, my parents confiscated all of my gaming materials and stashed them in their closet. This only turbo-charged my creativity, and without the special many-sided gaming dice I managed to create several of my own games using the standard six-sided dice scavenged from “normal” games around the house. I came up with several games including Knights of Camelot (which involved a lot of jousting) and Ravaged (a post-apocalyptic sword & fantasy/sci-fi game loosely based on a Thundarr the Barbarian type world.). After nine months or so my parents decided that the threat of D&D had been overblown by their fellow church members and I was allowed all my gaming material back in the Summer. I was thrilled and couldn’t stop talking to my brother about how awesome D&D was. He stoically put up with my blather while not sharing at all in my excitement.
Early on in my interest in D&D I bought a copy of Dragon magazine at the first gaming store I went to in Missouri. The front page had an ad for a D&D-like system called Rolemaster. It sounded like the coolest most complex fantasy game ever. This always stayed in the back of my mind. At some point (in 1985?) my friend Dan Hutt told me about a game called Middle Earth Role Playing set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world that he had had a lot of fun playing with some friends. I got a copy of the rulebook and loved the additional rules and complexity and the much more graphic combat system filled with blood and specific injuries. This only made me more curious to check out the Rolemaster system since MERP was a simplified version of that system, put out by the same company, Iron Crown Enterprises. I finally got my chance in the Spring of my Freshman year at Wilson High School, where I met a gamer named Robert in my geometry class. Robert had a copy of the Rolemaster set that he was no longer interested in, and he offered to sell it to me.
This roleplaying system was so cool to me. Far more options for characters, and character development. The characters had skills you could develop! At the time Dungeons and Dragons characters had no skills of any kind unless they were a Thief, and then only a few class-specific ones. Rolemaster added combat realism: specific injuries, broken bones, bleeding, unconsciousness. In D&D you were trapped into playing a specific archetype, whereas in Rolemaster a player had far more flexibility to develop exactly the kind of character they wanted. I loved this new system.
For my term paper in my junior year of high school my thesis was on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I took this project more seriously than any paper I have written before or since, going through five drafts before turning in the paper. I put way more effort into the project than was required. I read a biography and all sorts of critical material. I became enchanted with Tolkien’s idea of “subcreation;” creating within God’s creation, as Tolkien saw it. Some people want to write a book. Or paint a painting. Or design a building. Subcreation was designing an entire world. Every book in that world. Every painting. Every building. All the races. The cultures. The animals. The plants. The geology and geography. The stars. The constellations. The political systems. An endless canvas of creativity.
This took up a lot of my free time in high school, when I wasn’t skateboarding, or drawing comics. I created a crazy-quilt world that included every fantasy setting I’d ever been drawn to, all packed into one world. I created a planet of islands, where each one could have a distinct fantasy feel, so that one island might be like Conan’s Cimmeria, while another might be like 1001 Nights.
At some point in high school I had my friend Sam Morse play a Rolemaster session one afternoon, and he was hooked, saying it was the most fun he had ever had roleplaying. (Sam was responsible for some of my most fun roleplaying experiences in high school. He created and refereed a post-apocalytpic role-playing game we played quite a bit.) With Sam and another player named Scott, I did GM (Game Master, a less D&D specific term) a series of sessions in the latter part of high school. The problem was that they wanted to play more often than I felt prepared to GM a session. I wanted them to have total freedom to do what they pleased. I didn’t want to channel their actions based on what I had prepared. So I felt the need to create everything within hundreds of miles of their position before GMing a session. I would get caught up in wondering what Centaur architecture might look like, or Centaur astronomy, when they just wanted to kill some monsters and do some adventuring. The sessions continued as often as I felt prepared until I left high school. I still thought about gaming occasionally after that point, but doubted that it could still be any fun, or hold any appeal, once I was no longer an adolescent.
I had an insight at one point in my late teens that really affected how I felt about gaming, an activity which had dominated so much of my imagination as a young teenager. I realized that the sort of things that are fun in fantasy gaming were the exact opposite of the things that were desirable in real life. In gaming it is fun to be chased, to be attacked, and attack, to suffer infjuries, to risk your life, to nearly die. In “real life” I thought that nothing would be cooler than going on a date and making out, activities which hardly made for good game play. What did it mean that I spent so much time in a fantasy life imagining things that were the exact opposite of anything that I would really want to have happen to me in reality? And why were the things that were so desirable in reality so incompatible with this fantasy life?
My only gaming experience in college was having some acquaintances in my sophmore year roll up Rolemaster characters once, but we never actually played a single session.
After graduating from college I started working for Powell’s books in the Spring of 1995. At first I stockpiled stacks of MERP and Rolemaster materials that came through the store, thinking that I might some day play again. I ended up putting all of the books back into circulation a few months later, deciding that since I hadn’t played in six years, I probably never would. Too bad. Since the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies came out those books are now worth $20-$100 each, and at the time they were priced between $2.95 and $9.95 a piece. I mention this not because I would want to re-sell them, but because now assembling a complete MERP set would cost many thousands of dollars. MERP extrapolated an incredibly detailed and well-designed game world from Tolkien’s oeuvre, and is deservedly collected by Tolkien role-playing fanatics.
Sixteen years passed in my life without a hint of roleplaying. Eventually I became aware of Powell’s employees who were playing D&D together. I still wasn’t convinced that I was that interested, but I was curious. In the Fall of 2005 it was announced that a new 3.0 D&D game was to commence. I was skeptical, since after having played Rolemaster I didn’t think I could ever go back to a benighted system like D&D again. I decided to give it a chance, and despite still harboring nostalgic feelings for the Rolemaster system, I have continued to play Dungeons and Dragons for the last two and half years. Now playing 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, I am not in love with the gaming system, but it has certainly corrected many of the flaws of earlier iterations of the game. There is now much more flexibility for developing unique characters, there are actually skills for all of the characters to utilize, and there are feats to make your character specialized. The combat is not as realistic, but at thirty-six year of age, that bloody verisimilitude is not as important as it was at sixteen.
After a few years I felt indebted to the Deacon for doing all of the DMing and so I started up my own campaign, initially a Basic D&D campaign using the system that I had first played back in 1982. Many players these days started with second edition Dungeons and Dragons, and have little experience with the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, much less the Basic system. My thought was that since I was so rusty at Dungeon Mastering, a simple system would make my life easier. Actually, I found the lack of complex rules made things that much more difficult because I was constantly having to make up appropriate results on the spot without any structure to fall back on. More and more we just used third edition rules as the default rules for things that weren’t covered in the Basic system, until in the Spring of 2007, I began DMing a 3.5 D&D campaign that is still going to this day. I am still happily playing in a campaign begun by the Deacon back in 2006.
These games usually fall on Fridays, so I often have a D&D game on Friday, and a DJ gig on Saturday. I am often much more enthusiastic about the game than the DJ performance. I am often much more excited about preparing for a game session, than I am preparing a DJ set. I do not know the majority of the people who show up to dance at my gigs, but I know the people at my gaming table well. I can only guess at what kind of DJ set to prepare for the people who might show up to dance, but I have a very good idea of what kind of game session to design for my players. DJing can be highly-creative and expressive, but it is rarely as personally satisfying to me as a good game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Here’s to Gary,