Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Post #100: Dungeons and Dragons.

Here we are in July, and including bonus posts and guest blogs, we're up to 100 articles published here, and there's a subject I'd been waiting to talk about until the time is right. That time is now. I cover a lot of subjects in the same manner, I give an introduction, a basic history and maybe a little bit of how it relates to me on the end. Not this time. I'm going to presume for the moment that most of the people know just a little bit about D&D, and that I'd be wasting my time doing a full writeup of the most popular geeky activity in the last three-plus decades. If you are still in the dark about it, here's the Wikipedia article... suffice it to say that D&D, or any other tabletop roleplaying game isn't like a board game or video game. Your “piece” is a set of statistics that describes using numbers and game terms, what your character can do and how good he or she is at any given task. From there on out, the Dungeon Master acts as narrator in a fantasy story, and every player is a main character, deciding what their character will do and then sometimes rolling dice to determine success or failure. Good enough.

I didn't even know this was in a world called "Mystara" until over a decade later.

Instead of devoting the rest of this article to a history and further description of what D&D is that many of my readers know and the rest likely won't care about, I want to talk about what D&D is to me. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a frankly ridiculous percentage of my life. I was a precocious and extremely bookish child enrolled in a tiny private school in a bad neighborhood just outside the city limits of Chicago in the early 1980s. The school was small enough that as a K-8 (That is Kindergarten through 8th grade for the nine years of American pre-High School education) school, the entire building would have fit on a single public school bus. My 8th grade graduating class consisted of four students and the year before us had two. For this reason, first through fourth grade were in the same room in the building for at least one year. What does this have to do with D&D? I'm getting there.

The year I was unceremoniously skipped directly from Kindergarten to the second grade, bypassing first grade entirely, I met Ron, a fourth grader who was into stuff I thought was cool. We both liked video games, Transformers, and he bullied me a little, but not too much (and to be fair everyone did, I was tiny and brainy with a big mouth.)  I'd already heard of Dungeons and Dragons in books, but I couldn't puzzle out what it was. One day, Ron brought the D&D books to school, and let me look at them. I was instantly captivated. Knights and wizards, crumbling ruins filled with monsters and treasure. I wanted to play. Begged to, even though my teacher yelled at me when she saw me looking at the book. I was barely seven years old, and small for my age. I was told I was too little by the teacher, my parents, even Ron... but I persisted.

Tools of the trade from that first book. I didn't know what this stuff did,
but by God, I meant to find out.
My first Dungeons and Dragons character was a thief named “Thief” (c'mon, I was 7...) due to our incomplete understanding of the rules and a series of bad die rolls, my first level thief singlehandedly dispatched a carrion crawler at the entrance to the sample dungeon in the Red Box GM book, with nothing but his dagger. I'd only managed to get Ron to run a game with me as the only player, but it was a victory. The fact that I was killed several rooms later by a wight in a chimney did not dampen my triumph. I knew what I wanted for my next several Christmas and Birthday gifts. I got my own Red Box from Toys 'R Us, where they'd stuffed it on a bottom shelf out of the way, and it was the only one left not damaged. I read it obsessively, made characters, made dungeons on graph paper and eventually got a copy of the Expert Set.

My first ever kill, and Google tells me that I'm not alone in this.

I didn't actually get to play D&D again for years, and until High School, D&D always started with me begging my little brother, my Dad and neighborhood kids to try it, with me getting frustrated and them getting bored and stopping without even being willing to sit through a full session. I didn't care. I kept getting the books, making dungeons, reading about monsters and spells. Even in High School we only got a handful of sessions off, but by then I had myself a little collection and was set when I got to college. College opened my eyes, as I had willing and capable other players, I didn't have to beg anyone to play, and I didn't have to DM the group if I didn't want to. Those were some great years.

Post-college I joined a few different campaigns, and ran more than a few of my own, though by then I was better known for running Shadowrun or Call of Cthulhu. I did a tour of the classic modules during years playing 2nd Edition AD&D, going through the Giants Series, Slavers Series, Temple of Elemental Evil, Castle Ravenloft, Through the Looking Glass, and even Tomb of Horrors. Years went by and I learned about acting as my character and actually roleplaying in Classic RPGA events where completion of the adventure was sometimes secondary to just acting like the character you were handed. In tournament play at Gen Con, in 1994 I was on the Winning Team for the NASCRAG event Nexus II: The Weather Stone, youngest person on the team, but I was used to that by now. Three years later I was on the 2nd place team in the D&D Open Tournament, using the “Cutters” scenario at Gen Con 1997... I remember the adventure was set in Planescape.

Still have this on the wall by my computer, and still have the shirt and tiny
cut sapphire from the NASCRAG tourney.
I'd had years of experience as a DM, player of home games, convention tournaments and I even played a bit of Living City. Everything changed when I got a set of playtest rulebooks for Third Edition. I was in the vanguard pushing local gamers to embrace D&D3e before it even came out. By then, I was manager of a local hobby shop and when the books came out we sold tons of them, and I was running games on both days every weekend. With my boss' blessing at the hobby shop, I founded the Ides of March game convention to bring gamers together to play Warhammer, Magic: the Gathering, and most of all, D&D. (More on that convention is a tale for another day.) My convention attendance was up to seven or more cons per year, and I eventually met my wife while playing.

It's funny. When 3rd edition (and later 3.5) came out, I prided myself on being open to change, and I mocked the people who hung onto earlier editions from behind my counter to my friends and customers as the “Gaming Amish.” After all, I'd played since 1983, I knew all the editions and had adjusted with the times... progress, you know? After the hobby shop had closed, my convention was a risk I couldn't afford to take financially anymore and my con attendance was back down to one or two per year, I got a look at Fourth Edition D&D and... I hated it. I wanted to like it, but all the old sacred cows were slaughtered and what was left might have been a decent fantasy roleplaying game, but to me, it just wasn't D&D anymore. Times changed, and this time, they left me behind. I was one of the Gaming Amish.

The last edition of D&D I really played.
I've since tried 4th edition, and I still don't care for it. I still do an awful lot of tabletop roleplaying, but despite all those decades of it being the other pillar (besides video games) of my hobby and entertainment life, I haven't played actual D&D in years except that once to give 4e a real shot. This may seem or sound kind of sad, but I really don't feel that way. Since I started blogging, I've come into contact with all sorts of people who game in their own way, some play D&D Old-school, and I learned that OSR (Old School Rules) is a hobby all its own. I'm playing the new Arcanis RPG which has its roots in D&D, I run a lot of Savage Worlds, and may try Pathfinder Society as I've heard it is a lot like D&D 3.5... From age seven to, well... I'll be thirty-five come a week from Friday, I've been a D&D player for 28 years (80% of my whole life,) and I don't think I'll ever see myself any differently.

After all, somewhere out there, there's a crumbling ruin... a carrion crawler guards the doors to the forgotten keep where ancient treasure still lies, guarded by worse things in the darkness. There has to be a roguish young man in leathers and a black cloak with adventuing tools in his pack and a dagger at his belt, ready to pilfer those forbidden riches... He just won't be named: “Thief.”
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Timothy said...

Wow. I did not know how different our gaming experiences were. I was hoping you were going to address how an increased set of rules (and understanding of the rules) affects the freedom and creativity of the DM (and the players) -- this definitely came up in the debates of getting 1st & 2nd Ed. players to try 3E/v3.5 -- and the expectations of the players. Or the evolution of Locke (sp?) from home play Rogue to OP character (then to Arcanis icon?) and how D&D allowed you to explore the character and/or your alter-ego(s). Good read, though.

Alpha said...

An inspiring and impressive history.

Bard said...

Really nice post. I think the personal angle was a good way to go.

erics said...

this is as good as it gets when it comes to mythical tales about folklore. kudos on the post.

Jay said...

beautiful and sad at the same time....

Chronicler said...

What a well told story you have in this post.

For what it's worth, I had a (somewhat alarmingly) similar set of experiences. From being introduced to D&D at a far too young age (around 7), to embracing the awesome-change that was 3.0 and 3.5, to hating 4E. All the way to being a 30-something "geek." We diverge in that you've stopped playing, and are unemployed.

You know what else? Pathfinder is great. It's a lot like 3.5 (which is why some call it 3.75). I wholeheartedly encourage you to try the game. Try it! Maybe you'll even find a way to get paid for playing (wishful thinking).

Zombie Ad said...

Opening that original red box is still one of my fondest memories. Elmore's artwork was superb.

The Angry Lurker said...

Never played this growing up and I regret it but I went another way but would still like to give it a go if my group did but they don't.

Kelly said...

I learned a lot from reading this, due and was fascinated because I used to play a lot of D&D through my buddies' college years. D&D is great fun and it seems to me that it's best quality as a game was pulling people together for a common cause. Working together.

I had no idea you could win awards like that for playing D&D. Cool.

For the record, I always played a bloodthirsty warrior named Krug. Krug was quite merciless and my character ended up chasing down strangers he didn't even know and eviscerating or torturing them. I think I was Chaotic Evil back then, in the eighties.

Kinda like real life- now. lol.

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