D&D & Me (part 1)

Back in 1975 my father took me to The Games People Play in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and bought me a copy of the new game Dungeons and Dragons, which he had read about somewhere (I think in some science fiction magazine). That gift literally changed my life. Hardly a day has gone by since then when I haven’t read, written, or done something to do with RPGs. All of my closest friends, save one, are people I met doing RPGs, and almost all them I still game with at least semi-regularly.

My first game group was my 6th grade friends, none of whom had ever even heard of the game, and a teacher I roped into running an after-school club for us to play D&D. I played D&D almost every chance I got, and when I wasn’t playing I was making dungeons, doodling monsters, or reading fiction that would work its way back into the game. I remember actually running a fairly longish campaign in High School set in Xanth, based on the first two books. The girls in our group1 liked that better than the previous Arduin Grimoire-based campaign; I’m not sure whether it was because it was more whimsical or they just liked having what were in effect super-powers instead of magic spells.

In the beginning I was the only DM in our group, but my step-brother started to DM as well, and we played a lot of two person games with one or the other of us as DM and the other as a lone PC, possibly with retainers; it never seemed to occur to us that one person could run more than one PC and having a party would make things such as recovering the bodies of fallen adventurers easier. We never worried much about lethality, because resurrection was easy in our games. In my Arduin game, it was something that the inn-keeper at the home base could do for you; granted, influenced by the over-the-topness of some of the Arduin random encounter charts the inn-keeper was a Platinum Dragon, whose human form was a 70+ level “techno.” We made all of our own dungeons and setting materials; I never actually even purchased any of the classic adventure modules, although I did get the Judge’s Guild City-State of the Invincible Overlord and my step-brother used it pretty heavily for a while before making his own cities and overland maps. We heavily modded the combat and magic systems, borrowing from Steve Jackson’s Melee and Wizard tactical fantasy arena combat games.

Actually, though, I moved on from D&D pretty quickly, both through D&D-likes such as Empire of the Petal Throne, and Arduin Grimoire, and also outward to different takes and genres: Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, Traveller (lots and lots of Traveller), Villains and Vigilantes, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, The Fantasy Trip… if it was an RPG of the era, I probably tried it. By the time the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook came out in 1978 I mostly thought of myself as an ex-D&D player. It had been fun at the time, but it was too limited and clunky. There were so many better, more coherent, and “realistic”2 systems out there. It chapped my hide that to the general public they were all “D&D.”

My complaints about D&D were the usual ones: what’s a hit point, anyway? How can one person have so many multiples of how much another person has? In what world is a cat a deadly threat to a wizard? Class restrictions are so pointless, and invalidate so many good character concepts. Balancing wizards by making them nearly useless at low levels and god-like at high levels doesn’t actually accomplish anything useful when it comes to day-to-day play. How does armor make you harder to hit, shouldn’t it just reduce the damage? How can people possibly be moving so slowly both in and out of combat?

I kept trying new systems, but eventually most of my gaming moved to various home-brews of my own devising that–mostly by design–rejected most of the features of D&D. It would be a long time before I played D&D again. But that’s a story for Part 2.

1- We had girls in our groups, even from the earliest years. The stereotype of D&D being something that was only played by boys never matched my experience.

2- Yes, I used to value realism, or at verisimilitude, in RPGs very highly, while having a pretty narrow view of what counted. But I’m much better now.