January 26, 2014

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

According to Jon Peterson, who is wise and knowledgeable, today is as close a date as can be reckoned for the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.

Forty years ago today, I had absolutely no idea Dungeons & Dragons existed. Hey, I was in elementary school in a small town of two thousand people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness and had one channel on the TV; cut me some slack. Thirty-nine years ago, we got a second TV channel. Thirty-three years ago, D&D was broadsided into my consciousness like I’d taken a 2x4 across the frontal lobes. (There’s no connection between those two things; I just like to tell people I only had two channels of TV growing up to see their looks of horror.)

I had seen D&D around, but we never connected. In high school, my friends and I read a whole lot of fantasy and SF, and we read a whole lot of comics, and we played a whole lot of board games, including a number of Avalon Hill titles. I was more about Kingmaker; the rest of the party were into laboriously recreating World War II minute by minute. But any time I was in a bookstore or toy store, I would cruise the game shelves just to see what looked interesting, and I had thus seen the Holmes D&D Basic Set (called “the Blue Box” among the initiated) a number of times between 1977, when it came out, and 1981, when I played for the first time.

(I know the Holmes Blue Box isn’t actually blue. The rulebook inside was, though. Don’t worry about it.)

I can remember actually taking the Holmes Blue Box off the shelf and reading the back cover copy more than once. But I never took a chance on it, because as interesting as it sounded, I could never quite figure out what Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to be.

And so as is the case with a lot of people who play D&D, figuring out what the game was became a matter of hearing about it from someone who had already played.

In eleventh grade, Kevin (one of the aforementioned comic-and-fantasy-reading friends) left our small town of two thousand people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness and moved to Vancouver for a year. As we kept in touch by phone and the occasional letter (ask your parents), Kevin would share with us tales of the strange wonders he was seeing in his new life, like Conan writing home from Arenjun to his yokel kin on the Cimmerian frontier. I can remember one of those phone calls in particular, and Kevin talking like he was recounting the story of having scaled the Tower of the Elephant as he said, “I’ve been playing this game called ‘Dungeons & Dragons’…”

The first chance I ever had to play the game was a on trip to Vancouver to see Kevin, with another of the party (Dave) in tow. When we saw Kevin, D&D was the first thing he started talking about, with broad explanations of what the game was, and how it was played, and it’s like you’re a character in a book, and one player is making up the story of the book, but all the players are writing the action, and no, there’s no board, and no, you don’t really win the game, it just kind of goes on, and… you know what? I’ll just show you.

However, there was a problem with Kevin showing us the game, insofar as where we were together and talking about it, he didn’t actually have the game with him. But he showed us anyway, using the rules as he remembered them, and distilling them down to a simplified system we could actually grasp, and tearing paper into squares to make numbered chits in lieu of dice, and sketching out a dungeon off the top of his head. I don’t remember a lot of the details, except that I’m pretty sure Dave and I were both playing fighter/magic-users, because swords and lightning bolts got a workout at different points. I remember treasure chests and traps. I remember giant rats and flaming oil. I remember a dragon in the final cavern.  I don’t remember how we beat it, or even if we beat it, because it didn’t matter.

The reason it didn’t matter is that I remember, even as we were playing — even from the first moment that Kevin described us standing on a hillside staring into a passageway leading down into darkness — that the way I was feeling right at that moment was something I’d never felt before.

After the long journey back to Cimmeria, I picked up a copy of the Holmes blue box. I can still remember the feeling of reading it for the first time, in my bedroom in the dark of one of those awesomely lonely winter nights you get in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. I remember the feeling of slipping inside the game as it was laid out for me. Not just internalizing rules for movement and attacks and spells and monsters, but actually going to a place where those things were real. I got that same feeling again when I read the AD&D Player’s Handbook for the first time a couple of weeks later, courtesy of a guy named Mitch, who Dave saw reading it in the library one lunch hour.

(Some time ago, I relayed an anecdote regarding me, Kevin, Dave, and Mitch in the context of the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure I cowrote for Wizards of the Coast. I still think the anecdote is awesome.)

I’ve been gaming ever since that strange no-rules session with Kevin, the Holmes Blue Box, and Mitch’s Player’s Handbook in 1981. I’ve been writing professionally since 1992. I’ve been working as an RPG editor and designer since 2004. I stopped gaming for a long stretch when the demands of real life got in the way of my free time and sapped a large portion of my imagination and creativity. I got back into D&D shortly after the advent of 3rd Edition, when the philosophy underlying the Open Gaming License seemed like the herald of a renaissance of creativity in gaming.

But even through the years when I wasn’t playing, when I was struggling to create even as I was making stupidly good money doing it, I never forgot the feeling that comes of standing outside the yawning mouth of a cavern, with a friend at your back and a weapon in your hand and a world full of evil to defeat. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of falling into the game to become a part of it — not just being a reader or a player, but being a character in a world so real you can touch it.

Some of the best moments of my adolescence and of my professional life have revolved around Dungeons & Dragons. The game as we played it — as characters striving to prove that the actions of individuals taken in concert can thwart the darkest forces of fate and monstrous inhumanity — has inflected every word of fiction I’ve ever written— both fantasy and nonfantasy; during the times I was gaming and even when I wasn’t. Some of the most important friendships I continue to nurture can draw a line back through the game.

Like a lot of people, I can say with complete honesty that Dungeons & Dragons not only changed my life — it saved my life. D&D is the best training ground I know for storytelling. It’s an ongoing experiment in how to layer meaning into creativity. It’s entertaining and maddening and life-affirming and frustrating and rewarding in a way different from any other entertainment I’ve ever partaken in.

D&D is a lot like life that way. And having D&D at the center of my life means more to me than these or any other words can tell.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)