D&D was a big part of my life when I was a boy. It took over a large portion of my brain, in the same way that, later in life my career, football, and a particular girl on my university course would.
I have not played D&D for several decades now, but researching my book Ticket To Carcassonne has brought me back into contact with that world again, and made me feel very nostalgic for it. I feel the need to reminisce about my experiences with somebody. If you are reading this, then that somebody is you!
I was introduced to D&D when I was 11, by a boy in my class at school. He played regularly with a few boys from the year above us, and one time he invited me to watch (not play!) one of their sessions.
The session took place late one afternoon in the school library, after everyone else had gone home. It was a long time ago, and my memory of it is a little shaky, but I think it was what D&D veterans would call a “low level dungeon crawl” – by which I mean a bog-standard subterranean adventure for beginners. I think there were orcs, because I have a vague memory of not wanting to admit I did not know what an orc was (where I come from, it is a type of seagull, but I guessed from context that was not what they meant). I think there was also an obstructive ogre, who might have said “You shall not pass!” at some point … or I might just be remembering that from The Lord of the Rings instead. It’s hard to know for sure.
I do remember that the Dungeon Master, Colin, seemed to be relishing his role a little too much for my liking, referring to himself as “God” more than once, and seeming to enjoy it when the players struggled. Colin also did the voices of all the creatures that the adventurers encountered, and he seemed to enjoy having an excuse to scream abuse at his friends. When, a few days later, I went out and bought a copy of the starter set (it was called the “basic” set, back then) and decided to become a DM myself, with my own friends, I knew what sort of DM I wanted to be. Or rather, I knew what sort of DM I did not want to be – I did not want to be a Colin.
I did manage to find some other boys to play with. They were not really my closest friends at the time (none of those were interested), they were just boys in my class who had heard something about D&D, and wanted to give it a try.
My D&D sessions were, in my memory at least, a lot more laid-back than Colin’s. The way I saw it, we were all on the adventure together, and I was the guide. I wanted the story that we told together to be entertaining for everyone, not just me. I like to think that I projected very little megalomania, and hardly any ogre impressions at all (I did try it once, but felt silly). The Dungeon Master sets the tone, and the tone I set was relaxed and fun, most of the time, but tense or dramatic if it needed to be. That’s how I remember it, anyway. But it was a long time ago, and I was only a kid, and my memory is unreliable. I was probably awful in different ways. And when I say “probably”, I mean “certainly”.
I do remember quite well though, the run-up to the first time that we played. I had been preparing for weeks, poring over the rule book, and learning bits of it by heart. I loved how complicated it all was, and I loved how all the artwork (rudimentary by modern standards) made all these fantasy realms seem so enticing.
The other thing I had to do, was to make sure that I was familiar enough with the pre-prepared adventure (or “module”) that came with the starter set.
The adventure was called The Keep on The Borderlands, and was written by the creator of D&D, Gary Gygax. It was a low level dungeon crawl (possibly the same one that Colin’s group was playing) through “The Caves of Chaos”.
I had had a dry run with my parents, and that had gone quite well, despite the fact that, for some reason which I could not understand at the time, they had been unwilling to commit to the full thirty hours needed to do The Keep on the Borderlands justice. I did, however, manage to get them to sit down long enough (in my mind it was half an hour, but they tell me they think it was a lot longer) to establish that I had an adequate grasp of the combat rules.
When the day of the first session with my friends came, I was actually a little nervous. It went very well though – my hard work learning the rules paid off, and the game ran very smoothly. Most of them seemed to enjoy the idea of living in a fantasy world almost as much as I did, and they agreed that rolling the strangely shaped dice, over and over again, was somehow great fun.
We played in my bedroom, which was in a flat above the newsagent shop that my parents owned at the time. My dad provided us with a seemingly unlimited supply of crisps and drinks from the shop, which definitely enhanced the experience. Nobody seemed to mind that it was all the out-of-date stock that he had not been able to sell. It tasted fine. Four out of five of the players came back the following week, to take on The Caves of Chaos again, and it became a weekly event.
Players came and went over the years, but a core group of us ended up spending most of our Saturday afternoons together. So even though we did not all start out as friends, some of us did end up becoming close.
In fact, some of us ended up becoming family. When my sister, Suzanne, started joining our sessions, my friend Mark (now an investment banker, who thinks Monopoly is the best game ever) started bring along his brother, Andrew. Suzanne and Andrew were married in 1999; they now live in Toronto, where Andrew is a doctor currently working on a cure for diabetes, with their two children (at least one of, whom, I understand, has recently become an enthusiastic D&D player).
Not all stories about my players are quite so charming, though. I remember one player telling me, years after we had stopped playing, that he had always cheated at the game. He had routinely lied about how many hit points he had left, and he had added helpful magic items to his equipment list whenever the situation called for one. I had genuinely never noticed, and I laughed when he told me. It might have bothered me, though, if I had known at the time.
The most awkward session we ever had, was when one the other players was hosting the game at his parents’ house. We had never been there before, and none of us had ever met his parents. They seemed nice enough, though, and they were pleased that their son had friends over. Every time one of them came into the room, however, perhaps to offer us all something to eat or drink, he yelled at them as though he was a sergeant-major, and they were military cadets who had accidentally set fire to the national flag. The rest of us did not know where to look. Thinking about it now, I wish that one of us had just told him that elder abuse was not cool, but we didn’t. It turned out to be the only time we ever played at that house, of course – there was never another invitation. I did get one positive thing out of the experience, though – when Harry Enfield’s “Kevin the Teenager” character started appearing on TV a few years later, I could appreciate that it was genuinely a character based in reality.
I think the lowest point for our group, though, was the time that one player got so involved in the game that he forgot to go to the toilet, and ended up soiling himself on our sofa.
Let’s not think about that for too long though, shall we not?
Let us go back, instead, to The Keep on the Borderlands. I wanted to tell you that I really did enjoy playing it, very much. However, rereading it today (yes, I still have it – Dungeon Masters never throw away their old modules, you know) it strikes me as a little … how shall I put this … problematic.
In the early 1980s, when D&D first started becoming popular, a lot of parents seemed to get quite upset about the game. These people, mostly religious conservatives, focused most of their anger on the dark magic and demonology that appears in one or two of the adventures. I recall one critic, for example, hysterically declaring that some of the demon-summoning spells in the game “would actually work!” This was, of course, nonsense, and D&D players queued up to point out that the spells were not actually described in enough detail in the game to be performed (which is an easier argument to win, I guess, than pointing out that summoning spells and demons ARE NOT REAL).
This is not the problem I refer to with The Keep on The Borderlands though. Rather, what strikes me as odd today, is that I do not recall anybody, at the time, pointing out that the whole philosophy behind this type of D&D module was a little unsavory. What do I mean by that? Well, the premise of The Keep on the Borderlands is that there are tribes of humanoid creatures living in nearby caves, so the “heroes” should go and kill them, and steal their belongings. And that’s it.
So, a tribe of goblins would be minding their own business, trying their best just to get along with the tribe of Orcs in the cave next door, when a bunch of humans burst in, slaughter them all, and take their gold. Why? Because goblins are sub-human? Because humans are the master race? Well, okay, technically I suppose it is humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings – but I think you can see what I am getting at.
Some of the adventure’s side-quests are no better. A mentally ill man lives in the forest with a pet mountain lion. Why not go and kill them both?
There were, however, plenty of other adventures that we played, over the years, that were less problematic.
There was a four-module story where the heroes (I didn’t need quote marks that time) went up against an organised crime ring, and put an end to the slave trade. The final module of that series remains, I think, my favourite adventure of all time. At the end of the previous module, the party had been captured by the slavers, and thrown into a dungeon (a literal dungeon – the only one I remember in all the years we played). A convenient volcanic eruption sets them free, and, without any of their weapons or equipment, and wearing only rags, they have to use their wits to escape through the monster-infested tunnels.
Another of my favourite modules was one where the heroes were sent to investigate a ghostly tower full of monsters and puzzles, including an upside down room, a maze of fire, and a chess-themed puzzle that pre-dated the one in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone by about twenty years.
Both as a player and as a DM, I preferred the puzzle-heavy modules to the ones which involved lots of hack and slay; this was partly because combat involving powerful characters and big monsters went on for ages, and required so much dice throwing that repetitive strain injury was a real risk. Plus, I did enjoy seeing my players solve the puzzles.
If I am honest, this is where the “role playing” aspect of the game fell down a little; the players who solved most of the puzzles, were not always the ones with the highest intelligence score. One character, a porcine half-orc fighter called Piggy, was supposed to have no education, and had an intelligence score only slightly higher than that of an actual pig. Nevertheless he was remarkably adept at solving riddles:
Me: There are five golems, heavily armed, stood to attention, motionless. They have numbers painted on their chests – 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. Suddenly, one of them speaks in booming voice “One of us does not …”
Player (interrupting): Nine is not a prime number!
Me: Er … yes … well done Piggy. Quite an impressive knowledge of maths there.
(By the way, none of these puzzles ever required a knowledge of maths beyond a certain level. It is as though the evil wizards who got their kicks out of creating these conundrums all dropped out of school at fourteen).
Perhaps the most well-known of all the adventures that we played, especially so, now that it has appeared prominently in the book Ready Player One (though, heartbreakingly, not in the film) is The Tomb of Horrors. This adventure was another of Gary Gygax’s creations. In an interview, Gygax once said that he had written it to challenge players who believed their characters were invincible. In other words, the adventure was designed to kill powerful characters if they failed to play well. There was, at one point, for example, a hole in the wall that, if a character climbed through it, he/she drifted off into an infinite void for all eternity.
I did not like it when a player’s character died; it created a few problems for me as a dungeon master. Firstly, that player would need to start again with a brand new character. That new character, if you followed the rules properly, would be at level one, and incapable of surviving on the advanced adventures that the other players’ characters would be going on, throwing the game off balance. Level one magic users were particularly useless, potentially having just one feeble spell that they could cast in an entire session, and their combat ability was such that they would be forced to run away if the party was attacked by anything larger than a squirrel.
Secondly, and more importantly, players often became emotionally attached to their characters. Over the course of the time that we played, a small number of characters lasted years. My sister’s character, Tograph, for example, went from being a penniless level one thief (first encountered, inexplicably, wandering alone, in an ancient pyramid in the lost city of Cynidecia) to being a powerful warrior, and a land-owner with level of wealth that would rival Bill Gates, all earned by pillaging from subterranean tombs.
I could see the players getting quite distressed whenever they thought their beloved characters were in mortal danger. I did not want to upset my players, so I always tried hard not to kill them; sometimes I faked dice rolls (“Oooh lucky – the dragon’s breath only does you six points of damage!”) and always, I made sure that a friendly wizard with a resurrection spell was never far away.
I do remember making an exception one time, though, in The Tomb of Horrors, when a player who I had fallen out with (and who had not turned up for the game session) failed to tell me (because he was not there) that his character was running towards the exit. And so, according to the explicit rules written by Gary Gygax, he was tragically thrown into a fire pit, where he died. Also, tragically, he was the nearby friendly wizard with a resurrection spell.
See? I told you I was awful in different ways.
Or is that the same way?
OMG – was I a Colin after all?