Friday, January 24, 2014

Dungeons And Dragons (and Me): Part One

Dungeons and Dragons turns 40 this month, and considering how prominent a part of my life it's been, I'd be remiss if I didn't create a post series about it. In fact, I recently came to the sobering conclusion that there have been two major forces in my life that have shaped who and what I am, and those are Christianity and D&D, in that order. Furthermore, it's amazing how much those two forces have come together in my life.

So sit back and enjoy my reminiscing of how this crazy game, in all of its iterations, helped make me who I am today. Call it my way of celebrating this amazing hobby.

Anyways, allons-y!

The Beginning
Welcome to historic Park Street Church,
where I learned about God, gaming,
zombies in shopping malls, and
sex parasites

When I was in high school, I attended a Christian youth fellowship at Park Street Church in beautiful downtown Boston. PSC is a conservative Congregationalist Evangelical church, and is one of the heavy hitters in the New England church scene. It's even a stop on the Freedom Trail, since it's been around since the War of 1812.

It was in this church's teen group that a staff member introduced me to Avalon Hill wargames. I always enjoyed board games and history, and this staffer, named Bob, thought this would be right up my alley. So, I was brought into this hobby by Midway, a game that recreated the historic carrier battle. As high school progressed, I learned how to play Luftwaffe, Third Reich, Jutland, and Wooden Ships/Iron Men. I was satisfied with this hobby, and had heard very little about D&D at the time.

I had gone to Origins II, III, and IV (the annual national wargame convention) and had heard rumblings about D&D. But it seemed that wargamers hated the D&D people, and the D&D people hated the wargamers. Sort of like the feuds between the 19th century frontier cattlemen versus the sheep ranchers, only much stupider. In any event, I was a wargamer. D&Ders were stupid.

Then when I entered college in 1977, I began attending Park Street's college-age Christian fellowship, called Seekers. I met a guy there who ended up becoming a good friend of mine, a man named Bill Hussar. To this day I consider Bill my mentor, since he steered me in the direction of many aspects of geek culture.

Well, one day, Bill  invited me to play Dungeons and Dragons. His brother was going to be something known as a "Dungeon Master". Bill and I each rolled up three characters, and his brother ran us through a dungeon he made.

Incidentally, that's how we had to play D&D back then when we only had a few people around us that we knew of who played the game. You rolled up a handful of characters at once, watched in horror as many of them didn't make it, and odds were, you'd come out with a few strong ones that hung in there. Sort of like starting a family in the 17th and 18th centuries.

So anyway, we played that first game. That's when the sky opened up, the sun shone, and the angels sang.

I was hooked! I've always had a wild imagination and a big streak of creativity, and here I was exposed to the tools to let that creativity go nuts. I could create a world, and people could interact with it! After that first session, I went home and hurriedly tried my hand at creating a dungeon of my own. Naturally, this meant getting that nifty boxed set that had the dice that you had to color in the numbers with the crayons provided. The cover showed this fearsome dragon, in a dungeon (naturally), with a warrior and a wizard about to attack! AWESOME!

So yes, I learned how to play D&D thanks to my participation in a conservative church's college-age group. It was also thanks to people in this group that I was taken to my first George Romero movie (Dawn of the Dead), and was introduced to the movies of David Cronenberg. Yeah, I know. I'm still trying to figure that one out, and it was 35 years ago.

The Golden Age
If you can gaze upon the awesomeness that is
this cover and not want to play, then you
have no soul. None.
Anyways, this boxed set came with its own pre-made adventure, Into The Unknown. It had maps and room descriptions, but it let you fill in the monsters and treasure yourself. I was thrilled! All I needed to do was to find people to play!

In the summer of 1979 I moved in with four guys from MIT who lived in a triple-decker in Charlestown and were also fellow Seekers. Now, I'm sure you're thinking "Four MIT guys, eh? Sounds like fertile D&D fodder!" But no! No, they weren't. Even though one of them did in fact play (his name was Tim, and he had a cleric named....Tim). They were too busy working on theses and splitting atoms and doing other sciencey stuff. But the four women who lived downstairs, who also went to Seekers, ah, they were another story. They were intrigued enough to give it a try.

(Yeah, I was in an arrangement where I lived with four turbo-nerds, and adjacent to us were four women, and we all knew each other and were friends. It's was like "Big Bang Theory", except there were more women, no drinking, no sex, and it wasn't in California. And no one was from India. And no one was Jewish. And there was a lot more praying and Bible study. Otherwise, totally the same.)

They were hooked. So was I. And so, my first campaign began, with me as a newly minted Dungeon Master, and the all-female pack of players, although by all accounts at the time, women weren't really into this sort of gaming. Good thing we never really paid attention to all accounts.

But of course, the dungeon they ran through meant the players' characters needed a place to rest and heal up. So, I created the Three Crown Inn, with a recurring NPC, a young elven teenager named Noro Goldentree, using Tolkien as a means of giving me an idea what the heck to name an elf. He was the tavern boy who waited on the heroes and looked up to them. And of course, the inn and the dungeon needed to be placed somewhere, so I had to create a bit of land. And we'll put a forest here, a coastline here, and hey, there seems to be a lot of hawks who use the forest as a haven, so we'll refer to this area as Hawkhaven. Okay, that works.

As I bought more D&D modules, I'd sprinkle them in this newly created land, expanding its borders, adding more details like roads, more inns, a town or two, a city, rivers, swamps. I was beside myself. I had finally found my element!

The land wasn't the only thing that expanded. As more people heard of the game and how much fun
we were having, they wanted to join as well. The fifth player yet was another woman. Someone outside the group suggested I name the group "Johnny's Angels". I wasn't amused. Then we got our first guy, one of my roomies who wasn't doing the thesis thing yet. Then Bill joined in occasionally. Then a floodgate of people from Seekers joined the game.

Things got so insane that we had to play at the Miles Standish dorm at Boston University, commandeering one of the common areas, and played on Saturday nights pretty much from 6 pm to oh, whenever. And since Seekers met on Sunday evenings, we didn't have to worry about getting up for church on Sunday mornings. We'd sleep in on Sunday morning, then go to the Seekers meetings in the late afternoon, hit the evening service, then back to the second Seekers meeting. So we played till all hours the night before with no ill effect.

In fact, I recall one game that went rather late, and ended with the party getting a huge haul of treasure (of course), and let me tell you, people dickered over that pile of treasure with a level of conviction and avarice that would make a pack of  red dragons blush. I remember passing out, seated upright with my back against a dresser, then regaining consciousness as a beam of the rising sun shone through a window and struck my face, while the players adamantly made their cases for who'd get the +5 shield from the treasure hoard. Apparently, the Vorpal Blade had already been allocated.

This period was the crazy insane time, the time that most of us old gaming farts remember with mixed measures of fondness and horror. My average group size was around sixteen people. By this time, the holy trinity of D&D books had come out: The AD&D Players Handbook, The Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual! JOY! More classes! More monsters! More treasure! And hey, psionics! You could blow up people's brains, just like in Scanners!

And, Hawkhaven became a sort of bizarre Monty Haul/Kitchen Sink hybrid that incorporated ideas from Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles, Earthsea, Arthurian Legends, and some greasy steak and cheese sub-inspired dreams from the night before. Then, when Deities and Demigods came out, things got REALLY nuts.

See, when the original Deities and Demigods came out, TSR (the makers of D&D) threw together stats for a wild selection of pantheons: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Norse, American Indian, Indian, Finnish, was nuts. But unfortunately (for them, anyway), they also included some intellectual properties that they weren't supposed to: namely the worlds of Elric of Melnibone, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oh, and one other, a mythos that made me ask a fateful question:

"What's a Cthulhu?"

Incidentally, TSR was eventually brought up to speed on the whole "using other authors' copywritten work was BAD" concept and had to pull the Melnibonean, Nehwon, and Lovecraftian material out of Deities and Demigods, and release a new edited version. I'm proud to say I still have my original Deities and Demigods, though it was slightly damaged by a rabbit.

Don't ask.

Anyways, as the DM, I let people choose whichever god they wanted to worship. Nothing was rejected; I simply absorbed it into the game and made it work. But, speaking of worship and gods...

Onward, Christian Paladins
An excerpt from the rollicking comedy pamphlet
"Dark Dungeons" by Chick Publications
What needs to be stated here for the record is that every single one of us was a practicing Christian. Yes, that's right. Every. Last. One of us. We all came from Seekers, so what do you expect? Naturally, this caused some friction and raised eyebrows in other quarters of the group, since this is also when the stories about how D&D was absolutely positively corrupting our youth were starting to circulate. You know the drill, it's evil, it's Say-tanic, green pea soup spouting everywhere, heads revolving completely around, dogs and cats living together...

Anyways, since we were all Christians, I allowed people to choose God as their character's deity, especially if it helped overcome any reservations they had about the game as a whole. Naturally, that meant their character needed to be either Lawful Good or Chaotic Good.

And we started every session with a word of prayer. No joke. Swear to God (oops). Among other reasons, it made the whole evening seem more like an organized gathering of Christians for the purposes of fellowship, you know? So, we'd start with a word of prayer, and soon be hip deep in orc blood, giant viscera, and undead. And arguing over stuff. And doing barmaids.

Of course, you throw together over a dozen people ranging in age from late teens to early 20's, and you know there's going to be drama. There were real-life romantic triangles played through each person's respective characters, arguments, grudges, shouting matches, the usual. Hey, I said we were all Christians; I said nothing about perfection! I shudder to imagine what it would have been like if there had been alcohol served. But there was none, because Christians.

And people who did stuff in the game that annoyed others, would carry that around for a long time. Sort of like how you never forget your friend who dropped the ball in the 9th inning during that big softball game. One player's Ranger ran away from an encounter while everyone else got blasted by red dragon's breath, and let me tell you, that player was NEVER allowed to forget it. You know, the usual gamer insanity.

The quests got crazier and yet also more over the top fun. Battling liches who turned player characters into giant cucumbers and ate them, or finding the Holy Grail, or battling Orcus, or exploring the sunken island of R'lyeh. Nothing was off-limits. No adventure too weird, no treasure too big. Except I never sent them looking for the One Ring. That would have just been stupid.

A few of the more hard-core members of Seekers express
concerns about Dungeons and Dragons
Well, anyways, Seekers leadership never interfered with the game nor suggest we stop. A few people did have misgivings and suspicions about it, expressed in a variety of ways, including bad poetry.

Which made it all the funnier when in the summer of 1980 I ended up being appointed to a leadership role in that very group! I was a member of Seekers summer staff that year, and in fact, four other members of staff were also avid AD&D players, and a fifth player was an avid wargamer. Our infiltration was complete (insert evil laughter here).

But like all good things, this one had to come to an end. As people graduated college and moved on from Seekers, the group began to dwindle. Boston being a college town that lures in students from all over the country (and the world), a lot of Seekers who attended school consequently left the area when they graduated.

So there I was, looking to continue the game going by rallying together the people who remained in the area. Fortunately, I had a good solid core to work with since a good number ended up staying, and soon we supplemented our ranks with new blood. This set the stage for the eighties!

Next time: AD&D goes 2nd Edition, and I go pro.

Photo Credits: Park Street Church, ArcticJane


  1. "One player's Ranger ran away from an encounter while everyone else got blasted by red dragon's breath, and let me tell you, that player was NEVER allowed to forget it." You just had to, didn't you? ;)