Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons (and Me): Part Two

Years before game companies went bonkers  got greedy and released new game editions at the drop of a hat and with the flimsiest of justifications, games like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D for short) chugged along nicely for years with few changes. New ideas and variants were brought in via Dragon Magazine, TSR's monthly role-playing game magazine, but other than that, things remained fairly consistent and unchanging.

Historical Note: One of THE coolest things ever to come out of Dragon was issue #39's article "Good Hits, Bad Misses", a set of tables for determining critical hits and fumbles. Strictly a non-official set of rules, it  nonetheless brought an element of sheer awesomeness, insane destruction, and unbridled hilarity heretofore unimagined, to the game. It also let one of our players kill a manticore by throwing a rock at it.

I Gamed Too!
Although DMing was far and away my favorite activity in D&D, I did get the urge to play my own characters every now and then. At Origins IV I had met this fellow gamer who lived out in the Worcester area, named Joe, who happened to be a DM as well. On the days when I wasn't running, I'd play in his campaign.

Joe is the classic example of what you get when you put a functionally insane person behind the DM screen. That's not to say that he didn't have his good and sometimes even awesome moments, but Joe was really "out there", and a full-fledged "Monty Haul" DM. Yes, I suppose to some extent I was too, but he was in a class (or padded cell) by himself.

I couldn't find a picture of Crazy Joe, so instead here's
Weird Al, posing with my two oldest kids, circa 1999.
He was also one of those DMs who would throw extra stuff at you if you were doing too well. Or if your character made a peep in the dungeon corridors it invariably would bring wandering monsters down on you. Accidentally say "Orcus" just once, and POOF! there would be Orcus, materializing in front of you, with an honor guard of six Balrogs.

My primary character was Noro, the elven tavern boy I described in Part One, now a few years older and striking out on his own. He's elven Chaotic Good Fighter/Magic User. Ah, good times.

Fortunately, for sanity's sake, Joe wasn't the only DM I had access to. A few of my friends also tried their hands at DMing, and I opened the Hawkhaven campaign up into a shared world sort of deal.

And so things went, with us gaming at least once a week, still with a large group, and still having a ton of crazy fun. Life was good, and things were stable.

The Insane Opposition
One thing that was most emphatically NOT stable was the opposition to the game by concerned parents and church groups. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear makes people act stupid. The game, a new and relatively unknown quantity, worried many people way more than it ever should have.

It didn't help that there was a case of a troubled young man named James Egbert III, who played D&D, and who engaged in several acts of self-harm that eventually culminated in him shooting himself in 1980. But before he did this, there was an incident where Egbert disappeared and it was theorized that he was acting out a live action D&D experience in the maze of steam tunnels under Michigan State University. This created a lot of bad press, to say the least.

Number one on the list of projects Tom Hanks would love
to forget ever existed. Yes, this includes "Bosom Buddies".
And it didn't help that a book and tv movie called "Mazes and Monsters" came out, starring a young Tom Hanks, and sucked AND made gaming look even worse. Two crimes for the price of one!

But certain ministries and so-called Christian groups didn't help matters either. There were "experts" who toured churches and youth groups and gave lectures on the evils of D&D (and rock music, etc.). One of these charlatans, in an attempt to show how evil D&D and TSR were, pulled passages from a gaming product called Arduin Grimoire, a most emphatically NON TSR publication whose content could be sometimes be charitably described as dicey. But this lecturer pulled the text from Arduin and misrepresented it as Dungeons and Dragons. After all, if you want people to hate and fear something, take something else that's far worse and not even a good representation of the overwhelming majority, and declare it a good example of the thing. Very honest, and very Christian.

Then there were the Godly, rational, fair-minded insane, conspiracy-loving, Pope-hating nutjobs at Chick Tracts, who were responsible for that classic tract, "Dark Dungeons". But then again, this was the same group that insisted the television show "Bewitched" was a tool to recruit people into being witches, Pagans, Satan worshippers, Democrats, I don't get the idea. Let's not overlook the reality that "Bewitched" is about as effective a tool for recruiting new witches as "Hogans Heroes" is for encouraging people to become Nazis ("Don't be stupid, be a smarty; come and join the Nazi party!"- The Producers).

The whole anti-D&D thing would eventually affect me directly in the late 80's, and in the aftermath it would play a big part in pretty much destroying my desire to adhere to conservative Christianity from that point on (not Christianity as a whole; just the more hardcore, right-wing, stricter form). Let's just say it brought on some cataclysmic changes, but not because I dared play D&D, but rather because of how a non-incident was handled and how it left me devastated in its wake. But that's a long story for a different blog post, and I actually have to psych myself up to do it. Some whiskey may help too. The good stuff. And would it kill you to get some nachos going too?

The Name Game
On to happier topics! Yay! Since all of the players were neophytes to one degree or another, the naming conventions for characters was a mixed bag, to say the least. People didn't have much experience with nomenclature so they winged it best they could. Naturally, the fantasy genre was a rich goldmine of ideas.

For instance, we had a Strider, Samwise, Aragorn, Shasta, Galahad, Isildur, Galadriel, Luthien,
"You! Shall not! Rip off my name!"
Balinor, Rohan, Gollum, El Gallo, D'Artagnan, Hawkeye, Covenant, and Menion. Gain 500 XP if you can identify the sources of all these names.

Some went historical, like Bede, Gengis, Melchizedek, Zane Grey, and Dylan Thomas.

Others decided to take their first or last name and reverse it, yielding names like Lorac, Lemrac, Ellehcim, or Namllit.

Then there were the people who thought that their character names should reflect who they were, such as Sneeky the Thief, Revela the Bard, and Temptra the Paladin (wait...what!?!).

And let's not forget the people who thought they were being funny, with names like Pleighwood the Druid, or Yu Hengue the Fighter. We also had names like Wimp, Bogus, Snivel, Sneeze, Dart-Canyon, and Grimy Wormdung.

It got to the point that I had to institute something called the Dumb Name Syndrome. If in my opinion people weren't taking the game seriously enough, something that a stupid name was usually a dead giveaway for, I'd target that character and kill it ASAP. While this may sound a bit draconian (heheh), consider this: if you were putting together a touch football team and you had one person who just sort of stood there and did nothing, you'd probably ask them to sit down. If everyone's into the game and that person isn't, it ruins it for the rest of the players. You can't rely on them. Everyone else is getting into it and contributing, except for this one lump. In D&D, if everyone's in character and expecting all the other characters to cover their backs, then there's some bored person who's named his fighter Buttmunch and doesn't care enough to take things seriously within the context of the game, well, maybe it's time for Buttmunch to meet an ignominious end courtesy of a kobold poison trap.

At least people's character concepts were fairly sound. Well, except for one player who, in his never-ending bid to be different, came up with characters who necessitate creating a new adjective called "WTF-y".

For instance, since I allowed people's characters to worship God, he decided to create a Jewish paladin. And he couldn't adventure on the Sabbath. Since I hadn't created a fantasy world calendar yet, the day usually defaulted to the real day. Saturday. So, his character couldn't go into the dungeon, which made people scream "What's the point of this character!?!?!" at him. At least this prompted me to create a calendar.
"My next character will be a sentient bowl of hummus!"

So he replaced this non-character with a Ranger. A Ranger with amnesia. He had no idea who he was, or his alignment, or what languages he knew, or how to track, or use weapons, or anything. So basically, he was useless, which made people scream "What's the point of this character!?!?!" at him.

Eventually, he decided to put together a female thief who described as "a bald Grace Jones with a wooden foot".

Okay, so he was prone to creating flat-out weird and ultimately useless characters. But on the other hand, he also brought his own drinks and munchies to the game and didn't want to share, though he did help himself to the community munchies that other people brought.


Other Games Butt In
Although we were tooling along nicely with AD&D, other games caught our attention. These other games offered new rules systems, different genres, new settings, and new challenges. We were introduced to Top Secret (modern day espionage), Traveller (far future SF space adventure), Twilight 2000 (World War III action in Central Europe), Paranoia ("Brazil" meets Kafka meets "1984" meets The Marx Brothers), and Call of Cthulhu (::twitch, twitch:: Ia, Shub-Niggurath! Fthagn! AIIEEEEE!).

But the biggest threat to our AD&D campaign was when we started a Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game campaign. We lost some hardcore D&Ders, gained some science fiction nuts and Trekkies, and ran a strong campaign for years.

It was a good thing we learned about all of these other games, though, because it prepared us for...

Conventional Thinking
We got directions to Milwaukee, a fist full of gas money,
and our dice bags. Let's roll.
Yours truly is second from the left.
Okay, remember the first part of this series, and the wargames conventions? Well, role-players have conventions too, but we were just not tuned into this. That changed fairly quickly. The first convention our players hit was called East Con, held at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.

But the big Kahuna of the gaming convention circuit was and still is Gen Con, which was held at the time in Wisconsin. I went to Gen Con 18 with a friend (we drove), and it became a fixture on our summer calendar. Hey, you pile four or five people in a car, take a 20-hour drive, end up gaming along the way there and back, it's all good!

And it was at Gen Con that we heard about the Role Playing Gamers Association (RPGA). Wow! We gamers actually had an association! We were organized! You paid your membership, got a nifty pin, a membership card, a subscription to their monthly zine "The Polyhedron", and you also got the chance to play and run RPGA sanctioned tournaments, and gain levels as a player! This was all mind-blowing stuff to us!

Here's the other cool thing about Gen Con in those days; it was very affordable. The prices weren't out of control, and yeah, if you could get a bunch of people together who could tolerate a long drive, the entire experience was very economical and a lot of fun. The FTE ratio (Fun To Expense) was very favorable.

D&D Helps My Writing Career
Dragon Magazine was always looking (and paying) for new material, and so in 1985 I decided to turn my talents in that direction and see what happened. I wrote the editor, Roger Moore (not the actor), and decided to take a different tack: I asked him what game topics he'd love to see covered but that people seemed to avoid writing about. His immediate reply: Top Secret. So I sent a pair of articles, he liked them, and published them. That opened the door to me being picked to write freelance for...TSR itself! WOOOO!

Here's some quick advice for people who want to become writers: Write what you know, take
Follow my writing advice and someday, you too can do
autograph sessions!
assignments no one else wants, and remember the almighty deadline and keep it holy. You're welcome.

So before I knew it, I was on the roster of TSR freelancers, working with Acquisitions Editor Bruce Heard, and I was getting an increasing amount of assignments. This worked out rather well for me timing-wise, because my then wife Ellen was pregnant with our first child, and the talk turned to who would stay at home. Full time care was prohibitively expensive. She was a Registered Nurse in a very good job at a prestigious Boston hospital. I was a low-level white-collar CMS hack at a desk job at Harvard Community Health Plan, and I always wanted to write. Well, I was writing now and earning money from it, so it was decided that I'd be the stay at home dad and become a full-time freelancer.

Announcing: AD&D Second Edition!
At long last, TSR announced that they were working on a new edition of AD&D and they wanted play-testers. Courtesy of my TSR connections, I immediately volunteered my group, and we hurriedly put away all other game systems and created a whole new batch of characters. But by this time, Hawkhaven was sadly over-worked, so instead, I picked up a boxed set, a pre-packaged TSR campaign setting called the Forgotten Realms and used that as the backdrop for the new, second edition characters rolled up, starting up fresh. We had 13 players by this time.

Those 13 players had characters who all started out in the town's militia. So, in order to give them cohesion, they were called the 13th Regiment. When the RPGA introduced the concept of registering gaming clubs, we joined up calling ourselves The Valiant 13th Regiment. The Valiant part came from the campaign ship in our Star Trek game, the USS Valiant, NCC-1718.

I also found out, years later, that though other New England based RPGA clubs thought that we were a formidable group with excellent players, we also had the reputation of being snobby, except for me. Well, then. Nice to know.

So back to the playtest. Eventually, it ended and AD&D Second Edition came out in 1989. None of our ideas were used (though we're not bitter), and we felt that, though it was a good version, it didn't take the changes far enough. This became the definitive version of D&D for the rest of the 1900's, then Third Edition came to play in 2000. During this edition's tenure, my players really enjoyed showing off the fact that their names were in the credits of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide.  Some of the guys even managed to parlay their new found gaming fame into success with the ladies.

Actually no. No they didn't.

Other Campaign Settings
The Forgotten Realms was just one of TSR's campaign settings. There was also Dragonlance, Greyhawk (THE original D&D setting), Mystara, Ravenloft (Gothic horror with vampires when they were still awesome, not whiny sparkling wimps or sex maniacs), and of course, Dark Sun.

Dark Sun was a desert world where magic had pretty much sucked most of the life of the planet away. Think Mad Max, minus the cars and firearms. Characters started off at fourth level, everyone had at least one psionic power, metal items were scarce, magic was hated, the gods were practically non-existent, and stats could exceed 18 (unheard of at the time!). It was also incredibly brutal and violent. We started a Dark Sun campaign and after a few sessions, I ended up doing a Total Party Kill (TPK) on the group courtesy of a random encounter. Rather than create new characters, we all looked at each other and said "No, let's not go back to Dark's a silly place" (for best effect, read that quote as if you were a Knight of the Round Table).

So instead, we went back to the Forgotten Realms and kept playing, happy as clams, while I raised the kids and did freelancing for not only TSR, but other gaming companies as well. We were all unaware that the nineties were approaching. Well, that's to say, we knew the nineties were coming; I mean we could count and such, but it's more a case of what the 90's brought with them. Some of the stuff we just did not see coming.

Photo Credit: Tom Hanks, Crazy Guy

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