By January 24, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons: Another Childhood Flashback

The year was 1983. I was either still seven or just turned eight. Due to the age difference between myself and my siblings, it was rare for us to really interact. Before my sister passed away, I was eleven years younger than my next closest sibling. My half-brother RealDoc and his sisters came to visit us during the summer and during some holidays, so the last thing they wanted to do in the middle of the Midwest was hang out with a little kid.

But sometimes they did.

RealDoc asked me if I wanted to play a game. Up until this point our playtime together was usually transforming a cardbox box into a spaceship control panel. He was impossibly grownup to me at the time, although now that I’m typing this out he couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. But it was a huge deal when he wanted to hang out with me.

“I’d like to play a game,” I replied, wondering if we were going to play Soldiers or maybe a card game like War. Maybe even Atari. Hell yeah. Digdug.

Instead he pulled a flat red box from his bag. There was a huge red dragon on the front. A single man stood in front of it. He was armed only with a sword and a shield, half clad in armor, and a large horned helmet.

“What kind of game is this?” I asked.

He lifted the lid, and it was like a light went on in my mind.

I was equipped with a rusty longsword, a family heirloom long neglected. I think I had a sack. No armor, no mount, hell I think my total net worth starting out was less than a gold piece. Armed with a crappy weapon and a handful of oddly shaped dice, I set out for the Keep on the Borderlands.

The rest is history.

This game sparked years’ worth of fun and collaborative storytelling.

All for one and one for all … unless you’re playing with a chaotic evil thief

Collaborative storytelling is my favorite part. You may be able to spin great yarns in your mind, but truly epic stories emerge when you put four to eight people in a room and shake them all together. The mix of backgrounds, expectations, fears and desires meld together into something that is absolutely unique and very often times hilarious.

It was eye-opening for all of the players to approach the same situation but come up with varying interpretations and strategies.

Game master: “You walk into the wizard’s chambers. There is a huge rug on the floor, leading up to an ornate bed with a chest in front of it. What do you do?”
DrFaulken: “I want whatever’s in that chest. I walk towards the bed.”
Game master: “Great. You fall through the rug into a pit trap (everyone else laughs). Roll a reflex saving throw or take 1d10 damage. What does everyone else do?”

Four other players, five different answers. I’m still in the pit, of course. Rarely does a single player have the best idea. Usually the plan is built from a little piece of each player’s mind, and in the end it doesn’t matter if it succeeds or fails. What’s awesome is that everyone (usually) works together. I thought the collaboration was just for melting kobolds into a pile of goo or retrieving the last holy relic of a forgotten civiliation. But it works in Meatspace, too.

Last week at work we were cruising along on a project. Everyone was working together, everything was ahead of schedule. Until we discovered that the computer system that we need to connect to is about as modern as a manual typewriter. I fell in a pit trap. “What does everyone else do?” our project manager said. Eight different ideas, one combined solution. We made our saving throw, so to speak, and the project continued on.

At least three out of eight of my team members are / were role playing gamers, so I wonder if that had something to do with it, or if humans just feel an innate satisfaction from working together to overcome a screwed up situation.

The time machine

I have the benefit of being able to play with a new group here in Minnesota, including my pals Ajar, ElJay, Domoarigato MrRoberto, and Sedagive?

The unique thing about this group is that Sedagive’s older son Gojira is also playing.

For the very first time.

I’ve said it before, and it is obvious to those of you who have them, but having kids around is like having a time machine. I was sitting at the table during a a one-shot “warm up” session, and it dawned on me that we just “opened the red box” for this incredibly bright, imaginative young man. Here we were, silently, perhaps subconsciously, welcoming him into a larger world of collaborative storytelling.

It reminded me of playing with The Captain™ and his family when I lived in Virginia. I literally saw their son grow up at the table playing D&D. He was twelve when our campaign began, and almost fifteen when I could no longer regularly participate due to my commute from Richmond to Washington, DC.

Observe my life’s camera zoom farther out. I am sixteen. Instead of scheming for a way to get beer or start trouble, my friends came to my house to play Robotech. I remember the shared nervousness as I ran my friends through a hopeless, kamikaze campaign again the Zentradi forces. A shriek of triumph as they did the impossible, and then a long face as yet another “squadron” player was shot down by alien invaders.

Another zoom, and I am twelve, designing character after character with my friend Joshua. Our shared appreciation of comic books and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing game enabled us to talk about the divorces that split both of our families, and how it effected us. I wasn’t able to appreciate how important that outstretched hand was to me in that weird time, but somehow in the jumble of dice rolls and character stats we found a way to talk about what we were going through.

One more zoom, please, and there I am with my brother. I found a magic sword in a cave swarming with giant spiders. I remember a sense of taboo as it was a “bastard” sword. I only heard my father use that term to describe people who defaulted on their loans at his bank, or those who tried to cheat our friends who owned cattle. I soon learned that a bastard sword described a sword that could be used with one or two hands. Role playing games sparked my interest in medieval weapons and in some small way influenced my education as a historian.

All of those moments and more have come flooding back to me as we introduce Gojira and Sedagive? to the world of role playing. Who knows what adventures they will embark on, both in the games we play or with the friends they’ll make huddled around nothing but some sheets of paper and a fistful of dice.

When was the first time you played a role playing game? How did it shape your life?

Posted in: games, zombies

4 Comments on "Dungeons and Dragons: Another Childhood Flashback"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Ed says:

    I have to find another group to play with.

  2. Ajar says:

    I don’t quite remember when I started reading the “choose your own adventure with dice” Fighting Fantasy books… sometime in elementary school.

    There was an FF book that sort of bridged the gap, talking about how to use the FF mechanics to do RP. I think I even tried it; I remember a dispute with a friend over whether he could shoot the gargoyles around the corner or whether they surprised him.

    Later, after reading Weis & Hickman’s Darksword books, I picked up their Darksword roleplaying book. I couldn’t make head or tail of the rules, though, so my one attempt at playing it with a friend was a dismal failure.

    Somehow I went from there to being over at that same friend’s house while he and a few other slightly older friends played AD&D 1st edition. As a “kid” relative to them — by one year — I was only allowed to watch, not play. But it seemed really cool: my friend’s older brother found and Ioun stone that floated around his character’s head. At one point, much to the confusion of everyone at the table, I went around behind the DM screen to see what the DM was doing.

    I think that might have been what led to me asking my parents for a D&D boxed set. For some reason they were foolish enough to give it to me.

    I ran the introductory adventure, Zanzer’s dungeon, a few times for a few different friends, but none of them really took to it. I talked to the “one year older” game group, but didn’t get in. That would have been in the 7th grade.

    Somehow I got from there to owning an AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Handbook. I have no idea how. In the 8th grade, a lot of my circle of friends ended up being a year younger, and we played quite a lot of Magic: The Gathering (my first starter rares: Savannah Lions and Ivory Tower. Not sure why I stuck with the game…). That might have turned into us playing D&D, or maybe it was the other way around. I think the younger brother of one of the “one year older” guys ran our first game, a short scenario with not much plot to speak of where the main conceit was that each of us had a powerful magical artifact that we had no idea how to use. Most of the game was spent trying to figure out the activation phrases for our various items. I don’t remember what ended it, but the next thing I knew — 9th grade — he and I were both running new games. In mine, the PCs were accidentally summoned to somewhere else by a souped-up monster summoning spell. In his, our level 1 PCs were dropped in the midst of high-level machinations on a long boat trip to another continent. That remains my all-time favourite game, all the more impressive considering we were about 15 years old. It ran for quite a while — years, I think — but eventually it somehow ended. That might have been around the time I started dating.

    Wow, okay, didn’t mean to write a book. 😛 Tune in next time for: Ajar finally gets into the “one year older” group!

  3. Kirk says:

    Ah. D&D. Last year I was stationed in Italy and supporting the campaign against Qaddafi. When we finally had a day off we met in my friend N’s apartment, broke out the D20s and pretended to fight a battle worth winning. It was (and is) stress relief and mental exercise, a chance to gather and drink…pop…and visit a world where you really could be a knight in armor, or a sneaky little turd of a gnome thief.

  4. ConFigures says:

    I think the first time I did anything like RPGs was a choose your own adventure book lying around the house from one of my older siblings, maybe The Cave of Time. The first real RPG with other people and rolling our own characters and so on: a schoolmate a few streets away recruited my sister and me (and a couple of others?) to play, and he was the DM. This was middle school years, I think: 5th/6th grade or so.

    I’m not sure how it shaped my life. I can speculate that it made me more interested in making my own fun than relying on consuming stuff (TV shows etc.) that others created, but I can’t say for sure. Early years, it was more dungeon crawls, less story-telling. I think it was good for me to explore, to make my own decisions that *might* kill off my character, to decide what to spend (in-game) money on (equipment choices), etc. It was a fun way of playing with friends.