Friday, March 13, 2009

My D&D History

Note: This post has been moved here from my other blog.

This subject came up in a thread on the Gleemax forums, but I thought I would go ahead and copy it here. It'll probably be boring to most of you, so only read this if you're bored.

I still consider myself a D&D newbie. I'm 35 years old, and while I have a history of skirting the waters on the periphery of D&D, only recently have I managed to get myself into an actual D&D campaign.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to try D&D, but none of my friends could play it. I remember seeing a D&D video game come out for an early console, and asking my friend "J" if he was going to get it. "My family isn't allowed to play Dungeons and Dragons," he said. "It's evil. One kid played it and went crazy, then jumped out a window." Luckily J's parents didn't mind him watching the 80s cartoon series, and we did so religiously.

Around that time, they released a D&D toy line. I really liked the castle/dungeon playset they released for it - "The Fortress of Fangs". It was shaped like a snake's head, with teeth for stalagmites/stalagtites, and there was a lava pit, and a gold-filled chest, and a moving spiked wall, and some other really nifty features. It was much cooler than any of the He-Man castles, and probably still gets my vote for best playset of any toy line, ever.

The D&D toy line also included a female cleric, and I really wanted that figure. I always liked playing as female characters, and at the time there was a shortage of female action figures in male-oriented toy lines. I always felt weird asking my parents for female figures, though. I didn't yet have enough understanding of gender/sexuality to know why it made me uncomfortable (or even why I preferred playing with girl toys), but I was afraid my parents might think I was odd. So, just as I did with GI Joe's Scarlett, I included her in a list of several D&D toys I wanted.

My parents were having a good financial year, and that Christmas I received the entire D&D toy line. Heroes, monsters, and of course the Fortress playset. My parents did that sort of thing several years in a row - getting me an entire toy line when I had only asked for one or two figures. I must have sounded like a real braggart when I called my friends on Christmas day.

My older brother was generally the one to buy video games in our house, but he only liked action games. When I finally started getting games of my own - the 8-bit NES days - I mostly stuck with action games as well. It was what I was used to. But action games with RPG elements started creeping into my collection. I decided I really liked exploration games where you collected things and became more powerful as the game went on (Metroid, Zelda), but I still wanted the battles themselves to be based on finger skill rather than math. Sure, I enjoyed a few adventure games on my old Commodore 64, but I never owned any that involved hit points and such.

Then one day I was at an arcade with J, and we discovered Gauntlet, which instantly became our favorite game. Four player simultaneous! And we have to work together! And you have "health" instead of one-hit deaths! And I can play a female character! I remember J's father picking us up from the arcade, and us telling him about the new game. "Um... this game isn't like Dungeons and Dragons, is it?" Luckily we convinced him it was wasn't. Which of course it really wasn't (aside from the setting), but even so we probably came pretty close to J being banned from playing it.

In 5th grade, I sort of DMed a friend of mine through several games. The friend, "K", was into D&D, but for some reason I couldn't get into his group. I can't remember why... I might have been afraid that D&D really was evil, or maybe the subject just never came up. But I really liked mythical monsters, so I bought a used Monster Manual from The Great Escape. It was that AD&D one with the really crappily-drawn cover. I enjoyed drawing up mazes and populating them with monsters, and talking K through them over the phone. Now, I didn't understand anything about levels or difficulty or balance. I would put whatever creatures I wanted anywhere I wanted. I believe K was using his actual D&D character that he used in other games, and using our sessions to level up so he would be more powerful in his other campaign. When he'd get to a monster, I didn't know what the stats meant, so it would go like this:

Me: "You enter the room and see a hydra."
K: "What's it say on his stat block, under 'AC'?"
(I read it off to him.)
K: "Okay, just a minute..." (Dice rolling) "Okay, now what's it say under his attacks?"
(I read it off to him.)
K: (More dice rolling) "Okay, he dies."

Of course, K had to be cheating. I've since found the old mazes, and they look really silly. Monsters of different types are scattered about randomly with no respect for plot or ecology. Secret passages are more common than ordinary doors. I see one room that has multiple dragons in it. I don't care what level he was, K would have been slaughtered halfway through any one of my mazes, especially playing solo. But then, a real DM would have been throwing a saner mix of monsters at him, so hopefully he was adjusting his XP accordingly.

Once in 8th grade, I was in a non-supervised study hall, and another bored student DMed me through a quick game. We didn't have any dice, so he took a pencil and numbered the flat sides, and we rolled that. All I remember is that at one point, two boars were charging at me from opposite sides. I jumped up and grabbed a tree branch, and the boars collided with each other.

In high school, my friend "C" and I designed a wrestling RPG. Mostly it was just picking from a list of moves and rolling a die to see if the move succeeded. The more powerful the move, the more difficult the die roll. We only played it a couple of times, but I later used that basic system for an mini-game I programmed on my Commodore 64 (which was really showing it's age by then).

In college I got into MUDs. Well, one specific MUD. It was called JediMUD, and while it was a mostly medieval setting, it had a lot of pop culture and sci-fi references. I found it absolutely amazing that I could talk (and fight with) players who were on the other side of the world. It was my first time I spent a lot of hours on a dice-based game, and I was hooked. As a result, my grades suffered.

I always played a female character in JediMUD. Not to mess with other players, not for any "funny" reasons; it was just how I was comfortable. When other players would ask me if I was female in real life, I would always tell them I was female. Again, it wasn't so they would give me stuff or any other dishonorable reason; it just helped me feel more like myself. This led to some problems, like guys wanting to be my pen pal offline, and me trying to find polite ways to reject advances, etc. I can't say I handled it all perfectly, but it was a learning experience.

A couple of years after college, I played D&D one time, using someone else's character. (We knew it was a one-off, and didn't want to waste time rolling up a new character.) I learned a valuable lesson - no matter how thirsty you are, if you find a beautiful fountain out of the blue in the middle of the desert... DON'T DRINK FROM IT!!!

And then came Final Fantasy III (aka VI) on the SNES. I had previously tried a few RPGs for the NES, like Ultima and Dragon Quest, but I didn't like them. I just couldn't figure them out... granted, I had rented them from video stores that didn't provide the instruction booklets, so that might have had something to do with it. Still, I always thought console RPGs were dull, and never really gave them a chance. But FFIII's reviews were so spectacular. One of the reviews even plainly said, "If you're new to RPGs, this is the perfect one to start on." So I rented it, and loved it. Then there was Chrono Trigger, and later Final Fantasy VII for the PS.

In 1999, we had a really bad year. We had a lot of financial problems, my wife had a miscarriage, and our car got repossessed. I threw myself into JediMUD once again, partly to keep the phone lines busy so I wouldn't have to talk to creditors, but mostly so I could fantasize about living a different life. But things got better, and we moved on.

A few years later, I bought NeverWinter Nights. I only played a little of the main storyline, before I got hooked on the online servers. Especially the roleplay servers. Once again I was playing female characters, and letting other players believe I was female IRL. I didn't feel good about lying, but it was the only way I could truly feel like myself. After a while, I realized that it wasn't the lying that was bothering me, it was that I really wanted it to be true. It was around that time that I realized I was transgendered.

Anyway, my favorite server died off, and I couldn't find another one I really liked. So I built my own mod and hosted it for several years. Itropa was set in a universe of my own creation, and was a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy, with an odd sense of humor. It never had a huge following, but we had our share of players, and overall I'd consider the server a success.

A couple of years ago I started collecting minis, more because I like them than for actual gaming. Then I bought the core rulebooks (3e) because I saw them on sale, but that was mostly for research purposes. I attended GenCon 2007, followed by DragonCon 2008, mostly because I like being around dorks.

And then, just a few months ago, I really got the bug to play in a regular game. I bought the 4e rulebook, and I played in a couple of LFR games. Since then I've been looking for a group. And now I've finally found one! We had our first session last weekend, and it was great. We're playing 4e, mostly - there's some 3.5 elements and a smattering of homebrew. We have a wonderful DM, and I hope the game continues for a long time.


  1. Hey there,

    Interesting post. If my D&D history is different from yours, I can find similitudes.
    But of course my itinerary didn t suffer the environment you were confronted to.
    I am a 33 yo french guy and 100% atheist. (I guess I could play the "bad guy" in some 80's hollywood movie :P)
    And this is where I find your post rich of learning. Here, D&D, even in early 80's, was just considered as a family game (well a bit bizarre one of course at first) but even with the broadcasting of french dubbed pathetic "Mazes & Monsters", we didn t had to suffer the "bigotty" anti-D&D reaction.
    This being said, no need to argue about differences of cultures in a different time...

    Also, I find pieces of myself when you said :
    "I have a history of skirting the waters on the periphery of D&D".
    I almost started RPG with D&D when I was 8 but in fact didn t played it that much. But D&D stayed sticky to me by other means... video games... like "Eye of the Beholder", novels (I read dozens of Forgotten Realms', Dragonlance's, Ravenloft's, etc, in late highschool) and lately a compulsive attraction to D&D comics and miniatures (That I consider more as 3D monster manual than playable toys...)

    Maybe one day I ll write down my own D&D history on my blog too.

    Anyway, all that to say that your blog seems full of interesting things here and there.


  2. Heh, it's like we're leading parallel lives!

    I've never seen "Mazes & Monsters", but I really should sometime just to laugh at it. :)

    One other detail I forgot to mention was the comic "Knights of the Dinner Table". I had so much fun just reading about these characters sitting around the table playing RPGs. They made it look like so much fun, it was one more thing that got me interested in trying D&D myself.