I began D&D by hiding around a corner listening to my Dad and his friends play. I was never kept from the game, but I understand that, perhaps, it’s not a game for a 4 year old.
Many would like to chalk this up to the supposed “violence” of the game, but the simple fact is, when you are focusing on learning to tie your shoes, D&D will have to wait.
It took eight years before D&D was available for me on my comprehensive level. We played 2nd Edition every morning before class. My teacher encouraged our play: 1) because kids’ holding a book is a good thing; and 2) because it all looked like math on paper.
Patrick, my DM, was very good for a 12-year-old boy. His games were slow, he struggled with the books and he hesitated on the rules. Like all first-timers, the stage fright was his ultimate hurdle, but he told a good story. We were railroaded to the max! I can best describe it as a choose-your-own-adventure book. You felt in control, but ultimately there were only so many pages to choose from.
Anyone who has played can describe railroading: “We don’t like it; we just accept that if we’re going to play, this is how it is going to be.” (Ah, yes: the mind of a 12-year-old, just accepting what it’s given).
Our group held together for a little over a year, until our schedules had changed and we couldn't meet before class. This was the same year I first played in my Dad’s world.
I struggled, switching from 2nd to 1st Edition; but having a strong DM who knew his rules inside and out made all the difference. Knowing the tradition of picking a fighter first, because it is the easiest, I started there.
The character suited my age. I had no tact, no concept of ambush; I was a hit-and-ask-questions later player. This is where I differ from others. Due to a low head count, only 2 [players], my father also played a character along with us. He played a thief (Frith) and by the power of the dice he often blew his checks, landing him in very bad positions. It was a great time for me. I could watch Frith dig himself out of situations I had never considered getting into. I suppose most people would become more cautious watching this behavior; not me. I was inspired. All I could think was how it would have all played out if it had worked [his attempts to do things].
Once again, a year of play passed and it was all over.*
I am fundamentally a traditionalist. I play paper and pen. I truly like 1st Edition only. This does not mean I do not believe in change.
Am I a player or a DM? I asked myself at 16. It wasn't a choice, being the most knowledgeable and gifted with a purple hand, I was elected a DM. I found this to be a constant struggle. I didn't want to railroad. I wanted my own stories, my own world. I think that is how we all start out; but like so many, I couldn't deliver my dream. I found myself suckling at the Greyhawk teat, grasping for guidance. I looked up how to be a DM online, finding nothing, sinking nights into a scribbler and telling myself, “If I can just make it interesting, my players will invest.” The stress of it all ended it for me after just six months. I remember feeling very guilty, asking my players if I should have ended it sooner.
“We just wanted to play,” they told me. The truth was the same phrase: “We don’t like it; we just accept that if we’re going to play, this is how it is going to be.” (Ah yes: the mind of a 16-year-old, just accepting what it’s given).
At 18, I found myself sitting at my father’s table. Playing the pied piper of D&D, I had brought two people to play with us, making us a group of four. We played for one year like that, in my father’s designed world with largely original rules.
The following year, two more had joined us, taking us to six. We had now started to see gaps in the book. Our druid was starting to have leveling issues (too fast, too much power). Our ranger was a well of hit points considering her mass. These are things that required ‘adjustment.’ This was also the year we began rolling against our stats.
What a dimension it brought to the game! You wouldn't think it mattered, if you liked to play chess vs. cards, but these tiny details were all our players needed as first time role-players.
Having one hand forced a cleric to consider other weapon types. Weak upper body took bows out of people’s hands, building community support characters. And my personal favorite: gymnastics for highly dexterous characters (hand walking, round offs, back springs, etc.). We were excited for both negative and positive outcomes: how would you play a blind character?
We went on like that for five years. People came, people left. Every running brought new house rules, deeper and more descriptive play. Each rule was tailored to class styles of combat.
The mass combat was an utter game changer. 100s of monsters on the field; groups working both together and miles apart, making choices that we only hoped would improve the battlefield and not make road blocks for other groups. Months passed while we rolled dice; nights filled with battle plans, wondering what to do next. At the end, the treasure was wonderful, but the sensation of having survived the battle filled us. Players don’t get a sensation for long and challenging outside the mega-dungeon universe. The truth was – we were always allowed to run.
My Dad often views our long months of die rolling as something he wanted to make simpler, easier to process. We told him, “It was fine, that we were great.” The same as, “We don’t like it; we just accept that if we are going to play, this is how it is going to be.” (Ah, yes: the mind of a 23-year-old, just accepting what it’s given).
Thankfully, he did not agree with us, but continued to improve the system. This brought on a better character generator for NPC’s and monsters.
Now we have been playing seven years. Three of our now seven players have been here since the start. Our rules book has developed into a personal tome for each class; and I look forward to the evolution of my game. Bring on the digital characters and the laptops!
And remember that, “We don’t like it; we just accept that if we are going to play, this is how it is going to be”??
* My circumstances had changed; I couldn't run D&D for a year and I had to let the campaign fold.