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40 T/D/Y #13: Dungeons & Dragons

In fifth grade one of my friends told me about a new game he had called Dungeons & Dragons. He let me borrow the rulebook and bring it home to read. I thought it sounded wicked cool: a game with rules to let you pretend to be a fantasy hero, like something out of Tolkien? Awesome! I don’t know why, though, but we never actually played the game.

In seventh grade, I learned that one of my new friends played D&D, and he invited me over to play a game. I was hooked. Although we only played that one time, and although I didn’t yet have my own copy of the rules, I started drawing my own maps of dungeons and fantasy realms to have adventures in. By eighth grade, I had bought my own copy of the “red box” Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules set and got to work creating an adventure for my friends to play.

My first “complete” dungeon adventure was called the “Temple of the Moon Dagger”. It’s still buried in one of the game boxes over on my bookshelf. I tried running the game for some of my friends and my younger sister, but it quickly turned out to be a flop. For example, the first floor of the dungeon had almost nothing of actual interest in it, because it was supposed to be the easy, safe area. So we spent a lot of real time going through the motions of pretending to explore an area that ended up having nothing exciting or worthwhile about it. For an adventure game, that part wasn’t very adventurous. The Moon Dagger itself was meant to be a cool magical weapon… but cool magical weapons don’t just get found by anyone, they only go to the worthy hero, so I made it highly improbable anyone would be able to claim it, and not surprisingly, they weren’t—which was also no fun for anyone. Still, we somehow had some fun hanging out and bashing around this thing, and I wasn’t too discouraged to keep trying.

One of the reasons D&D hooked me was because it was like a LEGO set for my imagination. It had all the basic building blocks for sword-and-sorcery heroic fantasy, and I could put them together however I liked to imagine my own world of wizardry and wonder. I spent countless hours filling up sheets of graph paper with maps and notebooks with scribbled ideas about what the world should be like. The idea was that I would invent a setting for the adventures and then design the adventure scenarios to play. However, as I grew older and read more fantasy fiction, my ideas for the world were constantly changing, and so it was a never-ending project.

Occasionally my friends and I would get together and actually play the game, but I was hampered a bit by the combination of my own creativity, perfectionism, and procrastination: I was always dreaming up new ideas and never quite getting anything finished to my satisfaction, so I never felt any of my adventures were ready for play. Because I was the one who was most interested in creating and running these adventure games, that meant none of us ended up playing very much. Of course, as we all progressed to high school, all of our lives got much busier and we had less time to get together and play D&D in any event.

We actually started playing more often once we graduated from high school, for a couple reasons. The first reason was that I discovered a new game and setting called Talislanta, which was designed to be very unlike the now stereotypical quasi-Tolkienesque pseudo-medieval fantasy setting of D&D. Talislanta had great, distinctive artwork by P.D. Breeding-Black, which is what first caught my eye, and its weird setting was fascinating to me. I became strongly interested in playing adventures in that setting just as it was, which meant I didn’t have to spend endless time imagining my own fantasy world, I could just focus on designing adventures to play. My friends were also intrigued enough, and eager enough to just play a game, to agree to switch to Talislanta. The second reason we played more often was that, although we were all heading off to different colleges and thus were apart more often, when we did get together during vacations we had a strong urge to take advantage of the opportunity to play these games.

Eventually though, we finished with college, moved even further apart, and meeting for games became an event that happened only every couple years at best. A couple of my friends stayed more or less in the same area, and sometimes we would try to play, but I developed an embarrassing paralysis: my ideas for epic adventures became more ambitious than my understanding of how to make that happen—not aided by my procrastination and inability to focus on getting the basic details of a simple adventure down—and so I would end up freezing, as with stage fright, unable to get the ideas in my head into the game and thus unable to run the game. Gradually, I transitioned to being just a player, letting someone else take on the task of inventing an adventure and running the game.

Moving to Seattle reinvigorated my gaming activity. I had a new group of friends to play these games with, new games to try out, and most importantly new ideas to consider about how these kinds of games worked and how to make them fun. For several years I gamed more regularly than I ever had before, and enjoyed it a lot more. In the past year or so I’ve mostly taken a break from gaming, as I’ve been caught up in other problems and other activities, but I haven’t given up on it, and I haven’t lost the occasional flashes of inspiration: just last night I spontaneously thought of a new setting that could work with D&D, or maybe needs its own system. I’ll see whether anything comes of it…

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