Friday, October 30, 2009

The D&D Years

As I wrote yesterday, after years of reading rulebooks in a vacuum, my freshmen year was rife with opportunities to finally play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). This was also approximately the time when TSR began to release a slew of new rulebooks for the game – from the general (but awesome) rules supplement Unearthed Arcana (which introduced quite a few new playable races, new professions, new magic spells, and the concept of being “specialized” at various weapons), to books of new monsters, and even supplements adding extensive rule variants to adventuring in forests or underground. I bought them all and meticulously read each of them.

As a Sophomore, I hooked up with a new set of players who had already been playing together for some time. Gaming sessions began to become frequent, and we started to try emphasizing the concept of role-playing rather than just rolling dice and accruing treasure. You see, there’s one other aspect of the game I haven’t really mentioned, and that’s the idea that you should try to make your character behave as he or she would in light of their personality, values, loyalties, religious and cultural convictions, and goals. You can play a stereotype if you’re so inclined – the big, dumb warrior would be one; the sly, greedy, amoral thief would be another; the bookish, intellectual, self-important mage would be still another; and so on. Or you could attempt to manufacture a character who seemed to be a living, breathing person and play them in a way that was fun and interesting. Regardless, it was a new concept for all of us and took some getting used to. Since much of the fun of the game had always been to accrue wealth (in the form of gold coins or items of magical power) and gain the experience points necessary to increase your character’s level – and therefore any professional skills and abilities they might have access to – any attempt to behave like a real person who might ever value anything over wealth or power was a challenge. Sure, it might be appropriate for your character, who was deathly afraid of spiders, to run screaming from an arachnid-filled room, but that meant he couldn’t very well cast his spell of fireball and collect the experience points all those dead creepy-crawlers would otherwise have netted him. Giving up gold or experience was anathema to us as players, which put it in conflict with our fledgling attempts to play our characters with actual, well, character.

Another challenge was that, like many social assemblages, our D&D groups had their share of drama. It wasn’t uncommon for one or more people to find themselves on the outs with other players or the whole group either because they had behaved badly in some fashion or because they disagreed with some aspect of the rules or how the game was being played. Or sometimes people just got upset with each other for no good reason. Regardless, the result was a somewhat fluid dynamic among the players. Sometimes this combined with little power trips on the part of the DM, who got to decide who did or didn’t play in their game. That was always fun.

It was probably also one of the primary reasons I found myself as a DM after a year or so of gaming and sometimes being included and other times not. Of sometimes joining games that were already in progress, to find that I didn’t get all of the inside jokes, didn’t know the attitudes of the characters, and sometimes didn’t even know the rules (not that anybody bothered to explain them to me). I can think of a couple of examples in particular:

One of the guys we played with was several years older than us, but had the maturity level of someone a few years younger. His name was Eric. I remember he ran a sci-fi-based game titled Star Frontiers, which was not too unlike D&D in outer space. Anyway, during our first session we were accosted at gunpoint by somebody or other. Now, in D&D, if somebody was pointing a weapon like a bow or crossbow at you, you had a pretty good shot at successfully attacking or evading them even if it wasn’t terribly realistic. Assuming you had your armor on (if any) and some room to move (ie. you weren’t chained to a wall), they were going to need to make a successful attack roll just to hit you with their weapon, and then they had to roll high enough damage (if it was even possible from one hit) to knock you unconscious or kill you. You certainly could get killed in such a situation, but the odds weren’t terrible. Nobody bothered to tell me that such wasn’t so in Star Frontiers – I was shot, nearly killed and, as I recall, openly mocked in front of (and by) the other players for being, in essence, a noob. That was fun. I figured out most of the house rules eventually and the game was reasonably enjoyable, but that ignoble and inauspicious beginning certainly didn’t start things off on the best foot.

An even more enjoyable situation arose when I joined a game run by an enormous guy named Paul in mid-story. I’d played with Paul before, but Paul was a temperamental, moody, easily enraged individual and he and I had a knack for getting on each other’s nerves. When that happened, I usually found myself on the outs. In Paul’s favor, he was both a gifted storyteller and a very talented artist. A series of D&D sessions run by a given DM and all revolving around the same characters and general storyline was called a “campaign,” and I remember joining Paul’s second major campaign with some enthusiasm. My other friends and fellow players had been playing together for some time already and I’d finally been invited to join. I elected to play a warrior-priest known as a cleric and eagerly dove into the action. Within a couple sessions, Paul noticed that I had cast a particular healing spell several times. Evidently, this violated the laws of magic in his current game, and somehow my character had managed to get through years of training in whatever “cleric-school” had prepared him to cast those very spells without anyone ever informing him of this fact. Within moments I found my character groveling at the feet of his very goddess who, in turn, was pleading for his life to the high deity of whatever pagan pantheon she belonged to. My character knew vital information that made her not want to see him blasted into oblivion for mis-use of magic, however he certainly hadn’t won any brownie points for forcing his revered deity into such an undignified position. That pretty well set the tone for the rest of the campaign, and I was eventually murdered by my fellow players, largely for being an ass in various (mostly unintentional) ways.

So from Junior year through the summer of my second year of college, I was only occasionally a player but was routinely a Dungeon Master. I ran two major campaigns in that time, the second much better than the first but both of them involving a tremendous amount of work. Aside from the gaming sessions – which routinely ran anywhere from five or six hours up through twelve hours or more – I’d spend every available moment during the week creating all manner of characters, monsters, magical items, complex dungeons, and sometimes even whole towns or cities. I drew maps, wrote pages of background information (that might or might never be seen by the players but gave me material around which to craft an entertaining narrative), and did my best to craft a believable world and run a challenging yet enjoyable game. I was mostly successful based on the feedback from the players. And I enjoyed myself immensely in those years.

I recently bought the D&D “4th Edition” rulebooks with the notion that when they’re ready, I may introduce my kids to the game that gave me so much pleasure. I don’t know though – these rules are so dramatically different from the 1st Edition and the 2nd Edition rules I’m familiar with, it’s almost a completely different game. On the one hand, if the kids enjoy the game enough to want to carry it with them into young adulthood, they’ll be better off having played the version that’s currently available. On the other, all my old gaming materials will be next to useless with the new ruleset. At the end of the day, though, the game is one of imagination and adventure, and rules aside I suspect the kids are going to find much of the same joy I found in stepping into a world where all of my day-to-day problems disappear in lieu of situations that I can face with a sword or a mace or a barrage of mystical energy. If I end up being even mildly successful as a storyteller, it will be due in no small part to the time I spent honing my skills in front of a live audience week after week.

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