Tuesday, November 16, 2004

D&D Days

This little lead figure represented Joshua Wander in D&D games back when I was in college the first time around, and also when I was a young married in Columbus, Ohio. Apparently I missed the 30th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons a month ago today, so I'll talk about it now. If I get some details wrong, it's because my memories, too, are nearly 30 years old.

I couldn't get a good picture of this little guy. Sorry.It was probably in October 1975 that I first saw the guys who would later found Nucleus Books selling a series of little booklets just inside one of the Liberal Arts buildings at Syracuse University. The first of them, called Chainmail, was a basic set of combat rules for medieval fighter figures. This had already been supplemented by a box of three booklets called Dungeons & Dragons. In that early version of D&D, you could play a fighter, a cleric, or a magic user, period. But even that had already been refined in an additional booklet, called Greyhawk. That added the thief class of player characters and lots of other stuff, making the game more playable and more fun. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books (Players' Handbook, Monster Manual etc.) and prepackaged campaign modules came later. When I discovered D&D, a year after it started, it had developed enough to be playable, but we were on our own when it came to creating the storylines, settings and so on.

In case someone reads this who has never played D&D in any form, I should explain that a D&D campaign is (or was) designed by a Dungeon Master, who controls a range of monsters and nonplayer characters that the player characters encounter. Each of the other players controls one or more characters, whose basic skills are determined by rolling three dice. To this day, I still say that I personally have a dexterity of six (out of a possible eighteen points), meaning that I'm an utter klutz.

Art by Sherlock, adapted from an early draft of Rani's portrait.When I was in college, Evelyn and Betsy and I and others would pull all-nighters on Saturday nights, playing D&D. My second student film was my attempt to depict D&D with a 16 mm Bolex camera. I tried to superimpose the image of our little painted lead figures over the real people who played the characters. I don't think anyone in the class understood what I was trying to do, and I didn't do it all that well. I think I got a C+ on it.

The best Dungeon Master I ever played with was a former high school chum of mine named Chris Doherty. He was a member of STAR Syracuse, the Star Trek club that gradually morphed into a D&D group. The campaigns he ran had such innovations as a magic backpack and the god Murphy. The advantage of the magic backpack was that we didn't have to waste time figuring out whether to buy rope or a tinder box, a knife or a morning star. Any nonmagical equipment we needed was already in there, rather like Mary Poppins' carpet bag. And Murphy, as in Murphy's Law, was fun to work with. Unlike the deities established in Greyhawk, Murphy never appeared when player characters called on him. In one memorable incident, which Chris may have cribbed from someone else, the attacking werewolves died of ingrown hair, thanks to Murphy. But Murphy is just as apt to do something humorously perverse to the characters themselves.

As I mentioned in previous postings here and elsewhere, Joshua Wander was a nonplayer character in a "live dungeon" session my friends and I did in about 1977. I was the DM in that one, which we staged underneath the Vincent Apartments in Syracuse. The Vincent belonged to Syracuse University at the time. It was a step up from the dormitory, but still subject to the University's rules. Evelyn Orlando (now Evelyn Wolke) and I lived there. The apartment buildings (there were a bunch of them, arranged in a loop) were connected underground in two spooky labyrinths of unfinished walls, furnace rooms, junky storage and discarded fluorescent fixtures. It was, in a word, cool. This was where Joshua Wander first appeared. He was me in a velvet opera cape and peaked hat, who kept popping up to interact with Evelyn's Shmendrick and Mike's character and Chris's character. We were all dressed in low-rent SCA gear, tromping around, having a good time. We also had a "live dungeon" outdoors in a local park at least once, which explains the background on this journal entry.

After that night, JW was a player character. He started out as nothing much on paper, a chaotic good magic user who didn't get to do the weird stuff in other people's dungeons that he did in my head. But I'm fixing that now, finally getting parts of his story written down. By the time I lived in Columbus, I had postulated the existence of his castle, Toujours Chez Moi, and his daughter, Ariel Allegra, who shared a name with my second Honda scooter.

By the time I moved to Tucson in 1986, my D&D days were over. I never met anyone here to play the game with, and in any case I'd moved on to other things. Even so, I got a lot out of the game while my involvement with it lasted. Thanks, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Thanks, Chris Doherty and Evelyn Wolke. Thanks, guys.


1 comment:

ryanagi said...

:-) Wonder where my old DM Harry Rose got off to...hmm.