You never forget your first.
Like many gamers, my first exposure to role playing games came through Dungeons and Dragons. For a long time those terms – RPGs and D&D were synonymous. I’d seen the cartoons, I’d seen the ads in comic books, I’d seen them playing in that scene in E.T., and of course, I’d heard about kids getting lost in steam tunnels and turning to satanism because of Dungeons and Dragons.
Come to think of it, Role Playing Game was more likely to be a foreign term. Dungeons and Dragons, though, had been cultural parlance for over a decade.
There were other games out there, but I’d never heard of them. Dungeons and Dragons had, the year I started playing, just released its second edition, but all I knew was that there was the “Basic” DnD in the red box they sold in toy stores, and “Advanced” DnD, the books they had at the library.
I didn’t understand that both were contemporary branches of the same tree taken in different directions by the founders; I figured either that Basic had come first, or that it was a simpler game you eventually “graduated” from.
The Long Dry Gaming Desert
There was a long gap between the first game I played, with a group of older kids from my Boy Scout Troupe, and when I could find people to play regularly with, and I kept my interest up by reading AD&D books I’d checked out from the library. I’d make up my own characters and have them fight monsters, roll for treasure, and sort of play solo.
It sounds terribly lonely in retrospect, but it really wasn’t. I had friends. I had interests. I was an active social kid. I just didn’t have any friends into playing tabletop RPGs.
The Next Step
There was a long gap between the first game I played, with a group of older kids from my Boy Scout Troupe, and when I could find people to play regularly with. I’m fuzzy on the exact year I started buying the books and running the game myself, but it was probably midway through High School, so let’s call it 1993 or 1994. Now that some of us had cars, our social groups extended well beyond “whoever happens to live nearby,” and I could find people willing to give playing a shot.
The choice to play 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t so much a choice as it was “what’s available.” It was a bit kuldgey, to be honest, and we adapted house rules to smooth over some of the bumpier bits, and added on entirely unnecessary rules clipped from usenet and what netbooks were circulating, with few thoughts of game balance or good design.
Fun times, fun times
This was during TSR’s great era of setting bloat. My friends and I were particularly fond of Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Planescape, the least “DnD” of DnD settings, but most of the time we played in vast sprawling campaigns of our own design.
I’d spend weeks during the summer drawing maps and creating complex social webs, for games that would last a few months before I’d come up with some new exciting idea and “lose” the old campaign. I think I enjoyed the creation more than the playing.
Or maybe I was just fickle.
In my teens it seems I had infinite free time and infinite patience to carefully and lovingly craft settings and scenarios, but as the years moved on we gradually migrated to different systems more uniquely suited to playing whatever particular campaigns had graced our imaginations.
Eventually Dungeons and Dragons began to feel overly cumbersome. A burden. A system we struggled against, more often than not, still played only by virtue of familiarity and the masses of material we’d acquired for it over the years.
Third edition: A resounding Meh
When the Third Edition was released in 2000 we barely checked it out. We’d moved on from Dungeons and Dragons to Unknown Armies and Feng Shui, and while I picked up the books and we played a couple times, it never really caught us the way 2nd edition had. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t just run the game out of my head. Maybe it was the fact that I’d been spoiled by smoother game design. Or maybe it was the terrible power-creep.
Maybe I just didn’t have the free time to learn yet another complex system.
Whatever it was, we didn’t play much of it, though we did get a bit of use out of the Mutants and Masterminds d20 variant.
Back to Basics
These days, when I get the urge for some old-school dungeon crawling, I go back. Way back. Way way back to the original Dungeons and Dragons… or at least, original enough. I’m no longer interested in Gygaxian Naturalism, in being a killer DM, in endless charts of French-sounding polearms.
Now I just want the rules to get out of the way as much as possible. I’ve got the old Rules Cyclopedia, and there’s a strong retro gaming movement to emulate the old school style on those rare moments when I feel so inclined.