With the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons hitting in the past week, it has made me wax nostalgic for the tales of my gaming past. Thinking back to the beginning, to my first D&D game, it is amazing to see what an impact it has made on my life.
I grew up the typical brainiac nerd. Each day, I would come home from school and curl up with a science fiction or fantasy novel. Piers Anthony, Stephen R. Donaldson, Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Robert E. Howard, Anne McCaffrey and more told their tales of daring and adventure and I was hooked. Reading was a solitary hobby that fit well with my shy persona.
That all changed when I stumbled upon a very simple video game called Akalabeth. It was written by Richard Garriott (better known to most as Lord British) and involved a very simple interface where you would travel into dungeons, kill things, and take their treasure. I was hooked! I didn’t have my own computer back in 1980, but the folks at Computer World in Appleton, Wisconsin were more than happy to let me come to their store after school and play Akalabeth.
In the fall of 1981, I was off to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota to get my bachelors in biology. Right away, I went into withdrawal from my daily Akalabeth fix. I put up some posters around the cafeteria hoping that somebody might have a computer with Akalabeth on it. I never got a bite on that, but a guy let me know that he was starting a game of Dungeons & Dragons and I was invited to give it a try. Now, I had no idea what Dungeons & Dragons was, but I figured it probably had something to do with a computer, so I was interested in giving it a try. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the designated dorm room and there were six other people there!
I had a bit of apprehension—what did I get myself into? But I fought down my fears and sat down as the guy who invited me explained that we were going to be playing this game called Dungeons & Dragons. As he talked, I became more and more fascinated. We were going to be telling a story together as a group. There were all these weird shaped dice and painted metal miniatures. I couldn’t tell you any details about the adventure that night. The GM never ran a second session. But I was hooked and told my mother about this new game I had discovered. That Christmas, I was given my very own D&D intro box which I devoured like a sailor dying of thirst. I also received two boxes of Grenadier miniatures, one of characters and one of monsters, which I painted over my Christmas break.
By the time I got back to St. Olaf, I was ready to GM a game. I was desperate to do so. Me, the shy bookworm nerd, was eager to reach out to people I hardly knew and take on the role of the director of a game, the narrator of a story. I was ready to become a leader!
My first regular gaming group was a couple of friends. We played Keep on the Borderlands, because that was the adventure that came with the Beginner’s box set that my mother had bought me for Christmas. Now, Keep was meant to train new DMs by encouraging them to add their own encounters and expand the adventure. I took the map of the area surrounding the keep and the Caves of Chaos, and made a more detailed map that included my own first dungeon, a ruined castle on a nearby river. Attached is my first ever dungeon map. I tried to make things as realistic as I could, but there are so many problems with my map, that it makes me laugh now to look at it. But I was just an eager new DM with a couple of eager players, and we had a blast in that first dungeon!
There were just a few players in my first campaign, so I did double duty. I DMed the campaign, but I also played a character in the campaign, the Fighter/MU Erwyle. Attached is his character sheet from the end of his career. A couple of notes: the character sheet is one that I made up on the school’s UNIX computers, and Erwyle’s possessions and magic-items aren’t on the sheet because they took up a print off that was seven pages long! Erwyle never made it beyond the first campaign except as an NPC, but I’ll never forget those first adventures. I even got superstar artist Clyde Caldwell to draw a picture of Erwyle for me at my first GenCon!
It wasn’t belong before the group had grown to six and we set out to tell tales of adventure across the world of Greyhawk. We met every Friday and Saturday night, playing well into the night, and sometimes into the next morning! The Slaver Series, Against the Giants, Descent into the Depths, the Temple of Elemental Evil, Against the Cult of the Reptile God, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, the Sinister Secret of Saltmarch, the Secret of Bone Hill, and many, many others tested the wits of my players over the course of the next six years. Players came and went as some graduated and new players joined, but the core of my players stayed the same. It was a heady time for me as the campaign became the thing of legends among gamers at St. Olaf and I had a long waiting list to get into the campaign. Life-long friendships were formed and memories were made that shall never be forgotten.
It all came to an end when I was asked to join my first gaming company, Lion Rampant games in 1987. But it was those early years exploring the World of Greyhawk and learning to be a great DM that really helped me the most as I began a career that would go from Lion Rampant, to White Wolf, to Wizards of the Coast, and now to Paizo.
A couple of years back, something happened that was a first for me. I lost one of my original players, Dar Lund. It hit me hard at the time and I didn’t want to have to deal with the loss of somebody who shared those heady early days with me. Dar was one of the chefs at St. Olaf College and it was through one of my players, Rob, that Dar was introduced to me. I’ll never forget his first character, Roy P. Zabblapper III, the first born son of a vagabond scribe (yeah, I was using the character background charts from Dragon Magazine). Zabber (as he was affectionately known) was also knicknamed the Dwarven Blender, because of his two-handed, Hasted fighting style that left more than one monster beaten to a pulp. If the plot dragged too much during the game, Dar would look at me and blurt out, "Zabber heads through the door." He got himself into more than one pickle that the rest of the party had to bail him out of by doing this, but it only added to the legend. Dar played in my campaign until I left Minnesota in 1988. He was a player I could count on to be there rain or shine, with his trusty dice at hand, along with his dragon-shaped ashtray. When I spent two years deciding where my life was going to go, Dar and his new wife, Betsy, allowed me to sleep on their couch, running D&D games whenever I could get four players together.
To my friend Dar I raise a glass of Velunan Fireamber Wine—to days of adventure and friendship that will never be forgotten!