Cardboard Children – On Dungeons & Dragons

Hello youse.

Where would we be without Dungeons & Dragons? A few days ago I ran a live session of 5th Edition D&D at Glasgow Film Festival, and it was a really fun experience. I’ll be talking about that session in some detail next week when I review 5th Edition itself, but let’s spend this week just reminiscing about Dungeons & Dragons, and thinking about everything that Dungeons & Dragons means to people like us.

And by “people like us” I mean people who like Dungeons. And Dragons.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

Here’s what I don’t want to do – I don’t want to hit Wikipedia and check up on all the details about the history of D&D. I don’t want to talk about the origins of the game, the creators of the game, or the many different editions of the game we’ve seen over the years. I don’t even want to spend time explaining what Dungeons & Dragons actually is.

No. Let’s all just try to grab hold of how Dungeons & Dragons makes us feel. Because it is a feeling, right? Dungeons & Dragons is a big, beating heart at the centre of our brilliant, beautiful hobby, and you barely even need to look at it to know it’s there.

SPIELBERG

You know that feeling you get from early Spielberg films? The sun is shining, and there’s this big clean American house. And there is a mom and a dad and some kids in that house. And maybe there’s a poltergeist there too. Or maybe the dad is making a mountain out of some mashed potatoes. Or maybe there’s an alien creature hiding in a closet. And there’s that sense of otherness in that house, but it still feels homely and warm and safe. There’s a danger, but it still feels like everything is going to be alright.

That’s how I feel about Dungeons & Dragons. Whenever you deal with anything that involves a level of creation and imagination there is always a jagged edge you need to be wary of – there are always some sharp corners behind the fluff. But D&D is a game you play with friends – with buddies – and no matter what dark implications there might be in the group creation of an entire world, fizzing with magic and ferocity and undeath there is always that warm Spielberg hug of “everything is going to be okay.”

Of course, Dungeons & Dragons (or a game very much like it), features in Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – and I think it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like a pen-and-paper RPG. The game, as played in that short scene, is instantly fascinating. This little exchange made it clear that this game was something else – something prickly and a little bit scary.

“So how do you win this game anyway, huh?”

“There’s no winning. It’s like life. You don’t win at life.”

There’s no winning. The essence of a great role-playing game is right there in that little chunk of dialogue.

There’s no winning.

DUNGEONS & DEVILS

I think it’s entirely understandable that some crazy people thought that something very weird was going on when their kids started to play D&D.

I’m sure most people of my generation remember reading scare stories in the newspapers of the early 80s – with D&D being linked to occultism and Satanism. I have a very early memory (I must have been about six) of reading about college kids playing D&D in full robes in the tunnels under a college campus and thinking I need to get involved in this cool thing as soon as is humanly possible. All these nonsense stories about kids playing creepy devil-games in cellars were a real generational divide thing. It was a simple case of “What the fuck are those kids doing in there?” And that’s what always happens when groups of people come together to do creative things. Maybe those weirded-out, reactionary parents back in the early 80s would have been able to process the whole thing a little better if those RPG pioneers had explained “We’re collaborating on a world-building project, layering it with multiple strands of improvised narrative, and we’ll find out how it all ends in a year or two if our avatars survive that long.”

Or maybe not.

A WORLD OF DRAGONS

Through the years, as I’ve drifted in and out of tabletop gaming, Dungeons & Dragons has maintained a constant presence – and I’m sure many of you feel the same way. D&D was never even truly my RPG of choice – that was Call of Cthulhu and, most recently, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But I would always feel duty-bound to check out the most recent Starter Kit, or flick through the newest Player’s Handbook. As the game developed and evolved through edition after edition, I’d enjoy picking up old sourcebooks just to read them. The worlds of Ravenloft and Planescape and Greyhawk and Dark Sun – some of that content is genuinely, honestly, classic stuff – important stuff, on a level with some great fantasy novels.

And then we notice how D&D spirals into other areas of gaming – into great stand-alone board games, miniature games and the countless brilliant computer games that readers of this site will be familiar with.

Dungeons & Dragons is like hot soup. It feels like home. It’s pure nostalgia, and yet it’s here right now. It’s loaded with history, as if it’s been in existence for a thousand years. It is pure myth and legend and we all – all of us reading this – had a hand in writing it.

I’d love for you to share your thoughts, and your memories, in the comments below. I’d love to read them.

And hey, wouldn’t it be great to all start playing D&D again? Next week, I’ll tell you about 5th Edition, and why it’s the perfect time for you to travel back to that cosy Spielberg house to ask: “So how do you win this game anyway, huh?”

We know what the answer is.

But let’s enjoy the story.

95 Comments

  1. thekelvingreen says:

    I was always aware of D&D growing up — there was an advert for the 1983 red box on the back cover of all my Marvel UK comics — but I didn’t play it for the first time until around 1996, long after I’d been through my Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop phases, and after I’d been introduced to Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu and countless other games.

    So while I can appreciate its importance to the hobby, I’ve never had any sort of personal and direct connection to it, as others do. As such it’s more than a bit ironic that my only published rpg work so far has been for a D&D variant!

    • metric day says:

      I can’t believe you responded to a nostalgic plea for further warm nostalgia with that post. UGH. I’m sure he’s keen to hear all about your D&D variant work. Tell us all about it!

      • thekelvingreen says:

        Yes, that does look a bit like a plug doesn’t it? That wasn’t my intent, sorry.

        What I didn’t manage to convey was that I do have a sort of nostalgia for D&D but it’s a sort of weird and indirect nostalgia that has no origin in actual play. I love that red box cover that I saw every week, even if I didn’t see an actual copy of the red box until twenty years later. I read the Dragonlance novels as a child, with no real understanding — despite the TSR logo on the back cover — that they were associated with D&D. I had almost a full set of the Fighting Fantasy books, unaware of their origins.

        So yes, it’s strange; I sort of grew up with D&D without being aware of it.

        • jrodman says:

          As a collector of RPG variations (they make good inspirational materiel) please do send me a directive, even if you must resort to a forum message to do so, or G+.

          • jezcentral says:

            I remember when D&D arrived, and dwarves were a class. Then AD&D, when I got to spend hours reading DMG, PH and FF (Field’s Folio, before the name change) for the sheer pleasure of reading for hours about AD&D (similar to my current practice of spending hours reading about videogames for the sheer pleasure, etc etc).

            And yes, six years later, once I made the leap to Call of Cthulhu (1920s, obviously), I never went back. While I spent more time playing D&D, the chaotic nature of early-teenagers’ attempts at campaigns means I have more memories of the later game. I still remember trying to infiltrate some gentlemen’s club, having a shoot-out in a hotel room and then fleeing the country in panic and seeing the DM’s (yes, to me they are ALL DMs.) jaw drop, as his carefully crafted campaign went massively off the rails.

            I even played CoC while post-A-level, Euro-railing for a month (as it was called in my day) playing it with two school friends. Tarquin, Daniel, (yes, and I’m Jeremy. It was that sort of school) I salute you, and remember those times fondly.

          • jezcentral says:

            Balls. Wasn’t meant to be a reply, and no edit button. Sorry!

          • jrodman says:

            Balls salute!

  2. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Playing D&D gave me one of my first adult experiences – and not in a nudge nudge kind of way. I was 14 and had played with my older brother and my friends some already, and had devoured all the material. Then one evening a friend and I went up to the local university to play with a group of college students that D&D regularly – of course, the super nerdy kind since this was the mid-80s. They treated me like an equal even though I was much younger, and we all geeked out together.

    D&D was also the impetus for the complex fantasy worlds and maps I created then – much of which I still have. Not to mention it lead me into the Harn world, which is the best PnP fantasy world I’ve ever seen mapped.

    Fast forward 30 years, and I introduced my 11-year old son to D&D and he loved it. So much he used it as a springboard for his own fantasy RPG system, with his own richly populated world. So D&D in his case acted as a great example and creative impetus for him – as it has for so many other games, novels and movies.

  3. Emeraude says:

    Always had a conflicted relationship to D&D.

    I loved the table top RPG genre as soon as my older brother (who’s awesome) offered me the original red box. I have some great, some very fond memories of my games of AD&D. Some we still recall with friends more than twenty years later. It’s part of us as a collective consciousness. It’s an elusive, unquantifiable element of the cement that binds us as a group.

    Yet from the get go there were so many things I didn’t like with D&D. Why do I get rewarded XP for killing something, but not for brokering a peace treaty, for building a house or feeding people ? What the hell is it with the alignment system ? Why does the game has to stop to a crawl every time combat is involved ? I also didn’t like at first its playing characters are defined by what they can do (I grew to appreciate that for what it’s worth; very medieval literature in a way – sometimes characters don’t need an inner life).

    I’d enjoy picking up old sourcebooks just to read them.

    I still do. It’s a very particular form of literary production that is interested in presenting you a world, that is interested in the global before the individual, and when done right I really enjoy it. It’s a weird mix of tourist guide, engineering manual and religious text (as it gives you the blatant, naked systemic working of realities). Hell, I still buy supplements to games I know I won’t play just for the reading (been slowly tracking the Tribe8 books I had missing, these past months, such an awesome setting).

    • P.Funk says:

      “Why do I get rewarded XP for killing something, but not for brokering a peace treaty, for building a house or feeding people ?”

      Because your DM sucked.

      • theslap says:

        lol so true!

      • Emeraude says:

        That’s before even playing though. I was just commenting on what was written in the book.

        Hell, I don’t have the Red Box on hands, but looking at my old AD&D manuals: XP is defined as objective based and class related. I’ve cited examples of things that are (can be) neither. There’s a also clear indication of equating XP to killing from the Red Box and the bestiaries onward, but anything more was lot more obtuse.

        It’s nice to say that the system was loose enough that it let the DM freedom to adapt (that DM often being me). But then there’s what in the text itself .

        • Moth Bones says:

          Absolutely, and a lot of people can be quite strict about following the rules set out. As a child I was, even though I was otherwise pretty imaginative; it took me a few years to realise that they’re just guidelines and you can tweak or completely change stuff you’re not keen on (provided the whole group is aware and happy with that)

        • jrodman says:

          Indeed, Moldvay D&D (Red box) has experience points for killing and treasure and that’s it. It’s interesting to note that modern gamers tend to find the treasure part weird, but not the killing things. And further, that the original game it was ONLY experience points for treasure.

          It was only later that the rules themselves started to introduce experience points for things like solving puzzles, completing quests, and nonviolent problem solutions, which was reflecting a drift in how people were actually playing and how the game was perceived. Like dictionaries, the rules followed the reality.

          I’m actually playing Red Box as a game master right now, but of course I’m taking liberties. The very first thing was “defeating any sort of obstacle, monster or otherwise is xp”. The second was “You don’t get experience for collecting treasure. You get experience by spending it on storied activities, like founding temples, helping the poor, training in basket weaving, etc. But you have to tell us a story at least a sentence long that entertains us about what it is.”

          • Emeraude says:

            By the way, I like that treasure spending mechanic (reminds me of the refresh pool in Lady Blackbird).

            I’ll steal it.

          • Jim Dandy says:

            “Like dictionaries, the rules followed the reality”

            Succinct and lovely. It would be nice if more politicians accepted this principle.

            Soz for the derail. As you were.

        • Asurmen says:

          Because those things are subjective in nature where as killing a certain type of creature has a certain amount of objective difficulty attached to it. The game rules cannot possibly state an XP reward for something that is based purely on the story made by the DM. Why were you building that house? Who for? What sort of effort was required? Was that peace treaty to end a local squabble or large powerhouses? Was it the end of adventure objective?

          • Emeraude says:

            That’s the thing though. Objective-based. Funneling play in certain directions.

            I mean, if players improvise something that was in no way part of the game at the start, but made for the most entertaining of it – the peace treaty between some local villages whose conflict was merely an improvised, passing by comment by the DM – there are no tools but DM fiat.

            It’s better than nothing, but it’s basically leaving the best part of the medium out.

            And that’s before mentioning the issue of character progression itself.

          • Asurmen says:

            In what way does XP on monsters funnel anyone? It’s simply stat for the appropriate reward for that basic version of the monster, based on the difficulty which can be objectively measured.

            The games provides the tools. They’re called the DM. Again, how can the game state an XP reward for a subjective event? It’s something only the DM can decide happens. Maybe that peace treaty or that house don’t deserve an XP reward. It actually includes the best part of the medium, not leave it out. It allows the adventure and the DM to be dynamic, to tell a story and reward the players how he sees fit. The game rules cannot force something like that.

            What tools can the game provide to provide XP for subjective events, beyond a DM 101 guide?

          • Josh W says:

            Just to muddy things a bit, one of the strengths of a game like D&D is that you can push things so that monsters no longer have objective difficulties, sometimes being way easier to defeat than they would normally be due to imagination, going with the moment, and a series of previously unrelated events, or indeed much harder; you can see the same in games like roguelikes, where the shear variety of possible events can throw off traditional “this floor of the dungeon is suitable for people of this level” measuring sticks entirely.

            A cheaty answer to both? If players were weather, what kind of storm would they be? A 1 in 10 years storm? 1 in 100? Or to put it less weirdly, is the thing they just did something that people are normally able to achieve, assuming a relatively unimaginative and straightforward meeting?

            If you can think up some kind of system for that, even if it’s just “that’s a level 5 challenge because I can picture level 5 people being able to pull that off, so get level 5 monster xp”, then people can shoot up in levels to grow into their role in the world.

      • aliasi says:

        That said, there was a reason for XP from treasure in early D&D: genre emulation.

        The adventure stories D&D drew from had a lot of adventurers in it for the loot. For every Frodo, you had a lot of Conans and Grey Mousers. Making advancement tied to treasure looted got you in that mindset.

        • welverin says:

          The Conans and Grey Mousers were the bigger influences than the Frodos, so it makes sense.

    • jrodman says:

      Did you ever get around to playing a tabletop game that fit you better? There are so *many* of them.

      • Emeraude says:

        Oh I do, don’t worry. So many great games too have been released these past years. I don’t have enough time to test everything.

        Been working for a couple years now on a weird hack for Vampire the Masquerade inspired by Ryûtama and , now that I’ve read it, doing something similar to Tenra Basho Zero in the framing.

        But D&D will always hold that special place for having so many good memories tired to it yet being so hard to love at times.

  4. cloudnein says:

    What, there’s not a flood of comments already? Sadness.

    I cut my teeth on Basic D&D around ’78 at a local bookstore as a little 8 year old whelp, and I remember frequenting the few hobby and book shops in Ogden, UT looking for AD&D books and modules. Been active in RPG’s ever since, particularly in school.

    Nowadays I have been the DM at work on Fridays at lunchtime (11:30-13:00) and we have a blast and the campaign has been going on quite regularly for about ten years and we’re up to ten players (quorum is five.) And no, you can’t join my campaign. (Ok maybe if you ask nice.) We went 3.5->4.0->AD&D to now mashing up AD&D and DCCRPG; and I mostly run DCC and Dungeon magazine canned adventures with some flavor added to keep it chaotic.

    I’ve always been a fan of Greyhawk and not a fan of Forgotten Realms; I’ve usually been the DM, and always a fan of low-level campaigns. Doesn’t matter what system you use, as long as you ROLEplay, not ROLLplay.

    FYI roll20.net is the bomb and been our mainstay since they were in beta.

  5. Bobsy says:

    See, to me D&D was always something that existed on the edge of awareness. No-one I knew as a kid played, no-one could introduce me to it, and despite being a full-on nerd I was never touched by the game.

    The fact that Baldur’s Gate and its’ sequel became the most critical and formative games of my youth suggest I would have really loved D&D. Ah well, regrets.

    • WibbsterVan says:

      You make it sound like you’ve missed the opportunity, but there’s nothing stopping you finding a group now :o)

      • Bobsy says:

        Well, there is – the same problem. I still don’t know anyone who plays D&D.

        • Myrdinn says:

          I’m in the same boat. Maybe we should hook up.

        • jrodman says:

          Playing D&D without pre-existing friends that play is both better and worse than online multiplayer gaming.

          Low chance of “lolfag” but you CAN end up in a social environment you don’t like that much for a few hours. Probably not bad enough to be upsetting, but possibly ill-suited enough to feel like a bad use of time.

          And it takes effort. If you have a local gaming store, they probably have scheduled events you can just show up for, but if not you’ll probably have to make an account at something like link to penandpapergames.com or find a friendly group on roll20.net. It’s not *that* much effort though. And the clearer you are about what sort of experience you want (shared story, grimdark, goofy jokes, etc) the more likely you are to find a whole unexpected new circle of friends.

        • WibbsterVan says:

          If you don’t know anyone locally you could always try something like Roll20.net. It’s a brillian site that gives all of the tools to be able to play tabletop online. The forums there are extremely active, and it’s pretty easy to find a game to get involved in, particularly DnD.

        • crazyd says:

          You don’t really need to know people who already play regularly to start a game. I’d never played the game until starting a campaign 2 years ago with some friends who also didn’t play. The campaign’s still going, and I joined in a second with some other friends.

          • Premium User Badge

            Skabooga says:

            True that: many people have no problem playing D&D with a group of strangers (well, strangers initially), but I’ve never been able to manage that. I find the best system for me is to take pre-existing friends and turn them into roleplayers. You could disguise it with something like, “Hey friends! Want to get together to engage in collaborative storytelling with a loose set of rules this Friday evening?” Gets ’em every time. Even if none of you know what you’re doing, at least you’re all doing it together, and that’s the best part.

  6. Brosecutor says:

    I’ve been a Dungeon Master for the last 20 years, switching to Pathfinder (which to me feels more like D&D now than D&D does) in 2009. We play every single week, even though we are grown-ups with jobs and families and the like. Doesn’t matter. The game must go on.

    • welverin says:

      Have you checked out the new edition of D&D yet? It’s back to being D&D, unlike 4e.

  7. WibbsterVan says:

    I came to roleplaying late, and have only been involved in the last 4 or 5 years. My first experience was with 4th edition DnD, which I absolutely hated with a passion. However, it did introduce me to people who play all sorts of other games, and I am now a rabid Savage Worlds fan. I’ve met some of my closest friends through running Savage Worlds (and now Unknown Armies) games, and recently completed an epic 2 year zombie apocolypse campaign.

    I love running games, but not so much playing in other peoples, and the breadth of systems available for me to try is amazing. Everything from Dungeon World, Fiasco and Monsterhearts through to Fate, Gumshoe and Shadowrun. If you haven’t given it a shot, I would encourage anyone to do so – there’s bound to be something out that will tick the right boxes for you.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      Oh yes indeed. My first group back in secondary school seemed to jump from game to game each week; sometimes we’d play Pendragon or Paranoia or Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu or Cyberpunk or…

      My current group is less adventurous and we tend to play only three or four different games a year and only one or two of them will be something new. I miss those earlier, more erratic days!

      • gunny1993 says:

        Man, there’s so many amazingly esoteric and well made game systems out there its a damn shame to stick to only a few. Do what I do, keep and eye on this website: link to bundleofholding.com and when something interesting pops up, have a look at it then Demand you run at least one session (As one of our groups GMs I hold executive power).

        Whilst it’s nice to have staples, being able to experiment is great for mental flexibility.

        • Emeraude says:

          Yeah, the past few years have been incredible in term of experimentation.

          There’s just so much interesting stuff out there.

        • thekelvingreen says:

          Although he’s a close friend and I love him, one member of my group is, let’s say a bit inflexible in his rpg tastes. A couple of weeks ago he became a father so he’s taking some time off, which gives the rest of us an opportunity to, as you say, experiment. I’ll keep an eye on the bundle of holding, thanks!

  8. frenz0rz says:

    What timing! I played my first ever game of D&D last Saturday, my friends and I having thought about it for ages and finally decided to get the most recent Starter Kit.

    At the age of 25 some of my online buddies are stunned that I’d never played before, but I think growing up there was always a stigma around D&D. In a school where 14 year old me would get taunted for even mentioning World of Warcraft, D&D seemed like a bastion of collaborative ultra-nerddom that I’d never get the opportunity to assail. And why would I want to? A group of sweaty nerds stuffed around a table in someone’s basement munching Wotsits whilst yelling “Forsooth!” and brandishing their +2 mace? No thanks.

    Thankfully it feels like times have changed, and not just because I’m older; tabletop gaming and geek culture in general are more mainstream than they ever have been.

    Anyway, the game. We were all newcomers, with only one of us having intently studied the rulebook at first. We roughly moulded the character templates into our own avatars, figured out the basic mechanics and rules, and then we were away, trudging along a country path with our new companions. It was slow at first. I’d say about 3/4 of the time someone’s head was in the rulebook, or the DM was trying to figure out what he could and couldn’t do. We didn’t really know what to do; videogames teach gamers to expect certain familiar mechanical boundaries. What you see is what you get, imagination need not apply.

    And then, gradually, it all started to click for everyone. “I’ve got a pot of oil in my bag and a torch, can I light it?” “Sure, there’s a skill check for that.” “Ok, now can I throw it at that pack of wolves?” “Sure, you… oh, you rolled a 1 on a D20. You’ve just dropped it on your head.” “Oh balls! Can I jump in that river?” “Sure. Oh, you lost all your health. Now you’re unconscious, facedown in a river, floating downstream.”

    Brilliant. Can’t wait for our next session.

    • jrodman says:

      Play any way you like, but I believe it’s possible to use skill checks too often. Frequently it would be assumed that adventurers are capable of lighting fires reliably. As for throwing it at an enemy, convention would usually desire a roll. After all it’s probably moving.

      • MrPyro says:

        Always remember the ‘take 10’ rule when it comes to skill checks (if that is in your edition of D&D; if it isn’t, house rule it in anyway as it’s useful); if you’re making a check under low-stress circumstances you can skip the roll and assume you rolled a 10. This means many low risk/low challenge activities can skip dice rolls.

        I might have asked for a skill check in the lighting oil check above; not because lighting oil is hard, but because when a person is rushing to do something in a stressful situation even easy tasks can be messed up (spilling oil on your hand as you apply the torch, therefore igniting your own hand, for instance).

  9. April March says:

    I played D&D once. It was horrible. I think the master was to blame, I was playing as a… cleric, I think? Monk? Anyway, I had a mace and no long range attacks, and our party (of two plus a NPC) kept being attacked by distant enemies that I had no recourse against except to swing my mace helplessly at. (I remember trying to use Animal Husbandry or some other skill to try to get the birds to attack the enemies. It didn’t work.)

    But I still love RPG’s. Let me tell you about systems.

    SYSTEMS

    (I copied your thing, Rob.)

    I played RPG the most when I was young, maybe 13-17. One day, this dude, who wasn’t even a nerd, wanted me to play an RPG game with him. (I was a nerd.) It was a weird thing, one-on-one, and I don’t even know if it was using a system or if he had made one up. I was patient zero and got everyone else playing. (The nerdiest, at least. Our school was rather porous about who were nerds and who were jocks; But I’d bet every male student of those classes, and quite a few female ones, played at least once..) No one knew anything about systems, so we made our own.

    So. Imagine a 13-year-old whose only idea of RPGs was Pokémon and Final Fantasy, creating a system from scratch, and playing with without playtesting. That was my system. Everyone had one and they were slightly different and they were all wonky as shit. I remember having one of my players fight a boss that had like 66 million HP. I remember my player using a combination of powers that knocked her out in one hit. (I remember my player then saying that my system was unbalanced as hell, and multipliers should be added instead of multiplied. Wise words, though I’m not sure how apt they were.)

    Then my school years ended, and I lost contact with all of my school friends. All the games they’ve played are gone, like tears in the rain.

    Bonus nerd cred: This is the second time I’m telling this story today. The first time was with a woman who messaged me on OKCupid. We started talking and the conversation went to RPG systems almost immediately.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      This is related to the idea that rule system are best when used as guidelines to facilitate creativity, not as rules to constrict it. Probably most of the D&D I played wasn’t really D&D but was our own game using some of the D&D rules. Hitpoints, for instance, were something that never really made any sense to anyone. They still don’t make sense! Despite being the main idea that cRPGs take away from pen & paper games! There’s a laziness to “hitpoints” and “levels” which shows that it’s hard to find a generic way to define progress as a character.

  10. Ieolus says:

    Been playing D&D since I learned how to read.

    Someone, I wish I knew who, bought me the D&D red box for my 5th birthday (35 years ago, ouch!). One of my baby sitters opened it up and taught me how to play. I had all the basic D&D boxes, the Almanacs, etc… a lot of great childhood memories in there.

  11. aliksy says:

    I pretty much always was into pen and paper games. I don’t even remember where I first heard of them. I think one of my dad’s friends was into them, and I may have seen some of his books or dragon figurines when I was little. It wasn’t until high school that I actually got a group together. An adult I knew through church agreed to run something for me and a few other kids, so we played some old 2e modules she ported over to 3e. It was fun, but looking back I am amazed by how patient the adults were with us. I cringe when I remember some of the stupid things we did.

    I don’t like actual D&D much anymore, and I kind of wish it wasn’t such an 800 pound gorilla. It’s kind of like WoW, where it overshadows a lot of other interesting things, and it might be the only game some people play. Sometimes people tell me about running, like, political, non-combat games in D&D and I’m like, “Why? There are better tools for that kind of game.”

    Of course, the current group has made it clear that they really like combat games more than anything else. A game of Requiem flopped hard, but games based on Risk of Rain and Diablo have been very well received.

  12. gunny1993 says:

    Only recently got into RP, in the last 2 years or so and I started by playing 4th edition …. bad call, if that game were marketed as a combat simulator it may have been one of the finest bits of game design ever, but as it was DnD I hated it. But just last week after listening to itmeJPs youtube podcast of him playing 5th i decided to give the new edition ago.

    Damn was it fun, I converted over an old 1e module called “Lost Island of castanamir” and had a blast, this new system hit a lot of my check boxes for what I want in Roleplay, now I’d never simply play 1 system all the time (I consider it to be like only eating one flavor of icecream) but 5th has probably been one of my favorite systems to play on.

  13. aircool says:

    Started on that red box, then once I’d got the bug, I bought as many RPG’s as I could get my hands on. Favourites include Star Trek (by Games Workshop no less), SpaceMaster, Marvel Super Heroes, CoC, Paranoia (back in the days when it was about roleplaying) and of course, Warhammer. Along with Runequest, Rolemaster, Star Wars and even for a time, Star Frontiers.

    After being out of the circuit for a while, I picked up D&D 3.5 and found that it had turned into some miniatures game with a ton of rules about walking over squares. D&D was fantastic as a kid, but the settings are a bit shit compared to what else is out there. Dark Sun was a gem though.

    • aircool says:

      Although I’m not sure what it’s like since WotC got hold of it. Still good I hope. Oh, and Hollow World was pretty good fun as well.

    • Emeraude says:

      Dark Sun *is* a gem.

      After all these years I still thing its biggest flaw is that it shouldn’t have been a D&D setting. Just use its own system.

      There were interesting venues to explore with the way the magic works there.

    • gunny1993 says:

      What you mean about paranoia? My group is thinking of playing it at some point since they’re releasing the second edition soon i think, was there some kind of rule shift?

      • jrodman says:

        Paranoia is great goofy fun. I don’t know if you could play it ongoing, but it makes a wonderful palette cleanser. Like lemon sorbet*.

        *This phrase is stolen from a friend.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    Hey! That university where college students were playing D&D in underground tunnels? That’s my graduate institution, Michigan State University! It was back in the 80s, and this young guy and his group of friends would regularly venture into the steam tunnels that ran all under campus to hold meetings and play D&D. It was rumored that one or several of them got lost down there and died, but that is something of an urban legend.

    But D&D stories! In one campaign, our group was an assassin-type or special-forces type group working secretly for the lord of the land, reporting directly to one of the lord’s court adviser. But the laws of the kingdom made such assassin groups illegal, so we had to move around the countryside incognito: we always dressed up as peasants and traveled about with a mule-drawn cart that had secret compartments for our weapons.

    Well, we weren’t the greatest team ever, and we had to flee quickly and uncomprimisingly away from every mission we completed, or just as often, bungled. So we would always end up leaving the mule and cart abandoned near the scene of our crime. It became a running gag with us, eventually. At one point, we took the initiative and assassinated a neighboring lord (he was straight evil) without anyone telling us to, but because we didn’t inform our superiors beforehand, we didn’t think that we would have time to explain our actions before being cut down. We would have time, if our super-sneaky attack on the lord had remained super sneaky and not involved half the compound seeing us.

    Anyhow, we fled to a port city and took a ship to another continent to avoid death. But we left behind a cart and donkey on the docks.

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      Sometimes, a urban legend is all they need to do a (TV-) movie about:

      link to en.wikipedia.org

      Tom Hanks’ fourth(?) appearance on the (TV-) screen.

      • Emeraude says:

        The ani-RPG scare those events spawned in the media at the time…

        While we’re on the matter, I feel obligated to link to the recent adaptation of Dark Dungeons

  15. Axyl says:

    Sorry, this is slightly off topic, but what movie is the header picture from? I know I know it, I just can’t place it and it’s driving me up the wall.

    Thanks in advance. :D

  16. Fnord73 says:

    Oh, D&D! I remember getting the red box when I was 12, living in a prety horrible place on the coast of Norway, replete with hilblilly religious people. And since there were nobody to play with, I started playing by myself, constructing dungeons and playing through them, telling stories inside my head. And then the blue box, the green, the black and most amazing of all, the golden Immortal-box. Oh my goodness, the Immortal-box!

    When I finaly moved to civilization I pretty soon hooked up with likeminded folks, and we would play about once a week, though we pretty soon moved to AD & D. But those moments making stories in my head based on those glorious books were a real formative experience.

    • jrodman says:

      Did you ever play the golden immortal box? I purchased, and read the rules but never once considered actually using them. It was just so .. strange.

      Many decades later I realized it was actually a super hero RPG. Those never clicked with me.

    • Wowbagger says:

      I’ve always thought there is nothing quite so compelling as playing with yourself.

  17. detarame says:

    I started compulsively buying D&D books around age nine or ten, after being introduced to it by an babysitter. I didn’t find actual friends to play with until maybe 14 or 15.

  18. Severian says:

    I played Advanced D&D, 2nd edition through much of high school. I always rolled a Thief, which is hilarious, since at 1st level you have 1d4 hit points. A kobold, or mighty wind, can easily kill you. But I took pleasure in being chaotic neutral – a smart-ass, look-out-for-myself kind of dude. My friends and I took turns DM’ing until I realized that everyone else besides me sucked at it. Once I became a DM, I really began to understand how amazing D&D is. I used to spend dozens of hours world-building – crafting adventures that my players might not even play, if they made a choice I didn’t expect. You learned how to improvise, how to make your players feel as if they were choosing they path even when they weren’t, how to back off and fake good rolls when players needed a morale boost, or pressure them to roleplay better when they were just jacking around. I loved it, even when I was frustrated. I haven’t played since high school, but I’ve picked up every new Players Handbook and DM Guide since then just because.

  19. Moth Bones says:

    Oh my word.

    My parents bought me Basic D&D for my 10th birthday in 1982 (I guess that was 2nd edition?). I hadn’t heard of it, but we were all big Tolkien fans and I liked games, so I guess they thought I’d like it. They were right. I was fascinated by the modules, I’d never seen anything like them. I remember when my aunt came over from Australia, she treated me to some. Palace of the Dream Princess, something like that? I used to read that magazine ‘Imagine’ too, and the GW one, ‘White Dwarf’.

    Playing with my parents didn’t really click, but I persuaded some kids at school to play it and we had fun – I think this was around the time Fighting Fantasy came out and those books were really popular, they were often featured prominently in the Puffin Books catalogue that went round every month. I DM’d, and still remember the first time I improvised an answer to a player question. “What colour is the sand?” “White”

    Then I heard that there was a ‘Wargames Club’ at the big kids’ school, and I traipsed up there to try and join. They wouldn’t have me, but it was only a year or two till I went to that school anyway, and of course joining was the first thing on my mind. D&D was the biggest game, but the club also introduced me to MERP and Paranoia. We had a 24-hour roleplaying session once, it may even have been for charity; alas, I really can’t remember what we played. We also played Car Wars, and Killer. I would so love a computer game of Car Wars.

    Gawd, it’s over 25 years since I last played D&D, though as (technically) an adult I’ve greatly enjoyed Call Of Cthulhu and Vampire. I’d happily play any of the games I’ve mentioned in this post (maybe not Killer). I recently downloaded a bunch of CoC sourcebooks that I’ve enjoyed looking at, I might seek out some D&D ones too.

  20. Norbert says:

    Hi, I have been reading this website articles for years and I never felt the need to post anything. But this article rang a bell so deep down into my childhood that I had to write something.

    D&D is like a sacred cove for me where all my best childhood memories lie. I used to play hours and hours with my friends every week, spending nights of dungeon crawling with chips, soda and Dead Can Dance music. My parents and relatives thought I was just stupid and crazy to spend all this time in fantasy universes but I didn’t care cause I had some much fun with my friends.

    Those friends eventually became my best pals and we are still all keeping in touch even though our lives have taken us far away from each other. D&D built my imaginary life in a very positive way and I will never forget those awesome moments spent playing it.

    Through the years, I have found more appealing worlds to unleash my creativity like Middle Earth, Warhammer or the Princes of Amber, but still, it would be lying to deny its huge effect on my love for fantasy.

    So thank you so much for reminding me how great it was. Tears even came down as I was reading your article :)

  21. Digital Osmosis says:

    You have positive things to say about D&D5? BURN THE HERETIC! 4E IS THE ONE TRUE WAY.

    But seriously, this game does seem to involved console-wars level of hatred between editions. Of course, that’s because any edition that wasn’t the first one you played seems off, and doesn’t get you that imagination high as much as it did when you were a kid. I know some people get scared when things change, but I for one am glad not to be checking THAC0s anymore and don’t see an attempt at game design in a P&P RPG to be in anyway threatening… not to mention all the amazing narrative games like Dungeon World that both capture the feel of old school D&D while having elegant, modern, imaginative rules.

  22. Baranor says:

    Oh the fun I had… once upon a time I gave my players an order to go and set up the defence of a castle because a lord feared assassination at his fest… and they did a wonderfull, wonderfull job… bolted everything down… and as it turned out, 1/3th of the lords guests had been replaced by doppelgangers, and its 7 a.m. as I write this and its been 15 years and it still makes me smirk with glee…. hilarious.

    My experiences and memories are a mixed bag, the game is great but my life was horrible at some of those points. Yesterday I bought 5th ed… I missed 4th and have not pnp-ed for five years… but the time is right.

  23. nithikarevula says:

    Loved playing it till my graduation but what made up mind is the crank duncan.

  24. nithikarevula says:

    Once i was in mygraduation, none there to allow me to play and many of my freinds were around card gaming clubs and even online rummy games have made me leave D&D

  25. airmikee says:

    My dad introduced me to AD&D 1st edition when I was in elementary school. Took me to one of his work friends house to play a game. My first character was a dwarf fighter, the DM asked me to roll 2d20 to determine the characters age and I rolled two 20’s, my first die rolls on anything other than a standard six sided.

    Later when I was in middle school I found some schoolmates that played and my strange die luck continued in AD&D 2nd edition when my bard reached level 18, owned a keep near Waterdeep with portals to the Seven Heavens and The Abyss, a few Spelljammers, friends in Menzoberranzan, and eventually becoming a spy for Lord Soth in Ravenloft. The other three players went through multiple characters, each one dying off while the dice spared me, and their new characters being given a chance to prove their worth to receive the dead ones former magic items.

    Eventually the group moved on to other games, Shadowrun, even a couple sessions of Vampire the Masquerade to mix things up before settling on the adaptable genre GURPS ruleset. And even decades later after thousands of hours of gaming since I’ve still never encountered anything quite so entertaining as that old DM’s imagination.

  26. mattryx2000 says:

    By accident, AD&D was my first ever RPG. I had just started secondary school, and noticed some kids in my year going into a locker room at break time. I asked what was going on. Instead of telling me to get lost they said ok – next session. So within a week I was playing my first character (yes, a fighter). I haven’t stopped playing since (I now have kids, mortgage, less hair and more belly).

    I got the red box for next xmas present. I’ve played a lot of games since (and honestly, quite a few better ones – I love the Harn setting, Call of Cthulhu is the biz, and I’ve played a lot of Rolemaster, Spacemaster, Traveller, Ars Magica over the years) but I still remember opening that red box, in my mum and dad’s bedroom. Now I play Castle Panic and Takenoko with my eldest – not sure when to introduce her to pen and paper games – but some day. The youngest I’ll get into Castle Panic later this year. Great memories.

    AD&D first ed was OK. 2nd ed added a lot – maybe I’m biased since that’s what I grew up with, but I thought 3rd and 3.5 ed were just not what I wanted to play – the system seemed to take a great leap forward in encouraging min-maxers.

    4th ed I didn’t play a lot – seemed more of a skirmish miniatures games and a fun one so not problem with that.

    5th ed? The problem is I just can’t see myself getting round to reading it, and almost certainly not playing it. In my group the games in rotation already are: Traveller, Delta Green, 13th Age, Noir, Hunter, Harnmaster, with also a dormant Ars Magica campaign. And I’d like to try out something based on Twilight 2000. So I have no idea where it would fit in.

    So let us know what is *feels* like, Rob!

  27. jezcentral says:

    Sign. Since no-one has mentioned the words, I will:

    Keep On the Borderlands. (B2)

    • Premium User Badge

      X_kot says:

      I loved that module, especially the notes regarding how the various cultures might interact given the players’ actions. It taught me a lot about world building and how to instill adventures with lore. My true introduction to the genre was In Search of the Unknown (B1), which got me in the habit of evaluating the encounters and treasures of future modules and substituting alternatives that I thought would be more appealing/challenging.

  28. Kefren says:

    I got into D&D after discovering Fighting Fantasy (bought the magazine that had part 1 of Warlock of Firetop Mountain). Then got RPGs like Dragon Warriors, Tunnels & Trolls, Fighting Fantasy RPG, and every Games Workshop boardgame I could. I have D&D 1st edition (blue book) and the second (if the second is the one in 5 boxes). Played it every weekend. Bagels and D&D. My players were nearly always demi-humans (their choice). Still plan to turn one of the campaigns into a novel one day.

    I ran D&D by email once, it was fun but very slow. A few days in-game might take weeks and generate many, many thousands of words in the real world.

    RPGs do depend on the right people, all into it, and with time to do it. A campaign makes it. Boardgames do well in that they are often repeatable one-offs and don’t require that commitment. But the rewards from the growth of a character and story in an RPG campaign are immense.

  29. Gothnak says:

    I used to play D&D at school lunchtimes. I was obviously the GM as no one else could be bothered to read the rules. Was a lot of fun… I do remember our English teacher coming up to me one day and asking us if we were ok, as she had watched an episode of Taggart the night before and that we might be devil worshippers.

    We sacrificed her to Abraxas and I gave everyone a roll on the exceptional Loot Table, how we laughed….

  30. JamesTheNumberless says:

    My parents were a bit weird about D&D, but ok with computer RPGs. So a big part of what made the Eye of the Beholder games special for me was that the manuals had just enough AD&D reference material in their appendices to enable me to use them as makeshift rulebooks.

  31. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    I never played what was then called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

    But my very first RPG was the red box, “Basic” Dungeons & Dragons. My Dad bought it for me from a shop that otherwise sold sports clothing back in the Eighties. That in itself was a sign of how confused people were about what D&D actually was.

    And the thing is, while we went on to play other awesome RPGs, such as Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Cyberpunk and the ridiculously complex Living Steel, D&D taught us the most important lesson: that rules, dice roles and modules were best when treated as guidelines. We had the most fun making it up as we played. I think the restricted ruleset available in Basic D&D encouraged us more to make up our own rules and scenarios than if we had initially played a more detailed ruleset.

    I strongly suspect that this was aided by the fact that we couldn’t afford miniatures either, so we internally visualised situations. We always played scenarios out in our heads, which helped us come up with new and interesting ways to break the games. It also gave me a drive to create my own rulesets or adopt other systems to better suit my group of friends.

    NPCs that in modules were just supposed to be “end of level bosses”, would become long term, GM-controlled members of the party if the group liked the performance of the GM enough. We bought Runequest and Stormbringer and mashed-up the rules and worlds of those games, so we had Orc player-characters wielding Moorcock-esque weaponry.

    Our Cyberpunk GM actively encouraged Machiavellian player conflict, with one friend becoming head of a massive corporation and subsequently abducting another player’s character, at which point he implanted a cortex bomb in said character’s head; this ended gloriously with the victim’s character engineering a situation where his character would die but also take his nemesis’ character out at the same time thanks to the cortex bomb.

    In short, RPGs gave us control of our imaginations, and I’ll always treasure these unique group experiences I created with my friends.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I have to agree, the more rules you have the less creative you can be. I had the most fun playing 2nd edition AD&D when I barely knew any of the rules, at lunchtimes at school. We had a group of guys who were creative and one or two of them were decent actors and that kept things going. It didn’t even really matter what sort of character you rolled. I became less interested in pen & paper role playing as people moved on to games like Shadowrun and Vampire and the focus of lunchtime roleplaying sessions shifted from adventure questing to combat mechanics and character builds. My most vivid memory of shadowrun was the sheer time it would take to get combat done, with arguments over initiative, endless dice rolling and people taking forever over kitting out their characters for a particular encounter.

      Similarly I always think it’s a bit of a shame when I look at modern cRPGs and see games where the focus seems to be on number crunching. The point of computers was supposed to be their ability to take all of that away from you. Don’t get me wrong, I love games about number crunching and stats, everything from Cookie Clicker to Football Manager. But I want my role playing games to be more about playing a role, than about collecting loot and grinding for xp.

  32. derbefrier says:

    I never played DnD or any pen and paper game until a few years ago. I had always wanted to try it but never knew anyone who played, or wanted to play it. A few years a go a friend mentioned he used to play and wanted to get back into it so I started playing 3.5 with his old group. Its so much fun. Whati really liked was th freedom it offered compared to video games. We play as often as we can now and its always a blast. I even have started DMing.

    We have been giving 5e a go these past couple weekends and the general opinion of my group is pretty positive. Weall agreed that 5e’s delibrate less of a focus on power gaming and min maxing was a good idea( as much as we like 3.5 it does feel like it has a certain emphasis on number crunching rather than roleplaying.)

    We also have been playing mutants and masterminds. Its a nice change from DnD. The system is very open which is a lot of fun when making your superhero since if you can think it up you can make it. I haven’t done this since I was a kid like a lot of you but I still look forward to those couple weekends a month.

  33. firebat792 says:

    D&D has always been part of the glue that kept my closer circles of friends together.

    I DM’d this campaign that lasted for about 3 years while we all where attending uni in different places (but we got home for weekends), so we’d played on Friday nights and hit the pub straight afterwards, talking geeks and laughing like maniacs if any sort of funny episode had happened on the night.

    One of the players used to carry a d20 at all times and we used it to randomly decide where to go when we had nothing specific to do (i.e. most of the time).

    • Coldyham says:

      I retain that carrying a set of dice at all times is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My friendship group have come to accept it, and we use them for everything from coffee roulette to d% snakes and ladders (hilarious, if a little short). I keep trying to set up a lunchtime game at school, although sometimes I feel like a jehovah’s witness for role-playing games, trying to get my friends to experience the joy for themselves.

  34. Zekiel says:

    D&D was my gateway into Warhammer (including my beloved WFRP, 1st edition thanks very much). I never had particularly wonderful experiences playing it – we played in school lunchtimes which meant sessions weren’t really long enough to get stuck in, plus other kids kept turning up and giving us stick for being nerdy – but I loved reading the sourcebooks and designing adventures.

    10 years later, having discovered computer games, I had something of an epiphany when I discovered that someone had combined the two with Baldur’s Gate. A longstanding love affair with Infinity Engine games resulted :-)

    Now I just need someone to make a videogame of WFRP….

  35. Lobotomist says:

    So when I grew up in a east block communist country we didnt know anything about D&D.

    One day I was in cinema watching E.T and there was a D&D play scene. (Yes the one in article title picture)
    I didnt know what it was, and they never say the name of the game in the movie. But as I have seen the scene I was hooked for life. Me and my friends were so desperate to play the game that we reverse engineered it from the movie scene.

    So we came with our own version of something that we thought the game looked like. But it was actually board game that we invented , because the concept of Roleplay or 10 sided dice was completely unthinkable.

    Fast forward some 10 years. I am traveling abroad and browsing some book store. And I chance upon the book: D&D Rules Cyclopedia.

    And I had the eureka moment of my life: ” Thats what they were playing!!! ”

    I found love of my life, and am biggest D&D nerd ever since….

    • Premium User Badge

      Skabooga says:

      This story is mad inspiring.

      • Lobotomist says:

        Thanks !

        Today I work as game designer making RPG games. And I draw D&D inspired comics :)

  36. Elusiv3Pastry says:

    You can take my THAC0 when you pry it from my cold, dead hands….which are probably encased in a gelatinous cube.

  37. PlanetTimmy says:

    I started off playing D&D at about nine or ten years old. As I had two brothers and a sister we always had enough people to play, and growing up in rural Norfolk with not an awful lot of other entertainments meant we played it quite a lot.

    We never quite got into AD&D, but did move on to other RPGs – we played VAST amounts of ‘Traveller’, and I spent a heck of a lot of time designing starships and robots for that system. We also played a lot of MERPS (Middle Earth Role-Playing System), which was a lot of fun although my characters often got distracted looking for herbs. An amusing high point was once when we were fighting a giant and a hobbit player rolled a critical hit, which according to the crits tables, knocked the giant’s jawbone back into his brain.

    We also played a lot of Dragon Warriors, some Toon, Paranoia an TMNT.

    Sadly when I went off to Uni I stopped playing, although both my brothers continued. A few years ago though I was feeling nostalgic for D&D and bought the old red box starter set off eBay. It was fun reading through it again, looking again as those lovely and familiar illustrations. I had forgotten however how rubbish a system the original D&D was – lots of completely different systems for each new thing you might want to try. However, I showed it to my Son (then eight) and we played a bit – he really enjoyed it.

    More recently I got all the 5e rules (Starter kit, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual), and it’s a huge improvement. Over the recent half term I started running the Starter Kit adventure with my Son, his friend and his friend’s Dad. Neither had played RPGs before and they were pretty blown away. It was a lot of fun.

    I have the first edition Mouse Guard RPG banging around somewhere as well – I really want to get a game in of that some time…

  38. zipdrive says:

    Every person on the planet should try out tabletop roleplaying, at least once.

    Whether it’s D&D, Star Wars, Apocalypse World, or Fiasco, whether it’s Toon, Shadowrun, FATE or Primetime Adventures: Just do it. Go to a conference, a game store, or (best) download some quick start rules and get our friends together…it will be awesome.

  39. Capgrassyndrome says:

    My first game of D&D: I was about 15, introduced to it by a mate at school – he was the DM, his big brother, another guy from school and his little brother along with myself formed the party. One guy had a fighter called Glipglopglideropareldebodinks. He forbade us, at sword point, from abbreviating his name. We played B9 Castle Caldwell, probably one of the worst adventures ever written. Instant life long obsession. The memory of that session is a bright golden thing in my head. I’m lucky to be still playing, having returned to it in the same way some guys buy a sports car, DMing 5e (which just corrects every little thing I ever thought needed fixing about the game) with a bunch of middle aged farts just like myself, and having just as much fun as I did as a teenager. After sex, it’s my favourite thing to do.