Friday, April 8, 2011

I Hit It With My Axe - Part I - The Axe Is Forged

Greetings, Fellow Dungeon Crawlers!

Dontcha just hate it when you've chosen what class you want to level in, added your new attack modifier, adjusted you base save bonuses, rolled up your new hit points, increased your skills, picked your new feat and just when you're finally ready to gank some undead your Dungeon Master cancels just because he has choir practice on Sunday.  I mean, c'mon?  How many times has this happened to you?  Anyone?  Ladies?  Holla?

Alright, I admit it.  I'm a forty year old man who still occasionally plays Dungeons & Dragons.  I can just visualize my blog's hit count withering and dying like a gelatinous cube hit by a fireball.  Indeed, I fear this confession is tantamount to openly admitting that I have four gigs of transvestite midget pron on my hard drive.

It's only two gigs, BTW.  

At some point in time Dungeons & Dragons was officially declared the crown jewel of geekdom, maybe just a shade below the ability to speak fluent Klingon.  But I'll tell you right now, if D&D had Hugh Grant's PR person and not Mel Gibson's, the Trekkies would be standing alone with their scarlet letters.

Truth being, a slew of people have played this game.  As many as six million at last count in 2007.  As an experiment, just ask the people in your own circle of, friends to see if they have any past experiences in trap detection and orc slayage.   And then there are all the celebrities that harbor this dark secret like Troy McClure's fish fetish (and that includes Troy's overseer Matt Groening).

Matt's in some pretty awesome company.  The following people have either confessed to making saving throws, have been inadvertently outed or have made so many references to D&D that you just know they're a closet case:  Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Mike Myers, Dwayne Johnson, Dame Judy Dench (turned onto the game by Vin while filming The Chronicles of Riddick), Jenny McCarthy, Wil Wheaton, Daryl Hannah, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Matthew Lillard, Jon Stewart, Jim Breuer, Marilyn Manson, Kevin Smith, Eddie Izzard, Jon Favreau, Curt Schilling, Todd Pratt, Tim Duncan, Jacques Villeneuve, Rivers Cuomo from Weezer ((but more like all the members of Weezer), Seth Green, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Patton Oswalt, Stephen King, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Jack Black, Metallica, Conan O'Brian, Andrew W.K., My Chemical Romance, Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies (but more like all the members of The Barenaked Ladies), Kari Byron (of Mythbuster's fame), Brian Posehn, Jason Mewes, Weird Al Yankovic, Billy Crystal, David Duchovny, Insane Clown Posse, Emilio Estévez, and Glenn Danzig. 

Hmmmm, if Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Stephen King, and Glenn Danzig all got together to play, I wonder if they'd ever play any other campaign besides Ravenloft?  Also, I wonder if "Juggalo" is a playable class when ICP start chuckin' their 20-siders around?    

The invention of Dungeons & Dragons pre-dates my involvement by about nine years. It sprang from the war gaming hobby which was all the rage in the Sixties and Seventies.  Presumably bored with the limited variables of chess, developers created complicated rule sets that read like legal documents in order to simulate past battles of history.  Legend has it that even the Kennedy family was obsessed with the entry-level war game Diplomacy.

Many of these early games (one of which was developed by War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells) involved the use of miniature figures to depict units, squads and platoons arrayed on three-dimensional terrain dioramas lovingly constructed from HO scale props.  Avid wargamers E. Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren eventually created a medieval-flavored rule set called Chainmail:

Perhaps due to the era's focus on the individual versus the group, Chainmail's scale was considerably smaller.  Instead of figures representing groups of twenty or so men, each miniature stood for a single person.  Being a devout historian of the Middle Ages, Gygax made sure his game adequately covered things like mounted charges, veteran heroes, melee fatigue, leaders, sword and spear-wielding footmen, crossbows, siege engines, morale breaks, tilts, jousts, duels and other opportunities for daring-do.

But what really set these rules apart was the optional fantasy supplement that followed a few years later.  Inspired by the growing popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gygax added sorcery, dwarfs, elves, monsters and giants to the hypothetical mix.  As such, Chainmail made quite the splash in the war gaming community.

When a Minnesota die-chucker named Dave Arneson used Chainmail to guide his players into a dungeon underneath the fictional Blackmoor Castle the resulting surge of adventure was seen as revelatory.  Arneson recreated the scenario at a convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Gygax was there to witness it.  Inspired by the giddy narrative the experience generated, the two collaborated to expand Chainmail's fantasy supplement into a realm which ultimately became D&D's most venerable and hallowed campaign setting: the world of "Greyhawk".

The two added a veritable dragon's horde of fantastic new foes, wildly imaginative spell effects and just enough rules to invoke the imagination while keeping everything contained within the framework of a game.  Despite their excitement (and the enthusiasm of an ever-expanding troupe of willing play-testers), Gygax and Anderson just couldn't get any of the established game companies to give them the time of day.  So, the duo stood true to their convictions and in 1974 founded the company TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) just to bring their radical new design into the world.

But what to call it?  As a veteran designer, Gygax new the importance of a good, catchy name.  He wrote down about thirty keywords (like magic, monsters, treasure, castles, giants, labyrinths, mazes, spells, swords, trolls...etc) divided into two columns and played "mix and match" for awhile.  With the aid of his wife and two kids, Gary eventually settled on the alliter-rific combination of Dungeons & Dragons.  A few days later, the new-christened first iteration of his unique brainchild was sent out into the world.

The game was an instant smash, especially amongst college kids.  Game conventions and societies sprung up seemingly overnight, and despite the game's initially poor presentation and slip-shod amateurish proof-reading, the underground swell of support for this unusual new experience became impossible to ignore.

With every new iteration Dungeons & Dragons began to venture into the realm of cultural phenomenon.  The game was revised by several notable outsiders who brought increasingly slick levels of presentation to the game.  First there was the 1977 version edited by J.Eric Holmes:

And then this 1981 edition which was overseen by Tom Moldvay:

The game became so popular that even Steven Spielberg chose to kick off his seminal 80's flick E.T. with a session of something approximating D&D in progress.   When I first saw the movie in theaters in 1982, my curiosity was understandably piqued.  What was this imaginative, co-operative fantasy storytelling game of complex characters, strange dice and high adventure? 

But it wasn't until November of 1983 did Dungeons & Dragons really demand my attention.  I read Lenny Kaye's illuminating article "Role Playing: The Ultimate Fantasy" in Starlog magazine's "Space Age Games" column.  The concluding paragraph quickly had me saving up the modest shekels that constituted my allowance so I could further pursue Sir Kaye's invitation to venture forth with him:

"It's the Grand Quest of Gaming, and who knows what chills and thrills lurk behind the next door - a planked wooden gate barred ominously on your side.  There is no window or keyhole you might peer through, and you can't go back the way you came because the wererats have summoned their giant brethren to help in the assault on your party.  You are Ragnok the Halfling, traveling with Anika the Magic-User and the Cleric-Adept Gen U. Flect.  A kings ransom - in fact, the king's ransom - awaits you if..."       

I knew nothing about the game or how it worked.  I just knew that this article was like tinder in my imaginative, thirteen year old brain.

There was no way I could buy the game in my small town of Stephenville.  It would be a week or two now before my parents would be going back to Corner Brook where I knew I could pick up the box set I'd seen on display outside the Coles book store in the Valley Mall.

Until then I read and re--read the article over and over again during breakfast every morning and pondered my future life as an adventurer.

I was not to be disappointed.      

Next time: After a tragic miss-step two books in a red box with some funny-shaped dice and a crappy crayon (?) results in a lifetime of imaginative exploits.  Plus, I break it to you gently that you've probably already played Dungeons & Dragons in some shape or form yourself.


EPICHmmmm, if I've never once talked in another voice or unsheathed a sword during one of these games does that mean I'm actually less geeky than Vin Diesel?

EPIC +1:  It's hard to believe that D&D was once so popular that it was advertised on television.  In retrospect, I'm sure this commercial did little to debunk the myth that all gamers were mutants...

CURSED MYTHIC FAIL OF THE AGES: (Yes, this is real...)


John M said...

Believe it or not dungeon-mastering(?) was a key component in my kid brother's career development and my son-in-law actually makes a living in this area.

off-topic (and since I'm here anyway): have just "sold" my first OHF copy to a friend I ran into at a church-basement meeting earlier today. Left more copies in the narthex.

(btw choir practice is more likely to conflict with D&D on Thursday night, Sundays tend to be services).

David Pretty said...

Honestly, if I possess any modicum of creativity at all, I owe it all to people like (D&D inventors)Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

I'm telling you, this game (and many more) have been unfairly persecuted and marginalized by society at large. Millions of people have found creative inspiration and career fulfillment from chucking dice (like your very lucky son-in-law for example!)