My Start in Role Playing Games

I’m Old School in Role Playing Games (RPG’s), I admit it proudly and wear it as a badge of honor.  I had been a player of boardgames for several years, the incredible work of Charles Roberts at Avalon Hill and the game-producing machine known as SPI in New York.  I loved boardgames – Tactics II, PanzerBlitz, Jutland, Strategy I, Soldiers, you name it.  I had tried to get into miniatures but I got sick and tired of painting Napoleonic Airfix men only to have the paint peel off after a few battles.

I read a newspaper article on the first true RPG – Dungeons and Dragons, back in 1974.  The concept sounded so strange – actually taking characters on adventures, not on a board but in your head.  The concept appealed to me so I spoke to my friends who agreed to give it a shot, and I went out and purchased my first edition of D&D and a set of dice to play with.

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Edition Wars? Never heard of them back in the day…

Back in those days there was nothing out there to base how you played both as a Dungeon Master or as a player.  It was up to you to figure out game balance.  The first few games resulting in players getting killed pretty quickly.  For a while we would roll up to ten characters for each player, depending on the size of the dungeon.  They would be lucky to make it out with one alive.  After a while I learned to balance the encounters to the level of characters, but in fairness, there was nothing out there to tell me I was doing in wrong.  We made stuff up.  No fancy tables for every little nuance of the game.  You all went out with rope and a 10 foot pole – why?  Because you needed that stuff that’s why!

For example:  In one adventure I had a massive dungeon (a maze that had to be a mile square).  In the middle was a dragon.  I remember Tim Hopkins and Bob Fischer finding the room.  Tim had ten Dwarven archers with crossbows and he rushed them in and lined them up in a wedge formation, with the point facing the Red Dragon.  It was the first time any of us had used or tried to kill a dragon.  I remember flipping through the rules frantically – then seeing that the Red Dragon breathed fire in a cone – exactly the shape of Tim’s Dwarven formation. I remember his face when we laid out his old Heritage miniatures and I used a piece of paper to mark out the dragon’s breath.

They got off the first shots – but let’s be honest, ten crossbow bolts from first level characters were only going to piss off a mature Red Dragon.  He turned and breathed.  The cone caught all but the two ends of the formation who miraculously survived.  The other eight Dwarves weren’t just killed…their armor melted into pools on the cold stone, hissing the popping as the air filled with brimstone and a tough of burned hair from their beards burning.   One of the survivors made a shield out of the melted puddle that had been one of his comrades – which was creepy and cool at the same time.

From that point we referred to them as The Archers of Woe.  That was the noise Tim made when they all died – “Whoa!!!”  They became a bit of a legend in our gaming group.  Worthless bards sung songs about them.

I was always the Dungeon Master back in those days.  Only at conventions did I get a chance to play the game.  At the 1978 MichCon event (I think in Ann Arbor) I played as a player.  My DM was none other than Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D.  I died, somewhat less than epically, but I thought it was cool to play with an adventure he had created.

I went on to get into gaming as a writer and designer.  I write novels in gaming universes now – and cherish playing and running games.  Gaming taught me how to describe scenes for readers, how to weave a story…and how to manipulate those listening to the tale I was telling.  In short, it made me a better writer and communicator.

I eventually went on to DM for my kids, which was a lot of fun.  I go to Gen Con all of the time, and in recent years have started playing more.  I like breaking out my original dice now and then…just to see if people recognize them as being “from that era,” of RPG’s.  My dice are older than my kids and my marriage – so what does that say about me?   I like to think it says I’m still rolling…

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