Sunday, June 23, 2019

D&D and Me: Part 2 (Mapping Out the Territory)

[This is the second post in a new series.  You may want to begin at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

[When we left off last week, my love of lists and my love of horror had collided, and I had decided to come up with the ultimate list of monsters.]

I started learning about monsters from reading about mythology, of course.  There are lots of cool monsters and magical beasts in Greek and Norse mythology: Pegasus and Medusa and Fenrir and Ratatoskr and dryads and naiads and fire giants and dark elves and birds with bronze beaks and horses with eight legs and that’s only scratching the surface.  But this was not sufficient.  For some reason I had decided that I was going to write novels about this fantasy world where every possible monster or magical creature was a separate, sentient race.1  Looking back on it now, we’re talking about the years between roughly seven and eleven, and it seems almost ridiculous when I tell you that I was attempting to write novels, or that I was imagining sophisticated concepts like the various races fighting over what counted as “sentient” and therefore determined whether this or that creature would be a recognized race, but I suppose I was a precocious child.2  And of course the line between “fantasy race” and “monster” is very fine indeed, so the vampires and rakshasas and kelpies and harpies and peri were welcomed into my fantasy milieu.  And I knew perfectly well that books on monsters were the best place to find new fantastic creatures.

Now, I’ve already written at least a little bit about my preoccupation with Monsters Who’s Who, but I don’t think I fully captured why it was special to me.  Remember that last time I talked about the great respect that my family always had for books.  I should also mention that my father was3 a bit of a cheapskate, so, when I would beg for toys, or comic books, or anything along those lines, I usually got a “no.”  But begging for books was a much easier row to hoe.  You can deny a kid a Star Wars action figure on the grounds that it’s frivolous, but denying them a book?  Unthinkable.  At least I’m pretty sure this was my father’s position.  So we were window shopping at the mall (we did that a lot when I was younger), in a Border’s or somesuch, and I found this book, which was really more of a “coffee table” sort of volume—great pictures, light on the actual information—and it had all these cool monsters in it, and they were super liberal on what they counted as a “monster”—not only comic book villains like Annihilus and Ultron,4 but even superheroes5 and 50s monster movie antagonists like the Blob and Quartermass (which is possibly a worse sin than referring to Shelley’s monster as “Frankenstein”)—but I wanted it.  So I begged, and I got it.  And I read it over and over, and it was cool, but ... there should be more.

I honestly cannot remember where I first heard of Dungeons & Dragons.  In addition to having a thing for monsters, I also had a thing for games, even though I never really had anyone to play with me (I was an only child until age eleven).  So here was a game, and it was also full of monsters!  You know what? I bet I saw an ad for it in a comic book somewhere.  Doesn’t really matter.  Point being, I had to have this creation.  I needed it badly.  And, eventually, I got it ... maybe for Christmas one year?  I can’t recall.  I remember it being the so-called “blue book,” and I remember it having cool (and bizarre) monsters, as expected, but probably the thing I remember best is the dungeon: it was laid out on a grid, beautiful straight-edged halls and rooms, with a little bit of more irregularly-shaped cavern in one corner.6  But screw those curvy walls: I was all about the straight lines.  There’s just something about all those perfect, 10-foot-wide dungeon corridors with their 20x20 or 40x40 rooms to one side or another, that really strummed my OCD, and for a long time I became obsessed with drawing dungeons.  I asked for graph paper, which my mother thought odd, so she got me some of that stuff with the little green squares.  No, that wasn’t right, I said: these squares are too small.  Ah, my mother says: you want quadrille paper.7  Blue squares, and bigger (according to Wikipedia, graph paper is 5 squares per inch, while quadrille paper is 4 squares per inch).  And my father worked at a paper mill, so he could get all sorts of paper for cheap or maybe even free; I don’t recall.  But I do remember going through several pads of quad paper making dungeon after dungeon.

Now, understand: in all this time, I never actually played the game.  In the first place, I had no one to play with.  Still not many friends, and my little brother would have just been born, assuming I got the game shortly after it was first published.  But, probably more importantly, the rules of these early versions of D&D were kind of insane, and often contradictory.  For instance, I’m pretty sure that there were at least some cases where it just wasn’t possible to resolve whether someone was surprised or not, because your opponent could succeed on a roll to surprise you and you could simultaneously succeed on a roll to not be surprised.  (Perhaps from this you can guess that I was obsessively reading and rereading the rules, despite having no real opportunity to apply them anywhere.)  So no real playing, just reading, and “collecting” all the monsters, and drawing dungeons just to draw them.  I bought the original Monster Manual (because: more monsters), but I never picked up any of the other books, because I had no need for them.  Until ...

So I mentioned earlier that my little brother (and only sibling) would have just barely been in existence at the time D&D came out: in fact, they share a birth year (1977).  There are 11 years between the two of us, and while there are certainly advantages in being the only child (and only grandchild for much of that time), I had decided that I really wanted a sibling.  So I was thrilled when my brother was born.  Finally! someone to play games with!  But, you know, babies don’t exit the womb able to play games.  The situation hadn’t improved much when I was 12 and he was 1, and 13 and 2 made little difference as well.  At 14 and 3, we could at least graduate from peekaboo to tic-tac-toe, and by 15 and 4 simple things like Candyland or Uncle Wiggily were feasible, but, still ... I was getting impatient.  This whole sibling thing took way more patience that I was (and still am, for that matter) prone to.  By 16 and 5 we could really start to get into some good games, but of course by that point I was in high school, and I actually had some friends (although not the sort that might be interested in D&D, as near as I could tell), and I had less and less time to play games with my little brother.  When was it that we first hit on the idea of me running a game for him?  17 and 6? 18 and 7?  Probably closer to 19 and 8, but somewhere during those years.  By this point I had read the rules of D&D so often that I knew them very well, but I had still never played, so starting out as the putative DM (that’s “dungeon master” for the uninitiated) was just insane.  I had zero clues about what I was doing.  Also, running a game where you have only one player is tough, because D&D is really designed to be a game where players work together to solve challenges, and character classes (especially back in those days) had pretty narrow lanes for what they were good at.  I don’t remember much about this game, but I think my brother wanted to be a sort of classic knight, so obviously a fighter with heavy armor, and we went through one of the many dungeons I’d drawn, with random rooms full of random monsters and absolutely no rhyme or reason why any of them were there, just sitting in a room (with no food or anything else to do) waiting for someone to bust in the door.  A fighter, of course, is quite excellent at busting in doors, and pretty darned good at killing whatever’s on the other side, but has no magic at all, can’t heal himself, and (perhaps most importantly for a classic dungeon crawl) has no ability to identify and disarm traps.  So I dreamed up an NPC8 who would be a pixie rogue, thus providing a bit of magic and the requisite trapfinding—I can’t rememember what the hell we used for healing—and I made him a statue in the early part of the dungeon with a puzzle that my brother’s erstwhile knight could figure out to free the pixie from his stony prison.  Once freed, the pixie was so grateful that he agreed to accompany the knight deeper into the dungeon.  My brother, into animals nearly as much as I was,9 also brought in a fierce fighting dog to help out with the combats.

I can’t remember how long we played this ... well, I hesitate to glorify it with the title of “campaign,” and really it was only an “adventure” in the broadest sense, but these few sessions of D&D that were his introduction and, in a weird way, mine too.  More than once, certainly, but as many as five times?  I can’t recall, but it couldn’t have gone on that long.  I had other things to do, and typically when you play D&D you play it for quite a few hours at a time, so it was a pretty big time commitment.  Was it perhaps 10 hours of gaming, spread out over several sessions across perhaps weeks? could it have been 20?  Surely no more than that.  But it was influential in a number of ways.  Firstly it gave me a taste for the game as roleplaying, above and beyond the cool factor of the monsters and the gridded dungeons.  Secondly it instilled a lifelong love for the game in my brother, who continues to play even more than I do and most of whose online identities are named after his favorite D&D character.

But it also gave me what may be an atypical experience of the game.  There were no rules for “fighting dogs” or pixie rogues ... hell, there weren’t any rules for lots of things back then, but certainly not for esoteric things like that.  I had to make that shit up.  So my very first experience playing D&D was me homebrewing a bunch of shit and then running a dungeon crawl.  Maybe I’m wrong and that’s not that unusual, but I kinda feel like it was a weird way into the hobby.  Certainly it’s given me a base of understanding that, more so than any other game, the rules of D&D are ... malleable.  You can always add in your own touches to Parcheesi, or Monopoly—how many of us were adults before we realized that getting money for landing on Free Parking wasn’t actually a rule?—but customizing D&D is a whole ‘nother level of creativity.  I want to explore this more in a future installment, but for now, chronology demands that we back off from my career as a DM and see me finally become a player.

Next week: off to college.  Again.


1 The age-old debate over whether e.g. “a pegasus” isn’t really a thing because “Pegasus” was the name of one unique individual was never an issue for me.  From my budding authorial perspective, any dilemma of this type was instantly solved by whichever answer increased the number of races in my fantasy world.
2 This is possibly a bit of an understatement.  But I have to tell you, from both my experience as a child and as a father: children suck at having the good sense to realize that they’re “too young” to accomplish something.  Or as Pearl S. Buck once (much more eloquently) said: “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and so they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”
3 Okay: is.
4 Who I was mostly unfamiliar with because, as I mentioned last week, I wasn’t reading Avengers or Fantastic Four.
5 Really? Spider-Man as a “monster”?
6 One would think that, what with everything being on the Internet these days, I could find an image of that exact dungeon.  But, alas, I couldn’t, though I found several that were close.  The one that felt closest to what I remember is Blue Dungeon 013 by Tim Hartin.  Creative Commons share-alike license.
7 I have to say that, until I started writing this very series, I never knew how that was spelled; I always thought it was “quadrle” or somesuch.
8 I suppose this was technically my very first GMPC.
9 My favorite kid-quote from my brother: he once announced, quite seriously, at age 8 or so, that he was opposed to nuclear war, because it would kill all the pets.  Wasn’t worried about the people, you understand: just the pets.