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Twas the week of Christmas/Hanukkah and all through the… Oh, Hell, I can’t think of a fun rhyme. In any case, this time of year many gamers have visions of dice rolling through their heads. Hopefully you all avoid rolling 1’s (unless you’re playing Squad Leader).

My spouse is not a gamer, so my holidays were practically game free. As I’m an old grognard, I was around for first edition Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons  by TSR. One Christmas I received an amazing (for me) Christmas gift I didn’t expect. This is that story, so gather around the fire with your eggnog or whatever (I’ll have a Glenmorangie, please) and I’ll tell it.

The cover of Deities and Demigods features entities from various pantheons. [Art by Erol Otus]

Deities & Demigods

Back in 1980, AD&D was finally rolling. The Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide were available, as were a good amount of the legendary modules you’ve heard about in whispers around the tavern table from old timers like me. I grew up in a poor family in a dying foundry town outside of Philly, so Christmas wasn’t extravagant. However, that year I asked for a book my parents never heard of: the brand new Deities & Demigods book.

Deities and Demigods (hereafter DD) was an update of a book from the old Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes book from 1976 (which had a nekkid lady on the cover! Ooo!). The 144 page hardcover book detailed religions and such from the world as well as from popular fantasy novels.

I turned 14 in September 1980, and I was in 8th grade. By that point I was thoroughly in the grasp of hobby gaming. The money from my paper route was funneled into the tills of Strategy & Fantasy World in King of Prussia, Penn. and Coventry Hobbies in Phoenixville to feed my frenzy. I was playing regularly with two high school friends.

Anyway, back to the book. I saw it at S&F World and couldn’t afford it at the time, as I was buying gifts for friends. I put it at the top of my short Xmas list, pointing out where it could be found but not expecting it. After all, this was the time of the D&D Panic, where evangelicals were grasping their pearls about the game. Someone killed themselves at Michigan State and the parents blamed the game. My parents weren’t religious in any sense, but they were very conservative. If they’d heard about the “Panic” (and who hadn’t?) I’d be banned from playing.

Christmas morning dawned sunny and freezing cold. I remember three gifts for me under the tree. (I’m sure there were more.) The first was a model of the Starship Enterprise. There was a box of shortbread cookies… and DD!

Back then we’d go to my rich uncle’s place for Christmas dinner, but I spent as much time as I could poring over the tome. There were 16 different mythologies, but it was the three I’d never known about that intrigued me the most: Cthulhu, Melnibonean and Newhon. These were from series of novels by HP Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber respectively. If nothing else, DD corrupted my young mind by introducing me to amazing fantasy authors I love to this day.

Two of the three sections caused issues. TSR thought Lovecraft’s work was public domain, and received permission from Moorcock to use Melnibonean (Elric and all that). Rival game company Chaosium owned a license for producing Cthulhu Mythos games from the copyright owner, as well as a license for the Melnibonean world. Oops! So after the first print run they added credit to Chaosium for use of the works. No, it wasn’t an intentional rip off. They simply didn’t know. See “seat of their pants” referenced later. In 1981 they dropped those two sections from the book, so first editions of this book, especially first printings are now prized collectors’ items. Mine has no such credits.

But I didn’t know about any of that. I was glad to have new monsters and ideas for the game. When I Dungeon Mastered I was quick to introduce monsters from the book like Vampire Trees, Newhon Ghouls, Salt Spiders and Shoggoths. Oh, they were too powerful?  Hey — I was 14! I thought it was the DM against the players! (I was soon set straight on that!)

Also, when I returned to school in January I brought the book with me to art class where I used some of a roll of brown paper (the one cheerleaders used to make banners) and made a book cover for DD. My other AD&D books were already showing wear and I intended to cover those as well, but never did. I still have them, and they’re in bad shape.

Now, 39 years later I still have the DD book. I haven’t seen its cover in all that time but I know it’s in great shape for two reasons — it has a tough cover (which I really intended to decorate but didn’t) and… I really didn’t use it that much. The other books saw heavy use, but not this one. Let’s face it, aside from paladins and clerics religion didn’t come up much in our campaigns, and my DM used Greyhawk gods (and so did I after running a campaign using Greek gods and goddesses.) To this day, I use Greyhawk mythology when DMing. That said, the inner cover has a little yellowing.

Now, TSR is a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast, which is a subsidiary of Hasbro. There are brand managers, focus groups and so on at Hasbro, maybe even for 5E D&D. But what I remember the most was the magic.

D&D was new then. We who played in the ’70s and ’80s felt like we were part of something, well, exclusive. You couldn’t find D&D just anywhere. You had to know where to look. Everything was chaotic, fresh, new… and fun! I got the impression everything was being run by the seat of their pants; an impression confirmed by my now friends who worked there at the time. Magic was not just part of the game, the game itself was the magic — transforming a small town socially awkward kid into a hero (I wasn’t out then) who performed legendary feats against horrible creatures!

Now, being all corporate, D&D may still have the ability to carry one away… but for me it just doesn’t have that magic.

Here is a gallery of my brown paper covered copy of Deities & Demigods:

Info for this piece was sourced from BBC News, from Jim Ward’s Facebook posts, Wikipedia and my own noggin. No copyright infringement is intended.

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