Today as I write this, it’s Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31). I thought about writing something about gender in gaming, but as my last piece mentioned women (lack thereof in the old days) and the reaction I got on Facebook was clutching of pearls, maybe not. I will say my favorite comments (aside from “SJW!” and “don’t get political” when I wasn’t aware I had been, was “I has no problem with women after all I married one I just don’t want them at my table.” Direct quote.) So today I put quill to parchment to spin another tale of old — of Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1970s. Yes, come with me now to the Days Of Legend: a time of no internet, when phones were attached to walls or in booths, when there were less than 10 channels on TV, and when research meant questing in a mystical location called a “library.”
D&D was still relatively in its infancy and by the stories of those who were there, TSR was flying by the seat of its pants, so to speak. Each release grew the hobby for those of us not privileged enough to live around Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
In my case, I lived in Spring City, Pennsylvania, a dying factory town outside of Philadelphia. By this point Philly was famous for Rocky, the bicentennial and sports — being the home of Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and Dr. J. Oh, and the Iggles. I discovered D&D in 1978 when I was introduced to the game by the biggest jerk in the school (yes, really) when he mentioned it in class. Of course, I had to find it. That Saturday, my mum went to the nearby French Creek mall (it had a Jamesway!) where I searched the recently opened Coventry Hobbies. There on the shelf was a blue box with red lettering on the spine: Dungeons & Dragons. Okay, I saw it but didn’t have the money. Fortunately, I had a job delivering papers, and a week later I had my very own copy of the D&D Basic Set.
My friend Dave and I immediately read the rules (which we screwed up royally, equating hit dice and hit points and thinking you rolled the white and crayoned d20 for damage). Still, over time we got it right and soon another player joined the fold. Then another. Here’s where I note that of our original three, one has two PhDs and the other is an MD while I… don’t. Guess I’m a slacker.
Around then we also discovered two other places that sold D&D: Allied Hobbies (RIP) at the King of Prussia Mall and Strategy & Fantasy World at Valley Forge Shopping Center. S&F world also sold… wait for it… miniatures! Wow! What a great idea! (S&F World became Compleat Strategist, moved to a strip mall, and is still open after all these years!)
Anyway, to my point. Back then there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to TSR release schedule. We knew things were released when we saw them in Dragon magazine or when we saw them at one of those retailers. As D&D grew in popularity stores stocked a wider variety of things. At first we were interested in modules. After all our 12 year old minds, while imaginative, couldn’t spin a coherent narrative. I still have a dungeon I wrote back then called Torth. It’s… um… well, the Plan 9 of modules. Made no sense. Modules provided us with adventures and expanded the possibilities of adventure.
One shots were wonderful, but a series? Wow! Except when we finished one we had to wait for the rest. For example my fighter Apollo finished G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and was delayed because G2 or G3 weren’t out yet. Solution? Start a new character until that time. Eventually Apollo went to G3 Fire Giants because we could never find G2 Frost Giants. Eventually, in college I would go through the entire G series in order, but with a different group and character. And when will T2 finally come out? (1985: six years later.)
Think back to your early teens. Think about how
Maybe it was only a month or so between releases, but back at that age this was an eternity. And then when they came out: heaven. The maps were on the inside covers and done in a light blue or turquoise so they couldn’t be photocopied (seriously, and that was true then!). The modules were of uneven quality, but who cared? More like, who noticed? I was in my early teens, not a freaking literary critic! Also, sometimes they didn’t make sense. How would those giant scorpions from White Plume Mountain survive in a small glassed in area for all those years? Or those manticores? Magic of course! Don’t question, just kill ‘em! (White Plume Mountain is still my favorite of the classic modules though.)
That was the answer to everything. One by one, the Advanced D&D books came out and were purchased. I still have my originals, bashed up by overuse as they are. I still have them because they were magic. They nurtured a sense of wonder in a kid who desperately needed an escape from their bleak life. They were badges of membership in a larger world we knew existed somewhere (after all, someone wrote these things) and slowly became more popular. Eventually I found out more people in my school played. One guy claimed his 25th level paladin had 6 Hands and 4 Eyes of Vecna. I asked him if Vecna was a spider. He didn’t think that funny.
The years rolled by into high school. My part time jobs and homework took up what used to be my gaming time. My old Dungeon Master (the one with two PhDs) was trying to get into West Point (didn’t make it) so definitely had no time to play. Also, by then I’d discovered girls as well how different I truly was from my classmates due to my “secret.” Gaming fell to the wayside until I transferred to Penn State in my third year, when I started playing again with my old DM Dave.
Eventually, gaming became my career. I met some of those people who created that Magic, and helped make it for others as an editor at TSR. And time continued on, through jobs and editions. I still have these books, because they are still totems. They remind me of a time when that magic meant everything for me. They serve as tangible artifacts to amazing times and friends now gone. They also remind me that while sometimes the story must make sense, sometimes the answer is just “it’s magic.”
Because it is.