This page last updated 07/02/99 06:53:37 PM
Apologies to the TSR artist whose vampire I have bastardized at left
This page is devoted to my miscellanous recollections and thoughts regarding Dungeons and Dragons, both as a player and as a DM. This is “stream of
consciousness” stuff, so don’t expect linear logic. My memories are vague and sometimes downright wrong. I’ve already been corrected on both counts…several times.
As for the “new” thinking, remember: I wasn’t smart enough to join Mensa.
And, as if it isn’t obvious, I’m trying to be a bit light-hearted here: laugh once
in a while, okay?
Everyone asks me “Say, how did you get involved with pen and paper role playing games?” Naturally they ask this question because I am obviously so successful,brilliant, mentally stable, and stunningly handsome.
Okay, the truth: when I mention I am a role playing gamer, most people slowly back away, muttering “that’s nice”, before turning and running away. They think I am some sort of lunatic. I’ve learned to generally avoid talking about Dungeons and Dragons in “mixed” (I.E.: non-gamer) company, which is a shame really.
So, how did I get started? Well, my sister Connie started reading me The Hobbit when I was about four years old. When I started to read for myself, I read a lot of science fiction, then re-discovered fantasy. Between the ages of 12 and 15, I read more fantasy than allowable by law in some states. I desperately wanted it to be real in some way, even if only fleetingly.
There I was, 15 years old and in search of a way to turn my imagination into something approaching reality. A friend of mine, Tim Breitkreutz, was a member of Mensa at the time. He told me about this game he played in one of their special interest groups. He called it Dungeons and Dragons, and described it as sort of a group fantasizing session with dragons, elves, and halflings. Something went “click” (or possibly “thud”) in my mind: a game where I could pretend interactively??!! This seemed tailor made.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart enough to join Mensa, but I wasn’t about to let my own stupidity stop me. With Tim’s encouragement, and a promise that he would do something mysterious called “DM”, I went looking for people at my high school who might be interested in D&D. I found a couple of people, who ultimately were my gaming buddies well into adulthood. A few weekends later, with books bought at the direction of my friend Tim with money my Mother skeptically gave me, we had our first gaming session. Tim was DMing, Chris Rasmussen, myself, Jeff Wright, and my brother Ron were the intrepid players. My character was a magic user, and I think everyone else was a fighter. We entered the small town of Homlet, and trekked up the road to the Gatehouse of an ancient temple….
…A few minutes later, all of our characters, except for my magic user, had been eaten by giant toads. I was hooked.
Why do I game?
Talk about a deep question. A lot of people who ask this question really are wondering what kind of mental disorder I have. For the most part, I often wonder what sort of mental disorder they have that makes them think they are more sane because they don’t game. Different strokes…
I think my reason for gaming boils down to this: I have an over-active imagination and a basic dissatisfaction with reality. For me, this manifests in a desire to live different kinds of lives, lives where I meet different kinds of people in different sorts of places, where individuals can actually make a difference themselves. This usually becomes personal: I want to live in a world where I have some special power, a power that allows me to confidently do things I can’t do in real life. It’s a world where I am braver, or smarter, or maybe do the right things instead of the wrong things. If someone does something unpleasant to me, I want to launch a retributive strike. I want to do this all without risk to myself; if I do something stupid, I at least want to know that I can walk away from it without lasting effect. Since none of this is possible in real life, I discovered role playing.
When I’ve had a bad week at work, a good gaming session can turn my whole attitude around. The things I can’t control in real life can be mapped onto the evils that my characters battle in the game. If I can’t call some moron at work to task for something he or she unwittingly did to me, you can bet my character has no such qualms in game. And, because I have a good DM, I sometimes learn something in the process.
That leads to another point I would like to make: my characters are not me. A lot of people think that gamers can’t distinguish reality from fantasy. I suppose there are those who have that problem, but if those rare individuals weren’t gamers they would be Scientologists or Heavy Metal rockers: the game doesn’t cause the disorder. Naturally, my characters all end up with an unmistakable stamp that marks them as a “Kelly” character, but it sometimes takes a great deal of familiarity with me to see the signs. I have played a Paladin who saves the world, and a Half Ogre who would just a soon smash your head in as debate philosophy. Neither of these is me, but sometimes I feel like them.
Am I some escapist weenie who can’t deal with real life? I guess you would have to judge for yourself, and that is hard to do without actually knowing me. I firmly believe that the skills I have gained through my “virtual” lives have given me more confidence and an ability to stand up for myself. To quote (badly) a minor character from an episode of X-Files: “I know a thing or two about courage: I’ve played D&D”
I honestly and firmly believe that a lot of adults would benefit from shucking off reality for a while to experience parts of themselves that they hide away. There is a reason why psychologists, team builders, and marketing instructors use role playing as a tool: it lets their patients or students experience something new or different in a “safe” environment. Think about being able to have a self-directed role play every weekend, without paying some Freudian or Jungian dweeb $100 an hour for the privilege.
The early years
After the Toad incident, Tim DMed our little group for two or three years. Tim’s basic DMing style was pretty, well, basic. Despite this, he crafted for us dozens of memories, memories that I cherish to this day. And let’s be clear here: we were all around 15 to 18 years old at the time; heck, my character (whom I played throughout the years Tim DMed), was named Gwordolf. I didn’t want to steal Gandalf’s name, but I wasn’t original enough to think up a name of my own. Deep plotting and grandiose world design would have to wait for later.
As I recall it, we played through a handful of modules. We did the Town of Homlet, some or all of the Slave trader module set, a couple of the Giant series, and maybe a couple of others. I honestly can’t remember there being much world in between the modules themselves. And Tim without a module was a bit off in left field.
I recall a randomly generated dungeon we went through at one point. There was this section of tables in the old DM’s guide for creating a dungeon quickly. Well, Tim actually used those tables while we were walking through the dungeon: he was rolling up the next room as we went along. At one point, we found a bowl of turkey soup sitting of the floor. Astounded at this discovery, one of our characters decided to have a taste: they nearly died of food poisoning. Thus began the legend of the “Turkey Soup Dungeon”, and it was all based on the roll of the die.
Similarly, there was Tim’s literal interpretation of the “door opening” roll. At one point, our entire party of 7+ level characters got trapped in a room
because the door slammed shut and no one could make their door opening roll. I think the several hundred hitpoints of damage we did to the door (leaving it a finely granulated powder on the floor) made Tim reconsider that interpretation of the rule.
Then there were his strange magic items and creatures. The “relativistic anomaly horses” come to mind. One of us, Chris’ character as I recall, was
given this amazing horse as a gift by grateful townsfolk or something. It moved at a speed approaching hundreds of miles an hour, crossing continents between breakfast and lunch. The really amazing thing, however, was the fact that anyone watching the horse and rider would perceive them as moving at a sedate walking pace. Naturally, one of us asked the question: what happens if Joe Farmer walks up and stops the rider as he passes? The horse and rider would, of course, be dozens of miles, possibly hundreds, further down the road. What, exactly, would the Farmer perceive? Tim was adamant that this wasn’t an illusion, the horse and rider were really “there” and “elsewhere”, both at once. But, we cried, what if dozens of farmers over hundreds of miles all variously stopped, shot, or otherwise impeded the horse and rider? This totally stopped game play, as we struggled with the time and spatial distortions this caused.
Towards the end, as Tim began to leave modules further and further behind, he created a of setting for us to start new characters in. Even though astoundingly unsuccessful, this new world is clearly (although likely inaccurately) etched in my mind. Our characters were poor, barely able to equip themselves with the simplest of equipment. On our first quest, we got trapped in a dungeon. We battled and defeated several creatures, none of whom had any money or gear. Finally, some trap went off, burning away all of our equipment. The entire party ultimately committed suicide by walking back to the shrine that made up most of the dungeon, and chanting the name of the evil god it was dedicated to until he incarnated and slew us all.
One of the last great quests for our “prime” party (which included Gwordolf) in Tim’s world was to destroy a dangerous artifact. As I recall, it was a cloak of some sort. We were to throw it off the “Corner of the world”, which stumped us round earthers for a while. We eventually discovered that Tim’s world was actually shaped like a tetrahedron, complete with gravity shear planes. It was pretty spectacular, standing on that corner…
During the last year or so that Tim DMed, Chris took his first steps into the role of Game Master. Chris’s world and DMing style were entirely different from Tim’s. He never touched a module. In fact, I am pretty sure that he has never actually used one. For Chris, crafting the world was paramount. Geography, planetary physics, weather, history, religion: whether he actually had it all there or not, he gave the impression that it existed. Almost immediately, I developed a new kind of “connection” to my character in Chris’ world: he had a place in a world that seemed to exist whether he was there or not. This made Tim’s DMing harder to enjoy.
My first character in Chris’ world, Erdenkarde, was Aladar Rackat, a monk. I played him for a year or two, but he eventually went to hell for being greedy: it was more complicated than that, but for the moment that explanation stands. I was crushed: it was the first time I really lost a character. Chris seemed to sense this: when I created my second character, a Paladin named Galech, he pulled out all the stops.
Galech started “life” meeting the aged King of Ramshorn. I really got the sense of a declining monarch, his court wizard standing nearby and the high priest of my order standing close at hand. At his King’s command, Galech boarded a ship destined for the land where Aladar Rackat’s old party still survived. A huge storm blew up during the sea crossing, and the ship was lost: Galech was the only survivor. All on his own he battled his way through a dungeon, winning his way to a suit of armour and weapon blessed by his God. I seem to recall the armour and sword were buried under a pile of dirty rags in a corner: Gods forget things in the darndest places. The armour had the power to summon a near-mythical equine, virtually a horse god, that protected and carried Galech on his first several adventures.
Wow. I felt like a real hero in some sort of mythical tale. There was a sense of being important, perhaps not the center but close enough to it to feel special. It is no wonder that I played Galech for nearly six or seven years, and still look longingly back on those days. Chris quickly “wised up” and downgraded our characters from “heroes” to “irritants” soon enough 🙂
Somewhere during those years of playing Galech, Tim lost interest in D&D and moved on to other things. Eventually, even Galech retired, and other new characters joined the fray. As did a stream of players: I would guess somewhere around twenty over the years.
I started DMing a couple of years after Chris started. I must have been about 18 at the time. My world, centered around a place called the Florian Empire, was interesting. Thousands of years of nearly genocidal warfare had ultimately led to a nearly catastrophic final conflict. The “victors”, shamed at the destruction they had wrought, turned rulership over to the women of the land. A new age dawned.
Naturally, all males were quickly relegated to the status of dangerous slaves, and a period of peace and prosperity followed. Every couple of generations, a small group of legendary female heroes arose, selected by powerful telepathic dragons as partners in adventure. They were called “Dragon Riders”, and they stood as shining examples of what the Florian matriarchy had accomplished. Suddenly, after nearly a thousand years of female dominance, the dragons chose…men. The times theywere a’changin. Those men were the player characters who started in my world.
It was an interesting concept…for a book. As an role playing setting, it left a lot to be desired. Right away, I learned that players would invariably do something to wreck the plot. Ultimately, in a display of supreme DMing skill, I actually managed to turn the Florian Empire into a playable setting. Actually, I would say I was a lot more lucky than skilled, and I was supported by at least one player who desperately wanted me to succeed. You see, Chris had pretty much DMed full-time for about a year and a half when I started. Back in those days, we used to play D&D twelve hours a day each weekend. In the summer, we often played several times a week. He was getting burned out, so I’m pretty sure he would have been tolerant of darned near any kind of DMing, so long as he got to play.
Over the years several female gamers played characters in the Empire. They seemed to smugly enjoy being accorded first class status: having men bowing and cowering, being served by near-naked male slaves, that sort of thing. In the Empire, women were the only people able to bear arms, own land or businesses, hold office, or vote. The men had, through thousands of years of warfare, demonstrated themselves as little more than beasts. The Dragon Riders, being legendary heroes and all, were accorded some special perks, but they were still men and thus often treated as barely above chattel. If they were accompanied by a woman, they were often virtually ignored. Pretty amazing, considering they would come flying in on 40′ long dragons. Of course, there was a fledgling progressive movement (of women, of course) that was beginning to speak out for male rights, but real equality was decades in the future for the Florian Empire. I can’t say I set out to strike a blow for gender equality, but it was kind of humourous turning people’s expectations around a bit.
In addition to the Florian Empire, I also started a shared gaming world. Just after entering university (that’s another story: suffice it to say that I didn’t last a year there), I joined a group called the University of Alberta Dungeons and Dragons Society. Actually, I helped create the group: charter, room bookings, and all. It was all Dave Sharp’s idea, but somehow I seemed to get the lion’s share of the work. Three DMs, Chris Rasmussen, Dave Sharp, and myself, drew up a world, laid down some basic “laws”, and split the place up. We each took our little chunks of real estate, detailed them to our preferences, and shared our work. The theory (never actually practiced) was that gamers could cross from world area to area at some future date, being handed off between DMs in the process. We called our first meeting, and about 30-40 people showed up. Suddenly, I was DMing a table of 14 people, none of whom I knew. Pretty shocking for a guy used to four or five long term buddies around the gaming table.
I seem to recall that Dave Sharp wimped out on us after a couple of sessions. I think he was “exhausted” by all the work he didn’t do. If Dave is out there somewhere reading this, sorry, bud, but that’s the way I saw it. The club itself dissolved shortly thereafter. Amazingly, however, I ended up with a regular group of about 10 people who wanted to keep playing. We ran sessions in the basement of my house for about four or five months. It was a rush, actually having people who thought I was a good DM, showing up desperate to game. Maybe that was it: they were desperate to game, and I was the only DM they knew.
Anyway, some little “snapshots” from those sessions stick out in my mind. I had my first experiences with “DM note passing”: a couple of characters were thieves, and exchanged little sneaky missives with me regarding what they were getting their greedy paws on. Another guy was a Paladin of sorts, or at least he styled his character as one: his notes were about donations or gilding on his armour. I recall an evil temple I had created, and a trapped room with walls sliding out to crush the players: the “trick” was to notice that the stone benches along the walls stayed in place, with the walls having appropriate mechanics to slide over them. Hide under the benches, and you were safe. No one died, but they were pretty nervous after that. I also recall how excited the players were to discover that they could sell the books from the temple’s library for money. Apparently, none of their other DMs had ever thought of this. And then there was the NPC magic user who used polymorph other to turn his 0-level henchman into a huge red dragon. Even without a breath weapon it was quite a turn-around, as you can imagine, and again the players were stunned. Other DMs, it seemed, never had smart NPCs. When this group shut down, I felt a bit lost. I had been a “hero” for a while, and I thought that my regular players still figured I was a “he’s better than watching paint dry” DM. No one wanted my autograph any more…how depressing.
Eventually, I think after five or six years, I folded up the Empire for the last time. I will try to explain this a little better in a later section about DMing styles and what makes a good DM, but basically I felt I had tapped the place out. I wanted something different. After the Empire came my “African” world: years before Dragon magazine published their series on the African continent. I quickly ran out of steam in the Dark Continent. I can’t seem to find my notes from this period, so I can’t even recall what I named the place.
I couldn’t get the time to keep a self-made world running, so suddenly a portal appeared and the characters moved to the Forgotten Realms. This whole “cliche” escape clause should give you some sense of just how great a DM I am. The Realms lasted for a year or so, by which time I was in my mid-twenties. Finally, as sometimes happens to adults, my gaming buddies drifted apart. Only Chris and I were left, and it was hard to make D&D work with just the two of us.
A couple of “dry” years passed after the breakup of my regular gaming group. Somewhere in there I got married, and my wife Irene ultimately convinced me that I needed to game. She helped me find a little games shop where an “mature” D&D session was held regularly. I joined a new group of gaming buddies, and eventually convinced Chris that it was “safe”.
Very quickly, our regular DMs (we had two) started winding down, so I started DMing. Lacking time, originality, and any sense of shame, I stole my friend Chris’ world. Even with this help, I couldn’t make a decent go of running regular sessions, so I begged Chris to start DMing. Eventually just Chris and I were taking turns behind the DM’s screen, with me barely able to manage two decent gaming sessions in a row. I really got desperate, and started grafting modules onto Chris’s pristine world. I’m foolishly optimistic that I’ll be able to make this work. If that fails, my next plan is to open another portal to another world…hey, I’d rather be known for cheesy cliches than ruining Chris’ world. And, since I’ve set the stage by using portals for the current adventure, I can even claim it is “internally consistent”. Yes, being a master DM is good…
And that pretty much brings us up to current times…