Monday, March 10, 2008

gary gygax is dead, alas

Dungeons & Dragons made me a better person. It's true. For further details and corroboration and meaningless tangents, read on.

Way back in the early 80s, before adolescence hit and made everything terrible, I used to watch a Saturday morning show called Switchback, hosted by Stan 'The Man' Johnson, a surprisingly acerbic fellow with a wooly black afro and an unreported collection of child porn (or was that just a rumour?). One of the features on Switchback was a bulletin board for kids, where they could trade toys and games. I had put up Merlin, a gigantic red brick of plastic that looked like a Battlestar Galactica prop. It played tic-tac-toe, and once I figured out how to outsmart its computer brain, the enjoyment faded. It was also the cause of some fractiousness among my friends, who always wanted a turn (these were post-Pong and pre-Atari days). So up on the Switchback exchange board it went.

Within a week I had a bite from a kid in Dartmouth with an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. I didn't really know what it was – I thought maybe it was a fantasy board game of some kind? - but it seemed like a promising trade. I packed the Merlin up in a box and sent it off to Dartmouth.

When the box arrived in the mail, I found the contents puzzling. I hadn't built up enough anticipation to be disappointed, but the game looked nothing like I expected, and nothing like the D&D sets that I would be familiar with in later years. What I got was a staple-bound book, a series of hexagon-grid sheets, and sets of cardboard chits (instead of dice). The book had a pale grey-blue cover with a drawing of a very pissed off dragon on it, in an overly detailed but nonetheless amateurish style. It looked like something drawn up and designed in someone's basement.

I flipped through the book, undaunted. The language was a bit stiff and clearly not meant for a nine year old gaming noob, but I grasped the concepts quickly enough. This was, more or less, a game drawn from the same mythological mindset as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and any number of Tolkieneque fantasy stories. In other words, crack for nerdy pre-adolescents.

Unfortunately, the box set didn't include any gaming modules or even fleshed-out suggestions for scenarios. Deprived of a shell for the game to inhabit, I simply read the book over and over again, memorizing the rules and imagining the game play. For a while I drew maps on the hexagonal sheets, but these were better suited to strategic games, which i wasn't very interested in. Eventually I started drawing maps on good old-fashioned grid paper, which we were required to buy for math class anyway.

The only problem was, I couldn't persuade my friends to play. Everyone agreed that the concept was cool, but drawing cardboard chits out of a box instead of rolling dice just seemed so lame. We would get together after school, start a game and find ourselves sitting around an hour later, tired of fishing for chits and following grid paper maps.

Not long afterwards, we discovered the hardcover books, the modules, the multi-sided dice and all the weird supplements that worked to prop up the imagination. It was the golden age of Dungeons and Dragons for me and my friends, which started with a box in the mail and ended when I kissed Wanda Mosher at the age of fourteen.

Our roles shook out according to our personalities. I was usually the Dungeon Master, because I was the sort who only liked games if I had godlike control over the proceedings. Calvin was usually a magic user because it gave him access to an ever-replenishing bag of rats, which he would throw at every door, locked chest or glittering underground pool. Dwayne was the first to get bored and start fighting with his mother. Why we kept playing at his house, I have no idea.

Despite the game's resemblance to the fantasy literature I loved as a child, there were some crucial differences between, say, Alice In Wonderland and the Alice gaming modules. The scenario certainly resembled the fictional universe set up by Lewis Carroll, but the constant application of rules to meet the gameplay framework sapped the life out of things. It's hard to be transported by the strangeness of a talking flower when you find out that it has hit points.

The relentless quantifiability of Dungeons and Dragons bothered me. It seemed antithetical to the proper use of the imagination. So one evening, when I was tired of rolling dice to determine if a player had been kicked by an orc, I dispensed with numbers altogether.

We were playing a module called Baba Yaga's Hut. The scenario appealed to me because it wasn't set in plain three dimensional space. Instead, the players entered a small hut (on a pair of giant chicken legs!) and found an interior far larger than the exterior. The map was twisted and recursive and made less sense than a double Mobius strip. Once inside, though, the players were faced with more or less the same bag of monsters and traps. What good was all this crazy space if its contents were dull? So I began to make it up.

Room to room, I started riffing on details, editing and deleting where I saw fit. I started to create a mystery revolving around a set of characters who had traveled through time after entering the hut. Then I pulled the players out of time and put them in a modern city, chasing monsters around with modern-day weapons. I had no rules for guns and I didn't need them. Then I brought them back to the hut. I took them from there and placed them elsewhere. I suggested, without actually saying so, that the twists in time had caused the characters to exist in multiple places within the hut, with the result that they were always chasing their tails from room to room. After a while I realized that none of us were touching the dice or trying to map the route; we were conjuring up a story together, and it was more satisfying and more strange than any game could be.

After that game, Dungeons & Dragons lost a lot of its appeal to me. I had turned a game into a story, and it made me realize where my true interests lay. So thanks to D&D, and thanks to Gary Gygax, for that. Although that game may have delayed my discovery of girls by at least a year.


Anonymous said...

Poor guy failed his saving throw.

Douglas Crozier said...

Saskatchewan had a show called "Switchback" too, except it was on Sundays and hosted by Bill Wright. Mostly they played old shows like Get Smart or Batman for the bulk of the program. If you were in Beavers or Brownies during that era, chances are you visited the set.

"Make it quick, I'm watching Switchback!"

palinode said...

unsigned - I wonder if those were Gygax's last words?

douglas - As far as I know, only Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan had Switchback. When I moved from NS out to Saskatchewan, I thought it was really funny that I was moving halfway across the continent to the only other place where people my age grew up watching Switchback. I found out about it when I was talking with some friends, and one of them said, "My stepfather hosted that show!" It was a strange moment.

I remember that they used to play old Lone Ranger and Buck Rogers-style serials on the NS version of Switchback. And then Stan Johnson would show up and talk, and once they brought a kangaroo with boxing gloves on to the set.

Cloudesley said...

While I admit I missed out on the Canadian experience of Switchback. I did play some D&D and it to drifted far from the scripted modules and rule books. I believe in my last quest my 11th level paladin was cursed with lactose intolerance and struck down by a wayward wagon wheel thrown by an evil demon named Hank O'Cheese.

Hank O'Cheese can be seen in this video for those of you brave enough to stomach it.

palinode said...

Nasty chaotic evil Hank O' Cheese. He's a lactic imp, he is.

Kelly said...

high school in the early 80s for me was an endless evening of sitting through D & D games with the guys I called friends. I tried so hard to play but every time I came up with excellent details, the rule-keepers ran me right off the rails. I just couldn't get the appeal. I'd rather write a story.

On Saturday during the big blizzard, my 15 yo son had his friends over to play D & D...aided by two laptops. Really, the addition of electronics was the only difference. As I worked on some baking in the kitchen, listening in on the conversation I was transported back to 1984 and Ed Miller telling me at every turn that "no. You can't just conjure a cart full of healing herbs in that spot, because a giant stepped there yesterday and it's a huge hole now." (constant subtext=you're out of your league and you're screwed, but hey! wanna play!?)

Ty's girlfriend (only female present) got up to ask me why I was taking photos of my cooking (blog! natch!) and leaned in to whisper..."there's too many rules, we never get anywhere. I'd rather write a story."

I hear ya sister.

lotus07 said...

In the 'old days' before the evils of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft took over our imaginations, this was the spark that set it all off. I played these exact games in college, same soft cover books and rules (what would these be worth on ebay today?). The games were variable depending on who interpreted them. The group I played with in college never used maps and modules. The Dungeon Master made up whole worlds with politics and grand design (no doubt based on stuff he learned in Philosophy 350 or Ancient History 101). Those all night D&D sessions only took place in our minds and our lives hung in our little pouches of mulit-sided dice. Those sessions affected my learning and perception of the world far more than almost anything else. There were like shock therapy during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. R.I.P. Gary Gygax.

GFS3 said...

I'll miss Gary as well and wrote a bit about the old elf here:

I've been surprised at the cruelty of some right-wing bloggers reveling in his death. It's times like that you wish you had a fireball spell handy.

dk said...

First game 17. At 19, my husband and I were partners in a hobby store, which eventually specialized in all things D&D. LOVED it! It led me to miniature modeling and the membership in the medieval society where I learned to produce modern versions of what we thought was realisatic D&D attire & eventually led to my costuming classes at University, hence my tailoring skills.

I even bought a real sword (age 26) and practiced making the cool Red Sonja moves. I haven't played for 7 years (I'm 46 now)but I still have my dice and some of my original character sheets.

The inception of multi class characters like a magicuser-thief helped me to reconcile many of my multiple personalities. No it hasn't Yes it has, 6 to 2 we win.

Cloudesley said...

It's a sad time for nerds as Arthur Clarke died today