when the world was young: dungeons & dragons

The latest in a series about influences from my earlier days


Good grief, is D&D really 40 years old?


I first encountered Dungeons & Dragons back in my sophomore year of high school (so we’re talking 1981 or ’82, iffn I recall correctly).  A guy named Jeff Johnston, with whom I had French class, told me about it, and loaned me his copy of the basic set.  I took it home, and BAM! I was immediately hooked.



Soon after, I made the jump to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (a more complex version), rolling up two characters: a paladin, and a druid.  I spent many an hour in my friend Morgan’s musty basement while our Dungeon Master, Andy, tried his best to murder our characters with an assortment of customized monsters he nicknamed GAMFs (God-Almighty Mother…well, you know).



I found other kids who lived closer and started gaming with them, as well.  One day, the DM for that group didn’t show, so I volunteered to run that afternoon’s adventures.  And I kept on DMing regularly for the next 16 years, only quitting in 1998 because 1) I had moved an inconvenient distance away from my players; and 2) my work schedule had became absolutely crazy (there was a period when I worked every day—Saturdays, Sundays, holidays—for four months straight).



Through those gaming years, players came and went; characters lived and died and sometimes lived again (thanks to the Raise Dead spell); adventures were undertaken; monsters and battles were fought; and many, many good times were had by me and my friends (to be fair, there were some bad times, too, when players squabbled or decided to be asshats).



D&D was and is, at its heart, storytelling: just one tale after another, after another.  The DM creates the setting, directs the antagonists, and puts the plot in motion; the players, through their characters, take on the roles of protagonists and bring the story to life.  And because D&D is cooperative, not competitive, it produces, when done right, a synergy that elevates it beyond a mere “game” and into something more memorable.  Characters became almost real; campaigns become epic struggles; battles are fought and hardships are endured for more than just gold pieces and experience points.


Being a DM for all those years taught me a thing or twelve that I was able to use in fiction-writing.  Such as:


How to craft a story to an audience.  I discovered that most of my players liked a balance of role-playing and fighting monsters in their adventures, so I made sure to give them plenty of opportunities for both.  They tolerated encountering traps, so I was careful not to go overboard with those (one of the many reasons why I never got to run the adventure Tomb of Horrors with them).  They strongly disliked mysteries, puzzles, and mazes, so I almost never used those.  They appreciated story arcs, and would follow them even over years, so I used plenty of those.


How to create interesting (non-player) characters.  In role-playing games, non-player characters (NPCs) are the individuals with whom the players’ characters (PCs) interact.  Usually acted out by the DM, an NPC can be anyone or anything: a merchant, a farmer, a child, a wizard, a monster, an animal, even a sentient tree (D&D is a fantasy game, after all).  NPCs can greatly add or detract from the gaming experience, depending on how well they’re thought out and portrayed by the DM.


I prided myself on creating interesting, believable, nuanced NPCs—friends or foes—whom the players would enjoy and appreciate engaging.  Even today, many years later, I can ask one of my former players, “Hey, remember So-and-So?”, and they will usually respond with either, “Oh!  I hated that guy!” or “Ah, she was soooo cool!”, or “I was bummed when [Villain] killed them!”, or something akin to that.


I also helped my players as they developed their characters, providing them with background information, such as where they were born, the names of family members and friends, and filling in the gaps of personal histories.  We collaborated to create some great player-characters that they—and I—were sad to see killed or retired as campaigns went on.


The World of Greyhawk


How to invent and describe interesting settings.  Gaming adventures are usually set in a specified milieu, or “world”: the most well-known literary equivalent is probably Middle-Earth, where the action of The Lord of the Rings takes place.  AD&D had the World of Greyhawk, which I used at first, but I soon crafted my own, which my players eagerly explored, and appreciated almost as much as the NPCs.


It’s not enough to simply draw some squiggles on paper and call it a map: a fictional world has to make sense (unless you’re making your own version of Alice’s Wonderland).  By my using the underrated Wilderness Survival Guide, the terrain and weather of my later campaign worlds were sound, adding to their verisimilitude.


A world is more than just terrain features, so I crafted religions (including hidden cults to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu); developed political entities (one player-character group attempted, with the ruler of their adopted homeland, to unite several neighboring lands into a kingdom); considered economics (taxes hit the affluent player-characters on a regular basis); unleashed natural and supernatural disasters.  My worlds were not static: events undertaken by NPCs or even PCs would change the status quo.


How to enliven tropes.  The danger with running fantasy games (or in writing fantasy literature) is that it’s easy to engage in cliches and tired motifs: scheming wizards, evil overlords, fair maidens held captive by greedy dragons, aloof elves, brutish orcs…ugh.  In creating NPCs and adventures, I always resisted going for the obvious.


No, not every peasant the PCs encountered had to unique and interesting: many times, a farmer was just a farmer.  But the the PCs also met dwarves who didn’t dislike elves; dragons who didn’t want to rob them; humanoids who were more than just bellowing hordes.  Situations were rarely what they first seemed, and players discerned them or not at their peril.


* * * * *


D&D also introduced me to many fantasy authors.  I had already known of and read J.R.R. Tolkien, but D&D pointed me towards Michael Moorcock and his Elric series; Fritz Leiber and his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (little-known nowadays, alas, by casual fantasy fans); Robert E. Howard and Conan; etc.


Some might sneer, but the experiences and practice I had making up D&D adventures came in awfully handy when I was writing my first fantasy novel, Dragontamer’s Daughters.  Reviewers have praised the story, the characters, the settings, and the unique dragons.


I haven’t played in several years, and I miss it: perhaps one day, I can go back to making more adventures—and memories.  I still have the old books and my dice…



Look for LOST DOGS, my YA sci-fi novel, coming this summer! 



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