Monday, January 27, 2014

Roll to Hit: D&D turns Forty!

 Dungeons & Dragons is celebrating its 40th year of existence. Wow.

To commemorate the occasion, I had hoped to do an influence chart similar to the one I created for Raidersof the Lost Ark, but there is no time. And besides, it’s less interesting than just posting the list from Appendix N in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Wait, let me back up.

Okay, we’ll start at the beginning.

My step-father introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was eleven or twelve years old. It was this boxed game, containing two books—an all-in-one rulebook, and the adventure book—The Keep on the Borderlands. The box didn’t even come with dice. I had to make chits. It was pretty crazy.

The first D&D product I owned.
We tried to play it, but kept getting lost in the rules. Nonetheless, I was fascinated and I read the play example over and over again. There was something here—I was sure of it—but I couldn’t quite crack the code.

Then I found out my step-brother was playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons while away on Boy Scout trips. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons? You mean, it’s more complicated than the single book I couldn’t quite wrap my head around?” And yet, peer pressure is a great motivator, and so, little by little, I started buying the now-legendary hardcover books. I started with the Player’s Handbook, and Joel helped me navigate rolling up a character. He ran me through my first game, and the light bulb went off, you could say.

While my step-brother branched out into the more esoteric books, like the Fiend Folio and the Dieties and Demigods Cyclopedia (and yes, he did get the first edition with the Cthulhu and Melnibone’ myths in it), I settled on the basics: the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the original Monster Manual. By this time, I knew I wanted to run the game, to be the Dungeon Master. I had dice, and a few modules, and I was all raring to go. Now, all I needed was some players...

Chalk it up to playing D&D in a small town. Joel and I knew everyone who played. It wasn’t a big pool to draw from. But that’s not the point. I found out a few things about myself: I was good at running a game; I had a knack for telling stories and making stuff up on the fly; and all of these seemingly useless talents were going to end up shaping my destiny.

I read, re-read, and basically committed to memory much of the original material in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This included the now-legendary Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.

Why “legendary?” Because that appendix was probably single-handedly responsible for the current crop of fantasy and sword and sorcery fans, ages 30-50. Think I’m exaggerating? Wait until you see the list. It’s been reprinted a lot, all over the Interwebs, but here’s the meat of the list for you to check out:

Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the
 first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al

Basically, a Who’s Who in Classic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. Also sword and planet, horror, and science fiction, as well. Looking back over the list, this is ground zero for anyone wanting to get back to the roots—or check out where it all came from.

I know there’s some modern authors who love to say that they were not, in fact, influenced by these old, dead white guys (and sometimes women). They love to kick over the idols and be the punk rock rebels and say, “I never read any of that stuff, and so it didn’t factor into my work.”


Dungeons and Dragons was a real game-changer, literally and figuratively. It gave the disenfranchised geeks of the world something to do, a reason to clump up on Friday nights, and yeah, it probably saved more than a few geeks, nerds and dweebs from social torture, loneliness, and much worse.  

When I moved from Abilene to Waco in the 8th grade (is there anything worse?) I was able to make friends—one of my best friends, in fact—through Dungeons & Dragons. That gave me something to do, an audience to perform for, and a reason to be creative and social and not completely disappear up my own tortured asshole. But I digress.

Dungeons & Dragons spawned a cartoon series, toys, games, and nearly propped up every B.Dalton’s and Waldonbooks in every mall across the country with the amount of original (and somewhat less so) lines of fiction paperbacks, all based on the imaginary worlds that we were all tromping through every Friday and Saturday night. It was like belonging to much bigger, cooler club that was still kinda secret. I mean, the cool kids knew what D&D was—they just didn’t get it. Or didn’t want to get it. Either way, it was ours and we embraced it. And my generation grew up to be the creators and the tastemakers and the people who are now producing popular culture.

So, to the new elite hipsterati and your denial of the Canon—through the transitive property of pop culture influences, if you played Dungeons & Dragons and claim that you never read Jack Vance, well, guess what? Your fighter character did it for you. Or your rogue that scaled the ruined tower on the outskirts of the borderland. That stuff is ALL in Dungeons & Dragons and the fingerprints show up everywhere. If you watched any sword and sorcery movie from the 1980s, you have the Canon to thank for that—specifically, if not obliquely, Robert E. Howard. If you read any of the spin-off novels, or any of the fantasy series that blanketed those bookshelves, it’s all because of the canon. And it all fed back into Dungeons & Dragons like the mythical serpent eating its own tail.

Appendix N became a checklist for me, and I started reading and exploring as fast as my allowance could keep up. That appendix made it okay to branch out, and even though many of those books were on my family’s bookshelf, I didn’t get interested in reading them until Dungeons & Dragons said they were going to help me run a better campaign. Funny how that works, huh?  

That was how I interacted with my interests back in the days of Commodore 64. I read, and read voraciously. Dragon Magazine was my lifeline. We were all scrambling to find new things to work into our games. By now, it was just accepted that I was the dungeon master. I ran games, all the time. And by now, I was running more than just Dungeons an Dragons.

Call of Cthulhu, 3rd edition boxed set.
I miss when RPGs came in boxes.
When Joel started reading H.P. Lovecraft, I did too, in order to keep up. But that turned into me buying the Call of Cthulhu game, which is still a favorite to this very day. And when I noticed the ads for a super hero game in Dragon magazine called Villains and Vigilantes, I simply HAD to have that. Super hero role-playing? Forget about it. I was hooked. Other role-playing games followed. Some stuck, and some didn’t, but we always returned to the old reliable D&D. It was our Go-To for killing a boring afternoon.

You may infer, correctly, from the box art above that the earliest of Dungeons & Dragons artwork bears little resemblance to the amazing artwork they now routinely employ. In fact, some of that early artwork was amateur at best. But there were some diamonds in the rough over in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. One of the most recognizable early artists from the 1980s was a very young Bill Willingham. His stuff leapt off of the page—it didn’t look like the scritchy noodlings of some of the other artists. You could spot his work a mile away. It had a decided comic book feel to it. Yeah, I know, it’s funny NOW, but you see, I started following his career though Role-Playing Games. He was involved in Villains and Vigilantes, too, along with game designer and artist Jeff Dee (another guy whose D&D artwork just leapt off of the page). I was fans of these guys before they were Bill Willingham and Jeff Dee.  

When I realized that the Destroyers in the
Elementals comic were the same ones
from this V&V module, I felt like I'd
stumbled into a much bigger universe.
So, when Elementals first came out in the mid-80s as part of the Indie explosion in comics, I had the first issues—BECAUSE it was Bill’s comic, see? I won’t say this lead directly to our meeting, and subsequent friendship, now in its second decade, but I know this: I wouldn’t have first known about him had it not been for Dungeons & Dragons. I’m also not supposed to bring up Bill’s early artwork, as a friend, because he’s improved so very much over the years. While I agree with that, and try not to embarrass him about it, I find that his early game art has a lot of nostalgic charm, and I am not the only one who thinks so.

Now that you know—I have to tell you this very cool story. I was invited to playtest the re-vamp of Villains & Vigilantes some years ago back when Jeff and co-creator Jack Herman (another Very Fine Fellow) were working on it. Bill decided he would run the game. So I played V&V with the three game designers and writers who meant so very much to me at a teen-ager, and it was one of the coolest Nerd-Things I’ve ever done.  When I told my old friend from high school (who played V&V with me obsessively) about that day, his head exploded.

Because of Dungons & Dragons (and the role-playing games that came after it), I met, and befriended, a LOT of people I otherwise wouldn’t have. Some of my oldest friendships, folks I’ve known for twenty or thirty years, were people I used to game with. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been able to overcome some latent shyness had it not been for gaming. If you were ever in a Call of Cthulhu, a Justice, Inc., a Villains and Vigilantes, a Champions, a GURPS, a Top Secret, a Gamma World, or a Dungeons & Dragons game with me (or any of the other one-offs and experiments tried over the years), well, I just want to say, thanks for playing.  

I stopped actively role-playing in the early 1990s. It came down to the point of either writing stories down and trying to get them published, or playing games every Saturday night and not ever publishing anything. I chose door number one, and I don’t regret it. But I still miss gaming.

I’ve played in some games over intervening years. Every time, I spend weeks talking myself out of starting up a game again. It’s like a siren that calls to me. No, make that a harpy. A 3 hit dice Harpy, armor class 5, that attacks for 1d8 damage—sorry, old habits die hard.

This Christmas, I made a present of Dungeons & Dragons to my niece, a very active and bookish 12 year old geek, and on Christmas Day, I ran a game for her and my brother and his wife. And you know what? I got hooked all over again. Sure, the game has changed, but the imagination, the suspense of rolling dice, the storytelling, the on-the-fly plans of brilliance, the comedic moments of improvised dialogue...that doesn’t change, not at all.

These days, most of the stigma of tabletop gaming is gone, thanks largely to the number of Generation X that is still playing, and now including their kids. It’s become a family activity. Something we never thought we’d all see, back during the 1980s, when it was thought that Dungeons & Dragons was devil-worship and a gateway to black magic. We laughed about it then, but it was pretty serious. But the Conservative Christians were right about one thing—the game was a gateway. It was a gateway to a multitude of fantastic worlds, authors, concepts, and friendships—the exact opposite of what they accused it of being. Forty years later, that gateway is still open—wide open—for the next generation. In my own very small way, as a consumer and a player, I am partially responsible for that, as are the rest of you who played and loved it and then passed it on to others.  That’s definitely magic, in my book. 

Here’s the full text for Appendix N for any of you who’d like to read Gary Gygax’s remarks. I can’t think of a better way to honor the anniversary than to give him the last word. Thanks, Gary, and Dave, and all of the rest of you who worked on this game over the years. Your contribution to the world has made it a better, more magical place.   

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