Tuesday 19 April 2011

Reminiscences 1: 10th Grade and before

I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, the New York comedy writer's shorthand for "old money." It was a nice place to raise a kid. In the 70's the place still had touches of bygone New England charm, like the penny candy store on the corner of our street and the wooden floors in the grocery store on Main Street. All that is gone now, devoured by Whole Foods hell, according to reliable sources. Sic transit ...

In junior high school I was into all kinds of wargames but had nobody to play with. I'd spend a Saturday with myself doing both sides of Richthofen's War, Air Assault on Crete, Third Reich, SPI's Arnhem, or even stranger games I played with the counters from those games and an open atlas page. I did play some Metagaming micro-games with my friend Greg, who'd bought into a couple. And between my own collection - Complete Book of Wargames - and the town library's - Comprehensive Guide - I had learned something about role-playing games in passing. The Complete Book in particular had reviews of D&D, Petal Throne, Tunnels & Trolls, and Runequest ("hacking limbs in loving detail"). Between that and an article in Games Magazine I grew intensely curious about D&D but again, knew nobody who played.

Some time in ninth grade, in the year of our Lord 1981, I also found that the town library, which had battened on the property taxes of the Helmsleys and their ilk, had acquired the AD&D Monster Manual. Wow! I became a monster expert, just in time for the world of geekery to open up for me as I moved on to 10th grade and Greenwich High School.

Principals just gotta play Big Brother, don't they?
It must have been in my first couple of weeks there that I chanced across a bunch of older teens playing Dungeons and Dragons at a table in the student center after school. Eagerly, I sidled up and kibitzed as the DM described a strange encounter.

"Within the magic circle, you see a glowing golden animal. It looks like a shaggy horse, with dragon scales, and a horn growing out of its head..."

"Ooh! Ooh! I know what that is!" Everyone turned to look at me. "A Ki-Rin!"

Undaunted by that DM's twenty-foot restraining order, I soon joined a breakaway faction of the school Chess Club that had moved on from knights and bishops to knights, bishops, magsmen and thaumaturges. The DM was Dave, who actually owned an Apple II and was later to have me over for many late nights of cooperative Infocom adventures, Wizardry and Bard's Tale. The rest of the players made up my steady D&D group through high school and college.

The 10th grade AD&D campaign was fun but kind of vanilla. We were all new to the game. I ran a Neutral Good fighter called Newt Ralgood. I'll never forget the dungeon entrance, which had two carved dragon heads flanking it ... with predictable results (sizzle). Dave ran a pretty standard kind of monster maze for three levels, and we all learned to chant the mantra "Open the door...kill the monsters... take the treasure." Outside the dungeon, there was The Town where we rested, bought and sold stuff, and that was pretty much it.

In the spring Dave started spicing up the game; there was a new dungeon that involved overland travel, Newt acquired his signature flame tongue sword, and I remember an underground lake where sea lions lurked and a climactic fight with a Type I demon that emerged from a fog of darkness. Meanwhile, I had gotten the Players' Handbook for my birthday and the DM Guide for Christmas, and was busy statting up monsters to the tune of about 30 loose-leaf pages - sources ranging from the Bible to John Jakes' Brak novels - and writing dungeons like a fiend. I also got my hands on hex paper which I immediately filled with random terrain from the DMG, using that as the basis for an imaginary world centered on the city of Rhadne in the kingdom of The Hane.

I thought I could do a better job DMing than Dave. I had put more work into my campaign world. My dungeons had cooler stuff and themes. Why, every room had a monster or trap, treasure AND randomly rolled up furnishings and dungeon dressing! There was Drakenhame, the dragon hotel in the desert ("suitable for levels 7 through 9"; one page of notes remains, no map). Yes, high levels meant it was cool to put 67 stirges in one room. And then the lower level dungeon, "Bring Me The Head of Alvereithor Gaharts'yah," (two maps remain, no notes except for NPCs) and the mid-level "Shrine of Techulca" (notes, no map). One room in the Shrine contained this decor rolled up from the deathless Tables of Gygax except for one salient detail:
In the room are 3 beds; a large woolen rug under which is an iron trunk in a recess containing 350 gp, 10 sticks of incense, 200 scruples of rare spice (30 gp) and 2200 s.p.; a stone shrine with two candlesticks and an iron Techulca idol; and Brandamare of Bellocitaunia, a 2nd level female paladin, chained to the wall wearing a torn, revealing dirty white garment, and she is being kept there for sacrifice.
Scans or it didn't happen? All right. But next time.

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