Thursday, September 15, 2016

Retro gaming session, and my Introduction to Dungeons and Dragons

The last two weeks have been rather ragged as I've prepared to run the 'Tower of Zenopus' adventure again. For those who don't know, the 'Tower of Zenopus' is the 'sample' dungeon in the back of the Holmes basic set

As simple and as crazy as it is, this little dungeon has always intrigued me. It has everything, a crazy magic user, rough hewn stone steps leaning down into darkness, pirates, a damsel in distress, catacombs, goblins, a mysterious talking mask... the sample dungeon champion of the world! And to think, that I got this ruleset 'by mistake. Talk about nostalgia.

I was 14 years old in 1979, and my best friend Jim who lived across the street from me was a year older. He was a sophomore in High School, and I was a junior and in those days there was no "middle school", thus I was still in "junior high." However, the two schools were very close and we still walked to school together as we had since we were in grade school. Many of our conversations on those mornings frequently turned to chess, as we were both avid players, and the superior play and book learning required to compete in high school chess was just beginning to enter our lexicon. We also talked about the players, who was really good, who needed work to improve, etc. We also talked about another board game with great fanaticism... Star Fleet battles, which simulated ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek universe.

One interesting Monday morning the conversation was not about chess, or Star Fleet Battles at all, but a different game entirely. It seemed that Jim had gone over to my cousin Tim’s house that Saturday (he was the one who introduced us to Star Fleet Battles), to play a strange new game called Dungeons and Dragons. Jim was exceptionally animated as he told me of the "adventure" he had played with this new game, and about his "character" and the other characters in the group.

At first, I had a really difficult time understanding the concept. Where was the board? How did you win? What was the object of the game? Then he told me this game didn’t really have any of those things and all the action took place in your imagination. The game is run by a another player called the "Dungeon Master", and the idea was to tell a story, while your character gains more power each time you played. I was immediately intrigued, but I also knew getting time to go to my cousin’s house was going to be difficult, for he was sort of the "black sheep" of the family and my grandmother’s (I was raised by my grandparents) usually cheery face turned into a frown whenever he was the topic of conversation.

The following week Jim had more stories to tell about the adventures he played at my cousin’s house and of course I begged him to get me invited; but there were problems with that. First, I was "just a kid"... not being in high school (Tim was two years older than me) and, the game group already consisted of eight players and one DM. Tim’s basement was crowded as it was.

A few weeks later I was at the mall and came across a blue boxed Dungeons and Dragon’s game with a red dragon on the front. "Basic Set" is what it said, and I begged my grandmother for the twelve dollars to buy it. She was skeptical, to say the least, as the goings on in my uncle’s basement were starting to capture the notice of the rest of the family. She relented however when I promised to do a few extra things around the house, and my entrance into the realms of D&D had begun.

Now those of you in the know may already see what’s coming, because as it turned out, in my ignorance and blind enthusiasm I had actually purchased the "old" edition of the basic rules. The "Red box" (the Moldvay one that is)

was actually the current version of the basic game at that time. Of course, Jim was all too happy to point this out to me several days later. It seemed like a disaster as twelve dollars was such an investment in those days, but later on, it would prove to be defining.

Anyway, Jim started DMing at his house, and since that was just across the street it was easy to get permission to go play. I don’t remember the first character I created... it was a fighter, and I remember he died quickly and gruesomely by being impaled in a pit trap he had failed to notice (we were playing the Caves of Chaos!). At this point I decided stealth was more appealing than brute force and created a thief, whom I named Ras Al’ Ghul after the Batman villain of similar name (not original I know, but it was such a cool name!).

There were a lot of great adventures and characters that followed that summer. I remember my cousin Tim’s assassin who killed the group’s paladin by pushing him through a dungeon door that lead to the Abyss, I remember the Ranger "Lone" (argh!), who walked around with the god "Law" on his belt, and I remember Ras, who single-handedly burned down the town of Brundenford with a misplaced Molotov-cocktail at the local tavern.

It wasn’t too long after that, that we all got into Advanced D&D in the summer of "80." At this point I knew I wanted to DM, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Just about every module that had come out to that point we had played (we were kids, and it was summer vacation... we had plenty of time). That’s when I flipped through that blue basic D&D rule book I had mistakenly purchased months earlier, and came across the short "sample dungeon" in the back, with no title.

There was a neat background provided... about how the wizard had caused his own demise, and now mysterious blue-green lights and eerie noises were heard by the town folk, and evil looking silhouetted goblin figures could be seen dancing on the roof top of the tower on some nights. The superstitious folks of Port Town had a catapult wheeled through the town proper and the tower was battered to rubble, and that stopped the hauntings for a time.

There were some neat things there in the ol’ remnants of Zenopus’s tower... there was a room with four doors, and a demon statue in the middle, and when you rotated him on his base it would unlock the door he was pointing to. There was another room with four "niches" covered with cobwebs; two on either side of the large room... and when the characters approached skeletons emerged from within! There was an underground river that was being used by pirates in a smuggling operation, and there was another section overrun with giant rats that had dug tunnels to the graveyard above so they could feast on the corpses interred therein. It was perfect for my first dungeon, and because the rule book was "out of date" I knew no one else had read it.

A map of Port Town was not provided, so I developed that first, and added a "second level" to the dungeon, and my DMing career was begun. Fast forward thirty-six years later, and D&D is still my hobby. Over the years I have met many friends, and had many wonderful experiences that I know I would not have had were it not for the game. My time in the military, the trips to gaming conventions over the years and the look on the faces of my own children as I introduced them to the game are all priceless, and indelibly eked into my memory.

I expect that I shall play this game until my beard turns white and I can no longer hold the dice in my hands! But then again, isn’t that what nurses are for?

The current campaign of three years has sort of stalled. Jim has moved across the country, and several new people have expressed interest in joining our stalwart band of adventurers, so I thought it would be fun to begin anew, and dust off that old 'sample dungeon' in the back of the wrongly purchased set of rules. Most of my players weren't even alive when this adventure was first published, so I know they've never played it. This time, however, I'm having a bit of fun, and rendering Holme's infamous dungeon with Hirst Arts pieces.

It is wonderful to know that I can still revisit my childhood on occasion through the game. The game is timeless, and while it has, itself grown up and changed with me, I still get an enthusiastic sense of wonder whenever I look at a blank piece of graph paper and think, "what could possibly be there?" 


Christopher B said...

Nice! I absolutely love tales of people's introduction to the game. It really stokes the fires of nostalgia and provides a ton of inspiration to continue blogging about our adventures, real and imagined.

Thanks for sharing!

Bighara said...

Love the Hirst pieces! I never ran or played Zenopus, but I remember staring at that map a lot. :)

Zenopus Archives said...

Thanks for the origin story. Following your blog now.