Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Back when I used to play Basic"

Level 0: In 4th grade, during inside recess in snow-bound Erie, Pa., my friend brought out a maze drawn on a sheet of graph paper, pinned to the top of a cardboard box and explained that it was a game. Some of my other friends were familiar with the game. I was not, but I had made my own games before and appreciated that we weren’t just moving tokens in a line trying to get to the end. Besides that it was baffling. I did not understand that my friend had any special “DM” role beyond just being the guy who’d played before and knew the rules. I remember enough to know I played a cleric.

Dave Super: Skeletons! Ok, do you want to turn them?
Brian Cooper: Turn them into what?
Eric Buch: Just say yes.
BC: Ok, I’ll turn them—
DS: You’ll turn them? Ok . . . (Rolls dice.) you can’t turn them.

Level 1: I got the Moldvay B & X sets at my 11th birthday sleep-over and Eric Buch DMed. (Dave Super was not invited.) I had a understanding that D&D somehow let you be a wizard or a dwarf or a hobbit. For me, a wizard was the obvious choice because, you know I was smart and wizards were smart. (This sense of prime requisite must have predated D&D but I’m not sure how.) In my own mind, and sometimes out loud, I had been styling myself Racoop the Red when I played in the woods and he was my first character. Again, the experience was baffling, in some ways disappointing, maybe even chillingly disappointing. It was, I admitted to myself when I went upstairs (for pencils?) a luck game more like “SORRY!” than chess or stratego or dinosaur island. And the scenario—involving the kobolds lair in the caves of chaos—was about as heroic as digging through someone else's trash.

There's nothing wrong with you by Brayo
There's nothing wrong with you, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

Level 2: Despite all that, I wanted to “do it” again. The mystery of figuring out how all the pieces went together was compelling. And maybe I sensed that Eric Buch was too self-conscious about it to actually do it right, and that it would be more fun if the DM didn’t refer to your wizard by the wrong color. Figuring out how to roll up a character the right way (rather than having Eric make up your scores) was really interesting. Concerns about luck weren’t there because I understood already, that everyone is different and is born with different things that they’re good at.

Level 3: My friends (minus Eric Buch, who lived in another neighborhood and was starting to move in higher circles) started playing frequently, often beginning by rolling characters and then proceeding to the Caves of Chaos to kill the same monsters that we’d killed the day before. Nowadays, there’s talk of how D&D has been ruined by video game mentality and to a degree I see that. But we were playing D&D in much the same way that we played Atari. Every time you turn on Space Invaders, you get the same first screen. And when you clear that screen, you move onto the same next screen.

Level 4: As an expert, you understand the importance of not only character continuity but character development. And you learn that there is a whole world beyond the Cave of Chaos. Level progression is one of the great innovations of D&D and it has the weird effect on anyone who has played at all seriously of mingling your own dreams about the future with those of your character. Or maybe ambitions for your character supersede your own. In 6th grade, I did not think about being a lawyer or a scientist or an athlete or a writer. I did think a lot about what my character would be able to do when he hit 9th level.
Or, maybe I was practicing being a writer and a lawyer. Unlike my friends whose parents bought them shrink-wrapped modules, I started writing my own (yes I was jealous). And, in the process, of designing an adventure, I started really mastering the rules, and how to apply them.

Level 3: There was a wight or wraith who lived in the neighbor, a high schooler with a Chaotic Neutral thief who chewed tobacco while he ran games in his basement. He had some high school friends, too, but he began luring my players away or, worse, corrupting them. It had never occurred to me to give people max. hit points (at every level, the munchkin). And it had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with an evil three-headed lion that when you killed it turned into a golden statue that could turn into a normal, good lion that would be your friend and fight with you.

Level 4: For Christmas and my birthday in 6th grade (Was it really just a year since that birthday sleep-over?), I got the PHB and the DMG. I started playing at school with maybe the first DM I really respected (respected as a DM I mean. Chris MacGregor, you were a great friend). He maintained that proper wall between DM and players (no DMPCs) without being obnoxious (again, no DMPCs). At the end of 6th grade, my family moved to Georgia. It would take a long time to reach 5th . . .

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the account of how Keep on the Borderlands was actually played. (When I ran it as a kid, I remember the monsters being fairly static, waiting for players to come clear them out.)