There I was a Dragon's Lair Austin. It was the 4 January 2014 meeting of the Starship Texas/Royal Dragoon Guards gaming club. My holidays had been wretched save the wonderful time my children had experienced. I got bad health news about two family members, lost the fridge and the dryer, had to crunch out a term paper some of which I wrote on Christmas Day... yeah. I was ready for something fun. Thanks to a late gift card, I was about to do something financially unsound to contribute to that fund. I had sitting in front of me in shrink-wrapped pristine glory the red wooden box that contained the 1974 Dungeons and Dragons rules and the four expansions and followed on until the game was rebooted as Holmes D&D and AD&D. I had never before owned a copy of this version of the game that defined my childhood. Sure, I'd seen bootleg PDFs, and I'd even laid hands on a copy at a convention. Even knowing that this was a reprint, there was something compelling to me personally about opening this box. We are just passing through history. This... this is history.
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Yes, I actually did queue up "Map Room - Dawn" as I opened the box. As the players assigned to my table watched, I carefully unwrapped the cellophane and lifted the wooden lid inscribed with the distinctive dragon ampersand I had grown up with. This moment, however unplanned, was the culmination of the last few years of my gaming hobby in some ways. When I started back to college in 2011, I started to really seriously research the history of the hobby. Thanks to amazing resources on the net, and books like Jon Petersen's Playing At The World and Dave Ewalt's Of Dice And Men I had started to amass a fascination with the genesis of the hobby. I have a library at home over over a thousand boxed sets, manuals, modules, GM screens and other products - but nowhere among them was a copy of the very first RPG. Sure, I had a Holmes set - a couple. AD&D 1e? Multiple copies of each core hardcover and at least one of the later supplements, original cover art AND the orange spine reprints. I even had the commemorative reprints of AD&D 1e. I had Traveller, Boot Hill, Gamma World... lots of Old School stuff, but never the original.
To the strains of John Williams' classic Raiders score... I opened the box. My imagination actually painted a picture of the spirits of adventurers from the last forty years swirling around the box as I carefully removed the lid. The sense of wonder was dampened just a bit by the cardboard spacer that covered the contents of the box, and then restored when flipping the lid over to set it down revealed the metallic artwork print inside the top of the wooden lid. Here, too was a cardboard spacer that needed to be removed. Once done, I was able to look at the booklets inside. The books had been separately shrink-wrapped as a seven-book stack. Underneath the books was a felt or velvet interior of the box, a well for the books to rest in lined with individual pits for the extremely intricately carved dice set that came with the box. Attached to the box interior was a red ribbon, like the ones used to mark pages, probably to assist in getting the books out of the well in which they would be stored.
I gently removed the shrink wrap from the books. The covers were a heavy stock, with the prehistoric trade dress of the 1970s. I could imagine each booklet being assembled and stapled in Don Kaye's garage by Gary and his kids. I opened Men and Magic: Volume I of Three Booklets. It was like having a personal flux capacitor. For a few moments, I forgot I was in the gaming room of a large game and comic shop, forgot that I had players eagerly waiting to peruse the boxed set themselves, forgot everything and basked in this facimile of the very first player's handbook. 3d6. Only three character classes, Fighting Men, Magic-Users (as I still call them) and Clerics. Race and class were indeed separate in this first edition. I wondered at the references to Chainmail, and then found that the "alternate" combat system was the very first matrix of attack tables. All combat hits did 1d6 damage. This was it - the beginning of the beginning. D&D before it evolved from this beginning point. Every role playing game I had played since that fateful afternoon in the early summer of 1986 had stemmed from this. The AD&D books I had marvelled at in 1985, wondering how one used their contents to play a game - their DNA began here. I watched the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon every Saturday during its series run, and always wanted to know how it related to the stack of hardcover books in my friend Eric's brother's bedroom. Here was where it all started.
Now, at this point some of you are wondering how I can get all worked up over a game. It's important to note that Dungeons and Dragons, and many, many other RPGs were and continue to be instrumental to the person I am. Since playing that first character (a Magic-User!) rolled up using the 1983 Mentzer Expert rulebook in Daniel Varner's room with his brother and some of our other friends in 1986 I was hooked on the hobby that actually used the imagination I had been gifted with. I had lots of trouble in my early school years because I was constantly daydreaming and not paying attention. I was in gifted and accelerated classes, but still bored much of the time in the grade-level classes on my schedule. This pattern continued throughout high school and well into my undergraduate studies. Only now in Grad School and the latter half of my BA am I finding real challenge. At any rate I was eager to find something where my imagination -normally getting me into trouble- would be a boon. And here it was. I could use this game to tell epic stories with my friends, we would have our own tales to tell that were much more exciting than the mundanities of school sporting events or more mundane pastimes pushed on us by our parents.
In Boy Scouts, Troop 145 spent evenings playing D&D much to the chagrin of Mr. Bonner and Mr. Goorley, our scoutmasters. We'd make camp, make dinner, and break out the dice. Mr. Goorley's son Tim was my second Dungeon Master- and took us on adventures like Castle Amber, and msyteries of his own design. I learned the word "Grimoire" from him. I remember playing Brother Maynard of the Holy Outhouse at Lost Pines Scout Camp in the summer of 1989. I remember drawing a toilet seat on a chain that represented his holy symbol. Brother Maynard drank a haste potion and ran back to town for holy water as the rest of the scouts' characters struggled to vanquish the demon that was the master villain for the campaign we had been playing all through our stay at Lost Pines. Sadly, the demon was destroyed before the good cleric could return from town - so Brother Maynard became a running joke - literally. In many games over the past 24 years run by players who were there, a cleric would occasionally run past at superhuman speed for no readily apparent reason. Somehow, this became a naked cleric. Oh, well, at least Brother Maynard is still out there.
D&D opened my world to all sorts of adventures. Instead of just watching Star Trek or Robotech, I was writing my own stories in those worlds and taking my friends along for the ride. We had our own Marvel superheroes, we explored ancient ruins, attacked the Death Star, fought World War III and entered into the gritty dystopian future of Cyberpunk and Shadowrun - depending on wether we were in the mood for elves. I was a natural storyteller, Dungeon Master and all-around gamer. When I did take up a sport, it was fencing. I read - a LOT. The Round Rock Public Library was a second home, and I volunteered there the summer of '90. I devoured fiction, nonfiction, reference stuff... I used the bibliographies most early RPGs so thoughtfully put in the back to find things I never would have found on my own. Heinlein and Asimov, Philip K. Dick. I read about the historical medieval era. Roleplaying games not only inspired me to learn, they inspired me to think. I came up with devious puzzles and traps for my friends to unravel. I wanted to create my own Indiana Jones adventures- especially after the awesome traps in Last Crusade came out.
I also made friends. Friends I still roll dice with to this day. In every way that matters, my creative and social outlets from the sixth grade forward were colored by Dungeons and Dragons. Putting these books in my hands, I could see the formative process that led to the most influential pastime I would ever find. Sure, I had been a Star Wars and Star Trek fan since I was old enough to turn a channel, but now I could enter those worlds and play inside them. Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man - all worlds I could now visit. And my friends came along. I can't count the number of things I've written over the years to support this world or that as an RPG - and I'm still doing it as time allows. And I'm still telling stories my friends talk about for years.
So yeah, reading these books was a big deal for me. It got bigger as I was able to progress through the seven boolkets in the boxed set. When one gets to Greyhawk, one sees the D&D game evolving toward what we all know and love. Thieves are added to the class list, exceptional strength for fighters, spells whose names we've come to know and love. I was seeing history as it was written. The three booklets were followed by Greyhawk, then Blackmoor, then Eldrich Wizardry and Gods, Demigods and Heroes. Each book added something that moved the whole a bit more toward those arcane tomes I had first perused in '85. A bit more toward the Mentzer basic box I would buy at Hasting's in middle school. The AD&D 2nd Edition books we would use constantly throughout high school. It was like having the Rosetta Stone that suddenly unlocked the mysteries of an ancient language, the language of gamers and grognards.