Title: My Introduction to Dungeons and Dragons
Date Occurred: Summer of 1981
Date Written: December 2, 2005
Date Prepared for Web Site: April 26, 2019
Written by: Joel T. Kant
Copyright (c) 2019 by Joel T. Kant
A couple months before graduating from Lincoln High School on May 1981, I had already decided to attend Cornfield University. College did not begin until the end of August so the summer loomed ahead as a wonderful vacation. My main goal was to earn money. I tended a locker room and did janitorial work at the Village of Biron swimming pool, but I could only get limited hours doing it. I had a newspaper route for a number of years through high school, but I do not recall if I still had that during this last summer before starting college. Despite the part-time work, I found I had much free time that summer. I did visit the job employment office in the nearby city of Wisconsin Rapids many times that summer looking for more part time work, but found no more than I already had.
I had a little Sailfish sailboat that I took out many times. Of my three younger siblings, only Tim was old enough and a strong enough swimmer for more than shore-hugging trips. In later years, my sister Anne became far more involved in sailing than I ever was. She did not do much sailing yet that summer.
Once when I had Tim out with me on my sailboat, the daggerboard that protrudes under the boat struck an invisible underwater stump. It brought the boat to an instant stop. Tim slid across the slick, water-sprayed deck. He slid right off the bow and into the water. He scraped a leg doing that, fortunately not badly. As he had slid waving his hands and feet, unable to stop along the boat, it looked like going down a water slide. I chuckled as I helped him back on board. I really should not have laughed, and knew it at the time, but could not help it. Tim seldom went sailing on my boat after that.
Another boy in the neighborhood named Eric Buzza liked to sail, though. I think he was a year or two younger than Tim was. I got permission from Eric's mother before taking him out. Eric got fairly good at sailing that summer.
I also went on various day-trips on my bicycle. That was with someone named Barry Lewis, who was several years older than me. A couple years previously, Barry's unemployment had motivated me to get better grades in high school and plan to major in engineering in college, which at that time had a phenomenally high employment rate at graduation. I did not bicycle as much that summer as the previous two summers, though. One of the reasons is the rest of the crowd that I used to bicycle with had left town. It just was not the same with just Barry. For his part, Barry had no interest in sailing.
Eric Buzza had enthusiastically told his cousin Brian about sailing on my boat, but Brian was not interested.
Although the work, the sailing, and the bicycling gave me a nearly idyllic summer, it did not occupy all my time. There still seemed plenty of time left free. I read many science fiction novels, which took some more time.
My brother Tim spent much of his spare time visiting nearby friends to play a game that seemed to never come to an end. He had been doing that nearly weekly during the past school year too, but I had been so busy finishing off my courses and graduating from high school and applying to colleges to pay much attention to his activities.
Now that summer had arrived, I had time to pay attention. The game that Tim went to play so frequently was a hot new fad called Dungeons and Dragons. Although Tim and his friends had been at it for months, I did not know what the game was about.
Despite being three years younger than I, Tim was usually well ahead of me at knowing what were popular fads and trends. A few years earlier, Tim had read and greatly enjoyed J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit followed by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It was embarrassing that my younger brother had read Lord of the Rings with such ease.
Our family had many boxes of board games. These collected dust while sitting on a shelf. Some games like Clue and Life had been popular for a few months, but then the use fell off to nothing. It seemed sad with the time and effort people put into giving the games as gifts that they eventually got so little use.
Part of my frustration with games that required mental skill is that my younger brother Tim could easily defeat me. I tended to get bored and my mind wandered when playing games, which is not a recipe for winning a strategy game. I do not think it was so much a lack of intelligence as an inability to place enough importance in my own mind on the playing of the game. Other games were based entirely on luck, but a victory based on only luck felt hollow and meaningless to me.
Tim's interest in Dungeons and Dragons had already well exceeded the time the other games had seemed of interest to him or others.
Tim had a gaudily colorful cardboard box that contained the basic set for the game Dungeons and Dragons. It certainly looked about the same size and shape of the boxes of many the other games that sat unused on the shelf. I wondered what made it so special. However, Tim then started buying large, hardcover books for the advanced version of the Dungeons and Dragons game. The books cost what I considered a great deal of money, yet Tim and his gaming friends seemed to buy them eagerly, finding the money somehow. I felt a little jealous of how easily he coughed up cash for these books as I turned into Mr. Scrooge to save as much of my money as I could for college.
When I finally asked him about Dungeons and Dragons, Tim explained this game was different than all others. One difference that I found hard to comprehend is he said that it did not have the clear winners and losers of other games. Instead, Tim described it as guided storytelling. He said that it was more participating in an adventure story.
I was curious than ever about it after this description. So was my sister Anne. Also interested were various neighborhood kids the same age as Tim or down to about Anne's age. This included Eric and Brian. Those my own age or older that I knew scoffed at the game. Despite lack of interest by my same-aged and older peers, I remained curious about it. I would guess others my age in the neighborhood were too busy with dating, jobs, and cars to play games. I had no car. The part-time jobs I had took no effort or thought when not actually doing them. I think the girl who I had dated on and off in high school...and had mostly stopped seeing my senior year...had joined up in the Air Force immediately after graduating, so was already gone this summer while I waited for college to begin. Thus, I was not as pre-occupied as most of my same-age peers.
Those youngsters and I cajoled Tim into teaching us about it. Tim finally relented, but he did not just drag us off to play with his other friends. They had been playing for many months by then. He said that we needed to start at a simpler level first. He did not use the word level just in terms of implied skill, but as a quantitative amount. He said something like they played a game for eighth level characters, whatever that meant. We would start with first level characters.
Tim started and ran a game for us. He had given the title of Dungeon Master. This got abbreviated as D.M., which was said as dee em.
We would play authentic Dungeons and Dragons published by TSR, but it was the basic version of the game, with a few elements of the advanced game that Tim threw in. Tim showed us the rulebook for the Basic version of Dungeons and Dragons, which is generally called D and D. It was a sixty-four page pamphlet included in that box that I described as looking like it held any other board game. (See Fig. 1) Also in the box were various colorful and strangely shaped dice. Tim on his own had bought a much larger collection of strange shaped dice than what had come in that box.
Figure 1: Basic Rulebook for Dungeons and Dragons
[Photograph by Joel Kant]
Tim with his experienced and sophisticated friends played the advanced version of the game, not what he was going to teach us. The advanced version took many massive hardcovers books to explain all the rules. The mere size and number of those books I found intimidating. Not even one of those books would fit in the box for the basic set.
The players included myself, my sister Anne, Brian Buzza, Eric Buzza (a cousin not sibling of Brian), Robin Stout (a male name in this case), Bryant Spaulding, and some others whose names I no longer remember. We met several times a week. The size of the crowd playing ranged from about five to ten.
My parents had no air conditioning in their house. It got hot that summer. However, next to our house was a large windowed shed. With the glass windows opened, it was basically a detached screen porch. We called it a playhouse, but a detached screen porch is a better description.
Since we lived a few blocks from cranberry bogs, it was important to have a place with screens that kept out mosquitoes when evening came. With all the glass windows opened so breezes easily wafted through while screens stopped the bugs, it was a nearly perfect place to play the game. We set up two or three card tables. That many tables were needed to accommodate the crowd. Chairs encircled the tables. The games typically started in the afternoon after everybody had eaten lunch. There would be a long break for supper as various families ate at different times. After this, the games resumed in the evening.
Sometimes, I had to miss a game to work at the swimming pool, but I was there for most of the games. I would like to have worked far more days at the swimming pool because I wanted money saved up for college, but there were others working at the pool whom had similar goals. I was glad to get at least some hours to work each week.
Each player developed an alter-ego in the game known as a character. It would be much like an actor playing the role of a character. While my name is Joel, I played a character named Spruce. I realize it is an idiotic name, but I have no talent for making up exotic names appropriate for a fantasy medieval setting. Other players came up with poetic and exotic names for their characters.
To distinguish between characters played by real people compared to characters played by our Dungeon Master Tim for our games, those played by players were called player-characters. My character Spruce was a player-character. Let us assume Spruce wanted to rent a room at an inn. No player is likely to get much enjoyment playing a mere innkeeper in an action-adventure game! The innkeeper would be a character portrayed by the Dungeon Master, or D.M. My brother Tim was the D.M. running all non-player-characters in these games.
Being a D.M. was obviously a hard task because it required giving voices and actions to many characters and monsters. The other players generally only controlled their own one player-character.
The dungeons of the title Dungeons and Dragons seldom had much resemblance to an actual dungeon that might be under some European castle. Some games took place entirely in an outdoor setting with no underground location whatsoever. For the earliest games for beginners like us, though, the underground setting was easier for the players like me to understand and manage. I think this might be compared to a mystery novel. A conceit often used is to isolate a set of suspects by putting them on a train, ocean ship, very isolated mansion surrounded by impassable marshes, or the like. It simplifies and constrains the situation. For beginners, using the underground dungeon helped keep situations simple.
The greatest inspiration for the game seemed the section of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings when the heroes travel through the mines of Moria. In that story, the mine the heroes travel through is more of a large unlit underground city than just a mine. Every creature they encounter can be assumed to be an orc or other monster that will try to kill them. The underground settings in our games were not city-sized, but some might qualify as a small underground village.
For our early games, the scenario was simple and highly unrealistic. The player-characters might find themselves in some inn. The player-characters were told by the innkeeper...a friendly non-player-character...that some miles from this village are the ruins of an old, abandoned castle. Underneath the castle was an abandoned dungeon and caves now occupied by evil creatures and monsters. These monsters came out at night to terrorize, steal, and murder the village dwellers. Any monster from there that was destroyed would be a benefit to the village. Also, it is rumored that the monsters have treasure gained from centuries of murder and robbery.
The goal for the player-characters was to go down into the dungeon and caves. Any creature they found there could be assumed to be an enemy. From slaying the enemy, the player-characters got the enemy's weapons and treasure. The player-characters also gained experience doing this killing. That experience was given in points quite naturally called experience-points, which would lead to gaining higher levels after certain thresholds were reached. Higher levels led to great abilities for the player-characters.
This explained Tim's comments on how the group he normally played it was at eighth level, so was inappropriate for newcomers like us to join in.
Given the way Tim made the maps of the caves and dungeons then populated them with monsters, there was seldom any chance the player-characters could kill every monster in the place. The goal instead was to kill as many as one reasonably could while still being able to escape alive from the dungeon or caves to get back to the surface and daylight.
Far more complicated situations took place in more advanced games. Many non-player-characters could be allies as well as enemies. Various imagined countries with political agendas might be included. This was not common in the first-level games for new players like us, though. The type of scenario of killing all monsters in some contrived underground location and then escaping was more common for the early games.
Despite the simplicity of those earliest games that I played, it was surprisingly engrossing and entertaining.
One thing that appealed to me about the game was in stark contrast to the many novels that I had read. I had spent far too much time from grade school up through this last summer before college reading science fiction and action-adventure novels. Defeats and victories flowed from the dramatic and emotional needs of the plot. This can lead to appealing stories that sell. After enough stories, though, the odds of what would likely happen in a story versus what the story says happens turns into a ridiculously huge chasm. My sense of excitement and thrill had been jaded and dulled by too many absurdly implausible victories for the heroes in the novels.
In the Dungeons and Dragons game, the odds were determined by various criteria involving formulas and tables. The resolution of the conflict then depended on rolling dice. As a result, there often was not complete certainty of the outcome. Yet, because of the tables and calculations, the outcome could often be correctly guessed. It was a matter of probalility, with the tables and formulas giving plausible game balance while the rolling of dice itself inserted the random, unpredictable element.
For example, let's say there are eight player-characters who are all at first level. The player-characters are armed with various swords, daggers, axes, bow and arrows, and even a magic spell or two. Upon entering a room of the underground dungeon, they encounter two bug-bear soldiers armed with swords. These are relatively weak and easy to defeat opponents, so roughly equivalent to one of the player-characters. As soon as each side sees each other, they fight. There is no negotiating or surrender.
With eight combatants on one side and two on the other, it is obvious the larger sized side will likely win. This is true even when lots of dice rolling is used to determine the outcome. How much individual player-characters might get hurt in the conflict is still uncertain even if the odds are so slanted that group victory is nearly certain. Thus, even then, the way the dice rolls come out determines the end results in unanticipated ways. It might be that the two bug-bears would be killed without anybody among the player-characters getting hurt. With different rolls, the two bug-bears might severely hurt one or two of the player-characters before their deaths. It all depended on the rolls.
Although listed in the title of the game, a dragon is a very powerful and dangerous monster. If these eight player-characters entered a room and found a wide-awake dragon, then it would be almost certain the dragon would not be killed. All of the player-characters probably would be, unless they survived by running away fast!
Many things went into the calculations. For example, a dagger blow is likely to do less damage than a successful sword strike. Wearing full plate armor like a medieval knight gives more protection than wearing only chain mail, but it is easier to move or run in than just the chain mail.
Even though all these calculations and tables were used to make the odds appropriate to each situation, some surprising things could and would nevertheless happen when the dice were rolled. What happened with the rolls fairly often did not go along the direction a novel would take.
The dice themselves looked strange. Dice is really a plural term. The singular term is die. Many board games use a six-sided die. Those look like a cube. Rolling that, the result is an integer inclusively between one and six. Inclusively just means it includes one and six as possibilities.
For Dungeons and Dragons, there was also an eight-sided die that gave an integer inclusively between one and eight. There were also in the game a four-sided die, a ten-sided die, a twelve-sided die, and a twenty-sided die. (See Fig. 2) The twenty-sided die looked like a ball with flat spots. Different dice were used in different situations, depending on what the rules specified.
Figure 2: Dice Included with Basic Dungeons and Dragon Set
[Photograph by Joel Kant]
The dice rolling kept outcomes in at least some doubt, although the rules making the odds for each situation fairly reasonable to each the situation. I found playing in some ways better than reading a novel. It was like entering the adventure story with a gnawing fear mixed with excitement that the outcome was in doubt to everybody, even to the Dungeon Master himself.
How to deal with incredibly complicated circumstances were covered in the advanced rules that were in the many large hardcover books that Tim owned. Those covered things like advantages of being on high ground, effectiveness of different sword types, greater effectiveness if stabbing in the back, and many other fine nuances. Just keeping track of the basic rules in the sixty-four page pamphlet was more than difficult enough for me that summer!
In terms of ethics, I cannot say much to defend the early level games where what it mostly amounted to was everybody found in an underground area who was not a player-character was an enemy. Every fight was a fight to the death. Kill or be killed. I would not want to live any sort of real life in that manner! It was still only a game, so the way I saw it expecting more might be like treating a chess game as an analogy of battle and expecting diplomacy and compromise to prevent the battle from occurring at all! That is not the point of a chess game!
In higher level D&D games, the social situations grew more complicated. More adventures took place in cities where there were friends, enemies, and neutral uninvolved parties rather than just an underground dungeon like the starting games where all in it could be assumed to be enemies. For learning the essentials of the game, the all-enemies approach of the contrived underground dungeon worked well. It moved quickly and had lots of thrills and excitement.
Another aspect of the low-level games that I enjoyed was mapping and finding hidden rooms. It was similar to solving a maze. Consider if the player-characters found a bad monster like a dragon so had to exit the dungeon as fast as possible. It was necessary to remember where to turn left and right, which doors to go through, and so on during the retreat. The way we played, my brother Tim as D.M. would not tell us! He expected us to have kept track for ourselves.
Tim would spend hours with graph paper with quarter-inch by quarter inch squares making up the maps for the underground areas. These would be more than just rooms, but have underground rivers, large caverns, dining halls, kitchens, and so forth.
I particularly liked the imagined imagery of the underground rivers, which Tim described well. Sometimes, I would have liked to simply explore the imagined world put on the graph paper without the distraction of all those plentiful fights with monsters that were always enemies. I was probably the only one who felt that way, though. I think the other players would be dreadfully bored just exploring without the many fights.
Another aspect of the game that appealed to me is that the goal was for all of the player-characters to survive and prosper. The opponents were handled by the D.M. Thus, unlike most games, the challenge was not to defeat the other players, but for all the player-characters to do well while the monsters not played by anybody except the D.M. got defeated or killed.
There could still be arguments and conflict among the players. For example, one magic sword might be found while five of the players had characters that could use that sword that grants special abilities. Arrangements of the player-characters exchanging gold and jewels and other possessions might be needed to come up with an amicable solution. Even with those conflicts, it was more of a win-win situation for the players than most other games.
All too soon, the last week of August arrived. That made it time for my parents to drive me the 150 miles south-west to Cornfield City, Wisconsin. I wondered if at college I would meet other students who played the game Dungeons and Dragons or other similar games. Given the disinterest by my same-aged peers in the Village of Biron, I expected I would not.
I also wondered that even if I did whether I would be so busy trying to succeed in my chosen major of electrical engineering to have any spare time for such games. I knew with certainty that in college I would not have the free time of this summer! I expected never to have free time like this again in my life.
Back to Joel Kant Home Page: Joel Kant Home Page.