Note: some of this was previously published on James Maliszewski’s Grognardia blog, where he called it Memories of the British Old School. I’m allowing myself more time to ramble now; you have been warned.
I played my first roleplaying game – Holmes edition Basic D&D – during a school lunch hour in September 1981. I was 12. This puts me firmly in the second wave of roleplaying, towards the tail end of what Maliszewski calls the Golden Age of D&D.
My classmate Jon was the DM; it was a dungeon he’d created himself. Jon and a few of my other friends had been introduced to the game during the summer holidays and had played it a bit; I lived out in the country on the far side of town, so didn’t see my classmates during the hols.
They persuaded me to give it a go. I rolled up a character – a cleric – and Johnny (different to Jon), who’d played a couple of times before, rolled up another, a thief perhaps. We entered Jon’s dungeon, walked into a room full of zombies armed with two-handed swords, attacked, and died within a couple of rounds. The whole game lasted about 20 minutes, including character generation. I loved it. I rolled up another character and joined Jon’s regular lunchtime gaming group.
But in some ways, this first taste of D&D, of what would later become roleplaying, was not a beginning, but a culmination of schoolboy pastimes. We were already gamers.
We know the history of the hobby, how D&D derived from tabletop wargaming. But that wasn’t our experience. We didn’t play wargames, though I played toy soldiers with the kid next door.
But we had our schoolboy games – I went to an all-boys school – played on rainy day lunchtimes or the back of boring physics classes. Noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans); hangman; battleships; boxes, where you draw lines on a grid to capture territory; and a game we called War – drawing coastlines on opposite ends of a piece of paper, drawing an agreed-upon number of gun emplacements, ships and tanks, and taking turns to flick a pencil from one of your guns to try in hit your opponent’s. Some of these games are – or were – common British schoolboy heritage going back to at least the generation before us. I played War with my Dad – he may have taught it to me; he certainly mentioned playing it when he was at school in the 1940s.
Then we started playing a game we called mazes. As far as I know, this was one we developed ourselves. It had humble origins – one person drew a quick maze on a sheet of paper, someone else tried to find their way through it as quickly as they could. We didn’t keep score; it was a way of relieving boredom in a world with three TV channels, no internet and few video games, when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea (thank you, Douglas Adams).
It wasn’t that we were particularly inactive. We weren’t the sporty kids who played for the school, for sure, but at home we rode bikes, ran, played in the fields, built dens in the woods and so on. I rode in Pony Club gymkhanas, sailed dinghies and fished. We were all in the Boy Scouts. We were the Goonies. But school was in the middle of the city, and we weren’t allowed out of the gates at that age.
During the academic year of 1980/81, mazes grew from a way to pass a few bored moments into something resembling a challenge. I recall Jason being the prime driver behind this. Our mazes became larger and more intricate. Rather than discarding them, we held onto them, embellishing them, allowing each and every one in our little group to play each one. We tried to outdo each other in the size and intricacy of our mazes.
Then someone – Jason, I think – added a trap to the maze. If you went down a path with a trap, you were dead and had to start over. We all added traps to our own mazes. Than someone added fire; go down a path with fire and you died. But then someone added a fire extinguisher – if you found the fire extinguisher before hitting the fire, you could put it out and get past. Then Daleks were added, then machineguns to defeat the Daleks. Pretty soon, the only way to get through a maze was to pick up all the equipment you needed to get through the traps, fires and Daleks that lay between you and the middle of the maze. By the end of the summer term in 1981, Jason’s maze filled a piece of A3 paper, covered with twisting passages a quarter of an inch thick. Navigating through it could take an entire lunch hour or a double maths class, with Jason watching like a hawk for any excuse to declare you dead and send you back to the beginning.
That’s the summer the lads who lived on the far side of town were introduced to D&D. When we came back after the break, they described D&D to me as “like mazes, but better”.
I’m not sure who introduced Jon to the game, but his dungeon was filled with hand-me-down ideas of what Maliszewski terms the “gonzo fantasy” of original D&D. There was some kind of folk-process going on, a shared meme. Traps were designed, not to kill, but to confuse the party mapper – revolving rooms, teleportation chambers and the like. Nobody laid out a battleboard, we mapped what the DM described; if we went wrong, that was part of the point. Every square of graph paper was laid out with room or corridors, so you could find secret rooms or corridors by default unless the mapper got confused.
When we did find a secret door or passage, a little old man appeared, yelled “Secret Door” or “Secret Passage” with a speech impediment and disappeared. I later discovered the Little Old Man was such a common meme, he got an acronym: the LOM (a few years later Roger Musson, in Imagine magazine, wrote about the the LOM and the LOLITS – the Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes – but we never encountered her).
The first level of Jon’s dungeon featured a large room with a sleeping giant in it. His name was Jarl (and how our characters knew that, I never figured out). You had to tiptoe past for fear of waking him. How he got there, who knows? He certainly couldn’t move out of the room. There was treasure – gold and magic items – and experience to be had.
There was no village to resupply. Once you’d picked your starting equipment (don’t forget the silver dagger, or a silver arrow, and especially not the 10-foot pole) you entered the dungeon and stayed there, getting ever deeper. We reached level 3, I think, playing only during school lunchtimes over the course of the year. As far as I know, my second character (also a cleric, I think) is down there still.
My birthday was that autumn. I knew what I wanted: a set of D&D rules of my own. I got it – by this time, not the Holmes edition but a box set of the Moldvay edition, including B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, a set of blue dice and a crayon to colour in the numbers on the dice. I still have the d20 from that set. I keep it on the dashboard of my car, and it rolls every time I go round a corner.
With those rules, I made a dungeon of my own and became a Dungeon Master.