Sunday, April 22, 2007

Upscuttled, I am

I was half listening to John O'Toole when he told me that he had been down in Templeogue on the previous Wednesday night and when they left, his friend, Dave, was a dwarf and was stuck down a hole. He laughed at the prospect and said he would still be there until next week.


"In the game. He's stuck down a hole in the game."

"What game?"

"I told you. It's called D&D."

"Is it? What's D&D?"

The gist of it was someone had a book and in the book was a game and no-one knew what the game was but the one with the book and what he said went and so on.


Of course, Dungeon & Dragons was a little more organised and a lot more interesting than that first description, which got garbled in translation into my 16-year-old brain.

On Wedesday night, John and I trekked across the fields by the uncompleted Western Parkway motorway ("It may never be finished! ") and jumped the wall into a more up-market housing estate in Willington where we knocked on a door. Inside lived Frank with his parents and family and some extended family. Invariably, Frank, who was a few years older than us but looked around our own age, would be in the middle of doing something like cooking or working out an alternative Theory of Relativity, or whatever, so that our 7.30pm start time would wear on until 8.00pm. And to make matters worse, the game wasn't usually held in Frank's parent's place, but at a friend's house further down the estate. There a couple of country boys and girls had lodged and they had a spare dining room. So we would decamp from Frank's, carrying bags and boxes of mysterious books, magazines and notebooks, until at last we arrived at the place where the game was to be held.

"Roll four six sided dice and discard the lowest figure."
"Er... Aren't all dice six-sided?"
From a bag came a six sided dice, then a twelve sided one, a ten sided, an eight sided, a four sided, then a twenty-sided one.
"Oh crap. I'll never get this."

"I'll help."
Dave, who didn't seem to be any the worse for having spent his time down a hole for the past week, handed me a yellow page with some boxes and writing printed on it. It looked like some kind of tax return form.
I rolled the dice. He added them up.
"Six, three, four, two. You don't count the two, because that's the lowest. So that makes 13. Write that down."
"Is that good?"
"Not bad. Now do it again, five more times."

We sifted through the numbers then arranged them in the boxes. One of the boxes was marked "Strength", another "Intelligence". There were also "Dexterity", "Wisdom", "Constitution" and "Charisma."

"What do all these mean?"
"These scores represent how strong your character is. Or how dexterious. Or how wise. Now we get to see what adjustments the scores make to your dice rolls later..."

Dave and I went through the creation of what they called a "player character". Everybody else at the table (except Frank) also had a sheet of paper with statistics on it which represented a player character. Some had even drawn a quick mug-shot of the character in a space on the page which I was told was known as a character sheet.

On the table was a small grid on a piece of card. There were several lead soldiers -- albeit fantasy soldiers a la "Conan the Barbarian" , rather than Battle of Waterloo type figures -- standing in line on the grid. I picked a suitably heroic looking model from a box and placed it at the back of the line. Then the game seemed to start.

Frank, sitting at the top of the table, with a couple of pieces of cardboard on edge so that no-one could see the contents of the loose-leaf folder he had in front of him, told us that we had heard a rumour that there was a wizard living in a tower some way out of town and that he had some treasure or other that we were looking for. I assumed this was something to do with games which had gone on previously and as I was coming into it in the middle of a story, so to speak, I didn't ask too much about what was going on. The others seemed to know what they were doing. One said:

"I think we should look for this tower."
The others didn't disagree.

So the game unfolded, without a board or movements around a board. Frank told us how the journey to the tower went. The others told him what each of their characters did: keeping watch, for instance, if the journey involved an overnight stay. Then we reached the tower.

Frank said:
"There are four keys hanging on pegs. There's a door and a keyhole."
A player said:
"I'm not going to stick a key in at random. There might be a trap. I tie a key onto the end of my staff and try it in the lock."
Frank said:
"There's a loud buzzing noise and a flash. But you're uninjured."
The process was repeated until the right key was found. We opened the door...

...and from then I was hooked. There were rooms to explore, drawn out on a piece of paper so we could find out way back out of what they told me was a dungeon. There were hostile creatures to defeat. Dice of varying shapes to roll to see if you could hit the creature, to see if you could damage it, and to see if you could avoid its deadly attack. And there was treasure to share out and things to buy in town to make your character stronger and ready for the next adventure.

In the real world there were magazines to buy and articles to read about The Game (as I came to consider it). Therre was a magazine called "Imagine". One called "White Dwarf". The best of them all was one produced by an American company which seemed to have invented the game, which was called "Dragon".

In Dragon were the scripts for running a game, which were called modules. In the centre of an issue was a pull-out module which explained what the setting was, who the baddies were, what their motivation was, and what was in each room of the dungeon. I was fascinated, and had to figure out how the game was run from the referee's, or "Dungeon Master's" side of things.

In time I started a game group of my own with friends from school. I wrote my own scenarios or modules. And I started thinking it would be good to see one or more of them in print, in Dragon magazine.

In 1986, the editor of Dragon, Roger E. Moore, told me my first scenario, entitled "In the Court of the Dwarven King", was going to see print. And they were going to pay me money for it too! But it wouldn't be a supplemental pull-out in Dragon. The company was now going to start a new magazine, called "Dungeon Adventures" which would only contain scenarios, four or five of them in one issue. He sent me a compimentary issue #1 with his letter.

I had more than 20 scenarios published in Dungeon Adventures magazine over the next few years. The magazine was published in both the USA and in the UK at the time, so it had a world-wide audience. I was once sent a photocopy of a Japanese translation of one of my scenarios. Then I put the game aside while real life responsibilities took up my time. I occasionally received a letter from someone who had enjoyed reading or playing a scenario and asking if I would perhaps consider writing for the magazine again.

In 2005 I started taking an interest in the magazine again and found a way to obtain it by local mail order. The magazine was very different in many ways to how I remembered it, but the idea was basically the same. The game rules had been purchased by another company in the interim and the magazines -- Dragon and Dungeon -- produced under licence by a third company, Paizo.

I started a small idea in 2005 which didn't come to much. In 2006 a chap from England who has written extensively for the game and for the magazines contacted me and asked if I would be interested in co-writing some stuff with him. Last Sunday we sent in a joint proposal. On Sunday evening, the owners of the magazines announced that they would no longer be publishing either magazine any more.


There's a whole community of role-playing enthusiasts who grew up on Dungeons & Dragons who have been devestated by the news of the demise of the two best respresentations of The Game who are in shock this week at the announcement. I guess I'm in shock too. For one thing, the game has been of interest to me at various levels for more than 20 years and the taking away of these two pillars of the game is fundamentally inexplicable.

But life trots on. As to myself, I told someone recently that having some fame in this particular hobby is like being famous among stamp collectors. That's a little unfair, but probably accurate enough in the bigger scheme of things.

I suppose I had started to set my heart on writing for the game again. The magazines were accessible ways to write for the hobby without having to meet too many very serious deadlines.

But the game owners say they plan on transferring much of the content to an online version. There is much skepticism in the gaming community that this will be either popular or successful. But it might still be an outlet for games writers if they choose to take it.

I'll miss these magazines though. Not just for the content, or even for the memories of games they invoke. There were copies of the magazines in some of those plastic bags we used to carry from Frank's house to the game. And they smelled of coffee grounds and roll-up cigarettes, the smells that I will always associate with a happy time of my youth. I'll probably always miss the smoky rooms and whoops and groans of those watching critical dice rolls hopping among the ashtrays. And on our breaks we would leaf through the magazines in wonder.

I feel this week like a friend has died.


Jo said...

The game is still going strong all over the world, so I read. Had to laugh, reported in this weeks National rag. A woman won over eight million on the English Lotto. God, she was homeless with her kids and was in Council rooms till they could house her. So what was the laugh about ??? She is a woman in her 50's, has a "Toy Boy " of twenty one. He was on the scene before her big win. They met in a game of Dungeon and Dragon's................... An S&M game, I had to grin when I read that. I know Wille, you loved that game and were a great Master. Nice to have happy memories of some years ago. XX

Willie_W said...

You know, Sis, that's how rumours get started.... ROTFL...!

Fitz said...

Heh. I remember your ascent (descent ? you decide !) into D&D. 'twas verrry confusing indeed for anyone on the outside.

Mind you, I didn't waste an opportunity to say, whenever someone mentioned D&D, "of course, you know I know someone who is regularly published in one of thost magazines. He's very well respected don't you know."

Impressed the girls?

did it f*ck

Angharod said...

Remembering searching your name, and learning just how well respected you are in the field. That talent shouldn't go unnourished. or unnoticed.

Willie_W said...

Yes, my last post demonstrated I was outstanding in my field. >-)

Jo said...

Tee hee Willie, read it the way it was intended !

Anonymous said...

Funny, I was thinking about looking at the 4th Edition and scraping 'round the internet when I hit upon this. I haven't played since about '92 and wonder now if anyone I know would even want to.

I hope you are feeling well again soon, and fondly remember those old times with the culchies (D&D with Dave and Dennis;), two/three nights a week until the early morning.


Willie_W said...

Frank: What a surprise to hear from you!

I've played 4th edition and liked it, most likely because I went "rules lite" with it.

The previous 3.5 version appears to be very popular still, though, with a company called Paizo producing a rules set and setting called Pathfinder. So, if your browsing on 4e turns up info that it might not be all that D&D was, a look at Pathfinder might satisfy.

Thanks for setting me on the role-playing path all those years ago. :-)

FabesMinis said...

Just wanted to say, thanks Willie for such great adventures. "Fraggart's Contraption" stunned by schoolfriends when it was unleashed 15 years ago (the cleric got run over), and I'm now running a group through "The White Boar of Kilfay" in 4th Edition over at Paizo.

Thanks again,


Willie_W said...

Chris, you're very kind to remember me. It's still good to know that some of the scenarios get played and enjoyed. :-)