senses working overtime

Anne and I stayed with my friends Steve and Julie when we went up to San Francisco for w00tstock. I've known Steve since high school, and Julie's sister was friends with my brother when they were younger, in case anyone was wondering how small the world actually is.

Steve and I were in the same gaming group (with Darin, Cal, and some of my other friends you may recall me mentioning from time to time) so when we got to their house, I went straight to his gaming shelf to see what overlap we have now (Dominion, Settlers, Pandemic, etc.) I saw, on top of a bookcase, a complete set of first edition AD&D core books. Sitting on top of them was a thick stack of TSR-era AD&D modules, including classics like Tomb of Horrors and Village of Hommlet.

"I can't believe you still have these!" I said.

"Do you want them?" He asked. "I don't have room for them here, so they were going to get thrown out or —"


From the living room behind us, I heard Anne apologize to Julie.

"It's okay," I may have heard her say. "I'm married to one, too."

Steve and I spent some time (not nearly enough) looking at all those old modules, as well as his AD&D core books. I even made most of my saves vs. Nostalgic Overload (Rogers will be happy to learn that I didn't once say that I felt like I was visiting with old friends).

"You can have all of these," he said, "because I know I'm not going to have time or space to use them any time soon."

"I would love to keep these, if for no other reason than to preserve the history," I told him. In my mind, I was already sitting on the floor of my office, the smell of a freshly-sharpened pencil rising in the air to meet the sound of Rush on the Sonos while I surrounded myself with open books, graph paper, and piles of dice.

Alas, when it was time to return to Los Angeles, we didn't have room or spare weight in our suitcase to bring them with us, so it's going to be a little while before my dream becomes reality.

Still, I can't stop thinking about those books and the memories they're going to shake loose when I finally do get to read them. I still have the books from my Red Box Set, though, so as soon as I got home from my trip, I took them (including B2 – The Keep on the Borderlands) off the shelf and hopped into the time machine. The last few nights, I've read Keep on the Borderlands cover to cover, all the character creation rules in the Player's Book, and all of the procedures in the Dungeon Master's Book.

As I pored over these three books, pausing frequently to feel the comforting warmth of a nostalgic childhood memory wrap around me, I remembered why I fell in love with D&D and then AD&D when I was growing up: when you get down to their fundamentals, D&D and AD&D provide a framework for imaginative, collaborative storytelling.

As I read the Keep on the Borderlands, and I crawled through the Caves of Chaos for the first time in 25 years, I let my imagination take over. I could see the same places I visited when I was a kid. I could see the wide and winding dirt road, coiled around towering mountains and steep cliffs, that I traveled from the Keep to the caves. (Well, I could see it the way 10 or 11 year-old me created it in his youthful imagination, which is to say it looked an awful lot like that 1978 animated Lord of the Rings movie.)

I could see the Lizardmen (who were more than a little reminiscent of the Sleestaks), I could hear the clang of my fighter Thorin's sword against the cave wall, after he cleaved a kobold in two (just like that animation from Dragon's Lair) and the jingling bag of electrum pieces he took off the corpse (which sounded a lot like the pocket of quarters I kept around for sudden outbreaks of Pac-Man fever). I could smell the crackling fire of braziers (summer campfires), and feel the terror of facing down a minotaur who never seemed to miss when he attacked (pop quizes in math class).

If you played Keep on the Borderlands, some of the encounters that sparked my own memories may be familiar, but I bet that any images of the caves they may have stirred up for you different than mine, because when we played this game in the 80s, every single place we went was made real by our imaginations. In fact, that's one of the things I love and miss the most about the earliest days of tabletop RPGs: I miss gaming that was entirely independent of minis and combat maps. I miss being able to close my eyes and picture the zombies and skeletons lining that hallway, knowing that the way I saw them was different from the way my friend Simon saw them, even though he was sitting right next to me. 

I stopped playing AD&D during 2nd edition, when I felt like it was more about complicated math, charts, and THAC0 than it was about using your imagination to explore a wondrous fantasy world. I switched to GURPS, and even though I know that's a system that can easily lead to min/maxing and metagaming, I played with a group of guys who were into storytelling, with a GM who made you think very carefully about what disadvantages you took. When that group grew broke up, I didn't play seriously again until 4E, which as everyone knows I really enjoy.

Still, when I opened The Keep on the Borderlands and read "Welcome to the land of imagination. You are about to begin a journey into the worlds where magic and monsters are the order of the day, where law and chaos are forever at odds, where adventure and heroism are the meat and drink of all who would seek their fortunes in uncommon pursuits…" I realized something: I never played RPGs later on in life like the ones I played when I was 12.

… Jesus, did anyone?

79 thoughts on “senses working overtime”

  1. Hey Will,
    You and I are the same age, and I remember playing every edition but fourth (going to try it very soon though), and most of the other RPGs that were around then. I also remember that time as a golden age of imagination.
    Over the years, I spent most of my gaming time as DM/GM/Storyteller/etc. The one thing I kept in mind was that no matter how many charts and tables, and how much calculus was needed to compute the results of an action, my job was to create an immersive story with engaging characters, well improv’d dialogue, voice acting, and even mood lighting.
    I steered away from minis and maps to help my players visualise during combat, and to force me to visualise right along with them and describe things in a way where they could “see” what was going on in their mind’s eye.
    This has worked wonders for me over the years, and I’ve never lost that magical feeling of being whisked away to strange and wonderful places when I play, and my players (whomever they are at the time) seem to come right along with me.
    It’s been harder to find the time to game being a husband and a father of 3 young children (no more 72 hour sessions I’m afraid) , but I still ensure I make time to unwind, to escape from my worldly duties and responsibilities, and dive into magical places that I hope to share with my kids one day.
    I hope you find this kind of game again, if you haven’t already. May all of your hits be crits.

  2. Last year, while grinding my way through a workday, two essential elements of my early-80s experience — that one undead-infested temple in the B2 module, and MTV — combined, after Glub knows how long in the brewin’, in this altered refrain from Madonna’s “Borderline”:
    I’m fightin’ skeletons with both hands,
    You just keep on turning zombies,
    Keep on the Bor-der-lands.

  3. Will, this is why I like you so much. I have no idea what any of that actually means since I am not into those sorts of things, but reading it I could tell how excited those memories made you. Everyone has those things they really loved as a kid and still indulge in as an adult. You are not afraid or embarrassed to show the world you’re just a normal guy with your own passions. Most celebrities guard themselves carefully not show this side of themselves. Thank you always for being real.

  4. Oh man; that’s it. I’m getting my AD&D gear back from the kids. I have unread modules I bought up when I realised AD&D stuff was getting rare and being replaced with crappy 2e stuff. I must have 30+ modules – I know I have the complete DL series.

  5. You should check out Troll and Toad, they have a lot of very good quality out of print stuff. I’ve bought a few books and boxed sets from them and was always pleased with what they sent me. I photo-doced the Moldvay/Cook basic and expert sets I bought from them, if you want a quality reference.

  6. Sounds like we got started playing D&D the same way. I still have my 1st ed. AD&D books as well as the Basic Set, the Expert Set, and the Companion set, and many of those great old modules. The Keep on the Borderlands still works well as an adventure; I used it for the first 4E game I ran (it was interesting being on the other side of the screen for that adventure for once).
    Good times (and great memories!)

  7. I read TEG as well and I’m afraid the final chapter ruins all the goodwill built up throughout the book. Barrowcliffe not only blames his own shortcomings on D&D but he also suggests that it’s not a pastime for well-adjusted adults.

  8. I recently had a burning desire to play again some of the games from my youth, so I picked up a nearly complete set of AD&D 1st ed books from my local used book store. Oh the memories.
    At the moment my gaming group consists of my wife, and she’s never played anything even remotely resembling an RPG, so she’s somewhat hesitant whenever I bring up the subject, but she has agreed to play …and I think she wants to colour in the illustrations in the books – I’ll have to scan and print those for her…
    I think when we do play I’ll end up using a couple minis and such just to help her visualize, and so there’s something tangible on the table – in her world games usually involve boards and pieces of some description.
    This ought to be fun…

  9. Wil,
    How many more XTC song-titled posts can you cram into the remainder of 2009? Just wondering, as a WWdN follower and XTC fan. Perhaps it’s time to mention that it’s Countdown to Christmas Party Time?

  10. i found “The Keep” module in my parents basement years ago. never played that module in particular. Just recently found a 4.0E conversion of “The Keep”. Starting up an email game of it next month. Love 4.0E so much better than3 and 3.5E

  11. Now, see, this is why I have always steered people into gaming. There are so many good memories. My first gaming group was not so kind to a young 12 year old (They ;eft my paladin to die because they didn’t feel like saving the town. They got their comeuppance, though….) but the rest have been fun. Currently, I have to call Pathfinder the best system, though 4e has it’s benefits.

  12. I have to say, posts like this make me jealous of you, Wil.
    Not because you’ve got celebrity from childhood works.
    Not because you’ve got celebrity from modern works.
    Not because of anything like that all, though those are all pretty awesome things.
    I’m jealous because I don’t have memories like that. I wasn’t raised in a home that really supported any sorts of activities like this, and while I found my way to RPGs of a sort on my own later (as I spent a lot of the 90s on MUDs), I’ve never actually been a part of any sort of D&D-type campaign in person. I’ve had to imagine things based on textual descriptions, but for as much as I loved the MUDs, it never had a truly personal touch.
    Your posts inspire me to try and foster these sorts of memories in the children I hope to have someday. You’re a pretty awesome geek and father, and I hope I can be half that when starting my next generation.

  13. Hey Wil,
    There’s a new thing called FED EX. You give them 20 bucks and they mail things for you – LOL.
    BTW – Is that line taken from Stand By Me “does anyone”?

  14. Thanks for the great reminisence, Wil. Flashback to my own Red Box c. 1980, now battered and torn and somewhere in the attic. God, I loved that set. I just remembered the crayon in the box, which we were supposed to rub vigourously over the faces of the die, in order to make the numbers visible. A great DIY ethic, along with the graph paper torn from my science class journal. Thanks again!

  15. Everything I learned about character creation in fiction (well, almost everything), I learned from reading my friend’s Dungeonmaster guides.
    Sounds like you scored a great haul — sure, it won’t be what it was in the day, but it’s a part of your heritage.

  16. “THEY BELONG IN A MUSEUM” — and there was no retort about how they called the DOG “Indiana”?
    I am in my mid-30s and have been trying to recapture the games I would run in my teens and early 20s. It just isn’t the same. Perhaps we don’t give into the free imagination that Madeleine L’Engle claims that children have and we unravel it as we learn too much. Or it could be as mundane of a reason as I don’t have the hours-upon-end that I did after school (or in Study Halls) to invest in dreaming up new and creative ways to turn my PCs into pâté.

  17. Longtime reader and fan, though I almost never comment. (Sorry, I should more often. Just feel like a newbie too much, I guess.)
    But I had to comment on this because of the pure visceral reaction I had to the line, “I miss being able to close my eyes and picture the zombies and skeletons lining that hallway, knowing that the way I saw them was different from the way my friend Simon saw them, even though he was sitting right next to me.” I think that just summed up a really powerful idea of childhood then versus now. For me, it was books and toys rather than RPGs, but the concept is the same. Imagination was so key back then. Even now, re-reading books from when I was 12 or 13, I know I’m picturing the worlds differently now than I did then, and different from when my brother read them too, but just as clearly. When I played with action figures or whatever toys I had, I didn’t need backdrops or playsets; they were all in my head (even if my brother was picturing slightly different worlds as we played together). When I discovered fanfiction, I realized I didn’t even need the action figures, though I still have all of them. :)
    I do worry, a bit, for the imaginations of kids today where so much of their entertainment is video games that recreate whole worlds in photo-realistic detail (compared to Atari and early PC games when we were little), for example, and reading is so often down-played. Even with the popularity of Harry Potter, the stories are now recreated as movies so the “truth” of what those characters/sets/monsters look like is now sort of fixed. And god I feel old writing that as a 24-year-old. I think I just was born into an odd transitional period where technology lies. But I was thinking of this sort of thing seeing a play of Macbeth on campus that was amazingly rich and engrossing despite minimal props and a tiny stage. It’s part of why I love theatre even more than movies, I think. Movies and TV can be great experiences and I love them, but there’s something so special to plays and books for story-telling. The reader/viewer’s more engaged somehow, more part of the story.
    Anyway, sorry to ramble but that line about different perceptions of a shared experience really struck a chord deep in me. And is kind of intriguing my muse too, as one of my original stories in progress is about an author pulled into the world of his creation. Seems like that idea could come into play somehow… If I ever actually finish and get published, I owe you for helping trigger that train of thought.
    So thank you for the memories and the inspiration! Love the blog and apologize for not commenting more often. Best to you and your family!

  18. Definitely mark this entry for your next book or publication.
    Ending with the reference to Stand By Me was so perfect. For me, the first time I saw the movie was during college in Boston (BU) and Steven King came by to give a talk… just too freaky weird. I can’t remember if I had read “Apt Pupil” in “Different Seasons” yet or not. It was because of “Stand By Me” that I bought “Different Seasons” to read “The Body”. In those days, if it came out on video, it took a lot longer.
    My first experience with D&D was a few years earlier in high school. My best friend and I manufactured a way to play during study hall. We could have “no continuos talking”.
    I know right where my books are. 😉

  19. I know exactly what you mean about the nostalgia of the older games. I get together with my friend Jason about twice a year and more often then not, whether we are at my house or his house, we migrate to our respective collections of gaming material. Last time he came over to my house, we spent the whole night ignoring our wives and recalling our glory days with 2E AD&D. I have all my books still and after pulling them down from the shelves, it was something of a Buddhist type moment. All these feelings and images rushed back into my mind as we flipped through the Monster Manual and discussed the times we faced certain creatures or how someone died at the hands of another. Our beers drained as our minds raced backwards to days of collecting experience points and filling out countless character sheets. At one point in the very early 90’s, my friend Jason and I were on a bender as far as role-playing goes and for three straight years we played four to five nights a week, after work for at least five hours. That’s some serious devotion to something we loved so much, but in the end it was all worth it. To this day, I still play two nights a week, about five hours each night. So I am still making memories, which will undoubtedly be shared in visits with my friends 20 years from now. I can’t wait for today’s memories to be tomorrows nostalgia. Thanks for the post and stroll down memory lane.

  20. Let me check my collection. I used to have multiple copies of the early printings (One of the bonuses of owning a gaming store), but I’m not sure if I still do or not.
    If I have any decent copies, I’ll let you know. What printings are you looking for?

  21. You may never be able to “game like you were 12″, but you can give someone else that experience. When my son was not quite 8, we started playing D&D as-I-remember-it style. We had just a PHB and some old modules from a gamer-cohort. I still remember those days as “Great stories” and “what rules did we use”.
    AND Mr. Wheaton, my son was so impressed by your attire at RinCon… He bought the same shoes. One day, I excalimed, “Those are the same shoes that Wil Wheaton had at RinCon!”

  22. Just dusted out the Forgotten Realms 1st/2nd edition to bring it back to life. I do prefer playing, but with our old GMs either no longer part of the friend circle or moved to another areas: I took over DM to ensure we play. We played for over 5 years in an earlier FR game and we had a blast until the group broke apart.
    I will revive Vampire at some point and waiting for my friend to bring Star Wars back. Cyberpunk 2020 is also on the list.
    One of the best worlds that I want to revive is The Morrow Project. Had fun running a hidden snake eater with a morrow project team. They brought this great game back from the dead.

Comments are closed.