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. No, no one did. You can play the old games, but they won’t be new again. Not the same way.
    I feel like a lot of people I know are chasing nostalgia in their modern gaming renaissance, and that’s fine, but I’m more interested in seeing the spirit of the old times evoked in new play. Which is to say, I’m interested in seeing people get into play like they used to, even though old games aren’t always the trick to doing it. (I wrote about nostalgia and gaming at Gameplaywright back when, if you recall: If it works for you, then rock the hell on, obviously.
    My experience is that the old plays were great, but making the new plays great should be the new goal. If making them like the old plays makes them great… then great. For me, making play feel new makes it feel more like the old thrill.

  2. Man, I wish I knew where my old books were – I think my parents cleared them out when I moved out. I hadn’t played D&D for a long time, but got back into it with 4E. Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!

  3. Great entry, Wil! I think my saving throw would lose versus nostalgia… I never got into D&D as a kid out of circumstances (didn’t have any friends who played), and I only corrected that recently when I started playing on a monthly basis with some of my friends.
    Anyway, I always liked RPGs and I can relate to what you experienced with the D&D encounters as a kid — I was into Fighting Fantasy and other similar role-playing books (to us they all came from the same source, since their French translation was conveniently published under the same imprint, “Livres dont vous êtes le héros”). I’ve kept all my books (about 30-40 of them), including the earliest ones (like a Grail Quest book that can’t be used anymore because I made marks on the maps — doh!).
    For you, Rush is the ideal soundtrack to recreate those long-gone days, for me it would be Corey Hart.

  4. Totally agree with you. I think the thing I loved so much about the old days was using my imagination, and not relying so much on minis to tell the story.
    I think it’s entirely possible to create a similar experience in 4e, GURPS, M&M, T20, etc., by encouraging players and GMs to *really* invest energy in storytelling with evocative descriptions and characters.
    When I ran my delves at RinCon, I could have just dropped minis on the map and ran them though it, almost like it was a D&D version of Descent, but I made an effort to give the monsters (especially the Necromancer at the end) real personalities and memorable descriptions. When we play for the podcast, my favorite moments from Chris are the characters he creates, and the way he describes them to us (along with setting Binwin on fire, of course.)
    I wonder if, with all the modren conveniences, we’ve forgotten the old ways, and the simple joy of describing the cool dampness of a dungeon hallway carved from living rock and dripping with moisture from some unseen spring, buried deep in the mountain … just before a dagger sails through the air, sticks into the wooden truss next to your head, and you roll initiative.

  5. I rescued a Fiend Folio from the dump two weeks ago. Those early books were pure vision. Authenticity drips from the pages. They seem to be crafted by a maniac genius who is trying to explain something VERY interesting. Great post.

  6. I grew out of RPGs in college and became more of a strategy gamer. I lost something as I grew where I didn’t enjoy RPGs much anymore. I don’t know what either, but it’s kind of sad. I remember hours of having fun just creating characters from scratch, rolling the dice, penciling in bonuses, buying starting equipment, etc. I remember the fun of qualifying for a Paladin or Ranger and setting that character aside to use someday, though I don’t remember if I ever actually used those “just for fun” character rollups.
    I played 4th ed once recently at PAX and you think I’d like it as it gets more tactical, more towards a board game. But I didn’t really enjoy it. Having all these powers spelled out on cards, a map all layed out, etc. The thrill of “qualifying” for a special class is gone. There’s something just prepackaged about it all now. Like, oh, that home cooked breakfast you mentioned a couple days ago vs popping open a similar microwavable mean. The microwave meal might taste decent even, but it lacks the quality and experience of making it yourself.
    I feel that way with RPGs these days and it’s probably more a flaw with me than anything else, but I just don’t feel that same sense of wonder, of living a fantasy novel, that I felt as a teen. I don’t feel I’m creating the experience so much as moving through some canned experience.

  7. Wow, I so know what you mean, the older modules are my current inspiration and I love them all. (U-Series ROCKS!) I love the reference to Rush, for me it was Dio, in fact I wrote an adventure based on the song Sacred Heart (one I plan to revive for 4E). Thanks for sharing!

  8. For some players, the miniatures are the old ways. But I don’t think the minis do get in the way. I don’t think we’ve forgotten the old ways. Because for some of us, the challenge of making the game come alive… that is the game. Old way or new.
    The game becomes new for someone every day, even if they’ve been playing for years. So maybe it becomes new… again.

  9. Awesome post! My preference would be to ditch the mini’s and battlemaps as well, leaving everything to the imagination; however, I’ve noticed that my gaming group (composed of surprisingly non-hardcore geeks) has a hard time getting into the game without the maps and minis. I’ve noticed they seem to have more fun when dungeons are presented, rather than imagined. I think they can’t get past thinking of D&D as a board game. Kind of depressing, but we still have a great time playing nonetheless. Perhaps imagination will come with experience since they are all relatively new at D&D.

  10. I tried AD&D once. In the late 80s some friends in Jr. High started a campaign and invited me to play – I didn’t like it. The story scared me; I walked with my character through every step worrying about death at every turn – he didn’t die, but the weight of impending doom was too much.
    But worse than that was that was that no one else seemed to care about anything except the treasure and xp. “Does it look valuable?” “Can we pry the gems out?” “If I kill him in his sleep, do I get his stuff and xp?” – no one even stopped to consider this world that we were immersed in or the story that was taking place around us – through us.
    I soon turned to computer rpg – even BBS rpg – because no one could ruin my immersion. It still scared the hell out of me at times, and to this day I always tweak inside a little when a character is about to die, but I learned to deal with it – to separate myself enough from my character that he could die and it wouldn’t give me a seizure.
    That’s the problem with good RPG stories sometimes (matched with active imaginations) – things get “too real” – and the emotions that one would normally feel about the protagonist are enhanced because that protagonist is you. (or an aspect thereof)
    Regardless, I still play both 4th Ed. and computer versions (recently had to quit WoW though), and still enjoy the stories immensely.
    Thanks for that jaunt down memory dark-passageway, Wil. :)

  11. That last line had me snort milk out of my nostrils. Thank you Wil Wheaton. Also, does anyone know when Memories of the Future Volume 2 is coming out? I want to give Wil more of my money, and obviously, read more of his unique take on TNG. (I’ve got them in lined up neatly next to the TV, ready to read and watch and read MotF2, like I did with MotF1.)

  12. Let me say that while, from the player’s side, having minis and tiles and 3D terrains does cut down on the imagination factor, for the DM, there is still a world of imagination going on. And since they put the world together, they have the responsibility to take it further than the minis and tiles and terrain. The visuals can only take you so far. The characterizations, the personality of the BBEG, the quirks of the players, everything like that require you to imagine. And yeah, the flavor text of powers goes a bit into that. Don’t like the flavor, make your own, and make it YOUR own. You’ll find you enjoy it more, and that’s the whole point, no?

  13. Ahh, I know right? Me too. I think anything related to our childhood would have had the same effect though. Definitely a personal touch. This is why I love Wil’s writing.

  14. The most fun I had in a game? I was driving it and loosely followed D&D rules; players (all experienced) didn’t initially know what their characters were (they simply woke up with no clear memories) and none had a stat sheet at their disposal. As they were playing, they discovered bits and pieces about who and what they were, which made for some of the best roleplaying I’ve seen. I just had some plot points, but otherwise the game was pretty much open to whatever they decided to do, so even I didn’t really know how the story would unfold.
    Any system could have been used as the basis of that game, but a tweaked subset of the simple rules in D&D (red box) was more than enough.
    It was neat.

  15. No room in the suitcase?!? Are you nuts? That’s what FedEx/UPS/Post offices were invented for! Mail that stuff back to yourself next time. Well worth the fundage.

  16. You know, this entry might have been in Greek for all the sense it made to me, and yet it was fun to read just to see how happy it made you. In the venn diagram of geekdom, I’m not in the gamer circle.

  17. I haven’t looked at the old rulebooks in forever, and we didn’t play the published modules enough to form too many lasting memories, but what gets me is occasionally flipping through my PC folder. I’ve managed to save every PC I ever played (plus the far larger that I wrote up thinking I would want to play them someday). That’s where all my memories lie.
    But I’ll have crack open my Red Box books and Keep on the Borderlands someday soon, too.

  18. My first D&D game was 2e in the 1990s. I was an elven mage/thief. We played for over a year and never made it past level 1. We didn’t follow the rules much further than to adjudicate combat once in a while. I had a blast.
    I think most of what gets lost when you age and become a more experienced gamer is that you let the rules and rulings start to become more and more a part of the game: when I was a kid, I never had the patience to sit through reading all the damn rules: We never figured out how damage from falling and such worked, but we were smart kids, and we figured that if you fall off a giant cliff onto some spikes, you’re not gonna survive.
    Lately, I’ve felt that my games have gotten back a bit of that youthful sense of wonder because as a DM, I’ve shifted my focus away from rules and towards rulings: simply by saying, “I’m not sure what the rule is on that right now, but given the situation, I’m going to say this happens:” generally tends to keep the game moving and prevents players from bogging down the game too much.
    The other thing I’ve started doing is employing the Rule of Awesome: if it makes me smile or laugh, it’s gonna work. No matter what the dice say. Maybe there will be complications: maybe Han Solo’s Intimidate check only lasts long enough to chase the stormtroopers around the corner before they turn around and start shooting at him, but it’ll work to some extent at least. Players tend to do a lot less, “I move and attack” if they know that they can dive across the table and kick it over to provide cover before picking up a bowl of fruit and throwing it into the face of the charging orc without having to make a dive check, a kick check, a pick up a bowl of fruit check, yada yada yada. . .
    Anyway, does anyone ever play RPGs later on in life like the ones you play when you’re 12? Nah. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be good gaming. :)

  19. Wonderful post Wil. Thanks. I was just looking at all my first ed. books the other day and thinking about running a 1st ed. campaign myself. I won’t add to the nostaligia. Plenty of people have already said what I’m thinking. I just wanted to suggest a book: The Elfish Gene. Although the author seems to come to the wrong conclusion about his own experiences with gaming,there is enough there to make the nostalgia trip worth while. He’s also very funny so there are plenty of LOL moments throughout the book.

  20. Sooo…quick question. By “Settlers” do you mean “Settlers of Catan”? Please tell me that’s what you mean. I’m not as big of a gamer as most other people (my only claim is a newly created D&D character) but Settlers of Catan holds a LOT of late night memories from high school and early college for me.

  21. You made me just a wee bit nostalgic for my Level 15 Paladin (with +5 Holy Avenger).
    And cloud giants.
    And hippogriffs.
    And crumby magic users who always died in the first campaign because of their pussy 4 hit points!

  22. Something I realized that was missing from AD&D/D&D since Organized Play is having the players draw the dungeon map based off your description. Make them step off the dimensions of the room and keep a map. How will they get out otherwise? What happens if the guy carrying it disappears?
    If the character has cartography training or mapmaking, then the description of the dimensions of the room can be more accurate. If the room is well lit, the GM can draw it out allowing for light sources. It brings an extra element to the game that us old school gamers can relate to and makes the new schoolers realize the value of things like marbles, rope with knots in it at certain intervals, and a 10 foot pole.

  23. He could still ship them to you!
    Sigh – I remember someone saying “we’re going to Dimension Door out on the count of four” and boy, was the Count of Four mad when the whole party landed on him!

  24. I do not currently own copies of the 1st edition core books, which I pictured in my previous post. I really want them, but I haven't been able to find any in the condition or printing I want.

  25. I’ve run into RPGs that were better than the ones when I was 12 — mainly because one of the great regrets of my life as a geek is not having had anyone to play AD&D with when I was that age.
    When I first got the books in fourth grade, my friends thought it was lame, so I tried pressganging my little sister into playing with me. We never got any further than some epic debates over how the characters ought to look when I drew them for her. My hopeful attempt to get a game going at school landed me in the principal’s office, because it was at the height of the Satanic Panic. Disappointed, I colored in all the books’ illustrations, and rolled up characters, hoping I’d get to play someday.
    In junior high, when my friends decided D&D was cool, I became lame — because I was a girl, and this was a guy’s game. (That didn’t stop them from asking me to draw their characters, though.) My college friends already had existing game groups, and weren’t open to anyone new. Since then, the closest I’ve gotten to playing D&D in person is talking to WotC’s art directors.
    I feel like I missed an essential geek rite of passage, in a way. ;/

  26. One of the DMs I had when I was younger was really, really, really into miniatures, and I remember a weekend helping him make a 25mm/scale map of the Caves of Chaos and the Keep on the Borderlands. That was fun, but, y’know, you’re right, it’s a bit limiting.
    The adventures I ran for my own group way back when were more about role-play and getting in to trouble; I can clearly remember the maps of cities that I drew, and some of the features on them that I put, and I can remember all of us sitting around a table having a great time… but what, exactly, we were doing? That’s gone now.
    Oh, wait, there was the evil Archmage Ankh-Bo-Ken and he wanted… something… evil… and the players were going to stop him… but why?
    Why not? That’s what Good does, right?
    I’ve just started DMing again with a new group and we’re having a great time. I use the maps when I really need them, and try to use descriptions more often, and this time around, I have more of a story to tell.
    Thanks, man, for the way you use words.

  27. Wil – I LOVE reading your stories. The tweets: not so much, though I get pointed to interesting sites and photos. I wish you wrote more, and tweeted less. just a selfish fan, I suppose.
    nice memoryscape.

  28. I can SOOOO relate to that. My friend owns a game shop, and someone came in with a stack of old books and left them saying he didn’t use them anymore. I came in early for my game that day (I’m the DM) and my friend was like.. “Hey Josh, some guy brought those in, you want them?” … uhhh HELL YEAH. Can someone say Temple of Elemental Evil? Oh yes. ALL THREE 1st edition books. Oh, the nostalgia! Looking at all those pictures inside I remembered the images that spurred my imagination so, so many years ago.
    I don’t think I can ever get back what we and my pals had when we were 13 sitting on one of our bedroom floors with characters written out on loose leaf school paper, battling rust monsters and orcs.
    It’s like the old BBS days. My wife and I met through a BBS, and we both long for those days when we had that circle of friends who were all geeks and we all liked and accepted eachother.

  29. By odd coincidence, our gaming group – with its novice DM – went thru the Keep recently.
    I think I was mostly disappointed that it didn’t last longer. It was fun.
    *contemplates the murder of lizard men and sighs happily*

  30. In reference to what Desertpuma said about mapping, When I DM’d AD&D games back in the day ( and Wil, I’m more than a few years older than you, and its been a loooong time)
    I would always create my own hand made map of the adventure, but then tell the players they had to create their own as they went. When it came to dungeon crawls, this led to lots of post-game entertainment when we would compare their map to mine.
    Sometimes the differences would be not just dramatic, but drastic!

  31. I remember a couple of friends and I modified a Hero Quest game set for DnD in a way that created an amalgamation of the Warhammer universe and Dungeons and Dragons, using a bastardized version of the rule sets smashed together (combined with some stuff that we made up). You want to shoot that nasty looking thing with your bow, Mr. Ranger? No problem. Instead of rolling to see if you hit the monster, you have to guesstimate the distance to your target. Get it right within 2mm? You then rolled to see which body part you hit, then rolled damage. 1-5 were legs, 6-10 were arms, 11-19 was torso, 20 was the head. Depending on what you hit, it changed the effect that the damage had, AND how the damage was taken by the monster (i.e. if he wasn’t wearing anything on his legs, there was no damage reduction because of armor. Shoot a non-“tough” monster in the head that doesn’t have a helmet on? Insta-kill. Headshot an enemy with a badass helmet? You get nothing but a “pinging” noise and frustration.)
    Many details of the “meld” were similar in nature, and it made for a super-fun and unique experience.

  32. I loved giving and receiving hand-drawn maps that were "aged" with weak tea or coffee, and burnt around the edges. I know this post was all about how much I loved using my imagination, but I sure did love the handouts.

  33. There must be some D&D synchronistic bug floating about – night before last I dreamed that a local occult book store had been sold to someone else, who moved to a beachfront location (instead of Capitol Hill in Seattle) and the only thing she carried was the Red Box Basic set and a few rocks — no dice, no figs, just the books and the rocks.
    I’m 55, Wil, and have played RPGs since I was introduced to them in 1976, not long after the original TSR D&D 3-book set was published. I well remember carrying around cases of minifigs (probably 200 pounds worth) for various campaigns – I even still have some of my original campaign maps out in the garage.
    The group I’ve gamed with for most of the past 20 years includes my wife (I’m one of the lucky ones!) and several of our friends. Our daughters became interested in gaming when they discovered my original run Elfquests, and that I had the Elfquest RPG rules…Over the years, the framework may have changed from D&D, GURPS, DragonQuest, World of Darkness and others, but the enjoyment has persisted.
    One of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is that you reinvigorate that enjoyment with your enthusiasm — and I also share your grief when a PC dies.
    ~ Herb

  34. I had a DM, my favorite, who’s long since moved on to the great hex map in the sky, but he just loved to use those sort of things for his games. He was a good DM, and a good story teller – his wife, daughter and I were all in the local community theater, so it fit right in with our other interests.
    We played an annual New Years Eve game with a handful of six or eight players, all but a couple of which were regulars, and he would spend the entire year collecting and transforming if necessary, a huge array of oddities and curios to use as treasure, artifacts, clues, evidence, you name it. Sometimes the collection of amazing trinkets and pseudo-replicas we had collected at the end of the game were more amazing than the game itself – though not often.
    Thanks Wil, your memories have brought out some of my memories. An early Christmas present!

  35. Never played an rpg in my life, but the XTC song references are bringing a bit of nostalgia for my old new wave record collecting geekitude.
    My wife would find the idea that I *used* to be a record collecting geek laughable, even if I don’t actually buy vinyl any more. Everyone has their own geek factor. (Including wives. Laura’s a video game addict.)

  36. My friends from high school always refused to play anything BUT 2nd edition, and it drove me out of the group. I still hung out with them, but I couldn’t stand to game with them anymore, for the same reasons you didn’t like it.
    Eventually a friend in college introduced me to the beauty that is White Wolf’s Exalted. It is so much simpler, and it actually encourages you to be outrageous and creative – they call it stunting, and it gets you extra dice!

  37. I may or may not have an “aged” and burnt dwarven family lineage sheet that I made for one of my 3.5 characters.
    Yeah, I love handouts a lot. Props, man, one always needs props.

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