I’m on a boat: This isn’t a book; it’s a time machine

I’m on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2, and I’m taking an Internet vacation until I get home. So every day while I’m gone, something from my archives will post here automatically, for your entertainment. I had a lot of fun picking these different things out, and I hope you enjoy them again, or for the first time.

This isn't a book; it's a time machine.

Originally published March 2009.

This is how I go to my happy place.

This is where it all began for me: the D&D Basic Rules Set. When I opened this book in 1983, I had no idea that it would change my life. Back then, if you told 11 year-old me that I'd be 36 and wiping tears from my face because reading it brought back so many joyful memories, he would have called you one of the names the cool kids called him for playing it. (Don't judge him too harshly; he's only 11.)

My original D&D Basic set was a garage sale casualty, but the book in this picture is a first printing that I bought at a game store about ten years ago. It's perfect in every way, except for a missing character sheet in the middle, which I printed from the PDF copy I bought from Paizo last year.

The Keep on the Borderlands module beneath it belonged to someone named Randy Richards, who wrote his name and phone number (as we so often did in those days) on the cover. I don't know who Randy Richards is, if he cares, or if he'll even read this, but if he does, I want him to know: your book is in very good hands, Randy, and its current owner loves it as much as anyone could.

I've been on a real D&D kick lately (blame the Penny Arcade podcast, and how much I love 4e) but I hadn't actually gone back to the beginning and read the Basic Rules for a very, very long time. So late last night, after my family went to sleep, instead of watching TV or reading blogs, I went to my bookshelf and grabbed the Player's Manual you see in this picture. I read it cover-to-cover for the first time in over 20 years, and played the solo adventure, which was the very first dungeon I ever visited. I named my fighter Thorin, just like I did when I was a kid. I made a map on graph paper, rolled dice on the floor, and felt pure joy wash over me. I scared off a Giant Rat and killed the remaining two before I failed – like I did when I was 11 – to solve the riddle of O-T-T-F-F-S-S, losing all my treasure. I tried to talk to the Goblins … before I killed them and took their treasure: 100 sp and 50 gp. I battled the Rust Monster, who was just as tough and unreasonable an opponent for a first level fighter as I remember. Thorin eventually managed to defeat it with some … creative … trips back to town to replace his armor and weapons, just like he did a quarter century ago. Luckily for him, the Rust Monster didn't heal between battles … just like the last time he faced it. I decided to leave the skeletons for another time, and walked back to town with my 650 gp and 100 sp. When I calculated my XP, I had earned 1084 … not too shabby. I closed up my book, and went to sleep happy.

When I was a kid, the D&D Basic Rules Set was never just a game to me; it was my portal into a magical, wonderful world that I still love. Now that I'm an adult, it isn't just a couple of books to me; it's a time machine.

The world I live in is filled with uncertainty and occasionally-overwhelming responsibility, but for an hour or so last night, I was 11 years-old again, and I went back to a world where the biggest problem I faced was trying to save up for a Millennium Falcon. When I read "You decide to attack the goblins before they can get help…" I could hear my Aunt Val tell me “That’s a game that I hear lots of kids like to play, Willow. It’s dragons and wizards and those things you liked from The Hobbit. The back says you use your imagination, and I know what a great imagination you have.” I could feel the weight of my Red Box, which I carried with me pretty much everywhere I went, and how huge the thing felt in my tiny arms. I could feel it get heavier as I added modules and characters, and my own dungeons, drawn on graph paper. I could hear the snap of the thick green rubber band I eventually had to wrap around it, and I could see the yellowing scotch tape I added to the corners.

I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to reread the Dungeon Master's Rulebook next, and run the Group Game adventure it contains, "for use by a beginning Dungeon Master." Then, it's time to go back to the Keep on the Borderlands, using just the Basic Rules, where Magic-users can't wear armor, Fighters have 8 HP, Dwarf and Elf are classes, and everyone dies at least once before finally taking a character to second level, because that's where it all started for me, and sometimes you just have to go back to your roots.


15 thoughts on “I’m on a boat: This isn’t a book; it’s a time machine”

  1. Great read. Good idea too… But for me it’s going back to the first games on Vic20 and txt adventures on the c16 and onwards.. Hopefully these emulators will work. Don’t want to wake up my parents to rummage the attic for the real ones.. Thanks for the idea. Going to love the “go norht [ENTER]” thing…

  2. I remember so much hoopla surrounding D&D when I was a kid; I wasn’t allowed to play because my ‘Christian’ (not really) parents were afraid I’d suddenly start thinking I was actually in the game, and mistake my sister for a Goblin and kill her in her sleep or something. Then again, I wasn’t allowed to watch Smurfs (magic) or ET (inappropriate parallels drawn with Jesus Christ), so I’m not surprised D&D was on the naughty list.
    If anything, I’m in awe of the creativity it requires to develop a strategy in order to survive, tantamount to a real, live Choose Your Own Adventure book.
    I am so buying this game for my boys when they’re old enough. And we’ll have a Smurf-A-Thon.
    I’ve still never seen ET.

  3. This brought back so many memories. Thanks for the description of your old manuals – the yellow tape, the rubber band holding everything together, the dungeons and castles made on graph paper – because it really reminded me of the state of my books, which have been lost to time unfortunately. I would love to find a copy of those old original rules someday and just got through it all again like you did.
    Thanks Wil – great post.

  4. Amazing story. Reading about your adventure makes me miss playing D & D. I haven’t done so in over a year. :( I work too much and don’t have a DM or anything. I unfortunately can’t afford to buy all of the books but I have them all as PDF files on my laptop. Laptop of holding? LOL :)

  5. As one of the folks who worked on that edition (and the ones before & after), I’m thrilled that the game gave you — and continues to give you — so much pleasure.
    Kill a few orcs for me. (And, hey, you should come out to Gary Con.)

  6. There are days I wish I was introduced to D&D when I first saw the book sitting on my Grandma’s table. My Uncle was playing at the time but my parents dissapproved wholeheartedly. I was in 4th grade at the time, and had already read the entire series of Chronicles of Narnia and I was then on my second or third reading of A Wrinkle in Time…Dragons and goblins would have been just the thing to add to my multiverse! Eventually I married a guy that played D&D, Shadowrun, White Wolf, etc…and I found I completely enjoyed the worlds created. I now feel so nostalgic when I pull out my old characters and remember the group of friends that would gather to game and feast! (yeah, I cooked and they “suffered” through several experimental recipes I had)

  7. I began playing in third edition. I’m from a small, rural town without much of a base for such things as Dungeons and Dragons or card games, so it was difficult to find a sufficient number of people willing to even give it a shot, let alone stick with it.
    That said, I’ve played one game of first edition. The game was something of a lark and, really, all just done jokingly. For example, I acquired a vorpal sword. Which happened to be sentient and wanted me to kill Dwarves. This caused a few issues, as we were currently in a Dwarven city. The outcome involved a lot of crossbows and me doing a smashing immitation of a porcupine. But more to the point, having read your tweets concerning your damnation by the Dice Gods, I felt you could appreciate my favorite part of the whole experience.
    The GM allowed us to use loaded dice to roll our attributes. They were fixed to always roll sixes. Everyone took their turn, rolling away and getting their compliment of high scores. When my turn came, I picked up the dice, shook them in my hand, gave a light toss onto the table, and beheld the result.
    I can’t even roll well when I cheat. /rueful fist shake at Dice Gods

  8. Wow, that brings back memories. 1984 for me, right behind you at 12 years old. Same story, only my parents got me the set as a birthday gift, as my brother and I used our imagination constantly.
    Still have mine, actually, with a little tape, a lot of use, and a whole lot of memories and TLC.
    Now I’ve done the same for my kids with the Pathfinder Beginner Box. Same magic, only the next generation. (yeah, I went there. :-) )

  9. I have you (and Jerry, Mike, Kris and Scott) to thank for rekindling my affair with D&D.
    I started a campaign with some friends which has turned into a weekly tradition where my 5 geek mates, my wife and 4-year old daughter and I sit down for a meal every Sunday before the girls disappear and we play.
    My (mostly bachelor) friends refer to it affectionately as “family dinner”, and apart from possibly being the only nutritious meal they get each week, they love listening to my little girl chatter during dinner and she often asks me when ‘daddy’s boys’ are coming over next.
    I’m looking forward to introducing her to the boundless realm of her imagination through gaming, and your experience as a geek dad is a great encouragement.
    Thanks Wil.

  10. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories! The first time I ever played, my brother had gotten the box set off of a friend, and he and my other brother were playing with some other friends. I wanted to play so badly, so my mom made my brothers let me join.
    Now, a quarter of a century later, my brothers look at me funny, sigh and tell me I’m “such a geek,” but I still play. Good times 😀

  11. Shoot now you are making hard for me to get cranky when my husband spends what I think is wasted money on D&D stuff. Now I’m just gonna see a little boy looking at me wanting to escape into his fantasy the same way I do into my books.

  12. Wil, Just out of curiosity, you ever hear from Randy Richards?
    I just had the roof fail in my garage. A lot of my old role playing games got wet. I had to throw out some D&D books, my warhammer role playing game book and some battletech manuals. I did save my original modules and most of my choose your way books, including my lone wolf books. Still, it was a shame so many memories were lost.
    Kids, play pen and paper games with your friends. Save the character sheets, and the score cards from playing. Put them up and take good care of them, don’t let your mom sell them in a garage sale, or throw them out. They may never be worth money, but looking back at the sheets you filled out by hand when younger while hanging out with your friends will make the adult you happy in a way you cannot understand right now.

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