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 —"
"THROWN OUT?! THEY BELONG IN A MUSEUM!"
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?