What does D&D mean to me? My friend Shawn Merwin asked me to write about this question, and record the response for his podcast. I don’t have recording gear (or skills), so I wrote this piece. He recorded it for his podcast.
The question itself brings up all sorts of feelings and memories. It’s an important question, because some might think after being laid off (twice) while working on D&D, I might have negative feelings about it. I don’t. From the heady days of first gaming in 1981 to today, working on three or four different game projects at once, D&D has been and is still good to me.
My Original Edition
My first experience with D&D was a binge game one weekend in the fall of 1981. Ward, an older friend whom I looked up to, told my twin brother and me about the game. He lived “in the country” so we got to visit him only when the whole family made a weekend of it. And boy what a weekend we had when D&D came into the picture. Six boys in Ward’s attic room making characters from a couple Moldvay Basic Sets and playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands. (You can get an idea of what the module was like from this fifth edition revision.) We probably slept seven hours the whole weekend, and when we rolled out of our sleeping bags, we started playing again. My first character, an elf with no name, died in cave G 33, brought low by gray oozes. I remember our DM, a teenage boy whose name I forget, was harsh but fair. He had a house rule that having extremely low hit points limited your character’s abilities, like wounds should I suppose. My poor elf died crawling toward the cave exit at 1 hit point, because the DM said crawling was all he could do. Truth told, the elf did the elvish thing, although I didn’t know it at the time, and took his own life with a handy dagger before those oozes could catch up. Remorselessly, I made a new character (also an elf, because fighter/magic-user!) and kept on playing.
Maybe needless to say, but the game and that weekend left a big impression. My memory is hazy these thirty-five years later, but I still see the room and the positions we were all in when that elf died. He was the last casualty of a total-party kill. And I was hooked.
I was ten.
My parents gave me the Moldvay D&D Basic Set for Christmas the same year. My brother, Neil, received the Expert Set. I was a budding artist at the time, and I remember studying all the illustrations, enjoying the funky fantasy stylings of Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and Bill Willingham. One image that has always stuck with me, for some reason, is Jeff Dee’s human talking to a halfling couple on page 6 of the Expert Rules. That image (shown below) tells a story. I decided I would be an artist who helped make games like these guys. It never occurred to me at the time that someone got paid to write this stuff, too, so I followed the idea of being a game artist into adulthood. Thereby, D&D shaped the course of my life from an early age.
D&D also shaped my own ability to improvise and tell stories. That’s probably cliché. Most people who played D&D and are now storytellers, from John Rogers to Pendleton Ward, say the same thing. But I still remember my first improvisation as a DM.
In the summer of 1982, I introduced my friend Trey to the game. His parents were divorced, and he lived in Maryland most of the year, but he came to his dad’s house every summer. His first character was a thief, and that thief went into the Caves of Chaos alone. Trey’s thief probably lacked a name, but if the character had one, I don’t recall it. That thief snuck around, making good use of Hide in Shadows and Move Silently, and loaded up on treasure while avoiding a lot of danger or killing it from behind. It’s also probable that I had sympathy for the lone hero in such a dangerous setting, and that I wasn’t partial to killing Trey’s character quickly. (I also had empathy, it seems.)
Finally, thief hit the jackpot and found the ogre lair in cave E. Now, I don’t remember how thief bested the ogre. I seem to recall I decided, for some reason, that the ogre was asleep, and thief had a chance to sneak about without waking the brute. What sticks out in my mind, though, is that thief loaded up on treasure and decided to carry out the ogre’s “hard cheese.” I ruled, as DM, that an ogre’s cheese must be pretty big, and thief had a lot of loot in his pack at this point, so he had to carry this big cheese wheel in his hands. He moved silently out of the cave. On his way out of the area, thief had a random encounter in the form of one bold bandit. What was thief to do? (Insert DM cackle.) His hands were occupied with the big cheese.
Naturally, as honestly played by Trey, thief threw the ogre’s massive cheese wheel at the bandit. I was flustered for a moment, then I said, “Okay, roll to hit.” Trey rolled that little red plastic d20, and it came up 17 (he needed a 13 to hit). So I decided the cheese could deal 1d4 damage. I mean, that’s the smallest die, so why not? Trey rolled a 4. I had rolled the 1-HD bandit’s hit points at 3.
“You smash the cheese into the bandit’s face, and he falls,” I said. Cue half-sane preteen laughter.
“Wait, is the cheese still good?” asked Trey.
“No, sorry, you broke the cheese. You can still eat it, though.”
More laughter. Right then, I was hooked on improvisation and had a good lesson in DM impartiality. That’s some of the magic of D&D and other tabletop RPGs that no computer game has been able to match.
That magic hooked Trey, too. And he’s still like a brother to me all these years later.
The D&D game also brought me hard lessons that are, nevertheless, important for growing up. D&D helped me realize adults are fallible. To a young kid, adults can be mysterious, like supernatural creatures rather than members of the same species. I remember feeling that way when I was young. In my early days of evolution as a human and a gamer, my credulity in parental rightness and authority was strong.
Enter the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which swept up D&D in its flood of ignorance. I grew up in a Christian household, which became more staunchly Christian as the years passed. By 1984, about the time of Pat Pulling’s BADD and Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons, my parents began to buy into the idea that D&D was occult and dangerous. I read a pamphlet (possibly this one) at church about AD&D, and it was so woefully wrong about the game that I concluded the writers couldn’t possibly have read the books. The thing is, my parents hadn’t read the books either, but they believed the junk in that pamphlet. Soon after, my mother decided to throw away all my D&D stuff.
Admittedly, my school grades weren’t the best at the time. (They weren’t terrible, either.) The game and related fiction did hold more interest for me than schoolwork, for sure. But the taking of my D&D stuff heaped insult upon injury in my young mind. Not only did I know my mother acted out of ignorance and fear, abetted by my father, but she also took objects I had saved and paid for myself. As a child, I had the positive experience of saving and acquiring based on that work erased in what I saw as an instance of benighted theft. Any illusions I had about the general trustworthiness of authority figures was replaced by wariness. I then understood trust is something earned, and that one needs to question how things appear. Truth is there, but it often has to be discovered.
Although that process might have been painful, even in that instance of helping shape the path of my life, I think D&D had a positive overall impact. After the loss of my D&D books, I moved on to other roleplaying games. Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Powers & Perils (which you can get online now), The Palladium Role-Playing Game. My parents even bought me some of this stuff, such as Star Frontiers and related miniatures. For them, the D&D name was the center of the problem, and these other games were just games. We even played a little Traveller with my Sunday-school teacher about the same time U2’s album War was hitting the charts. And, funny enough, The Palladium Role-Playing Game had more overt occultish (not really occult but very much seeming occult) elements. (The book roundly condemns the practice of the occult, however, whatever that means or is worth.) No real matter.
The point is that the loss caused me to diversify. It planted a seed of exploration that led me to spend much of my earned money on new RPGs, along with comics and the like. I played TSR games to be sure, from Boot Hill to Indiana Jones and, one of my all-time favorites, Marvel Super Heroes. But I also read or played many other games such as Runequest, Skyrealms of Jorune, Call of Cthulhu, Heroes Unlimited and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TORG, and Rolemaster. I got into GURPS big time, because I found the combat to be less abstract and the characters so (too?) detailed. A little after I graduated from high school in 1989, Shadowrun had become a game of choice, and World of Darkness games entered the scene soon after.
I was almost always the GM, so throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I spent a lot of time reading and writing and drawing. I made up worlds and drew their maps for fun, stealing liberally from fiction I was consuming (books, comics, and movies). If a movie had a cool magic item in it, I made that up for a game, and sometimes more than one. For instance, the movie The Sword and the Sorcerer has a cool and absurd three-bladed sword that launches its blades (see 0:54 in the trailer). Stolen, thank you cable movie channels (and friends with cable). Some might find this fact ironic, but I also converted games I considered to have clunky mechanics into GURPS. We played everything from Batman to Shadowrun to World of Darkness games that way, along with my original worlds.
Cruis’n into 3e
Despite all this writing and designing, I still thought my way into the game industry would be art. I ended up going to college for graphic arts. University was a financial struggle for me, but finally, I graduated with a dual degree in graphic design and illustration. Then I worked in all sorts of fields, newspaper ad design to catalog design, for a long while. About the time third edition D&D came out, I began working as an artist for Twin Galaxies, the keeper of video game world records that was going to be the next big thing on the web.
More important, though, is that I bought third edition D&D. I liked it. Therefore, I began to DM again. This is a crucial step in what D&D means to me, because had I elected not to get into third edition, the last decade of my life would have been very different.
The story goes like this:
Like most internet startups in the early 2000s, Twin Galaxies faltered and went under, at least as a business that employed a large staff. Layoffs ensued. Ever since seeing Seattle in Shadowrun, with its nature and urban mix, I wanted to move there. Long story short, I did.
Seattle at the time was full of unemployed dotcommers, like me, so I searched for “real work” while I schlepped pizza in my early days there. It was a living. But more important was that I had the time to explore third edition and the community built around it. I joined in on sites such as ENWorld and d20 Magazine Rack. I wrote and shared, and I entered design contests and won more than one. I started reviewing d20 supplements and posting my reviews on ENWorld. Some publishers took notice and asked me to start editing for them. Why not? I thought.
Then Wizards of the Coast had an open call for freelance editors. I applied. To my shock and utter pleasure, I made the cut and joined the team. More humbling, the great Kim Mohan later told me my editing test had been tied for best overall in the bunch he had received. Although I had a minor focus in writing in college, I believe that all the reading and writing I did through the years is what got me to that point. I owe my love of reading and writing, and the work that allowed me some skill in those areas, unequivocally, to D&D.
Eventually, I got hired on as a contract editor for TCGs at Wizards. From there, I moved to RPG R&D, where over the course of a decade, I have been an editor, designer, and developer. At Wizards, I had the privilege of interacting with the community through conventions and emerging social media. I had the honor of working with some seriously smart and cool people, from my in-office colleagues to freelancers, such as Shawn Merwin, Philippe-Antoine Ménard, Rob Schwalb, Kieth Baker, Scott Fitzgerald-Gray, Brian James, Mike Shea, and Teos Abadia, among numerous others, such as the editor here, Dave Chalker. I got to meet and work with some industry greats, such as my mentor Kim Mohan, and folks such as Chris Perkins, Rich Baker, Bill Slavicsek, Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes, Bruce Cordell, Michelle Carter, Monte Cook, Ed Stark, Dave Noonan, Skip Williams, James Wyatt, Penny Williams, Sean Reynolds, Steven “Stan!” Brown, and Miranda Horner, to name only some. My associates also include recent D&D stars, such as Jeremy Crawford, Rodney Thompson, Matt Sernett, Peter Lee, Jesse Decker, Chris Youngs, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Greg Bilsland, Logan Bonner, and Mike Mearls. There are too many to call out here, but I consider these people to be my friends or, at least, fond acquaintances. I’m honored they are. It was (and is) an immense privilege to work with and get to know so many fine folks. And I can tell you that they love games and D&D, and as real people working hard to make the world more fun, they deserve your support.
It’s probably cliché, too, but the D&D game has brought me countless such friends and fond acquaintances over the years. That’s important to me, because I was painfully, painfully shy in my tween and early teen years. The game was a social outlet for me. Some of my gaming friends were closer than others, to be sure, but that’s the way of things.
Lance, my best friend in high school, was on the path to juvenile incarceration, really, when I met him. He had just avoided being caught for some vandalism weeks before. I introduced him to RPGs. We both did some high-school sports (I more than he), but he really caught the RPG bug, and he began reading way more fantasy and sci-fi than I ever had. Most significant to me, though is that he never got in trouble after starting to play games, and read comics and novels. It’s possible he would have straightened up without RPGs, but he credits them with channeling his abundant energy into pursuits that were more constructive.
More about friends and D&D in this one last story:
I was on the way to Gen Con in 2009, and I was sitting and reading a D&D book in the Dallas airport. A burly guy walks up to me and says, “Going to Gen Con?”
“Yeah. How’d you guess?” I said with a slight smirk.
He points to the book. We strike up a conversation, and we spend some time together at the con. It turns out this guy is Robert (A.) Howard, then owner of penandpapergames.com. Robert joins my D&D group, and he ends up doing things such as helping playtest fourth edition Dark Sun. We became friends.
Fast forward to 2015. I’m having marital trouble, and my wife, who has Dutch citizenship, decides to go to Europe with the kids for a few months. It looks like a vacation to visit grandparents on the surface, but it’s really a separation that might end up with her living in Europe and me not. Robert, who has a nice-sized home, steps in and says, “Stay with me for a while. I have a spare room in the basement. You just have to share the bathroom with the cats.”
That was a lifesaver for me. Not only did I then have a place to live for several months, but I also didn’t have to live alone for that time. I had the space I needed, and I was able to get my head clear and liquidate my household for a move overseas.
Now I live in Austria, in the heart of the EU. I am well enough known that people come to me for game work. I work on D&D, sure, but I’ve also, thanks to Andy Collins (another friend and former Wizards colleague), branched into video-game dialog. It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but words I wrote and am writing will come out of the mouths of characters in Undead Labs’ State of Decay 2. I also plan to start publishing some of my own stuff soon. All these amazing (to me) things are traceable back to a ten-year old’s love of the D&D game.
So, given all this and more I haven’t said, what does D&D mean to me? The answer is easy.
It means everything.
Top art by Erol Otus from the D&D Expert Set, published in 1981 by TSR and now Wizards of the Coast.