In honor of Speak Out With Your Geek Out, I’ve published some excerpts from my non-fiction book from McFarland Press, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. In this installment I cover my tabletop role-playing experience from the Red Box Basic set through 3.5 Edition.
I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in elementary school and had been playing it for some time before I became acquainted with The Lord of the Rings. Much to my surprise, all the fantasy tropes were there. Further research unearthed that they were officially present in Dungeons & Dragons until the Tolkien estate asked TSR to remove the copyrighted names of Balrogs and hobbits. The Lord of the Rings series helped me write three book reports in junior high. Of course, The Lord of the Rings isn’t technically a trilogy – it’s actually six volumes spread amongst three books.
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with the “red box” Basic set. My mother helped me play the very first game. Once I got the hang of it, I gathered up my neighbors (Kenny, Kevin, and George) and with me in the role of Dungeon Master, we were off.
My aunt, not understanding the difference between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons, bought me all the hardcover books. I read them in wonder, hoping one day to be able to advance to, well, advanced.
By the time I graduated from elementary school, I had access to a larger pool of players. The group increased to four: two Jasons, Doug, and Oren. By the time I reached high school, the group grew larger: Rob, Jeremy, Kurt, Bill, Joe and others who came and went. We played every weekend for hours, sometimes twice a weekend, ignorant that Dungeons & Dragons was primarily popular with college kids. We played two entire campaigns, one using the Basic edition rules and one using the 1st Edition rules, before I graduated high school.
With the advent of computers, text-based games like ADVENT and DNGEON mimicked the endless dungeon exploration and battle against monsters. My first computer gaming experience was via a PET computer in elementary school, wherein I had the opportunity to challenge my wits against the great wizard Zot in the game Wizard’s Castle. I found the game too difficult. At age nine I was still grasping the basics of role-playing games.
DUNGEN was eventually released by Infocom as Zork. My parents insisted on purchasing a computer system instead of a game console, a decision I disagreed with at the time (I wanted an Odyssey) but one that in retrospect changed my life for the better. It was thanks to our Atari 800 that I was introduced to Zork.
I still remember the struggle to open a locked door in Zork. All we had was a letter opener and a placemat. After days of puzzling over how to get through the door, it hit me in a flash – slide the placemat under the door, push the letter opener into the lock, knock the key out of the lock on the other side, and then pull the placemat back! It’s a triumph that stuck with me decades later. In all my years of gaming, few games have provided as satisfying an experience.
Even Zork couldn’t capture the feel of a party of characters however. Text-based games could only handle one player at a time until the advent of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). In 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University created the first MUD, a nod to its dungeon-crawling predecessors. Following in the footsteps of the single-player computer games, MUDs allowed players to adventure together in groups just like the Fellowship. The goal was to accumulate enough points to become a wizard, like Gandalf, and thereby be granted powers that mere mortals did not possess.
My experience with MUDs began with Ivory Towers. In Ivory Towers two different-aligned cities, one chaotic the other lawful, battled in an endless struggle against each other. My character, Lamech, ascended in the ranks of a tight hierarchy of chaotic priests. Lamech was a non-combatant, a novelty in a bloodthirsty world where killing other player characters was the norm.
It’s noteworthy that I was playing Ivory Towers at the same time Indra Singh was playing Shades, a rival MUD. Shades’ players were reviled across Ivory Towers, who would invade when Shades was down (or they were bored), gleefully committing mass murder in a bloody invasion that ended as quickly as it started.
Eventually, I switched to the Finnish LPMUD BatMUD. I made and lost friends on BatMUD, and even met my spouse Amber there. After a long and storied history as a satyr paladin known as Talien Radisgad, I left BatMUD to join the coding staff of another LPMUD, RetroMUD.
Over a decade of experience as an administrator on RetroMUD led to my Master’s thesis, The Impact of Anonymity on Disinhibitive Behavior Through Computer-Mediated Communication. I also became a staff reviewer for the MUD section of Gamers.com, which gave me an opportunity to view the breadth and depth of MUDs at the height of their popularity.
Given the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons across campuses in America, it was ironic that I had difficulty finding pen-and-paper gamers in college. When I moved to Michigan to pursue my Masters degree, I ran a brief 2nd Edition campaign with players from RetroMUD: Darren, Damien, Amber, and Chris.
In 1980, computer technology had advanced enough to make graphic visualizations feasible. Rogue, created by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold, bridged the gap between the old text-based games and the new graphics, exchanging text symbols for dungeon icons.
Rogue was a solitary dungeon crawl with randomly generated obstacles. The goal was to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor from the lowest level of the dungeon and escape with it. I played Rogue extensively on the Atari 520 ST, but never made it to the bottom level. The Ur-viles inevitably showed up and all was lost.
As computers advanced, MUDs advanced along with them. When graphics became detailed enough to represent characters in much the same way that miniatures were used for Chainmail, MMORPGs became feasible. The first MMORPG was Neverwinter Nights, which debuted on American Online in 1991. With a two-dimensional graphical interface, players were granted a top-down view of the universe. Parties were formed, dungeons were delved, and the rich tradition of the Fellowship continued.
In the late 90s, I became a staff reviewer for All Game Guide. There were so many computer games that it was difficult to keep up. It gave me an appreciation for the wide range of games available for the PC.
By 1997, the MMORPG scene exploded with Ultima Online. Created by Richard Garriot, Starr Long, Rick Delashmit and later Raph Koster, Ultima Online took on the challenge of creating a fully realized universe outside the dungeon that could support an entire population of adventurers, villagers, and monsters. Ultima Online was an improvement over Neverwinter Nights with its three-quarters view from above. I played Ultima Online on a trial basis.
I was an active member of the MUD-Dev mailing list, on which MUD creators and MMORPG collaborators spoke as equals. During that time, the MMORPG coders shared the challenges they faced, challenges that MUD coders had been dealing with for years. I had several constructive conversations with some of the founders of MMORPGs, including Raph Koster. Despite the change in format, the issues bringing people together for a grand old fantasy adventure were still the same.
In 1999, EverQuest provided a three-dimensional graphical environment that went beyond tile-based representation. Characters walked, ran, jumped, swam, and later rode mounts. EverQuest was rapidly followed by Asheron’s Call in 1999 and Dark Ages of Camelot in 2001. I played the free three-month trial of Asheron’s Call.
The Open Game License (OGL) movement arrived in 2000. The OGL was an open content license published by Wizards of the Coast for role-playing games. The OGL movement, spearheaded by Ryan Dancey, gave hundreds of small businesses the chance to contribute rules and adventures to Dungeons & Dragons. It also gave struggling writers an opportunity to get published. I authored several game accessories compatible with Dungeons & Dragons under the OGL, published by Alderac Entertainment Group, Goodman Games, Malladin’s Gate, MonkeyGod Enterprises, Otherworld Creations, Paradigm Concepts, Privateer Press, Reality Deviant Publications, RPG Objects, and Ronin Arts. I also wrote articles for a variety of periodicals, including D20 Filtered, Dragon Magazine, Pyramid, and the RPG Times. My ongoing love affair with Dungeons & Dragons continues to this day as an action horror columnist for RPG.net and RPG Examiner for knotmove.com.
I returned to the East Coast to co-DM a 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign with Robert Taylor for Amber, Matt, Jeremy, George, two Joes, Melissa, and Mike. After my son was born, Jeremy, George, the same two Joes, and Bill now play a d20 Modern/Delta Green game once a month on Long Island.
All this week, from Monday, September 12th to Friday, September 16th, you can participate in Speak Out With Your Geek Out by posting about what geeky hobby you love. Then, tell us why we should try it, too. Leave your fears (and edition wars) at the door. Forget about your latest rant. Tap into that well of positive energy and share in the excitement of all things geek.