Happy 40th Anniversary, Dungeons & Dragons!

As most gamers know by now, this year marks the 40th Anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. I couldn’t possibly sum up everything D&D has meant to me as both a gamer and a person in just one post. So I’m not going to try. All through 2014 I’ll have a series of posts about D&D: my history playing the game, its influence on me, funny and potentially libellous anecdotes. But to start, here is a piece I wrote over five years ago about my introduction to the game which would change my life. Set the TARDIS for 1980 and hold on…

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Bio of a Gaming Geek

Chapter One: The Beginning

October, 1980. A Monday. I remember it was Monday, because at the tender age of ten I found it odd that anyone did anything on a Monday night. It was late fall in Fort McMurray, which meant there was already a foot of snow on the ground and I had started wearing the parka that would be my coat de jour for the next seven months. I was trudging my way to the library, unaware of how much my life is about to be irrevocably altered.

That snowy Monday night in October was my first exposure to a little game called Dungeons & Dragons.

As many life-changing moments do, this one began innocently enough. Some days earlier I was with my mom at the library, picking up my “weekly” supply of books. My mother, for draconian reasons of her own, restricted me to weekly trips to the library. This was for my own good; left to my own devices I would do nothing in my free time but read. The maximum number of books I was permitted to sign out from the library as a juvenile was eight, which taught me two things at an early age: sometimes rules are just dumb, and delayed gratification is not all it is cracked up to be.

So during my weekly oratory against the injustices of public library management, I notice my mother no longer paying attention to me. Curious as to what could possibly be more important than her eldest child’s merest rambling, I look over at the bulletin board she is perusing. While she stands enthralled with some “For Sale” ad or other, a posting catches my eye. It’s the artwork that grabs me, and I recognize it as the cover for a copy of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, which I had finished re-reading just last week. Then I start reading the poster. Role-playing game? Wizards and warriors? Storytelling? I have no idea any of that is, but it has the King Arthur stamp of approval. It looks like it could be fun. Plus whatever it is is being run here at the library, by one of the librarians. My Mom will let me go, because it is bound to be educational (everything that happens in a library is, by my Mom’s reckoning, educational). And it gets me amongst my beloved books one more time during the week; even if it sucks, I can go read.

Having hatched my diabolical plan for bibliophile domination, I swiftly put it into action. I oh-so-casually pointed out the notice, and allowed that, as much as it would be a terrible imposition on my time, attending the event might provide some slight diversion. My mother read the notice over, then checked with the librarian to make sure that a ten year old was welcome at the event. Blast! That might be the sticking point, the flaw in my cunningly crafted plan. For reasons beyond my understanding, there were some things that I was not allowed to do because I just hadn’t put in enough time. As far as I was concerned this was just an example of the adult-parental complex trying to keep me from fun.

But fate, often so cruel in a young boy’s life, smiled upon me this day. The librarian explained that kids my age were not only allowed but encouraged to take part. I was so elated by my unwitting accomplice’s aid, I ignored the kid part. Despite my mother’s standard “We’ll see”, I knew I had succeeded. Sweet library action would be mine!

And thus I found myself trudging through the snow towards the library, the keen anticipation of a few illicit hours with my books (yes, mine) driving me onward. I had already dismissed the event itself as nothing of import, and was planning the best use of my time once inside the library. There were a few books in the children’s section I wanted to read first, then on to the sci-fi juveniles. Once I was finished there, I could…All too soon, I was passing through the doors, and into the warm embrace of my “second” home.

Removing the shell of clothing that protected me from Fort McMurray’s Hoth-like environment (I had seen The Empire Strikes Back that summer which led to several winters of imagining Fort Mac as a rebel outpost on Hoth, despite a disappointing lack of tauntauns), I used the moments usually wasted by this chore to survey the terrain. Yes, yes, this would be doable, I could even see some books that weren’t there the last time. But first, I guess I should at least put in an appearance at this thing. That way, under later interrogation by my mother, I wouldn’t have to lie. Not completely, anyway.

I made my way to the activity room, ignoring the siren call of the stacks (soon, my pretties, soon). Running this thing in the activity room was already strike one. Every kid knew that nothing fun happened in there; it was the domain of “educational films” and “reading camps”. My mother enrolled me in one of that last, just once. I had an immediate and violent allergic reaction to anyone forcing me to read something I didn’t want to, which spread quickly to the other kids. It was suggested to my mother that “reading camps might not stimulate Brent’s imagination enough”, and my time as a biblio-Spartacus was at an end.

But as I entered the room, fearing the worst, some of that old familiar dread went away. No film projector for one thing, so that was a good sign. Steve, the librarian that was obviously in charge of things tonight, saw me at the door and directed me to grab a seat at the table. There were about a half-dozen other kids, sharing books and scribbling things down on various sheets of paper. Paper? Pencils? Wait a minute, I’ve been tricked! Where’s the board, the little plastic or wood pieces? This isn’t a game at all, it’s some sort of…it’s homework! Well, to hell with you, Librarian Steve, I’m not going to sit here and do homework like a chump. I began slowly sliding out of my chair, one eye on Steve the Betrayer lest he catch me making a break for the library proper.

Hey, Brent! I didn’t know you were into D&D too.” My current best friend from school, Kevin, grabbed the seat next to me. Kevin and I did pretty much everything together, including a few things that we instinctively knew our mothers never needed to know. I mean, it isn’t dangerous to jump your bike over an old sewer culvert, it’s only dangerous if you fail. (Mothers just don’t understand that)

What’s D&D?” I asked him by way of hello.

Dungeons and Dragons? You know, the game we’re here to play?” Right, I had forgotten about the so-called game in the flush of my fight-flight response. Hmmm…well, I’d never known Kevin to particularly like homework, maybe there was something here I was missing. So I let him take me through some arcane ritual called “character creation”, and endured the flood of mystical mumbo-jumbo he began spouting. Hit points, armour class, THAC0 (“Which some of the kids call THAC-zero, but that’s so lame”), alignment…as Kevin helped me make scribbles on a sheet of paper, I tried valiantly to assimilate this barrage of new terms and strange usages. Great Obi-wan’s Ghost, what kind of game took this kind of preparation? I mean, I trusted Kevin, but this had better pay off or I would seriously consider changing the password on our tree fort. Maybe some time trapped outside while the Empire was attacking would set him straight.

Once we finished that process it was time to play the game, and one thing became clear almost immediately: I would not be changing that password.

Steve starting spinning his intricately woven tapestry of adventure (which I’m sure was something as simple as, “You guys are in a town on the border of a kingdom, and nearby there is a dungeon that needs to be cleared of monsters. Do you go?”) and we were off! I was brave Sir Arthur (the king had to start somewhere, right?), a newly-dubbed knight valiantly defending the world from evil (the fact that we were defending the world from evil by going to evil’s home, kicking in their door and taking their stuff wasn’t a conundrum I would consider until much later). At that moment we were the Good Guys of Much Goodliness, and if defending the world from Most Vile Evilness meant pulling off a series of armed B&Es, then by all the Gods Great and Small that is what we would do. Huzzah!

That was at 7:15 pm. By 7:25 Sir Arthur was dead, victim of foul kobolds and their insidious net trap. I was despondent! What had I done wrong? Now my character was dead, and I probably had to leave or something. So overwhelming was my grief and despair, that I never even considered going into the library to read. How could mere stories, simple words on a page, compare to this? Any schmuck could read a book. I was living it! Except that I wasn’t anymore, my avatar in that world having met a horrible and ignoble end.

Luckily for me, the game and Kevin seemed to have a solution. “Here,” he said, handing me the book. “Just roll up another character. Steve will fit you in when you finish.” Could it be that easy? I flashed through the five stages of grief for poor, fallen Sir Arthur in the time it took me to create Anathriel, Elf Warrior/Mage and Defender of the Woodland Vales, and I was back in the game! Elves were cool; they could fight and cast spells. That was obviously the flaw in my poor, pathetic knight. After all, if the game uses magic, I should too, right? Anathriel was the obvious solution, a character to last the ages! And the ages ended at about 7:43.

The rest of that night passed in a haze of brave adventure, hurried eulogizing, and even more hurried character creation. I left only reluctantly, and then only because Steve turned out the lights (it was an embarrassment to me that, as much as I loved the place, I couldn’t stand to be in a darkened library). I recounted my courageous deeds to my parents while getting ready for bed. Though they hid it well behind the same veneer of tolerant boredom they used when I described every story I read, I could tell that they were suitably impressed by my exploits.

Impressed enough for my mother to allow me to go back, week after week, month after month. The numbers of kids grew, until we were storming the caverns of The Keep on the Borderlands with a veritable army of adventurers, sometimes twenty strong. We were not so much a “merry band” of adventurers, more a merry, angry mob. Looking back, I’m surprised the monsters didn’t just run when they heard us coming. But eventually we cleared out that dungeon, and Steve directed us to other locales in our shared world. It seemed there was an epidemic of small, out-of-the-way towns and villages suffering from dungeon infestation, just waiting for our mob to come along and clear them out.

This pattern continued for a while, as I mastered the nuances of the game. Steve was our Dungeon Master until there were just too many of us to easily handle at one table. Then he deputized some of the more experienced players, and we had several groups of stalwart heroes bravely committing home-invasions and robbing tombs all across the world (which I later discovered was called “Greyhawk”. Gawd, even the name of the world was cool!). Steve ran our club until about the time I entered junior high school, and then moved away. By that time I was playing with my friends at home, and sometimes at school where one of the teachers turned out to be a Dungeon Master as well. And then I discovered Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and that sealed my fate as a geek and ensured I would not feel the touch of a woman until Grade 10. Luckily, it meant I wouldn’t really care about the touch of a woman until then, either.

Looking back on it, I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I had not discovered Dungeons and Dragons. It was such a seminal event in my life, giving rise to so many of the other decisions and interests that filled my adolescence, that I cannot picture the person I would have become without it. I know that, for anyone not hooked into the role-playing game experience, it might seem like I’m overstating the game’s importance. But when I say this game changed my life, it isn’t hyperbole, just simple fact.

Consider my reading habits. I was a voracious reader, it’s true. But I was very prejudiced about what I wanted to read, and the thought of reading just to learn or that learning could be enjoyable was anathema to me. But Dungeons and Dragons changed that; suddenly, there were things I wanted to know more about, even if just to know more about something than one of my peers. That led to me reading books on subjects I would normally have never touched. Over the years that range of reading has grown to include, but is not limited to: history (various periods covering approx. 6000 years of human existence), mythology (slanted towards Western myths, but with a smattering of everyone else), comparative anthropology, linguistic history, music theory and history, history of warfare (various periods, including methods, materials, and tactics), political science, psychology, sociology, macro- and micro-economics, forensics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, logic, game theory, grammar, survey of literature (several periods, several cultures), philosophy, comparative theology, biology, animal behaviour, wilderness survival, agriculture, history of cooking, painting, art history, leatherworking, woodworking…the list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the point. I studied everything on this list because of D&D and the other role-playing games that followed. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on any of these subjects. But barring an individual who has specialized in one of them, I probably know more about them than a high school grad with three years of college could honestly be expected to know.

And then there are the less tangible things that D&D taught me, like developing imagination, storytelling skills, socialization (a thing not usually associated with D&D, but true nonetheless), problem solving, active listening, acting/speaking skills. Of course there are other ways to gain these skills, but what one activity will grant you experience in all of them at once? Add to that the number of people I’ve had the privilege and the misfortune (add diplomacy to the list) to meet through the game over the years, and the gains column starts to look very full indeed.

And if all of that isn’t enough, then suffice it to say that I have derived more simple joy playing this game over the last 27 35 years than I have in a great many other activities so far. Not bad for a chance meeting in a library check-out line, eh?

Now, why don’t you snag that rulebook, and we’ll see about rolling you up a character. See, the nearby town of Ashenford is suffering from an infestation of kobolds, and they need a brave adventurer or three to come clean them out…


Give and Take

As I mentioned in my New Year’s resolution post, I want to branch out and take on some guest blogging in the coming year. Writing for my blog is all well and good, and I obviously love it or I wouldn’t keep doing it. I love writing about any gamerly topic that pops into my head, and I especially like making up words like gamerly. Hey, my blog, I decide what’s proper language, thank-you very much.

But sometimes one can have too much freedom. I discovered during the 30 Days of GMing Challenge that I enjoy writing to task, committing myself to a topic I might not have chosen and seeing what develops. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes challenging, but it was always interesting. And interesting gets me out of bed in the morning.

To keep that alive, I’m making an open offer to anyone with a gaming blog: I’ll write a guest post for you. If you’ve looked around here you have a pretty good idea of my style. You pick the topic and give me a deadline, I’ll deliver a print-ready post. A few stipulations:

1) Deadline must be at least 2 weeks from date of initial request; I need time to fit your post into my schedule.

2) I’m credited for the post, with a link back to my blog.

3) I’ll write on any gaming related topic you’d like, but I’d like to keep the post in the 500-1000 word range. If I think the subject is too broad I reserve the right to narrow the scope or write multiple posts. Which I chose is dependant on my schedule and how you’d like to post.

4) I don’t write attack or smear pieces. I stay positive on my blog and if I’m visiting yours I’m going to bring that with me.

That’s it. If you’re interested in having me as a guest on your blog, please send your inquiry to: brent.jans (at) gmail.com. Please use the subject line “Guest Post” so I can pick it out of the chatter.

At the same time, I’d love to have guests here on Renaissance Gamer. If you’d be interested in writing a guest post for my blog, drop me a line at the same address. I’ll make sure you are credited and linked, and you can write something that interests you or about a topic I provide. Otherwise, the rules from above apply, just in reverse.

Tomorrow we get back to our long-dormant Campaign Creation with a closer look at our main NPCs. Until then, keep playing!

How Things Work: Gamer Edition

There’s plenty of misinformation, myth, and outright cow-dooky floating around about how things worked in Medieval times. How armour worked, which swords were better, how they actually fought, all of these are fodder for at-the-table discussion and, let’s be honest, argument. After all, it isn’t like we all wear and use this stuff any more, so how can we really know how it all worked? Lucky for us, there are folks out there who not only figured out how these things work but uploaded them to the Internet.

I present to you five videos on subjects I’ve had come up at the table before. While they may not put an end to the arguments, at least you’ll go in better informed.

1. How Torches Work – It doesn’t really seem like this would need explaining, but you’d be surprised at how many folks think a torch is just a big flash-light. Here’s a video by Lindy Beige, explaining what a torch actually does for you:

2. What You Can Do in Armour – This one gets argued about discussed a lot, and most people (and games, sadly) are wrong. Here, for instance, is a video of some very spry plate-clad combatants. And before anyone asks, they are wearing steel replicas of actual armour, not aluminium or other prop materials.

3. How Fast Can You Fire a Bow? – Okay, the voice-over for this video is pretty bad, and you are going to hate the name Lars Anderson when it’s done. But it is a pretty impressive display of what is possible when using a bow.

4. Everybody was Sword-and-Shield Fighting! – This one’s a bit long, but a really good overview of fighting with sword and shield, specifically the round shield.

5. Katana Mythology – This one gets a lot of discussion, because the katana has become a near-mythological weapon thanks mostly to the movies. While this specific video is Part 3, it deals with some of the most common myths surrounding this Japanese blade and puts the weapon in context with other weapons. The other parts are good viewing as well.

There you have it! Five videos to quell (or stoke) the flames of argument around the gaming table. Do you have any favourite myth-busting videos you watch? Share them in the comments!

GMs, It’s Cold Outside!

In honour of the polar vortex spreading record low temperatures across North America, let’s talk about cold weather and adventuring. With the exception of a relatively recent Pathfinder Adventure Path ([shameless plug] Reign of Winter [/shameless plug]) and the odd adventure here and there, I haven’t seen a cold weather environment used to much effect in role-playing games. Usually the GM mentions, “It’s very cold, make a [system equivilent to a Fortitude save] check. If you fail, take damage from the cold.” Even most settings deal with cold environments as if they were just an ongoing damage-dealing trap, which the players just have to take appropriate steps to avoid. Once they’ve taken those steps, the cold is no longer a problem.

But as anyone who has lived in a cold climate (myself included) can tell you, dealing with a winter environment is more than swaddling yourself in warm clothing. There are challenges present even after you’ve dealt with the deadly cold. Challenges the cunning GM can put to good use. Here are two of them.

Blinded by the light – While daylight hours are short in most cold climates, bright sunny days bring their own special challenge in a snowy environment. Photokeratitis, or “snow blindness”, is caused by sunlight reflecting off of the unbroken white landscape and bouncing into the eyes, overexposing them to ultraviolet (UV) light. It causes the eyes to water excessively, become bloodshot, and results in inflammation and pain unless protection is worn. It doesn’t take long to occur and even brief exposures can damage. Of course, we deal with it by wearing sunglasses when out in the snow on a bright day. But not too many fantasy games feature sunglasses on the equipment list, so your party will have to find other solutions.

“Did anyone else hear that cracking sound?” – One of the most nervous moments in travelling in a cold climate involves crossing strange ice. While frozen lakes, rivers, and streams provide some ease of travel they also offer a unique danger. As everyone knows, ice forms when water cools below its freezing point. What most people don’t know is that it doesn’t always form evenly or uniformly. There can be air pockets, weak points, and cracks, either as a natural process of water freezing or from a series of freezes and thaws. So even ice that feels solid can have flaws which will plunge the unwary and unprepared into freezing cold water. Add in the almost inevitable armor and loads of equipment, and the odds of a character taking an unexpected “polar bear dip” go up.

Now, the players might think it’s just a matter of making the appropriate check to avoid drowning and they’re good. But it’s worse than that. Not only do they have the usual issue of trying to stay afloat with armor and equipment, but now there are two new factors: cold and ice. Swimming in (literally) ice cold water is a danger unto itself; people can die within minutes of immersion. The process of succumbing to the cold will also make swimming more difficult, as muscles cool and seize. Add that second element, ice, and things become even more dire. Don’t forget, whatever body of water they fell into has a solid sheet of ice over its surface. Yes, they’ve made a hole, but that hole will be very hard to find with eyes freezing from the cold. And if they fell through into a river, the current may drag them away from potential salvation. There’s a very good reason any seasoned cold-climate traveller takes precautions against falling through the ice.

A few other cold-climate tips to keep in mind:

– While cold weather clothing protects the adventurers from the environment, it also makes simple tasks more difficult. Dealing with straps and buckles on bags and backpacks when you’re wearing mittens, for instance, takes getting used to. Trying to grab things out of a pack during combat with mittens would be awkward at best. Also, while snowshoes might make overland travel easier, they would impede movement at the tactical level; not a lot of fancy footwork you can pull off with snowshoes on.

– In extreme cold, items which are normally resilient or pliable can become brittle and easily broken. Aluminium zippers, for instance, often fail in extreme cold because the teeth become brittle and sheer off. This may not affect items made for extreme conditions, but keep it in mind for any regular items the players carry.

– Unless the characters have all their potions strapped next to their skin, they might have to get used to using “Slushies of Cure Light Wounds” or “Popsicles of Bull’s Strength”. Potions are mostly water, after all. And even if they can wait until the potions thaw, is the cold having an effect on the potion’s potency?

– Moving around in a cold environment puts more strain on the body than normal. A person must often eat more just to maintain the same energy level, as their body deals with exertion in extreme cold. Keep an eye on the party’s ration levels…

So that’s a little taste of things to keep in mind the next time your group finds itself in colder climes. While the cold is definitely a danger, there are many other considerations when travelling in a frozen environment. Sprinkle a few of these in just to give your players a taste of winter.

How do present the environment to your players? Has a GM ever done a good job of immersing you in your environment? Let us know in the comments.