I came across this article recently, thanks to Shaheen Savarnejad about the venerable role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) developing its fifth edition. It got me thinking about my own history with the genre in its various aspects.
All kids engage in role-playing when they play. My son is a big fan of Super Sentai, the series of Japanese superhero TV shows and movies that made its way overseas as the Power Rangers. He sometimes takes the role of the leader, the Red Ranger in one of the various teams. He has also invented his own original Super Sentai, the Spin Rangers, who battle evil whenever it appears around our house.
The earliest I actually remember from my own childhood comes from elementary school. It must have been around 1980, because after seeing The Empire Strikes Back my friends and I would often re-enact the Hoth snow planet battle outside in the winter. Winnipeg in January is, of course, the perfect place to recreate a frozen wasteland. I was also fortunate enough to have possessed the Han Solo jacket, a navy blue parka with a fur-lined hood, like Harrison Ford wore in those scenes. I don’t remember how many times I must have saved Luke from freezing by shoving him inside the guts of an imaginary Tauntaun. (Twenty-five Geek Points if you remember the line he said just after!) We also built endless snow forts to garrison the school from the inevitable hordes of Snow Walkers that came from the Junior High across the field.
It was also in elementary school when I first played the D&D games. I received a set of the Basic Rules (the ones that came in a red box) for Christmas and played with a friend that lived on my street. We didn’t really understand the rules, as they were a little too complex for us. As a result, we made our own rules and enjoyed the game just as much.
As I got into junior high, I started to understand what the actual rules were, and occasionally played with different groups of friends. One game in particular stands out in my memories, and that was playing a game of Advanced D&D with a bunch of guys, including my friend Rob. We were the newest members of the game, and hadn’t played the Advanced rules before, so we made it part of our characters. We played as twin brother Barbarians, B’rt the Decapitator and ErrrnEE the Disembowelor. Our response to most problems was “I hit it with my axe.” I remember having a lot of fun, all while actually learning how to play the game.
From there, I started playing with another small group of friends using the game Palladium. Having picked up the basics of table-top RPGs, I was able to enjoy it more while still being challenged. I also spent a lot of time just reading the rulebooks and encyclopedic manuals. I occasionally leaf through one or the other just for kicks.
Through the friend that ran the Palladium games I met another group of friends, one of who (named John) was involved in writing a game of his own. It was this game that I have my fondest memories of table-top RPG playing. We had a varied group, who all played in (and out) of character very well. We spent countless hours exploring the world we had created, while helping John to develop the rules he was making.
I tried my hand at the rule-making part of the game as well, specifically on how to introduce science-fiction elements into what was basically a fantasy game. It was a challenge, but a lot of fun. I also got to play what was my most memorable character, a space fighter pilot who crash-landed on the world in which the game. It was a great fish-out-of-water story, and there was a lot of comedic elements between the character and the other party members.
The best part of gaming in this way is the social element. The group consisted of whoever could make it that night, while the others were “battling evil on another plane.” As we played we sometimes took breaks while one or more of us were going for snacks, playing video games, and so on. It was very casual, and how I imagine most gaming groups act.
It was about this time as well that I started playing the video game versions of RPGs as well. That will be the subject of Part Two.