Reflections on pen and paper games

I recently watched The Dungeon Masters (2008) on a whim, hoping to gain some insight on the lives and styles of other pen and paper game referees. The movie turned out to be a work of exploitation. The documentary featured obviously edited (and later I would learn, forced) conversations arranged in such a fashion as to suggest that the subjects were highly dysfunctional people. It is implied by pernicious editing that the social anxieties and failings of the subjects can be attributed to their pen and paper hobbies. I am not writing today to review the film however, but to speak on the topics which it compelled me to contemplate. Why do I play pen and paper games, and what do I “get out” of it? In essence I would like to speak to the topics The Dungeon Masters may have posed in a more ethical and less sensational documentary.

I first got into pen and paper games after playing Baldur’s Gate, a computer game bound by the rule set of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition. I had spoken of my interest in the game at school, which I do to this day still consider one of the finest games ever produced, and a friend referred me to a fellow who actually lived down the block, Ian. Ian supposedly had books which would allow you to play a game like Baldur’s Gate, but with pen and paper. I can’t recall how I tracked him down, I think he walked home from school the same route I did. I introduced myself and eventually we came acquaintances. He explained the basic concept of the game, an interactive oral story telling coop bound by a complex system of rules, and I was instantly enraptured. I thought Ian was so cool, because he happened to know about these sort of games, although he wanted little to do with me because I was several years younger than him. Interacting with middle schoolers while in high school was considered a social stigma, apparently even for a D&D nerd, but I was finally able to convince him to tell me his Everquest server, and I ran into him in that “digital world” a few times. This was all a general scheme by myself and my friend Thom to borrow his player’s handbook. Eventually I took the leap and asked him if I could borrow the book he so fiercely defended as his prized possession. He refused, but after a few more weeks of nagging he finally relented, and I got my hands on a pristine condition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition Player’s Handbook (PHB).

Due to school obligations we were unable to dive into the book the week it was loaned to us, and soon Ian demanded his precious back. I painfully surrendered the tome I had been unable to explore, but just from a few quick glances I was determined to try playing this game. So what to do when you are poor, not much liked by your parents and without gaming gear? Use the Baldur’s Gate game manual of course! Our first foray into D&D was informed by such a manual, which included a very truncated version of the PHB and explained much of the basic D&D game mechanics. It did not however have a THAC0 chart printed in it, so me and Thom reasoned that the natural way to determine one of the most important character statistics in the game was to randomly roll it when you first created your character, and to keep that number forever. Hence our first wizard, Brandon the Necromancer, played by, you guessed it, Brandon – had a THAc0 of 6, while our fighter had an 18 or something. The Baldur’s Gate manual soon became the holy primer on D&D matters and we attempted to use it as a source book, making up rules for whatever gaps it did not cover.

I also knew by reading the few pages of the PHB I had been able to before it was returned and by recalling Ian’s description of the gameplay, that one of the players was supposed to be a “dungeon master,” or supreme referee who created and handled the game world the players interacted with. A natural strategy game player and storyteller, I immediately took up this job. Somehow I managed to create adventures without use of the critical Monstrous Manual (MM), which includes statistics and information on introducing fantasy creatures into your games, or Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), which teaches you how to actually run games. I recall spending an afternoon at my friend Steve’s house. Me and Thom had specifically gone over there to introduce the idea of D&D to Steve, to sell him on it, so that we could get our first game going. I made my pitch like a salesman while we hung out in the pool and discussed manhunt and pro wrestling. Steve reluctantly gave it a “sure” and off we went. Also included in the first game was Ryan. Other first group gamers were Brandon and Jeremy.

The first game was a great moment in my life – combining awe, pure fun and imagination. I had managed to get back the PHB from Ian for the day so we could “roll up” characters. But we still made characters the “Baldur’s Gate way” and totally fucked up our character stats. Regardless, my players became obsessed with buying random animals from the PHB’s equipment section, as they found they all had at least sixty to one hundred gold, and small critters like chickens and goats cost mere copper and silver pieces.  The first party had traveling with it approximately sixty chickens, which they used to disarm traps, the messy way. The animal retinue also included a spider money trained to do “DX suck it” named Shawn Michaels and a pot belly pig named Bam Bam Bigelow. The first adventure we played was one that I found online, “ADND Fast-Play” by Jeff Grubb. The first time we played it I followed the instructions by the numbers but as is the nature of D&D, ran into a number of unexpected reactions by my players. This I instantly recognized was the beauty of this game, the ability to do “anything” without it being simply a cheesy game of make-believe. You could create events with verisimilitude and gravity, and greatly entertain yourself and others while doing it. The first game was filled with a nearly endless wall of laughter, as the hopeless animals were sent to their death against the nasties of the dungeon. I even threw in some random encounters, including a wounded and defenseless phoenix (I expected the players to save and nurse back to health), which was slain by the party and made them instantly rich. By that point I had bought a Monstrous Manual, but had no idea of how to use it.

For the next few months we played the same scenario over and over again. Each time I changed it somewhat, until eventually it transformed into a campaign setting. As we eventually spent our hard won Christmas and Birthday dollars on D&D books, I learned about the Forgotten Realms setting, and my campaign eventually turned out to be taking place in a part of Faerun. I always stayed close to what I knew – Baldur’s Gate, in those early years. While I first took the game to be canon for the city of Baldur’s Gate and environs, I eventually became more creative and experimental as I matured into a capable and well liked Dungeon Master. Me and my friends got so into D&D we would play it sometimes three or four days after school. In the next part of this blog I’ll talk about whats so compelling about the game and why I played it, then and now.