A week ago I noted that a new version of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook made its debut. Though it has been about 30 years since I last played D&D, I immediately ordered a copy, and was surprised and delighted when it arrived today. I hadn’t expected to get it for a few more days.
It is a beautiful book, its thick, glossy cover and heavy color pages reminiscent of a textbook. And in a way it is a textbook. If anything in my childhood taught me how to exercise my imagination in a fun and unique way, it was Dungeons & Dragons.
As I sat on the couch running my hands across the pages, my son, who turned five earlier this summer, saw Tyler Jacobson’s wonderful cover art and asked what the book was about.
“It’s a Dungeons & Dragons book,” I told him. Being a five, he was familiar with both dungeons and dragons. But possibly not together in a book. So while his next question was inevitable, he asked it with sincere curiosity.
“Daddy, what’s Dungeons & Dragons?”
As he spoke, I could almost hear myself asking the same question, and it was as if I’d been suddenly transported back to my third grade classroom at Cedar Hill Elementary school in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Though it’s been more than 30 years, three things stand out about Mrs. Taft’s third grade class. First, each morning we started the day with aerobics, a la Richard Simmons, after which Mrs. Taft would read to us from a book. The book I remember best of all was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.
Second, I wrote my very first story in that classroom, prompted by something I’d read in my social studies book.
Third, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons.
My memory is a little hazy, but another kid in the class asked me if I’d ever played D&D.
“What’s D&D?” I asked, in much the same way my son asked me the question. I can’t recall if my new friend tried to explain it to me. Eventually, he invited me over to his house, and showed me what it was. We sat at the kitchen table, with red and blue books scattered about, with paper and pencil, and with a bag that contained some of the strangest-looking dice I’d ever seen. I created my first character that day, and played in my first adventure.
For the next several years, probably until 1989 or so, I was fairly obsessed with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons. After an extended begging campaign, I managed to acquire the D&D Basic Set with the Keep on the Borderlands module. For a long time, I thought that was all that existed, but it made no difference. I played that module over and over again.
At some point I learned of the Expert Set and the module that came with that set, Castle Amber, became my personal favorite. I didn’t play in big campaigns with lots of people. The most I ever played with at one time was maybe four or five others, and that was pretty rare. But I played with some people more regularly than others.
My cousins, Jonathan and Mitchell, were two that I’d play with regularly when I was visiting my grandparents in New York. Our most memorable session took place when we played the Tomb of Horrors module. I say “memorable” because it is memorable to my cousins. I have very little memory of it–although I do recall the demi-liche that lurked within the pages of that green-covered book.
When I told him I was writing this article, Jonathan recounted (in the nicest possible terms) the manner in which I completely lost my cool when my battle-weary character finally succumbed to the machination of our sadistic dungeon master. Picture George Brett and the pine tar incident and you’ll have some idea of what I mean by “lost my cool.”
Beginning around 1984, I mostly stopped playing modules because I couldn’t get my hands on them. Instead, my friends and I would make up the stories as we went along. We had the infinitely large dungeon of our imaginations, and that was good enough for us. We played while we walked to school. We played while we walked back home. That was probably the apogee for me. The most fun I had was playing those ad hoc adventures going to or from the school.
When I say that I was obsessed with the idea of D&D, I mean that literally. I read through the books much more than I actually played. I was fascinated by the mechanics of the game, by the gears that turned behind the scenes to make the game work the way that it did. It was a revelation to me that the systems that underpinned the adventures could enhance the adventures into edge-of-your-seat thrillers that would stretch my imagination to its limits. I loved the statistical nature of the game, but as a 10 or 12 year-old, didn’t understand that what I was seeing was a modeling and simulation framework done outside the nuts and bolts of a computer.
It took a little while, but I eventually realized, even at that young age, that those strangely shaped dice, coupled with the tables in the books, provided a set of “universal laws” that made game play fun, and exciting, while leaving something of the element of chance to surprise you–just like life.
So I read and re-read all of the books that came with the Basic Set, and all of the books that came with the Expert set, but there was one thing I coveted above all else in those years that I was actively playing D&D: the Player’s Handbook.
Friends of mine had the Handbook, and when I was brought into its proximity, I’d ignore my friends and go through the book slowly, page-by-page, absorbing and much as I could, though probably understanding less than half. On rare occasions, they’d lend me the book and I’d sit up nights with a flashlight, reading it until the words began to blur. I wanted that book so badly, but I never managed to get one.
Years passed and my interest in D&D faded, but never entirely went away. Some of it was replaced by other adolescent interests, and some of it was absorbed by computer games, especially the Ultima series of games produced by Lord British. Those games seemed to encapsulate much of what I loved about D&D, and the game never refused to play when I wanted to play, unlike my friends, many of whom grew out of the game.
Perhaps this makes it a little more understandable why I would buy the new edition of the Player’s Handbook thirty years after I stopped playing. Buying the book and flipping through it carefully when it arrived brought back all of the excitement I experienced as kid. The rules have changed somewhat, the art is different, but the magic is still there.
There is no way I could explain all of this to my five-year-old, not yet, which I why I sat down to write this article. What I did tell him, when he asked me what Dungeons & Dragons was this:
“Well, it’s a game.”
“What kind of game, Daddy?”
I squatted down beside him and said, “It’s a game where you get to pretend to be all different kinds of people, going on adventures, fighting monsters, collecting treasure, solving puzzles.”
His eyes widened a little, and I felt like I was looking back through time to myself, when I asked my classmate what D&D was and he began to explain. “There a game for that?” he said. “How do you win?”
“That’s a little complicated,” I said, “but you get a great prize whether you win or lose.”
“What prize?” he asked.
“A good story that you’ve made up using your imagination. And friends. Lots of friends.”