2009 marks two important anniversaries for me: the 40th anniversary of my birth and the 30th of my introduction into the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games. Of the two, the latter is far more interesting to anyone reading this column, not least of all because of the strange turn of events that set me on the path to a lifetime of gaming.
August 1979 saw the release of Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, the third and final volume of his magnum opus, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. D&D, in its various forms, had by then become a craze at high schools and on college campuses across the United States, making it the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles interested in this "strange new fantasy game."
August 1979 also saw the disappearance of a Michigan State University student by the name of James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert was a 16 year-old child prodigy with a history of clinical depression and drug abuse; he was also a player of Dungeons & Dragons. When the young man went missing, his family hired a private investigator, William C. Dear, to determine what happened to him. At first, Dear believed that Egbert had gone into the steam tunnels beneath the MSU campus while playing a "live action" version of D&D and become lost. Although Dear's initial hypothesis proved incorrect -- Egbert had never played D&D while at college, and although he had entered the steam tunnels in a failed attempt to commit suicide, the press widely reported the former story as if it were true. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Dungeons & Dragons, often without any real understanding of what the game was about or how it was played.
Among those who took an interest in D&D was my father, who'd read these news reports and found the whole thing baffling. Seeing his interest in the game, my mother then decided to acquire a copy of Dungeons & Dragons -- the new Basic Set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes -- which she bought out of the Sears Catalog. When she presented it to my father, he couldn't understand why my mother had purchased it. He was interested in reading news stories about the game, but he had no interest in the game itself. And so that Basic Set rested in a hallway linen closet, unopened, as summer turned into fall and the weather grew colder in suburban Baltimore.
Every Christmas vacation, it was the tradition of my friends and I to go from house to house, checking out each other's presents and declaring who had gotten the best gifts that year. My friend, Mike, had received a board game called Dungeon!, in which the players portrayed heroes, elves, and wizards as they explored a labyrinthine series of rooms, inside of which there were numerous monsters guarding valuable treasures and magic. The game enthralled us and we played it for hours on end. Everything about the game, particularly its odd assortment of monsters with funny names like "black pudding" - isn't that a sausage of some kind? - held our attention and we all declared Mike the "winner" of that year's Christmas gift competition.
When I went home, I remembered that box in the linen closet and asked my mother if I could open up the game and see what was inside. I assumed, based on the similarity of their names and the fact that both games were made by TSR Hobbies, that Dungeons & Dragons would be fairly similar to Dungeon! How wrong I was! Opening the box, I found two books -- a rulebook and an "adventure module" entitled In Search of the Unknown -- a catalog of other TSR offerings, and a coupon for polyhedral dice. So great was the demand for those funky Platonic solids that TSR's supplier couldn't keep up and so many boxes of the Basic Set included laminated chits in place of dice as a stop-gap measure, along with that coupon.