As strange as that was, even more strange was that D&D contained no board. The rulebook was much thicker than that of Dungeon! -- 48 pages -- and, while I recognized a few things in its pages from the board game I'd played at Mike's house, there was much that made no sense to me. The idea of creating a character to play a game was an alien concept to me at age 10, as was the notion of a player -- the Dungeon Master -- who "ran" the game for the other players, rather than participating in the same way that they did.
Confused, I took the Basic Set over to Mike's house the next time we got together and my friends and I attempted to figure out how to play this crazy game. We used Dungeon! as a model, and took out large pieces of construction paper and cardboard on which we drew our dungeon maps, cannibalizing markers and playing pieces from other games like Monopoly and Clue to represent characters, monsters, and treasure. The end result was a peculiar hybrid entertainment, neither pure board game nor quite like roleplaying games as we eventually came to know them, but we had fun and kept refining our supposed understanding of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.
At some point, Mike's teenaged older brother, who'd normally never taken any interest in us, came over to see what we were doing. When we explained that we were "playing Dungeons & Dragons," he just laughed at us, which was nothing new, as he frequently made fun of us. Not long afterwards, though, he decided to "set us straight" and teach us how the game was "really played." When you're a 10 year-old geek and your friend's metal-head, high school-age brother decides to initiate you into one of his pastimes, it's hard not to feel as that, if only fleetingly, you'd reached a new stage of your life - and so we had. No longer were we just a bunch of kids; now we could be John Carter or Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, pitting our swords against evil sorcerers - all because of a game that didn't even have a board.
My friends and I soon learned how to play D&D "the right way" and we played it as often as we could. The following summer we sometimes went over to Mike's house in the evenings, after dinner, to play in adventures run by Mike's brother and his father, who acted as co-Dungeon Masters. Mike's dad was an old school wargamer -- a true grognard -- and being able to sit around a table with him at the head, rolling dice behind a screen, and determining the fates of our foolhardy characters was the ultimate definition of "cool" for us in those days. Mike's dad and brother were merciless as DMs, but they were also relentlessly fair -- key traits I associate with a good game referee to this day.
As with most gamers in those days, we were voracious; we played every game that we could get our hands on: Traveller, Gamma World, Top Secret, and on and on. Over the years I've tried many more and continue to do so, but, looking back on it three decades later, I doubt I'd still be playing any of them today if my initiation into this hobby hadn't been such a magical one in the fall and winter of 1979. And I owe it all to my mother mistakenly thinking my dad would be interested in D&D.
James Maliszewski is a writer currently living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His blog, Grognardia, explores the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying.