Dungeons & Dragons and Me As Well
I have a post that I’m brewing in my head about a game that I never thought I’d love but do, but Judd Karlman wrote a really touching look back at his own experience with D&D over the years and I felt the urge to write my own. I need to do this because I felt so much what he wrote. I don’t like reminiscing about decades gone by, because it inevitably makes me sad, but hey, the oppressive heat of Summer is finally giving way to the first hints of Autumn down here in North Carolina, and I feel it’s just right to be a bit melancholic and wistful.
Mom and Dad had a bureau in our home’s foyer. I think it was the type that had a fold-out desk that we never used. It was more of a decoration than functional storage, and they kept all sorts of stuff in there that I guess they didn’t know a better place for.
One of the drawers contained a bunch of odd games. I remember we had a copy of Mastermind, Regatta, Stock Market, and probably some other ones. But most importantly, a blue box with a striking tableau – a fearsome dragon squaring off against an adventuring party! This was the classic Holmes Blue Box, and I had no idea what it was or what to do with it. But it had funny-looking dice and a wax crayon to rub on their sides, which was good enough for me.
I met a kid at school a year or two later who also liked this sort of stuff. He had Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and it made even less sense to my young brain. But he and I sort of ran with it, cobbling together a ruleset from the stuff we figured out and our own imaginations. It was a shambolic mess of a system, no doubt, but we had fun.
2nd Edition came out when I was in middle school. I remember sinking every bit of my allowance into buying books and taking them to school to read between classes. I somehow managed to get other friends roped into playing, and for someone as terribly awkward as I was, this provided an activity I could finally share with others.
In high school, I cobbled together whatever Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft adventures I could get ahold of into a semblance of a complete campaign. It was incredibly cringey for the most part, looking back – all of the Dark Sun and Planescape Easter Eggs I threw in just because, some really questionable homebrew ancestries, and the edgelordiest Drow edgelord antagonist I’ve ever seen – but we were teenagers. I remember the party finally dying, getting queued through some bureaucratic afterlife straight out of Beetlejuice, and ascending to godhood as a called-in favor.
Then… I just sort of burned out on D&D.
I can’t say why. Maybe it just reached saturation in my head. Maybe it was going off to college and getting exposed to Shadowrun and Vampire. Maybe… D&D stopped being a thing that carried nigh-totemic importance to me. I wanted something weirder, grittier, different, though to this day I have no idea what that actually ended up being.
The late 90s and early 00s were a blur. Lots of White Wolf. Ex Libris Nocturnum. RPG.net. Unknown Armies. Tribe 8. Blue Planet. Lots of misusing Forge terminology. I skipped 3rd Edition D&D because I was still burned out and, being the contrarian that I am, got irritated by the OGL glut. Maybe this is what Judd was talking about – the game went from something I zealously tore through and pored over to something that was just there to play or leave.
I recall having high-faluting ideas about character immersion and how system didn’t really matter. I remember thinking and spouting this while neck-deep in the Mage: the Awakening mechanics, so you could say I was probably full of shit. I definitely do.
I was in my thirties when a Sunday-night Descent campaign sputtered out and it was floated to give 4th Edition D&D a try. I loved it so much that I bought all the books pretty much on the spot. I didn’t understand the vitriol dumped on it by the Internet. Someone on RPG.net mentioned a lot of the criticism levied against this edition was the same levied against 3E, and I wondered what in the culture had changed. I ran a few lackluster campaigns, but had a blast as a player.
I was about to leave my thirties when 5th Edition dropped, and I gave it a fair shake. However, I felt it was once again a game to pick up and play, and that’s it. I still buy the books every now and then, mostly to have something to talk about with friends, and I occasionally play in an adventure or two. It’s okay. I pick it up, I get some enjoyment, and then I put it down.
I feel weird about my relationship to the game now. It’s a game put out by a large corporation, and I have iffy feelings about that. It’s not just a game brand now, but a social signifier, a hashtag, a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle sold as much as a bunch of books and dice. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but that it’s changed so much as to be an entirely different beast from that old blue box. But that’s always been the case. The game I left on the humid shores of the summer before college was also different from that blue box. Same with the pickup 4E dungeon crawl.
Maybe I’m chasing a high I’ll never get again. One of holding a system and all of the worlds it supports in my head. One where each rule clicking snugly and surely into place gives me a jolt of satisfaction. One where the game ceases being just a thing to pick up and once again is something that beckons me to peel back its mysteries.
Eventually, travel back and forth to friends’ houses put too much wear on the Blue Box. Its cardboard shell crumpled. The books’ staples rusted in the humid, salty air of my hometown. One of the books was unsalvageable; the other one I think I gave to my friend with the AD&D books.
I still have the d10 from the dice set though. I’m keeping that one.