Dungeons and Dragons and Me

The Third Bedroom was the room where the entrance to the attic was and it was filled with stuff my parents did not know what to do with – luggage, old crafting supplies and this little game in a box called Dungeons & Dragons. My parents had it as received as a gift at some point in the late 70’s, early 80’s.

Every once in a while I’d go into this room that had never been repainted, still with those lime green walls, I’d open what is called by old school folks as the Holmes Boxed Set. I’d roll the dice in the box-top and read it over. I couldn’t ever quite make sense of it. When I asked my mom, she told me it was a game that did not use a board and took place only in our imaginations.

I was intrigued but I didn’t get it.

A local kid I knew had the AD&D hardcovers. I asked him about them. He told me that I’d need the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual at least, if I wanted to play. I told my mom this and she told me that was nonsense, the game took place in one’s imagination. She never told me I couldn’t have those books but just wanted me to know that kid was probably wrong.

I sat on that for a year or so and that is when I met Rob. Rob was a few years older and his backyard and my backyard were connected. I could see his house from the northern window in the lime-green Third Bedroom. He introduced me to Marvel’s FASERIP and brought me in to the D&D group. I started 6th grade that year and the only fun social interactions I had in middle school were with a bunch of eighth graders in the library before school.

Now I’m a librarian. Coincidence?

The unforgettable FASERIP chart.

The group was playing AD&D. I made a Kender/Thief because I heard they had a power where I could make fun of a bad guy and make them angry. As a stuttering 6th grader that sounded amazing. I hadn’t read the Dragonlance books.

The AD&D books were opaque to me. I was the youngest in the group and did not understand them.

Outside the box thinking – sure. Making up fun, goofy shit – absolutely. But I started to tell the group and told myself that I just didn’t have the head for these game mechanics.

The books I would borrow and flip through and skim and read over and over were the Monster Manual, the Monster Manual 2 and the beloved Fiend Folio. I’d spend whole afternoons just slowly flipped through them and daydreaming.

By the time I was coaxed into DMing a game, 2nd edition had come out. After years of bouncing off D&D game books, I wasn’t that interested in the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide but I loved the new Monster Manuals. Again, I’d flip through them for hours.

Monstrous Compendium volume one, the old 3-ringed binder.

When we talked about game mechanics, everyone had strong opinions that mostly led to – system doesn’t matter, the people at the table matter more. Game mechanics seemed to get in the way, teenage Judd thought.

I didn’t know the rules real well but I read every fantasy novel I could get my hands on and had daydreamed enough about monsters that I had ideas on where to insert them and how to play them. Repetition and osmosis had given me enough of a grasp on the mechanics to run a game.

I ran a D&D game in high school, ripping off the Wheel of Time. Taking what D&D mythology I could glean from here and there, I ran a game in the pre-history of D&D, where elves (the Drow hadn’t left yet, the were rumors of demon-spider cults) and dwarves had just ended a long war; Vecna was still a human wizard-emperor with a loyal knight named Kaz.

In college I found Ars Magica, Deadlands and Legend of the Five Rings. I went away to Japan and didn’t game at all. When I got back, 3rd Edition was in full swing. I picked it up and liked it. I liked the chapter where they walked through making a new class, the Witch. The game seemed to know that the players were going to hack the game.

In the months before Fellowship of the Ring came out, I rolled up a bunch of Hobbit (okay, Halfling) characters and ran a game where they found a dragon egg and had to protect it against evil forces.

Late twenties were a blur – RPG.net, the Forge, Dust Devils, Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, Unknown Armies, Burning Wheel…

Holy shit, I’m 30-something.

4th Edition came out.

I had watched 3rd Edition’s release on Eric Noah’s site that is now EN World. But 4th Edition was the first time I saw D&D under the full weight of the internet’s gaze. I liked D&D but I had other games I could go to. I didn’t feel like I needed D&D to be any particular thing.

I never DMed 4th edition but I played it a bit and liked it. The online vitriol surrounding it was odd to me. It was the first edition that came out where I didn’t approach the text with a I’m-no-good-with-game-mechanics mindset. I felt confident in my ability to understand a game and had other games to go to if I didn’t like this one.

D&D 4e Player’s Handbook.

My most profound 4e moment: A friend told me about a campaign he was playing in and his character was getting into arguments with other characters. Tensions were high. I suggested that he, “Stop playing Burning Wheel and enjoy D&D 4th for what it is. There is no way to mechanically make those arguments have any weight. Enjoy the teamwork and the synergy. Enjoy D&D.” He took my advice, pivoted and enjoyed the game.

My 4th edition books went to a friend who was getting into a game right as I was moving; I gave him the books with no obligation to ever return them. I didn’t hate 4e but wasn’t sure I’d ever run it.

“It is a cool game, just not for me right now,” I said as I piled a few boxes of books into a friend’s car.

D&D Player’s Handbook, 5e

5th edition came out when I was on the verge of turning 40. There are so many indie RPG’s I enjoy playing that I felt pretty distant from it.

Nowadays, I GM a D&D 5e game on Thursday nights, not streamed. That game began as the pandemic started and a friend was feeling poorly. We weren’t sure what it was and I asked if I could do something for him – “Can I grab you something from the pharmacy or do some food shopping for you?”

“Could you run a game this Thursday?”

“Of course I can,” and we’ve been gaming most Thursdays since then.

And that is where we are. D&D is the 800 pound gorilla of the industry. I’m not sure what the industry has to do with me. It sometimes feels odd to play a game a friend didn’t make.

D&D is the category, tag and hashtag that gets lots of eyes on words. Mostly D&D is the game we play on Thursday night.

I don’t hack and homebrew D&D rules (BINGO!) because I need D&D to be anything. I hack and homebrew because I want tools to help our sessions be better.

An example bingo board; how we level up on Thursdays…

I like playing it with my friends. I like how that play inspires stuff I can publish.

After years of playing, writing forum posts about, podcasting about and thinking about indie RPG’s, I struggled with a bunch of guilt playing a corporate game. I still do. This game, owned by Hasbro, that has contorted and changed as I’ve grown up gaming is just another game I play sometimes.

Check out this design and more in the TTRPG Collection…