Old School D&D: Grampa’s Gettin’ His Geek On

Once again, I find myself thinking about old school Dungeons & Dragons (mostly because Facebook threw a Blackmoor movie page up as a sponsored post).

I have some inchoate thoughts, and since I am trying to turn this blog into something a real writer might call a “daybook,” I thought I would share them with you.  You’re welcome.  Whether you like it or not.

I don’t think I’m actually qualified to talk about “old school,” because apparently the “Golden Age of D&D” actually occurred when I was around 2 years old.  I’ve been told I was a precocious child, but even as a toddler, I don’t think I was thinking too much about THAC0; I was probably more concerned with giving up the bottle.  (Still having trouble with that one, but now it’s alcohol.  Hell, I was 2.  Maybe it was alcohol back then.  That would … explain a lot, actually.)

Ain’t that always how Golden Ages work?  You should have seen it when … there’s a poem there somewhere, and hopefully after wrapping this up, I can go write it.  But I don’t wanna get too sidetracked … D&D.

For me, there are a series of images or impressions that come to mind, but I can’t put my finger on what, exactly, those images are or represent.  Computers are definitely a part of it; while I might have missed gaming’s Golden Age, growing up in Silicon Valley in the 70’s, I was definitely at the epicenter of the personal computer revolution.

That’s one angle of it: the unformed nature of both gaming and computers.  There were no boxed sets (or at least, us neophytes hadn’t heard of them) or Internet.  Copyright protection for games usually consisted of a book or pamphlet with commands you had to type, or answers to puzzles; they called them “feelies.”  It was a strange, primitive form of multimedia, and it was confusing as hell.

No, awesome, I meant to say awesome.  OK, it was both of those things.  It seems like the 70’s were full of little pamphlets – Watchtower magazines, feelies, copies of album lyrics, D&D modules … there was so much more paper, back then.

As you can tell from how disjointed this is, I’m still not zeroing in on what I want.  Paper … no hyperlinks.  No depth.  No, at the touch of a button, having access to more information than you can possibly process.  Because paper cost money, details were limited; there was always some unanswered question.  Maybe that’s the “unformed” aspect of it.  Like Zelazny’s worlds, they’re only painted in enough detail to leave you wanting more.

But more than that: they hadn’t been codified.  There was no particular reason, back then, that gaming defaulted to the vaguely Northern European feudal landscape that it did.  If anything, the primary images are Middle Eastern: Dunsany and the Arabian Nights, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in some fantastic desert in a magical analog of Afghanistan.

That’s all a piece of it.  There is also a powerful sense of the “dungeon,” not the least of which is because when you’re 10, giant worldscaping political adventures aren’t as gripping as kicking down the temple door, killing everyone, and taking their stuff.  What I imagine, what I always keep coming back to, is a room underground – and most powerfully, the lack of windows.  Maybe because I worked 911 so long, that “boxy” aspect has a powerful resonance for me.

The museum I worked for had the same quality: rooms with rooms, a nested box from which there was no escape.  Here’s a picture:



that doesn’t really show anything.  Kinda creepy, though, isn’t it?  You don’t know what’s there, but whatever it is, it won’t have a stat block, or a name, or a definable power.  It will be the embodiment of the unknown, and that is the frightening and appealing part about it, the mythic power that gets lost when you have to translate “medium sized humanoid” to a STR modifier.  Here’s another one:


From the heart of the temple … museum, sorry.  I meant to say museum.

The question is, for me: what started this fascination with buried rooms?  I can’t actually recall being on any dungeon crawls.  Maybe the old Compuserve fantasy MUDs, the ones that were so primitive the graphics were printed in ASCII characters?  Perhaps.  I know I read about enough dungeon crawls; back then, I spent many more hours reading the old school D&D picks than I did actually playing.

Ugh.  This is rambling on and on.  It’s 10 on a Friday night, and since I have no actual life to speak off, I should probably crawl into bed and finish watching that documentary about chickens.

I plan on coming back to this, though, because it’s going to drive me crazy if I can’t eventually connect these images, and then hopefully get a poem out of it.

And if you’ve played, tell me in the comments when you started, and what your first impressions were.

In the meantime, here’s some more old school art for your viewing pleasure:



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