Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy 40th, Dungeons & Dragons

For better or for worse, Dungeons & Dragons has influenced my life for more than 30 of its 40-year lifespan.  I first played the game when I was around seven years old, down in the basement of my grandparents' house, with my aunt (who introduced us to the game) and my 2 older cousins. This was 1982, and we were playing with the "blue box." The adventure was B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, and my character was Luke Skywalker, human fighter.

When we arrived at my grandparents' house that day, my cousins were (literally) jumping up and down.
"Steven! Steven!" they said, "Aunt Kim's got this great new game called Dungeons & Dragons! Do you wanna play?"

I was reluctant at first. I had my Darth Vader case in hand and more than anything I had anticipated some adventures with action figures.They agreed that we could play Star Wars later on, but I don't think we ever got to that. Dungeons & Dragons was far too engrossing. And it filled that same niche as playing with action figures, only with a structure of play. A way to succeed and get better. It was like playing a board game except your pieces could talk to each other, or bend the rules to do anything you could possibly imagine.

The Early Years
When I think back on those early days, I remember experiencing the magic and wonder of the unknown. I remember gazing for hours at the art. Regardless whether it was Errol Otus's weird color illustrations or David Allen Trampier's or Jeff Dee's black and white illustrations, they enthralled me. I didn't know what lay between the covers of most D&D books--I never had any ambitions apart from being a player, immersing in strange and fantastic worlds, meeting interesting characters and creatures who became my friends and enemies. I remember the musty smell of the basements we played in, doing multiplication and division longhand in order to calculate our experience points and treasure--even as we were learning those skills in elementary school. I remember devouring novels just to get a taste of those strange lands in between the times when I'd get to meet up with my cousin and play the game again. He lived in Minnesota and I lived in Michigan, and I wasn't allowed to own the game until I reached the magical "recommended age" of 10, printed on the Dungeons & Dragons box cover. So I played D&D with the older kids on the back of the bus, or at friends' houses after school. God, I loved it more than anything (my idols Han Solo and Indiana Jones were close contenders).

Close Companions
Like many others, Dungeons & Dragons was the way I met my best friends. The reason for this is that D&D was a group social activity that required a regular meetup and a shared group activity where the point was for the participants to make something together. That's not the way we thought of it--nothing so lofty as that--we were there to experience exciting adventures. But whether by design or happy accident, the way Dungeons & Dragons worked was that a group of people came together and made things up. And because we wanted to know what happened next in the story, or we wanted to beat the bad guys or gain the magical treasures, we continued to gather, and in gathering we did what friends do: we shared our joys and sorrows, our dreams, ambitions, regrets, our secret crushes, our romance woes. In the process we put on masks of character and lived double lives; we simultaneously related to one another in two realities: the one where we were hanging out as friends, and the imaginary world in which our alter egos existed.

The Dreamers
Even so, Dungeons & Dragons wasn't exactly a cool thing to do. It was a sort of secret handshake, a thing you didn't flaunt because you didn't want girls to know you were a loser, or influential people to think you were a weirdo. You talked about it with people you suspected were in the know. Fellow dreamers and fantasists, should you be so lucky to find them. You didn't want to be that guy who alienated everybody in the room, droning on and on about your imaginary character. You knew that guy, and sometimes caught yourself being him in polite company.

I came out of the closet with D&D when I was 26 years old. This came from a fearless honesty (er, Meisner training) I was going through at the time, but in retrospect it was also the time that Peter Jackson's film version of The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in theaters, putting dwarves, orcs, hobbits, and elves in common parlance. To my great surprise, I soon learned that D&D players existed in the upper echelons of theaters and other places I was striving to succeed. This "secret handshake" made it easy to communicate with those folks, to find common ground, and succeed. We spoke the same language.

by Steve Townshend
I never thought I'd grow up to work on Dungeons & Dragons. It was a side ambition. A secondary thing I wouldn't have minded doing if I wasn't acting. That changed when I put acting aside to focus on writing. I tried to write for D&D, and apart from a few articles spread over the years, I failed. I failed over and over and over again. That all changed in 2009 when James Wyatt gave me a trial freelance assignment under Mike Mearls, my favorite D&D writer.

The last 5 years have been an incredible experience, the fulfillment of a lifelong love. It was enough that Dungeons & Dragons gave me amazing experiences and good friends, but having a hand in writing and influencing the game has meant more than I can possibly express. Dungeons & Dragons gave me the opportunity to succeed at something I'd loved practically all my life.

For years I said, "If I were in charge of D&D, this is what I'd do..." and somehow I got to do it.
I got to do it in Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. In Demonomicon.In Madness at Gardmore Abbey and Siege of Gardmore Abbey, in Owlbear Run, Beyond the Crystal Cave, and the War of Everlasting Darkness. It's there in the ecologies of the Scarecrow, Succubus, and Banderhobb. I got to do it in Heroes of the Feywild and The Wee Fey and all the other pieces I wrote for Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. I got to do it in the core Monster Manual for the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Debts of Gratitude
It seems strange and unlikely that I was given these opportunities. I owe a great debt of gratitude to James Wyatt and Mike Mearls, who gave me a shot and showed me the ropes. Chris Perkins picked me up and showed me the light whenever I grew weary or burned out or couldn't see the forest for the trees. I owe Greg Bilsland for shepherding me through the business of the work. I owe Rodney Thompson for opening the door to endless possibility. I owe Steve Winter for inspiration, friendship, and leading by example. I owe Rich Baker for great ideas and great conversation. I owe Kim Mohan for being Gandalf to my Frodo, for lack of a better metaphor. And Stan! and Chris Sims and Chris Thommason and Scott Fitzgerald Gray and Robert Schwalb and Miranda Horner and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes and Brian and Matt James and Sterling Hershey and Claudio Pozas and Creighton Broadhurst and Jeremy Crawford and Bart Carroll and Robin Laws. I owe Peter Lee and Chris Tulach and Trevor Kidd for being good friends. I owe Bill Slavicsek and Andy Collins for a job interview that got me a freelance job 2 years later. I owe Steve Schubert for being a friend and an inspiration. I owe Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook for being awesome; we didn't get to work together, but awesome is as awesome does. I owe Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for starting the fire, all the others who carried the torch--from Tracy Hickman to Ed Greenwood to William W. Connors, who I never met, but boy did I love his stuff.

I'm sure I've forgotten someone. :-(

And on and on...
My relationship with D&D is almost 32 years old. It's a tempered passion, a mature bond that flares and cools as the years go by. Sometimes we don't speak for a time, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when we get together again it's like no time has passed. The passion and wonder return and we go on more adventures together. This is the way it's always been, this is the way it will always be. D&D and I have other friends and other interests. Our time apart is essential for enjoying our time together. That's part of what makes a healthy relationship. Whenever we get back together, our stories are richer for what we've learned in the time away.

In October I drew a close to a story I've been telling on and off for 20 years. That's 2/3 of the time I've played the game, and half of D&D's lifespan (not to mention my own). Things are quiet now that the new edition of the game is in the works and the magazines are on hiatus. An old friend whom I've played games with for 21 years is moving across the country. It's time to explore other worlds for a while, to learn new ways of telling stories and playing games. The next time D&D and I get together, D&D will have a few new ways to play and I'll have a new set of story ideas and game perspectives.

We're going to have fantastic adventures.

1 comment:

Johnny said...

Beautifully said my friend.