Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Open the Blue Box and Fail my Save against Enchantment

A few times in your life, you're lucky enough to stumble on the very thing you didn't know you were looking for. Marriage, teaching, fatherhood, and a really good cup of Darjeeling are on my list for sure. But the first time, it was a revelation in a cardboard box...

It was at MaineCon '77. I was all of 13 years old, but I'd been a miniatures wargamer for a few years. I'd carpooled up to the con in Bath from my home in MA with some older kids and my buddy Roger. I was expecting to play some 25mm medievals, some DGUTS age-of-sail engagements, and maybe some colonial skirmish games. The hobby was HUGE at that time, with enough guys (and I do mean guys -- no girls in sight) to game out Gettysburg on an indoor tennis court or to rope off a block of Front Street for a ship battle.

Friday evening at a con is always catch-as-catch-can, right? After filling up on pizza, we drove to the high school where the con was happening. My friend Curt was signing up to play something called Dungeons & Dragons at a fold-out table in the corner of the gym. The DM was a young USN guy, still in his service uniform from his duty shift at the shipyard. He had a bunch of premade characters, each keyed to a lovingly painted Ral Partha 25mm figure. I chose The Sea Elf.

My first PC, Nameless Sea Elf.
We started in a tavern, and there was something about throwing a dagger at a rude barkeep. Gives new meaning to the phrase "You can keep the tip." Anyhow, we soon got the tourist map to the dungeon, entered, and were presented with a Door. The door was Listened To, and Guttural Speech was heard. I was the first one in, took maybe one swing, then was killed by some orcs.

I was in love.

The Holmes blue box set had come out recently, and the FLGS that sponsored the con had a retail booth with copies for sale. It was all of ten dollars, which would be about $35 in today's money. My spending money amounted to $5. Roger ponied up the other $5, and we worked out a joint custody arrangement.

Back in my bedroom on Sunday night, I could not have been happier if I had discovered my closet door led to Lankhmar or Middle Earth. The sorts of stories I drew pictures about or played out in my head during long car rides could now be shared with my friends as adventures that unfolded in the moment. You could BE Aragorn or Corwin or Elric.  I bought out Roger's share by the end of the week so I could have the box to myself.

My copy didn't come bundled with In Search of the Unknown -- that wouldn't be added until '79. It just had the one-page sample dungeon map and the sublimely evocative cross section of Skull Mountain. And thank goodness, because the lack of supporting materials allowed me to be free to make up any dungeon I pleased. And the rules were so tangential to actual play as to discourage metagame thinking. Whatever we didn't understand, we were free to gloriously misinterpret. The encounter tables on yellow cardstock mentioned "footpads," which I didn't realize were 2nd level thieves. So our footpads became stealthy dufflepuds who would hop up behind unwary PCs and surprise them with a flying kick.  We quickly tired of having all weapons do 1d6 damage, so we penciled in different damage ranges for different weapons. When we wanted a change of scene, we became Han, Luke, and Chewie searching through the Death Star for Princess Leia. (This was 1977, after all).

Within a year or so I had moved on to Chivalry & Sorcery, which was all but inscrutable, but radiated such an earnestness to codify every aspect of play that the simulationist in me was hooked. More's the pity, because C&S was always pulling you out of the game to refer at the rules, which makes play more abstract and less immersive. I was relieved to go back to D&D when 2nd Edition came out in '89.

So here I am, 34 years later, and the blue box booklet is still on my bedside table. It fairly gleams with wonder. So I've been rewriting it for the past few months. Not a retroclone, but rather my idea of what a living version of it would look like, suited to my own tastes. This blog documents that process. If you've read this far, I hope you stay with me as the process continues.


  1. Just read backwards to this post. Excellent blog! Thanks for sharing so many good ideas, maps, etc.

  2. Thanks for all your thoughtful posts.

  3. Doug,

    Wonderful stuff. This post brings back lots of similar memories of how I got into D&D all those many years back. I too am a Blue Box-er, and I am proud to say I still have my original dice (though they are much rounded.)

    I am mainly a miniatures wargamer. I got back into the D&D spirit after many years away when my girlfriend, now fiancee, and I were watching Big Bang Theory. Sheldon and crew were playing, and she mentioned that she would like to try it.

    We now have a group of 30 something adults (two other married couples) who are interested in giving the game a go. Do you think it's possible to capture the same sort of wonder from the game, that I, and you, had when we were young? Are we now too old and jaded!

    This second post is a great hook and I look forward to reading the rest of the blog.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

    1. Thanks for the good words, David. I think it IS possible to recapture the wonder, if you're introducing new people to the game. It's a great question. Welcome to the blog!

  4. I was introduced to D&D in 1978 by a friend of the family. He (and my Dad) were both in the US Air Force. I really wonder how much of the pre-1980 spread of D&D was done in the US military? I spent 18 years as an Air Force brat and found myself constantly surrounded by D&D geeks, both dependents, like me, and enlisted men and women. There's probably a Master's Thesis in Sociology somewhere in there . . .

    1. Hi Forrest,
      I think the "hurry up and wait" nature of life in the service makes gaming an attractive pastime.In 1980 I had a summer job at a gaming store in Boston as their resident D&D expert. I remember talking to a young USN guy, a submariner, who came in to the store. He said that D&D and Traveler kept him and his buddies sane during long voyages under the waves!

    2. There is something amazing about that. I wonder how many worlds were explored, treasures recovered and monsters slain by players underwater?


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