It’s no secret.
I can pretend to be a sports-loving, cave-dwelling, meat-eater.
But it wasn’t always so.
Once, long ago, I dwelled in the lands of swords & sorcery. At the tender age of eleven, my uncle passed along a set of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, and I was hooked.
Every dorky image you’ve seen of role-players on the internet…they were me. Every nerd stereotype, I conquered.
And no, I don’t care. I loved every second of my dice-rolling origin story.
Here’s the ten things I miss most about role-playing back in the day:
* * *
The Clatter of Dice on the Table
As a little kid, I thought dice were six-sided and used only by gamblers in the seediest corners of Vegas. Who knew they came in such a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors? My favorite set was sparkly green. And damn, that twenty-sided die rolled more 20’s than should’ve been legal. As a game master, I crushed many players’ dreams with my dice. Just ask Egg Embry, king of role-playing wanna-lancers.
Role-Playing for Days Without Stopping
When we played, we played. No tiny two-hour sessions for us. My little group of four would sometimes convene on a Saturday afternoon, head down to the basement, and emerge late Sunday night. No, we didn’t have girlfriends. Yes, we had more fun than everyone else on the planet. Sometimes, if my entire crew wasn’t available, I’d run a session with two guys, then head over to the third player’s house and game until the wee hours.
Pure. RPG. Heaven.
Creating Art for the Game
Some D&D players show up with the simple goal of advancing their character and hoarding treasure. Not our group. We created worlds, and we lived inside them. To aid the process, some of us created art to support our fantastical visions. Hell, I bought a giant art book and populated it entirely with drawings, sketches, and hand-painted maps. Did we take it too far? Nah. Instead of watching movies, we directed our own stories inside our minds.
The Underhollows – A painted scene from our campaign.
Eating Pizza & Drinking Mountain Dew
If I ate today like I ate back then, I’d be 300 lbs. Fortunately, the body of a fourteen-year old is resilient. We chugged gallons of carbonated sugar water and ate boxes upon boxes of Little Caesar’s pizza.
…and we didn’t gain a damn pound.
More importantly, the caffeine we imbibed fueled our bodies better than a thousand Haste potions. If we’d have had an IV, we could’ve stayed awake for weeks at a time, rolling dice and avoiding life beyond our basement.
Nowadays, my young son plays with the remnants of what was once a mighty lead-pewter army. He doesn’t know about the hundreds of hours involved in painting and perfecting thousands of his tiny miniature monsters. He doesn’t really care.
Honestly, we didn’t really need the miniatures to play our style of game. Most of the fun lived in the actual painting. It’s not like video games, in which everything is programmed for you. When you take the time to add color and life to your very own miniature character, it becomes something sacred.
And ‘effing badass.
Creating New Worlds
The guys (and gals) who participated in my campaign won’t ever know the work I put in behind the scenes. I didn’t just design simple treasure hauls. I invented a universe, and I loved every minute of it.
I probably should’ve been studying for school.
In folders ancient and dusty, I have hundreds of maps, sketches, character drawings, stories, and massive overarching plot outlines. I planned our game sessions well in advance, carefully constructing multiple scenarios to accommodate whatever crazy choices the players might make.
Some of those sketches and outlines, I turned into fantasy novels later in life. Others remain in hiding, likely never to see daylight again.
Drawing Dungeon Maps
Along with world-creation came the fun (though often tedious) job of mapping out dungeons.
Take a left turn, fall into a pit of spikes.
Go straight, fight a pack of bloodthirsty Necrophages.
Head down the stairs, prepare to meet your doom.
Armed with reams of graph paper and a knack for being cruel to my players, I designed dozens of dungeons. Some were simple. Others were bottomless. Several were never traversed, and still lie hidden, chock full of gold (and death.)
Think this is complex? You ain’t seen nuthin’, rookie.
Seeing the Joy on Players’ Faces
For as insidious as I tried to be, I genuinely wanted my fellow gamers to succeed. After all, I’d laid the trappings of an epic world, and if the players’ characters died, they’d never have the chance to explore it.
They’ll never know it, but I loved it when they outsmarted me.
And when they reached the end of a plotline, it felt like we finished one movie in a thrilling series.
Only…instead of having to wait a year for the next installment to arrive, we simply kept playing.
It’s like leveling up in a video game, only a million times more euphoric.
Creating New Characters
In our deep, dark basement (or my dad’s musty living room) I sometimes wonder how many new characters we made. For us, making a new character wasn’t just writing statistics down on a sheet of paper; it was more about inventing a new persona. If the idea behind role-playing is to escape our mundane reality for a while, then there’s no greater method than to step into the mind of someone else.
Elves. Dwarves. Cantankerous old wizards. Midget lizard-folk clerics. Whatever floats your boat.
We played ’em all. Some died. Some lived. Some went down in infamy.
But all will be remembered.
Ultimately, gaming (at least the way we did it) isn’t about rolling dice, collecting treasure, or slaughtering goblins. It’s about creating a living world, not unlike a book, into which one can wander for days on end.
For the players, it’s all about exploration. Discovery. Advancement.
For me, it’s about telling a story. And not just a lonely, beginning-to-end tale, but a flexible, ever-changing universe.
Like the butterfly effect, one motion by one player can change everything.
I only wish we could’ve finished the story. We stopped well before arriving at the end. It’s probably my fault for being long-winded.
If reincarnation exists, I’m coming back as a fourteen-year old dungeon master.
With a shitload of Mountain Dew.
If you like role-playing inspired stories, go here.
If you like cheesy RPG art, try this.
J Edward Neill