It was sometime during Christmas vacation, 1981, that I officially first set foot into "the hobby." With my nephew and my best friend, Brian, I took my first journey of the imagination into a keep on the edge of civilization a few days after Christmas. We didn't make it into the nearby Caves of Chaos that day (in fact, I didn't make into those caves as a player until earlier this year!) but it's an experience I will likely never forget, regardless.
Upon recalling this anniversary, I got to thinking about the presents I received that year. I imagine there were more than the three I recall clearly - most likely a variety of Star Wars toys, very few of which I can mentally track due to the sheer volume I've collected over the years. But these items were the big three that year, and two of them still see semi-regular use to this day:
The D&D Basic Set ("Moldvay" Basic)
This was my introduction to the rules of the game, and will forever be what first comes to mind when I think of D&D. Clean and concise, easy to understand, and oozing with character, the Moldvay Basic rulebook is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of D&D evolution. I'm sure that opinion is based upon a good amount of nostalgic bias, but you have to at least agree that the "red book" is a worthy entry into the game's pantheon of rulebooks. Every time I play another form of the game, no matter how much I'm enjoying it - be it AD&D, the Rules Cyclopedia, 3.x, or even one of the retro-clones - I find myself occasionally suppressing the urge to ditch what I'm doing and pull out the red book...
Grenadier's "Denizens of the Swamp" Set
Prior to Christmas that year, I'd discovered that a local store carried a small variety of Grenadier's AD&D miniatures. I'd never seen game miniatures before and - being in the early stages of D&D mania - found myself coveting each and every set in stock. I managed somehow - I've since forgotten how - to score a set called "Specialists" before Christmas. As the holiday approached, I recognized the need to provide opponents for the heroes in said set, and that's how "Denizens" ended up on my Christmas list. One of the lizard men refused to stand, the basilisk's horn was broken off, and I thought the troll was too goofy for words - but I loved the set, nonetheless; especially the gnoll with the cross-dagger! Alas, I parted with most of these minis several years ago, but I still recall them fondly.
Milton Bradley's Dark Tower
What can I say? Dark Tower rocked, plain and simple. I recall suffering near unbearable angst as my brothers attempted to repair the game Christmas morning; it didn't work out of the box. This was a recurring theme for my childhood Christmases and birthdays, so by 1981 I was more or less used to this scenario. Fortunately, they successfully repaired it. (Much more successfully than earlier Christmases, where such repair efforts often left toys scarred or barely functioning, and less than enjoyable to play with.) When our first attempt to play D&D resulted in a boring session of murdering and looting the bodies of residents of the aforementioned keep, this was the game that we turned to. It was - and still is, when I can get it to function - an immensely enjoyable way to pass the time with friends and family. (And the game's artwork still inspires me.)
I've had the good fortune to have enjoyed many good Christmases as a child, but none seem to stand out so clearly as this one - the "D&D Christmas" of 1981...
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