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Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Final D&D Game, or "Eat stirges, hoser!"

I was trying to think of a good story for a blog post, so I started scraping at the back of my brain to see what was hiding beneath the layers of dust and cobwebs.*

(*Warning: I do not advise you do this without extensive preparation. The things to be found there can be dangerous and hungry!)

There, lurking in a dark corner, I encountered a memory - or at least a fragment of one - from my earliest days of playing Dungeons and Dragons, circa 1982, with my high school buddies. If I recall correctly, it was of the last game we ever played together. It's hard to see it clearly and it's tattered at the edges - much like my original D&D dice from my Moldvay Basic set are today - but I think I recall enough of it to regale you with it.

What follows is a cautionary tale of three high school geeks (technically, we were nerds back then) and what happens when they get a taste of too much power. First, a little back story:

My high school friends and I lived and breathed D&D throughout the year of 1982.

As I've said before, my best friend, Brian, and I received the Basic D&D rules for Christmas of 1981. (He, the Holmes set, and myself, the Moldvay set.) But that was just the gateway drug that led us to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. By late summer, we had each assembled a hodgepodge collection of Basic and Advanced books and we were playing a game that was essentially Moldvay Basic with the classes, spells, and monsters from AD&D tacked onto it. (Judging from what I've read and heard from other gamers of that era, this was the standard format for many D&D players.)

Due to my living so far from town, we didn't game together frequently. Brian, I believe, gamed semi-regularly with our other friend, John, and a couple of other on-again-off-again players. I played semi-regularly with my nephew. But at school, D&D was one of our prime topics of conversation. We'd discuss things such as the content of the latest issue of Dragon magazine or what impossible "heroic" (read as: "murderous") exploits our player characters had undertaken within our respective gaming groups. (You know: fighting and killing a god out of the Deities and Demigods book and looting its corpse like it was a dead goblin. That sort of thing. Good stuff!) The number of games I actually got to play with my high school friends could probably be counted on one hand, and all but the one I'm about to relate have completely faded from memory.

It was November or December of '82, and it was one of the rare occasions that I hosted my friends. Whether it was due to their parents' reluctance to cart them to my house in the boonies, or my parents' reluctance to have a bunch of teenage boys in their home, I don't know. But most get-togethers were at my friends' homes, most often, Brian's. (This often meant supping on his mother's "spaghetti pizza," which he and his brothers loved. But - sorry, guys and Mom Z. - that stuff was gross. It's why I usually tried to avoid being at the Z. house at dinner time.)

On this particular occasion, Brian was acting as Dungeon Master. John was playing his Barbarian (a new character class from Dragon magazine? Yeah, baby!), Thorbeorn, and I, my Elf fighter/magic-user, Moordow. Both player characters, under different DMs, had slain at least one god - in fair and totally unbiased combats, free of DM fiat, I assure you. We were in a dungeon the origin of which I've long forgotten. I don't recall there being an oh-so-familiar TSR module cover/DM screen present, so I'm leaning toward it having been a dungeon of Brian's own design.

(It should be noted that John and I did not have a great relationship. He was part of our trio of friends, but I never bonded with him the way I had with Brian. I found him to be goofy and extremely pushy, and he probably found me to be a bit of a critical dick. We were probably both correct in our assessment of one another.)

Here's the entirety of what I recall from that session:

Brian: The corridor ends in a heavy wooden door. It's not locked.

John: I open the door.

Brian: It's dark on the other side, but you see stairs descending into the blackness. As you strain to see into the dark, you see shapes flying around and hear strange, squeaking noises. Suddenly, something dives out at you - stirges! Roll initiative.

John (rolling higher than Brian on his 1d6): I slam the door shut!

Brian: Okay, you close the door and all of the stirges are still on the other side.

Me: Why'd you do that?

John: So we don't have to fight them.

Me: But that's the last door on this level - we obviously have to go down those stairs to get to the next level.

John: I'm sure there's another way down - we don't have to fight the stirges.

I immediately started getting upset at the thought of spending the next half-hour or more of precious game time scouring every previously explored hallway for a secret door that may or may not exist.

Me: What're you? Chicken?

John: I'm not chicken. You're not the leader.

Me: You're not the leader, either.

John: We're not going this way. You can't make Thorbeorn go.

Me: No? Well Moordow could kick your ass and make you go.

John. No he couldn't. And I'd like to see him try.

We began lobbing ability scores and names of readied magic items - including more than a few god weapons and artifacts - at each other. Brian sat in silence, watching the serve and volley.

Me: Fine! I kick open the door and shove Thorbeorn into the stairway.

I think it was Brian's first in-game PVP situation. He just rolled with it.

Brian: Um. Okay, roll initiative. (We rolled - John rolled a 1.) Thorbeorn's surprised. He doesn't get to act this round. (To me:) Roll your attack.

I rolled my not-yet-battered -and-unreadable red TSR twenty-sider. I don't remember the result, but it was enough.

Brian: You shove him into the stairway.

Me: And close the door.

Brian looked surprised. John turned red.

(Mind you: our characters were both level 19 or higher, and we'd both destroyed super-powerful, immortal beings; to this day, I have no clue why either one of us would be concerned for a moment about a pack of stirges. Hey, I never said this tale was going to make sense.)

John: Oh, yeah? Well, I open the door and attack Moordow with Ma Yuan's stone. I'm turning it into a vorpal blade. I'm gonna cut his head off.

Brian: You're surprised. You'll have to wait until your turn in the next round. Moordow gets to go first.

Me: I lock the door.

Brian: You can't. There's no lock.

John smiled at me.

Me: Fine. Then I cast wizard lock on the door.

John glared at me.

John: Yeah? Then I break it down using my 18/00 strength. And I have gauntlets of ogre power and a girdle of storm giant strength.

Brian (starting to feel like he'd lost control of the situation): Um... (thumbing through the Player's Handbook) I don't know if you can break down a wizard locked door...

That was it - John had hit his breaking point.

John: You're stupid!

He threw down his d20 and shoved his goldenrod character sheet and dice away. It was my first ever experience with a D&D rage quit. (I'd seen many other rage quits in board games with my siblings and my nephew. In fact, it wan't an uncommon thing with my opponents, so the behavior wasn't totally unfamiliar to me.)



And that, as they say, was that. I never played D&D - in any form - with my high school friends again.

Now, I could say that this conflict was the sole reason for that, but I don't think that's true.

No, it may have been why we didn't play again for the short term, but the real reason this was the final game, ever, is much more complex, and involves more factors: John's moving away from role playing games, which he was only marginally interested in to start with; Brian and myself moving on to other TSR games (Top Secret was about to eclipse D&D in a big way, especially for me); and jobs, girls, and the impending end of high school - not necessarily in that order.

But it was the last game of D&D I played with anyone other than my much younger nephew or my much older brother-in-law while I was a teenager. It was the last game with my peers, at the zenith of my pre-adult years.

And that's a shame.

We were young, dumb, social misfits, prone to petty squabbles that seemed to be anything but petty in the heat of the moment. If only we could have seen those game sessions through the eyes of our future selves, with the wall of adult responsibilities and adult concerns rising ever higher between us and our teenage selves. If only we could have known how much the memories of them would come to mean to us later on in life. And how hard it would be to keep them from simply slipping away.

Maybe we'd have seen how fleeting our opportunities to enjoy that sort of totally carefree time with our friends would become.

And maybe we'd have enjoyed the hell out of them, even more than we did.

. . . . .








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