AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m not completely happy with this version of this post; I think it feels a bit dry and distant. I therefore reserve the right to re-visit it at some future date, to make stylistic and aesthetic revisions. –Christopher A. Altnau, Aug. 23, 2015.
How I Started Playing Dungeons & Dragons
I was introduced to D&D during the Thanksgiving break of my fifth grade year, i.e., late November, 1979. Back then, I didn’t get the chance to really play, in the traditional sense. Under the direction of a slightly older kid from down the street (Bill) I made a character, but was not allowed to name it. Bill told me that D&D was deadly, and that I needed to “get used to dying alot,” before I started playing. We spent two entire afternoons (a Friday and a Saturday) using my “character” to pit fight monsters out of the Monster Manual. For those who are not familiar with the terminology, a pit fight is basically a gladiatorial event, the character vs. a monster, in a large arena, and the fight was always to the death. I put my little first level character up against hell hounds, dragons, giants, demons, ghosts, zombies, and a slew of other creatures. I lost about 98% of these fights in the first round. The remaining 2% either ended in the second round (with my death), or a fear effect compelled me to flee at some point, causing me to forfeit. I had no concept of what a level was, nor did I have a clue that my first level character had no business fighting a dragon or a hell hound, or for that matter, anything over 2 hit die. But I did get used to dying, that was for sure.
As time passed, Bill let me move up, from “dying a lot,” to being immortal, just to show me how tough these monsters were. The premise was simple. My nameless character could not die. No matter how much damage the monsters inflicted upon me during the pit fights, I would not die, and would always be at 1 hit point. The idea that he was trying to illustrate had gone from “getting used to dying” to the next concept, “getting used to missing.” Basically, I got to keep fighting until I hit the monster enough times to kill it. In most cases, this involved rolling a natural 20. And Bill always kept track of the damage. So, for instance, after fighting a dragon, he might say, “Well, it took you 89 rounds to kill the dragon, but during that time, he would have inflicted 313 points damage to you, which, since you only have 6 hit points max, would be enough to kill you 52 times.” Needless to say, I saw at this point, that not only could a dragon kill me very quickly, but that I also had no hope whatsoever of ever being able to kill a dragon. This was at once very enlightening, and very discouraging. Bill was just trying to illustrate how deadly combat could be, and to emphasize to me that combat was not to be taken lightly. But he went a little too far, and I was so afraid of combat, that I wondered if the game was even playable. For a long time, I didn’t play D&D at all.
Although my little pit fight sessions with Bill had sorta-kinda just ended, with very little ceremony, I still had the character sheet, which was now thoroughly wrinkled, from having been folded and unfolded numerous times, and from having been taken in and out of my back pocket. I decided at some point to name that character, even though he wasn’t actually in use, and I wasn’t sure that I would ever play him again. I named him Ranglor The Great, and at that point, which would have been sometime in the summer of 1980, my first, official D&D character came into existence. Instead of just being a bunch of numbers on a page, and a bunch of corpses in a fictional arena, he now had a name, and a purpose. I decided then and there that Ranglor would somehow survive long enough to find a magical sword , and surmised that maybe that’s what I needed to get, so as to finally be able to kill a dragon. I figured, if my character had a magical sword, that would somehow tip the scales in my favor, turning seemingly impossible odds into something much more manageable. I really had no clue, at that point, that dragons were meant to be fought by GROUPS of players, and that character attrition in such conflicts was often as high as (or higher than!) 50 percent. I would later discover, of course, that you needed more than a cool, magical sword to defeat a dragon, although, from the looks of this comic book ad from mid-1982, perhaps someone should have told the artist that.
Now that Ranglor had a name, I decided that I needed to get the books and read them, so that I could learn how to really play. Bill had been using AD&D rulebooks for our little pit fight sessions, but I quickly discovered, upon a visit to my local toy shop, that the hardback books were way too expensive for a kid to afford, so I asked my parents to get them for me as a Christmas present.
In typical, non-informed parent fashion, my parents got me a Player’s Handbook for the Christmas of 1980, but that was all. They didn’t buy me a Dungeon Master’s Guide, nor a Monster Manual. They said, “Read that one first, and if you like it, we’ll buy you the next one for your birthday.” They didn’t realize that you needed the whole set to be able to play. So, I was stuck with just the one book, and I had to find a group to play with that had access to the other books. I didn’t want to play with Bill again, because I had been hearing about mapping out dungeons, exploring deep caves, and other cool stuff like that, and I wanted to be able to do those things; I did NOT want to be trapped in the gladiatorial arena anymore. And I wasn’t sure how long Bill would make me wait before he thought I was ready.
As it turned out, I did end up waiting awhile before finding a group to play with. Except for some older kids who rode my bus (who were in high school) no one else that I knew (besides Bill) played D&D. By this time, i.e., spring of 1981, Bill was already into pony league baseball, and even if I had asked him to play again, I don’t think he would have had the time, nor even the inclination. For Bill, D&D seemed to be a passing fad. I had just about given up on ever being able to play D&D again, when my dad noticed something at the toy shop: instead of buying these expensive hard-back books, why not get the starter set that came with everything in one box? Thus, for my 12th birthday, in August of 1981, I got the Basic D&D set, which even came with some cool dice and a nifty crayon. (I had no idea what the crayon was even for, until my Dad showed me!)
After a few days of fiddling around, my Dad figured out the difference between the Basic Set and the AD&D Player’s Handbook. He said that AD&D was for advanced players, and that if we (yes, WE!) got that far, he’d buy me the other two books. But at that point, I didn’t care, because something magical had happened; my Dad had become intrigued by the game, and after reading through the basic rulebook, he became my first true Dungeon Master, and I made three more characters, so that I would have a group big enough to explore The Caves of Chaos (i.e., He ran me through The Keep on The Borderlands.) My Dad and I spent several sessions that summer playing D&D, and having a blast. We didn’t do everything correctly (for example, my Dad allowed the shield spell to stop real arrows, and to cover other players, when it was actually supposed to be a personal defense spell) but we had more fun than you could shake a stick at.
Although my Dad’s interest didn’t last past the summer, he did buy me the other two AD&D rulebooks for Christmas of 1981. My first D&D group turned out to be some friends I’d known for awhile, without ever realizing that they played. We started playing D&D together in the junior high cafeteria during lunchtime, and it was sometime during these sessions (spring of ’82, which I believe was 7th grade) that I renamed Ranglor, creating my longest-lived, most powerful D&D character ever, who has been re-written for each, new, rules edition since, and who is still going strong in the present day, under 3rd Edition rules: Tellerian Hawke. During my 7th grade year, we mostly played Basic and Expert rules; but during 8th grade (Fall of ’82), we switched over to AD&D, and never looked back. I played 1st Ed AD&D during 8th grade, and all through high school, and well into my college days, until we finally switched over to 2nd edition. But those are stories for another day.
P.S.: My Dad, now retired, is currently a Diablo III afficianado. He prefers a quick-loading, fast-moving computer program to having to “fuss” with pencil, paper, and dice.