I’ve only talked briefly of my love of all things D&D in a couple of reviews, but have never really spoken at length about it, never thought I’d really feel the need to since at 45 I’m not into the game anymore, haven’t been for decades, but just a few weeks ago while on Amazon I bumped into what appeared to me to be a new Monster Manual. The release date confirmed it was indeed new. What?! Without hesitation I hit up google, did some detective work and learned the makers of the game created a 5th Edition that started it’s official roll out this past summer.
Normally I only do DVD reviews (for my DVD News Flash site and You Won Cannes) but the discovery of this 5th Edition has had me knee deep in high school memories (1984-1987) for the past few weeks when my best friend Gerry Lee and I used to play the game. And since I usually like to relate my DVD reviews to memories I have, if I’m reviewing a flick from earlier in my life, I decided it was about time I did an article on the second biggest “thing” I used to be into, outside of DVD collecting that is, which was—Dungeons & Dragons! —and this will be complete with as many recollections as I can unearth.
So, let’s start unearthing . . .
Beside those years Gerry and I spent immersed in that role playing game I will say it was the best of times and the worst of times. It was high school, so that alone pretty much covers the ‘worst of times,’ but it was on the periphery when all the ‘best of times’ occurred. What I mean by that is all of the days I skipped, weekends, half days, winter vacation, summer vacation, basically all the times I was not physically in the school getting my ass “educated.”
But my love of this game did not start in high school it started way back in grade school when I read about it for the first time in Dynamite magazine (issue #82 from March 1981). I was 12 at the time and I believe I had a subscription. They had a three-page spread in this issue and it was the photos that really pulled me. I had never seen a game where you could use three-dimensional miniatures of monsters and your characters or even of the environment you would be venturing through. I vividly remember taking a ride with my father somewhere, taking the magazine with me and showing him the article. I normally wasn’t this outgoing with him since he and my mother were divorced at the time.
Somewhere along the way, be it months or years, me, mother and my brother were in this hobby store downtown. I used to look at it every time we drove by; there were model planes in the window and everything. I don’t know what finally got us into it, but there we were. I almost think I thought it was some kind of toy store, which may be why we had gone in. As I was walking around I came upon this stand with all these books and one particular one leapt out at me—the Monster Manual!
Here’s a quick bio of me before I proceed on. I love monster movies. Grew up with them. From the Big Bug flicks of the 50s to everything Ray Harryhausen worked on, so you can see why that cover took hold of my nutsack and wouldn’t let go. I thumbed through it and even though I saw all these stats that meant nothing to me, I saw enough to realize it was basically an encyclopedia of monsters and I wanted it. Shock upon shock my mother actually bought for me.
I was in sixth grade at the time and brought the book to school to read and show to my friends. I don’t even remember making the connection to the Dynamite Magazine article, I just thought someone compiled a book of monsters from mythology and made up these stats like they were real or something. Some of the stats bewildered me, what did alignment, hit points, psionic ability, magic resistance, and some of those others mean exactly?
It didn’t matter.
The monster photos were cool and the description of their habits, feeding, hunting, etc below were enough to placate my desires. I even showed the book to this girl, Lisa, I had a crush on, who couldn’t have cared less. Yeah, I was into the book that much.
Okay, let’s do a little more fast forwarding again, to an indeterminate time where, again, me, my brother and my mother were in this bookstore. I seem to think it was a new store that had just opened up. There were two sections to it, the main area and this other smaller room you kind of had to walk up this ramp to get to. Near the back, near the window that overlooked the parking lot, was a huge D&D display, and again there was something within that desired to have my sack in it’s hand. This time it was the module, Queen Of The Demonweb Pits. Why did this particular gaming supplement garner every ounce of attention I had in my little body? It was the human headed spider-woman on the cover. Again, let me digress and take you out of the narrative for a moment. There was a made-for-TV movie I saw back in 1977, written and directed by Dark Shadows creator, Dan Curtis, called Curse Of The Black Widow. The TV guide ad like everything else I’ve been chronicling here seared itself into my mind never to be forgotten. As you can plainly see comparing both the ad below and the module why that particular D&D supplement had to be mine. And it was, again, my mother bought it for me.
I can’t totally remember how I came into possession of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Set, but I think a friend of my brother’s, Brian, had bought it and then gave it to me to try and decipher. And for a long time the one thing that continued to stump me on this role playing game, even after reading the rules, was how the hell do you play it without a board? Back then I couldn’t fathom how a person could play any kind of game without a board or game pieces to put on that board. I kind of knew the Dungeon Master had to create the “campaign” and then create a map for the players so they knew where they were going but I couldn’t figure out how to connect it all together with the map. So for a long time I would get jazzed about playing the game, then tell Brian and my brother we were going to play and then at the last minute back out, because I couldn’t figure out this blasted “map thing.”
D&D goes into dormancy for a few years after that, but it was always in the back of my mind, mostly thanks to the D&D cartoon that showed up on the scene in September of 1984. I was just beginning the hell that was my freshman year of high school, with the only respite given to me being the weekends and winter vacation. Some time in November I also saw the animated movie, The Last Unicorn (1983), for the first time on cable. There’s a scene at a traveling circus that involves some mythical creatures that are also part of the D&D world like a harpy, a manticore, a satyr and a dragon.
That Christmas I got some D&D toys, a Hook Horror monster, and an evil knight on a Nightmare horse. I can’t remember the name of that knight but he appears in the D&D cartoon. By far though my favorite toy was the bendable Carrion Crawler, which I kept for the longest time before it just vanished off the face of the earth, like most toys from childhood eventually do when you outgrow them.
Nothing noteworthy happens until I end up switching schools. The vocational one I was attending just wasn’t for me, so I transferred the next year to another a mile down the road, which was a lot better, but kind of the same in some departments when it came to getting bullied, but better in others since that’s when I met Gerry. It was during math class with Miss Saco that I met him. He was a freshman and I remember the friendship started out with him pretending his small plastic container that held all this lead for his pencil was a dog taking a shit. He sat a few seats away and he and another friend of mine from grade school, Rob, who was also in that same class, laughed our heads off at his antics.
I can’t recall how he came to sit right behind me, probably Miss Saco moving kids around as teachers normally do from time to time, but we got to talking and found out we didn’t live too far from each other. And I also can’t remember which came first he and I seeing Missing In Action (1984) or him coming up the house one Saturday? I vividly remember though the both of us laughing hysterically over some of those Far Side books I had (still have them too) and it was getting close to him having to go home, when he says something like, “Ever heard of Dungeons & Dragons?”
“Have I, have I, ever heard of D&D?!” That may have been my reply, or I may have just pulled open the top drawer of my desk to reveal the Monster Manual and the Basic Set. I then remember telling him all I knew about the game and how to create a character. From there the rest is a D&D whirlwind. We were coming close to Christmas ’84 and I told my mother what I wanted which just happened to be the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. A Monster Manual II, and the Fiend Folio were also new around that time. My birthday is in January so whichever books I didn’t get for Christmas I got for my birthday. Somewhere during those three remaining years I also acquired The Wilderness Survival Guide and Deities And Demi-Gods hardcovers. I know by the time I graduated that top desk drawer was stocked full of D&D books, the Expert Set, the Companion Set and the Masters Set.
Most of the time it was him and I only playing D&D with 99% of the time me being the Dungeon Master, though I do remember a moment when Gerry decided to be DM and he created these new creatures for me to fight called, Sand Dogs. This was years before Tremors (1990) came out and his creations kind of reminded me of the giant worms from that movie. (Correction: I just talked to him and he told me he based the Sand Dogs on the creatures from The Boogens).
We were both heavily into the martial arts back in high school, well, dabbling heavily into it anyway, with both of us taking classes from time to time throughout, but Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi were big influences on us so most D&D adventures had a lot of stylized ass kicking going on in them. Fights were choreographed, dice were rolled, and non-player characters got their asses handed to them or killed out right.
Since the monsters were my specialty, pitting Gerry’s character against them, I took some creatures from the movies I remember and made up stats for them so I could include them in a campaign. A boogen from The Boogens (1980) and the alien from Creature (aka Titan Find, 1985) got converted into D&D. I think I may have also created stats for the xenomorph from Alien (1979).
Dragon Magazine was also a major supplement that helped spur our D&D obsession. I found it at one of the local bookstores, bought it for a while before I graduated to a subscription. Googling it I found “It ran for 359 issues, 6 annuals, and 5 best ofs…” They had some seriously talented artists who a majority of the time created some spectacular artwork for the cover of every issue. Almost in every issue they did an “Ecology Of…” which was an in-depth article about a particular monster; usually it contained new information. I loved them. I stopped collecting the magazine after I got out of high school.
How I finally grasped the concept of playing without a board was making a map on graph paper of the dungeon to be explored and setting that down on the table, but it wasn’t until we played with some other friends of ours a year or two later that we learned the proper way to do it. Using graph paper, yes, but describing the dungeon as the players go along and have them map out the dimensions and draw in the sights as per the DM’s description. We were like, D’oh, we were doing it all wrong.
That whole gaming session though went straight into the crapper. It was the first time we played with a group and it all degenerated down to all of us just goofing off. It was kind of a let down, but at least we learned how to do the mapping thing properly.
I have a fond memory of playing at his house one summer’s day in his bedroom and it was hotter than hell in it. I remember just sweating buckets but having a hell of a time. Summer’s meant getting out this old WWII backpack my grandfather gave me in childhood (I have no idea why), stuffing D&D books into it along with the adventure I created and biking down to his house. I also have great memories of being in my room during hot evenings and nights, seated at that desk, either taking notes from the various books or creating an adventure to send his character on.
Jesus, those were the good ole’ days.
He and I eventually got into collecting some of the lead figures they used to make back then. Recently I learned D&D miniatures aren’t made out of lead anymore, looks like plastic and in some cases resin. I see some can now be bought pre-painted, too. I always hated having to paint the lead ones since I only had rudimentary skills. I bought a couple of dragons, glued and painted them, did a fairly decent job, but, man, I would have killed to have bought some of them already and professionally painted.
When Gerry left for the army in 1988 is when I got out of role-playing games. In my The Blob (1988) review I talked briefly about his brother, Toney, visiting me in summer of ’88, I ended up giving all my D&D stuff to him since he was just getting into the game himself then.
I briefly got back into it when I started dating this girl in ’90 and ’91. Then the makers had reinvigorated the game again, creating a 2nd edition. Actually I can’t remember what edition they were on back then, but as usual I gravitated to the new Monster Manual they had out and it came in a huge binder this time, with hole punched supplements you could buy and add to it. I got back into collection miniatures again too. Unfortunately she and I never made it into actual game play; we broke up before that ever happened. I threw everything out after and that was the last time I ever had my hand into anything Dungeons & Dragons related.
I now come full circle to present day 2014 and as I stated at the beginning to my discovery of the 5th Edition. Initially I wanted this to be a review of the new Monster Manual. I was going to weave it into the nostalgic part of the article but I could not persuade the PR reps to send me a review copy. I even tried to get the new Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s guide, but they would not relent on them either. But I was prepared for that and Plan B was to just pen the article as you see it now.
I still plan to acquire the Monster Manual one day. It currently resides on my Amazon wishlist and I’m toying with one day returning to the miniatures collecting front as well with the excellent fantasy and dragon figures Safari ltd has up on their site. Plus there are two exquisite large-scale Dragon figures Wizards Of The Coast have recently put on the market of Tiamat and Baphamut. Those two reside on my Amazon wishlist too.
I could never return to the game as a Dungeon Master, perhaps as a player, but never as a DM, since I now enjoy writing fiction and the same part of my brain that does that was in it’s infancy devoted to creating campaigns Gerry and I played.