Years ago, Dragon Magazine ran a series of guest editorials entitled “First Quest,” in which members of the industry recalled their introduction to gaming. The name was a reference to a line of D&D products that TSR released under the “First Quest” banner which were designed to help new players learn the game. The title of this piece is an homage to that series of editorials, although I do not claim to put myself in the same category as those game designers who made an indelible mark on the gaming world.
My introduction to gaming took place on my 12th birthday. It was the capstone experience of the day and one that would have an immeasurably profound impact on my life, but I didn’t know it yet. It took place during the lull between an awesome birthday party at an indoor amusement park/arcade earlier in the day, video games at home that afternoon, and ice skating that night. The one common denominator in all of these activities was my cousins. They’re a few years older than I am, which made them and the things they were interested in awesome by default.
We were at Anthony’s house. He’s always had a great sense of humor and a certain low-key cool that made me really enjoy being around him. Also, when we were kids, I could always count on him to bring his NES (and eventually, his Super NES) to the New Year’s party at our aunt and uncle’s house, transforming what would otherwise have been a boring evening into a solid block of hours and hours of playing Nintendo.
Dave was the oldest of the three of us. He was the smallest in terms of physical stature, but he carried himself with a wry, confident attitude. This, combined with the fact that he was a whole three years older than me meant that I tended to approach him with a level of respect and deference, despite him once describing me as being “ten times bigger” than him.
Dave took on the role of Dungeon Master and described the scene for Anthony: “You’re sitting in an inn.” And so, the adventure began, using what has become the ultimate cliche for D&D adventures, but which was still new to me at that point.
“The serving wench brings you your drink and then goes over to serve another customer, a mean-looking dwarf. All of a sudden, he starts loudly berating her for some reason that isn’t clear and then he starts beating her savagely.”
Anthony had an affinity for mages, but the character he was playing that night was more of a fighter type — probably something whipped up on the spur of the moment just for that adventure. In any event, he quickly sprung into action, drawing his blade and coming to the girl’s rescue. The malicious little bar patron turned his attention to Anthony’s character. A brief fight ensued, and he easily dispatched the dwarf.
The game had only been going for about three minutes, but I was already enthralled. The concept of free-form, collaborative storytelling wrapped up in a game was a completely new concept to me. Furthermore, in an experience no doubt shared by countless neophyte RPGers before and been since, I was also fascinated by the strange, multi-sided dice that my cousins used to determine the outcome of the fight and which conferred a sense of arcane, esoteric wonder to the proceedings. Who knew that dice could come in so many different shapes?
With the dwarf slain and lying in a bloody heap on the tavern floor, Anthony turned his attention to the serving girl. The dwarf had managed to inflict serious injuries in a short period of time and she was unconscious. Seeing her condition, he scooped her up and went searching for a healer in the town.
He barged through the front door of the nearest temple, interrupting the priest during the middle of a morning sermon. The cleric was irritated by the interruption, but was willing to help in exchange for a random item from Anthony’s pack. (Even non-adventuring NPCs want treasure.) Anthony agreed, and the priest cast healing spells over the girl, bringing her back to consciousness.
The callous priest collected his payment. Reaching into Anthony’s pack, he pulled out a gaudy-looking necklace and was instantly immolated by magical flames that engulfed his body the moment he placed it around his neck.
I was blown away; this game was like nothing else I had ever experienced before.
To drive home the point of just how free players were to take the game in any direction, Anthony and Dave reset the scenario back to the tavern with the serving girl waiting on Anthony. This time, they role-played a conversation which quickly degenerated into the two characters haggling over the price of sexual favors. (Hey, I had literally just turned twelve and my cousins were in their early teens, remember? What else would you expect?) I was in stitches, and my cousins had made their point effectively.
That was the end of the short demo adventure, but this game was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced and all I knew was that I wanted to play more.
D&D was always high on the priority list whenever I got together with my cousins after that point, and it was some time before I was able to play D&D without them. The main impediment was that my parents had become aware of the moral panic surrounding D&D which still existed at that time. They generally didn’t like the idea of me playing and resisted my efforts to do so to different degrees at various times, but they were certainly never supportive. Eventually, possibly due to my persistence, or possibly to them realizing that there really wasn’t anything to be concerned about, they officially let me try out my new hobby. In an uncharacteristic show of support for anything that interested me, my father was actually the first person to drive me to my closest FLGS, 20 minutes from our house.
The store was small, but I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books and other gaming material: “There’s an entire *COMPENDIUM*¹ full of monsters, and this big binder is only the first volume?? This one city gets a whole book² written about it??!” I found a copy of the one book I was already familiar with and selected two sets of plain opaque dice, one blue and one black.
A treasured relic from my earliest days as a gamer. The amount of time I’ve spend pouring over the pages of this tome is orders of magnitude greater than I’ve spent with any other single book.
Armed with my brand new Player’s Handbook and dice, I set forth on my first quest: recruiting new players.
My sister was the first person I DMed for. Being four years younger than me, she was in second grade at the time of her first adventure and couldn’t quite read all of the words on her homebrew character sheet (i.e., a sheet of loose leaf with boxes drawn on it), much less the actual rules of the game. We rolled up her first character, a dwarf fighter that she named Rosella Thogard. The adventure got off to a rocky start, with Rosella being killed by orcs in the first encounter, so we started over and things improved dramatically on the second try. I made it my mission to introduce as many of my friends to D&D as I could, and I was finally able to put together my first gaming group during the summer in between eighth grade and high school.
Having written all of this, I realize that in both of my “first quests,” I didn’t actually participate as a player: I was an observer when my cousins introduced me to the game, and when I did ultimately find other people to play with, I took on the role of Dungeon Master. Furthermore, not only did I run games for my friends, but with only one exception, I was also the one who introduced them to the game; it wasn’t until early in my freshman year of high school that I became friends with someone who already had experience playing D&D (a fact which I became aware of when I saw him reading the PHB while waiting for English class to start). This is a pattern that continued in my adult life, after a long hiatus from gaming, when I introduced a new group of friends to the game and ran a campaign for them. Upon reflection, I realize that I find both this approach and the DM’s chair are where I am most comfortable.
Today marks twenty-five years since my cousins opened up this new world to me, one that not only became a hobby, but which has impacted almost every aspect of my life in more ways than I can describe, including the real-life adventures I’m now engaged in. Thank you, Anthony and Dave, for introducing me to the game that would have such an incredible impact on me, and for giving me what is, other than life itself, probably the greatest birthday gift that I have ever received.
- The poorly-conceived Monstrous Compendium. You know, the one where they decided to put the monsters in a three-ring binder instead of a hardcover book because it gave you the flexibility to expand and customize by adding new monsters, but which only stayed alphabetized (in other words, usable) as long as you didn’t expand and customize by adding new monsters. Not to mention the poor durability of three hole-punched sheets.
- Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep