Red Box D&D memories: what game were we playing?!

edited November 2007 in Actual Play
I had my first RPG experience at age 9, after the Wrightstown Elementary School barn dance. Hollis's mom, who was kind of a strange hippy type, had bought him a new kind of game--"Dungeons & Dragons" (Mentzer, Red Box, 1983)--and he wanted us to play it with him as the "Dungeon Master."

For pretty much the next twenty years, I've been a big fan of RPG's in general, and Red Box D&D has always held a special spot in my heart. That was our favorite game from about 1985 to 1989. Our characters went on crazy quests, defeated Demogorgon, won strange artifacts, fought beasts from the 5th Dimension (the Dimension of Nightmares, y'know). With the recent threads about it on various on-line fora, I dug out my old copies--and I'm astonished that, to the best of my knowledge, we never engaged with any of the rules.

On that first night, I played a Cleric with 4 Charisma. None of us knew what "Charisma" meant, but I was very unhappy with that low score. Tim played a Fighter. I don't remember anything about the dungeon, except that it involved graph paper, and all kinds of crazy monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual (which had funky pictures in it). My Cleric died almost immediately fighting a carrion crawler; we bribed Hollis with Halloween candy to let us live.

Most of the rest of our "campaign" over the next couple of years ended up being weird, random stuff that didn't make much sense, handled almost entirely through declaration and fiat.

For example:
* We never bothered with encumbrance rules
* We never bothered with morale
* We never bothered with movement
* We never bothered with spell durations & AoE
* We never bothered with spells, actually
* We never bothered with attack rolls, damage, etc.

Basically: you name the rule, we ignored it.

CONTINUED BELOW

Comments

  • The process of playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons consisted of...

    * Drawing maps on graph paper. All the time. I was lucky because my dad was an engineer, and he had easy access to all the graph paper I would ever need.

    * Imagining your character's crazy adventures to yourself, and then maybe telling your friends about them. I think my guy found the Scarf-Sword of Sinbad--it was this scarf, that was also a sword, and Sinbad used it. I found it in this port city in the desert! It was hard to get to! I had to read directions on how to get there, by using my Elf-vision to read a map written in vapor upon the ocean mists.

    * Also: imagining making friends with strange monsters. Like, the lion-pegasus friend, who was really smart and fierce and probably gave me advice, and looked cool even though I could not draw lions very well.

    * Along the same lines, having sex with were-tigers. A few decades of sexual development have persuaded me that this would most likely be a bad idea. I am sorry, all you fine were-tiger ladies out there.

    * Every once in a while, we'd get together, and imagine a new crazy adventure for a character. Like the time I subdued this gold dragon, sold it, and made enough money to buy a warship.

    * At one point early on we had a party of NPC's, including Greegan from the basic set (because he was awesome) and Grax the Dwarf (who was so dumb we paid him with dirt). We got a lot of mileage out of how dumb Grax was.

    * Reading and re-reading the adventure modules, wondering what it would be like to play them. I remember The Tree of Life in particular, and thinking it was potentially cool but also involved a lot of stupid shit about colorful rainbows, puzzles, and trials. More bad-ass wizards who wanted to be an Elf and had a fortress and rode around on a wyvern, please...

    * Buying more of the boxed sets, to think of more crazy adventures. One of them involved advancing 20 levels by giving the DM a lot of candy at lunch time.

    * The one time I remember actually playing the game more or less as intended, my guy was in a dungeon, off on his own, in a room when the orcs start knocking on the door. I decide that my character will hide under the bed! To demonstrate, I then hid under the bed myself. Tim and Hollis demonstrated the Orcs' reaction by jumping on the bed. I think we never finished playing out that combat, because someone had to leave.

    * I think in early middle school, Adam joined our group, and became our go-to DM. He ran a bunch of adventures involving the Lone Wolf world. Adam's adventures were cool because he had character-specific subplots, and occasionally we actually used the rules. But God, being a Thief was awful. We assumed that to backstab someone, you had to succeed at Moving Silently and Hiding - essentially, you had a 1% chance of being useful, and a 99% chance of getting stomped. But I thought Thieves were cool anyway. I ended up with an Intelligent Morning-Star. Adam also used Lone-Wolf as a GMPC character, which I remember resenting, but mechanically he might have worked as a high-level Elf.

    But it really does baffle me that, for all the time we spent in an activity labelled "playing D&D", we really never played the game. It was just like "ridicuous 10 year olds imagining an incoherent fantasy world." We briefly tried it again when we were 13, but AD&D 2e came out almost immediately after I drew the campaign map, and after some heated argument ("Multi-class? What's that?! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard! What, you can be a Dwarf/Elf???!") we switched to that.

    Now that I've actually read the rules, it seems like it would be a fun, if perhaps equally incoherent, experience. With or without the were-tigers.
  • Since that time, you have never played any other game either. You may have not played particular games to greater or lesser degrees, but you didn't play any of them. There is no there there.
  • The first response, no less! JDBot, you are something special.

    James, I had a very similar experience all through early elementary school. We all had some vague idea of what D&D was, but it didn't come down to playing through dungeons. We just made characters and talked about all kinds of cool stuff they would do. The first game I actually played was Gamma World, though between sessions we still did lots of crazy freeforming, including stuff like shooting free-throws for rolls on the mutation tables.

    It was all very fun, actually.
  • Speaking of there being no There there... Gamma World was frankly unplayable, yet we played in into the ground. IT was all about rolling random mutations for yourself and your enemies.

    What were we doing? Playing, I guess. Playing like kids on a playground. When I was 10, D&D was one helluva playground.

    I remember my first dungeon. I snuck into my brothers room to read his AD&D books. I got the idea that the dungeon gets harder as you go deeper. So I made a dungeon on one piece of graph paper. In the first room were 1-10 lemurs (common 1HD creature). In the last was Jubilex, with all the assorted jellies and molds that the rules say he should have with him, marked in the appropriate spots on the map. All the monsters had treasure rolled up on the awesome charts in the back of the monster manual.

    Ah... memories...
  • Reminds me of my original experiences, wandering around the bamboo grove behind the neighbor's house in winter. Sam carried a Monster Manual, Clay carried his dog's leash, and everyone else carried a stick and pretended it was a sword. Somewhere on the Forge, there's an old thread about it...
  • Recently playing Moldvay Red Box and attempting to actually play R-a-W has been an exceedingly enlightening experience. I don't even want to analyze all of the rules we skipped or glossed over, although we do seem to have played ( in the 1980s) a bit closer than you did James.
  • This is essentially how I played both blue box D&D and 1st ed. AD&D in middle school. Later I discovered the dubious joys of rules you actually used, but the way those games (TFT, Top Secret, Traveller) were played was essentially to run big free-for-all fights rather in the style of a contemporary deathmatch game. My early experience was that the roleplaying part and the game part were essentially different activities altogether.
  • My earliest memory of D&D is when I was 5 years old, listening to my Dad run a red-box (Moldvay) game for some of his friends. I was in the same room, and I was supposed to be going to sleep, but I was fascinated with the unfolding story of adventurers braving their way through a scary dungeon.

    At the time I thought my dad was making it all up as he went along. The idea that he'd drawn a map and prepared room descriptions didn't occur to my 5-year old brain.

    Ha! I just realized this now: this last year I've kind of come full circle. With games like Burning Empires, Burning Wheel and PtA I've finally embraced the 'making it up as you go' thing (with awesome results).
  • My experience as well. It was a long time before I really played any RPG by the book.

    The irony is that your "we ignored everything" memories are exactly what a lot of D&D grognards point to when complaining about whatever is the current edition of D&D.
  • Hey Jason, what if everyone on the Internet agreed to call that thing you say every time "The JD Corley Principle"? Would you stop saying it every time then?

    I think the boundaries of consensus in those early sessions is a really interesting area - the first time I played an RPG, I had the barest frame of reference. I sort of knew what a dungeon was, but I had no idea what a "kablob" was (my dyslexic brother's take on "kobold", I think). But I slew it and it was really fun and we were doing something exciting together, mostly through agreement. We did use the rules, though, as best we could. There was such a huge grey area that we just dove into, having had almost no exposure to fantasy tropes.
  • Posted By: buzzThe irony is that your "we ignored everything" memories are exactly what a lot of D&D grognards point to when complaining about whatever is the current edition of D&D.
    I've seen a lot of that as well. It's what lead me to believe that RPGs are popular simply because they give people an excuse to "Play Pretend" beyond an age where it's acceptable to the greater society.
  • The first post sounds like you were playing Fantasy Cops and Robber instead of D&D. The second post sounds like Awesomeland was your settting of choice. Rock on! :D
  • edited November 2007
    Yeah, exactly. I'm wondering how much of the latter was due to the former. Reading the Red Box now, I'm like, "Um, this is a tabletop roguelike." I can see how it would be a lot of fun with the right attitude, but what we were doing had almost nothing to do with the text.

    Incidentally, JD, I'd take exception to your comment. It's true we weren't playing the game. But we weren't even remotely playing the game. There was this one time, when our characters were abducted by space aliens! And they gave us superhero powers and costumes based on the four fundamental forces of the cosmos (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force) and we fought off space invaders by shooting lightning bolts that did 1000 Hit Points of damage!!! Then we woke up in a pumpkin field for some reason. I mean, yes: we entered a shared imagined space. But the rules text didn't have much to do with it. In my more recent role-playing experiences, the shared imagined space was far closer to the author's presumptive imagined space, and the rules--which we made a strong effort to follow--had non-trivial effects on the play experience.

    Whether there's a "there" there or not, we were pretty far afield, and are a lot closer to the non-there now.
  • I had a roommate a long time ago show me his boxed set. He showed me the (solo?) adventure that came with it (some stuff with snakes in the first room and an evil cleric woman in the last, I think?). He told me that when he got done the first time, he'd go through it again, with all the stuff he'd accumulated from last time - all the stuff he collected from killing the things in the dungeon, who now repopulated the dungeon as the module had it written. He told me it was really fun, and I believe him. But, when he told me, I was so full of disdain about his lack of realism.
  • edited November 2007
    "I had to read directions on how to get there, by using my Elf-vision to read a map written in vapor upon the ocean mists."


    I think this may be one of the coolest things I've read in a long time.

    ME
  • Red box was my first RPG experience too. That summer (I think I was in the 5th grade or so), my neighbor and I rolled up about a hundred characters and put them in a big binder. We didn't really get the game. Towards the end of the summer, I reread the rules and finally "got it". I told my neighbor we were going to do an adventure and that he needed one character. Rather than roll a new one, this is what we did:

    We held a tournament for all the PCs we had created. We created tournament brackets by pulling character names at random. We pitted the PCs against each other in combat TO THE DEATH! The final survivor became my friend's PC.

    I think back on that and imagine this otherworldly gladatorial arena littered with the bodies of dozens of first level Basic D&D characters. In the center of them all, a grizzled bloodstained warrior stands triumphant. Tomorrow his reward will be a ticket to THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS!!!
  • When my older brother first introduced me to D&D, all he wanted to do was create adventuring parties to go assault The Keep. It wasn't until I bought all of his and his friend's D&D stuff that I found out there was actually an adventure that didn't involve chasing down and skewering the Keep's chaplain.

    ME
  • Posted By: chaldfontWe held a tournament for all the PCs we had created. We created tournament brackets by pulling character names at random. We pitted the PCs against each other in combat TO THE DEATH! The final survivor became my friend's PC.
    That's seven. Kinds. of awesome.
    Posted By: merb101It wasn't until I bought all of his and his friend's D&D stuff that I found out there was actually an adventure that didn't involve chasing down and skewering the Keep's chaplain.
    Pfft. What the heck version of KotB were you playing?

    :D
  • My personal opinion, the worst thing old-skool D&D ever did was give an XP value for non-combat characters ;)

    ME
  • Posted By: merb101My personal opinion, the worst thing old-skool D&D ever did was give an XP value for non-combat characters ;)
    If you kill them, you can only defeat them once and earn xps.

    If you leave them alive, you can defeat them multiple times for xps.

    This is why Lawful characters often live longer and have a higher level than Chaotics.
  • Never played Red Box, but we did play White Box and then AD&D; I think the observation that many have made, that people tended to play AD&D more as a sourcebook for simpler versions, basically held for my group. But we* did use the core elements in a principled fashion: initiative, AC, HP, roll to hit, roll damage, spell memorization, keeping track of time, mapping, wandering monsters. Just not stuff like weapon speeds, or spell components, or the nitty-gritty of getting hirelings. The biggest violation of the spirit of the rules was that encumbrance was largely ignored along with any sense of reality: people carried all their stuff on their backs, including multiple pole weapons and thousands of coins. Not to mention we also didn't worry about light sources--either all dungeons must have had lighting, or you could effectively carry a lantern, sword, and shield in combat with no penalty. By the time I started getting particular about that stuff, I was also moving on to other game systems like TFT, and various D&D homebrews that essentially simplified the D&D action system down to the core elements of spells, combat, and percentile-based "tasks"--though adding detail in the form of hit locations, spell points, and armor absorption--and more-or-less customized and rationalized classes.

    I honestly don't remember how we did experience early on. At first it was surely by the book, with illogical but commensurate treasures providing the bulk of it. Later I may have houseruled treasure out of the calculation and compensated by multiplying the award for killing stuff by a factor of 10 or somesuch. All of my later D&D-based gaming was with someone else GMing, and I have no idea how they calculated awards. Hm, I think I'll ask one them.

    Anyway the point is that while JDCorley is surely right in a technical sense about how I played early D&D, we nevertheless played with a strong sense of where the rules had to be used and how to use them in those cases. There may have been fudging but the only obvious cases were (a) when I would declare do-overs after TPK's, and (b) when the GM in one of the homebrews compensated for the obviously D&D-derived numerical patheticness of my character's thief-like skills by playing fast & loose. It's possible that the "rogues' skills" table was revised later to bring it more into balance with the expected power level of the campaign. Hm. I just came across that character sheet this morning, maybe I have the percentages written down.

    *Some people GMed White Box in a really silly way, e.g. a ridiculous killer 10'x10' room filled with a hundred purple worms. They were excluded from DMing pretty quickly. Also, we were probably no younger than 11, more likely 12 when we started playing White Box. I'd also had a brief exposure to the game, played by people 5 years older than me, a year or two before my peers and I started playing, and many of us were familiar with wargames, which affected our approach to rules.
  • Posted By: chaldfontWe held a tournament for all the PCs we had created. We created tournament brackets by pulling character names at random. We pitted the PCs against each other in combat TO THE DEATH! The final survivor became my friend's PC.
    Did he get the XP for the guys he defeated?
  • Posted By: droog
    Did he get the XP for the guys he defeated?
    I wish I could say yes, but I don't remember.
  • Per the Moldvay Basic Set (the precursor to the Mentzer version), 1 HD guys are only worth about 5 XP, maybe 6 if they have special abilities. Defeating 100 other first level characters in a battle to the death would only be worth 500 XP. Far, far less if you're using brackets. I guess you'd get more if they were carrying around whatever was left of their starting gold...
  • Yeah, but as soon as you put stats to a character, you make them "killable." I always hated fighting a room full of goblins or orcs and then being told by the game master "So what are you going to do with all the goblin/orc women and children left in the room?"

    ME
  • Posted By: merb101Yeah, but as soon as you put stats to a character, you make them "killable." I always hated fighting a room full of goblins or orcs and then being told by the game master "So what are you going to do with all the goblin/orc women and children left in the room?"
    The fact that Keep on the Borderlands has exactly this problem is interesting. I wonder how many players encountered this as their very first adventure and had to deal with the issue of civvies?
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarHey Jason, what if everyone on the Internet agreed to call that thing you say every time "The JD Corley Principle"? Would you stop saying it every time then?
    I don't want it to be named, I want it to be lived by, and the chances of that happening seem to be zero, or slightly less.
  • I know whenever I ran Keep on the Borderlands I changed the setting details to say the mountain caverns were being used as staging areas for war parties. I just eliminated all reference to monster families. That is one thing about me, can't stand to play games where children are in danger. No Little Fears for me.

    ME
  • Posted By: merb101I know whenever I ran Keep on the Borderlands I changed the setting details to say the mountain caverns were being used as staging areas for war parties. I just eliminated all reference to monster families. That is one thing about me, can't stand to play games where children are in danger. No Little Fears for me.
    I wish someone had suggest years earlier to me the idea that goblins (etc) weren't human-like at all, and were more, I dunno, mythical? There aren't any goblin-babies. Goblins are goblins are goblins.

    It would have made the whole thing vastly simpler.
  • Now I'm picturing Keep on the Borderlands using DitV rules. I raise with "You hear the plaintive cries of the ugly little goblin babies that have just crawled out from that big pile of debris"
  • Posted By: noclueNow I'm picturing Keep on the Borderlands using DitV rules. I raise with "You hear the plaintive cries of the ugly little goblin babies that have just crawled out from that big pile of debris"
    Or go all Labyrinth, and have goblins come from captured human babies. (and yeah, I know Labyrinth didn't invent the idea, but they made it so much cooler by giving it to David Bowie and Jim Henson to play with :) )
  • I shoplifted the Elmore cover boxed set. First time we played, we used roll-under for saves because we couldn't believe they'd be so tough to succeed at.
  • My folks bought me the redbox. I think I was about ten. I couldn't get anyone to try it with me. I kept trying until I was about thirteen and a friend bought TMNT and we played the ever lovin' crap out of that, just the two of us and switching back and forth as gm.

    We later landed a group and played a lot of all the palladium games. We thought we were so rebel because we didn't play D&D.

    While I look back and see the humor in that I really think it set a lifelong pattern of taking the gaming road less travelled. I was the first person I knew to play a lot of games that weren't D&D and I was pretty arrogant about it.

    Now I just let people have whatever fun they want, but i'm always willing to expose them to new ideas if they're askin'.

    Sorry if that's a bit of a derailment.
  • edited January 2008
    I also got the Elmore-cover box set at around 10. I remember filling in the numbers on the dice with an included white crayon and then doing the solo adventure about umpteen times. Around the same time, my best friend was given a box of AD&D books by the older kid who lived down the road from him. I don't think we really ever used the rules. We made a lot of characters, drew a lot of maps and pictures of our characters, wrote stories involving our characters...

    Eventually we started playing freeform, diceless (or we'd choose an arbitrary target number and roll whatever die we wanted), improvisational games that in no way resembled D&D. Most of our games were based during the Enlightenment in Vienna or Rome and involved political intrigue. We did tons of research on weapons and history, and kept buying various systems and supplements. We read them for inspiration. I had a box of dice I never used...and kept buying more.

    I have to admit that the "satanic" and "taboo" aspects of D&D were very attractive to the anti-social tween I was then. I learned all about Alistair Crowley, and then Blavatsky, then Gurdjieff. Later, this evolved into a facination with comparative mythology and philosophy. Hell, I even explored Christianity...

    When I was 13 or so, I got really serious about playing the guitar. My friend became an amazing drummer. In fact, all my "gaming" friends ended up being musicians and we kept playing and creating together throughout highschool...only not D&D.

    I credit D&D with my love of literature and history and my skill at drawing and painting. So much of who I am now is a result of that little red box.
  • <blockquote><cite>Posted By: Brennen Reece</cite>I credit D&D with my love of literature and history and my skill at drawing and painting. So much of who I am now is a result of that little red box.</blockquote>

    Ditto! I also received the Red Box as a gift when I was about 10 or 11. I had asked for some electronic D&D game that was out, but my aunt bought the wrong thing. That mistake created the person I am today. The Red Box opened up a whole new world to me. From there I went on to most of the games available through Palladium (TMNT After the Bomb and Palladium fantasy more than anything). Then I played Paranoia, Marvel Super Heroes, and Warhammer (and a minimal amount of Twilight: 2000) all through high school.

    Our games of D&D were much like what others experienced: a lot of time making characters, drawing maps, and creating worlds but very little game time. Games usually consisted of myself and one or two others, mostly played while on the bus going to school. Have you ever tried to roll a d10 on a bus seat?

    Ah, fond memories.
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