…playing D&D. Seriously, it’s a GMing blog, what did you expect? Now that I have misled you into reading this first line, why not come a little further with me. For many who enjoy table top gaming, D&D is where it began, and I find what one remembers about that first experience with friends or family interesting. If nothing else, my introduction to the game is a fun story for the fact that I came to the game in an unusual way. That first game was, I now see, a highly irregular approach to D&D. To this day I still treasure as a unique an innovative game-play experience and I find it difficult to imagine reproducing that experience for players now that I GM regularly and know the game. It is hard to bottle lightning, and maybe the nostalgia clouds my memory here, but that one time it seemed we had managed it, without a clue what we were really doing.
It began when I was about fifteen or sixteen with a good friend of mine, and gaming buddy to this day, Drake (I’ll use pseudo names here). He has stumbled upon a new game, or rather, new for us, D&D, the 3.5 edition. He had some familiarity with it, and was eager to try running an adventure with the usual crew of us who inevitable ended up hanging out in his basement on Fridays. We would wander over there after school let out, often stopping at the McDonalds on the way to buy fries and other treats, before settling into that basement for seven to eight hours of gaming and time with friends. On that particular day, Drake had been putting his skills at convincing the five or so of us to go along with his D&D plan for several days. To this day that guy can still sell me a game WAY to easily. So, we were already discussing what classes and characters we wanted to play.
Like many D&D player I know or have heard talk, for me, The Lord of the Rings and similar fantasy adventure novels fuelled my imagination a great deal. I had read Tolkien’s books only months before Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring was released. That confluence of events had made me a fairly diehard fan, which meant D&D’s world was familiar to me, and very alluring. D&D seemed to be a perfect way to imagine myself in a fantasy setting, as it did for many of my friends. We were looking forward to giving this a try.
I cannot recall exactly what character I played. My guess is that it was an elven ranger, as the first character I would use long term after that was an Elven Assassin. That is another story though. From different stories I have heard, it may seem odd that I cannot remember my character, but I would attribute that to just how well the game’s set up worked and how loosely we followed the rules. It was our first time playing after all. Basically, my character did not matter. What did matter and still sticks out in my mind is what happened in game between myself and the other players. I really saw my character as myself, not a fictional character I controlled.
To return to the point however, when we got started playing, Drake invited his brother, Lor, and two of his friends to join in as well. Now, since we have known each other, Lor and I have had a well-meaning antagonistic relationship. We mock each other and have been competitive, but he is a good guy. So, when he was invited in, it quickly became clear to all of us that working together was not how we wanted to play this. Drake had begun with having us meet up in an inn, adventures gathered together to seek out a stash of treasure hidden in the nearby mines. It seems to be simple enough concept, but that ounce of competition made it so much more. Lor and his friends split from our group, and myself and my friends established our own party. Both groups set out after the treasure.
Drake, to his credit as a first time DM, handled this perfectly, splitting up the groups so we were unaware of the others actions and giving us each about 30 minute gaming sessions with him while the other group talked and entertained themselves. Both groups were roughly the same size, however we had the foresight to grab a nearby NPC thief Drake was controlling. We figured any advantage was a good one. Our group then raced out of the inn, and without a thought to the morality of our actions, we raided the nearby area for anything of use. I believe one of the guys was able to test his strength score out on a farmer to get us a cart while the rest of us promptly stole four horses. I do not recall for certain, but I suspect any horses we could not use were either chased of or eliminated. Looking back, we might have been a bit overly competitive, however, we were motivated and having fun. Lor’s group thought they would be clever and let us go first, and we did so without prompting. We bolted out of town on horseback and in the cart, and we did not stop until we came to the entrance to the mine.
This was where we identified our first problem. Horses are not something on wants to bring into a mine. However, with Lor and company only a few hours behind us on foot, if we left the horses tied up our opponent would claim them, and the cart! I was damned if I was going to give up the first “victory” we had gotten over Lor. This was where I discovered what, to this day, is my favourite part of being a player in a D&D game. We needed a plan, and so I came up with one, with help from my friends. We pieced together an ambush. First, (and rather unnecessarily) we sabotaged the sign that indicated this was the correct mine, removing the sign aspect so there was just a pole. We then tied up the horses to said pole and took up hidden positions on the slope above the mine’s entrance.
Lor and his friends were brought into our room and we listened as they came upon our horses, and carefully approached them. We were right there trying not to grin, so they knew something was up. When they were standing close around the horses, our party sprung up. We were prepared to fire ranged weapons if we had them or to roll boulders down on our foes if we lacked such weapons. Lor and his friends promptly hid behind the horses, and seeing as we preferred not to kill our horses in an effort to harm them, we both agreed to negotiate. We started demanding their surrender, but for the same reasons we were negotiating that was soon off the table. It came down to giving them the horses in exchange for a hour long head start into the mine. They said that was doable, but the horses were no good in the mine, and so not worth it. They wanted our NPC thief as well. We grumbled about it, until we had a stroke of genius (again, we had a certain absence or morality here. There were no lawful or good characters in those early adventures). We agreed, Lor and company could have our thief. They had not, however, stated that he must be alive. Our fighter snapped the poor thief’s neck and booted the corpse down to the others. We quickly reminded them of the deal and sprinted off into the mine.
Lor and his party were smarted than we expected, and they took that hour to raise the thief as an undead thief, using their druid I believe, though with what I know now I expect that was not strictly allowed in the rules of 3.5. I admit, the next little bit is vague. I know we overcame some traps, possibly a monster or two, all the while attempting to slow down or harm our pursuers. For their part, they used their new undead minion to quickly overcome most of our traps. I do recall that we came upon a long pitch black tunnel, and it was there that the sounds of our pursuers could be heard. We promptly decided time to stop and deal with them again. We put out our light and waited. When Lor’s party drew close enough, our wizard cast a spell that sent a blast of wind down the tunnel, putting out our opponent’s torch. We pounced, directed by our fighter, who as a half orc had dark vision. We managed to knock out and kidnap Lor, running off in the dark with him. The rest of Lor’s party was left confused in the dark.
What came next I honestly have trouble recalling. I know we fought and killed the undead thief when he was sent to retrieve Lor. I believe we eventually interrogated Lor and left him behind, but not before re-raising the thief to serve us. I think we got tired and did something else at that point.
I wish I could finish the story with a more compelling climax, but my memory is not helping me out there. Besides this, I think it says something that I remember so much so clearly from a single game played over six years ago. That game became a good story amongst our group, and the retelling helped me to remember it. That is also why I recall the best moments. The moments of conflict between the two parties is what we all remembered. It would have been a fairly standard game of D&D otherwise, even for a first game. Instead, we had a true adventure that got us motivated, thinking, and more excited than many of the games I have played since. A part of that may be being younger experiencing such a game for the first time, but I attribute a great deal of that to the competitive aspect we added to it. It is always more fun to face off against another individual, rather than a computer or impartial GM. However, I think another aspect of it was our unfamiliarity with the rules.
Where I to try this with my gaming group today, it would be far more complex. I could split the group up and have them face off. The competition would be there, as well as the mystery of what the other was up to. What would be different is that both sides would know the rules. It would quickly become a chess match as they would figure out which rules they could use to get each other. Also, it would likely quickly become a lethal brawl as fighters beat down wizards, rogues backstabbed fighters, and wizards blasted rogues away. It would not be the same game of imagination I first played, where we used whatever clever tricks we could imagine to outwit each other.
I admit, as I type this, I become both nostalgic for that game and curious as to if these flaws I have long seen in repeating the game are as bad as I think. Maybe this kind of thing needs to be attempted to see if it will work with a group. If it does, it is a great twist on the classic game. For that alone I am glad it was my first experience with D&D. It hooked me. I will always remember that one Friday afternoon and evening as both my first time playing D&D, and as a style of table top gaming I an eager to repeat. I think it’s about time I took a look at recreating my first time.