Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Day I Quit Playing D&D

Earlier this month (in my one-play reaction/review of Descent: Journeys in the Dark), I outlined a bit of my personal D&D history: read about it in Games yadda yadda, bought the blue box set yadda yadda, nearly 3 years of DMing yadda yadda, and I quit. No yadda - in fact, I promised to tell that story in this post.

So here it is.

As in many D&D groups, our group had evolved over time. We began as excited newbies, passing around the blue book rules & taking turns making up dungeons to explore & plunder. (It was during this time period that I created one of the few player characters I remember using, a Dwarf fighter named Ecnad Tsal... which is "Last Dance" backwards - yes, another clue that I came of age during the late 1970's.) The group grew as we added friends and girlfriends.

My sixteenth birthday party consisted of eating a cake my mom made with a dinosaur model on the top - the closest thing she could find to a dragon - and playing D&D with better quality snacks than usual. Yes, we were pretty much the title characters from Freaks & Geeks. (BTW, I've never actually watched a full episode of Freaks & Geeks - set in 1980, my sophmore/junior year of high school, it was just too painfully close to reality to be enjoyable.)

Over time, the less-dedicated (read: less obsessive) drifted away & the majority of our adventuring took place with four of us:
  • Mark (aka fluff daddy and/or pastor guy), the Dungeon Master
  • Jim, the neutral human druid
  • Tom, Jim's younger brother who went through a variety of characters... I think most of them were elves who were chaotic good (which pretty much described Tom himself)
  • Dave, our oddly lucky with the ladies (esp. for someone who played D&D) friend who played a halfling thief of variable alignment (Some other time, I need to y'all about Dave's dating life & the vaguely Calvinist theory of dating the rest of us developed in response to his success.)
The characters had continued leveling up nicely but not quickly - I was not a Monty Hall DM. (For the uninitiated, that means I didn't give out gold, experience points and/or magic items lightly... they had to work for that kind of stuff.) Again, I'm fuzzy on the details, but all three of them were 10th level or better and had been running those particular characters for 2+ years.

So, one afternoon after school, we're upstairs in Jim & Tom's bedroom, playing D&D. (Chances are we were listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall or Jethro Tull's Aqualung... being the ubergeeks that we were.) Anyway, they were exploring a volcanic island... an adventure of my own creation. Turns out that the smoke issuing from the volcano was not from molten lava but from a red dragon who was sitting on a pile of treasure.

Anyone who has run a roleplaying game knows what is about to happen - you, as the game master, work to create an open scenario and yet, with subtle or not-so-subtle clues, limit some of the options so that the players will follow the story without feeling herded. Invariably, one of the players decides to push the boundaries... and you have to follow through.

Dave had a history of using his thief like a fighter - and this afternoon was not an exception to that foolhardy tendency. What I had intended to be a "smash & grab" of some small (but valuable) magic items became Dave's grand stage - he masterminded a plan to kill the dragon & take all of the treasure.

I threw up red flags: my descriptions of the dragon became more horrific and NPC's (non-player characters) who were their servants issued dire warnings. But nothing would deter Dave from his plan.

And so the battle began. For a while, things worked out for the party. Then the dice started going bad, they tried some desperate manuevers... and Dave found his halfling in front of the business end of a red dragon.

A couple of shakes of the dice later, and the halfling was a crispy critter, incinerated beyond recognition. Dave demanded that Jim (the druid) resurrect him. (There was some magic item they had that could help.) But I ruled that without a physical body to resurrect, there was nothing they could do. Dave's character was dead.

Jim & Tom figured out what was happening faster than I did... as they grabbed Dave as he lunged toward me, spitting & cussing, threatening to beat me senseless for killing his character. I can still remember thinking, "This is just a game. It's just a character on a bunch of pieces of paper. And this guy wants to beat me up over it?!"

What I don't remember is what happened next... how we got Dave calmed down, whether or not we kept playing that day, if I got home in time for dinner (which I wasn't always good about). None of it - it's like my memory banks are wiped clean.

What I do remember is that I quit D&D that day... I was done. Any game that could potentially cause bodily injury to me was just not worth it. I piled up my stacks of manuals, scenarios & folders full of graph paper dungeons... and, weirdly enough, gave them to Dave.

So, that's the story.

But it probably isn't the whole story. There were a number of things contributing to the demise of my roleplaying career, not the least of which was getting an actual "real world" life which included crushes on girls, major parts in school plays, and the stunning realization that high school was almost over.

In another post - which is proving more difficult to write than I anticipated, I'll attempt to analyze what bothers me about D&D and the primary reasons I give for warning people away from it. At this point, it's entitled "The Bill Cosby Factor" and should be a interesting if controversial read when I finish the silly thing.

And, yes, the pictures with this post are from the aforementioned birthday party. Sigh. I was young and had less fashion sense than I have now - which isn't saying much.


Scott Rushing said...

I wonder if it is this past gaming experience, where you make up the game as you go along, that has created in you such a good story-teller. Seriously, I really enjoy reading all of these stories...and sometimes you even provide a good "moral" at the end. ;)

Rick said...

"Any game that could potentially cause bodily injury to me was just not worth it."

Mark, I'm sure you realize that it wasn't the game that was going to cause you bodily injury. It was Dave, and it seems like he would have beaten you up for blocking him off in Power Grid or for taking the last cookie off the plate.

You did what a good DM had to do - ensure that the PCs remember that they are *mortal* and that they *can die* if they do something stupid. Your friend was playing munchkin-style, and his PC died a munchkin death. I don't see what you did wrong there. In fact, you did the *right* thing. Many other DMs would flinch at rolling the die that might slay a PC.

Anyway, the stuff that came afterwards would have done your D&Ding in regardless, as it has ended many roleplayers' nights of spelunking and spellcasting.

Nice story, it has a few more details than your retelling on Geekspeak.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...


I think the GM part of my life actually followed my love of writing & theater, both of which contribute to what I do now. As does, of course, my love of reading.

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...


Oh, yeah... I'm clear that the Monster Manual was not a physical threat. It was clearly Dave (who was probably the most physically fit of the geeky foursome) who was gonna d12+5 damage to me.

Thanks for the compliments about my DMing skills - I always prided myself on running a good game.

Of course, the percentage roll to see whether the halfling was flame-retardant (or just retarded) was something like 1 in 20 for him to survive.

I'll be writing more about my "problems" with D&D this week, which get mixed up with the experience I wrote about in this post. Hopefully, it'll make more sense when I get it all worked out on paper.

Finally - you actually remember my Geekspeak episdoe? Wild.

Dean said...

Great entry, I was never into D&D, but did play my first two scenarios of Heroscape with the Master Ruleset and someone who was as excited about it as I was last night.... anyway- what's with the TP Tower?

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...


If you like Heroquest, give Descent a try!

And you asked about the TP Tower... part of the "celebration" of my 16th birthday had happened the night before as my friends royally TP'd my house.


One of Freedom said...

I got out of D&D when I was a teen simply because it took up too much of my time. I literally gave away all my RPGs. I played with the usual mix of idiots and brainiacs, but we never had anything break into fisticuffs. I've seen guys leave in a huff though, but I've seen that kind of childishness in other games as well.

When some of our guys were brainstorming about ways to build community with non-believers someone suggested D&D as a joke. I thought it was brilliant. We started a group adults and soon saw a family come back to the church. We started a second group and soon saw one guy give his life to Christ (I'm baptising him in a few months). So it's been good to us. Built strong connections. We have tried to do it with other RPGs but strangely enough only D&D has enough traction to draw a crowd.

I actually like it, but I am cautious about encouraging it to folks who don't know the history of the game. Mostly because of the few Christian wackos who have come down hard on us for playing this as a church (especially since the Pastor (me) suggested we try it in the first place).

Since I've actually secured a contract with Wizards of the Coast writing for their D&D Miniatures line. Funny the doors that God opens.

Anonymous said...

:D Wow Mark, it was fun reading this because for me obviously it's a blast from the past. This is the oldest sister of the "Jim and Tom" in your story... Hi! I just heard the story and saw the pix of your recent meeting up with "Jim" and he sent me to your blog. Fun! "Tom" says there was a summer when he played D&D with "Dave" and Sean K. EVERY DAY. Yoiks. I was off somewhere being in a rock band, I think, ignoring my younger siblings nefarious activities in the Dungeon. Sigh. The 80s.
--"Jennie" in Seattle

Anonymous said...

Just re-reading this article, Mark, and it inspired me to post a couple comments...

First of all, I've been playing RPGs since I was, oh, 11 or so. In those (gasp) twenty-six years, I have never played in one of those stereotypical games that had players "flipping out", storming away enraged or threatening bodily harm to the GM. Never. Not once. And trust me, I've played and run a LOT of RPGs over the years.

The day I "quit playing D&D" was really when my friends and I discovered numerous other great RPGs that, at least to us, were infinitely superior to D&D.

Though rare, I do still occasionally find myself involved in a game of D&D, but more often than not (all these years later), any current RPG experiences are with other game systems.

As for those photos of you accompanying this post... Um... Is that toilet paper stacked on the table beside the cake???