Dungeons & Dragons 50th Anniversary

Dungeons & Dragons books

I can’t let the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons pass without writing something about the role it played (sic) in my life.

In the late 1970s, I shared a flat in Sandy Bay, a southern suburb of Hobart, with a slightly older guy called Chris Harvey.

Chris and I shared a strong interest in science fiction and fantasy books and movies, puzzles and games, and theatre and performance.

Among others things, we became obsessed with the Illuminatus! trilogy – maybe the greatest conspiracy satire of all time that is still taken seriously by far too many people.

For fun, we’d construct impossibly difficult themed cryptic crosswords for each other, or obscure quizzes that turned out to reveal an acrostic form the answers.

With a community of theatrical type friends around us, it wasn’t long before we got into multi-player board games, like Diplomacy. A group of a dozen teenagers roaming our building making Macchiavellian deals, pacts and double crosses as World War I countries on a Sunday afternoon was a sight to behold.

Somehow, Chris got hold of the original set of three softcover booklets that comprised a relatively new kind of game called Dungeons & Dragons. What made this game different was that there was no board.

The instructions were all around building a set of characters who would embark on a quest of some sort. There was a strong sense of inspiration from Lord of the Rings (which apparently created some copyright issues later).

Every player would fill in a player sheet that defined what kind of creature they were, what powers they had, even what personality type they had: a piece of cake for a bunch of would-be actors.

The controller of the game, called the Dungeon Master, would give a basic outline of a story and describe the environment in which the players found themselves.

From there, it was up to the players to say what happened, while the Dungeon Master (DM) would sit behind a set of cardboard screens, constantly rolling a set of variously sided dice to determine what the actions of the players would cause, including whether it was consistent with the characters they’d created.

It was all based on a set of basic story modules that might be about stealing the treasure of a dragon, or freeing the captives of an evil tyrant from his castle.

Obviously, a great deal depended on how well the DM set things up and kept things rolling along.

Let me say here that I have never come across a DM as committed and skilled in managing a game of D&D as Chris. When I tell modern DMs about how he ran the game, they can hardly believe how much he did, how much information he retained, how many actions he managed simultaneously, always subtly driving the players to a satisfying end.

That end could take many days play to reach. We often spent entire Saturdays and Sundays over several weeks on a single campaign. A typical Sunday session would start at lunch time and go on until 10pm or 11pm, stopping only for Kentucky Fried Chicken while watching Countdown.

In 1979, we got wind there was a new version called Advanced D&D, that had three hardcover books called the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. We got hold of a copy of The Player’s Handbook but could not source the other two. The Victorian distributor of the game in Australia didn’t respond to our enquiries.

Then we noticed that the US publisher, TSR, had their address on the inside of the back page of the Handbook. We decided to write to the publisher and see if they could sell us the other two books by mail order.

To our astonishment, the game’s creator Gary Gygax wrote back to us directly in short order, enclosing gratis copies of both the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. This is something I couldn’t imagine happening these days.

With those tools, Chris blossomed even further as a DM, creating elaborate multi-layered sagas. With new sets of non-playing characters, he became even more ruthless – once your character is killed, you’re done as a player, except Chris would have you play an NPC, maybe the friendly ogre who was following the group on its travels.

Chris was also merciless in his story telling. One campaign started with a group of us in front of a door embedded in a hillside.

“Does the door have a handle?”
[ rolling dice ] “Yes, it does.”
“I go up to the door and put my hand on the handle.”
[ rolling dice ] “Nothing happens.”
“I turn the handle.”
[rolling dice ] “Nothing happens.”
“I push the door open.”
[ rolling dice ] “Nothing happens.”
“Is there a lock?”
[ rolling dice ] “Not that you can see.”
“I push harder.”
[ rolling dice ] “Nothing happens.”

Suffice to say, it took 10 minutes before someone said,

“I pull the door!”
[ rolling dice ] “The door opens.”

And when I say Chris was merciless, I mean it. My favourite character, Hendrick the chaotic/good half-elf half-human, survived into his third campaign until he climbed on to the head of a red dragon [ rolling dice ] that promptly [ rolling dice ] took off and flew into the distance, [ rolling dice ] neither Hendrick nor the dragon to ever be seen again.

I’ve written elsewhere how some 35 years later I took on the DM role myself for my children, with some success – or, at least, player satisfaction.

Mae is now a DM herself, managing elaborate campaigns for her friends. And I love that D&D has had a surge in popularity because of its exposure on the Stranger Things series.

D&D is a different game, now, more sophisticated with digital elements, and that’s no bad thing. New editions of the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide are coming out later this year, and a new Monster Manual next year.

Gary Gygax stopped his involvement with D&D in 1986, and he died in 2008. I will always be gratefully amazed that this game’s creator took the time to encourage some young people in Australia.

As a result – and the efforts of Chris Harvey – we had some exciting adventures, a lot of laughs, and maybe encouraged a theatrical career or two.

Happy 50th birthday, D&D.

PS I pinched the photo used on this post from a Reddit thread from 2018 titled “Some of my Grandfather’s old D&D books.” Sigh.

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