Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Playground Role Playing

My first exposure to role playing games– to any sort of hobby game, really– was at a YMCA summer camp. There was this slightly older kid there that had the AD&D Hardbacks (I distinctly remember the demon on the Dungeon Master’s Guide cover) and offered to let me and some other little kid play. The adventure was “Tomb of Horrors.”

We did not play long. The guy with the gaming stuff loaned us some of his personal characters. They were on the fancy parchment style sheets and where just dripping with stats and figures. We went into the dungeon… and we came to this giant green devil face on the wall. The guy with me said he wanted to go inside of it.. The Dungeon Master then described his death (for some reason I always imagined the stone teeth of the face just sort of chewing him up) and was kind of mad at that kid for getting that character killed.

That’s was it. It was like a door being held open for just a moment… letting me see into another world… and then it was suddenly shut. I did not get a look at the rules. All I knew was that you drew maps… and sort of “read” them to people… and that there were gargoyles. (Did we encounter gargoyles in that session? I can’t remember now. But that image of it from the module at least left a huge impression on my childhood self.)

Starting my fourth grade school year just after that, I was totally excited about this weird game. I didn’t have any books or dice. I didn’t know where to get them. I didn’t even have any graph paper. All I had was a number two pencil and some loose leaf notebook paper. I proceeded to reverse engineer the game based on what little I’d seen of it and with what little I had. A recreation of something close to what I had done is pictured here. I ran this sort of game for my friends on the playground and pretty soon everyone seemed to be making these things up. One kid I remember in particular made an extremely intricate adventure that was based on the “V” television series that was insanely popular at the time.

Here is the walk through to my adventure: As you come into the entrance, you’ll need to go into the devil face to get the key. You can go to the left after that and see that the way is blocked by a gargoyle, but if you go right… the gargoyle there will start chasing you. Using the key to open the door, you’ll want to avoid the devil face you find on the other side– it will eat you up! Go left and left again to get the sword. Take it and go to back to the stationary gargoyle you saw and kill it. Search the mucky lake there to find the wand of bridges. Now go back through the door again, go left and then right. Kill the moving gargoyle and then wave the wand at the chasm. Take the staff of awesome, then go back the way you came towards the door and try the right-side passage. Kill the stationary gargoyle with the sword, then go on and kill the dragon with the staff of awesome. Now take the treasure and leave the dungeon!

I don’t remember making tongue-in-cheek magic items for my 4th grade era adventures. And the chasm and the wand are an homage to the Colossal Caves adventure which I would not have known about at the time. My fourth grade stuff would have been more about the maze-aspect… with lots and lots of gargoyles. (The moving gargoyles were sort of a trick so that we could make “pretend” video games– we were short on quarters and few of us owned computers.) We would always put a large room at the top of the page with something cool in it– the big pay off as it were.

One thing I think bears emphasizing. Our games featured lots of death and trial and error leading to more death. They were designed almost exactly the same way as the computerized dungeons that we hadn’t even seen at the time– Zork and Rogue and stuff like that. Text adventure fashion as it developed in the nineties would move away from that approach. And most graphic adventures that you’d buy from the last ten years or so would be explicitly engineered so that your character could not die and so that you could not put the game in an unwinnable state. This sort of approach would have never occurred to me and my friends back then. I’m not sure, but I think the simulated death was a big part of the appeal and maybe couldn’t even be separated from what we thought these games were supposed to be….

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3 responses to “Playground Role Playing

  1. Charlie Warren June 21, 2013 at 8:57 am

    The dungeon map is the awesome! I wish I could find all of my old stuff like that. Some of it is probably locked away somewhere deep in the attic at my parents – unless it got purged at some time.

  2. Pingback: Playground Role Playing | The Old Gamers Notebook

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