Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 August, 2006

How I got into RPGs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:23 PM

Uncle Grimwell posted a comment about Star Frontiers recently. His comment stirred up some memories about how I got into RPGing. I wrote Grimwell about it and he suggested I post about it on here. I thought it might be interesting for people to see what motivated me into early gaming, and what things were like a decades ago when it came to RPGs.

In the early to mid-80′s, I feel in with a bad crowd: fundamentalist Christians. I went to a fairly small rural school even though I lived only a bit outside a large city, so serious fundies weren’t that uncommon. I’ve always been an introvert, so making friends wasn’t always easy in a smaller school. One guy, Todd, reached out and became a pretty good friend. But, his family was devoutly fundamentalist Christian. When I say “fundamentalist Christian”, I mean fairly restrictive: dancing is sinful because it represents sex, playing cards are sinful because they are used for gambling, and D&D? The Devil himself wrote D&D to snare the minds and souls of the young.

That’s the other big thing about this time while I was growing up: it was the height of the D&D scare. There was a lot of scare mongering stating that D&D lead kids to the occult. (Or, more realistically, to consume too much Mountain Dew and Cheetos.) We really didn’t have access to D&D, so we didn’t play it.

The irony is that we played many other types of RPGs, mostly on the computer. Some of my early programming experience was typing in BASIC programs that would let you play RPG-type games. We even started drawing up little adventure games for each other to play, so that one could play while the other “GMed” the adventure on the long bus ride to our school. Wacky, eh? I remember spending lots of class time working on these little adventures, sometimes being distracted from the lesson. Yet another sign I was destined to make games when I grew up, I guess.

There is also a supreme bit of irony here. Todd decided that it was the “magic” component of RPGs what was bad, so he said we shouldn’t use magic in our RPGs anymore. That was fine: We could have more Indiana Jones inspired games. Well, as I was reading in the library I came across a book that talked about the medical properties of different herbs. Then it struck me, instead of magicians casting spells, I could have herbalists using herbs! So, I looked up books that contained information about the various properties of herbs. The various magical properties. That’s right, not playing D&D lead to to study up on real world witchcraft.

So, what does this all have to do with Star Frontiers? Well, the local Target store had a clearance rack, and about the time when D&D was winding down from the height of its popularity they put a bunch of RPG stuff on clearance. One of the things was a Star Frontiers module. Of course, I knew nothing about how these things worked, so I thought this was the whole game, not just a module. I saw it was made by TSR, but it was obviously Sci-Fi instead of Fantasy, so it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Not so, said my friend Todd. It was made by the same people who made D&D, and those RPGs are just EVIL! I found this a little hard to swallow, so I asked the pastor at our church really quickly one Sunday after service. He did indeed confirm it: D&D is truly evil, leading souls to Satan. I was crushed.

But, I was starting to get a little rebellious. I saved up my money and bought the module anyway. Of course, there was disappointment. It wasn’t the full gaming system, it just explained the setting. There were a lot of strange abbreviations that I didn’t understand. (WTF is “DEX”, anyway?) I remember looking at the module with fascination, looking at the location layouts and all that, but I never really got to play the game. The most interesting thing was a game where characters could ride on hover vehicles and had to carry a ball to the goal, very much like Football or Soccer. I almost tried to play that, but didn’t understand the concept of characters, stat checks, etc.

In the end, I went back and played our little paper adventure games with Todd. I also continued to study up on herbal magic, thinking it would make a pretty neat system in an RPG.

And that’s my first brush with real paper RPGs, after years of playing computer RPGs and making my own small, throwaway versions. Unfortunately, most of the old games I made and the module have been lost to time, probably the victim of my mother throwing things out, as is usually the case. :)

A few years later I met up with a new friend that was into D&D, and we played a bit. Ironically, it was a guy I met at (a different) church. But, he got me started on the real thing, which became a full-blown hobby in college and continues to this day.

As for D&D, The Pulling Report written by Mike Stackpole, has debunked most of the scare around D&D that surfaced during the 80′s. It’s interesting to note that while D&D might not have such a big focus, computer games are coming under increasing scrutiny. You see a lot of the same claims brought against games, particularly online RPGs these days, as you do with D&D: they corrupt the young, they lead people to temptation, they cause the deaths of innocent youngsters. The usual litany brought against the era’s misunderstood media.

So, how did you get into RPGing? Paper, computer, or homebrew? I figure there might be some interesting stories out there. :)


  1. I was closing in fast on my 12th birthday, in 1981. Some of the kids in my 6th grade class were carrying around books with the labels, “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” They were all gaming together. I asked around, and they showed me the books.

    Unfortunately, their group was too large for the poor Dungeon Master to manage, so I couldn’t join their game. However, I started telling my parents about this AWESOME new game I’d heard about at school. I saw modules at the bookstore, not comprehending how they all worked together, but I was thrilled by imagining the contents inside the shrink-wrapped packages. I stared at the Queen of the Demonweb Pits module cover and dreamed of the adventures therein.

    On my 12th birthday, I found a boxed set of the brand-new Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition on the table at breakfast time. I proudly brought it with me to school, though it seemed to be incompatable with the version everyone else was playing.

    I had my first game that afternoon. An intimate 3-player adventure, with the same DM who wouldn’t let me in the group before, and a close friend of mine who was an experienced player.

    It was magic. So my thief got poisoned by a spider and “rescued” by my friend’s character… it didn’t matter. I was having an awesome time.

    I ended up spending more time designing adventures than actually playing, but I would spend hours and hours every week going over my every-expanding library of D&D books, and planning out adventures for when I could finally get players together.

    Interestingly enough, as an adult with kids of my own (who are now starting to play, with other children of fellow D&D geeks), I play more D&D now than I did from 6th grade up through high school. THAT can be blamed on a couple of good-looking geek girls from college.

    It’s still a great time!

    Comment by Jay Barnson — 2 August, 2006 @ 4:37 PM

  2. Talisman. An RPG boardgame, again in the 80′s. There was no satanic mumbo-jumbo in the UK about D&D, it just wasn’t all that popular at my school. But there was a brief Talisman craze, and i loved it.

    Then i began to play and write RPGs on my Sinclair Spectrum. I remember finally getting isometric graphics right, those angles could be hell to work out properly. And my colour-vision wasn’t anywhere near so bad back then, i could and did manage my own pixel art.

    And that was it for me. I would work on graphics and systems forever afterwards.

    A sad end, i guess.

    Comment by Cael — 2 August, 2006 @ 5:46 PM

  3. I played D&D once in the ’79-’80 timeframe. I loved it from a fantasy standpoint, but all the modifiers and saving throws and so forth really got in the way of the RP part of it for me.

    Had to be the mid-90′s before I touched anything RPG again and (obviously) it was on a PC.

    Comment by chabuhi — 2 August, 2006 @ 7:28 PM

  4. 1983 — spent the night at a friends for his birthday. About a half dozen boys were there driving his parents nuts. It was a good time. When the sun went down we all went to the basement and the other guys broke out AD&D. Apparently I was the only person who had never played. I was really drawn in by the table sized map of Greyhawk and hooked by observing their gameplay and trying to figure the game out as I went.

    When I went home I immediately started designing my own games based on what I could remember from the system. Then I found the books at a local hobby shop (ironically enough known for model trains, rockets, RC planes & cars, and kites). My dad took me there with him as he had developed a RC plane hobby.

    They had the books on a shelf, where you could read them. I put in hard time studying the books on multiple trips and eventually saved enough up to purchase the classic “Red Box” for Basic D&D. I spent about a year going through the progression of boxes with the guys in my neighborhood, and then bought the Advanced rules…

    The rest is lost to history. ;O)

    Comment by Grimwell — 3 August, 2006 @ 10:31 AM

  5. 1977, 8th grade – A computer club buddy of mine got the blue box D+D as a Christmas gift. He invited a half dozen of us over on a wintry Minnesota January night to give it a try, and it was such a blast that it cemented a lasting friendship between the 6 of us for many years.

    As for Star Frontiers, I’ve often wondered what TSR/WotC/Hasbro would charge to license some of those older, discontinued systems/settings. I ran 2 really well-received campaigns in that setting: I was rather heartbroken when it was dropped. Between Star Frontiers and Gamma World, I think there’d be a couple relatively fun settings to generate some unique, if vaguely nostalgic, sci-fi with…

    Comment by Craig Huber — 7 August, 2006 @ 1:06 PM

  6. 1985… I was born.

    I got into RPGs in a way typical of Gen Y, through Final Fantasy. My dad is kind of a moody old bastard and a devout catholic, but the game’s fantasy was innocous enough to be rentable when I was five or six. (You should keep in mind that Tolkien, the supposed inspiration of D&D, was a devout catholic and friend of devout anglican C.S. Lewis, and is much loved by many Christians). I got into an argument with him over the meaning of Cure (which healed) and Heal (which cured) and he got so pissed that the unplugged it while I was knee deep in the Marshe Cave.

    After playing JRPGs on console for years I was introduced to D&D and cRPGs by the seminal Baldur’s Gate. This would only be a prelude to one of the greatest games of all time and one of my major influences – Planescape: Torment.

    I don’t know what asshole decided putting an extremely ugly face on the cover would ensure that game sales as brillaint as its content, but that and the subject matter (going to hell, waking up amoung the dead, being immortal and souless and on) lead to my dad explicitely forbidding me from buying the “nasty demonic game”, as it was described with much intensity.

    At the time I was a freshman at a Catholic Highschool and was befriending a crazy liberal kid who’d end up being my best friend and introduced me to marijuana not a year later. At my behest he talked his mom into buying it, and I was able to borrow it and play, with much secrecy and paranoia. Later I designed and ran a Matrix RPG with him and a few other friends, which was fun because we were all fans of the film. It was a better design than The Matrix Online, but thats not saying much. The next year, before I tried pot, I ran a D&D campaign with some real geeks, and then I modified the Matrix game to a Shadowrun-esque deal and ran that for a while. The rest is either history or hazy.

    Comment by Patrick — 9 August, 2006 @ 9:23 PM

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