Role playing games have become so common place these days that it may be hard to imagine or even remember that there was a time before funny looking dice and charts and rules defined any type of fantasy world. But it was just that way once long ago and when the abstract concepts of Dungeons & Dragons trickled into our consciousness it was something a bit bewildering.....especially to a ten year old boy!
As I've mentioned before, Holmes' Blue Book was my gateway drug, so to speak. Now the only games that I or for that matter my family ever played up to that point were your typical boardgames; a six-sided die or two, a playing board, some game pieces and maybe some cards or fake money. So when I opened the rule book for the first time, that is where I was coming from. I didn't have a big brother that had played the game before, the hobby shop had only just begun carrying the basic game for a couple of months testing the waters (I don't think they even knew what it was but that soon drastically changed), no internet to guide the way, and my parents couldn't believe there was a "game" with a 48 page rule book. I had Holmes' rules and that's it.
It might be argued that the Holmes rule book may have been a bit unclear and contradictory at times, and that is a valid argument, but I have to admit, being only ten years of age, I did pretty good with the rules. I understood rolling up characters and even combat was fairly easy to figure out. Even the descriptive exploration of the dungeons I was able to understand. But what threw me was the concept of Turns and Miniatures.
Games had pieces, right? Miniatures are pieces, correct? Therefore you need minis to play. So my brother and I went out and picked up some minis; some skeletons, a couple of fighters and a five headed hydra (also at our local hobby shop). Those were our game pieces for our game and that's what we played with. My brother's 1st level fighter would always run into the same skeletons and, if he survived that, a five headed hydra! Needless to say, his characters died all the time. It may sound like it wouldn't have been that much fun but it actually was. Oh, did I mention that we also played it on a chess-board? Each square was 10 feet!
So, with characters dying so very often, I read the rules attached to the B1 module "In Search of the Unknown" concerning Henchmen and Hirelings. Ahhh, no more failed battles with that dreaded Hydra! Time to hire an army of men to be paid upon any recovery of treasure, after the fact of course. That eventually began the cycle of Henchmen death. So it was off to the hobby store to buy some more minis and the next thing you know, we had an army of grunts battling skeletons and hydras. Now it was getting interesting!
Now to branch out with some more players.
The only concept of turns I had were with other board games. No one worked together, you competed to win the game and took turns doing so. So when we got the other neighborhood kids together to play this crazy game, game turns played a huge part.
Each player would roll up a character.
Okay, not bad.
That character would hire a virtual army of henchmen.
Hmmm, getting a bit strange now.
And each player would take his character and army of henchmen and explore the dungeon for his turn of 10 minutes. Then, he would stop playing and the next player would take his character and army of henchmen and explore the dungeon for his turn of 10 minutes! This would go on and on for hours. Of course we needed minis for all of this. So we all went out and bought tons of these little lead minis. And if there was a monster in the dungeon that we didn't have a mini for it would be replaced by one that we did have. All of this would eventually lead to one player killing some monsters and finding an over abundance of treasure (don't even get me started on trying to figure out the treasure charts!). This inevitably would bring the players and armies together for one complete classic pulp blow-out battle with the surviving player and henchmen gaining all the loot. Of course, the player would then proceed to kill all his henchmen to take the loot for himself.
It was absurd, yes, but crazy fun for a bunch of little kids.
It wasn't until later that summer that some of us joined a introductory game at the hobby shop (by this point they went from a typical hobby shop with models, etc. to a full fledged gaming store circa 1978) where we experienced the correctly played game for the first time. Oh boy, did things click! All the little odds and ends suddenly fell into place. We were all even more excited than we were before.
So, can D&D ever be played wrong? Looking back on it now, I don't think so. We just took what we understood and made up our own game. In other words, we "imagined the hell out of it". And that is part of the spirit of the game!