Back in 1981 or 1982 when I was in 4th or 5th grade, I went to my elementary school library during lunch. There I saw a few older boys I didn't know seated around a table, poring over a collection of books, papers and odd dice. The library was empty, so they were free to speak openly about some strange adventure. I invited myself to sit at the table, transfixed.
|G3 Treasure Coffer illustration by Dave A. Trampier
After that lunch, I was left to puzzle over the experience I'd just witnessed. This was both a game and an adventure story in one, like a much better version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It was all about exploring old castles and labyrinths, fighting monsters and claiming great treasures. It had a lot of books, but its core was about graph paper and dice.
I had graph paper and some six-siders, but where would I get the other dice?
A few days later, I had my answer. My class was all marching single-file back to our classroom after lunch or recess or something. As we walked past the library building, I spied a shining ruby in the muddy grass by the sidewalk. I snatched the gem from the ground: my first d20!
|Still rolling true after all these years
This was a design of need. I didn't know the older boys I saw in the library. I didn't know anyone else who played. I didn't know where to get the rule books and, as a kid, I couldn't afford them. It was far easier and cheaper to make something myself.
I drew out a labyrinth on graph paper, draw in nasty creatures guarding treasure chests (I remember populating it with giant spiders and bats) and trace my way through the maze as a solo adventurer. I had a rudimentary combat system using the d20 and a d6 (probably stolen from some board game) and drew up a small chart of monsters and their stats. I created a custom folder to hold my game, complete with a "pocket" made of construction paper and tape to hold the dice, so I could safely transport my game to and from school. I never played it with anyone else; this was a solitary, meditative pursuit.
My d20 is the only material from that game to survive the ages. I can't remember any further details about the game system or how many labyrinths and creatures I designed. I abandoned the game when, a few months later, a friend taught me how to play from Moldvay's purple box Basic D&D set. I created a fighter, learning new words like "Dexterity" and "Chaos" and that "Constitution" doesn't always mean the paper upon which our founding fathers created the American government. My ignoble fighter battled a few guards and got killed, but I was hooked.
I also had no idea how many games I would design in the years to follow.