Dungeons & Dragons in the Phantammeron

The Phantammeron novels have a lot of mythology in them, myth that has been directly inspired from old sources found in England, Ireland, Europe, and the ancient western world. But some of my earliest exposure to western mythology was through a simple little game that came on the scenes in Modern America in the late 1970’s – the role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons.

My friends and I played the “old stuff”, the early Basic First Edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that came on the scene around 1979.

First Edition Dungeons & Dragons

My first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons was as a geeky 14 year-old in the early winter of 1980 in Texas. My parent’s had split a few years prior and I have a distinct memory of my loneliness at that time. At 14 many boys are just starting to embark on their adventures as young men, their lives filled with the joy of their new found powers and the encouragement of their parents to explore. All I had was my active imagination. I was trapped in the dark depression of divorce and the fear I felt for my Mom and her struggles during that time. And so I often chased my own shadows in that old, dark, and dusty house we grew up in on Potomac Avenue, alone in my room consumed by my hobbies and interests.

Like many lost young boys from the 1970’s, I was a very sensitive and intellectual youth. It was just 10 years prior in 1970 that I was happiest as a child, surrounded by family and enjoying trips and adventures with my parents. But after Dad left in 1975 my mind had turned inward. Dallas, Texas in 1980 was in a very bad. Society in America had changed dramatically over the decade. The schools in Texas were saturated with drugs and sex and all manner of dark things in what was then the depths of Postmodern America. America was quickly moving away from its Christian origins towards a country of decadence and deceit. It was a very violent time and I had grown fearful of the city and the dysfunctional adults around me. Things were to improve in the decades after 1980, but those days was the bleakest days to me.

As a preteen in that time I was primed to explore my mind’s own wonders, not the fallen world’s. Most of what I had once believed as far as family was erased by the desire to be rid of that old house and my life there in Dallas; to leave Texas behind and run from my dark past there. My sister and I had struggled to cope in the school system after Dad left, and so by the fall of 1980 Mom had moved us to a much smaller, gentler town in Louisiana to be near her parents. That singular event cheered me up greatly, for I quickly made new friends and found joy and confidence easy to come by in my new surroundings. Besides, being close to my Grandfather who was a retired Christian Minister was what my soul needed. His gentle spirit, wisdom, and love breathe life back into me. But my strange imagination persisted.

After we left our old house in Dallas my Mom returned with us briefly to Texas in the winter of 1980 to see old friends and tie up some last minute business regarding the old house. I dreaded this return. It is then one cold and dark winter’s day my Mom left me with an old buddy of mine for a few nights. Ironically he lived across the alley from our old house. I remember seeing its dark shadow looming just beyond the trees that winter from the window of my friends house.

Its then my friend pulled out an old purple box from under his bed with the dice and gaming manual for Basic Dungeons & Dragons. He showed me the game that would alter my views of fantasy forever. And so the adventure began…

I’ll never forget the strange and haunting magic of that night as my friend took me on my first adventure through caves and caverns below a dark keep. There was nothing to see with this game, as it was all shared by dialogue and description. That such a simple game with played with a good friend, a pencil, paper, and some plastic dice could wash over my mind with such vast worlds of mystery waiting to be discovered floored me. What an imaginative game this was!

I saw clearly in my mind my ‘Ranger’ with his long sword finally slaying a monstrous Bugbear in the midst of a great cavern. And the thrill of that first conquest was something new and exciting! The joy of digging through this beast’s cave to find electrum pieces strewn about the bones of his past meals and a chest of gems lost among the rubbish was quite amazing! Next, I found myself fighting a Gelatinous Cube in a hallway. The horror of watching myself fail a dice role and see my sword and armor melted from his terrible acid bath slung at me in combat was shocking! Without weapon or armor this slimy monstrosity was sure to melt me into jello. And so I ran away naked to fight another day. But I was not saddened by my first loss in this challenging game. It stimulated me to discover more fantasy worlds!

It is then I felt the full power of what role-playing and imagination could be for a young and curious mind such as my own. After I returned to Louisiana I purchased my own Dungeons & Dragons beginner set from a hobby store in town. Over the next 5 years I embarked on a long and exciting journey as “Dungeon Master”, leading my many friends in Louisiana on great adventures I mapped out in depth. Such became my first exploration into the myths of Mankind and my exploration of what those myths and monsters might become for me through this incredible game.

Dungeons & Dragons – Dungeon Master’s Screen, 1980

I recently found my old Dungeon Master’s Screens from 1979. The art on the back of the screen is by David Trampier. In the early days of role-playing games I would often set these screens up between me and my friends. The inside had these long charts of rules and dice modifiers for players and monsters related to the game for me to use. They formed a wall between the maps of dungeons and monsters I managed as Dungeon Master and my friends the players who were focused on surviving the grander adventure. They would have to suffer the horrendous attacks of creatures and monsters I would put in their path as they explored the vast worlds I plotted on ever-growing maps of landscapes and dungeons.

I miss these early days of Dungeons & Dragons as all we had back then were pairs of colorful dice to guide us. The original adventures were wild, often involving my players exploring the vast magical realms of dark wizards, cities of ice giants, vast drow elf underworlds, ancient cities, and treacherous, trap-filled dungeons laid out in detail for my players to explore.

Dungeons & Dragons relied on the creativity of master gamers from TSR like Gary Gygax who designed many of the dungeons and modules. The idea you could make your own dungeon adventures by simply following these imaginative modules was something unique to gaming back then. Taking graph paper and scribbling some underground hallways with doors and rooms then populating them with giant rats, animated skeletons, and angry wizards casting spells on your friends when they entered rooms was really quite a fantastic concept as it was all imaginary. And to finally open the treasure chests with their heaps of gold and silver pieces, gems, and possibly a rare magical ring or sword was thrilling back then. It was all make believe. But in your mind’s eye it was very very real.

It’s this view that our brains contain all this unseen magic – and not the outside world of movies and video games – that awakened in me as a young teenager that much much more certainly must be hidden in the mind’s psychology. Much richer worlds and fantasy much exist there, larger than anything I’d read in Modern Fantasy books or in role-playing games.

Early Module

Here is an example (Dragon’s Hall Image) of one of my old Dungeons & Dragons modules: I recently found this mint condition 1981 Judges Guild module (see image) for AD&D called “Dragon’s Hall”. As you can tell we used to play the old stuff, the weird and rarely known stuff. I probably bought this at a hobby store in 1981. I think this company went out of business in 1985. The very early role-playing games used to be highly imaginative and creative – often based on pure adventure, monsters, and treasure, not the convoluted rule sets that would overly-complicate the game after 1990. The beauty of the original game was its simplicity and focus on monsters and treasure…not ego, fame, or status.

Dungeons & Dragons has evolved to immense popularity since 1980. Its wide adoption by millions of people and hobby groups over the years means it has now become a truly vast multiverse of games, versions, film, conventions, and social engagements. Its purpose has moved way beyond the simple imaginary role-playing game between friends on the weekends with pencil and paper and into the realm of big money and major corporate competitions. Huge egos and fortunes are at stake with thousands employed by its various licensed gaming systems and films world-wide. Its inspired games like Magic the Gathering, though these groups deny it.

Sadly, in my opinion, Dungeons & Dragons today has lost its original charm. The kids today seemed too focused on power, greed, rule books, and social engagements instead of the wonder of its mystery, magic, and unknowns. I think it’s those latter aspects that drew me to the game, originally. Today, I would be bored by its complicated and power-hungry role-playing machinations, the aggressive ego-driven competition among strangers at conventions, and the complex rule sets that play less on the imagination and more on one’s intellectual dominance and status over others. Honestly, I could care less about any of that competition stuff. Its humanity and fun has long since been stripped away and gutted from the game.

The beauty of the 1970’s First Edition Dungeon & Dragons will always be its connection to one’s own vast imagination created in the mind of the adventurer. I think a few of the older players that remember the 1970’s version still cling to those first edition memories and the magic of that earlier version of the game that was purely about adventuring. But few of those players and their views remain. Even fewer understand my fascination with the more primitive ideas behind the early game and its true value; its ability to engage a child’s mind with monsters, myth, and treasure….nothing more. Its very hard to explain that simple value to kids today. They don’t get that.

How much more lay in waiting in the misty depths of my mind, I often wondered as a young man? It turned out more than I imagined. All the monsters and mystery and magic still lies in us all. It’s our brains that have fashioned the mythology we use today. And it’s simply up to us all now to be more open to its depths, not closed to it as so many are today.

I now credit Dungeons & Dragons as a singular source of my long journey into the study of ancient mythology since then. I barely remember in 1969, as a three year old, my mom reading to me vivid fairy tales from books she had collected. And so I cannot say Dungeons & Dragons was my seminal mythological stirring. No, that must have happened much earlier as a toddler listening to fairy tales my mother read to me.

But this game certainly set me on the path to greater exploration and eventually my long library research into ancient myths that would form the foundation for the Phantammeron stories. But I thank Gary Gygax and so many others for creating such an amazing game. Dungeons & Dragons formed the foundation of my discovery of my own imagination and all that it would become for me as an author later. For I would harness these early experiences as Dungeon Master in my own desire to explore even greater worlds in the Phantammeron novels.

The golden age of role-playing games has passed, in my opinion. Even the incredible online video games today cannot quite compete with the fantastical things I saw in my mind in 1980 as a child. For the Human mind contains vast worlds and creatures yet unfathomable by anything artificial constructed onscreen gaming experience or detailed rule book. It is the Realism of young people today in 2020 that’s destroyed those monsters and magical realms in most people’s minds. The magic is gone…

By drawing back the curtain or mystery, the mists have receded and left but a hollow circus showman working the levers of our modern minds for us to ponder. Without those dense “mists of mystery” our mind’s close in and imagination greatly diminishes. In truth, imagination dies. That is why I have encouraged my readers and writers to explore ancient mythology in our libraries instead of participating in the failed video game and role-playing game worlds of 2020.

For the true source or fount of inspiration must come from ancient Man and our ancestors who lived with Myth – myths not used as just a rationale for poorly designed games, or as a crux for science, or as some debunked religious faith, but as a spiritual experience in perfect harmony with their Life, with Nature, and with their Mind……something Modern Man has now completely lost.

We have no idea what our future children will imagine and conceive in the millennia ahead. We just need to open their brains and our culture to it because right now evil consumerism and narrow rigid religious dogma is strangling it out of us again in this material, war-mongering era of war, drugs, sex, money, and materialism.

It’s up to Mankind to value itself and it’s creative and loving potential again. But sadly in 2020 we are going down a dark rabbit hole of stagnant creativity and fear that’s closing our minds of its great potential. And that’s why I intend to change that view through my blogs, articles, YouTube lectures, and my books in the years ahead.

We must all kick down those doors that hide so much creativity in our young people around the world. For the future and fate of Mankind rests alone in what lies in our mind’s hidden treasures we yet can fathom much less harness.

– the Author

Created May 14, 2017, 12:45 PM

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