Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Two months ago, I kicked off my #CuratedQuarantine series with the original white boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons. That was indeed my first RPG and my first hobby game as well. It was 1979 and I was 10 years old. I was excited by the idea of D&D and I could tell there was something cool in those three small books, but the white boxed set was in no way designed to introduce 10 years to gaming. It came out of the 60s wargaming scene and it was written for that audience. So my brother and I quickly got the Holmes Basic Set, which was a much better introduction (though we got the version that came with chits instead of dice!) and then jumped right into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. That’s what I want to talk about today.

The classic three core rulebooks for AD&D were published between 1977 and 1979, so perfect timing for me. Surprisingly, it was the Monster Manual (1977) that came first, then the Player’s Handbook (1978), and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). When I say that D&D changed my life, it’s really AD&D that I’m talking about. This was my favorite game and by far my most played RPG from 1979 to 1985 or so (by which point I was branching out much more). Many people slightly younger than me have this same nostalgia for the red box Basic Rules (1983) but I never picked them up back then because I (at the wise age of 14) considered them “kiddie stuff.” I was a veteran of Advanced D&D, what did I need dumbed down rules for? As an adult, I would gain a healthy respect for the BECMI rules and today I would take the Rules Cyclopedia as a desert island game, but I digress.

The reason AD&D was so important to me is that, in addition to the fun of playing, it was a gateway to so many other things. I was already a Tolkien fan, but AD&D led me to Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, Poul Anderson, and many other authors. It also got me reading things like Beowulf and the Song of Roland at a young age. And it only amplified my desire to read more ancient and medieval history. Naturally, I also became a Dragon Magazine subscriber (had to get the official word from Gary Gygax!), and that introduced me to the wider world of hobby games. Many of the games I have covered in my Curated Quarantine series I first learned about in the pages of Dragon. That’s how I was introduced to wargames like Squad Leader and Dawn Patrol.

AD&D also got me into my other lifelong obsession: miniatures. It started with minis to use with AD&D from Grenadier, Ral Partha, and Heritage. Then I got the AD&D Battleystem when it came out in 1985. I was going to say it was my first minis game but I that’s not quite true. I had Chainmail, the minis game that was D&D’s precursor, but never played it. We did use its jousting tables in our AD&D games though. Battlesystem is the first minis game I actually played, and that hobby has been its own long and rewarding journey.

When I was 12, I fantasized about one day writing an article for Dragon Magazine. Why, I might make a $100! This is the first time I remember thinking about game writing as a thing I might do. Many years later I would indeed write articles for Dragon. When I was hired into the TSR Product Group of Wizards of the Coast in 1998, I’d also get to write for AD&D itself. 10-year-old me surely couldn’t have imagined I’d one day get to contribute to the game I so loved. When my first book (the AD&D Guide to Hell) was published in 1999, it was pretty damn cool to see my name under the AD&D masthead. Getting to write (with Sean Reynolds) Slavers, a sequel to the Slavelords modules I had enjoyed so much as a youngster was also a highlight.

People have spilled an endless amount of ink on the warts and flaws of AD&D, the various misguided TSR policies, the way Dave Arneson was sidelined, and a host of other related topics. And I get it. I do. But AD&D is a portal I’ll always be glad I walked though.

A Bit of Greyhawk Fun

For a variety of reasons, I just haven’t had a chance to play D&D in 3+ years. I think this is the longest I’ve gone since getting into RPGs at age 10. With all the sensible people now sheltering at home, online gaming is booming. Suddenly, I’ve been invited to three different D&D games. People, I think, are reaching for things that are comforting and for many gamers that means going back to their first RPG. Today I’m going to jump in a game with my old college game group, which I’m looking forward to. Spent many an hour around the table with these friends, and we’ve rarely gotten to game since I moved to Seattle.

This campaign has been going for a little bit so I had to make a 5th level character. I thought I’d play a wizard and do something a little different by making him a diviner. Bill, the GM, said I could do what I wanted with his background, as long as he ended up in Ravenloft. I decided to let my Greyhawk flag fly and came up with the following.

Art by Even Amundsen.

Torsten Three-Eye

Torsten is a Northman from the World of the Greyhawk, one of the Cruski (known to outsiders as the Ice Barbarians). A cunning boy who seemed to be touched by magic, young Torsten was sent to learn at the feet of Halfdan Hairy-Breeches, a priest of the god Vatun. Halfdan was keeper of a mountain shrine, and there a small community lived in isolation. Vatun, formerly the great god of the northern Suloise, had been imprisoned for nearly 700 years. His priests could not commune with him or receive spells. They prayed that Vatun’s brother, Dalt (God of Portals, Doors, Enclosures, Locks, and Keys), would succeed in freeing their god but they waited in vain.

When Halfdan died, Torsten left the shrine in the hands of other initiates and struck out on his own. He had developed a talent for casting runestones and followed that path into wizardry. He spent many years wandering the lands of the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians, learning magic and trying to divine the fate of Vatun. He pondered on the relationship between Vatun and Dalt. If anyone could break into the prison holding Vatun, surely it was Dalt? Why had he failed for so many centuries? Telchur the Icebrother, the god said to be Vatun’s gaoler, was powerful no doubt but was that explanation really all there was to it?

After mastering divination magic, Torsten had a realization* that Vatun was not completely silent. He could communicate, with those who would listen, through the runestones. It was indirect and imprecise, but Torsten became convinced that Vatun called out to his worshipers. His research indicated that Vatun was imprisoned on a distant demiplane, so Torsten decided to take direct action and leave Greyhawk for the planes.

With the aid of Vatun’s priesthood, Torsten found a portal to Sigil, the City of Doors. From there he began to investigate various demiplanes. After several disappointing trips, including an encounter with a mad wizard on the demiplane of Leonis**, Torsten thought he had a solid lead through a contact in Sigil. Instead he walked into a trap. His contact was an agent of Belial, Archduke of Hell and an ally of Telchur the Icebrother. When he stepped through the portal, he was swallowed up by thick mist and was quickly lost. When he emerged and got his bearings, he realized the terrible truth: he was trapped in the Demiplane of Dread, Ravenloft.

Torsten’s immediate goal is to escape from Ravenloft. From casting his runestones, however, he has come to believe that fate cast him here for a reason. Perhaps the road to Vatun leads through Raveloft.

* The Discovery feature from his Hermit background.

** A little nod to my own D&D book Vortex of Madness.