Digital Monkey Shines

Movies, Games and Other Diversions

From the Red Box to World of Warcraft in Eight Steps

with 2 comments

In honor of the re-issue of the D&D Basic Set (also called the Red Box), here’s a remembrance.

Step One

It’s 1983 or thereabouts and I had slipped away from my parents at Buttrey’s (the horribly named grocery store in my home town) to look at the toy aisle.  We didn’t have a real toy store in town, so a kid was left wishing for toys found in pre-Walmart discount stores like Alco or the grocery or the Christmas catalog from JC Penny.

A red tag-board box with an fantastic illustration of a dragon on the cover caught my eye.  I cajoled my parents into buying it.  Who knew what effect this chance encounter with the D&D Basic Set would have on my life.

After crayoning my dice and playing through the single-player adventure in the player’s guide, I realized that the game was really meant to be played with others.  This posed a problem, as the neighborhood kids mostly entertained themselves by riding around on their bikes and digging holes in the piles of dirt left by construction in our still-developing suburb.  There was no chance of getting them to sit still and play a game which required so much reading and had all those rules.

Thankfully, I had recently made friends with Mike J., whose mother knew my mother at work, and we ended up half-assing our way through the rest of the adventure with him DMing and me running a whole party chasing after the nefarious chaotic  magic user Bargle.

Dear old Bargle, no other villian could ever measure up to you and your dastardly Charm Person spell.

Step Two

We had computers in the house from the availability of the VIC 20 onwards.  My father spent countless hours typing in code from Compute magazine into the Commodore 64 so I could play games, rather than let me have something as uneducational as an Atari 2600.

One of those traveling convention-center sales kinda-scams came to town one weekend to sell computer games on floppy disks for low prices.  One of the games I came home with was labeled “The Amulet of Yendor”, which was really a port of Rogue.  It was the first computer game I played that presented the essentials of a D&D game, albeit in ASCII characters.  Rogue still exists and anyone with an interest in vintage computer gaming should experience it at least once.

Step Three

I stuck with the boxed D&D sets for several years, eventually acquiring everything through the black box master level set.  I rarely played with others, spending much of my time designing adventures.  Things didn’t really come together in pen and paper roleplaying for me until I went to junior high.

Finally, I found other people who had a similar capability to use their imaginations, sit still at a table for a few hours, and remember complicated rules.  By the end of 7th grade, I was playing a near weekly game with Mark R., Troy S., Brian M, and Joe L.  Being such mature scholars, we eschewed the basic sets for the much more costly and arcane Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  Every month or so I’d acquire another manual and expand my massive rule set with the trivia of Deities & Demigods or recently Unearthed Arcana.

We played fairly regularly almost all the way through high school, even attempting to make the adjustment to the 2nd edition before giving up.  Sometimes we’d experiment with other games, but AD&D was the core.  Looking back, I’m surprised at the skills that I learned playing AD&D, but that will have to wait for another post.

Step Four

As I was cutting my teeth on AD&D with my friends, computer game makers were kicking off the CRPG realm.  My earliest obsession with CRPGs came when I played The Bard’s Tale at my friend’s house.  I can still tell you that the password to get into the sewers was “Wine” and that you could pull the floppy disk out of the drive and flip it over to force the shop inventory to list everything in the game.  As a CRPG it got the character advancement right, but combat was non-tactical.  Attack Group A, Attack Group A, Attack Group A, Use Firehorn on Group B, Defend, Defend (or Spell MIBL when I earned it).

Step Five

Short on the heels of the Bards Tale and its sequels was the Pool of Radiance, the first branded D&D game.  I didn’t even know about it until I saw it at my Cousin’s house during a Christmas visit.  Finally the “official” rules had been translated to a computer game.  I got my mitts on it as fast as possible and played almost nothing else.

I couldn’t tell you the plot, but it was very hard to survive at the onset with a party of first-level characters.  Eventually you learned a survival strategy consisting of the sleep spell and archers.  Once you got a magic user to 5th level, a lot became possible with judicious use of the fireball spell.

Perhaps a dozen of the SSI gold box games were made, including a fascinating Rogue-like game called Dungeon Hack in which dungeons were randomly generated and explored in a pseudo-first person POV.  While the graphics and sound could be improved, it was hard for me to believe that the core mechanics of D&D on the computer could get better.

Step Six

As I got older and left for college, I drifted more into strategy games like the original Civilization and Colonization.  At some point in my freshman year in 1992, I asked a friend what those guys who were always in the computer lab outside the science library were up to.

And thus I was introduced to MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs.  I’d poked around the internet a bit once I got a network account as a Freshman.  As far as I could tell it was an oddball collection of content on something called Gopher, a chaotic collection of usenet forums, and email I couldn’t use because I didn’t know anyone else with an address.  Only when I first connected to a now forgotten dikumud, did I grasp the power of networking.

For the uninitiated, MUDs were text-only roleplaying games played on a server.  They roughly adapted D&D rules, although the codebase was sufficiently open that each server developed its own unique ruleset.  By the time I discovered them, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of servers running various MU*s.

MU* communities were sufficiently different from later online game communities, probably because of how uninviting the interface was and the general limitation on population due to the technology of the day.

I eventually became a builder for Perilous Realms, which I’m amazed to say still exists.  I can’t say if my region (The Ponytail Archipeligo) ever made it into production, but I never did get it populated with mobiles.

Step Seven

This step comes much later, as I went to graduate school and got out into the workforce and was too busy for games that I felt I’d outgrown.  In the interim, I missed some developmental steps in online CRPGs like Ultima Online and Neverwinter Nights.

Sometime around 2000, I got the itch for my old MUDding days and did some internet searching.  I found a game called Everquest.  I coughed up the dough for the game and logged in.

My initial perception of the game that it was merely a graphical wrapper around a shoddy LPMUD.  The graphics were 3D, but pretty blocky.  The game was especially unforgiving compared to modern MMOs.  I nearly gave up when I realized the world was populated by cretans, but then the Firiona Vie server opened.  It was to be a haven from the d00ds, a special server for roleplayers.

Boy did it have some drama…

Still, it and its sequel started a new heavy obsession for me for a period of about four years.  Eventually I realized how badly it was sucking away my time and social space and stopped playing.

Step Eight

I had to stop with something people are familiar with, so the final step is the World of Warcraft.  To an early MMOs player, it was merely a well-refined version of the Everquest formula with famliar lore and ready-made fanbase.  It didn’t really innovate, just expanded upon and refined the MMO model created by early games like Everquest and its contemporaries.  I may have only lasted a month or two before I realized I’d lost interest in the genre.

Maybe it was that I was getting older and not interested in spending my time with the teenagers who form the primarily population inhabited these games.  I spoke to a college student a few weeks ago about computer games and he lamented how many games were simply clones of World of Warcraft, including Dungeons and Dragons Online.  I pointed out that all fantasy MMOs have a linneage that can be traced back to Dungeons and Dragons, but I don’t think he understood…

Written by Bill

October 5, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Posted in PC Gaming, RPGs

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. I gather that you were born around the year 1971, as was I. My games progression almost exactly mirrors your own. Sometimes you can look back in time and wish that you were alive in a certain period to experience the awesomeness of that generation, (music from 1965 – 1975 for example). Well, we rolled a natural 20 for gaming with the year that we were born.

    Adam

    October 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

  2. Thanks for the comment, Adam. I’m actually a few years younger, but I grew up in the retail backwater where it seemed like staying on the cutting edge of D&D or computer gaming was tricky. As a result, I wasn’t a very fast adopter and tended to play the heck out of stuff that was already out-of-date.

    Digital Monkey Shines is, among several things, an attempt to document the entertainment shift that happened with the advent of computer gaming. Those like you and I, who have a foot in the pre-information era of the 70s and early 80s had a different experience than those who came later. For example, D&D and other rpgs from the era are a core element of that experience and modern CRPG players come at the modern incarnation with a different context.

    Bill

    October 24, 2010 at 7:07 pm


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