East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Not all the boxes were red, back then

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I keep seeing posts on social media about people that wax nostalgic about the wonderful time they had as kids, playing D&D Red Box – what was at the time known as the D&D Basic Set. The long hours spent with their friends, the simple joy of adventure in a more innocent time, the thrills and the laughs and the excitement of being heroes in their own adventures, fighting monsters in a fantasy world.

My memories are somewhat different.

D&D Red Box was the third roleplaying game that entered my home – after an Italian game called I Signori del Caos (that lifted mechanics from AD&D and RuneQuest, among others, and that we never really played because finding players was almost impossible at the time) and The Call of Cthulhu.
D&D was the province of my brother – it’s probably the only game I played more than I mastered – and after three sessions we were beginning to have problems.

  • Problem the first – there were no rules for stunning and knocking out adversaries, and that was bad when you played a thief, because a blow on the head with a blackjack was often preferable to slitting a throat only there were no rules for it. We were sophisticated like that – so we jotted down a house rule for rendering unconscious adversaries.
  • Problem the second – metahumans were not allowed professions. You could not be an elven fighter or a dwarf cleric. You were an elf, or a dwarf, or a halfling. Which led to the running gag “Ah, elves… they are all the same to me.” We put down a few house for metahuman professionals rules too.
  • Problem the third – “this fracking dungeon is killing me. Why don’t we go adventuring in a city for a change?”
    Can’t do that, sorry. It’s called Dungeons & Dragons, you go through the dungeon, you find the dragon.

Because the Basic Set was – big surprise here – very basic.
In the end I got me a copy of the Games Workshop edition of Stormbringer, and all our fantasy needs were satisfied – a great setting, a straightforward set of rules (the same used in Call of Cthulhu I was already familiar with), and a backstory and cosmology we knew and loved.
Also, it did not came in a box, but in a sturdy hardback with an incredible cover, and we liked it a lot and played the hell out of it (almost literally, this being Stormbringer).

I also liked the ElfQuest game very much, but not many of our friends were into the Pini’s comics, so we basically plundered it for extra to add to our other games.

My brother went on getting the Blue Box and the Green Box and all the rest, but pretty soon shifted to AD&D Second Edition, mostly because of the settings available, but also because of the rules that allowed for more complex characters and stuff. He actually phased our campaign from D&D to AD&D and nobody got hurt in the transition.

And as far as boxes were concerned, my fantasy roleplaying box was RuneQuest Third Edition, the Avalon Hill box that turned the Glorantha RPG into a sort-of-generic-fantasy-game with a tacked-on “Fantasy Europe” setting that did not convince anybody. Once again, familiarity with the rules, flexibility and adaptability were what got me on board.
I also liked the box illustration better.

A lot of the nostalgia I am seeing feels to me like people chasing fake memories – a large part of this “The Nerd Have Won” thing has to do with people suddenly remembering how much they loved games, shows and things they saw on some recent TV show.
Then you ask them how many XP is an owlbear and they don’t know the answer.

And there would be a lot to discuss about how the nerds suddenly becoming an attractive slice of the market has actually brought a revival of only a narrow selection of products from the huge variety that was available in the eighties.

But I’ll save that for another post.
In the meantime, when you meet someone that with stars in their eyes starts waxing nostalgic about the wonderful time they used to have when they played D&D in the basement, ask them about the owlbear.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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