Munchkin God Killers

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This post is a rather self centred account of how I got into gaming back in the 1980s. I’ll probably do a few of these, maybe one per decade since that quite closely mirrors the phases of my gaming experience.

My first brush with roleplaying games was probably in late 1983. My memory is hazy, but I remember drawing maps and making a game around it. The maps were set in a place called the Death Zone, which dates it to November 1983 or later. Fans of Doctor Who may recognise the name and date since the 20th anniversary episode The Five Doctors was release then, and was set in a place called the Death Zone.

It featured the Ark (from Raiders of the Lost Ark), Daleks, Raston Warrior Robots, Jabba the Hutt and Imperial stormtroopers, so was a mish-mash of various science fiction elements. It would almost certainly have used d6 as dice since I had nothing else at the time, and friends at school (I was 10) created characters and played through it.

Around the same time, possibly just before, the fourth Fighting Fantasy book Starship Traveller had been released. It’s possible that I read that first, and modified the system to cope with multiple players (this book actually supported multiple characters, so expanding it to multiple players would have been quite easy). I do recall ‘running’ Starship Traveller itself with a couple of others as well, so that may have given me the idea.

Shortly after that, someone brought Dungeons and Dragons into school and that was my first encounter with a real RPG. I have a vague memory of the cover of Master of the Desert Nomads, so maybe that was the first adventure we played, though my memory could well be playing tricks on me. I also remember the hardback 1st edition AD&D manuals being used, so possibly what we played was a mixture of the game systems. It wouldn’t surprise me, since that’s what we ended up doing later. Given how loosely we stuck to the rules, I don’t think it really mattered what we were playing.

After we began D&D, my own attempts at using my own systems fell by the wayside, and I took to playing variants of D&D for most of the rest of the decade.

I changed schools and found another group, and we spent most lunchtimes playing AD&D/D&D variants. I say variants, because again I’m not sure exactly what rule set we were using, or if we were even using any rules. It’s not that we ignored little things such as encumbrance, or fudged our hit points a little bit, but that we had level 99 characters with stats in the 20s and regularly killed gods. To say that we were munchkins is probably an understatement.

We were very much a bunch of teenagers who didn’t know what we were doing but were having fun anyway. I think this is one reason why I don’t look favourably on the “Old School Renaissance“, because for me gaming back at this time was such a mess and definitely not something that I’d want to go back to now, despite having fun at the time.

At some point I bought my first real RPG book (the Advanced Dungeon’s & Dragons Dungeon Master’s guide – the edition with the new style artwork shown above (which I very much prefer) from a local model shop. They also sold miniatures, and though I bought some we never used them in an actual game. I guess bringing a stack of books into school to play at lunchtime was hard enough without the difficulties of shipping figures around as well.

At one point we played Test of the Warlords, the first of the Companion level D&D adventures, which introduced us to playing outside of the dungeon. It was either CM2 or CM3 where I took over some GMing for the group at school, but have no memory of how that went. I did some GMing for friends where I lived as well, mostly based either in the Known World of the D&D Expert set, or in a SciFi sort-of-game we played for a bit based on the Elite computer game, which had managed to grab all of our attentions.

Shortly afterwards things died down and we stopped gaming altogether for a couple of years, except for one game of Rolemaster. I did do some solo gaming within The Known World, using the kingdom rules to build up my own Empires, but that was limited. Most of my gaming at that point had moved on to computer games and text adventures, as well as learning to program.

Come 1989, when I should have been revising for my GCSEs I started drawing fantasy world maps on large sheets of paper I found laying around, and started thinking about gaming again. As it happened, I picked up my first ever issue of Dragon magazine (issue #147, going by my memory of the cover) whilst on holiday in Minehead, and then 2nd edition came out just before we all went back to school at the end of the summer holidays.

This was enough to spur several of us into starting up the group again, and we brought in some new players as well. This time we started at 1st level, and I actually read the rules and we ‘played it properly’. I came up with a set of gods to much the various Priest domains in the new rules, and created my own campaign setting The Land of Kythe.

Early map for my first proper AD&D campaign

Shortly after, I picked up a copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil, and my first real RPG campaign started as I fitted that adventure into my own setting. I consider this to be where I started to learn to really GM – NPCs had their own backgrounds and goals, and the world reacted to what the players were doing. Over the next couple of years I ran that campaign, continuing after the ToEE adventure was over. Characters died and were replaced, and we had several Total Party Kills over the course of it (including a memorable session where 6th level characters decided they wanted to fight a lich).

I even took notes from each session I ran, keeping a timeline of events which I could refer back to later. Many years later I decided I didn’t need these notes anymore – something I now very much regret.

Though I spent far longer playing D&D Basic/Expert or AD&D 1st edition, the 2nd Edition of AD&D is the one I consider to have learned to game with. It was a cleaner, more consistent set of rules, and I was mature enough to understand and make use of them. We also started playing outside of school, so started to have more time for longer and more in depth sessions.

It was probably sometime in late 1990 that we started playing with systems which weren’t based on Dungeons and Dragons, and also when I did most of my gaming. However, I’ll leave that for a later post.

Samuel Penn