Although it’s not a secret, it’s not oftentimes explicit: many of the primary writers and commentators on Critical Hits have known each other for quite a long time. In fact, most of us can trace back our D&D gaming lineage to a single Dungeon Master. That’s not to say we hadn’t played before or more often with others, but our friend Abe made an indelible mark on all of our gaming consciousnesses. This article examines our early gaming experiences with Abe and considers how they affected my current notions on role-playing and D&D.
To set the scene, the early years of my gaming group was essentially made of two tiers. First, there were “Youngsters” like myself, The Game, Original Sultan, and The O. Secondly, there were “Elders” that ranged from three to six years older and had been friends and gaming buddies for a significant amount of time prior to knowing us. Amongst them, more often than not, it was Abe who was our Dungeon Master. This led to some interesting issues. The relative difference in ages and less access to D&D books made us more likely to simply accept unusual rules and unexpected story developments as unarguable truth, at least initially. Whereas “Elder” players could sometimes persuade Abe to change his mind, we stood no chance. Oftentimes, when things would turn rather grim, our issues would be taken up by someone older, but otherwise, our complaints had no recourse.
That being said, there were some definite things that were awesome about our “Golden Age” of D&D. There was genuine excitement and wonder. We bought into the general system and the rules, and the DMs authority over them. What’s more, Abe managed to tell one hell of a story and keep things interesting. Our gaming group was enormous, and so no single character was ever particularly crucial to success. As such, our first games were highly fatal and chocked full of exceedingly difficult combats. Moreover, Abe was adamant about keeping that fantastic element alive. In one legendary combat (that I missed), some players were a bit too quick to instruct ignorant characters about how to finish off trolls. With a fiendish gleam in his eyes, as the players doused bodies in oil and flame, Abe had the trolls hacked off limbs begin to attack with minds of their own. What was supposed to be a relatively normal combat quickly became a bloodbath with the legendary “Abe Trolls.”
Then there were the idiosyncratic elements of Abe gaming. Abe would inject elements of whatever fiction he was reading at the time into his games. We’d have mages with Venom Symbiotes, PC armies going up against Robotech Battle pods, characters shamelessly based on Paul Maud’Dib of Dune (me) or Rand al’Thor from Wheel of Time (me again), and Abe would never bat an eye when tying together the insanity. Critical hits and failures were particularly brutal in his games. +5 Scimitars would shatter on critically failed backstabs, magical Frostbrands would fly out of skilled warriors hands into pits of lava, and 30th level Liches would get turned on a critical success and end up as Henchmen to 8th Level PCs (seriously). As time passed, all his players would joke about the monumental swings of luck and fortune in his gaming sessions, but it did always manage to produce a kind of mixed excitement and paranoia about the ease of losing everything you worked so hard for.
Fast forward to today. A lot of what I do parallels my Abe D&D experience. In 3E, I was famous for my extremely challenging “single fight” adventures. Rather than run through dungeons, most times my players would face something totally insane for their relative levels. And the thing of it was, the players always responded. I would eyeball a situation, decide it would probably kill them, then make it harder, and they’d figure out a way to win. Oftentimes, like in the days of my youth, PCs would bite the dust, but the group would emerge victorious. I always implement the “it gets bigger” rule in regards to monsters, which is a derivative of Abe’s notion on trolls: PCs that give away game text of monsters inevitably find their opponent growing in size and power, to better deter rules-mongering know-it-alls from spoiling it for everyone.
That being said, I certainly don’t emulate everything. Having never been the best “rules person” in the group, I always let players point out the actual rules during a session and adhere to them based on good faith assurances as such. Whereas I used to suffer through rather impromptu adjudications that were only loosely based on actual rules, I make an attempt to follow them (even if I don’t always know them). That being said, a lot of times rather than trying to figure out something more obscure, I’ll just blow through the issue instead of letting the game drag. Moreover, the zany crossovers from other genres and the game-changing criticals never really clicked with me and I don’t use them. Moreso than any particular aspect from Abe’s legacy, I think the most interesting aspect of my first DM is how Abe was held as the barometer to be compared to. When The Game and I began to DM more, it was inevitable that our games would have more or less combat than Abe, or more play balance than Abe, or what have you. In my opinion, our concept of D&D was shaped by what Abe did or did not include and what we wanted more or less of.
My question to my readers is, how much did your first DM influence you?