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Once Upon A Time:
From Mario to the Monster Manual

By Zac Dettwyler


It all started at the age of five, in the summer of '89. I was visiting my grandparents at their summer home in Florida. By nine every morning it was 80 degrees or more, there were bright green fronds everywhere, and lizards hid in the bushes. Honest to God, lizards. I'd never seen a live one before, except at the Wilmington (Delaware) city zoo. This place remains hazy in my memory, but what's important about this is what happened one particular night.

My grandmother, in an unusual display of techno-savvy, bought for my grandfather a Nintendo Entertainment System. We all took to it right away. That little orange-skinned plumber ran before our eyes in a wondrous 8-bit landscape, and I marveled at what would be my first memory of computer displays. I found myself unable to turn away from the screen for hours at a time. Naturally, my little-kid reflexes couldn't compete with those of my parents or my grandfather (my grandmother never played Super Mario Bros., and to this day will only play Golf). But I learned the quickest of all.

By the age of six, my family had moved from Claymont, Delaware to Wilmington, Delaware. To you folks from out of town, that's only about half an hour. But to me it meant a bigger house, a forest to explore, and new friends. That Christmas, I officially became a gamer, thanks to my very own NES. My dad, in a fit of unbridled parental humor, wrapped an empty Nintendo box in Christmas paper, but left the Styrofoam within to give it a little weight. I picked it up and, visibly glowing, tore open the paper and flipped the lid on the box. According to my mother, the glow immediately faded as I came face to face with the "joke". Sensing my panic from ten feet away, my father immediately instructed me that I should go look for the Nintendo, in case he'd "forgotten to put it in the box." Sure enough, it was on top of our '82 Zenith television, waiting for me to play it. A copy of Super Mario Bros. was even waiting within, all set for me to play.

Christmas day and much of my winter break from that point consisted of playing Nintendo. I loved it. I pored over the rulebook, I scanned the box it'd come in, and marveled at the odd assortment of plugs and cords and parts that protruded from the NES itself. It didn't take long for me to start renting games from a local video store, and I was off!

By the age of 10, and a short while into fifth grade (1993), I met John. He was a fourth-grader, but he had Magic: The Gathering cards. This game was an opportunity to interact with the world of fantasy in a way I hadn't conceived of before. We played on the bus every chance we got, and eventually we began to play a make-believe game that the other kids on the bus did not at all understand. We pretended to be wizards from the M:tG game, and the rules were simple: you could do anything to the world that had a Magic card to represent it. So we used Glasses of Urza to peek at women in the shower, we sent Craw Wurms to fight off the dwarf armies, and fed the Lord of the Pit all the Ornithopters he could eat. We didn't have any pieces or figurines or even scribbles on paper to represent what we were doing. It was all in our words and in our minds. Sometime in this period of my life, I plunked down and read The Hobbit at my father's suggestion. Finally, I understood the name of my friend Bob's dog, Gandalf.

Later on in fifth grade, my friend Alex suggested something to me that was similar to my Magic make-believe. He had come up with something similar to what I was playing with John, but instead of dragons and monsters and spells, there were aliens and spaceships and laser guns. I never actually played this game with him, but it sounded interesting enough. It was the fall of '94 (sixth grade) that he took me aside and introduced me to Quest. This was a fantasy version of the game he'd concocted the previous year.

I'll never forget how we started off the game: "Do you wanna be a knight, a swordsman, or a wizard?" He explained that the three choices were, in order, physical, balanced, and magical. I chose a swordsman, got some spells and weapons, and played an organized RPG for the very first time.

There weren't any dice or papers or such things; I think that's why I've always had a disdain for such clutter ever since. Soon enough, other friends of mine became involved in Alex's game: Marty played an elven archer with magical talent, Chris played a fire mage who could shoot "big- ass fireballs", Paolo played a warrior dwarf, Dan was a ninja or something, and Marc played Melchoir, the swordsmith from Chrono Trigger. We ended up getting magically turned into a mural on a wall in some dungeon. It was fun. From there, Quest II and III were spawned, and the game world got more and more complicated. By Quest III, we had character sheets so Alex could gauge various things more easily on the playground, but we never picked up a die.

I went through characters more rapidly than anyone else in the group.

At the same time that Alex was opening our eyes to RPGs, we dabbled in Hero Quest, Battle Masters, and as many "official TSR" fantasy novels we could find. 7th grade heralded the rise of Warcraft II in our little group, and the game enticed our imaginations with a clearer picture of the world inside our heads than any other gaming product yet, perhaps with Magic: the Gathering as an exception.

Thanks to Quest, I went on to official RPGs: AD&D and Everway. I loved Everway's system of using elements as character traits, and I'd heard so much about D&D from InQuest Magazine that I couldn't resist buying a copy for myself.

In eighth grade, I had a falling out with Alex, and from 1996 to 2002, talked to him all of twice. Before that happened, though, all of the kids in our original group, except Chris, let me teach them D&D. We all laughed at how complicated Advanced D&D was, and I had post-it notes all throughout the core books for relatively easy reference.

From eighth through eleventh grade, no campaign lasted more than two or three sessions. During this time, we got into Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, Mage, In Nomine, and Call of Cthulhu. However, the only games that held our attention for more than a few sessions were Vampire and In Nomine. Things went the same for Warhammer Fantasy as well: I bought some pieces and the basic set, but didn't really get into it. I've found that it's more fun to simply read the rulebooks than to play most games, anyway.

Christmas of 2000 had its usual run of fun things and odd presents, but a suspiciously book-shaped mass of wrapping paper was handed me by Uncle Bob that day. It contained all three of the 3rd Edition D&D books! I could hardly conceal my delight, and this day marked the start of a new era in D&D for our little group.

By the end of 9th grade, our gaming group dwindled from six people to three: I only ever saw Marc and Dan regularly anymore, but our bonds of friendship and gaming became very intense. Only Dan ever really minded this: he insisted that "there's a reason the examples in the core books imply that you need four players." We usually threw a four-sided die at him (ow! Corners!) and kept on business as usual.

With the advent of 3rd Edition, I drew on my skills of eleventh and twelfth grade English class and constructed a lavishly detailed game world: Krellis, the Ancient Past. I loved the new details of 3rd Edition, especially the new classes and the ruling that any race could play any class. My first campaign with 3rd Edition lasted a full year or so, interspersed with the last couple of months of an equally long Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle.

When I got to college, I had a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Each of us, Marc and me and Dan, got even further into gaming once we entered our respective freshman fall semesters. I found two friends, Goose and Matt, who let me wield the world of Krellis once more, and the campaign lasted most of freshman year. They were both veterans of the computer side of gaming, and Matt had once looked at AD&D's books out of interest in Baldur's Gate. I brought them Dungeons and Dragons, and we had a great time.

Probably the most interesting thing about college, as far as gaming is concerned, is that we could stay up as late as we wanted, as often as we wanted. Granted, I can only stay up until 4 a.m. two or three times a week and remain among the living in my morning classes. But I had two more players ripe for the playing, and I wore the mantle of Game Master once again.

Over the years, I've had my share of PCs to call my own. At one point, I even experimented with MUDs in the form of Gemstone 3 (I'll never forget you, Thorakis!), but it's always been the most fun for me to be the Dungeon Master, the Game Master, the Storyteller, or something similar. As an English major, nothing lets me flex my creative muscles better than sitting down for some D&D (or Vampire, depending on my mood).

Oh, and once I tried to teach my parents Hero Quest, and my mom was nice enough to let me try to teach her Magic.

In conclusion, the amount of money that experts say a parent spends on each child was probably normal for me. But mine was spent mainly in the areas of board games, RPGs, computer games, and Magic cards (I once had a pack-a- day habit!). I've been able to keep my imagination at full strength over the years as a result. I'm not proud to call myself a gamer, but I'm certainly happy to do so.

Zac is entering the spring semester of his sophomore year at George Mason University in Virginia. His hobbies (aside from gaming) include occasional attendance on the GMU men's crew team, getting his roommate to go to class, and getting knocked around at D.C. punk shows. He tries to get a Vampire or D&D game going whenever possible, and is part of the reason why his current roommate, Goose, is an insomniac.

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