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OD&D Gaming With Gary Gygax

I met Gary Gygax at a book store. He told me he had a game where I could play Conan and fight Set. Just like that I was hooked.

I went over to his house and rolled up a wizard character in D&D. For the first adventure we went to Kong Island. Gary wanted to play test that adventure. I was first level and all the rest of the players were 5th and 6th. We wandered in the night a bit and found a village. I tossed a light spell in a large hut and woke up ten native warriors. We all ran for our lives. A thrown spear ended my character's life and that was the adventure.

I discovered next week that Ernie, Gary's son, used a wish spell to bring us all back alive.

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I came back week after week and had the fun of a lifetime. It took me six months to figure out the dice. In those days you had to roll a d6 and on a 1-2-3 you added nothing and on a 4-5-6 you added ten to the twenty sided die that you rolled. Figuring out the die to use for weapons and monsters and even reading the 4 sider was work.

I learned how to trail map from Don Arnt. That is the easiest mapping form as it just notes the paths in the four directions and the doors. The chamber sizes don't matter. Later, I would learn how to map out dungeon rooms and that was a lot of fun as Gary called out the distances in a chamber and I could sometimes figure out where a secret door was located. It wasn't until years later that I found out that sometimes Gary had two chambers connected to one secret door. Depending on if you pressed the right or left side of the door was the chamber you were allowed to enter.

Gary Gygax was the ultimate storyteller. As I gamed with him the only time he consulted the rules was when he gave out experience points for killed monsters and treasures. He made moving through his dungeon come alive. We could easily imagine the sights, sounds, and even the smells as he described the chambers and the corridors.

He would change his style depending the experience of his gaming audience. If there were no mappers, he would talk about moving north or south down a corridor. If people trail mapped he would count out the ten foot squares and we would find out exactly where the doors were positioned in a chamber. Ernie, his son and soon myself would use graph paper and we would plot out the areas and Gary would give us exact dimensions so that we could easily make copies of his complex dungeon. We would hear about dripping ceilings, the musty smell of mold covering a wall, or the stench of a refuse pile.

Although he was a storyteller, there was no effort to thread a plot through his dungeon. Keep in mind that this was the dawn of role-playing and some concepts of 2020 gaming weren't known then. It was entirely find the monsters, fight the monster, and take his treasure. Some of the dungeon chambers were filled with surprises. There were creatures hiding above the doors, there were creatures looking like tables and chests, and there were surprises in plain sight that would attack as we moved in the rooms. It got so that I would say upon entering any new area, “Gary, I look up, and down, and all around the area before I walk in. That stopped a lot of ugly surprises from happening.

We learned to be very cautious in Gary's dungeon. We started tossing torches and then lanterns into dark rooms. It wasn't too many burnt scrolls and broken potion bottles to have us change our ways. Soon, we were tossing in coins with Continual Light tossed on them. This caution had consequences as wandering creatures would be attracted to the magical light.

Gary Gygax was a voracious reader. Keep in mind in the days of 1973 and 1974 there was no internet and no google. Gary had to pull information out of books and he read three or four from the library every week. That is one reason you see a lot of Greek mythic creatures in his beginning lists.

Ernie Gygax, Gary's son was in 8th grade in 1974 and already he was a canny gamer. I learned a great deal from him as a player in the game. Caution was the constant byword in our gaming.

I rose in wizard levels quickly because all of the other 5th and 6th level characters gained a lot of loot and I had an equal share of the gold and gems. Gary loved giving gems as treasure. Along the same lines he would roll for the value of each gem. Any roll of a 6 on a d6 doubled the value of the gem. Sometimes he would roll four or five sixes on a single gem and the value went way up.

The group was scrupulously fair in dividing up treasure. Everyone got a percentile roll for the magic items. That is how my character acquired a Staff of Power when he was low level. I rolled a 99% the other much higher characters groaned to see a low level character get the staff.

Also never doubt that Gary was not a Monty Haul referee. He had to be because he had to play test all of the magic items he put in his rules. He had no idea what a Deck of Many Things or a Portable Hole would do to his campaign world. So his wondrous dungeon was liberally sprinkled with magical treasures.

Then we have the concept of cursed items. Gary loved to expose his players to cursed items; way too much if you asked me. I can't tell you how many times I was exposed to Horns of Bubbles or cursed rings. One of his favorite tricks was to give out a magical sword that seemed to do great things like burst into flames or do extra damage to giant-types. That weapon, unknown to the wielder would have some sort of curse, like attracting arrows to the player or causing them to strike at a -3. Once we got to higher levels we could detect for those curses, but it the beginning it was rough.

One adventure I acquired a grand long sword. It was a +3 to hit and do damage. It could talk. It could burst into flame on command. It also had a chance to note secret doors. However, the sword loved gems. The weapon demanded gems put on its sheath regularly or it would not use any of its powers for the wielder. Over the adventures this got very expensive for me as I had to give the best gems to the sword for its work.
 
Jim Ward

Comments



Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I rose in wizard levels quickly because all of the other 5th and 6th level characters gained a lot of loot and I had an equal share of the gold and gems.
I absolutely loved this about the old school experience tables. Although they were all different, they all followed a very rough pattern of each new level requiring twice as much XP as the previous one. That was brilliant, because it meant that death (i.e. losing a PC) was a medium-term penalty, presuming you weren't of sufficient level to have them resurrected. So if the rest of the group was around 6th level, at roughly 50,000 XP to have gotten there, they'd need another 50,000 XP to make 7th. Which meant that your new, 1st-level character, would hit 6th level just as they hit 7th, and so would be almost caught up by then.

Of course, the rest of the group would have to help you survive until then, but I always saw that as reinforcing the teamwork aspect of the party.
 



imagineGod

Adventurer
I never did grow up with OD&D, but have since taken up that original variant of Dungeons and Dragons. My first experience at a mini-con was finding out that a magic-user character only had 1d4 hit points and I rolled a 1, so any thing, absolutely anything would kill the character, and I had to have my PC cast just one spell a day then run from everything. Like expected, my character did not survive the dungeon crawl. But it was a fun experience, and I play OD&D more often now, thanks to the Necrotic Gnome Old School Essentials Kickstarter.
 

A great story! I actually love cursed items like these. Potions of poison, basic -1 cursed swords, those aren't much fun at all. But items like this feel more special, more magical. This magic comes with a price you have to decide whether to pay or not.

Then we have the concept of cursed items. Gary loved to expose his players to cursed items; way too much if you asked me. I can't tell you how many times I was exposed to Horns of Bubbles or cursed rings. One of his favorite tricks was to give out a magical sword that seemed to do great things like burst into flames or do extra damage to giant-types. That weapon, unknown to the wielder would have some sort of curse, like attracting arrows to the player or causing them to strike at a -3. Once we got to higher levels we could detect for those curses, but it the beginning it was rough.

One adventure I acquired a grand long sword. It was a +3 to hit and do damage. It could talk. It could burst into flame on command. It also had a chance to note secret doors. However, the sword loved gems. The weapon demanded gems put on its sheath regularly or it would not use any of its powers for the wielder. Over the adventures this got very expensive for me as I had to give the best gems to the sword for its work.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
More of these stories. It brings back a lot of memories. Light on a coin, still a great idea. Also, I still prefer rolling a d6 and d10 for a d20. Something much more satisfying about rolling around two dice in your hand. When the d20 came out I wasn't fan for many years. I use them now but still d6/d10 draw me. Maybe why I like newer two d20 system is due two now there are two d20's to roll, same satisfaction.
 


Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
Thanks JW!

As I gamed with him the only time he consulted the rules was when he gave out experience points for killed monsters and treasures. He made moving through his dungeon come alive.
Man, I would like a version of D&D in which that was really possible. I mean, the part about essentially never consulting the rules. The game would have to be trimmed down to something like The Black Hack.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Mr. Ward, I grinned like an idiot while reading this. It was so familiar. We started playing in the summer of 1974. Everything was new, caution was a life saver and the game was a blast. Those were good times. The good times haven't stopped, but it's not quite the same. Thanks for bringing that back for me!
 


Orcishnature

Explorer
I never did grow up with OD&D, but have since taken up that original variant of Dungeons and Dragons. My first experience at a mini-con was finding out that a magic-user character only had 1d4 hit points and I rolled a 1, so any thing, absolutely anything would kill the character, and I had to have my PC cast just one spell a day then run from everything. Like expected, my character did not survive the dungeon crawl. But it was a fun experience, and I play OD&D more often now, thanks to the Necrotic Gnome Old School Essentials Kickstarter.
I rolled up a wizard like that in a game with a friend in 1981, lurked at the back for most of the game then a rat bit me and it was all over, not even a dire rat, just a rat....
 


qbalrog

Villager
Wonderful to hear this! I'd forgotten about the side-car die roll for the d20 that had 1-10 twice :) I also remember the dice where you would color with wax the low and high 1-10 differently. I would not go back to OD&D but there was a wonder playing it as an 8th grading. For me first game was in a musty basement at West Point with a bunch of cadets not having a clue to what I was doing but having a blast. My dwarf with 2 hit points didn't last long but the memories did!
 


Eltab

Hero
I never did grow up with OD&D, but have since taken up that original variant of Dungeons and Dragons. My first experience at a mini-con was finding out that a magic-user character only had 1d4 hit points and I rolled a 1, so any thing, absolutely anything would kill the character, and I had to have my PC cast just one spell a day then run from everything. Like expected, my character did not survive the dungeon crawl. But it was a fun experience, and I play OD&D more often now, thanks to the Necrotic Gnome Old School Essentials Kickstarter.
I had that Magic-User too. But being young and foolish, after using the spell of the day I tried to fight something while wearing a Robe and wielding a dagger.
My next character was an Elf. So I could use magic while wearing armor.
 



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