You might have to zoom in a little bit to see it, but on the couch next to this gangly kid with the acid washed baggy jeans is the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide I checked out at the local library in Exeter, New Hampshire for the game we all know as Dungeons & Dragons. That gangly kid is me, though I'm 41 now. The year this photo was taken was circa 1995, or thereabouts. The movies Batman Forever and Dangerous Minds were the films everyone was talking about at the time. Everyone was already sick of the Macarena, and I had a big crush on Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani. I was only about 15 years old and living for the first time in my life in a foster home. It may not look like much sitting there on the couch next to my school binder as I clumsily personalized the book cover of one of my school textbooks, but that Dungeon Master's Guide in the background was a magical portal into a world I could escape to, someplace I didn't have to constantly think about my future or my impending court trial dates or mandated appointments with my therapist via the court system. It was a portal into the magical world of TTRPGs - aka Tabletop Roleplaying Games.
TTRPGs originated with D&D, even though D&D used the ruleset from another game called Chainmail - a tabletop wargame popular at the time. Since then, countless numbers of people have played Dungeons & Dragons, as well as all the other TTRPGs that have come since. By the time the above photo was taken of me, D&D had already existed for 26 years and had advanced to its 2nd Edition and was just about to come out with its 3rd Edition just five years later in 2000. In 1995, I was given a gift of the Dungeon Master Guide 2nd Edition Revised (the final DM's guide by TSR before Wizards of the Coast purchased the company in 1997) and I was so psyched when it came out that I got to be part of the ongoing love of the game of D&D like my stepdad who had kindled my first interest in the game by showing me his character sheet, which he kept in a special wooden box, after I told him I'd recently read "The Hobbit" and loved it so much. My best friend's mom bought the Dungeon Master Guide for me, since I enlisted Justin (my best friend at the time) to play D&D with me at every opportunity. We brought his dwarven fighter Buckshot Barotomy from 1st level all the way to becoming a godlike being all in the span of a handful of years before we each moved away and did our own things for a while. When I went into the foster home, and before we each went our separate ways for a few years - Justin and I would still play D&D with the other foster children and it's when I got to try being a DM for more than just one person at a time. Later, I would DM games for my siblings, for a girlfriend or two, or my cousin Lester, but through all that time from 1995 to now there have been marriages and divorces, breakups and new relationships, deaths in the family and births to new loved ones, deaths of friends and alienation of others, deaths of pets and the acquiring of new ones, different jobs, different cars, different homes and states, and even some major life milestones.
Dungeon Master's Guide 2nd Edition Revised (1995)
D&D has always been there, even when I've occasionally moved on to other games for periods of time. For a while in the late 1990's and early 2000's I was fully enmeshed and invested in Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf, and Changeling. I even occasionally forayed into wargaming with Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40K, and Gorkamorka (and I just recently got back into Warhammer 40k with some Blood Angels and Necrons. FOR THE EMPEROR!). But my point is that no matter what happened in my life or what other interests I found myself engaged in, TTRPGs have always been there for me to escape into.
Sometimes, my love of TTRPGs has been tested and I've temporarily shoved that love aside. After 4th Edition of D&D was released, I was so let down by the product (which I purchased almost everything for before realizing I didn't like the new mechanics) that I didn't play D&D any longer, or any other TTRPG for that matter, for years - until I ended up reading a book called "Of Dice and Men" by author David M. Ewalt which was a love letter to D&D and a high endorsement by a fellow jaded nerd for what we now know as 5E. The book went into detail about the author's history with loving the game, his time away from the game, and then his re-emergence into D&D after a long hiatus. From there, I started talking about the game to my grad school friends, none of whom had ever played D&D before, and they all became hooked during my first campaign with them. One of them, my good friend Shane, even started Headless Hydra Press once he became hooked.
"Of Dice and Men" by David M. Ewalt
So, what's my point with all this, besides reliving my TTRPG past? Well, that is the point really and I'm saying that in this time of uncertainty, we should all relive our TTRPG pasts and recapture what exactly TTRPGs mean to all of us. TTRPG's have gone through a lot over the past few decades. From D&D being bought by Wizards of the Coast back in 1997 and how everybody thought D&D might die, to the more recent OGL debacle with Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast where everyone thought D&D might die - it can be easy to forget in all the chaos just what TTRPGs mean to all of us gamers on an individual level. You see, I've relayed my own past with D&D and TTRPGs here in this blog post, but I know all of you out there reading this have stories of your own about how you remember TTRPGs being created back in the 1970's and you're still playing. Or maybe newer players who began with 5E but have moved on to other games. Or maybe you're in a rut at the moment like I have been at various points in my life where you don't play any TTRPGs at all. Or you have played D&D exclusively and still love it regardless of all the recent controversies. In either case, what remains is that we are all connected by the very concept of TTRPGs and no matter what games are pertinent to each of our times playing, we at least have that in common. TTRPGs are an escape from reality, a reason to get together virtually or in person, and create stories with one another.
A funny doctored image for my personal blog featuring my friends as D&D characters
When I was in the foster home, the last thing I wanted to do was to live in reality where my life was in shambles and my future was uncertain. It was easier on my psyche and spirit to craft a fictional story I could live out with my friends in which there were heroes able to overcome villains and amass great treasure and beat the odds. Unlike writing a novel, TTRPGs are obviously a collaborative game and that makes it more engaging, especially when you can switch and become a player in one session and a DM/GM in another to experience the gameplay from both perspectives. For so many like me, playing games like Pathfinder, D&D, or some other TTRPG is a way to forget your troubles for a while and that's no small thing in this day and age where we are constantly barraged by terrible news from across the globe. I know that others like me, playing D&D during the post-1980's nerd-stigma associated with games like D&D, it was hard. Kids would make fun of you, try to beat you up, and girls certainly wouldn't talk to you. Now, D&D and TTRPGs in general are seen as cool and even as a tool for psychiatrists and teachers and other groups to gauge behaviors or try to work out certain behaviors or to encourage creativity and teamwork. Tabletop Roleplaying Games have entered the mainstream thanks to Harry Potter, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and Stranger Things.
So, take some time and think about it. What's your own TTRPG journey? Let us know in the comments below what the state of your current feelings are toward D&D, Pathfinder, TTRPGs, or all of the above. I know all of you have a story just like mine. - Joe