Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

26 March, 2007

The Lecture That Wasn't

I was really looking forward to this past weekend. Friends and my brother were to come up from Chicago and we'd attend a lecture at the Historical Society about the history of Dungeons & Dragons and then we'd drink beer and be merry. And then everyone discovered that they had to work or left for Florida or were just too lazy. This left just me and The Dulcinea.

When we got downtown, we had the opportunity to see the new Associated Bank facade.

It's nice to see something new that doesn't look like a sardine can or that it was designed with a bunch of presets and templates from a CAD program.

We arrived at the Historical Society a bit early and we wandered around – I in the book shop and The Dulcinea in the exhibits. When we caught up with each other, she had found James. Settling down at a table, we found the presenter, Lory Aitken, and a handful of more stereotypical gamers. One o'clock came and went and nothing happened. There was a timeline of the game's history taped to a table and some old rule books scattered about; a small game started at another table. I was very disappointed. The event description said: "Lory Aitken of Pegasus Games will discuss how the role-playing gaming genre got its start in Wisconsin in the 1970s with the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, then will lead the audience in a role-playing scenario." And so I expected to see a slideshow featuring a young Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson hammering out the rules and painting their first miniatures back in the late 1960s. I wanted to see photographs from the first GenCon back in 1968. I'd been hoping to hear goofy anecdotes and gaming lore. Surely there's a tale to be had of the first D&D player to ever kiss a girl.

And so, if you want to know about the history of D&D, check out this site. Here's an excerpt:

In a small town in Wisconsin called Lake Geneva, Gygax, Jeff Perren and friends had created a wargame that gave an accurate model of most aspects of medieval warfare. It was called Chainmail, and had been published by Gygax’s own fledgling company, Tactical Studies Rules. It was a later, more widely distributed version that became the first wargame to include rules for giants, trolls, dragons and magic spells. This game is seen to be the immediate predecessor of Dungeons and Dragons, and indeed, there are many similarities in the rules and style.

The seeds of role-playing had actually been laid much earlier, however. At the time Chainmail was written, Gygax was a member of a medieval warfare enthusiasts’ society entitled The Castles and Crusades Society. A fellow member, Arneson, had already began to experiment with some role-playing ideas. As he himself puts it:

"I would have to give a lot of credit [for the idea] to another local gamer, Dave Wesley. He was the first one to input role-playing…the first game that stands out in my mind is little medieval games, a very dull period of war games. He had a dull set of rules and after our second game, we were bored. To spice it up, Dave, who had been doing the set ups and refereeing [the wargames], gave each of us a little personal goal in the battle."

This was in 1968. Although crude, it was the very first step towards role-playing. Arneson continues:

"Well, that kind of got us all thinking about 'wasn’t that neat' and we did a couple of other games with various people. 'Let’s have a big medieval campaign with half a dozen different people playing with little powers with fifty or sixty men, and then you’re the king or the knight, or whatever.' And it developed from there. That got us into role-playing.'

In the early seventies, Arneson’s creativity met Gygax’s fantasy and the two men began to combine their ideas. In 1970 or 1971 (Arneson is unsure of the date), Arneson took the Chainmail system and played what was the first true role-playing game ever.

"All the fellows had come over for a traditional night of Napoleonic battle, and saw the table covered with this huge keep or castle on it. [They] wondered where this had come from in the plains of Poland or wherever we were playing at the time, and they shortly found out that they were going to go down in the deep, dank, dark dungeon."

This game was later to become the Blackmoor dungeon campaign. Gygax rapidly followed suit with an adventure that was to become the Greyhawk campaign. Over the next few years, the two played and play-tested rules that would eventually become the game Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first commercially-available role-playing game. Like wargames, it was to prove a slow starter, but a entirely new hobby had been born.

The site also has some neat anecdotes such as these:

The first edition of D&D, like so many games that followed, featured hobbits. However, Tolkien's lawyers soon threatened copyright action, leading to the birth of the "halfling".

Arneson gives credit to himself for adding "magic" to wargames - apparently after watching an episode of Star Trek, Dave gave his druid a phaser, and zapped his opponents' forces to kingdom come! This naturally led to the lightning bolt spell.

On the bright side, I did get a chance to thumb through some old D&D manuals.

The illustrations have come a long way since 1975.

One of the manuals even had a punch card with a player's character sheet taped to the other side. The card was from the University of Chicago's Computational Center. D&D was aligned with computer geeks from the start.

And so we left early. The Dulcinea headed to The Overture Center to see The Red Shoes, a production of Playtime Productions, which is a local children's theatre group. Her eldest son, D, has a role in it. I caught the preview at the Monona Library on the 17th and was quite impressed. Not only with D (who can sing much better than I ever knew he could) but with everyone. The show was politically corrected with dances from Africa, Bolivia, India, Ireland, and the Philippines but this didn't distract too much from the path of H.C. Andersen and added another fun element to the performance. I, of course, will say that D steals the show, but Anna Pfefferkorn as Madame Pandora was suitably creepy beyond her years. Plus the Nordic accents were quite humorous. I highly recommend catching one of the performances and supporting some future artists of Madison.

James and I blew some time on State Street. We stopped in at Four Star and I found about 100 foreign films I'd like to watch. From there it was off to Charles' place for a short stint until I had to go meet The Dulcinea again. While I waited for her in the Overture lobby, I checked out some pieces of art. The hallway leading to the Capital Theatre is lined with works relating to Carmina Burana which the Madison Symphony Orchestra will be performing next month. I found this painting, the name of which I cannot recall, to be the most interesting of the bunch:

If I'd gotten there when it first went up and had $2,500 to spend on art, I'd have bought it.

Lastly, I'd like to note that The Dulcinea and I had dinner at Antojitos el Toril over on Cottage Grove Road this weekend. We each had dishes prepared only the weekends. For starters, the chips were garden variety tortilla chips but the salsas (green & red) were good. There was some heat in 'em and I appreciated that they weren't hyper-mild like a lot of joints. For the main course, The D had the lamb barbacoa while I went with the carnitas. The barbacoa came with onion and cilantro as well as a large bowl of soup which was made with lamb stock and had chili peppers and chick peas in it as well. I'm not a big lamb eater but the meat was very tender and flavorful while the soup was rich and full of lamby goodness, for those that like that kinda thing. My carnitas came with beans & rice. Again, the meat was tender and well-seasoned.

Aside from the food being excellent, I want to mention our waitress. When she stopped to take our order, I mentioned that The Dulcinea was taking a Spanish class and so the woman tried some out on The Dulcinea. So, not only was the food excellent, but the waitress was exceptionally friendly helped out with homework. This was our first experience with Antojitos el Toril and we were mightily impressed. Between it and Pelayo's, there's absolutely no reason for me to go to Mexicali Rose. In fact, it'd be nice if it closed and reopened as The Essen Haus II or another location of Arbat. Even better than that would be if Mexicali Rose got replaced and either Antojitos el Toril or Pelayo's moved into the space near my home where Francois and Sunprint both failed.
|| Palmer, 11:27 AM


I was quite disappointed myself that the lecture never materialized (did we need a summoning spell?). A missed chance to know you better.

D *is* really good in the play! And the Capitol Theater is a great little venue.

You are so sweet to forget to mention my 'deer in the headlights' reaction to the prospect of speaking Spanish with a native speaker. Many more visits to Antojitos El Toril are in order, and eventually I'll order in español.

The D
Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  
I would never dream of mentioning your deer-in-the-headlights expression. And you can buy dinner next time.
Blogger Palmer, at 4:53 PM  

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