Dungeons & Dragons: The Third Golden Age (Part 1)

One day, during ninth-grade recess, a friend of mine mentioned that his older brother played Dungeons & Dragons with some of the other "freaks" a few grades ahead of us. (See here if you don't get the freaks reference.)

That single statement kicked off a passion that would endure for at least the next four decades - one that will probably continue for decades more.

Although I often lament not being younger in today's modern age of technology, and therefore missing out on many of the opportunities it presents, I was fortunate enough to come of age in a pretty amazing time. I was just hitting my teens when everything took off, ushering in PCs, video games, home video game consoles, music videos, etc. Beginning with the culture shift initiated by Star Wars and fueled by the technological revolution that followed, the world suddenly and dramatically changed from the world of my parents and my (much) older brothers and sisters to the world of me and my generation.

Among the elements of this brave new world was - of course - D&D. My awareness of the game was mostly due to its sudden rise in exposure. Over night, it seemed, it had become something that was at the forefront of American consciousness. I had seen the game in Kay-Bee, the local toy store. (For those too young to remember, toy stores were stand-alone establishments that stocked and sold all manner of toys, from dolls to die-cast cars to action figures to board games. Think of it like the toy section of a typical Wal-Mart, only occupying a store with about one-half the square footage of a Wal-Mart toy section, crammed in an out-of-the-way corner of a shopping mall.) There, amidst the chaotic crush of too many toys and games to recall, I vividly remember the "shrine" to D&D that sat just to the left of the checkout counter (past the G.I. Joes but before the Star Wars toys, Micronauts, and Metal-Man action figures). The upper shelves of a four-foot section had been removed, and the game books occupied the top remaining shelf, or stood on posts stuck into the pegboard above it. It really felt like some sort of special place in the store, which was otherwise three rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving. There, books from three (two-and-a-half?) generations of the game lived beside one another.

Standing on the shelf were the supplements for original D&D (OD&D). They may have all been there, but I clearly remember Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Eldritch Wizardry being there, as these covers had the biggest impact on me. (To this day, if someone mentions old D&D, the mental image of those books standing next to each other in that sacred consumerist shrine is what first comes to mind.) Above these stood the Holmes D&D Basic Set. There may have even been an Original Collector's Edition D&D ("OCE") set, but the cover wasn't memorable enough to stand out as clearly in my memory as the other books. And amidst these books and boxes stood the latest additions to the game: the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual. (I definitely remember all three books being present, so I can fairly accurately date this memory to 1980, probably summer.)

I visited that toy store every weekend as part of the Saturday shopping pilgrimage to "The City" (New Hartford). And every weekend I visited the D&D shrine. But my allowance was never spent on the products I saw there. These were occult works, obviously meant for adults, not kids like me. I would stand there and ogle the sacred tomes, then move past them to the toys of my youth.

But that day during ninth-grade recess, the mere mention that a friend's brother played that strange and mystical game suddenly made me feel as though it were not something meant only for the inner circle. It was a game I could play. It was accessible.

From that moment, in the spring of 1981, my D&D interest began to truly blossom. Despite this (and the ever-present weekend trip to The City) I didn't purchase any of the game products. Several factors contributed to this, but the primary three were 1) no apparent interest in the game among my circle of friends, 2) not knowing where to start, and 3) the Star Wars and Micronauts toys competing with the game for my slim allowance money. The toys were a known quantity and always won the competition.

But my interest remained. Throughout 1981, I acquired several game accessories, as I've mentioned before on this blog. Many nights, I fell asleep dreaming of my yet-to-be-generated D&D character's exploits in a far-off, wondrous fantasy world born solely of my imagination. And, finally, on Christmas Day of that year, I received my Holy Grail of Christmas gifts: the 1981 Moldvay D&D Basic Set.

The next few years of my life would be one of those periods that older me now looks back on with great contentment. Over the coming years, my mind would be opened to a new world: a world of fantasy that included movies unlike those that had come before (Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, and others); a world of fantasy literature I'd perhaps had brushes with but knew little about (my fantasy literature experience to that point had been limited to Tolkien's five books available at the time); a world of creativity and creation, of dreams made more real through shared storytelling.

What I didn't know at the time was that D&D was just embarking on a Golden Age, as well. I was just one of what would turn out to be millions of people to be swept up in the post-Star Wars, D&D/fantasy zeitgeist. The path of D&D's success and my own passion for the game seem to be measured on the same upward curve. Thanks to this success, it became an ever larger influence on popular culture, spawning fantasy  works across all media. This, in turn, fueled my passion even more, thus uniting the two (the game's success and my passion for it) in a swirling, enveloping symbiotic embrace.

What I couldn't know at the time was that this Golden Age would soon end. Nor could I have known that it was only the first. At least two more Golden Ages would follow...

[I'll talk about the end of the First and rise of the Second Golden Age of D&D in Part 2, next Thursday. Stay tuned!]