Anecdotes and Old Games

Man, You’ve Got to Play This Game!

In the summer of 1982, I was 13 years old. The year before, I had moved with my family to another town half a state away from my first best friend. A few months later, he moved away too, and the kids in his new neighborhood played D&D.

I went to visit him in June. I remember that I had just arrived when he held up a thin, pale blue book and said, “Man, you’ve got to play this game!”

You only ever have one first best friend. Mine introduced me to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Holmes Basic or Bluebook D&D
“Bluebook” D&D.
The 1977 edition of Gygax and Arneson’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is also known as “Holmes Basic” after editor Dr. J. Eric Holmes.

Never Say Die

polyhedron noun
: a solid formed by plane faces


According to Webster’s, the plural of polyhedron is polyhedrons or polyhedra. When made from high-impact material and their faces numbered or pipped, they’re called dice. The singular as well as the plural have variations. We may say, “one die, two dice;” “one dice, two dice;” or “one dice, two dices.”

We may say, “one die, two dice;” “one dice, two dice;” or “one dice, two dices.”

Many 20th-century wargames texts from British realms employ the singular dice. Though I began adventure gaming in 1980s America, where “die” was the norm, my early wargames career, which started in the 2010s, was informed by British wargamers Tony Bath and his friend and wargames opponent, Donald Featherstone, who was a prolific author of wargaming books.

Outdoor Survival (Avalon Hill, 1972) simulates the struggle to survive in a hostile wilderness. While he uses the singular die for rolling, designer Jim Dunnigan avoids the verb “to die” in reference to the endgame. There is no notion of character in the rules. In the final instruction of How to Play, when he must indicate the losing outcome for the player, Dunnigan prefers the construction “has not ‘survived.’”

In DONJON LANDS, we never say die. We say “dice” and “has not survived.”

Never Say Die

Dungeon Sense

Continued from “Lava Caves, Clacking Mandibles, and Red Glowing Glands,” the story of my first adventure begins in “Scroll of the Dead” in the category Anecdotes and Old Games.

It turned out that, whereas the torch cast light out to a 30-foot radius, the red glow of the fire beetle’s glands only went to ten feet. I wiped the goo from the sword and proceeded farther into the lava caves.

For a while I wandered down tunnels, turning this way and that at intersections. Garth pointed out that I had entered the cave headed north, which was the direction of the volcano. From that, I guessed I should go north at every opportunity.

That’s when I realized that this game was a lot like real life. I didn’t know all the rules that filled the pages of the pale blue book. But I knew that most of what I needed to know, I could learn from the real world. And that much of what I learned in the game, like striking flint on steel to make a spark, would apply to the real world as well.

Finally, I came into a large chamber.

“The air is warmer here,” said Garth. “There are a few large rocks in the chamber. Beyond one rock, you see an opening with an orange light from the chamber beyond.”

“I go toward the light.”

“As you pass a rock, an arrow whizzes by your ear.”

“I duck back behind the rock. Can I see where the arrow came from?”

“About forty feet away, a dark figure is silhouetted by the orange light, crouching on a rock. It’s a troll with a bow.”

“I take out my bow and I shoot it.”

I rolled the dice.

“With your bonus to missile fire, that’s a fourteen. You hit! Make a tick mark beside your arrows to keep track of how many you have left.”

I made the mark, while Garth rolled the dice. “Another arrow bounces off your shield.”

“Where does it land?”

“At your feet.”

“I pick up the arrow and fire it back,” I said, rolling the dice.

“You hit it again.”

While the troll and I exchanged volleys, Garth informed me that a troll is a vicious monster. “It regenerates hit points,” he said, “which means it can heal its wounds. To kill it for good, you have to chop it up and throw it in a fire.”

I retrieved another arrow from the floor and shot it back at the troll. Then I got hit.

“An arrow is stuck in the crook of your arm. Subtract three from your hit points.”

“I only have one left.” Now I understood why they were called hit points. “Can I still fire a bow?”

“Yeah, the description of damage is just for flair.”

I pulled the arrow out of my arm and sent it back at the troll. I wondered if the troll might be doing the same thing and it was the same arrow we shot back and forth.

Garth said, “You hit the troll in the chest. It drops its bow and runs away.” A wide grin spread across his face. “Man, I never heard of anybody picking up shot arrows before. You’ve got good dungeon sense.”

In the next chamber, I found the lava pit. It was a lake of bubbling magma. I read the Scroll of the Dead and threw it into the pit.

Garth said, “As the scroll bursts into flame, the magma stops bubbling. The town is safe, and you’re a hero.”

In the summer of 1982, I was 13 years old. That was my first D&D adventure, and I remember saying, “This is the game I’ve been waiting for all my life!”

Lava Caves, Clacking Mandibles, and Red Glowing Glands

The old man, sprawled across the table with a dagger in his back, grabbed my attention. I forgot all about the Scroll of the Dead and the town’s imminent destruction by volcanic eruption. I wanted to solve the mystery of the old man’s murder.

After Garth convinced me the adventure lay rather in the old man’s quest, I added “Scroll of the Dead” to the list of equipment I carried.

In shining armor, a pack on my back, bow strapped to it, lance and shield in hand, and sword at my side, I mounted the draft horse and rode into the hills below the smoking volcano. This neutral human fighter may have trailed behind the horse with a plow in his hands the day before, but today he was going on an adventure. He would save the town from destruction and win his fortune. Then he would buy a helmet and become a real knight.

“You come to the mouth of a cave…,” said Garth.

I dismounted, tied the reins to a shrub, and secured the lance on the saddle.

“What’s in the cave?” I said.

“It’s dark inside. You can’t see anything.”

I looked at the equipment list on my sheet. “I have torches. I take one out of my pack and look into the cave.”

“You have to light the torch first.”

“Do I have matches or something?”

“That’s what the tinder box is for. It has flint and a piece of steel you can strike together to make a spark.”

Now I was learning outdoor survival. Flint and steel seemed more promising than rubbing two sticks together, which Garth and I tried many times, to no effect, when we were kids.

I lit the torch and peered inside the cave.

“It’s a natural tunnel. It’s ten feet wide and goes north about twenty feet until it opens into another space, but you can’t see what’s there. What do you do?”

“I go in the tunnel.”

The tunnel opened into a small chamber. Garth explained that the caves were made by hot lava running through them. I didn’t understand how that worked, but the more important detail was that, in addition to the way I came in, there were two ways out.

“The tunnel to the east is quiet. Down the west tunnel, you can hear a clacking noise. Which way do you go?”

“I go toward the noise.”

“It might be a monster.”

“I draw my sword.”

Sword in one hand, torch and shield in the other, I crept down the tunnel. I have since learned that carrying a torch in the shield hand is a good way to set one’s face on fire. Garth didn’t seem to be concerned.

The clacking noise was made by the mandibles of a giant beetle.

“It has spots above its eyes that glow red like fire, and it runs toward you.” Garth made clacking noises with his tongue. “What do you do?”

“I use my sword to defend myself.”

“Roll a twenty-sided die to see if you hit it.”

“Which one is that?”

“That one.” Garth pointed at the rounded dice with the small triangles.

I held it between thumb and forefinger. It was light, as if it lacked consequence. I let it fall to my palm. It bounced around on smooth edges in my cupped hand.

“You want to roll high,” said Garth.

I put all my will into the dice and launched it like a marble across the notebook.

“Eleven.” I read the number off the top triangle.

“Not high enough,” said Garth. “You miss. Now it’s the monster’s turn.”

Garth picked up the dice. “It’s called a fire beetle. If it bites you it takes away some hit points.”

I understood that hit points were life points, so I was relieved when Garth announced I avoided the beetle’s bite.

“It’s your turn. You need a fifteen to hit it.”

I rolled. “Seventeen!”

Garth gave me another dice. “You do one to eight points of damage with your sword.”

I rolled the dice, and the beetle gushed goo from its abdomen and stopped clacking its mandibles. The spots above its eyes still glowed red.

“Why do the spots glow?”

“They’re glands. They glow for up to six days after the beetle is dead. You can cut them out and use them for light.”

“Cool. I want to do that.”

“You don’t need more light. You already have a torch.”

“Yeah, but it would be neat to carry a red glowing gland!”

The Scroll of the Dead

Continued from “A Neutral Human Fighter.”

“What’s a tavern?” I said.

“It’s like a bar in medieval times,” said Garth.

I only knew what a bar looked like from cowboy movies with Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. The image jarred with the knights and castles in my imagination.

“What am I doing there?”

“You’re looking for adventure. An old man comes through the door…”

I imagined saloon doors swinging back and forth and the hollow thud of boots on a wood-plank floor.

In a lurching gait, the old man approached the table where I sat. He warned me that the local volcano would soon erupt and the town would be destroyed. He pulled a scroll from his cloak.

“This is the Scroll of the Dead. To appease the gods, you must read it over the lava pit in the center of the volcano and throw it in.”

Then the old man fell forward across the table, a dagger in his back.

A Neutral Human Fighter

“Roll these dice six times.”

Garth pushed three Yahtzee dice across the blue notebook that lay flat between us. We were sitting on the floor in his room. He leaned against the bed.

Having watched Kaytar explore the dungeon and defeat the wizard, I was ready, by Garth’s decree, to play this new kind of game he called “medieval fantasy adventure role-playing.”

I sat cross-legged. I had a pencil and an old copy of Better Homes and Gardens, which supported a blank sheet of ruled paper.

“When can I roll that one?” I eyed the dice that looked like a ball it had so many sides. The color was light blue like a summer sky. Each side was a small triangle, just big enough to fit a number. The edges were worn and rounded.

“That’s for attacking monsters and making saves. We’ll get to that later. First, you have to make a character.”

I cupped the dice in two hands and dropped them on the notebook.

“Thirteen. Good,” he said. “Write down ‘strength’ with thirteen next to it. That means you’re pretty strong. You can be a fighter.”

“Can I cast magic spells like Kaytar?”

Garth pursed his thin lips into a flat pucker. He did that when he was doubtful about something. “Playing a magic-user is more complicated. It’s easier to start with a fighter.”

I rolled the dice five more times and recorded the numbers on the sheet next to “intelligence,” “wisdom,” “constitution,” “dexterity,” and “charisma.”

Garth explained what each score meant, adding, “Anything higher than ten is above average.”

Other than the strength and a dexterity score that gave the character a bonus to “missile fire,” my fighter was mediocre.

I rolled another dice for “hit points,” which, the way Garth explained them, were more like life points. Then Garth told me to roll the three dice again.

Reading the results, he said, “You have one-hundred fifty gold pieces.”

“What are gold pieces?”

“Pieces are coins. There are other kinds too, like copper, silver, and platinum. Platinum is the most valuable.”

This brought to mind a pirate’s chest buried in a dune. “So, is it a treasure?”

“Not really, it’s just money you have to start with. You use it to buy equipment to go down into the dungeon. That’s where you’ll find the real treasure.”

He gave me the pale blue book open to a page with lists of items and their costs. “You’ve got plenty to get everything you’ll need for the adventure.”

I scanned the lists and asked a bunch of questions, mostly of the sort “What’s that and what’s it for?”

I understood most of Garth’s answers, though my imagination ran a bit far with “morning star,” and I was flummoxed by the concept of a “pole arm.”

In addition to newfound knowledge in medieval weaponry, from the list I learned about some other terrifying monsters I might encounter and how to combat them. There was a mirror for use in fighting medusas, holy water to throw on undead—which weren’t living either, wolfsbane against not just werewolves but a whole family of were-creatures, garlic to repel a vampire, and stakes to drive through its heart.

I wanted to buy one each of those with my gold pieces, but Garth assured me I wouldn’t need them this time.

“What’s the difference between a ‘draft horse,’ a ‘light horse,’ and a ‘warhorse’?”

“You don’t need a horse. You’re going into a dungeon.” Garth pursed his lips again. “Look, all you need is armor, a missile weapon, and a melee weapon.”

“What’s a may-lay weapon?”

“It’s for hand-to-hand combat, like a sword.”

After more questions and not a little time, in which Garth’s impatience grew, I decided on plate mail armor and shield, which Garth said gave me a good “armor class,” a sword, bow and arrows, and rope, water skin, torches, tinder box, and a back pack to carry it all in.

I wrote these in a list on the sheet and subtracted the cost from one-fifty. With remaining funds, I added a lance to my armament.

“If I don’t get a helmet, I have enough money for a draft horse. I could be a knight on a horse with my lance.”

“A draft horse is for plowing fields and pulling carts.”

I could not be deterred. Garth relented. “Okay, spend your money on a horse, but you can’t take it into the dungeon—or a lance either!”

That settled, Garth explained a concept he called “alignment.” I understood there were good guys and bad guys, like when we used to play cops and robbers. I wanted to be a good guy, but Garth advised me to play a neutral character to start, and I didn’t argue.

“Okay,” Garth said, “you can think of a name later. You’re in a tavern…”

A Neutral Human Fighter
A Neutral Human Fighter.
Recreation of My First D&D Character.

In Memoriam

Coming, as it does, between the original edition and Advanced D&D, the Basic DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (1977) edition is in many ways curious. Intended to be only an introduction to the game, it lacks much that was already part of OD&D. Modifiers for high and low ability scores, initiative, variable weapon damage—these aspects, which today we consider “basic” to the game, were missed even by players of the era. “Holmes Basic” was never intended to be played as a stand alone game. Yet we do!


The editor of this booklet, Dr. J. Eric Holmes, is an associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine. In addition, he is a devoted DUNGEONS & DRAGONS player whose background as a writer eminently qualifies him to prepare a work such as this one.

In addition to authoring a college-level textbook in his own field, Dr. Holmes has also completed two novels in the area of fantasy literature. His versatility is further demonstrated by his valuable work on this volume for Basic DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. (Basic D&D, 46)

Editors, like authors, write their own bios. Having written a few, I detect an anomaly in that above. One is generally not so effusive in a bio. Furthermore, “eminently” and “versatility” hint of Gygax. The co-creator praises the editor.

Be that as it may, Dr. Holmes proves his versatility as well as his value to our hobby year after year. It’s in its fifth decade, and we can still examine, interpret, write reams about, debate, house-rule, expand, and play this curious edition of the world’s most fabulous game.

John Eric Holmes


If the Monster & Treasure Assortments had got more play…

—“What’s your Hack-9?”
—“What’s that?”
—“You know, your attack level—what do you need to Hit Armor Class 9?”

Attack Level - “Hack-9” - Monster & Treasure Assortments

“AL = level of attack by monster as expressed by the monster’s base number to score a hit on an unarmored opponent (armor class 9)”—Monster & Treasure Assortments (TSR Hobbies, 1977)


The next day, Garth’s neighbor came over. Jarrod was a tall, skinny kid. He wore glasses with a cloudy film that made it difficult to see his eyes. When he talked, it sounded like he was chewing a mouthful of rocks.

After our introduction, Jarrod pulled a folded sheet of ruled notebook paper from his back pocket. “This is my character,” he said around the rocks. He unfolded the paper and handed it to me. “He’s a sixth-level magic-user.”

At the top of the page, I saw “KAYTAR” written in block letters. There were penciled columns of words and numbers, which I didn’t understand, but “magic-user” was ringing in my ears. What a character is and what kind of magic one might use I did not know, but I would soon discover both.

We sat on the floor in Garth’s room. The pale blue book lay next to the denim bag, from which spilled dice on a tight-knit polyester carpet, the color of fern.

Garth had a two-pocket folder, like the ones we used in school. It was blue, and he peeked inside it during the game, keeping the contents hidden from view. He said, “This is my dungeon folder. I’m the dungeon master, and I describe the dungeon to you as you explore it. You’ll see how it works. Just watch.”

After some discussion, Garth and Jarrod picked up where they left off the previous game. I gleaned that Kaytar was in a dungeon, which was dark and dangerous. He explored corridors with vaulted ceilings, navigated intersections, passed under archways, and opened doors.

As Kaytar went, Garth described what he saw, and Jarrod said what Kaytar would do. Jarrod talked about his character in the third person: “Kaytar lights a torch,” “Kaytar goes right,” “Kaytar opens the door.”

Behind the doors were rooms that might have rotting leather sacks full of coins or gems hidden in them, or they might have a monster, like a minotaur or a gargoyle. Kaytar might, by searching the room, find the coins or gems, or he might be viscerated by the gargoyle.

There were also traps and pitfalls. When the ceiling didn’t fall on him or a poison dart come flying from a hole in the wall, Kaytar might fall through a trapdoor in the floor. Kaytar avoided the flying dart, but he didn’t notice the trapdoor and, so, was deposited in a lower level of the dungeon.

“You enter a high chamber,” said Garth. “Stairs go up on one side to a balcony that overlooks the room. There’s a man standing there, wearing long dark robes. He’s surprised. What do you do?”

Jarrod looked through cloudy glasses at Kaytar’s sheet. “Hey, can Kaytar use that scroll he found?”

“Yes. It’s a sixth-level spell.”

“Kaytar unrolls the scroll and casts disintegrate.”

“Okay, the wizard gets a saving throw.”

Jarrod bit his lip. Garth threw a dice on the dungeon folder. The three of us watched it roll to a stop.

“A five!” Garth said. “The robed man crumbles into a thousand tiny pieces. He was a thirteenth-level wizard!”

Jarrod beamed. Chewing rocks, he said, “That should give Kaytar enough experience points for seventh level.”

A 13th-Level Wizard
A 13th-Level Wizard.
Recent sketches from the scene forever etched in memory.

The Pale Blue Book

“These are the rules,” said Garth. “You don’t have to know them, but this’ll give you an idea about the game.”

I had to study the monochrome cover to make out the image. A dragon—fangs bared, wings spread—narrowed its serpentine eyes at an armored bowman and a bearded man in a pointy hat. The man wore a robe with stars, comets, and crescent moons all over it, like the hat. He pointed a magic wand at the dragon. I could tell it was a magic wand, because magic—in the form of glowing blue flame and tiny stars—was shooting out of it. The bowman, who wore a shield slung over a shoulder, aimed an arrow at the dragon. The dragon sat on a mound of coins and jewelry, chests and vases, and swords that stuck out at angles.

Inside the book, the text was small, the pages yellowed, which gave the impression of age. Black and white drawings depicted medieval characters, who were armed and fighting mythic creatures or hordes of grotesque humanoid monsters.

Thumbing through its leaves, I read long headings in block capitals: TIME AND MOVEMENT IN THE DUNGEONS and TRAPS, SECRET DOORS, SURPRISES, WANDERING MONSTERS and EXPERIENCE POINTS AND EXPERIENCE LEVELS. There were rules for COMBAT MELEE, MISSILE FIRE, and MAGIC WEAPONS, plus page after page of descriptions of MAGIC SPELLS and MONSTERS.

My thumb stopped. One whole page was delineated in rows and columns—the heading: TREASURE TABLE. Percentages showed the chances for coins of precious metals, including platinum, which I’d heard of, and electrum, which I hadn’t. The coins came by the thousands and were accompanied by gems, jewelry, maps, and magic.

I flipped back to the front to have a closer look. In the FOREWORD FROM THE ORIGINAL EDITION, I read a mysterious fairy tale. It began with “ONCE UPON A TIME, long, long ago…” and turned quickly esoteric. There were castles, crusades, and societies. There was a character named Dave Arneson and a map of a “Great Kingdom” and its “environs.” There was a bog and, in it, a “weird enclave” called “Blackmoor” in “a spot between the ‘Giant Kingdom’ and the fearsome ‘Egg of Coot.’” There were medieval fantasy “campaigns,” which were more than just a game. “Blackmoor” was one, another was “Greyhawk.”

The place names were unfamiliar, as were many of the words. They all came together in my mind like pieces of an insolvable jigsaw puzzle. But each piece glowed in blue flame and tiny stars.

I closed the book and looked again at the cover. “When do we play?”

Preface and FOREWORD FROM THE ORIGINAL EDITION with Illustration by David Sutherland.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Game Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures, edited by Eric J. Holmes, Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Hobbies, 1977.

In the years since, I learned all the place names from the mysterious fairy tale and all the words too. I learned about the Castle & Crusade Society and their CHAINMAIL fantasy rules. I learned that Dave Arneson and the FOREWORD’s author Gary Gygax invented the game, of which the “original edition” was published in the previous decade—not so long, long ago. I have adventured in Greyhawk and Blackmoor and set scenarios for my own medieval fantasy campaigns in those worlds. And although now I know its origin and character, in my mind, the “Egg of Coot” remains fearsome.


My best friend, whose name was Garth, told me the best way to learn to play the game he called “Dee-an-dee” was to watch first. “My next-door neighbor will come over tomorrow,” he said. “Now I want to show you the dice.”

We sat at a folding table in his room. He plopped a ragged denim bag on the linoleum tabletop, loosened the drawstrings, and dumped out a pile of dice.

As they clattered to a stop, I saw familiar white bone dice with dark pips, which must have come from a Yahtzee game, and clear red casino dice with white pips. There were big ones and small ones. Among them were dice of different colors. Blue, green, brown—the colors weren’t bright but drab, and they didn’t have pips but numbers.

The unfamiliar is often invisible. Under my eyes, there was something new in the world, and it took a moment for my consciousness to adapt. Jumbled up in the melee of plastic and pips and numbers were odd-shaped solids. These weren’t normal cube dice. Instead of squares, their faces were triangles and pentagons.

Garth said, “They’re polyhedrons.”

I picked one up. Holding it between thumb and forefinger, I turned it around. It was blue with black numbers. The corners and edges were worn and discolored, like a dingy sock. Each face was a pentagon.

“How do you roll it?”

“Like normal dice.”

“How do you know what number it is?”

“It’s the number on top.”

Rolling it in my palm, I couldn’t see any top. I dropped it on the table. One side showed a “3” flat up.

Garth reached for a dice. “This one’s different. It only has four sides.” He showed me a pyramid. “You have to toss it up and twirl it, like this.”

The dice spun in the air. He turned it around where it landed. “The numbers at the bottom of the sides are all the same. I rolled a four.”

He tapped the top point with a finger. “I call them caltrops. Don’t step on these.”

Polyhedrons - Photo courtesy of Kevin Green
A full set of role-playing game dice, plus an additional d20, marked from 0 to 9 twice, each series with its own color. Photo courtesy of Kevin Greene of California’s Bay Area. An “old-school” gamer, Kevin began playing D&D in the sixth grade with these dice and Holmes Basic, Eldritch Wizardry, and the Monster Manual in 1982.

platonic body noun
variants: platonic solid
: any of the five regular geometrical solids comprising the simple tetrahedron, hexahedron, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron

polyhedron noun
pronounced ˌpä-lē--drən
plural polyhedrons or polyhedra ˌpä-​lē--​drə
: a solid formed by plane faces


A modern set of role-playing game dice consists of six polyhedrons. Each dice is used to generate random numbers from 1 to the number of faces—or sides—it has. In game parlance, they are known by this upper limit: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.

Five of them, the four-, six-, eight-, twelve-, and twenty-sided dice are platonic solids. Despite the name, Plato did not invent them, but the regular geometrical solids figure in his philosophy. In Timeaus, he associated each of them with a classical element: tetrahedron (d4), fire; cube (d6), earth; octahedron (d8), air; icosahedron (d20), water. The dodecahedron (d12) Plato associated with heavenly constellations.

The ten-sided dice (d10), the only one of the set not a platonic solid, was added in 1980. It is an irregular-faced decahedron called a pentagonal trapezohedron. It is used to generate decimal numbers, most commonly 1 to 10 and 1 to 100, the latter range by rolling two dice, one each for the tens and ones places.

When a d10 is not available, a d20 is rolled and the tens digit ignored. Early d20s were numbered from 0 to 9 twice, one series being marked with a dot or colored differently—as the numbers on Kevin’s d20 are colored red and blue. To make this dice perform its d20 function, it’s rolled with a d6. A 4 to 6 on the d6, adds ten to the roll.