Last week, I was reading Rob Donoghue and Chatty DM's recollections of their role-playing experience through the years, and I was inspired to stroll down memory lane (check for traps, ok, it's safe) and do the same in a four-part series (the SBG is like a long-lasting stick of gum, as you know). It all started 25 years ago, longer than some of my current players' ages, so some memories may be corrupted or entirely missing, but I'll give it my best try.
Even before 25 years ago
Like many hobbies that would later become fairly important in my life, I discovered evidence of role-playing's existence long before I ever knew what role-playing was. Living in a small town (population 10,000) in the Dark Ages before the Internet, there weren't many ways to get exposed to the hobby. When I was 11, my dad moved out of Canada, to Texas, and shared custody being what it was, we were whisked off to Montreal to board a plane and spend the summer in the States. Needing something to read on said plane, I picked up a couple of RPG-related books that would prove important to my initiation into that world. The first was Grimtooth's Traps, Too, a systemless book of dungeon traps, and the next summer's was the original AD&D Monster Manual. In neither case did I understand what these books were for, or what this "game" could be (I thought that perhaps it was some kind of computer thing). But since they were pretty much the only books I had for an entire summer, far from my real home's shelves, I read and reread them, and of course I wanted to learn more.
Back in Canada, I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, and found two books that could perhaps help me. One was Dicing with Dragons, which described what role-playing was, and the other was Fantasy Wargaming, half manual, half stand-alone RPG. By the time I'd read these, I was in 9th grade, and other kids were bringing their D&D stuff to school. I saw a module or two. I heard a couple stories. I was accumulating friends who, though they'd never played, were interested in trying. Of course, in my small town, there was no way to get at D&D product. An older guy gave me my first polyhedral dice, the numbers already worn off, from one of Basic D&D's original boxes. And that's all we had. That, the Monster Manual and Fantasy Wargaming.
Well, Fantasy Wargaming was nigh incomprehensible to my neophyte brain, and it certainly wasn't compatible with the AD&D book. Perhaps I should have cut my losses and tried to get into someone else's group. I knew they existed, usually run by older guys (and I would later attend one, though I was unimpressed with the rules lawyering and DM versus Players atmosphere), but I didn't know any of them really. So I took what I could understand of FW (mostly the character sheet), created some kind of conversion for AD&D (so that the monsters became compatible), drew up lists of spells from the Monster Manual and gave them effects (just based on the names), stole maps from various sword & sorcery novels for setting, sat down at a friend's ping-pong table and went for it.
It was terribly unbalanced, of course. Wizards rolled for spells every level and got a random one. Could be Powerword Kill as much as Detect Magic. Though bigger XP rewards were handed out as time went along, the amount of XP required to level didn't change. Soon, the characters were multi-class epic level demi-gods and everybody was running at least 3 of them. We didn't care. We were having fun, Monty Hauling our way to the top. At least we were the kids that spoke English amongst ourselves already, so by that point, there wasn't a language barrier. Other than French Canadians trying to say the word "algae" and such.
That campaign would take us through all of our high school years. Along the way, I of course returned to Texas, where bookstores could be counted on to carry product. I bought more monster books (Fiend Folio, Deities and Demigods, etc.), but instead of the Player's Handbook and GM's Guide, I grabbed the much cheaper Arcanum. Though we kept some of our homebrew crazyness (the fun, unbalanced stuff), we converted to the Arcanum system, a D&D clone anyway, but with many more character classes. It appealed to our "more is better/cooler" attitudes. And though I would eventually get all of the AD&D books, I never really converted to that system. It just wasn't necessary. Arcanum was just fine to run Temple of Elemental Evil, a dungeon that ate up our last high school year (and beyond).
There's a whole world out there
Thanks to the few Dragon magazines I'd collected in the States, I knew there was more to role-playing than sword & sorcery, and in those latter days, we did try to homebrew systems meant for other games. Our Arcanum/AD&D combination worked just as well for science-fiction, and stats for DC and Marvel characters in Dragon were used as a template to create a superhero game as well. To take the heat off me, someone else from the group became GameMaster, though he tended towards unfair playing fields which ultimately collapsed those games. And perhaps the homemade systems weren't up to snuff, nor did we have proper experience (or even advice) on how to run those games. I remember being peeved at how NPCs died in our superhero game, for example.
But then, something happened to change everything. A hobby shop opened in our area...
In Part II: The Rise of Genre!
Further reading about this era :
How we kicked a guy out of our group WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE!
That one time I went to play in someone else's game
Props I made for those games
Grimtooth's Traps recollections
Fantasy Wargaming recollections
Dragon Magazine recollections