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For D&D's old masters, the fantasy still thrills
Posted: 06/27/2009 10:31 PM
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By Tad Vezner firstname.lastname@example.org
The old men hold dice.
White, simple, well-worn dice, the kind you'd find in a Monopoly game.
Around them, the world is in turmoil.
'Drought, famine, war. People are desperate,' says the man at the head of the table. 'Everything is chaos. Everything is on fire.'
A clamor surrounds them: Ten tables with so many people there's barely room to stand are littered with glittering dice, a flotsam of pop and chips, and metal figures swinging tiny swords and axes. The largest gaming store in the Twin Cities, The Source in Falcon Heights, is packed on a warm, sunny Saturday for a run-of-the-mill Dungeons & Dragons event.
But the corner table where the men sit is almost barren. No multicolored laminated stands. No metal figures ... well, maybe one or two. And a small plastic castle, bought in a model railroad supply store sometime in the late 1960s.
"What edition are they using?" whispers a youngster at an adjacent table.
They're using simple rules, as they have since the game was published, swept the world, went through four editions and made millions. Before that, even.
"Who are they?" asks the youngster, Tyler Swanson, 23, of River Falls, Wis.
The first in the world, many say, to play Dungeons & Dragons.
The head of the group clears his throat.
"The king is dead," says Bob Meyer, 59, of St. Anthony Village.
Heads nod. Their good friend, DD co-creator and St. Paul native David Arneson, died in March — the one who sat them down
in his St. Paul basement in the early summer of 1970 and showed them they didn't have to keep being so realistic all the time.
Since then, this same group has been meeting at least once a year, on a quest that has yet to falter. Last winter, the last time they got together, Arneson sat at the head of the table.
Arneson's daughter, Malia Weinhagen, of St. Paul, stands on one side, glancing at the dozens of others in the room — teens and college kids, mostly, arguing over who will kill the next orc — then back at the table in the corner.
"I love how old-school this is," she says. And yet similar.
"The land is filled with barbarians: brutal half-men from the wilds," Meyer adds.
"We'll blend right in," says David Wesely, 64, one of the oldest in the group.
A NEW REALITY
As a student of physics at Hamline University in 1964, Wesely was the first of a group of college and high school kids to meet up with some paraphernalia collectors in St. Paul. The older gentlemen, mostly Korean War vets, had homes littered with hand-carved model airplanes you couldn't buy kits for anymore. Ship models, trains, toy soldiers — all adorned with authentic, elaborate paint jobs.
They were historians, crazy about minutiae, looking up facts like the rate of fire of 11-inch Deutschland guns or the exact shade of an army tunic.
Other young men joined up and began playing board games, war games, guiding brigades of metal figurines through historical heroics.
It got demanding. One member of the group, Bill Hoyt, remembers a Saturday night in some St. Paul basement where two armies of tiny figurines were monotonously maneuvered across a large table. The game began at 10 p.m.
Eight hours later, the armies finally met.
"Now we're going to see some action!" Hoyt anticipated, as sunlight seeped through the windows.
Wesely left the group for graduate school — and after that the Army — but stayed in touch with one of the younger group members, David Arneson, whom he'd befriended, then almost killed in a fencing incident at Hamline.
Arneson had a knack for envisioning conflict. In many cases, he drew up the battlefields the miniatures fought upon and kept his friends interested enough to stay awake until the birds started chirping.
Arneson became famous in the group by creating an elaborate historical scenario, where everyone was an emperor or king during the time of Napoleon. Naturally, people fought. From afar, Wesely ruled Holland and sent his troop movements to Arneson by mail.
In one of the letters to Wesely's Army base, Arneson told him about a new game in a land called "Blackmoor." You wouldn't find it on a map. Oh, and also, it was populated with elves and dwarves and. ...
"I don't know what that guy is doing back there," Wesely thought, flummoxed by the ludicrousness of it all. "This is really weird — I'm going back to being the king of Holland."
Seriously, at least with the historical games, Wesely said, "I thought I was going to make a significant educational contribution about social structures.
"You put the elves in there, that destroys all that."
But when Wesely returned to St. Paul, he descended into Arneson's basement in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, to find a small plastic castle set up on a pingpong table.
It was the time of J.R.R. Tolkien. His "Lord of the Rings" books were gaining popularity. Conan the Barbarian was going strong.
But also, Arneson had just snapped.
All the minutiae — the obsessive gamers coming to him with obscure historical texts about the firing rate and manufacture of 100-year-old rifles and cannons — had created an overbearing, rigid realism he could no longer abide. They were there to have fun, for God's sakes.
He needed a land with no rules — where anything was possible. He bought a castle and said: This is your new battlefield. Your new reality.
Wesely sat down and played — first as himself, an Army lieutenant cast into Arneson's fantasy world like a Connecticut Yankee. Then he rescued an elf princess. His next character was his own half-elf son.
"I'm thinking I'm never going to tell anybody I was in this game, this is so childish," said Wesely, now a software engineer at Medtronic.
WIZARD OF THE WOODS
An hour has passed at The Source, and the game is picking up. After an age-old argument over who will lead the group, the man sitting next to Wesely loses. He has to lead.
Ross Maker, 62, of St. Paul, takes point and turns a dark corner in the dungeon, with Wesely behind him. Two brutish monsters are there to greet them.
"How big are they?" Maker asks.
"One's runty; one's big," Meyer says. Maker looks around anxiously.
"I'll take the big one," Wesely says.
When Arneson was told April 1 that he was not responding to cancer treatments and needed to pursue hospice, he had two people over to his daughter's St. Paul home to "game" that night: Maker and Wesely.
In third grade, Maker played naval battles in the back yard of his Shoreview home with rules he wrote himself. He would explain to other third-graders that a ship with 11-inch guns would do this or that amount of damage. He first learned to read out of his father's B-17 pilot's manual — words like "aileron," a section of a plane's wing.
When he and Wesely get together, their wives sometimes forbid them from talking about anything historical. On a long car ride, for instance.
Maker met his wife, Shelly, at a singles mixer at the Radisson in Minneapolis. He gave her a card. "You'll never know when you'll need a 10th level dwarf hero around," it said.
"I sat on that card for a week," Shelly Maker said.
But a few in the group found spouses that could cope with their ... habits.
"I was probably one of the few wives that didn't care," said Gail Gaylord, whose husband, Peter, 66, was arguably the role-playing world's first wizard. Gail would sit with Wesely's mother and talk about cooking and sewing while "the boys" descended into the basement.
"At least I knew where he was," Gail Gaylord said.
For much of his life, Peter Gaylord worked the night shift at the downtown St. Paul post office. He started gaming with Arneson while living in a triangular Arden Hills trailer park whose borders were three busy highways: U.S. 10, Interstate 35W and County Road 96.
He wanted badly to be a wizard.
Arneson told him to go for it, and the man, whose daily life included the constant clamor of the freeway, became the "Wizard of the Woods," with a hut in a serene forest protected by a pet dragon, Tuffy.
"I named him after my cat," Gaylord said.
Now, his house in Maplewood has hosted generations of gamers: family and friends from the neighborhood, sometimes fathers and sons. For decades, Gaylord proudly touts, a week hasn't gone by without dice clattering in the basement. Every six months or so, he stuffs a dozen Hefty garbage bags full of pop and beer cans into his car and hauls them away to recycling.
A GAME THAT SHAPED LIVES
Three hours have passed at The Source, and the storyteller, Meyer, exhales wearily. By now, everyone has chopped off a few orc heads. Things wind down enough for some reflection.
Meyer engages in some "in my day" talk about Dungeons & Dragons, looking around at all the young whippersnappers in the room.
"Nowadays you have guys with +6 holy swords and mithril armor and Holly the Wonder Horse (all good things). If we were lucky, we had a +1 sword," Meyer says. "If we saw a Balrog back then, we ran! It was that simple. These people see a Balrog, they'll say no problem."
Alan Musielewicz, 64, of St. Paul, joins in, nodding at the thick books and paraphernalia that make up modern, refined DD. "There's too many rules. ... I don't have time to read more than 12 pages of rules. I fall asleep. And when I wake up, I've forgot 'em."
Many in the group have fallen out. One core player, recently laid off, said he was "losing all interest in all things gaming and Dungeons & Dragons." Years ago, even Meyer — the game master — sold his old collection of 150 or so gaming books on eBay. He didn't keep a tally of his earnings, but it definitely fetched "a lot."
Others "have gone to the great castle in the sky," Gaylord adds.
But once a year, at least, the Blackmoor campaign goes on. A few more orcs lose their heads. An occasional maiden is rescued. A fistful of gold gained here and there.
"Wow. Just ... oh wow," confides young Swanson at the next table, after learning the identities of the men in the corner. "These guys created a game that shaped my life."
And he watches until he's distracted by the commotion at the adjacent tables, filled with fresh young players on a warm, sunny Saturday.
Tad Vezner can be reached at 651-228-5461.