D&D50

So today (or maybe yesterday) is the 50th anniversary of the release of Dungeons & Dragons, which I got into just about a year-and-a-half later after having heard about it at Gandalf’s Den Fantasy Gallery on the mall in central Eugene, where I would hang out after my freshman year at high school between buses.

I was obsessed with creating my D&D settings. Jon Pitchford and I had gone in halfsies on the D&D box (it was $10!) and we played as much as we could given we lived in different parts of town, with my part of town kind of way out of town. When Jon transferred to another high school, he found a crop of players (another Jon, Dave & Allison, and Tom) who ended up being our core for RPGs ranging from D&D to TRAVELLER, Gamma World, Bushido, Champions, and beyond, for about seven years, as the attraction of the armed services to kids without much money ate into our numbers.

I wrote what I thought at the time was a scathing satire about high school cliques my senior year, casting Jocks and Groupies as a monster class called Narcisstics, and sent it off to The Dragon magazine with both my name and Pitchford’s on it because it had grown out of a discussion we’d had. Something like 6 months later, it showed up in issue #24 and I ran over to Jon’s quad room at the University of Oregon. We hadn’t gotten any notice that ot had been accepted, and after a few weeks went by, I sent a message off asking if we were going to get paid; eventually we got a check for $9, which I split with Jon. That could buy us four-and-a-half copies of the magazine.

The spring of my senior year, Gandalf’s hired me to work in the book and game shop. It was a small shop, with usually just one staff member working at a time. For a lot of it, I was the only employee, with the other hours covered by Michael, the owner, and his wife, Lee. In addition to the retail side, Michael had early on made regional distribution deals with TSR, Game Designers’ Workshop, Flying Buffalo, and a variety of game-related companies that produced dice and miniatures, so I worked in their thriving wholesale operation in the basement, boxing up orders to be shipped all over the Northwest. I saw a lot of games, and I spent a lot of my meagre income on books and games.

I’ve written at length about my experience with Christian fundamentalists threatening to picket a talk I was asked to give at the Springfield Public Library here and here, so I’m not going to elaborate.

After most of the gang left town, eventually I did so myself, going back to college. I played games with a couple of guys I met there—though no RPGs—and when they left town, I sort of went down a freelance developer rabbit hole that didn’t lead me to meeting any more, so most of my games have been languishing in boxes for 40 years (it helps to not move for over 30 years), including my D&D stuff. On the other hand, they’re reasonably well-preserved! I did get a chance to play some D&D with one of my nephews a couple of years ago, as he tried his hand at DMing.

Almost forgot! I did (poorly) a little presentation for a live event here in Portland. The recorded version is a lot better.

Everybody’s showing their D&D books. These are my oldest ones.

EUCON: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention Nobody Expected

May 13th, 1983 was a Friday. Friday the 13th.

It was also the first day of Eucon, a science fiction convention that I’d been obsessively putting together for a year-and-a-half.

I still don’t know what possessed me to think I could organize a con in the fall of 1981 when I wasn’t even quite 20 years old. I’d only ever been to a handful of conventions — a couple of Orycons in Portland, and maybe a Norwescon in Seattle — but I’d never worked on one as a volunteer, much less done of the organizing work. I hadn’t even organized my life.

Norwescon V badge from March 1982

I remember at the time it felt like I was in the middle of a science-fiction/fantasy nexus, which was great for nerd-boy Darrel. I’d been working for a couple years already at Gandalf’s Den Fantasy Gallery, which put me in the center of the things — speculative fiction-wise — in Eugene.

Gandalf’s had opened up in the mid-70s downtown in The Atrium Building (now full of city offices) as a shop selling f&sf books and games. Its opening coincided with the initial release of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as my freshman year of high school, and I traversed downtown daily on the city bus to get to school.

By my senior year (I turned 17 in the middle of that), I’d been hanging around so much that the owner offered me a job, so I worked there through the summer until I went to Corvallis for college, worked at the newly-opened satellite store in the Old World Center there for a couple months until they sold it out from under me, then got back in at the Eugene shop after I ran home to Eugene with my tail between my legs after six months of electrical engineering school (we still used slide rules!)

My dad’s slide rule, which I took with me to Oregon State University in 1979. It’s bamboo with white celluloid, according to its page in the Smithsonian Institution! If you squint, you can just make out “MADE IN OCCUPIED JAPAN”.

One of my friends through high school was a kid my friend Jon Pitchford introduced to our D&D group. His parents were Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight, who — in addition to being authors and editors and involved in the Milford and Clarion writing conferences — knew everyone because they’d been in the business for so long.

There were a couple of other big names in sf&f that lived in Eugene at the time. Dean Ing was there (until he moved to Ashland), as well as the hot property of the moment, John Varley, who was just off of his a Hugo Award/Nebula Award/Locus Award triple crown1.

Because Kate and Damon and Dean and John were there, a fair amount of author traffic came through town on its way north to Seattle from California or vice versa. And they often stopped in for signings at the store. Ted Sturgeon moved to the area a few years before he died in 1985.

With that much author firepower in out little burg2, it seemed odd that there wasn’t a science fiction convention. They were all always going off to other cities’s conventions. Why not ours?

So I started laying out plans. The name was easy. If there’s one thing I’ve always been good at, it’s titles and slogans (admittedly, “Eucon” isn’t exactly rocket science level naming for a convention in Eugene). It’s the follow-through that always gets me.

Where would we hold it? Well, right in the center of downtown, the city was building a new performing arts facility (the Hult Center) and a neighboring hotel (the Eugene Hilton, now the Graduate Eugene?).

At the infamous Springfield Public Library D&D/RPG seminar when the Christians threatened to cancel me if they didn’t get to speak before I did, which did at least get me a bottle of wine as thanks from the children’s librarian (I was still under the legal drinking age) and a letter from Gary Gygax.

My mind reels at what they must have thought at the Hilton booking office when I showed up for my first meeting. The building was still under construction, and I got a tour through the ballroom convention spaces and up in the tower where the guest rooms were, but even with a beard I was at best a cheaply-dressed 20-year-old, looking to rent a good chunk of their new conference facilities for three days. I mean, I didn’t even have a car3.

And for a science-fiction convention? They were obviously desperate to get the place ramped up once it opened.

We needed someone as a headliner who’d be a draw. The local authors were already well-exposed in the Pacific Northwest. I reached for the brass ring, which was, for me, Spider Robinson, at the time well-known for a decade’s worth of stories and collection about Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon. He lived at the time in Nova Scotia, and I don’t believe he’d made any West Coast appearances at that point. So Spider was my man.

I think it was John Varley who reached out to him and got him to agree to come. After that it was a matter of getting him a ticket with money I didn’t have, and a travel agency came through with the ticket on credit. No idea how I managed to pull that off; it’s probably cheaper to fly from Halifax to Portland or Eugene now than it was then. And someone had to pick him up, I didn’t have a car.

Charles N. Brown, a co-founder of Locus magazine had been sole publisher and editor there for a decade. He was the other majorout-of-town guest we had, coming up from the Bay Area. Everyone else on the flyer above came from Eugene, Salem (at least I think so, Lou Goble was a professor at Willamette University a couple years later), or the Oregon coast (M. K. Wren). I had no pull with any of these folks and no money to offer; their appearance at the convention was solely due to their commitment to fans and friendships with people like Kate and Damon.

The badge I wore on my Mountie uniform as the convention organizer. As you can see, no expense was spared for our name tags.

I wish I could say I had a great time running Eucon. The truth is, I really don’t remember any of it. I rented a Mountie costume (my official title was 1st Sgt. Preston of the Eucon). But apart from that I have no recollection of the three days at the Hilton. I don’t think it was a blackout situation, but somehow the entire thing is gone from my mind; I don’t even remember talking about it for years, and then it was mostly to wonder how — despite having moved into the house I still live in with all my junk just seven years later — all I’ve got left of the convention is a couple copies of the flyer the backs of which I apparently used as scratch paper, the name badge above, and a card I only found a couple of years ago that was given to me by a number of the guests and attendees at an afterparty (which I don’t remember).

Interior of a thank you card with the signatures of Charles N. Brown, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight, John Varley, Dean Ing, and others,

As mentioned when I wrote about finding the flyers in a folder in my garage 15 years ago, once upon a time I came across a listing for a copy of the program (which I must have produced because I did all the printed materials) with a “riddle game by Spider Robinson” in it. For $20! If you’ve got one, send me scans or photos.

1 In 1980, at the monthly party Varley hosted at his house, I met my wife Barbara Moshofsky, who I started dating in 1986.

2 These days, it might not seem that strange to some that there were a bunch of science-fiction and fantasy authors in one place, but the landscape in 1983 was a lot sparser. Sf&f movies hadn’t taken over the movie theaters yet, Graphic novels weren’t really a thing (at least not in the US). Video games were chunky blocks of color (if you were lucky) without much in the way of story. The number and range of venues was far more limited: genre magazines, genre books, far more occasional screenplays. For a small city of about 100,000 residents, 4 major genre authors was a lot.

3 This was in the days before not having a car was cool.

Ode to the Hunan

Barbara and myself at Hunan, in Morgan’s Alley in downtown Portland, on our last trip there together before it closed at the end of 2014. Hunan had been our go-to spot for a treat almost since we’d first gotten together in the late ‘80s. We loved the food, the prices were reasonable (which also appealed to Barbara), and it was on the was from work to our bus stop, so on a night when we were feeling flush, we could stop in. Later on, I had an office in an adjoining building for a few years and Barbara and I could meet after work, or even for lunch, sometimes. We hardly ever went anywhere else for dinner. Barbara ordered the same thing every time we went, while I played the menu field (sometimes with less-than-satisfactory results). On the last trip she made there, Barbara asked the owner, who was retiring after being jerked around by building management (among other reasons), where we should go, and that was how we ended up at Hunan Pearl in Lake Oswego, which has been our go-to for eight years, despite the drive. We hardly ever go anywhere else, and Barbara always orders the same dish, while I play the menu field.

Fans

On HGTV, ceiling fans are portrayed as outré, but Barbara and I like them. Years ago, we invested in a Hunter anniversary reproduction of one of their 1930s-fans, an enamel-coated cast-iron monstrosity that we kept in our garage for a couple years, then had to take down and re-hang after we’d first put it up when we renovated our living room.

I’ve always wanted to get one of this type of multi-fans that I saw in a bar tonight, where there is a main rotation bar with a fan on either end of the bar. Not this particular one, but a much more industrial version I spotted at the old Lights Plus when we were shopping for light fixtures. Aside from the cost, we don’t have a room big enough for it.

We’ve got ceiling fans in the living room, the office, and the Situation Room (Wolf Blitzer isn’t there, and it’s really more of a hallway than a room, with entrances to the bathroom, the back hall and kitchen, the hall to the living room and office, and the stairs to the second floor) on the main floor, and in the main bedroom upstairs. Mom found a slim-profile extra-quiet fan for the bedroom that doesn’t chop off my head under the low ceiling.

Anyway, no multi-fans.

The Cats

Both of the cats are eighteen-and-a-half years old. We’ve got so many pictures of them as kittens where they were together, but for a long time they’ve gone their separate ways. This was really no exception, but Tiger Lily decided to jump up on the chair despite knowing Jasmine was up there, so it was a chance to get a rare photo together.

Barbara’s Birthday

Barbara likes what she likes. And I try to make her birthday full of likes.

She likes the beach. For a number of years, we’d head to the coast on the weekend closest to her birthday. A little over 20 years ago, we started going to Astoria nearly every year. We’d stay at different places, but we settled into a routine that included a trip to The Bowpicker for their tuna fish and chips, and a Friday night dinner at Mary Todd’s Worker’s Bar & Grill (now just Worker’s Bar) for a burger (Barbara) and prime rib (me).

She also likes Chinese food. Our go-to spot for going out to dinner used to be the Hunan in downtown Portland, where she without fail would always order Shredded Beef with Spicy Sauce, a glorious spicy confection of tender meat and crunchy vegetables. But it closed at the end of 2014, after we’d been going there for over 25 years, and Barbara—who’d never found another restaurant with that particular dish—managed to get the owner to give out a recommendation, which is how we ended up at Lake Oswego’s Hunan Pearl, which has a nearly identical dish (not too surprising, considering one of the chefs came from the Hunan restaurant).

We need to get back to Astoria one of these days—what with the pandemic and all, it’s been a few years—but this year was a trip to the Hunan Pearl.

My selection tonight: Szechuan Shredded Pork, which is the only item on the menu where the description says “Hot, hot, hot!”. My fortune makes me worry that I’m due to end up in a refugee camp.

John Roach and the TRS-80

RIP to John Roach, the father of the TRS-80 computer.

The TRS-80 wasn’t the first computer I programmed—I had already worked on a series of mainframes and microcomputers in high school and my first two years of college—but in 1982 or so, I convinced a few friends: Mike Ball, Tom Wells, and Chris Lee, to invest a few hundred dollars each in an idea I had for a game company. There was a semi-thriving world of play-by-mail games in the day, where people in a world before the internet and personal computers could play games with each other by postal mail, often adjudicated by someone with a computer. I wrote GANGLORD, a tactical-level gang-warfare game where you controlled individual gang members and selected them to carry out robberies and other actions on and around the blocks you controlled.

Chris was the one with the computer, a TRS-80 with a sticker on the back saying its build date was December 1979. With some of the money, we bought an LNW memory expansion kit and a couple of 5-1/4” disk drives. Given the limitations of home computing storage and memory at the time, it took some work to make things work. Each player’s data was stored on a diskette, and each group of city blocks (amazingly, almost 1600) on another. Game logic on yet another disc. No hard drive, so the game logic would need to be loaded in, then environment and player data as needed.

Player actions were entered, actions were evaluated, and combat between gangs was resolved on a weapon-action basis, with each named gang member and their target identified, as well as the weapon used, plus the results. All printed out on an Epson MX-80 dot-matrix machine.

Aside from the setting—which was unique in a world of big computer-run PBM games set in interstellar space and D&D-influenced hand-adjudicated fantasy PBMs—GANGLORD‘s focus on small-unit actions on an individual level was kind of a new thing, particularly when combined with the ability to name each member of the gang. Sadly, despite the fact that I still have the computer, the peripherals, and the diskettes, I haven’t been able to scare up a copy of the rulebook, a copy of which is sitting on the table in this much-used photo.

I typed up the rules on my friend Melinde Lutz’s fancy proportional-spaced Olivetti typewriter, which put it a couple notches above the standard typewritten or dot-matrix-printed rules for small publishers at the time. Melinde and her then-husband Tucker let me use part of the office in their house for operations. Marcel—who also did the art for EUCON, the science-fiction convention I put together—did a great cover for the book which (again) I only have via that photo.

The whole thing was horribly undercapitalized. I think we ran one or two ads—I’ve got to dig into my copies of Autoduel Quarterly—but we hit a wall with just a couple dozen paying customers. I got some great comments from folks at several established PBM developers, including a couple very soft inquiries about buying the game—but it was such a work-in-development at the time I didn’t think there was any way I could turn it over. The process of running the game involved long sequences of swapping diskettes in an out of the drives, which worked for the scale I had, but might not have been very scalable. I thought if I could get the game to a point where it was running well, then it would be time to talk to people about the next step. But it never got there.

Anyway, that’s my TRS-80 story, sort of.

Diplomacy Today

Some 30-odd years ago I tried to run a play-by-mail DIPLOMACY game to keep in touch with someone my game-playing friends. I’d moved to Portland, Oregon from Eugene in 1987 and left behind some of the folks I’d played with in my early 20s. I picked up a couple folks in Portland while I was at Reed College, but one of them had headed out to Princeton after a year or so, and the other got sucked up by Microsoft before he graduated. Back in the pre-Internet, mostly pre-email days when you still had to pay long-distance phone fees, it was hard for me to keep up with my far-flung cohort; ultimately, I wasn’t successful, i lost touch with most everyone, either for years or for ever.

I’d started this project while I was working at Powell’s Books, where I had just convinced management to set up a $10,000 state-of-the-art desktop publishing system (just slightly less than my annual income there, at the time) and finishing off my English Literature degree at Reed. Id seen a few other DIPLOMACY zines, and i was reasonably certain this one was unique in style, at least, so i sent a couple of the black-and-white issues off to Avalon Hill’s in-house magazine THE GENERAL. Then-editor Rex Martin wrote back, and he was going to be a player in the second game I was planning to run (the ’Red’ edition), with the possibility that we might run some material in THE GENERAL.

But things didn’t work out in the short run. i don’t recall exactly how it fell apart, but like a lot of PBM games, there were issues with everyone having time to deal with real life before they got around to games. There were already intimations in this relatively early phase of the Blue game. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, DIPLOMACY-wise.

Anyway, the interesting thing to me was that I’d written a little colophon for this edition, highlighting hardware and software in use around 1990.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been asked several times about how DT is put together, what programs are used, how the graphics are generated, etc. It seems appropriate to address some of these questions now that we’re making a major format upgrade.

First, it probably helps to know that my job places me in close contact with Apple Macintosh II computer with 2MB of RAM, a 40MB internal hard drive, an Ehman Engineering removable 45MB hard drive, and a color monitor, all of which is attached to a LaserWriter IINT. Basic page layout is done with Aldus PageMaker (the latest version is 3.02CK), with most of the text being directly entered into PageMaker. Our lovely master map was done by Regan Carey in Adobe Illustrator. I’d tried my hand at tracing a scanned DIPLOMACY map, but Regan’s looks soooo much better. The patterns used in the black-and-white maps were designed by myself, except for the double-headed Russian eagle, which is a simplified version of Regan’s logo (featured on the front page of this issue). Likewise, the DIPLOMACY TODAY logo and most of the other graphics were created by myself with Adobe Illustrator (latest version is 1.9.3). I use bits and pieces of the master map to make the ones with arrows and things. All of the fonts are standard LaserWriter Plus (and later) fonts: the logo is in Avant Garde, with some heavy line strokes, headlines are in Helvetica and Helvetica Narrow, body text is New Century Schoolbook; and some Zapf Dingbats are thrown in for good measure. The look, of course, derives directly from the pages of USA TODAY.

Up until now. I’ve just been printing the newsletter on the LaserWriter and letting it go at that (a process I will continue for most of the people on the mailing list). To get this first color issue, however, I’ve been forced to delay publication partly because none of the Portland service bureaus were equipped with a PostScript color laser printer. Finally, L.graphix, just a block from my office, came through, and got their new QMS up and running just after New Year’s.

If I can get hold of Regan to ask him for permission, I will make the master map available to anyone willing to give him credit for it. Anyone with a self-addressed, stamped envelope can have a copy of DT in black-and-white, an SASE and $2 will get them the color version the players get for free.

—Questions about DIPLOMACY TODAY

My Satanic Majesty 2

I first referenced this image 14 years ago, when I wrote about the time anti-D&D Christians threatened to picket a talk I gave at the Springfield Public Library to a few tween-age boys about role-playing games, but back then the size of the images I was uploading was fairly small. Combined with the fact that what I had to scan was a sort of grainy newspaper photo from 1982, I didn’t really get into what exactly was on the table.

But I ran across the original print the other day sorting through some boxes and made a new scan, taking a closer look with my aging eyes at what was there.

On the far left of the table, nearest the podium, at the back is a Gamemaster’s Screen for the Champions RPG. The images of the items in front of it are too blown out for me to read, but they are presumably Champions rule books.

Next to that is a line of material for the Bushido RPG, in this case the boxed set that came out after the earlier zip-lock editions. In front of the box (standing) are a couple of the rulebooks, then what appears to be a copy of the supplement Valley of the Mists, which is presumably still in a box somewhere (I catalogued the digest-sized zip-loc Bushido in Just a Box of Games, Box 2. Central on the table is the map of Japan on the gamester’s screen (?) from Bushido that I picked because their graphics were quite good.

In front of the Bushido screen are several of the TRAVELLER books, with Book 1: Characters and Combat and Book 2: Starships, visible enough to sort of read.

Standing just to the right of the Bushido screen would be a couple of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, both from the first edition as that was state-of-the-art in 1982. The Monster Manual is clearly visible, and I believe the Dungeon Master’s Guide is in front of it (from what little I can see of the cover). Presumably, the kid on the right of the image is flipping through the Player’s Handbook, which logically should have occupied the rightmost corner of the table.

In front of the AD&D books is the rulebook for STARWEB, the flagship galactic conquest play-buy-mail game from Flying Buffalo. And in front of that is a rulebook for The Morrow Project, one of a number of post-nuclear holocaust survivalist RPGs that went for a grittier, more realistic aesthetic than, say, Gamma World.

I can’t make out what’s on the closest corner of the table, but I’m pretty sure it was a printout from my own play-by-mail game, whose cover is just behind it: GANGLORD, a game of gang warfare in The Big City, where you directed individual members of your gang on missions of robbery, extortion, and territory expansion. My long-term plan—if I’d ever gotten past the point where I had only about 40 players, we were seriously under-capitalized— was for the most successful gangs to become organized criminal syndicates (MOBRULES) and then political parties (POLITICO, yeah, I would have sued their asses when they came along twenty years later), in a trio of interrelated power politics games.

Special thanks to the reporter from the Springfield newspaper who provided me with a copy of this image nearly 40 years ago. I will find your name somewhere.