My very first DM was my mom. She’d played with her high-school and college friends, and though my memories of those first few games are hazy–I must have been six or so–I remember a curse had turned everyone in the palace into jelly. We used a chalk board with a grid on it as a battle mat and whatever toys we had as miniatures. I played a character named Timmy the Power Master, in a character sheet-booklet made of construction paper with crayon drawings of my character in standard “My hair looks like a sideways hotdog” art style.
Some of the kids mom used to babysit were into D&D and wanted me to try it. I got as far as rolling a character and finding a chest washed up on a beach somewhere. Nothing ever happened beyond that.
It wasn’t until one of mom’s old friends started a group for me, my three siblings and his own son that I really got into the hobby. We played U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh using mostly pre-made characters from the module. I got Nestor the Pious, a cleric whose special power was being played by the only guy who’d read the rulebooks.
This was not as much of an asset as one might think.
As my first character, I went to town on homebrewing some ideas for Nestor. This was the first appearance of Zeilar, the Phoenix God, whose lore would show up in every single one of my works from then until this very day. I toyed with creating custom weapons for the faith (some sort of awful polearm with a mace at one end and a flail at the other), designed rituals and prophecies, symbols and custom spells, the works. A rich universe of life-death-and-renewal based mythology was right there, but that is not why Nestor lives on in the memories of my friends and family.
No, instead he’s earned the dubious sobriquet of “Nestor the Chicken.” You see, in Adventure U1, you’re hired to go investigate a local haunted house. It ends up being a scooby doo sort of “It was old man smuggler-gang all along!” sort of thing, but we didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. What I did know was that clerics can turn undead, and in my zeal to put this class feature to use I yelled “I HOLD UP MY HOLY SYMBOL” every time we opened a door. This, in turn, was interpreted as absolute terror.
We did get a couple of other memes out of the adventure. The Legend of Griff the Spider Slayer/Griff the Stiff lives on. The DM’s son, now on the #TeamMF8 roster all these years later, was similarly excited to put his axe wielding fighter to work. So when a giant spider jumped on his face, he attempted to remove it–using said axe. I think we headcanon’d the part where he chopped off his own nose–he was young, we were young, and our DM was forgiving.
There’s also the bit where he jumped into the water to attack an aquatic hobgoblin, wearing full armor, but that’s pretty much all there is to that story.
Speaking of water, the trail of the smugglers eventually led to a criminal organization operating out of the local swamps. My youngest sister played Dorothy Dobbins, a halfling rogue with a penchant for cooking that she used to solve a lot of problems. This included diplomacy with the indigenous lizardfolk tribe, who had us go hunt a giant crocodile that’d been terrorizing their village. So off we went, level 2 or 3 at most, playing 2nd edition D&D and therefore squishy as hell.
We had a plan to neutralize the croc so thoroughly it wouldn’t even be a fight. I pulled Entangle (which probably shouldn’t have been on my spell list, to be honest) and my older sister (a wizard) slapped a Web spell on it. This basically mummified the thing and Griff went in to turn it into a whole hell of a lot of purses. Like many a good DM before him, Dan figured out a way to take our success and wring a decent fight out of it. Entangle had a massive area of effect back then, so we caught everything for yards around. And there was something big in the swamp–a young black dragon.
At this point I completely lost it. While everyone else reacted with awe, trying to figure out what to do next, I started rambling about the thing’s combat stats, how underpowered we were to face it, how I had no ranged capability and couldn’t do anything in the encounter, how we were all gonna die. I feel Nestor’s epithet was unjustly earned in the supposedly haunted mansion. Here, I earned it. NEstor ran off to pray for more spells while the rest of the party actually did battle with the dragon, fending off its jaws and getting hosed with acid breath the whole time. I mostly just babbled (out of character) and joked about how Nestor was so afraid the swamp’s water levels were rising.
While we survived, the curse of player knowledge struck again when we were exiled to the Desert of Desolation. As we tried to find the pharaoh’s tomb to deal with the efreeti pasha we’d unleashed on the world, Dan rolled for random encounters and got a storm of acid rain–normal for this part of the desert. For SOME reason, having recently been browsing my Monstrous Manual, I decided that Dan had sent a Tempest to completely obliterate us. I knew how many hit points it had, how much acid rain damage it could do, how a single lightning bolt could one-hit kill us and it could hurl four a round and WE WERE ALL GOING TO DIE.
It was just acid rain. Just like the quick sand we found was just quick sand, not a hidden underground city or a bizarre and malicious player-character-eating form of life.
I’ve been DMing for 17 years, and while I was running good campaigns ten years ago, it’s only now in this heyday of D&D advice, celebrity dungeon masters, podcasts and mainstream appeal that I’ve been able to really refine the craft and figure out what makes it tick. Lessons I learned as a player have been invaluable–don’t let the rules get in the way of the fun. Don’t assume the DM wants you to fail. Don’t be afraid to let your character fail. Just make sure the adventure, the story, and the fun continue.
Thanks to Mom, Dan, and the other DMs who tolerated my absurd knowledge of minutiae and lack of perspective. Also thanks to Griff for putting up with years of memeing on him. I promise to stop never.