Wednesday, January 6, 2010


As I've mentioned too many times by now, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of my introduction into the hobby. I started playing D&D at Christmas 1979 at the age of 10 with the Holmes-edited boxed set. What's intriguing to me is that I keep meeting gamers who are younger than me and yet have been roleplaying longer than I. This means that there were apparently lots of kids who started gaming when they were as young as five years old.

That strikes me as strange; I can't imagine having the interest, let alone patience, to play D&D when I was in Kindergarten or First Grade. I've long suspected I got into the hobby when I did not just because of a series of serendipitous events, but because, at age 10, I was ready to do so. That is, I had grown up enough to (mostly) cast aside a lot of my childhood toys, but I wasn't yet old enough to cast aside the fantasies that went with them. Roleplaying thus provided me with an outlet for my imagination free from the toys I associated with being "a little kid."

Had I been younger, I doubt I'd have taken much notice of D&D, since it would have seemed a poor substitute for playing with GI Joe or Star Wars figures -- and too complicated to boot. Obviously, not everyone felt this way, given that seemingly so many of my "elders" in the hobby are in fact younger than I am -- but it's still odd.


  1. It could very well be that they simply got the chance to play with their parents or elder siblings. At the age of 5, doing that is still very cool, if I remember correctly. Even cooler than Star Wars toys.

  2. My son, aged six, enjoys simple wargames because they bring his model soldiers to life. If he wasn't so tank obsessed, I'm sure he'd enjoy a not-too-complex roleplaying game.

  3. I agree, Onno: I began at 7 1/2 years old in 1977 (so I got into D&D and Star Wars at roughly the same time that summer). I was taught by an older friend on our block, but my (then only-) younger brother basically learned at the same time under my warped tutelage, so he was 5 1/2!


  4. I started at age 8, in 1985, with my older siblings. I'd been begging to play since I was 6, though!

  5. I play with my son. We started when he was 6ish. I'm surprised that he is so into it. But he really doesn't pay attention to the rules and the character sheets. So I'm not he really is exposed to the complexity of the game.

  6. My brother and I started playing in 1979 when I was 8 and he was 7. My dad was an avid SPI/Avalon Hill wargamer (wish I still had my copy of War in Europe), so I was familiar with the counters and the dice. We also had a friend who had a copy of Dungeon. A friend of my father played D & D and introduced us kids to it. We played with my father and his friend for a few months, and then were basically on our own. I think a common theme I see in people coming into role-playing in general is a system of 'apprenticeship' wherein an older sibling or parent will teach and guide a young player until they are ready to play on their own.

  7. My older brother started running me with "Keep on the Boarderlands" at 6 or 7 years old. I ran two PC and he ran three PC and DMed. I know that I could barely read and had to count on my older brother to help make my charachters (a thief and a magic user).

    It was more fun than starwars figures or legos, even if his two fighters with 18 strengths hoged all of the glory.

  8. I started with the blue books in 1977 when I was 6 years old. I didn't understand the game mechanics or even many of the basic concepts, but I was fascinated with the books and made up my own game using the monsters and treasuress. Many dragons were slain before I even got my dice in the mail! Finally I got a gaming mentor around 1983 who was desperate enough for Traveller players to invite a kid, and so I learned proper role playing in an adult group. So you may have seen your first D&D books before I did, but I think you were playing "real" D&D long before I did!

  9. I didn't start gaming until my early teens, surfing the mid-Eighties licensing wave.

    However, a longtime friend of mine started gaming at five. His four-year-old pal (!) had an older brother who was desperate for D&D players.

  10. I imagine it's a matter of environment. I have been gaming since I was 8. A friend of mine has two generations of hobby gamers ahead of him - his grandfather, father, and uncle had him started at an early age.

    I am currently working on my two daughters who both have played a couple of times. The youngest was 5 when she played her first character in an RPG.

  11. I started in (I believe) '87 with Marvel Superheroes, then moving onto Red Box at the impressionable age of 5! Two much older cousins (15 and 18) stayed with my family that summer and they were avid gamers. I don't remember much about these games, but in D&D none of my characters survived one adventure. After that summer, I remember buying my own Red Box and getting a whole mess of kids my age into it (though mostly we just rolled up characters and got bored halfway through).

  12. my five-year-old son would really like to play and I tell him I won't let him until he's 10 because "it's a reading game." in truth, I am a little concerned about what the premise of "if you kill things and take their treasure, you will get new powers" will do to his malleable young psyche. at the same time, perhaps more than any other fatherly milestone, I am looking forward to handing him a sheet of paper and pencil with three six-sided dice. "okay, write 'strength' and then roll these."

  13. We use the "reading game" lure for my youngest too, but we also use the games to let her "show us what she has learned".

  14. Brian,

    I can very clearly remember sitting in a bath tub as a 6 or 7 year old crying because earlier in the day at the game table I had used charm person to charm and evil cleric and then the rest of the party surrounded him and in the surprise round managed to kill him. As a young kid I thought it was an unconscionable act to tell someone they where your friend and once they trusted you (even if by magic) to then slay them. I thought I was a terrible person for having done this deed.

    The “Goonies” is a good model for a D&D style adventure without combat, but plenty of exploration in a dungeon setting and death traps.

  15. It probably has a lot to do with when you're exposed and the frequency as well. My college age daughter grew up to be a gamer probably because she watched my weekly games from when she was only 7 onward. At least she'd watch until her bedtime rolled around...

  16. You hit the nail on the head James.
    I guess we were born at the right time and place. I cant imagine my life being any other way.

  17. I recently read a very interesting book, "The Elfish Gene", by a British guy who started playing around about the time you did, in England. It describes the hobby at the time in excruciating detail (and gives some insights into the horrors of British life). I've a review on my blog, I strongly recommend it and I'm not sure if there are any other biographies of that time... It's interesting to think about how much of the start of the hobby has not been recorded, particularly given that so many of the players were too young to have clear memories when it began. How could a 5 year old possibly remember any of it? Surely the people you have spoken to are misrecalling their starting point?

  18. @sevenbastard

    Thanks. I've played a couple games of "The Prince's Kingdom", an RPG that's based in part on "Dogs in the Vineyard". a game I've never played, but which some others may know. Generally it feels less like a game and more like collaborative story-telling. My son's reaction was really funny. On the one hand, he was mad that he didn't get to fight more monsters and that when he started firing his bow randomly in town, the guards took it away. On the other hand, when he did go into the creepy old ruins, he was really tense and wanted the other characters (whom he was supposed to be protecting) to walk ahead of him.

    Getting back to James's original point a little, I think his main interest is in the plastic minis that I sometimes use in battles. For him, D&D is about toys coming to life. Strongly imagining some version of himself in the situation is, as we all know, very intense.

  19. Based on my own experience I'd guessed the key factor was older brothers or friends, and the comments seem to bear this out. I started at 10, but at 5 my brother was into D&D because it let him hang out with the big kids. My mom remembers him often getting up from the table and running around pretending to swing a sword to bleed off the excess energy; being able to sit still is much more of a RPG developmental milestone than reading IMO. I have one of his old character sheets; an elf; his character sketch shows that he visualized it as the Keebler or Christmas variety, bristling with weapons and a word balloon saying "I kil yew!!!"

    Despite this evidence of a dubious influence on growing minds, I've been playing D&D infrequently with my son since he was 5, sometimes with other kids and sometimes in groups of adults. We've been doing RPG-like storytelling games for longer, and he's much more interested in those; our most successful D&D games have been one-on-one adventures resolved solely via imagination rather than actual gameplay. I don't think it's an age thing - he scrutinizes the details of Pokemon cards and makes his own with the same fascination Kerry brought to the Holmes set. Rather, it's that his peers are into Pokemon and so mastery gives him social currency at school; D&D is a dad thing, in which he's interested but at a remove. I'd thought about trying to reverse that psychology - "Son, you must never touch these forbidden books with the enticing pictures. Do not watch me hide the key to their chest under the rug right here" - but ultimately I think gaming is fun enough that he'll get into it for its own merits, on his own terms when he & his friends are ready. - Tavis

  20. oh god! Your younger brother sounds like some kind of myspace role-playing!

  21. It's funny that so many should mention diceless role-playing with the youngers. I have run RPGs as travel games on long car trips with the kids and the wife.

    Each of them declares a character at the outset of the trip and then I spin an adventure for them. It's more like interactive storytelling but it teaches the softer aspects of RPGs.

  22. Growing up as a kid in a small town many hundreds of miles away from any place that was a hotbed of D&D activity. I didn't even know there could be a game STORE until I was in college...

    But I digress, I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when knowing no one else who played such games, I attempted to buy GURPS from the comic shop. The clerk asked if I'd ever played RPGs before, and when I said I hadn't, he talked me out of GURPS and into D&D.

    I got the 2nd edition hardbacks and went about teaching myself so I could teach my friends. After doing that for a couple of years, I reconnected with an old friend I'd gone to elementary school with, and he'd been introduced to D&D by his older cousins.

    After talking with him, it was clear he was playing a MUCH different and darker game. Then he let me borrow the books HE had borrowed - all 1st edition and basic stuff that predated the 2E Mall Bookstore stuff (which is all I ever knew existed).

    It was actually THROUGH 1EAD&D that I discovered Sword & Sorcery even existed, and that it was very distinct from 80's era "fantasy". I was in love, and have preferred the gonzo S&S flavor of the old-school ever since, before there was ever a 3E.

    In college, I didn't play much. I had some younger friends who had played 3E when it was brand new, and I played some with them. It got me to buy the 3E core books. Not for me.

    By this time, the internet was popular and easily available, so I started buying the 1E hardbacks off ebay. Then I got Hackmaster.

    Couldn't ever get anyone to play.

    Now I've gotten into the even older stuff, like OE and its modern simulacra, particularly S&W whitebox. What pulled me back into reading about the hobby was hearing that 4E had come out. I never even looked at it.

    I think one of my goals for 2010 is to get some people to run a game for and make my own sandbox campaign. This blog and the many others in the "OSR" are a terrible time eater, but I really like that is isn't just idle nostalgia - new material is being made, and it's a living game again.

    I'm not just an aging nerd thumbing my nose at newer editions and wishing that I never grew up so I can play the games I love.

    Good work, gents. :)

    Also, I wanted to add that the bit about how the games you play and know are social currency - I think that's a money idea, and hope that the producers of OSR games will do some work to make inroads to reach younger gamers.

    Heck, even if you get them to play 4E or whatever's hot now, you can always get them into it and then fish to see if they'll bite on the old ways. That's how it happened to me, anyways.

    Reminds me when I first started getting back into old-school stuff last year, I asked a friend "what do you call it when you have nostalgia for stuff that you weren't even alive for when it happened?"


    Works for me!