Amy in the dorm

Amy in the dorm (photo circa late 1980 or early 1981)

A notable passing: Gary Gygax, one of the creators of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, died today.

When I first heard, I was surprised that I recognized the name. My high school friends and I played a lot of D&D, and his name must have been on the key manuals and other items we collected.

My friends and I started out playing fairly standard D&D, but we soon went off on a distinct path. The dungeon modules that we could buy were OK but put a lot of emphasis on dice-rolling and other game strategies. This didn’t suit us for a couple of reasons:

1: We were girls. We attended an all-female, Catholic high school. Most of the students commuted every day; I was among the hundred or so who boarded at the dorm. The dice-rolling chance of the game was OK with us, but what we enjoyed more was the story-telling of D&D, the unrolling plot in which our characters played their parts.

2: Our main dungeon master (the woman behind the curtain, if you will, who ran the game and told us of the challenges we faced) was my friend Amy Vonderau. That’s her in the photo above, sitting on my bed. (Other fun details in the photo: my unicorn poster, which I thought was very beautiful, and my Empire Strikes Back poster, which I won from a radio station, most likely WDVE. And the built-in desk: I’ll write a post someday about the enforced study time we had every night, which we had to spend sitting at those desks whether we had homework or not.)

We started out taking turns as Dungeon Master, but Amy soon assumed this role full time, through force of personality. Even in high school, Amy was a polished fiction writer and had an expansive imagination. She had written nearly a full draft of a fantasy novel as well. She started to insert characters from her novel into our games, then characters from other novels and movies. (I’ve mentioned in the comments on Have a Good Sandwich that she placed the map from Time Bandits into our game, which meant that we could escape from impossible situations but only at the risk of ending up in ever more improbable places and times.)

People came and went from our game in the early days, but eventually we settled into a small crew who included (if memory serves) Wilma, Sonia, and me, with Amy making our characters’ lives interesting and miserable.

And our real lives too. We played into late in the night, well after lights out. I would wander through the school during the day, exhausted, only to have Amy corner me in the hall or in a stairwell with a new puzzle or battle. My character, a clever but somewhat cowardly thief, at one point found a sentient and powerful sword (named Sword); Amy created a perversely funny and warped character for Sword so that I relied on and distrusted him in equal amounts.

It was amazing. It was draining. Eventually I wanted only for it to end, because it was consuming everything and making school and life impossible. But saying I wanted out came across as saying I didn’t want to be friends with my fellow gamers, that I didn’t like them — Amy in particular. So there was heartbreak of a typical teenaged girl variety.

How I wish I could recapture any part of those games! The stories, the characters, the puzzles. I think I had a sense at the time that it was neat, but now I recognize it as a creatively charged period.

When I went to college at MIT, I looked for a D&D game to join. There was a club listed in the student handbook, and I screwed up my courage to seek them out. I found a bunch of gamers one night, gathered in a classroom in building 56. The players were of a range of ages, mostly men, surrounded by DM guides and many-sided dice and little metal statues. I looked at them. They looked at me. I stepped backward out of the room and headed to my dorm.

A final note: Amy went to Barnard for college and lived in New York City for many years. Around the same time that I moved back to Pennsylvania in the late 90s, she moved back as well. I believe she’s living in the New Castle area, married to her junior high sweetheart. We haven’t seen each other in years, although every decade or so one or the other of us leaves a voicemail suggesting we should get together. I think it’s probably time I try to make that happen.


9 replies on “Mastermind”

  1. If you took that book out of her hand and replaced it with a guitar, then gave her a beard and flipped the image so that the light is on the right-hand side, you’d have the cover of Eric Clapton’s album “Backless”.

  2. i was planning on doing a d&d post as well and i still might tomorrow. i played around the time commodore 64’s were the rage and i actually wrote a BASIC program that had all the charts programmed off of a menu and a dice random generator. it was basically a DM mgmt software app. we played for about a year with the same group and then one day while i was not DM’ing i got into a fight with the new DM because i said i checked the room and he told me it was clear and then something jumped out from behind the door and kicked my ass. we were like 13 and argued till the cows came home about whether checking a room would constitute looking behind a door.

  3. Bah, you and your magic, Norm. You’re just a drug-pusher, only with cards.

    I also have fond memories of D&D from my awkward teenage years. It’s actually what first got me interested in game development, eventually resulting in me working on online roleplaying games a decade later.

    It’d be nice if there was a creative storyteller-style D&D game in the area. I nominate Cindy or one of her writer friends to DM it. I’d sign up for it!

  4. Still A Fan: I think those “bad guy behind the door” events were a big part of what I didn’t like about purchased dungeons. It seemed like such dungeons were too controlling and didn’t allow for the players to be smart — like they bullied us into living the storyline the way it was envisioned. But maybe the DM had more influence on a game’s success, in the long run. Your DM app would have been a big hit at MIT.

    Norm: Thanks for the invitation. I’m afraid if I start playing a game again, I will get sucked in, and the rest of my life will collapse. No fault of the game, you understand; I’m just obsessive.

    Jia: It’s all about stories, isn’t it? The best games go beyond shoot-em-up techniques to engage us with characters and plot lines. As for a story-teller D&D game, I have to beg off for the same reasons I gave Norm above. But Dawn Papuga and I were just discussing a related thing that we might start up. Such a coincidence for you to make this suggestion. We’ll see if we can get this thing going…..

  5. One ill-fated semester in college I got into an email based role-playing game. It had some sort of electronic numbers behind it for chance and character strengths, but mostly involved creative story-telling. It was definitely a game of exclusion and degradation.

    Come to think of it, do they have prison themed role playing games?

  6. Brother Anthony: I think I remember when you were involved in that game. I had no idea it was psychically damaging or I’d have intervened. Prison-themed role playing games: There must be at least one.

    Andrea: I believe there’s a causal relationship between the gender makeup of my high school and university choices.

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