I was introduced to D&D in 1994, during my freshman year of high school.
I had no idea what to expect going in. The sum total of my exposure to D&D up to that point was vague memories of the old cartoon, half-remembered rumors about the Satanic Panic of the 1980's, and multiple viewings of Charles Band's glorious, b-movie masterpiece, The Dungeonmaster.
I knew nothing about the game itself, except for the fact that the DM—a kid from my school named Mark—said it was awesome.
Reader, it was.
The games Mark ran were a glorious, hot-mess mashup of every fantasy trope you could imagine. Shapeshifting humanoid dragon-kin, cribbed from Breath of Fire. Highlander-style immortals. Dhampir characters inspired by Vampire Hunter D. Anything and everything from the Dragonlance novels, including minotaur player characters.
All of it was thrown into a fantasy kitchen sink, stirred together with a +5 Vorpal Sword, and poured over the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, with not one bit of attention given to the published canon.
The house rules were a blend of the BECMI Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D 2nd Edition, and "fuck it, we'll just do whatever we want." And rule of cool always trumped rules as written.
Anyway, part of the reason I've been thinking about those first games at Mark's house is this recent episode of Geek Gab, featuring Cirsova editor P. Alexander, and Appendix N expert Jeffro Johnson.
The entire thing is worth a listen. They touch on several topics, including the gonzo, science fantasy weirdness that was baked into the first edition of AD&D. They also mention the organized "stripping out" of that weirdness, which began with Second Edition.
Simply put, there was a gradual separation of science fiction and fantasy elements in the official product line. Things like crashed space ships, energy weapons, and psionics appeared less frequently in published materials, except in certain "designated" campaign settings like Spelljammer and Dark Sun. AD&D became less about the gonzo, "play anything" ethos, and more about supporting TSR's own branded campaign settings, with a heavy emphasis on Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.
In other words, AD&D wasn't a tool kit any more. It was a self-feeding mechanism for pushing homogenized, mass-produced fantasy product to the consumers.
That homogenized fantasy product has a perfectly descriptive nickname: Pink Slime Fantasy.
Quoting the above link:
You're a publisher or aspiring author. You've got a market here: a bunch of fantasy nuts who have been so starved of content that they're literally rolling their own, making up these elaborate worlds. You've also got Tolkien as proof of concept: if you can write the perfect book for these people, it'll be an evergreen best seller, ideally three years in a row (because God forbid you write just one novel).
Incidentally, I'm not knocking Pink Slime Fantasy. I remember enjoying the hell out of the Belgariad and the Shannara books, not to mention piles and piles of those Forgotten Realms novels. Hell, I even bought a copy of Goblin Slayer Volume 1 based on P. Alexander's observation that it was pure, in a vacuum, D&D fan fiction.
What's relevant here isn't the quality. What's relevant is the shift that Pink Slime Fantasy caused in the game's inherent assumptions.
While First Edition expected players to mash Jack Vance together with Michel Moorcock and Poul Anderson, Second Edition expected players to re-create and act out the plots of TSR's own in-house fiction line.
That assumption is even more explicit in Fifth Edition. The new Player's Handbook has its own version of Appendix N, one including D&D-branded series like The Legend of Drizzt and the Dragonlance Chronicles.
In other words, the D&D brand has officially begun to eat itself.
Nostalgia aside, that's one of the big reasons I remember those early games at Mark's so fondly. Our bizarre, kitchen-sink approach to fantasy put us in a kind of no-man's land between the pure gonzo of Appendix N, and the corporatized, self-regurgitation of Pink Slime.
That said, we didn't entirely escape the Pink Slime influence.
Aside from the inclusion of regurgitated fantasy fluff like Dragonlance, Mark's games never really contained any science fiction elements. That artificial split between the genres might as well have been law in our group, and for the longest time, I just assumed that's what D&D was. It wasn't until decades later—when I discovered the OSR and Appendix N—that I realized just how gonzo the game used to be.
Incidentally, part of the reason I gravitated towards anime and manga at the time is that as a medium, it largely rejected that artificial split. I found plenty of stories that scratched my science fantasy itch among those Japanese imports, since American publishers wouldn't give them to me.
Listening to that Geek Gab podcast, I think those games at Mark's represent an interesting data point. If there was a transitional period between the inspired weirdness of First Edition, and the self-perpetuating Pink Slime of the later editions, those games captured it.
Makes me wonder how many other groups were like mine.
Anyway, I want to close this one out on a slightly more personal note:
Mark and I drifted our separate ways after high school. We haven't spoken in years. But I'll always thank him for introducing me to a hobby that gave me so many hours of good times with friends. No small thing, for a kid as awkward and socially maladjusted as I was.
So if you're out there reading this, man... thanks. Friends were hard for me to come by in those days. You always tried to be a good one. And you introduced me to many more.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.