Wednesday, October 6, 2021

On Deathtrap Dungeon, the Joy of Escape, and My GM Philosophy

Minimalist Cover Design for
Deathtrap Dungeon by
Guilherme Gontijo
(©2021 Guilherme Gontijo) 
I wanted to share a quick personal anecdote today. For no other reason then it's been on my mind. When I was 10, I fell between two boulders that I was climbing on and put my foot directly through the top of a wasp's nest. I was stung almost 40 times before I got my leg free. I spent part of that summer limping, because I had so many stings in the one leg that my muscle had seized up as a reaction to the venom. You can only be stung so many times by bees, wasps, or hornets before you become allergic to their venom.

I spent part of that same Summer with friends in the house in the Gaspereau Valley, my older friend Peter and I shared a passion for Dungeons & Dragons, but while I only owned the Basic Set, which is all I've been playing with for 5 years, Peter had the full set of AD&D1e manuals. He also had introduced me to fighting fantasy games, of which he had a lovely collection, including the entire sorcery set. I spent that summer enjoying the illustrations and ideas in Peter's huge collection of Fighting Fantasy game books. That is, whe  and I wasn't engaging him in lengthy battles of Games Workshop's Battle Masters game, or exploring some of Nova Scotia's parks.

During one of the expeditions we made to the sand dunes of Kejimkujik a bumblebee became very focused on Peter's leg while we were climbing a dune. It circled his leg over and over again and he was paralyzed out of fear that he would be stung.

"Howler Wasp" from Monster Manual IV
Art by Steve Prescott
©2006, Wizards of the Coast

I had been slightly behind him and my brother, and was stuck clinging to the side of the dune, unable go up or down. Eventually, the tension was so much that all of us were fit to burst. When the bumblebee left Peter's leg to circle my brother's, Peter scrambled to the top of that hill with the speed I did not think he was capable of.

The moment the bee brushed my brother, he freaked out, screamed, and bolted up the hill right after him. The bumblebee flew back into my face and stung me above the right eyebrow.

That was the final straw as far as my immune system was concerned. It'd had enough of insect venom. My forehead swelled up like overripe fruit, I ended up with a bulge above my eye so big it just flopped over and closed my entire eye socket. The scalp over the Sting bulged to the point where my hair separated, and my cheek puffed up as well. I was in a huge amount of pain, blind in one eye, and hideous.

My parents rushed me to the hospital, and they gave me some antihistamine shots and epinephrine to steady my heart, which had gone into palpitations, however, there was nothing to be done for my swollen face 

My condition ended our vacation a little early, and it was certainly a traumatic conclusion. I got the joy of experiencing little children screaming in terror at the sight of my face. And pitying looks for adults who thought I must have some sort of genetic disorder, especially as a swelling of my cheek caused me to drool.

I used the savings from my allowance, lawn mowing, and the odd jobs I did around my neighborhood to buy a pair of adult-size aviator glasses to cover over my face. I spent the next two weeks of my Summer vacation shut in my room, refusing to go anywhere where I might be seen.

Cover to Deathtrap Dungeon
Art by Iain McCraig
©1984 Puffin Books

Peter felt guilty for having started the stampede that ended in my sting. He had seen how much I enjoyed his Fighting Fantasy books, and so made a present of his copy of Deathtrap Dungeon to me. That book was a lifesaver.

Twice per day, I started from the very beginning with a freshly rolled character and explored the dungeon little by little, dying over and over again. I enjoyed the strangeness of the world, the cruel villains, and the mysterious circumstances of the story. Those couple of weeks taught me the value of a good Escape. Deathtrap Dungeon was my lifeline while I was cooped up on hot Summer days afraid to show my disfigured face.

When I the next school year, I made it a point of forming a Dungeons & Dragons group but the idea of sharing the power of an escape. Creating a high immersion, heroic, and strange experience was my goal, so that my players could escape the pain in their teenaged lives 

It is the experience that made me understand what a good Dungeon Master and a good game could do for people.

For me Deathtrap Dungeon has remained an icon of the Joy of Escape, which is why I named my blog and my imprint after it 

Of course, my face healed. I founded my first proper Dungeons & Dragons club the next month, and stole quite a bit from Deathtrap Dungeon as an homage in the first couple of adventures.

I still picked up the book every once in awhile for a couple of years after that -- before it was lost in a move. Recently, I got a fresh copt for my birthday, which I have been trying to complete in fits and starts for 3 months now.

I still have never successfully escaped the dungeon. Maybe I don't really want to.

And if you read this, Mr Livingstone, as I will try to get your attention on it through Twitter, thank you. You kept as sad and lonely little boy company while he healed.

Thank you. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, hoss! Sounds fairly traumatic. Glad you're still here playing games with us.