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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Craig VanGrasstek Reminisces

Craig VanGrasstek, the author of "Rules to the Game of Dungeon" (1974) has graciously allowed me to republish some of his recent posting over at The Ruins of Murkhill forum.

Craig writes as he joins a thread that was speculating about things in regard to a blog post by Jon Peterson at Playing At the World: Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974):
To the speculation here that I was a college kid at the time I wrote up my D&D variant in 1974, that was still some years away. I was 14 years old and had been playing the game for several months (maybe as long as a year). It first made its way to Minneapolis by way of a science fiction fan/gamester who went by the name of Blue Petal (since deceased), who came to one of our regular Saturday meetings of the Minnesota Science Fiction Society with news of a game he had played in Wisconsin. He made and ran the first dungeon, based on his somewhat incomplete recollection of the rules, but several of us took over from there and made the game our obsession. Being somewhat precociously devoted to orderliness, I took it on myself to write up the rules in a formal way. It would be a few more years before I even heard of D&D, which I played a few times with Michael Mornard and others when I was still not yet a college kid (but had at least become a kid who hung around college). 
In those days of fanzines and nightlong gaming it never would have occurred to me that I might sell the game. It was just an adolescent lark. It has now been more than 40 years since I last played Dungeon, but I still make simulations a major part of my work. I teach professionals to be negotiators and litigators in the field of trade policy, and often do so through elaborate games. That has meant trading in dice for Excel, and dragons for tariffs, but I no longer hesitate to ask that I be paid for my work.
I don't recall if I still have the original rules, but do remember that a few years ago I dug out some materials for Jon Peterson. I did two quite amateurish Dungeon-themed covers for Minneapa aound 1974 or 1975, and also wrote up a detailed account of a game; I scanned and sent them to Jon.
It would be an exaggeration to say that gaming led to my career. A more correct summary would be that after I spent a few decades working in this field of trade and began teaching others I drew upon what I remembered about game design from my youth. This has led to games that variously teach the foundations of comparative advantage, or how to negotiate a tariff agreement, or litigate a trade dispute, or negotiate a ministerial declaration, etc. But now I have been at it for close to twenty years, which is about ten times longer than I ever spent at Dungeon.
Recently he was "writing up a quite elaborate role-playing game" as a training tool for a client and:
Which reminded me of my correspondence with Jon Peterson a few years ago. Which inspired me to do some googling. And I was rather surprised to see all the places where Jon's account of my rules got referenced, including at least one stating that someone recently tried playing a game with them. That's about as close to a time machine as I think I'll ever get. But when I saw someone speculating that I must have been "some college kid" when I wrote the rules I thought that as a bona fide historian I had to correct the record.
I had promised some recollections of how I came to write my rules. Here you go.
Back in 2014, when I ran across a mention of my old “Rules to the Game of Dungeon” on Jon Peterson’s blog, I wrote him a note providing my recollections of how I came to write them. I have used that 2014 text as the basis for my note below, but have reorganized it and added a fair amount of additional details.
Let me start by explaining how at that time there were several overlapping circles of people who had distinct but related interests, all of which had some association with this game. The one with which I then had the longest association — about two years as of 1974 — was the Minnesota Science Fiction Association (MNStF). That group still exists (see mnstf.org/index.php), although I have not had any contact with its members since about 1977. Another was the Minnesota chapter (http://nordskogen.org/) of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), in whose founding I was a marginal participant around 1975 or 1976. Yet another group was the war-gamers who then hung out at a shop called the Little Tin Soldier (Little Tin Soldier) but was previously (and confusingly) called La Belle Alliance. Nearly everyone I knew in those days (outside of school) was a member of at least one of those groups, and many were in two of them. I don’t remember anyone else being in all three, but that might just be poor memory on my part.
The first and indirect exposure I had to D&D, even though I did not then hear the name, came at a MNStF meeting that (according to Jon Peterson’s research) would have been in February, 1974. For some odd reason I quite precisely recall that this meeting was (as was often the case then) held at the Minneapolis home of Denny Lien. A MNStF regular named Louis Fallert, but known to us as Blue Petal, told a few of us about this great game he had played elsewhere (I was vague on where and when), and we began to play a version of it based on his recollection of the rules. He called it Dungeon.
I don’t remember anything about that first game, but was quickly hooked and soon began playing — and then dungeon-mastering — our own versions of it. 
In addition to Blue Petal and Dick Tatge, other frequent players in those early games included Martin Schafer, Larry Brommer, and Al Kuhfeld (who later became Ellen Kuhfeld, but that's another story altogether). These games quickly became a regular feature of MNStF meetings. Those were only every other Saturday, however, and some of us felt the need for a weekly game. Martin, Larry and I often got together to play marathon sessions, usually at Larry’s place in Saint Paul. I remember that it was not unusual for us to start sometime mid-evening and to go on until sunrise or beyond.
Those early games were all graph-paper-pencil-and-dice affairs, and had a fair amount of improvisation to them. Something about that last point offended the more orderly parts of my 14 year old mind, so I thought that the game would benefit from a more regular set of rules. I also had some interest then in art and layout, and remember spending more time working on the illustrations for the rulebook than I did on the rules themselves. (I am now unsure whether I should be more appalled by the amateurishness of that art or the many errors in spelling and grammar that then committed.) I vaguely recall that the approach of the 32nd World Science Fiction Convention, which was to be held August 29-September 2, 1974, in Washington, D.C., was a big motivator for me. I wanted to get the rules done in time to distribute them there, having no idea that I would move to this city seven years later and would live there ever since. I don’t specifically recall how I actually distributed them at that convention, how many copies I had printed, etc.
Let me also stress that it would never occur to me in those days to sell those rules. I just wanted to spread the game around, and get a little recognition in the process. I still had no idea that D&D existed, nor that it would gain any commercial presence. I should also stress that I don’t really know to what extent people other than me and my immediate circle actually used those rules after I wrote them. I suspect that we may have been the only ones to use them, and even then my friends would use their own variations when it was their turn to be dungeon-master.
I probably played my last game of Dungeon sometime in 1975, as that was the year that I discovered that spending time with young women carries much greater charms than rolling dice with other guys. To the extent that I continued to play games, they were more often the table-top war-games at the Little Tin Soldier. I was also very interested in painting the figurines we used in those games, both of the realistic and the fantasy variety. That was the only context in which I ever knew M.A.R. Barker, as he paid me once to paint a bunch of Norman foot soldiers for him. I was vaguely aware of the games that he invented and played, but never got involved in those.
As time passed I came in contact with people who did play D&D. Chief among them was Michael Mornard, whom I initially came to know through the local SCA chapter (for which I think he was the main founder), in war-gaming at the Little Tin Soldier, and in our shared interest in painting figurines. Michael lived in a group home with the aforementioned Al Kuhfeld (among others), and while Al knew our version of Dungeon the games that they played in this home were straight D&D. For a couple of years (c.1975-1977) this place was virtually my weekend home, as they often gave me the use of their guest room. Most of the people who played D&D at this home were also members of SCA. I think I played it with them fewer than half a dozen times; by then I had really lost interest in this sort of game.
Michael was from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and I did travel there one time to participate in an annual war-gaming convention. This was most likely 1976 (I had just gotten my learner's permit), and it was the only time I met Gary Gygax and others in that group. It made little impression on me, as I recall being more interested in Michael’s little sister than in his old friends (you may note a pattern here). I also remember devoting more attention to a game based on the Battle of Brandywine than on any of the fantasy games.
I drifted away from all of these pastimes during my years at the University of Minnesota (1977-1981), and especially after I moved to Washington, D.C. for graduate school in 1981. When Jon unearthed and posted my old Dungeon rules in 2014 it was the first time I had seen them in close to 40 years. I must have kept a few copies for a while, but don’t think I have any in my old files. Games were not an important part of my life in the 1980s and 1990s, but when I started to teach at Harvard in 2000 I began to devise games as a means of teaching the principles and practicalities of my field (trade policy). I now make role-playing games a fairly important part of the classes in which I teach professionals, and they carry at least an echo of my 1970s pastime. 
When asked about the various games going on he said:
I really do not remember. I think I acted as DM in the great majority of the Dungeon games in which I was involved; I have no specific recollection of anyone else's game. 
I do know that the feel and the culture of our games was vastly different from what D&D players did. Their games seemed grimly serious to me by comparison, and way too focused on a kind of ersatz careerism for their characters. We treated our games mostly like exercises in theater of the absurd or as set-ups for punchlines, or as riddles. We were, in short, more interested in a good joke than in replicating anything that remotely resembled any sort of real or imagined world. The few specific episodes that I can recall now strike me as sophomoric (at best), but at the time it felt like we were edgy, clever, and hip. I know that from the D&D players' perspective what we did seemed contemptibly trivial and irreverent; Michael has said as much recently. Given the choice, I prefer to have memories of having been laughably silly than having been even more laughably self-important.

The only woman I can recall playing any of these games was Michael Mornard's first wife, Deborah, but that was straight D&D and hence she was as grim as the rest of them. There were plenty of women in SCA and MNStF, but not among the gamers.
I don't think I would change anything if I were doing it in that time and place, as it all made sense then and there, but most of the references would be lost today. Unless of course you know about Herbie Popnecker and Vikings who sing about spam, which were well-known tropes to my friends in those days. 
What I use today from those times is make sure that I slip little jokes into the educational games that I design. Not everyone gets it, especially when they don't expect there to be anything but a lesson or a challenge, but those who know me long enough learn to look for the hidden meaning. If they do get it, I can share a laugh with them; if they don't, I quietly have a laugh at them. I do the same thing with my writing, with every book I have written since 1985 having Easter eggs in them. I am especially fond of writing footnotes that seem serious but are instead elaborate jokes.
You can download a copy of the Rules of the Game of Dungeon (1974) here

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