After some confusion, it turns out that today is Obscure RPG Appreciation Day (ORPGAD) as organized by Mesmerized By Sirens. This has gotten me to thinking about my own origins in the hobby.
I was first introduced to the hobby sometime around 1984 or 1985. At the Waldenbooks in the mall, (I don’t remember what mall. There were none in town and we didn’t get there very often. Dothan, maybe?) I picked up a copy of the D&D boxed set. Accidentally, and without the experience to know better, I bought the Expert Set and not the Basic. It would be a few weeks before I was able to return the bookstore to buy the Red Box. This was, of course, back when you could still find RPGs on the shelves in non-specialty stores.
I didn’t fully understand the rules at the time. Even though the Mentzer edition is written with new players in mind, it can be difficult to comprehend when you have no reference point and no experienced players to act as mentors. There were no CRPGs at the time. No World of Warcraft or Baldur’s Gate to act as an introduction. The closest we had was Scott Adam’s Adventure. My brother and I soon went looking for other players. We found an older player locally (who last I heard owns a comic store) and began to better understand RPGs.
Eventually we discovered that at the Ft. Rucker Rec Center players gathered in the game room on the weekends and played. After that, we spent nearly every weekend there. A number of players we met there, like Billy Cohen and Chris Weinrich, are still active gamers.
There were no organized groups or sessions at the Rec Center, you simply grabbed up your books and dice and headed over. There were always lots of players, often with multiple games going on simultaneously. While you might be running through a D&D dungeon at one table, another group might be playing Car Wars or Battletech. Because of this organization—or lack thereof—whenever someone bought a new game. we’d usually give it a run through.
This lead to a lot of exposure to different games: Champions, Top Secret, Paranoia, Twilight 2000, and so on. There were quite a few games, obscure and otherwise, that garnered a session: Star Wars, Gangbusters, Ghostbusters, Witch Hunt, etc. But these rarely got a second chance. So, while Witch Hunt is particularly obscure game, I can’t say that I appreciate it now or even then.
So my choice of an obscure RPG, isn’t really an RPG at all. It’s the Dragon Tree Spell Book. While it’s a “playing aid for all fantasy dungeon adventures,” it was clearly targeted at AD&D. The spells contained within are sometimes useful and often unusual, but there were a few things about it that I really appreciate.
Appearance – It’s slim, saddle-stitched paperback with only 80 pages. It appears to have been laid out using a typewriter, though there is a dedication to the Heath Kit H-89 so it may have been typed up on there. I don’t know if there was a daisy-wheel printer available for the H-89. It feels homemade.
House Rules – It was my first exposure to alternate magic systems and large-scale house rules. The book contains systems for spellcasting: memorization, personal magic, local mana, and impromptu spell casting. The impromptu was my favorite and something I haven’t seen duplicated since.
Cantrips – This was the first time I had seen zero-level spells.
History – Many of the spells have an attribution to the author of the spell and have proper names in the title. So, like Tenser’s Floating Disc, you’ll find Percival’s Phosphorescence or Ethelbert’s Elegant Explosions. This gives the player a sense of history, even though that history is not known.
Color – There is a lot of inserted text that are either quotations from some presumed, past campaign:
“You idiots would try to get nuts from a tree by shaking it wit a ‘fire blast,’ about as sensible as cracking an egg with onanger or using a catapult to plant corn.” – unknown sargent – 5th Thaumaturgical Corp, Confederate Army of Erewhon
Or, advice to the reader:
“Tom Bell tells experienced players entering his world ‘Use whatever system you normally use. Magic works in lots of ways.'”
Though almost all of my old RPG books and manuals are now lost to me, I remembered the Dragon Tree Spell Book so well that I recently bought a new copy.