CARBONDALE — In an unassuming room tucked in the Student Center on a Saturday, a handful of Southern Illinois University, students made history in the mid-1970s.
Gathered around a table, Tim Cask took people on a journey. The Qualishar Campaign was the first Dungeons & Dragons campaign played at SIU and more than likely the first to be played outside of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin — the home of its creator Gary Gygax.
In fact, Cask said that the SIU Strategic Games Society played an integral role in the development of the game itself after its first set of rules came out. It was here that Cask said he and his band of dedicated players worked out the kinks of the first published set of rules, which Cask said were less than stellar.
Dungeons & Dragons is a lot of things. Primarily it is a fantasy role playing game played on paper and in the minds of participants. Players build characters based on particular archetypes and navigate a story line and world built by the “dungeon master,” a type of referee and proctor of the game’s events. Most decisions in the game come down to a role of a set of game-specific dice.
Secondly, it has become a pillar of pop culture. It is argued to be one of the building blocks of modern role playing video games like Skyrim and Dark Souls, while also providing a base for other miniature tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000 and the like. It appears in movies and television, most recently the smash hit “Stranger Things.”
‘These things suck’
Cask began his relationship with the godfather of modern fantasy game play with a phone call. He had a few questions for Gygax about another game he had authored, Chainmail. So, he waited until after 9 p.m. — for those too young to remember, this was when long-distance rates were cheaper — and rang him up. That was the start of everything.
Gygax invited Cask to Gen Con, a strategy gaming convention in Lake Geneva. When he got there, in August of 1974, Cask said Gygax kept asking if he’d played “my game.” That game was Dungeons & Dragons.
He was at the convention for one day and sat in on a pickup game.
“It was like the first time going to the cathedral as a peasant,” he said of the experience.
“We had been encased in some sort of gas-impermeable lucite that had immobilized us,” he remembered. “Something went horribly wrong and we were cut up into little cubes.”
Cask said he was left with one thought: This game is cool.
He knew he had to bring it back to his guys in the gaming club. But, there was one problem: He didn’t have the money for everything he needed. He decided to buy the original rule book and a set of dice. However, he said he couldn’t just take the game straight to an SGS meeting — he could hardly figure out what the rules meant.
Cask was a veteran war games player and a pretty smart guy, but he said he couldn’t make heads or tails of “these horribly written rules.”
“These things suck,” he remembered thinking. He all but told Gygax as much, too.
“Let me be the editor and I can make it better,” he told Gygax on one of their late-night phone calls. Gygax thought it sounded like a good idea, and Cask started running games at SIU to work out a way to make the rules more user-friendly.
“I was intrigued by this neat game my friend had made and I wanted to see what could be done with it with my guys,” Cask said.
Thus began the work that would eventually turn into the three-volume hardback set that came to be known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Steve Alvin was an undergraduate at SIU from 1974 to 1979. As a young student, he found his home in the SGS. He remembers these first games. In fact, he played in the first game Cask ran.
“I was a fighter named Turok,” Alvin remembered.
He said he went on to be further involved in those initial run-throughs of new rules and ideas.
“I was the first person to play-test a character class called a ranger,” he said.
Alvin was a young guy coming in to the club and said he kind of went with the flow. He was a history major, and loved miniatures and war games, so D&D was a natural fit for him.
“It was a game-changer,” he said.
“No one had thought of a game where it was played totally in your mind,” Alvin said. He explained that the group “payed it strictly with the rule book, dice and graph paper.”
Alvin and Cask both expressed the sentiment that D&D really became more than a game for them.
“To a certain extent it takes over your life,” Alvin said. He pointed out that the first semester of his sophomore year at SIU, he got three Fs and a D.
“I kind of blame it on beer and discovering Dungeons & Dragons,” he said.
After graduating from SIU, Cask went on to be the first employee of TSR, the company run by Gygax and other D&D originals. The company developed the game and a series of gaming publications.
Cask came into the fold there, and he said after a time, he and Gygax went into a room for a week and finished the work they started years before. For that week, he said, the only calls allowed to come to either of them were from their wives. He said they cut up several original rule books, which would go for thousands of dollars each now, and came away with “the bones” of the new set of rules.
Out of this, Cask said he helped “midwife” the first three hardbound books — the set that cemented D&D in the popular lexicon of gaming culture at the time, and arguably what led to it bleeding into almost all aspects of popular culture today. This set became known as 1E, or First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and from this, the more newbie-friendly Basic Dungeons & Dragons.
After this, Cask said he turned his focus to TSR’s periodicals, including “The Dragon” and “Little Wars.”
“My job was done,” he said.
The castle still stands strong
The party was in free fall. Just moments before, pirates had stolen their ship.
But, after casting the feather-fall spell, they landed safely, if not a bit bruised up.
Moments later, there’s a big noise and a familiar smell.
“You know this smell, it smells like Skrog,” dungeon master Keith Surman told the party of three.
Skrog had just fallen behind the party and was not as fortunate in his fate.
“I just push my hand into the hamburger meat,” Zayah Abel said as their character Thorn Crudefang. Thorn was looking to loot Skrog’s remains.
The adventurous sounds and stories from that Wednesday night game of Dungeons & Dragons at Carbondale’s Castle Perilous game and comic shop last month are like echoes from nearly 50 years ago.
Abel was there, playing with Norah Wright, who played as Cormac H. Sealgaire, and Sarah Melton as Aenwyn Blackwood. None knew of the contributions Carbondale made to the game they were engaging with, but each was excited about the idea.
Melton, who said she is a history buff and was excited to hear Carbondale’s connection to the game, said knowing adds another dimension to the game.
Wright said she enjoyed knowing that someone who “intrinsically contributed” to the game was so closely tied to her town.
Also, the fact that they had no idea was the icing on the cake. They all agreed that this was thematically appropriate for how the incremental storytelling works in Dungeons & Dragons.
Cask reflected on his time rolling dice and killing monsters in Carbondale and what it has meant to the greater D&D lexicon.
“Carbondale is a very, very important, small nugget in the earliest history and development of Dungeons & Dragons,” Cask said.
Still, he said it didn’t feel like more than fun at the time. When asked about photographs or other ephemera from those early days of the game, Cask and Alvin both said they likely didn’t have much if anything. Cask said no one even really considered documenting the process.
“We had no idea we were making history,” Cask said.