One time at D&D camp…

A picture is worth a thousand words so take a look at this photo.

Click the picture for a look at the complete group photo

It was taken in 1982 at the Shippensburg College Dungeons & Dragons summer camp.  Yes, you read that correctly, a summer camp run by a college for D&D. I saw this picture as part of a thread over at Story Games and asked Ben Robbins for permission to post the photo along with an interview with him about the camp here.  What follows are the details about the camp, how it ran, and some of the experiences he had.  I’ll let Ben tell the story in his own words:

Shippensburg Adventure Game Camp ran in the summers of 1981 through 1985. There were two one-week sessions, each Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. I found out about it because the teacher we had convinced to sponsor the school D&D group got a flier for it when it was first organized.

Campers were divided into different gaming groups at the beginning of the week, with councilors doubling as DMs. There were morning lectures (seriously) with gaming in the afternoon. All the groups played through the same adventure, written specifically for the camp. It wasn’t an actual tournament, but each group pretty much tried to get as far as possible before the end of the week — a slightly rigged process as I found out once I became a councilor.

The same campers could come sign up for both weeks, but obviously that wasn’t the intention because they’d be playing in the same adventure twice.

There were a lot of other summer camps going on at the Shippensburg campus at the same time: baseball, tennis, cheerleading, etc. Everybody stayed in the dorms, with different buildings for different camp groups, but lectures and afternoon gaming were in other campus buildings.

What age groups were involved (both in terms of players and councilors)?

Officially it was for ages 10 to 17, but I’d guess most were 13-14. Councilors were older on average, some early college age.

How many participants were part of the D&D camp? What about overall for all the summer programs?

About 450 campers total. The first year there was only one week, but it was popular enough to split into two separate one-week sessions each year afterwards. So nine weeks total, and from the pictures about 50 campers per week. You’d have to factor out returning campers to guess how many individuals attended — probably half that many.

You mention attending lectures in the morning.  What were the lectures on?

Nothing but gaming. Being a good player and being a good DM. I remember the emphasis being more on gaming concepts, and not on specific rules.

Wow, that is not what I expected to hear.  Lectures on roleplaying?

One of the best sections (back each year by popular demand) was audience suggestions for improv roleplaying. The councilors would all act as players, and the audience would come up with situations and characters for them and they’d roleplay it out. There wasn’t any fighting or rules — if the situation started to devolve into combat they stopped and moved to a new one. It may seem unimpressive now, but demonstrating roleplaying as a game in itself was a powerful example back in the early 80’s.

Which is really impressive, not just from the standpoint of teaching roleplaying as a hobby, but also in encouraging attendees to use their imagination and creativity to improv. That’s something that a lot of even adult players aren’t particularly good at in my experience.

Was the camp formally run & operated by the university, or was it run through say their gaming club and just held on the grounds? It sounds like the former if you were staying in the dorms.

It was one of many camps run by the university. There was a faculty director, Dr. Kraus, who ran different camps all summer but had nothing to do with gaming (Ed’s note: more on that later). The actual heart and soul behind the game camp were James Forest and Larry Whitsel. They actually ran the camp, gave most of the lectures, wrote the adventures. Where are they now? I have no idea.

Did the various camp groups mix at night or was it pretty much a “you guys are gamers, we are cheerleaders…” kind of thing?

I can’t speak for every single camper, but in a word: nope.  All the usual coming-of-age stereotypes were in force: gamers gawked at cheerleaders and were hunted by baseball players. The cheerleaders were in the neighboring dorm and literally did their practices in our front yard. Every morning. I was always curious whether some clever administrator intentionally put the cheerleaders next to the relatively-safe gamers (as opposed to baseball players), but that’s just speculation.

To be fair the gamers were pretty busy just getting to know each other – you’re packed in a dorm with more gamers than you’ve ever seen in your entire life. There’s a lot to talk about. You barely have time to get to know the people in your own camp before the week is over.

That’s what I would have figured. Back in the 80’s, being a “D&D kid” wasn’t easy. Nowadays, with the rise of MMORPGs like WoW, it’s a little more acceptable although I still run into a lot of kids at the school where I teach that make a very clear distinction between playing WoW and playing D&D.

Was there any kind of official support?

TSR definitely knew about the camp, since Frank Mentzer came as a guest lecturer the very first year.

Frank Mentzer was a guest lecturer? That’s something I wouldn’t have expected.  What version of D&D were you using?

AD&D was the one and only. Moldvay Basic was out by then, but Basic was considered kiddy D&D and looked down on (because we were stupid back then). After hours the councilors all played Champions instead, because it was the cool new game.

What kind of adventures? Strict dungeon crawls or was it something more elaborate?

The first year was a monstrous five level dungeon crawl so old school it was prehistoric. The kind of dungeon where every square of the graph paper has a room or hallways covering it, right to the edge of the page. A big rectangle of doom (The map on the left is an actual map of one of the levels).

As the years went by the style of the adventures reflected the evolution of the hobby: after the first dungeon crawl (“Dancers of the Dead”) came a basic explore-each-hex wilderness crawl (“Raiders of the Bandit’s Lair”), then a high concept dungeon with an overland intro and visual puzzles (“Curse of the Temple of Set”), then a city intrigue plot with NPCs actually taking initiative (“Throne-Fight at Giltham”), and finally a world-spanning quest (“Odyssey of the Rings”). I was a player in the first three and a DM for last two.

There were plans at the very end to expand the camp to include other RPGs (starting with Champions) but the camp was canceled before that could happen.

In your original story, you mention that the games were “slightly rigged.” Can you elaborate?

Throughout the week the councilor-DMs had meetings to compare notes about the adventure, discuss what spots were easy or hard, etc. If particular groups were falling behind or looking like they had no chance to actually finish by the end of the week we cut corners to at least give them a chance to get to the climax — even if that fight might wipe them out. I ended at least one week with a near total party kill. So it wasn’t a free victory, but you at least got a shot even if you had lagged behind.

Players were also grouped by age, so while everyone went through the same adventure I’d say there was a natural tendency to go easier on the younger kids and play meaner and smarter with the older campers — really force them to play better.

Balancing that out was the floating “specialist” DM, a DM who didn’t have a group but who ran one particular encounter for each of the groups at different times. In the first year it was the dreaded “chessboard” trap and in the last year it was a wandering pirate ghost ship. The guest DM intentionally made those encounters brutal, which put all the groups through the same wringer regardless of what their normal DM was like. Kind of like standardized testing for gamers.

So there was quite a bit of planning going on behind the scenes and coordination of the different groups – that’s much more organized that I would have expected.

Another reason for the DM meetings was to plan how to make the adventure different. Sharing information between parties was always a potential problem (“when you get into the throne room, jam arrows into the hidden eye-holes in the wall and you’ll blind the illusionist before he can cast a spell!”) so we’d throw in small differences to trip up spoilers. (Yeah, I was in a group with a player who spontaneously ran to the wall and jammed arrows into the unseen tiny holes. Way to be subtle, kid.)

LOL. That’s funny.  Can you recall any specific scenes, adventures, or memorable events from the time you spent there?

Zow, just a few. Packs of underage gamers all crammed in the same dorm? It writes itself.

  • The infamous “Rebels vs Empire” brawl that engulfed the whole dorm, which I think nowadays you’d call it a spontaneous LARP with extended collateral damage.
  • Frank Mentzer offering to run the pre-release version of Temple of Elemental Evil for me and a good friend of mine, which we foolishly turned down (I repeat, we were stupid back then).
  • Stumping our DM by using “Find the Path” spells to triangulate the location of the bandit’s secret lair — not bad for thirteen year olds, and proof that geometry does have real world application (stay in school!).
  • Running a week-long Champions mini-campaign for the other councilors. It was not my best game ever, but the players really made it great.
  • Playing in Larry Whitsel’s early Universal Role-Playing System (yes, URPS — this was before GURPS came out) and having all the players march to the college library to look up maps of Peru so we could figure out where we needed to go in the game (say it with me: pre-Internet).
  • The last session I DM’ed of “Odyssey of the Rings.” The players stole the final ring from the island of druids but were caught before they could make it back to their ship. They are running but they’re dropping like flies, until the last survivor is on the beach struggling to get to the boat. ZAP, the great druid hits him with a Finger of Death, and he drops dead in the surf. But he’s wearing one of the earlier artifact rings they found, which has the semi-cruel property of raising you from the dead automatically but draining a level, as they now discover. So the fighter unexpectedly staggers to his feet, runs a few more feet and ZAP the druid hits him with another Finger of Death. He drops dead again, but gets back up and struggles farther. It sounds tragic and mean, but the other players were on their feet screaming in excitement that he might get away against all odds and finish the quest, even though he would be the sole survivor. Which he did and which he was, several levels lower. You’d think they’d be sad, but they were pretty thrilled by the dramatic finish.

OMG, you passed up the chance to play ToEE with the writer?  Yeah, kids can be stupid.  The “Odyssey of the Rings” is one of those classic “Remember when….” stories.

There was a lot of gaming, but there was actually a lot more non-gaming fun, like marching the whole camp into town to see Clash of the Titans on the big screen. Just being around that many like-minded kids and getting to know them was pretty amazing. Take the normal magic of summer camp and then ratchet it up a few notches for sharing a rare and misunderstood subculture.

Why did the camp shut down?

It was never explained. The cancellation letter from Dr. Kraus said “For a variety of reasons the University has decided not to continue with the summer Adventure Game Camp” but later on added “and it is my belief that contrary to recent media scares, our campers become distinguished students and future leaders.”  Which would make you think it was the whole “D&D will make you hide in the steam tunnels / worship Satan” scare.

But in the last week of camp there was a furor because Dr. Kraus was interviewed by a local reporter, and he let his guard down and was quoted as saying “basically, these kids are the wimps.” Oops. Remember he wasn’t a gamer in the first place, just the university facilitator. He was used to running athletic camps like tennis or swimming. The story was printed while camp was still in session, the campers got a hold of it, torches and pitchforks were issued, and he wound up apologizing to the assembled camp while the incensed gamers booed him down. Not pretty.

Given that, I can’t help but wonder if he just wasn’t interested in facilitating it anymore (and being public enemy number 1 in his own camp) and got it dropped. The cancellation letter came in November 1985, so not long after that whole embarrassing mess.

That’s a pretty sad ending for what was probably a really great time for those that participated.  However, it sounds like you took away a lot of found memories and experiences which is probably the most important part. If you had only played through ToEE…. Thanks for the interview and the great story.


The guys on Narrative Control joked about their dreams of a “RPG summer camp” in Episode 29; little did they suspect that there really were camps.

Shippensburg College has become Shippensburg University. While it doesn’t appear they’re running a D&D summer camp again, they do seem to have a pretty active RPG community as evidenced by the article I found from the 2007 edition of their College Dispatch magazine.

33 thoughts on “One time at D&D camp…

  1. Wow. Not just slightly wow. VERY wow. Thank for sharing that.

    Man, I’d love there to be camps like that today all over the country. That Satan scare sure has a lot to answer for.

  2. In the summer of 1985 I was 15 and attended that camp. I’d read about it in a small Dragon Magazine advertisement and my folks hooked me up. I rode the train from St. Louis to Harrisburg and a greyhound from Harrisburg to Shippensburg where the director (the older guy second from the right in the back row) picked me up in his car.

    It was awesome to be out on a trip like that by myself at that age. Camp was neat too, though there seemed to be some long-standing and sometimes strained social stuff in place. It’s interesting too that when I saw that photo above, I almost called bullshit on it being from 1982 — so many of the people in it are clearly also in the photo from my year that I thought it must be a mistake. But there are a few hints that clear up my mistake — I guess there must just have been a huge amount of consistency in those who attended.

    To further weigh in on the age of the participants, I was the oldest camper during my session and I was closer to the median age of the counselors than the campers. Also, I think there was a single girl at the camp. I talked to the head guy about being a counselor myself next year and was kind of discouraged — I wonder if they knew already that they were pulling the plug.

    My dorm-mate there was named Morgan something — his folks owned a yogurt factory in Ithica NY and other than the twins from Ojai, CA, he and I came the farthest and were also the oldest two. We met up at at least one Gen Con — maybe the next year, and while we didn’t build a lasting friendship, it was fun.

    I did the normal sport/camping/hiking/swimming kind of summer camp for many years as a kid and was always one of the weirdos. Not so much at D&D camp. 🙂

  3. “My dorm-mate there was named Morgan something — his folks owned a yogurt factory in Ithica NY and other than the twins from Ojai, CA, he and I came the farthest and were also the oldest two. We met up at at least one Gen Con — maybe the next year, and while we didn’t build a lasting friendship, it was fun.”

    That must have been Purity Ice Cream!

  4. Christopher, I’m guessing you were in the first week in 85, since Dr. Kraus’ big apology-apocalypse would have been hard to miss. Is your camp photo missing a placard for the camp?

    Also, do you remember who your DM was? You probably had one of the older councilors.

  5. @Greywulf – Thanks. When I saw the picture and heard Ben’s comment on it I knew the story was too good to pass up. I too wish there were more active programs, of any type, to foster the hobby – we are very definitely an aging population.

    @Christopher – Wow, your parents put you on a Greyhound and shipped you half way across the country – that’s no trip for the meek!

  6. I must say the whole idea of any sort of Summer camp seems odd to someone who grew up up England. Most summers I spent trying to entertain myself whilst my parents were at work, or visiting family in the Carribean. I must say I love the idea of a summer camp for roleplayers – and I’m astounded how forward thinking these camps sounded. The idea of Improv roleplaying as an end in itself must have been pretty radical in the 80s. I wish some of the roleplayers I meet now had attended these lectures..

    @MJ Harnish:
    The problem isn’t a lack of active programs to foster the hobby – its a lack of gamers willing to foster the hobby. I’ve tried repeatedly to get my gaming group involved in things which might promote the hobby with absolutely no success.

    Many have been burnt either by the who ‘roleplaying is evil’ thing or by the nerdy view roleplayers used to have. It takes a brave player to stand up and say ‘I’m a roleplayer’ in an environment where they don’t know what reception they are going to get.

    You are really lucky to have had supportive parents.

  7. @R00kie: I agree. It’s been an uphill battle to get a group to move away from anything but 3.5 and 4 e D&D through a local Meetup group that has tons of members. People keep joining and all say the same thing, they really want to start playing again, but they won’t GM, they won’t try new games and many RSVP and then no show, so how can you foster a community if most of them won’t leave their house. Perhaps it is representative of where society is as a whole now.

    If I had more time, it might be nice to put on a local CON, but I can’t bear the workload, so I plug away with my own game.

  8. Ben, I couldn’t find the photo last night. I sent an email to my mom to see if she has it but she’s in Florida and won’t be able to check for a week or two. I don’t remember the big Dungeons & Dragons sign, if that’s what you mean.

    And it’s funny how much of the camp I don’t remember (I have pretty good memories of age three, which seems to be exceptional) — as I was reading your recount of the way the camp ran, I had lots of memory moments. (E.g. the structure of the day: breakfast, lecture, lunch, game, dinner, free time on campus and in our rooms…oh yeah!) But like, it seems like there was some big brouhaha related to a newspaper that didn’t really affect me much (so what if we were the wimps…) …but I could be falsely reconstructing memory based on your stories, too. I have no idea who my DM was. As I recall, we took home a copy of the module that was run — I might have some documentation from my time there, but how to find it!?!

    And in response to my folks being cool: Yeah, they were in a lot of ways. My mom read about D&D in the paper in ~1979-80 and thought it sounded like a prosocial pass-time, so we went out and got it and learned it in complete isolation from other gamers and played around the kitchen table after dinner, basically every night for years. During that time I started spending weekends at game shops and we made GenCon a family trip starting in 81 or 82 when it was still in Kenosha. And that trip wasn’t without glitches. On the way home, the greyhound from Shippensburg to Harrisburg was late so when I got to the train station in Harrisburg, my train had left the station. I called my mom collect on a pay phone and told her and she freaked the hell out (no surprise). But she called the station manager and I was paged and the Amtrak lady put me on a Greyhound all the way back to St. Louis. Good clean adventure! (Except where “Greyhound” and “clean” don’t really go together.)

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I wish I could send my kids to such a thing. (But at least they’ve been to Gen Con.)

  9. I’m glad to hear that the story brought up some fond memories.

    @Declan – yeah, gamer shamer is still pretty bad and the growth of MMORPGs has really crippled the tabletop industry. I can’t accurately gauge the enthusiasm for adult gamers to attend games because I live in a weird world where my grasp of the local language is pure crap and thus I attract players who want to play in English and those tend to be a tiny minority. I haven’t really actively advertised though because I have a good group already; we just can’t find enough free time in the month to game more often!

    I’ve taken a very active role trying to draw kids in to the hobby. I’ve been running an after-school game club where I teach for the past 6 years – the first 3 we pretty much stuck to miniatures gaming (WH40K was big; then Warmachine) but 3 years ago we started running D&D for a subgroup and this year roleplaying took off and killed the miniatures gaming. We have 14 regular players and a few other drop ins, running in 2 groups headed by myself and another teacher. We’ve run a variety of games, but have mostly stuck to more main stream stuff (3.5 & 4th edition D&D, M&M, & Savage Worlds) because that’s what the kids like. We have played InSpectres, PDQ, Beat the Clock, and SotC on a one-shot basis, but those games are hard because the kids are actually LESS willing to play “non-stock” fantasy/sci-fi/super hero type characters – for example, the idea of playing a mouse in Mouse Guard is something most of them can’t fathom. Go figure.

    As the school year comes to an end I’m getting to write a few features about my experiences gaming with kids and what has and hasn’t worked so stay tuned for those. Today was the wrap up battle for our 4E campaign and it kind of sucked IMO – tonight cemented the fact that I don’t like 4E but that’s me. Tomorrow is our annual game day and we’re playing through I3- Pharaoh using the LL rules… My guess is that the whole day will be a lot more enjoyable but we’ll see…

    As for gaming with little kids – I love playing with my oldest son (he’ll be 7 in June) – it’s been freaking cool at times and I think young kids are MUCH easier to actually get real roleplaying out of because they have a much easier time grasping a concept (e.g., “I’m a thief!”) and then running with it, using just that description to play off of rather than needing a whole list of skills and special abilities in order to define who they are. He’s playing with us tomorrow (he’s sort of like the teen group’s real life kender) and is really excited about the idea that he’s “a thief with low hit points so he needs to be clever.” I’m going to write about that too because my observations with Niklas have been really enlightening (at least to me) about what really matters when it comes to systems.

  10. Wow. Amazing! Who knew that something like this could have happened at all, but I guess that this probably happened prior to the big “D&D is evil” thing so it was possible. Today, not sure it would fly.
    I have to say that I am in a pretty pro-manly man job (Army) and I am careful who I let in on my secret, shame? Yeah, I guess, but I have gotten to many jeers and strange looks if I mention it or they catch me reading a RPG book. Apparently I am supposed to be out beating my wife, cheating on her, drinking beer and getting in bar fights.
    Go figure.

    One thing I have to say is that I am pretty sure I am smarter, a quicker thinker, and more knowledgeable than I would have been without gaming. Consistently my wife is amazed at little facts I know about historical facts and various seemingly random details….all I claim are because I am a information whore who eats up any information on interesting topics…never know when that will come in handy during a game. I remember once when my daughter was reading a story by Edgar Allen Poe and she came across a word she did not know, neither did my wife. I knew that it was a medieval weapon and could describe in detail how it could be used in combat.

  11. @Snikle – You have to pick your battles and I’m not one to walk around with my “Gamer Geek” sign on my head in all settings. It’s surprising though how many gamers are reluctant to admit their hobbies even in relatively “safe” environments.

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  13. I don’t think I remember the time that I saw a greally interesting article with an even more interesting set of comments.

    I was playing at the time , but had never heard of this. A nice eye opener and trip back to the past.

    I find it interesting that due to my association with other ‘outside the norm’ subcultures, I have no shortage of players. I never bothered to put those 2 facts together (idiot…), but there is obviously a reason that I keep my gamer side quiet in my professional life and much of the rest of my life. Even when I was spending a ton of time involved with the ‘alt/goth’ subculture, I think I didn’t tell anyone about my gaming for about five years. Of course, now my second and more active group is almost all players from that part of my life…

    @Christopher—“Prosocial” pastime…what an apt and forward-looking term. I can’t help but wonder how much more psychologically healthy it was for the ‘intellectually-blessed’ (read that as Geeky) to have such an imagination-building and mind-expanding pasttime.

    • Thanks! For all those who’ve found the story interesting, please spread the word – it’s one of those kinds of stories that anyone growing up in the 1980’s who played D&D (or any RPG) will appreciate.

      I too like the term “prosocial pastime” because it’s a good description of RPing is at its best. Of course, we always ended up with at least one kid in our group who wanted to steal stuff from other party members or murder them in their sleep…. hmmm….perhaps D&D also could be used to spot sociopaths at an early age. ;op

  14. Thanks to everyone who enjoyed my walk down memory lane. It’s been a lot of fun for me too, digging up old letters and pictures (with the help of my elite research staff) to make sure everything was the way I remembered.

    It always seemed lame that there was nothing about the Shippensburg Adventure Game Camp on the web, but I never got around to writing it up until MJ gave me a push. Just like with Braunstein, I think it’s a really good thing to get these forgotten nuggets of gaming history recorded for posterity’s sake.

    Couple other details:

    – Frank Mentzer was there the first year (1981) but he also came back in 1984, which is when he offered to run Temple of Elemental Evil.

    – I suspect James Forest is the same James Forest who worked on “Relationship of Role-playing Games to Self-reported Criminal Behaviour.” Psychological Reports, December 1991 by Abyeta, Suzanne and Forest, James. [some places Abyeta is spelled Abeyta — I have no idea which one is right] One of the early years (maybe even year one) all the campers were given a psych inventory to fill out, including all sorts of questions about the characters they played. The one sharply disturbing part of that questionnaire was the last part, which asked you to write a suicide note for your character. Campers theorized that it was to see what you (the player) were unhappy about in life, the assumption being you would just map that straight to your character. Either way it seems like the kind of thing that wouldn’t get past a human subjects review nowadays, particularly when the subjects were a bunch of kids.

    And just like Christopher, I took the Greyhound part of the way to camp. Clearly it was the hip way to travel back then…

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