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