For those of you who are curious, Gaming and I go back a ways. Please feel free to skip off to something more exciting and relevant if navelgazing offends or bores you. I won't be offended.
My first game was the purple box D&D basic set that I managed to pick up sometime between my birthday and Christmas of 1981. I was in middle school, 6th grade to be exact. I think the D&D set was a bribe fom my new stepfather, though the details are fuzzy. I could write, but I had a hard time writing on topic. I had ideas and no concept of how to express them effectively. And then I read the D&D rules.
The rules covered interactions with the world and doling out ever-better abilities to characters. Other than that, your world bent to your will. D&D gave me a framework to fill in, a sandbox to play in. For a son of divorced parents where every year meant a new school system, it gave me a place to develop myself independent of the outside world. Writing and adventure design started to have deeper meaning because it served my internal world.
I started buying AD&D books with Christmas money. I biked down to Spag's in White City and picked up cheap rulebooks. Who cared if the price was scribbled inside the front cover with grease pen? The information opened worlds to me, especially the random dungeon tables in the back of the DMG. I spent days after school filling oversized pieces of graph paper with rolled-up rooms. I fudged my own rolls. I remember fudging a Flame Tongue sitting on a table in the middle of an otherwise bare 20' square room.
I started mashing games together, eventually ending up with the Outdoor Survival board covered with chits that would transport me to another board game (Wizard's Quest, or Feudal, or other more dungeony games I've forgotten the names of), where I'd beat the monsters and take their loot.
It took me a year of exploring the D&D and AD&D systems in my own head before I started gaming with friends. I reveled in my control freakishness and was afraid of letting others touch my creations. Stupid me. I played one-on-one with my neighbor and best friend, Mark. We fought bad guys. We overcame obstacles. We created and enjoyed piles of magic items.
We created memories.
D&D is a game. It's supposed to be fun. If it isn't fun, change things until you have fun. Sure, those early years were clunky and some of my rulings were ham-handed or overly generous. But getting together and having fun trumped the rules.
Mark went through his own family reorganization and moved to California. I found other gamer friends in high school. We had a solid group of 4-7 people that got together a couple of times a week, and we played everything we could get our hands on: D&D, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, GURPS, Champions, Toon, Psi World, Rolemaster (once - too many tables for us). Everyone took a turn GMing.
Phil ran a by-the-book Greyhawk AD&D game with time travel that rocked the house. We broke out Toon, where Keith named his character "Oh, Shit! The Penguin's Got A Gun!" Kev put together rules for different flavors of magic, and I gleefully played a Bandarin Mage who brewed spells into potions and caused all sorts of havoc (more playtesting needed to limit power with something other than money).
We hacked rules, made new stuff up, took the books as a base and modified everything we could think of. Those were heady days, the wild west of gaming's roots. Nobody could tell you what you were doing was wrong, only that they didn't agree.
We had serious moments where we learned the difference between interacting as friends and interacting in-game as mercenary characters. We had nights when we couldn't stop laughing. We had contests to see how many Sour Patch Kids we could hold in our mouths without crying.
I loved generic rulesets - I started writing one until GURPS came out 2 weeks later. Hero and GURPS handled cross-genre games fairly well, but they had very different philosophies and methods. That got me thinking about the divide between system and setting. You can skin a setting and put a different ruleset behind it, though it changes the flavor significantly. I didn't fully understand that until some interesting discussions in 2004...
I gamed and acted in musicals every moment I could. Even with my downtime I could organize my thoughts and build new game experiences. The shower helped me design worlds and cities and cultures. I basked.
Important things came out of my high school years, things I still use. Monad rules the multiverse leading the 7 lesser gods: Kreigan, Aberroc, Puck, Tremas, Shoshen, Dreiden, and Darro. I made a segment of a ringworld (thank you, Larry Niven) and populated it with refugees from a broken earth thousands of years in the future. They discovered magic and melded it with technology, and almost blew the world apart until the elves started taking an active non-technology interest in things. Elves usually have their three-letter clan name as a hyphenated prefix before their given name.
These things shaped me. I took what I wanted and modified it to give structure to my game. Ideas ran rampant. I had so much fun, and I wouldn't trade those wide-open creative days for anything.
And thank you to everyone I gamed with prior to college. I cherish every experience.
I'll break here to organize my thoughts about gaming in college. Suffice to say, things changed.