Back in the 1990s my friends and I played a lot of console RPGs- Final Fantasy VI, Ogre Battle, Chrono Trigger, the Dragon Quest series... all those things with classes and levels. We beat them, we learned the stories, knew the characters, and ran around in the park acting them out. But then we decided to play our own games in those worlds, with those or other characters, and started building rules to see whether you hit, tracking how much MP you had, etc.
It never occurred to us that someone else might have done this before, or that our favorite games were all heavily inspired by some common source material. When you're a 5th grader in 1996, you don't exactly know how to look up "pencil and paper role playing games" online, and even if you do, your parents will probably tell you to stop taking up the phone line and their valuable AOL minutes.
About a year later, as we showed a friend our new rules for how Apprentices became Wizards at level 5 and then at 10 got to turn into Necromancers or Sorcerers or Warlocks and how that was super cool because now Tim's wizard would be able to make skeletons to crew the ships that brought oil to and from our antarctic drill platforms (a concept we only knew about from Warcraft 2), the friend looked at us with a raised eyebrow and said, "You guys know you're just playing crappy Dungeons & Dragons, right?"
He showed us the AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook, and after a few minutes giggling over "bastard sword", I was in.
Since then, I've been running and playing in games. If I had to pick one defining characteristic of myself as a gamer, it's the struggle to balance "the rules" with what players want to do with characters and story. I'd say more on this now, but that's what this blog is for, isn't it?