Sunday, November 7, 1976

How I became a gamer

1

I was walking around the yard sale, seven years old and looking for Star Wars toys, and not expecting to find any. Most of the people selling trinkets and things were old, some of them were at least 60. I wandered aimlessly behind my friend Dan, who lived next door to my grandparents, as he would peruse the books being offered up by the other people in this neighborhood who had come to sell their castoff wares.

Then something caught my eye, I saw a red box. There was a man holding a spear, he seemed to be wading in water, and fighting a dragon. And was that a princess he was rescuing? Or was she rescuing him? I approached the box and picked it up. It was a game! I had never seen anything like it before. I looked at the back of the box and saw a picture of three books and some oddly shaped dice. The box described a fantasy game, of adventures won and treasures seized, and with all of its vagueness it still entranced me. My interest and excitement heightened with every word I read. I looked at the price on the front of the box, a piece of masking tape with $2 written in pencil. I cracked the box open, my already burgeoning sense of skepticism needed to know that I would get everything I wanted for such a hefty sum, and as I looked inside I did not see the three books promised on the back, but four books!

"This is the expert rules too! I won't have to buy anything else to play!" I thought excitedly, naively.
I asked the woman to hold the box for me so I could go get money and buy it from her. I remember her saying she wouldn't promise me that it would be there when I got back. I hurried home and started pleading with my mother for two dollars, trying to explain to her what an enormous find this was. She reluctantly handed me the money and I raced back to buy the box from the old woman. The box was still there! I handed the woman the bills and took the box into both hands. I saw a look upon her face that I had seen adults get before, its an admonishing glance that I recognized from my own mother on many occasion, a look that told me I was about to be asked to leave the room in case I see something too disturbing on the television or that I somehow needed to be protected from some idea I wasn't ready for. I fled from the woman as quickly as I was able. I think I actually ran halfway home. The box was mine! Nobody, not even my mother, would pry it away from me.

I found a secluded area near our home to look through the books and I remember being confused and puzzled. There were pages filled with numbers and words I didn't understand. My mind felt like it had been racing toward a finish line, but had abruptly found the line was painted onto a brick wall. Constitution just seemed like such a long weird, I didn't want to have to learn how to pronounce it. And Charisma? Why is that even there? It doesn't look like it does much. Where were the pictures of dragons? Where were the suits of armor, and fabulous treasures? And then I found it: the equipment table!

I suddenly remembered the Hobbit, I had never read it myself, but my mother had read it to me. Bilbo and the dwarves had to pack gear before they went to party with elves and slay a dragon. An adventurer needed equipment to survive in the harsh wilderness, and he needed to be prepared for anything. This I could understand! But picking the best equipment, that was probably most of the game right there. I started making a character, I didn't know what his name was, where he came from, or what he was capable of, but I was going to find out what he was carrying. And so he was born, a list of equipment that eventually had abilities added to it, my first fighter. I later convinced Dan to look at the books and we began playing simple adventures, every weekend for a few years it became a ritual, one of us would crawl through a dungeon housing an insane wizard, ravenous orcs and captive women who would do anything for their rescuing hero.

The game was simple then. We never paid attention to the rules we didn't like or understand. Saving throws didn't exist, encumberance was for people who wanted to do math, rolling randomly for your abilities was something only wussies did. And magic? Why bother playing a wizard or cleric when the fighter were so badass?! Thieves were supposed to be bad guys, so why play one of those. No, the fighter class was clearly the only thing worth playing. Why would anyone want to play anything else?

My enthuasiasm for Dungeons & Dragons waned and waxed depending on how much time I was spending with Dan. I found a Monstar Manual at ShopKo that became my bible for a while, but over the next few years I moved on to other pastimes.

2

And then I met Bob.

You see, I had always been a nerd. I had not always embraced it, but since birth I had that nerd gene percolating in my brain. I played video games, read lots of books, played board games with complex rules, and frequented comic book shops. Capital City Comics, one of the first comic book stores to open in America, was where I met Bob. He was talking about how Metal Gear was so different from regular video games, and I was listening in until he mentoned something about how he got stuck on some part of the game. I chimed in and explained what it was he needed to do.

We talked for a while about our mutual appreciation of video games and he explained that he needed to leave, he had to go to his weekly Dungeons & Dragons gaming group. I asked if I could tag along, and he invited me to join. My return to Dungeons & Dragons began again in earnest.

Bob was a part of a group who met on the university campus, every Friday and Saturday in a room in the Student Union, and played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. That extra 'A' was notable, because in basic D&D the races (e.g. elves, dwarves, etc.) were classes unto themselves. In 'Advanced' D&D you choose a race AND a class. The rules were, obviously, more complex as well, though calling basic D&D simple is like saying geometry is easy. Sure, comparing geometry to calculus makes it easy! They had two separate groups that met on the different nights, one group was christened Forgotten Realms Revisted (FRR) and played a rotating series of AD&D games. The other group was Dragonlance Adventures (DLA), and the DM of that night had been running an AD&D game for years set in the fantasy world of Krynn, the home of the Dragonlance novels. I started in both groups, playing as a human wizard in one and a half-elf fighter-wizard in the other.

It was from these people that I began to see the game not as a storytelling exercise, but as one of tactics and using player knowledge of the monsters to maximize "winning." In truth I never consciously saw the game as a storytelling exercise, to me it had always just been a lightning rod for my imagination and creativity. But the longer I spent with the FRR and DLA groups, the more I saw the game as a series of systems that could be boiled down to dice rolls and min/maxed skill sets.

It was my first time playing as magic-using classes and I had picked them mostly because I was told that the groups didn't have wizards. This was false. They had plenty of wizards, but nobody was very good at communicating in these groups. I was told many contradictory things while I played with them, and as I look back on my time with them I believe I was actually ignored a lot more often than I was aware of. None of these people really impacted me in any positive way once I left either of the groups. The one thing I could rely on was that everybody had a much better working knowledge of the rules than I did, and I was completely lost most of the time.

The first time I got pulled into a combat, I was told that I was by myself and that a dead body had a large snake-like creature coming out of it. I was panicked, so I cast my fireball spell at the corpse. Using the fireball spell was my instinctive offensive tactic, nevermind the fact that the rulebook states the ball expands to fill a 30 foot by 30 foot area, I wasn't aware of that, in my mind I was accustomed to freeform play and in my mind a spell should work the way I want it to work. Instead, the DM took my liberal use of fireball to inundate the other players with splashing damage. The snake-like creature I fireballed? Bob later informed me it only had 4 hit points and my fireball was unnecessary overkill.

I eventually left these groups because of Bob. He was obstinent, he didn't listen, he was a braggart, a liar, amazingly hypocritical, and most importantly he was a bad GM. There were two events that solidified in my mind that I was not having fun amongst these people, keeping in mind that at this time I was a very young kid playing primarily with a lot of older teenagers and young adults, so my presence was probably tolerated and not altogether appreciated.

Bob frequently liked to bring in NPCs that were recognizable from intellectual properties, these NPCs either fought with or alongside the players' characters. I remember playing in a game where Link (from the Legend of Zelda videogames), Ken and Ryu (from the Street Fighter videogames), Conan, Inigo Montoya (from The Princess Bride), Frankenstein, and several anime characters that I would never remember even if I knew their rightful names, all made appearances. To say this was annoying is an understatement, whatever the most recent science fiction or fantasy movies might be, you could be assured the characters would make an appearance in Bob's game and become central NPCs that the players would have to deal with regularly. While playing in Bob's games my characters met Gandalf, Merlin, King Arthur, Batman, Thor, Zeus, Connor McCloud, Doctor Who and many, many others that I can't be bothered to try and remember.

Bob also had a tendency of handing out power gratuitously, only to snatch it away and claim that it was part of his plot all along. In one session he handed out a random number of wishes to every member of the party and I received three of them. I remember thinking that I wanted to max out my character's level, so I had my character say "I wish I had all of the magic I was capable of having." Bob notified me that this was going to take all of the magic of the world and funnel it into my character, every active spell, every magic item, every artifact, every magic-user, all of it would be lost and go into my character. Bob told me this because he was warning me that my character would die with that much magic going into his physical body, and he also said that the wish wouldn't take effect until after I made the last wish so I needed to cancel out the wish with another wish if I wanted to survive, yet the effects of the magic drain happened instantly across his world as soon as I voiced the initial wish. He stripped every character of their magic items and killed mulitple NPCs and PCs as part of this magical cataclysm across his campaign world. And Bob would later have the gall to constantly blame me for making the wish, to which other players would agree. I was repeatedly insulted and chastised and asked to leave the game by one other player for weeks after this happened. I think deep down Bob liked to screw his players over with no regards to the rules. That I was blamed for something that Bob did entirely on his own was just a testament to how my presence wasn't entirely desired.

The other event that happened in Bob's game I only ever think of as "the last straw." This was years after the previous game Bob had run, and the Psionics Handbook for the 2nd edition rules of AD&D had recently come out. Bob had allowed me to play a true lycanthrope, a werewolf who was born that way and so can change between wolf and human forms at will rather than being tied to lunar cycles, and I was also a psionicist, a mentalist with biokinetic and telekinetic powers. Bob insisted that my character must have an evil alignment since I was a lycanthrope, and this was still in the days when people argued incessantly about whether or not they were role-playing their alignment properly. It didn't actually bother me very much, I just projected a very selfish personality as a result.

I had developed a psionic power for this character that could kill instantly. Without going into the minutia of the rules, I only had a 5% failure rate to use the power and the target had to "make their saving throw" in order to avoid death - "making a save" was basically a dice roll to determine if their body could handle the stress of my power attempting to crush the life out of them. I decided to use this new power against one of Bob's NPCs, one that was clearly (and annoyingly) modeled after a movie character and one that had humiliated our party on a few occasions. I used the power five times, and every single time Bob said that the character had survived by making his saving throw. He was very obviously massaging the dice rolls to keep the character going. On my fifth attempt at killing the character I rolled a 20, the only way Bob's NPC could survive a critical success with this power was if he also rolled a 20. Bob rolled his twenty-sided die and I saw the result - a 7 - his NPC had failed, his NPC should have died, but Bob quickly picked up the die and said "A natural 20! He's still alive." I told him I wasn't going to try any more, and for the rest of the session I sullenly sat staring at the table and my character sheet, silently cursing my stupidity for playing in a game ran by a man such as Bob. I didn't come back to the game the next week, or ever again.

3

I was only 17 the first time I was asked to GM. At the time I didn’t consider it flattering because I was so shocked at the request. Me? Be a DM? But I usually had to beg for a chance to DM!

I had just moved back to Madison, Wisconsin from Phoenix, Arizona, and I was looking for a game to join. The DLA no longer existed, and when I stopped in the FRR room at the Union it was mostly people I didn't recognize, and though Bob wasn't among them, two guys that had soured my gaming experiences were still around, so I kept looking elsewhere. There was another group that met at the Union called ROOSAP, or the Royal Order Of Strange Acting People. These guys were the sci-fi nerds, and they tended to play games like Twilight 2000 and homebrewed GURPS Star Trek games. There was one guy in the group who was a physicist and he had devised space combat rules that were true to the physics of inertia and weightlessness of space, you needed a calculator and a protactor in order to use the rules... these guys put my geekery to shame! I used to console myself for feeling stupid around them by reminding myself that at least I always had a steady girlfriend to occupy my time!

It was at ROOSAP where I found three guys sitting in a corner wondering what they should play and trying to decide who should run it. They were Everett, Mike and West, and two of them would end up gaming with me off and on for the next thirteen years. They asked if I wanted to DM a game for them, and stunned that I would be asked to run a game I said "Yes!" a little too enthuasiasticly, and repeatedly. Over the course of the next three years I acquired my gaming equivalent of sea legs, I had many false starts and my style tended to ramble from point to point, I would make things up on the spot because frequently my plans were either too short or taking too long. I handed out very little experience points, then I started hand-waving huge amounts of experience points every week. When I look back on it now I think I was horrible, I wonder why they kept letting me run the game, but I was also learning, so I’m glad they were there to suffer under my one-string plotlines and cliché adventure hooks.

One week Everett asked if he could GM a new game for us, it had just come out and he really wanted to try it, it was a horror game set within the wild west called Deadlands. I had never liked westerns so I was leery about playing it, but I had always loved horror stories so I tried to act enthuasiastic, and in truth I didn't want to be the only GM anymore. We made our characters, assuming we would play for a couple of weeks before we went back to AD&D. In Deadlands, you made a character by drawing cards and choosing stats based on the hand and suit of each card. A 1d4 was the lowest you could possibly get, and a 4d12 was the highest. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this first character I made was probably the best draw I ever got, with half of his stats as d12s and nothing lower than a 2d8. I had the highest scores of anybody else in our group! I was never very good at coming up with names, Taldrin K. Uv'water was my first gunslinger, and in his very first fight he stepped into a bar and a crazy man shouted "Hey! You got a big spider on your head!" and shot him in the head. Everett rolled spectacularly and Taldrin bit the dust, his head replaced by a bloody mist. It was an omen of things to come. Everett's Deadlands game lasted, all in all, for eight years, and in that time I played over 70 different characters, a great majority of whom died spectacularly and violently. Over the years I developed a deep fondness for westerns, and have watched many of them thanks to netflix, something I never would have done if it hadn't been for Everett's insistence that we give Deadlands a try!

The best gaming experience I had with this group was one that I was actually absent from. Our characters had gone to Antarctica and the climax of the adventure was going to take place on a week when I would be out of town. Everett told me what he had planned and so I gave him a laundry list of things that my mad scientist character, Martin, would do, all of them trumped by the contingency that if another member of our party, Nigel, suggested sacrificing me to this particular alien entity our group was encountering that I would turn my homemade flamethrower on him. And that is exactly what happened! I had very accurately predicted what the other players were going to do, and as a result of one of those predictions, my character went berserk and attacked one of them. The next week that I was there I made a new character, since Martin had been killed by the time I got back.

As the game progressed over the years I developed different ideas about gaming. I began to perceive gaming as an enjoyable experience only if the right people were involved, and the game became less about the game and more about the social atmosphere. The Deadlands game, though it lasted for a very long time, wasn’t always the best gaming experience. There were certain detractions from playing in the group that had formed around Everett’s campaign. We had one player who was diabetic, but he never paid attention to his insulin levels, so sometimes he would pass out at the game or get very loud and angry. We had another player who would bring beers to the game and as he got increasingly drunker his characters would become less characters and more just him living vicariously through them. But there were also positive things that kept bringing me back. Mike stayed in the group for the entire time that Everett ran the game, and his presence was always a great balancing board to other less savory elements at the table.

I also met Vince through the Deadlands game! Vince joined the group at about the same time I was coming back from a one-year hiatus from gaming, and his personal philosophy of gaming ended up influencing not only how I played RPGs, but how I approach all forms of gaming – he would devise his own win conditions for card or board games based solely on what had already happened within the game. Get stuck with the yellow pawn? Yellow is the closest to gold and is therefore the best color, I win! Get handed the priest occupation in Citadels? Priests are the closest to God, I win! Did the doom track fill up in Arkham Horror and Cthulhu arose to devour all of the players? Doesn’t matter, I had a pearl-handled revolver when I died which is by far the prettiest gun, I win!

It sounds obnoxious, but it actually helps your state of mind to be able to still enjoy a game that you may never actually win. I was playing a board game with seven other people on a regular basis for five years, and somewhere in that time I realized that I was only going to "win" whatever game we played one out of every eight times we played. On average! assuming I was good enough to win on average! Vince’s style of play became much more appealling after making that deduction.

And Everett himself, he introduced me to Deadlands, Blood Bowl, Call of Cthulhu, and so much more. I once took him out for dinner on his birthday and told him "You are my favorite human being. If I were an alien who was allowed to save one human from an imminent disaster, I'd save you. I'm not an alien, just so we're clear on that!" with a wry grin. Everett passed away in the summer of 2006, and I've always been thankful of the fact that I got to tell him how I felt about him. Of all the gamers I've played with, Everett has had the biggest positive impact on me. My eyes water whenever I think of his passing, I miss him a lot.

4

Since that time I haven't had a reliably consistent game.

After Everett left our group we floundered a bit, there were abortive attempts at longer campaigns and experiments here and there. A fantasy game set in the AD&D Birthright campaign world but using World of Darkness and Mage: The Awakening rules that eventually lost steam because of my desire for a stronger group of players, taking a break ended up destroying the game entirely. A Buffy the Vampire Slayer game set in the aftermath of the Angel and Buffy tv shows, and a youtube video I made of us getting immortalized on theonion.com - I wonder if I have John Krewson or somebody else to thank for that bit of journalistic ridicule. A post-apocalyptic game similar to the Fallout setting using True20 rules that could have gone on for a long time if one particularly irrationally unpredictable player hadn't ruined the fun for the rest of us. A Promethean adventure which was meant to grow into a larger campaign, torn apart by infedility and narcissism. A World of Darkness game that seemed to spiral around it's own navel. Endless one-shots and optimistic attempts at new games.

Maybe the random, dark gaming periods need to happen so that longer, more profound gaming experiences will stand out…

These stories don't encapsulate all of my experiences as a gamer.
There were points in my life where I abandoned gaming almost entirely, like when I started drinking in high school, and there were times where I couldn't find a cohesive group or make time for one, like when I lived in Chicago. All in all, it has been a long strange trip from that small red box with the crude artwork and the $2 pricetag.

-originally written on my Livejournal in December, 2008