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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Early Gaming History

The recent batch posts on the development and history of “OSR” got me thinking about my personal experience starting as a gamer.

My brother taught me how to play chess pretty early on, though I've never been particularly good at it. Mastermind and Stratego. I loved Stratego. When I was 9 years old, my brother would have his high school buddies over to play D&D. He had the basement as his own room. I can remember the 3 LBB + supplements on his book shelf, Holmes basic, monochomatic modules, and certainly the AD&D hardbacks. Card table, bean bag chair, dehumidifier, dead beetles in the corners. They were stoners, late 70's stoners. I can remember my sister freaking out because one of them chased her around the house with a roach clip, me having no idea what such a clip was at the time.

I didn't play, but they let me watch a few times. Enthralling. One of the dudes, Wooten was his last name – very theatrical. He got put to sleep by a homonculus... poor Wooten. Anyway, Mike (my brother, 9 years my senior) starts to play the Ogre and Melee microgames with me. Once again, my poor sister – after my first kill in Melee (which must have been a good roll as my brother narrated that I'd cut his head off), I rush upstairs in excitement and brag to her about beheading my bro. No wonder uptight people were freaked out by their kids playing D&D! She thought that was gross. I thought her braces were gross. Good times.

So – eventually Mike agrees to run my first game of D&D. Roll up stats, 3d6 in order, got a high wisdom score. So be a cleric, says he! I remember being intimidated by the details of the open-ended decision making. For example, the character's name. Mike generated one for me out of the back of B1 with slight variation (“Greggo of the Mountain”) because I couldn't name the dude. My character awakened in a small room with a monster - I cannot remember what it was. I want to say it was a ghoul, but I can't remember precisely. Anyway – how's that for “You stand facing the dungeon's door...” - it's obvious that the set-up is going to go violent, fast – and I froze! I didn't know what to do, didn't want my character to die. I begged Mike to tell me what to do to get out of this situation. He told me to use my suggestion spell. OK... what do I tell it to do? I hemmed and hawed for a while in indecision, Mike wouldn't tell me what to say, instead giving examples of what I should not say... Man - I was kind of a wuss! It was scary! Finally: “Tell it to sleep.” Then mush it with your mace.

It's safe to say that this experience frustrated him, as we did not play again for a long time. Eh – he was 18, I was 9 - I don't blame him. So we'd play Risk, Battleship, and Midway (a Milton Bradley boardgame, I remember liking it, wonder if it stands up...). And I took my experience into my friend Scott's garage - along with some six-siders from Monopoly, pencil and paper. We made up a game of D&D based on my imprecise memory. I DM'ed, probably used The Fantasy Trip in my brain for combat (I'd played that more and knew how to use the dice for it). I think it ended with him trapped in a pit. Hee hee.

My local gaming shop (The Griffon – go give them all of your money! They deserve all of it!) held a convention, and my brother took me along. I can remember almost nothing about this – certainly I was not registered to play in anything, but they had a few computers there, and you could wait in line to play (what turned out to be) an early version of Telengard. And as a little brother, I was obliged to bug my brother incessantly to play D&D with me again. He wasn't into it. He had other things going on at that time that I was not aware of, but he did take me over to a computer lab on the campus of Notre Dame university. And here we played a Star Trek game, the turns displayed on printer paper. One of the things Mike had going on at that time was getting a job as a computer programmer for an insurance company, and he had not yet graduated high school. Self taught, he was one of those guys that got into the computer industry before it was self-regulated. Another thing that he had going on was falling in love with a depressed girl and experiencing a religious conversion. As a consequence of one or more of these things, he decided to destroy his D&D collection by fire. Bummer. Thankfully, I rescued a Holmes Basic set, Ogre and Melee/Wizard, but all the other D&D stuff went *poof* in my back yard. While he prayed.

Before the conflagration, my earnest whining and wheedling, my begging him to play D&D one last time PAID OFF! I don't remember my character this time, but this one “came to” in a room with a pedestal and a rug. Atop the pedestal, a crystal. Touching the crystal did 1 hit point of damage. Every turn, a “blue bolt” would shoot out of the crystal and hit my character for the same amount of damage. I could not dodge the bolt, nor find any cover. I could not find a way out of the room. I was killed by the blue bolts without really having done anything except frantically searching the walls for secret doors. Afterwards he told me there was a trapdoor under the rug. Obviously I was not really prepared to think outside the box back then...

He quit high school, kept his job, got kicked out of the house, moved in with his girl, married her and had a daughter, and they went to church all the time. I stayed home of course (remember, big age difference). I'd go to the library and check out D&D books. I tried to run my friend Alan through D1, but he balked at the idea that he'd need henchmen and mules. I remember him getting really up-in-arms over the mules... My best friend lived close to downtown, so we would go to the Griffon and look at books. I didn't really play much at this point – until I stumbled across Tunnels and Trolls in a Hallmark Card shop. Still utterly confused as to how this particular distribution scheme/sales point came to be, but business is mostly baffling to me anyway.

Tunnels and Trolls worked for me. I'd use spells and equipment lists and other things from D&D and AD&D, but I grokked running T&T in a way that I hadn't got D&D. Me and my neighborhood friends would stay up all night dungeon crawling our way to ridiculous super-heroic status (flying ships, death rays, constant invisibility, AWESOME). I'd run solo modules for my friend Seaghan (pronounced Shawn/Sean) over the phone, expand them when he'd take actions that weren't on the list of options. My friend Ernie developed an interest in Aftermath, Pendragon, Rolemaster, and he gifted me the 1st editions of Character, Arms, Claw, & Spell Laws. He did this as a going away present, as I was moving to Memphis Tennessee. Good thing too, as my gaming experience there got kinda ugly.

Turns out that I moved next door to a D&D player! What luck, right! He was excited that he had figured out he could kill Lloth by using Whelm. I had no idea what he was talking about... but – he DM'ed. None of my friends really DM'ed - I pretty much had all-time DM duty. So I was glad to play some D&D for once, though it took me a minute to get used to rule-breaky, fudge-for-badassery, DM driven power gaming.

As I was getting accustomed to this, there was the afternoon that his dad called us into the living room to have a conversation. He understood that I had come from Indiana, and so he wanted to share with me some details regarding the inferior nature of black people, to raise my awareness and expand my mind by telling me some of their techniques for bankrupting welfare so that they would not have to work, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, et fucking cetera. First time I'd really encountered a seemingly rational, apparently evidence-based argument for racism. From an adult. Ugh.

I did not go there again, and my time in Memphis ended up being pretty brief anyway – just a little over a year – and then back to South Bend. In my absence my friends had kept gaming, and and top of that, none of them took up bigotry! Ernie liked Aftermath and Pendragon. Seaghan got into Top Secret. Donn ran Champions. Jack got us into Call of Cthulhu. I freaked over Paranoia. We'd play all night Diplomacy, long sessions of Squad Leader. This would have been freshman & sophomore years of high school. Lovely time for gaming! Never really did a consistent campaign – none of us really had most-favored-characters... strange to think about that now. I'd write all kinds of dungeons, nations, elaborate magic items, classes, spell lists, etc... but we flitted around games pretty constantly, and board games were a big component. And hardly any D&D too.

I quit school and my friends graduated, so the halcyon high-school gamer life came to close. I kept my books for a while, and certainly do wish that I hadn't sold off & lost them at this point - there were some goodies there. Gradually life & music, girls, weed, books & eventually education – there's (potentially) a lot more to life than playing D&D, and those are the things I did for a long time. Every once in a while I'd open up a notebook and map a continent, write up some encounters or something, but no gaming really. Magic the Gathering came out and I hopped on board for a year or so. It turned some of my RPG potentiometers to somewhere between 4 and 6, and as a casual player, it was fun, but the economics of play were not of interest to me. It's a good game and occasionally I still go to the comic shop here to draft when a core set comes out. I like it at its simplest.

D&D 3.0 came out. My room mate gets the books and we try to play. Of course, DM'ing falls squarely on my shoulders. Eric played back in the day, but we didn't know each other then. He was really into Oriental Adventures and 2nd Edition AD&D. He made a female human monk. We all know that there are differences in play-styles, yes? I hadn't run a game of any stripe in roughly a decade. My goto fantasy RPG was T&T, and when I am winging a game, that is the mind set I slip into. As soon as his character (with back-story of vengeance in place, serious shit) saw the flashing neon sign above a cave that read “ADVENTURE HEREIN!!!” the game crumbled. Oh well. I was interested in some aspects of 3e, but did not form an experienced opinion of it until later, when I played (as a player) in a few games. It was OK and my problems with it seem consonant with the general grog consensus (character build optimization snoozer, feat memorization toward astute system breaking, fiddly not-abstract-enough combat, etc).

So D&D3 didn't do much for me, but then, when I'd go to the local hobby shop, I began to see Hackmaster and I thought it looked hilarious. Then the DCC modules, very clever. The look of these products got to me - I don't remember even perusing the contents of these books. Instead, I reacquired Rolemaster...

This post is long and I am tired. A good night to you.


Chris Creel said...

That was a fun read. I've made notes in the past about some of my past rpg history. I think you covered more detail in your story then I ever seem to develope in my notes. Good times, gaming can be some good times.

J.D. Higgins said...

Dude! A fellow Griffon patron! Nice.

Ragnorakk said...

Can't tell you how much I miss Ken and Sarah...

J.D. Higgins said...

I can only imagine. I see them plenty, since I ref a game of B/X D&D every Saturday there. (It's wild... the player roster ballooned up to a dozen players. I never expected it to get that popular. Now the Griffon is like a little oasis of old-school gaming in the middle of South Bend!) Yeah, Ken & Sarah are just about the best game-store proprietors you could ask for.