In honor of the rapidly approaching 32nd (yikes!) anniversary of my first real excursion into the hobby of role-playing games, here's a repost of my essay detailing how it all started...
. . . . .
[This is the third part of my autobiographical "Growing Up Geeky" series - click to read "Part I: Prehistory" and "Part II: The Early Years." (I know: the second half of the "Part II" post is missing. I've skipped ahead a bit here, but rest assured: the Star Wars/Atari-years post will be here - some day.)]
A recent post at Grognardia got me thinking about my first days in the hobby. As I get older, I find I have more trouble remembering things, especially the days of my youth. Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to get this portion of the "Growing Up Geeky" series down - before I lose the memories all together. So, to that end, here's a meandering piece of personal history/nostalgia expanded from my comments on James' blog post:
As with most aspects of my childhood (growing up as a nerd in rural NY) I learned to role play (Dungeons and Dragons, of course) in a vacuum. I was raised in farm country, several miles from the nearest town. I had friends, but they lived in town, so I couldn't just hop on my bike and go over to their houses (and vice versa) whenever I wanted to hang out. Trips to each others' houses were planned excursions, and were becoming more infrequent by the beginning of the 1980's. (This infrequency was partially due to growing older, but also partially my fault, as after being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in December of 1980, I'd suddenly become inexplicably uncomfortable spending the night at my best friend's house. To this day, I can't explain it...)
I had no other friends nearby, as all of the kids who lived closer to me were just that: "kids." (One just didn't consort with a schoolmate more than a grade - two at most - lower than oneself. That sort of thing was simply bad form.)
The seclusion wasn't something I gave much thought to, however. I'd been raised with it, and I'd become very adept at keeping myself entertained. Furthermore, I had my nephew, John, to keep me company on a regular basis through the later 70's and early 80's. Although I call my friend Brian Z. my "best friend," the truth of the matter is that John was my best friend through most of my teens. He spent many summers at my house, and my brother and his family moved next door to us sometime around or shortly before 1980, IIRC, after which I saw John even more frequently. We basically grew up together.
Unfortunately, my memory of 1980 and the surrounding years has grown extremely fuzzy, so exact dates are impossible to determine. For a long time, I had thought that I'd been introduced to role playing games in 1980, but I've realized in recent years that it must have actually been 1981.
And, as I've mentioned before, my first hobby-related possession wasn't a set of D&D rules. Or any other role-playing game rules, for that matter. No, my first hobby-related possession was a D&D module: A3, "Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords."
It was originally bought as a birthday present for a friend. But my mother was curious what "this D&D thing" was all about, so before gift wrapping it she opened it and read it with my nephew and myself. Or tried to read it. I still recall finding it to be full of bizarre, unfamiliar terms and acronyms - kind of like reading a tech manual for a SR-71 or something. But it piqued my interest, and she asked if I wanted to keep it and we'd get my friend something else. (That "something else" turned out to be a "Sick" magazine that had something to do with Star Wars. I know: it's nowhere near as nice a gift. He wasn't that close a friend. :P)
Based on the fact that the aforementioned friend's birthday was in December, and that - according to the Acaeum - A3 was published in 1981, I'm guessing the date of this event was late November or early December of 1981. That crunches the timeline I'd originally envisioned for my entry into the hobby, which I'd thought had run from December 1980 to Christmas of '81. But those years have blurred with the haze of time and age, and I perceived the passage of time far differently as a youth than I do now. The days passed more slowly, then; a month then is like six months now.
Anyway, that enigmatic orange-yellow-covered book with its wonderful maps and imagination-sparking illustrations was my first step into the world of D&D. Mind you, it wasn't the first time I'd heard of the game. I'd seen and been moderately intrigued by the books in KayBee Toys in Riverside Mall*. (I was especially enthralled by the cover of Eldritch Wizardry - go figure.) So I'd known about the game for some time; it had been on my radar, but wasn't something I had any interest in.
For some reason I'll never fully comprehend, my demeanor toward the game changed drastically around mid- to late 1981. With the simple discovery that the aforementioned friend's older brother and his friends (who would have been the "freaks" if my life at that time were an episode of Freaks & Geeks) played the game, I suddenly found my interest in it blossoming. I imagine this was partially fueled by media hype surrounding D&D (the new "fad" was - it seemed - forever appearing in various news outlets back in the day), by the ever-growing line of products for the game, by the growing buzz surrounding the fantasy genre - and probably more than a little by my Hobbit-loving 8th-grade English teacher.
Shortly thereafter - according to the revised timeline - I discovered that the local lawn and garden supply/toy store (yes, they sold toys next to the riding mowers) sold the yellow-box series of Grenadier miniatures for D&D. I bought (read as: coerced my mother into buying for me) my second piece of D&D paraphernalia there: the "Specialists" boxed set.
As Christmas approached, I began to think more and more about the game. I envisioned my character (before I knew that term, as it pertains to the hobby) - the paladin from the Grenadier set - descending into a valley on a narrow path through a dense forest full of giant mushrooms**, a beautiful princess at his side as he used his gleaming sword to hew his way down the vine-choked stones. He was an elf prince himself, called "Moordow."
So, when C-Day came, it seemed like a no-brainer that D&D would be nestled under the tree. I say "seemed like" because it wasn't an unheard-of occurrence to not get what one wanted most for Christmas. Parental concern and other factors could always trump youthful desire, and such statements as "You'll shoot your eye out!" or "You'll become a Satanist!" could easily supersede a child's "I want that!" Sure enough, though, it was there - in the form of a lurid pink box bearing a brilliant Erol Otus cover.
I spent a good portion of the following days delving into the red rule book that lay within, whose fantastical illustrations made most of those in "Aerie..." look mundane by comparison. I devoured the rules, and was ready to get to playing within a few days. (It would have been less, but I also received Milton Bradley's "Dark Tower" that year, and it was a serious contender for my post-Christmas attention.)
My friend Brian had also gotten a D&D box set for Christmas, and during the Christmas break we planned for him to come over to my house so we could play our first game. I think it was either shortly before his arrival that day or the day before that my nephew and I rolled up our first characters. (I don't recall Brian being there, although it's possible my hazy memory has failed me yet again.) We made a pair each, and Moordow was of course my first.
When Brian came over, it was agreed that he'd be the Dungeon Master, as he'd read B2, "The Keep on the Borderlands" - the adventure module that had also come in that lurid pink box - and I had not. (It wasn't until many many years later that I was comfortable running prefab modules. I always made my own - I think I was afraid of screwing something up if I tried to run someone else's material.) Our four characters, and two of Brian's, embarked on their first adventure...
And it was an abysmal failure.
The newness of the idea of role playing, Brian's lack of familiarity with the role of the DM, and our uncertainty about what our characters should be doing led to the game being an awkward exercise in theft, burglary, and murder, as our characters robbed and looted everyone in the Keep. It would be several weeks before I read the module myself and discovered that we were intended to go outside the Keep and kill things... (I also think that Brian's version of the rules were part of the problem he faced as DM: he had been given the Holmes' basic set, and I did not realize at the time that it differed so fundamentally from my Moldvay set. I'm sure this contributed to the challenge he faced as first-time DM.)
We abandoned our first session of D&D after a few encounters, slightly disillusioned (at least in my case), and opted instead - I think - to play Dark Tower. But it didn't matter. My imagination had been ignited, and it would take more than a bad initial game session to deter me from enjoying the Hell out of the game. Subsequent sessions with just my nephew and myself - with me as DM/co-player, running "modules" of my own creation - fared far better.
My foray into D&D that began with an alien "adventure module" could have ended if that book had gone to its intended owner. It could have ended if I'd not received the game for Christmas. It could have ended after an initial game session of criminal mayhem.
Despite all of these possibilities, it blossomed into a lifelong hobby...
[More to come in the next post in the series: Growing Up Geeky, Part IV: The TSR Years.]
(*Ah, Riverside. Gods, how I miss that place. It was our first mall. And my first mall. So many of my late-70's childhood memories spring from within its walls. The mere mention of its name brings to mind a flood of memories: from trekking up and down its brown-tiled floors - up ramps and down stairs, past fountains and the giant clock; to lurking in Kay Bee Toys while my mother conducted her business in Ormonds, Barbara Moss, or some other woman's clothing store I couldn't stand to be in; to choosing an iron-on transfer to be steamed onto a t-shirt while we waited in Montgomery Ward (Yes, kids: transfers and tees used to come separately, and you could mix and match at will. Those were the days!); to playing my first video games in the video arcade; to taking the leisurely stroll the length of the mall, which seemed to take hours, as we shopped and window shopped, stopping at the near-halfway point to eat at Burger King. The mall was laid out in one long strip, and the concept of the food court had not reached this area prior to the mall being designed and built; food establishments were scattered around the place. My favorite was "the pizza place," but it was inconveniently located at one end, on one of the entrance wings. Thus, the more centrally located Burger King (before it became "BK" and the king went from a short, cute cartoon character to a creepy "real" person) was the establishment of choice for the lunch break on our Saturday strolls through "The Mall." Riverside was supplanted by a larger, more logically designed mall in 1980, and at the time we all thought the newcomer was better. The Mall died a slow, painful death as a result, and today it has been mostly torn down and replaced by an eyesore of a strip mall. Its rival still stands, but holds far less nostalgic value for me.)
(**I'd equated giant mushrooms with fantasy for many years, long before I'd even seen the cover to B1. In fact, I recall the exact moment when my interest in writing was sparked. It was sixth grade, and the teacher - Mr. King - assigned us a project to write our own piece of fiction. Prior to that moment, I'd never considered that as a possibility. Surely, I'd thought, writers are consummate professionals, and only achieve their status as "Writer" after long years of education and training. But suddenly, I could be a writer. And I would write science-fiction/fantasy. (The two were pretty much synonymous in those days.) In my mind's eye at that very moment, I envisioned vividly a colorful forest of giant mushrooms sprawled out beneath a black blanket dotted with glittering white stars. Yep, giant mushrooms meant fantasy, even then. Maybe it was some lingering Alice in Wonderland influence - although I'd never read that book...)
So, fall is upon us and the crisp October morning air portends the coming of Halloween. My thoughts turn to ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties; to black, moonless skies above decrepit Victorian mansions, abandoned and forgotten cemetaries, and silent, fog-shrouded woods. (Well, my thoughts often turn to these things, but now even more so than they do the rest of the year!)
It's ironic, considering how much such things freaked the Hell out of me when I was a child, that I should now have such fond feelings for them. As I mentioned in the flashback post I'm resurrecting today, I was terrified by spooky things when I was younger. But at the same time, I was inexplicably drawn to them - I couldn't turn down a good horror movie if my sanity depended on it. Which it very nearly often did.
Take for instance the movie I watched with my fiancee this past weekend: Amicus' The Skull, starring one of my all-time favorite genre actors (and fellow war gamer) Peter Cushing. A finely written (it was adapted from a story by Robert Bloch) and filmed Gothic treasure, it's a movie I haven't seen since I was maybe 10 years old. I recently purchased the DVD, having been meaning to do so for several years, and was instantly reminded how it affected my younger self. For a long time after first viewing The Skull - maybe years! - I was terrified to turn around or look over my shoulder when I was alone in my family's old farmhouse. I just knew there was a disembodied floating skull directly behind me, and that to turn and face it would bring my instant doom and eternal torment!
I distinctly recall one night sometime after this, when I was still afflicted with the dread of the Skull Over My Shoulder - a late autumn wind storm was buffeting the old farm house, and woke me from a nightmare-ridden slumber. The wind wailed and moaned, and my bedroom windows rattled incessantly as the wind whistled through the cracks around them. I bore it as long as I could, but finally could take no more and fled to the living room. I had spent many nights there, sleeping with a light on. My bedroom was no sanctuary, as I had been tormented by creatures there on many nights, and had even been dragged into the abysmal black depths of my closet, through the evil hole in the wall therein. All in nightmares of course, but we all know how fine the line is between dream and "reality."
Unfortunately, on this night, the lighted living room would offer no reprieve: I had just settled in when the lamp above my head went dark! I rose warily and tried the light switch again and again, as the wind wailed and beat at the picture window behind me. My muscles stiffened in fear, and with each "click" my every movement and thought became equally labored as the dread spread throughout my entire body. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I moved as quickly as I could - which seemed unnaturally slow, as if moving through molasses - to the stairs, hoping to reach the safety of my parents' bedroom on the floor above before that protective barrier of glass gave way and admitted entrance to the Thing Outside That Wanted To Eat My Soul. I trudged up the stairs, forcing my frozen legs to move, step by agonizing step.
As I reached the top and turned - ever so slowly, it seemed - to go up the hall to their room, it happened: a howl - no, a protracted screech, like nothing I'd ever heard before (and, honestly, since) resounded through the house. It was like a tormented woman's scream and a dying cat's shriek were carried upon and fed by the howling wind. I felt real, sudden terror at that very moment. My paralysis broke as the adrenalin tore through my limbs, and that last fifteen feet to my parents' bedroom went by in a blur..
Ah, youthful imagination. It was a boon and a bane. Despite the sense of dread I often felt and the paralyzing nightmares I suffered almost nightly, I believe I miss it. Nowadays, my fears are of more mundane things: high blood pressure and cholesterol, identity theft, paying past due bills, my kids messing up their lives, etc. I miss the purity of being frozen with fear at the banshee-howl of the wind that has just knocked out the power on a deep, dark, stormy night...
Ah, well - enough waxing nostalgic. In honor of my favorite time of year, and hoping to help us all recapture those nameless fears of youth, here's "Welcome to Fright Night," originally posted in early 2009. Enjoy! *muhahahahaha*
Although 1981 was "The Year" as far as my gaming history is concerned, 1985 was almost as important to that history - and perhaps more important in terms of who I am today.
To fully understand the significance of that year, you'll need a bit of back-story:
I was - by all accounts - a timid kid. I was shy and sensitive, imaginative and introverted - and easily frightened. I can still recall some things from my childhood that terrified me for years: seeing an ad for The Exorcist on TV, with a young girl being thrown around on her bed as she begged her mother to "Please, make it stop!"; watching the TV movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - in the dark - in my older sister's room; watching The Skull on "Monster Movie Matinee" and seeing Peter Cushing, the hero of so many Hammer Horror Dracula movies get killed by a floating skull; being taunted by my older siblings with tales of the ghost that they claimed haunted the dark cellar of our old farmhouse. These things, and others, tortured my fevered imagination for years, providing more than enough fuel for the horrible nightmares I experienced almost every night for most of the 1970's.
Because of this, I generally avoided anything having to do with the horror genre. At the same time, though, I was a huge fan of the aforementioned "Monster Movie Matinee" and - to a lesser extent - its later competitor, "Eivom." Mostly, MMM played old 50's sci-fi movies, which I absolutely loved. When they played Hammer or Universal films or movies starring Vincent Price, I didn't mind them so much, but they were usually only mildly scary. I also watched TV's "Night Stalker" and "Night Gallery," but only rarely - these were about as much as I could take, and almost always came back to haunt me (pun possibly intended) in my sleep.
As the 80's replaced the 70's, and Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons and Atari replaced pretty much everything else, the nightmares began to subside and I began to overcome my childhood terrors. I was still not a fan of the horror genre, but it had less of a deleterious effect on me.
And then came 1985.
In the late spring of 1985, I was 18 years old. I was commuting to college, had my own car, and a job. I'd been playing RPG's for over four years - first D&D, then Top Secret. Up to that time, the only RPG paraphernalia I'd purchased had come from Kay-Bee Toys, Walden Books, or (in one instance) a hobby shop I'd found while vacationing in Massachusetts. But the previous year, some time in the spring, I had heard a radio ad for a local game shop called A&J Hobby. I made a lone trip there, and from the moment I set foot into the store, I was in love with it. Here, at my fingertips, were so many things I'd seen for years in Dragon magazine, and more. Unfortunately, I didn't have much money at the time, so all I walked out with was a game I would come to really love: Villains & Vigilantes.
A&J Hobby - as it turned out - was only about a mile from the college I was attending in 1985, and right on one of the main ways to get home. I wouldn't say I was a frequent visitor, but I stopped fairly regularly to check out their stock.
It was on one of these stops, in late May of '85, when a game in the storefront window caught my attention: It was in a brown box. The cover bore the image of a man clad in early 19th-century dress, standing in the midst of a wind-swept cemetery, being stalked through the moonlit night by creatures only hinted at by a pair of glowing red eyes in the background and a hairy claw in the foreground. The game's title was proclaimed in a cliched-but-not-out-of-place ghostly typeface: Chill.
Like most of us, I've bought plenty of things on impulse. Granted, as the years have piled on, I've become far more jaded and less easily moved to purchase based on pretty packaging - but even today, I can still find myself seriously considering buying a product if the packaging connects with the proper sensory input. What I saw when I walked past that shop window was an image straight out of my youth; an image that conjured up Saturday afternoon in front of the TV, watching the camera dolly over the carefully crafted miniature landscape of MMM, down to the creaky bridge, over the misty swamp, up the jagged steps, and through the doors of Monster Mansion. Watching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in all their scenery-chewing glory. Feeling the thrill of being frightened (but now without the fear of the nightmares that would surely follow).
Yessir - I was sold on Chill the second I laid eyes on that Jim Holloway cover.
I still recall getting home that day and breaking out the game: It had started out as a fairly sunny, late-spring day. It was warm, but there was the slightest chill to the breeze. As the day wore on and I arrived home at the old farmhouse with my newfound prize, the clouds moved in. By the time I sat down at the dining room table to read the book, it was dark gray outside the windows, and the slight breeze had given way to utter stillness. It was warm still, and though the skies threatened rain, none came. Then, as I opened the rulebook and began to read, a misty drizzle begn to fall. At that moment, I had not only finally overcome my fear of The Unkown, but I had - that gray day - embraced it.
Less than two months later, I would discover - thanks to my nephew - the works of a weird fantasy/horror author by the name of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Shortly after that, my newfound love of the horror genre would be solidly cemented by the realease of one of my all-time favorite movies, Fright Night. And, before the summer reached its end, I would play my first horror RPG. (Albeit a bastardized mash-up of Chill, Top Secret, and Villains & Vigilantes.)
I'm still a huge fan of the horror genre, in all its forms and media. Since that day, I've probably played more horror games than any other genre, watched more horror movies/TV than any other genre, and read/written more horror fiction than any other genre. Since that day, I have fully explored and come to terms with the sources of my childhood fears, and even though the nightmares I have now are more terrifying by far than any I had as a child, they are - thankfully - few and far between.
In terms of the game itself: Chill isn't the best system ever written. (I've never been a fan of resolution tables.) But it does its job well - the entire system is constructed to foster the theme of the game. And the rules are presented in a package that, IMHO, conveys the game's atmosphere perfectly.
So, in honor of the game that would be the catalyst to set me on a path of self-discovery, here's a character sheet for Pacesetter's Chill:
I've been ramping up to run a pulp-y science fantasy game for quite some time, in true Planet Algol fashion, with setting and adventures liberally borrowed from the aforementioned blog.*
I was never quite happy with the idea of using D&D as the core system, though. I briefly considered using instead Stormbringer or Elric, but that idea never set well, either. As my desire to run an Algolian game grew, it seemed that finding a suitable system became harder.
Then, after several nights of indulging in '80s nostalgia (driven by watching several seasons of "Magnum, P.I.") and harkening back to the halcyon days of my intro to gaming - which happened to, thanks mostly to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tales of the Gold Monkey, coincide with a burgeoning love for pulp-era fiction, style, and music - my mind wandered to a system I had briefly fallen in love with over a decade ago: Buck Rogers: High Adventure Cliffhangers.**
BR:HAC is about as rules lite as it gets. As one review I read put it, it's a game for people who think Savage Worlds is too crunchy. (I'm paraphrasing here, since I no longer recall the source.) It's fast, lean, and offers a cinematic/dime store novel feel without all the overhead that seems to come along with it in many other game systems. And even though it's clearly set in the Buck Rogers' "universe," its rules-light nature makes it a prime candidate for house ruling/shoehorning into one's own setting.
For a pulp-themed game, BR:HAC really plays into the style of the genre. I've toyed with TSR's Gangbusters and Indiana Jones, and spent far too many hours prepping for a Savage Worlds game that never materialized; I think this is because the systems for these games, although each worthy in their own right, never hit the pulp sweet spot in my mind.
I chose BR:HAC for my Algol game, because I didn't want to do the usual murder-hobo D&D game. I wanted a real pulp feel that D&D just doesn't deliver with its levels and hit points. BR:HAC just seemed to hit the right spot.
The proof is in the play: I ran a multi-adventure session of my "Planet Algol: High Adventure Cliffhangers" game over the weekend, and it was an unmitigated success. Furthermore, I've been badgered daily since then to run more PA:HAC games. It seems like using BR:HAC was the right choice.
Thanks to BR:HAC, it even looks like I may finally be running a few "standard" pulp/noir games in the near future. And that's something I've been yearning to do since those Gold Monkey days, when my 16-year-old self forewent contemporary idols for the likes of Humphrey Bogart, wore bow-ties and white felt hats, and listened to the Andrews Sisters.***
***RIP Patty Andrews (below, center), last surviving member of that wonderful trio, who passed away just a few hours prior to this post. Thank you and your sisters for helping fuel an awkward teen's love of a bygone era.
"To me one of the best parts of DMing is that you get a chance to build all sorts of fun static pieces like monsters, dungeons, wilderness environs and then you let players loose on them to see what happens. Usually it involves watching your toys getting broken, but hopefully the players do an interesting job of wrecking your precious creations."
"I’m an adventurer. I want to know what’s in the box."
W. Dear, The Dungeon Master
Order of the d30
Since I bought my first d30's with the Armory's book of d30 tables several decades ago when they first came out (back when they were numbered 0 to 9, three times - none of this fancy 1 to 30 business!), I figure I can claim membership in this Order!