Friday, April 24, 2009

Welcome to Fright Night

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:

. . . . .

8 comments:

sirlarkins said...

There are some definite parallels here with my own experience. I was definitely simultaneously terrified and fascinated by horror movies as a kid. This was no doubt helped considerably by the fact that my mom absolutely forbade me from watching R-rated films, which only lent the thing an air of forbidden fruit.

My first horror-related RPG purchase was GURPS Horror. Although this wasn't the first time I cracked the book, within a couple months I had an incident occur where I was reading the chapter on "Things Man Was Not Meant to Know" (aka Lovecraftian horrors) and, without realizing it, my nose spontaneously started bleeding. My first clue was when a giant dollop of blood fell onto the page. I still have that book, and the blood stain is still clearly visible.

Christopher B said...

"I still have that book, and the blood stain is still clearly visible."

That is just perfect! Makes me wish I owned a blood-stained horror RPG, just for the bragging rights.:P

arcona said...

What a great story. I had a somewhat similar experience with an oncoming storm when I purchased Call of Cthulu and flipped through it at home for the first time. It just wouldn't do to read a horror rulebook on a bright sunny day with cute bunnies hopping around the place, would it?

Propnomicon said...

I whiled away many a Saturday night playing "Car Wars" and "Star Fleet Battles" in the basement of A & J.

Good times.

tegeus said...

I was at the Local Gamestore back in the early '80s and wanted to pick up a Horror RPG for the first time. I wanted Call of Cthulhu but I could only afford Chill. I never regreted it. I ran a lot of one-off Against the Unknown Detective style adventures set in the 1930's near Boston. Great fun and great atmosphere. I actually liked the Mayfair edition as well (which I understand is rare for Chill fans).

Christopher B said...

@Propnomicon: You know, whenever I was in the place, the other guys that were there (invariably playing games, if memory serves) acted like I was invisible. Even when I purchased something, I never got more than a couple of words from any of them. Maybe I just didn't give off enough of a gamer geek vibe... :P

Christopher B said...

"It just wouldn't do to read a horror rulebook on a bright sunny day with cute bunnies hopping around the place, would it?"

Well, it would be surreal at the very least. :D

Christopher B said...

@tegeus: You're not alone: I have a guilty fondness for the Mayfair edition. Aside from a couple horrid design decisions (text over dark design elements making some pages unreadable) and the cartoonish artwork (and even that grows on you, IMHO), I really like the game. I only got to play it once, but I had a lot of fun and would gladly do it again, given the opportunity.