Since we're on the topic of things that are scary, I think this is a perfect time to introduce the side project that's been filling my brain of late. (Well, one of them, anyway.) It's one of my current writing projects: Scary Things.
Scary Things is about a bunch of kids from different cliques who, upon hitting adolescence, find that they suddenly have supernatural abilities. It's as much about discovering the full extents of these abilities (not to mention their origin) and the new reality they open up for the kids as it is about them having to transcend their social boundaries and biases to learn how to work together - which they'll have to do to survive in their strange, scary, new world.
And before we get to the meat of this article, let me head off something at the pass: the title, "Scary Things," is not in any way inspired or influenced by NetFlix's (awesome!) series, Stranger Things. Nor is its concept. Scary Things actually began its life as the title of a set of miniatures skirmish game rules I was working on, shortly after I released New World Disorder. (In my former life as an indie game designer.) It was to be a horror-themed variant of the NWD rules, but it never got beyond the play-testing stage. The name later found new life as the title of a rules-lite, horror-themed role playing game concept I very briefly tinkered with.
Then, a few years ago, I awoke in the middle of the night and - as so often happens when I'm laying in the inky blackness, wide awake - ideas started pouring into my head for a story about a bunch of teens who are endowed with supernatural powers. It was an off-shoot of my quarter-century long horror RPG campaign, which I've considered turning into a series of books for almost as long. (Which, as of last year, I've finally begun to do, with my Fred Carter adventures.)
I knew immediately what the title of this story would be.
Thus, Scary Things, in its true form - the form that feels like the name deserved all along - was born.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to introduce to you: Scary Things.
. . . . .
Scary Things, Part One: "Endings and Beginnings" Prologue
Maria had just finished her rounds of the nursery when the hospital lights went down for the night.
She stood in the doorway of the nurse's station and took one more moment to scan the room, thinking to herself how pleasantly quiet it had fallen. With the lights down and the half-dozen infants sleeping like, for lack of a better word, babies, the nursery was blissfully - and uncommonly - tranquil for this time of the evening.
She turned and went to set her clipboard on the desk at the station. As she did, she bumped the large orange and white cup of coffee she'd set there at the start of her shift. For half a heartbeat, she wondered how it had gotten so close to the edge of the desk. Then, it toppled over and, as she dove to catch it, hit the arm of the chair and seemed to explode - some into her face and the rest all over the front of her lime green scrubs.
She opened her mouth to curse but caught herself in time - realizing that the current tranquility of her evening shift was a fragile thing, susceptible to breakage by such things as a loud torrent of expletives. No spilled cup of coffee was worth the risk of filling the rest her shift with six screaming infants.
"Madre de Dios," she muttered under her breath, snatching up a nearby towel and wiping in futility at the cold coffee that was rapidly saturating her pants from the knees down.
It only took a few wipes to become clear to her that this wasn't going to be an easy cleanup. She glanced again over her shoulder at the nursery, as if something there might have changed in the few moments that had passed. She thought for a moment - a very brief moment - about calling someone from Maternity to come down the hall and watch over her charges while she went to clean up her mess. It's what she would normally have done - she took her responsibility as the infants' caregiver and protector with utmost seriousness.
But tonight the peacefulness of the sleeping babes seemed to fill her with a sense of security. She felt they would be all right. Just lock the door, her inner voice - the one that hardly ever led her astray - told her. They're sound asleep. They'll be fine.
She didn't give it a second thought - she went into the hall, closed the door behind her, and locked it with the key dangling from the rubber bracelet on her right wrist. Then, whistling a half-forgotten lullaby her grammy used to sing to her, she went up the hall to go get some fresh scrubs.
She didn't notice the human-like figure that moved up the hall behind her, cloaked deep in shadows that none of the hall lights were casting. Nor did she hear the same lullaby being softly whistled from the figure's lips, the bottom of which was swollen and split, causing blood to well up but not to run.
The shadowy intruder stopped at the locked nursery door and watched Maria as she continued down the hall, remaining still until she turned the corner and was out of sight. Then, it turned to the door, still cloaked in unnatural shadow. Its head, covered by a blood-stained silk scarf, bowed as it focused on the door handle. Its hands - also smeared with still-damp blood - reached toward the handle, but instead of grasping it, simply waved over it as a few words softly issued from its bloody lips.
A strange light played across the door handle and it turned easily. The figure raised its head and hands as if to push the door, which opened without being touched. The figure took one glance up and down the hall before it slipped into the nursery. The door swung silently shut behind it.
To kick off the Halloween season, I thought I'd take you on yet another trip down memory lane. Except this time, the lane takes a turn into the depths of a lonely forest, where the trees squat threateningly close to the path and block even the pale light of the gibbous moon on the horizon...
I've mentioned before that I was a sensitive youth, and that I was horribly afflicted by nightmares through most of my childhood. (My earliest memory is actually of my mother coming to me after I'd awakened, screaming, in my crib, and of the nightmare that caused me to do so. Talk about "setting the scene.") But, believe it or not, I also loved spooky tales and horror films, despite the frightful effect they always had on me. I couldn't keep myself away from them if I'd wanted to.
I was a living, breathing paradox.
I've also mentioned before how I made my first foray into horror role playing in 1985, using a mash-up of TSR's Top Secret, Pacesetter's Chill and FGU's Villains & Vigilantes. I only got to play a couple games of this creation before I retired from playing RPGs for several years.
When I returned to role playing at the tail end of the '80s, it was to the old stand-by: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I played this with a couple of people (my later-to-be-ex and one of her friends) who were only marginally interested in gaming. They were both still in high school, and I later discovered that they had a couple of school mates who, apparently, were part of a regular gaming group. I expressed interest, and they arranged for me to run a game of AD&D for this group.
The group in question consisted of the youngest brother of my childhood best friend (and someone whom I hadn't seen in almost a decade, but who would soon become my new best friend for the decade-plus to come), a guy I worked with but didn't know all that well, and couple of other guys, brothers, I'd never met. I was nervous, having never run a game for strangers before - I had no idea if it was going to flop, or - worse - turn into one of those RPG horror shows one would occasionally hear whispers of back in the day.
But it was a blast!
That game was the birth of what would be - with the occasional membership change - my core gaming group for the next twenty years.
But that's not the topic of this post. This post is about the foundations of my horror gaming history, which - despite that mid-eighties game - was really born with this group of people.
You see, I was invited back to join that group for the following week's game. Their existing game master was going to be running a game of his ongoing horror campaign, using a system I hadn't heard of: Palladium's Beyond the Supernatural("BTS").
This session would turn out to be the first of scores of horror role playing game sessions. The bulk of these took place between 1989 and 1996, but the campaign setting that grew from the first games is the same setting (including characters) in which we've played as recently as last year (2015). I would have never imagined that this first step for me into an unfamiliar game system with a new group of people would spawn something that would last a quarter of a century. It still boggles my mind!
And it all started with this character: Fred Carter.
Yes, you read that right - his name's Fred. I suppose an explanation is in order.
As I said, BTS was a new system for me. I had never even laid eyes on the book prior to showing up for that night's game, so I was completely overwhelmed by it. But I needed to make a character fairly quickly so we could get to the game. Not being able to immediately grasp the nuances of the multitude of character class options available to me, I was lost. Then, I saw a picture in the book of a spiky-haired man blazing away with an assault rifle at an unseen enemy and decided that would be my character - a gun-toting, paramilitary type. So I opted for the Physical Genius P.C.C. (That means Psychic Character Class, for you non-Palladium readers.)
Here's a free tip, kiddies: if ever you get the chance to give BTS a go, steer way clear of the Genius character classes. There's not much there you can't already pull off with a smart selection of skills; the perks you get for taking the class are next to useless, and that's about what your character will end up being, as a result. In the meantime, all your fellow players will be playing super heroes.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a hot tip from a hip, popular gaming-geek blogger to warn me off the class, and I compounded poor ability score rolls with a poor class choice. Followed by mediocre skill selection. Topped off by a poor roll on the background table.
In short, I ended up with an average meat bag. A coffin stuffer of completely ordinary proportions. A mook. And one who had formerly been institutionalized ("All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi.") for - get this - fear of the dark. In a game full of proto-super heroes - martial artists of profound physical ability, mages who can step into shadow and throw fireballs, and psychics who can see into the past, read minds, cause spontaneous combustion, etc., - I had a character who could walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. On a good day.
Disappointed, I gave my everyday guy an everyday name: Fred. (And I topped it off with a nod to my favorite story by my favorite author: "The Statement of Randolph Carter.")
But the thing is, being a total non-hero was the best thing that could have happened to the character. And to me as a player.
You see, while everybody else was running around finding out what the monster of the week was and how to defeat it, I got to play a character who didn't have to think, didn't have to interrogate NPCs, didn't have to read books. All Fred had to do was be the meat shield for the group's "useful" characters. For the real heroes.
Fred quickly rose to be the protector of the group. It was a role that totally suited me. I could turn off my brain, which - as someone who's usually the game master - was a brilliant thing. I didn't have to be "on" all the time, like I did when running a game. What's more, I had time and energy to spend on developing Fred's personality.* (And the residual fear of the dark added a nice touch that let me delve even more deeply into role playing him.)
It was a the most fun I'd ever had playing a character. Or ever would have.
As time (and games) passed, I left Fred behind to try some of the other character classes available to a BTS player. I settled on a parapsychologist - Fred's uncle, I believe - who suited my intellectual side, and let me be a little more invested in the mystery behind each game session's lurking Big Bad.
Before long, the group moved to playing TriTac's Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic (or "Satlking," as we call it). It seemed to suit us better than BTS, and we played many more horror games in that system (but with the same campaign universe and NPCs). Everybody made new characters for the game - except me.
I went back to Fred.
I remade Fred, and this time had better luck with my ability score rolls. Not only did he come out a little more buff (and not so ugly!), but he rolled a high enough "PSI" score to make him an "Anti-PSI," meaning his presence made life difficult for psychic beings, and his touch drained them of their power. This made Fred the Protector even better at a job he'd already become very good at, and to this day, I revel in every chance I get to play him.
Which, sadly, is next to never.
So, in honor of the character I've played in more game sessions that any other, here's to Fred. Fred, the mook. Fred, the goofball. Fred, the guy who dives in front of bullets so the guy who can save the day doesn't get taken out. Fred, the guy who pisses off fellow PCs when they forget he's an Anti-PSI and try to use their psychic powers around him. Fred, the guy who punches the monster in the face and gets punched back while the witch casts the spell to banish it.
Here's to Fred Carter, the coolest nobody I've ever met.
P.S.: Watch for an upcoming post in which I share the gory (not just figuratively) details of Fred's first BTS game.
P.P.S.: I love Fred Carter (and his adventures) so much that I'm working on an urban fantasy novel/novella featuring him. Hopefully, the first of many. If you're interested in that sort of thing, keep an eye on my writing blog: christopherbrackett.com.
*In case you're interested, I played Fred's Intelligence score of 14 like it was 9. And I played his personality as a cross between two of my all-time favorite film heroes: Jack Burton and Ash Williams (as seen in Evil Dead II - Army of Darkness had yet to be made!). He can be a little annoying (or so I've often been told) but everybody knows that when the poop hits the proverbial fan, he's all business. He leaps into danger when his friends are in trouble - with even less thought than usual - and would give up his life to defend an ally or an innocent. I figure that allows him some latitude when it comes to being a bit of a wise-cracking meathead.
In the coming days, we'll be indulging a bit more in some nostalgia involving the scary side of role playing, including Palladium's horror-themed RPG, Beyond the Supernatural ("BTS"), first edition.
To get everyone primed for these meandering jaunts down memory lane, I thought I'd re-post my last BTS-specific creation: the character sheet my game group's been using since 2009 or so.
Which, unfortunately, means we haven't used it much at all - I can probably count on one hand the number of BTS games I've played in that time. TriTac's Bureau 13 just had more traction with my group, so BTS was always sitting on the sidelines, watching and hoping to get picked first next time.
That's really a pity, because BTS is a really fun game. It's not perfect, of course, but there's really nothing like sending in your proto-super hero to smash some nasties in the face (be it literally or figuratively). We'll cover that ground a little more in the aforementioned posts.
Anyway, here's a simple sheet for a simple (but fun) game from the days of yore, for those of you who keep the torch lit...
If I recall correctly, I drew this one up while watching Re-Animator on videotape, rented from the video store right after it was released to video. (If you're of a certain age, the latter half of that sentence may confuse you. Come to think of it, the former half might, as well.) I loved the movie and wanted to throw a version of the story into my Call of Cthulhu/Chill/Villains & Vigilantes mash-up. (This never saw use in those games, but it did finally get used a few years later, during my Beyond the Supernatural campaign.)
So, I drew up a map of what I thought Arkham and its envrions should look like (which I'll share later) and this, the "modern" sciences building of my version of Miskatonic University: the Corman Tech building.
(And yes, the building's name is a nod to the director of some of my all-time favorite films.)
October's right around the corner, and that means that Halloween is imminent. And that means a series of horror gaming-related posts is also imminent!
As a prelude of what's to come, I thought I'd share another piece of my handmade gaming paraphernalia. Specifically, the grounds map and floor plan of the Stilman Institute, home to a sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, of the player characters in my Beyond the Supernatural ("BTS" to my group) game.
(For those not in the know, BTS is a really fun little game from Palladium. It pits characters who are essentially low-powered super heroes against all manner of supernatural beasties. You could do worse than to give it a try - just stay away from the incomplete second edition. Stick with the all-in-one rules set with the inspirational Richard Corben cover.)
The Institute is a group of federally funded psychic researchers. (The term "paranormal investigators" had yet to come into vogue when this map wa created - sometime in the very early '90s.) It's led by wheelchair-bound Ezra Stilman and his daughter, Maya. (I believe I have character sheets for both of these characters - if I can find them, look for them soon...)
My first set of non-standard (read as: not just six-sided) polyhedral dice came in my Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons set in 1981. I didn't know it at the time, but these were apparently uncommon colors for the TSR dice: they were a combination of solid red dice and pink-and-white marbled dice.
Unfortunately, although I still have my first dice, they are tattered and worn, having fallen victim to a poorly conceived dice-bag-as-hacky-sack affair sometime in the mid '80s. I was bummed out, but not distraught over it. I had mostly moved on to playing Top Secret at that time, and I had several other sets of "Dragon Dice" that fared far better in the aforementioned incident and which could take the place of the damaged dice. Also, by then, my first wave of gaming had almost reached its end, and my renewed interest in the hobby wouldn't arrive until the end of the decade - by which time, dice were no longer hard to come by. (And were better made and came in more interesting variations.)
So I never really felt at much of a loss over my D&D dice - until the last several years.
Over the course of the least eight years, I looked every now and then to replace these dice. And although I was able to locate many Basic and Expert sets with their dice sets intact, I was unable to find any like the ones I had originally owned. I hadn't realized when I was in my late teens just how hard it would be to replace the damaged dice. (Isn't that always the way?)
Finally, last year, I found a Moldvay boxed set on eBay with a set of dice that was almost exactly like mine - they were all marbled, unlike my mixed set of solid and marbled dice. But having spent so long looking for a set even close to mine - with no luck whatsoever - I barely hesitated to pay the rather hefty price for the boxed set.
I've now mostly replaced my original set of dice, and that makes me happy.
While looking for a good image to use with the Zen and the Art of Dice article, I stumbled across some images that reminded me of my old TSR dice. These sent me on a short journey down memory lane.
I blame the following products.
I can't look at the wickedly cool, stylized imagery of these old "Dragon Dice" packages without feeling a deep pang of nostalgia. They're just so cool, and seeing them instantly transports me to 1982, where I'm standing at the counter of B. Dalton Booksellers and agonizing over which ones to buy. (Ultimately, I bought a set of each of the ones below, plus a couple differently colored sets. Yes, my dice addiction started early.)
I still have all of them - including some I added in the past few years and those that came with my Gangbusters and Star Frontiers boxed sets, and even those from my Moldvay Basic D&D set. (More on these, tomorrow!) I don't use them anymore - as much as I love them, they really aren't the greatest dice - but I occasionally take them out and admire them, recalling fondly the period of my life they represent.
I know there are people who see dice as unbiased (as long as they're balanced) randomizers. To these people, they're just tools of the trade - simple devices that behave in a mathematically predictable manner. Such an idea as luck or mind over matter having any bearing on the outcome of a die roll is nothing more than an artificial construct that superstitious humans force upon their perceived reality to make sense of what they believe to be statistical anomalies.
I'm not one of these people.
Mind you: I'm an extremely rational person. While I do believe there's more to "reality" than we'll ever understand, I approach life with what I like to think of as a healthy degree of skepticism. I also firmly believe that it's human nature to ascribe supernatural causes to effects we can't otherwise explain. Although I have my own experiences that cause me to question certain things, I take second-hand tales of "unexplainable" occurrences and the like with a huge grain of salt.
That disclaimer aside, I've seen enough people rolling dice in the last five decades to come to believe that it's possible for a person to "warp the curve," as they say.
Take my fiancee, for example. She has a true talent for consistently blowing the statistical bell curve toward the high end with any dice she's given. I've long-since disproved that this ability has anything to do with uneven, biased dice - she can do it with any dice she's handed; her dice (which she changes frequently - she's truly embraced the gamer's dice addiction), my dice (which roll like crap for me, generally - more on this, below), our friends' dice, and even the communal dice - including my Zocchi and Game Science dice.
Interestingly, there are times when she blows the curve to the left - toward the low end. And this almost always happens when she's sick. Her focus weakens and she her dice rolls show it.
When she's healthy, though, watch out.
(And don't even get me started on her characters' ability scores. Sheesh. I've actually had to make her re-roll her scores when creating characters because her scores were so insanely unreasonable that I felt it'd be unfair to the other players. In fact, in a game where the other players get to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die to determine their scores, I usually make her roll a straight 3d6, just to keep things fair.)
I'm different. When I'm rolling for myself, I almost always roll toward the low end of average. Not enough to say that I warp any curves, but definitely enough so that my play experience is awfully rough. I therefore try to avoid "going to the dice" as much as possible when playing rather than GMing.
When I'm rolling as the GM/DM, though, things change. For every crit I roll as a player, I easily roll 10 as a game master. (I make about five times as many rolls as GM, so I'd expect the numbers to reflect a similar ratio.) My players have repeatedly remarked how they want to smash the twenty-siders I use as a GM - the same ones I use when I'm a player.
It all seems to come down to focus. When I'm playing, I don't have the focus on the game that I do when I GM. I don't have the sense of control, either. And that mental state - believe it or not - affects the outcome of my dice rolls.
You may scoff at this perspective, or you may be sitting there going: "Right on, dude!" Either way, I know what I've witnessed.
Over the years, I've gamed with many people who - like myself - have terrible luck when it comes to rolling dice. From these folks, I've learned that there are a few simple rules you can follow when using your dice that will (hopefully) mitigate the adverse effects of forces outside your control:
First, always prep new dice before using them in-game. Never roll them straight out of the package! New dice must first be allowed time to mingle in your dice bag with your existing dice for a day or two.
Second, never use new dice, even after they've been acclimated to your dice environment, or dice that have proven themselves hostile to you, when playing a character you love. The risk is too great!
Third, try using "dice rituals" to ensure proper behavior from your dice. Such rituals include:
Keep your readied ("on the bench") dice critical number face-up so they're ready to roll their best numbers.
Before rolling, "spank" the die. That is, hold it with its critical number face-up and smack the bottom side on the table. The harder the surface, the better - so aim for exposed wood and the like. (But be sure not to dent your host's table.)
Cup the die in your hands and blow on it before rolling.
Be sure that any other players who may jinx your roll (opponents or players with a history of bad dice rolling) aren't looking when you roll.
Be sure to get a good, hard drop and bounce when releasing the die. Don't just limply drop it, or send it sliding sideways across the table.
Always roll on a hard surface - avoid rolling on books, character sheets, play mats, etc. Again, aim for exposed tabletop.
Keep the die in your "zone." Don't let roll into another player's zone, or - worse - onto another player's character sheet, or - worst of all - into another player's dice.
Be sure to keep multiple types of any given die nearby ("the second string") so the dice on the bench know that they could be pulled out of the game if they don't perform as expected.
Always put your best-performing dice on the bench first - don't mix up the starting lineup between games. Dice like to be rewarded for being top performers.
Fourth, don't be afraid to use negative reinforcement as a tool to correct bad behavior in a die that rolls bad several times in a row. (Never punish a die for a single bad roll - we all screw up once in a while, even when we try our best.) Some suggestions:
Send the die to timeout. Put it aside, behind the bench with the second string dice, and put a die from the second string in its place on the bench. But only keep it there for a few rolls. Once you feel it's sat out enough of the game, switch it back to the bench.
Send the die to the second string. As above, but keep it out of the game until its replacement lets you down, then give it a second chance.
Pull the die from the game. Put it back in the dice bag, possibly after admonishing it for its lousy performance.
Send the die for re-education. Set it aside; after the game, perform one or more of the resetting steps (below).
Banish the die. Pull the die from the game, but don't put it back in your dice bag. Put it in a backup dice bag, or - better yet - put it in the communal dice pile, if you have one.
Publicly execute the die. The "public" in question here doesn't refer to the other players, but to the other dice. Surround the offending die with its peers and smash it with a hammer. Or melt it in a pan. Or any other creative and meaningful form of dice execution you can devise. (Just be sure to take proper care not to injure yourself, family pets, or anyone or anything other than the offending die.)
One caveat: DO NOT throw a bad die, even if it's just at a wall. It could bounce and hurt you or another player. Or, worse yet, one of your other dice!
And, finally, the last, Golden Rule of Dice:
Never, EVER, touch another player's dice, or let another player touch your own.
Touching other players' dice is just bad form. Don't engage in this barbaric behavior, and don't suffer fools who do.
Seriously, you don't want your star die to become corrupted. It can take days, months - even years - for that sort of bad mojo ("dice cooties" is, I believe, the technical term) to wear off.
In the event that another player does bad-touch your dice, immediately separate them from your other dice. You don't want the contagion to spread. Keep the contaminated dice away from your other dice until they've been reset to default. Here are a few steps you can take to reset them:
Wash them in warm, soapy water.
Set them on a window sill and let them charge in the sun for seven days.
Wrap them in foil and bury them on the night of a new moon; dig them up on the next full moon.
The number of steps you take is up to you, but should be appropriate to the situation. For example, if your dice have been compromised by another player whom you know to be egregiously bad at rolling dice, I recommend performing at least the first two steps - if not all three!
After they've been reset, the dice will, of course, need to be re-attuned to you. Be sure to follow the previously mentioned steps for preparing new dice for their first use.
Follow these simple rules, and you'll be sure to prevent as many outside forces as possible from contaminating your dice rolls. All that will be left to deal with is your own poor luck/karma/mental focus.
And I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that. But many people make careers out of that sort of service, so I'm sure you'll be okay.
Are you a true dice fetishist? Not if you don't have at least a few of ThinkGeek's dice-lover's products!
I was trying to think of a good story for a blog post, so I started scraping at the back of my brain to see what was hiding beneath the layers of dust and cobwebs.*
(*Warning: I do not advise you do this without extensive preparation. The things to be found there can be dangerous and hungry!)
There, lurking in a dark corner, I encountered a memory - or at least a fragment of one - from my earliest days of playing Dungeons and Dragons, circa 1982, with my high school buddies. If I recall correctly, it was of the last game we ever played together. It's hard to see it clearly and it's tattered at the edges - much like my original D&D dice from my Moldvay Basic set are today - but I think I recall enough of it to regale you with it.
What follows is a cautionary tale of three high school geeks (technically, we were nerds back then) and what happens when they get a taste of too much power. First, a little back story:
My high school friends and I lived and breathed D&D throughout the year of 1982.
As I've said before, my best friend, Brian, and I received the Basic D&D rules for Christmas of 1981. (He, the Holmes set, and myself, the Moldvay set.) But that was just the gateway drug that led us to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. By late summer, we had each assembled a hodgepodge collection of Basic and Advanced books and we were playing a game that was essentially Moldvay Basic with the classes, spells, and monsters from AD&D tacked onto it. (Judging from what I've read and heard from other gamers of that era, this was the standard format for many D&D players.)
Due to my living so far from town, we didn't game together frequently. Brian, I believe, gamed semi-regularly with our other friend, John, and a couple of other on-again-off-again players. I played semi-regularly with my nephew. But at school, D&D was one of our prime topics of conversation. We'd discuss things such as the content of the latest issue of Dragon magazine or what impossible "heroic" (read as: "murderous") exploits our player characters had undertaken within our respective gaming groups. (You know: fighting and killing a god out of the Deities and Demigods book and looting its corpse like it was a dead goblin. That sort of thing. Good stuff!) The number of games I actually got to play with my high school friends could probably be counted on one hand, and all but the one I'm about to relate have completely faded from memory.
It was November or December of '82, and it was one of the rare occasions that I hosted my friends. Whether it was due to their parents' reluctance to cart them to my house in the boonies, or my parents' reluctance to have a bunch of teenage boys in their home, I don't know. But most get-togethers were at my friends' homes, most often, Brian's. (This often meant supping on his mother's "spaghetti pizza," which he and his brothers loved. But - sorry, guys and Mom Z. - that stuff was gross. It's why I usually tried to avoid being at the Z. house at dinner time.)
On this particular occasion, Brian was acting as Dungeon Master. John was playing his Barbarian (a new character class from Dragon magazine? Yeah, baby!), Thorbeorn, and I, my Elf fighter/magic-user, Moordow. Both player characters, under different DMs, had slain at least one god - in fair and totally unbiased combats, free of DM fiat, I assure you. We were in a dungeon the origin of which I've long forgotten. I don't recall there being an oh-so-familiar TSR module cover/DM screen present, so I'm leaning toward it having been a dungeon of Brian's own design.
(It should be noted that John and I did not have a great relationship. He was part of our trio of friends, but I never bonded with him the way I had with Brian. I found him to be goofy and extremely pushy, and he probably found me to be a bit of a critical dick. We were probably both correct in our assessment of one another.)
Here's the entirety of what I recall from that session:
Brian: The corridor ends in a heavy wooden door. It's not locked.
John: I open the door.
Brian: It's dark on the other side, but you see stairs descending into the blackness. As you strain to see into the dark, you see shapes flying around and hear strange, squeaking noises. Suddenly, something dives out at you - stirges! Roll initiative.
John (rolling higher than Brian on his 1d6): I slam the door shut!
Brian: Okay, you close the door and all of the stirges are still on the other side.
Me: Why'd you do that?
John: So we don't have to fight them.
Me: But that's the last door on this level - we obviously have to go down those stairs to get to the next level.
John: I'm sure there's another way down - we don't have to fight the stirges.
I immediately started getting upset at the thought of spending the next half-hour or more of precious game time scouring every previously explored hallway for a secret door that may or may not exist.
Me: What're you? Chicken?
John: I'm not chicken. You're not the leader.
Me: You're not the leader, either.
John: We're not going this way. You can't make Thorbeorn go.
Me: No? Well Moordow could kick your ass and make you go.
John. No he couldn't. And I'd like to see him try.
We began lobbing ability scores and names of readied magic items - including more than a few god weapons and artifacts - at each other. Brian sat in silence, watching the serve and volley.
Me: Fine! I kick open the door and shove Thorbeorn into the stairway.
I think it was Brian's first in-game PVP situation. He just rolled with it.
Brian: Um. Okay, roll initiative. (We rolled - John rolled a 1.) Thorbeorn's surprised. He doesn't get to act this round. (To me:) Roll your attack.
I rolled my not-yet-battered -and-unreadable red TSR twenty-sider. I don't remember the result, but it was enough.
Brian: You shove him into the stairway.
Me: And close the door.
Brian looked surprised. John turned red.
(Mind you: our characters were both level 19 or higher, and we'd both destroyed super-powerful, immortal beings; to this day, I have no clue why either one of us would be concerned for a moment about a pack of stirges. Hey, I never said this tale was going to make sense.)
John: Oh, yeah? Well, I open the door and attack Moordow with Ma Yuan's stone. I'm turning it into a vorpal blade. I'm gonna cut his head off.
Brian: You're surprised. You'll have to wait until your turn in the next round. Moordow gets to go first.
Me: I lock the door.
Brian: You can't. There's no lock.
John smiled at me.
Me: Fine. Then I cast wizard lock on the door.
John glared at me.
John: Yeah? Then I break it down using my 18/00 strength. And I have gauntlets of ogre power and a girdle of storm giant strength.
Brian (starting to feel like he'd lost control of the situation): Um... (thumbing through the Player's Handbook) I don't know if you can break down a wizard locked door...
That was it - John had hit his breaking point.
John: You're stupid!
He threw down his d20 and shoved his goldenrod character sheet and dice away. It was my first ever experience with a D&D rage quit. (I'd seen many other rage quits in board games with my siblings and my nephew. In fact, it wan't an uncommon thing with my opponents, so the behavior wasn't totally unfamiliar to me.)
And that, as they say, was that. I never played D&D - in any form - with my high school friends again.
Now, I could say that this conflict was the sole reason for that, but I don't think that's true.
No, it may have been why we didn't play again for the short term, but the real reason this was the final game, ever, is much more complex, and involves more factors: John's moving away from role playing games, which he was only marginally interested in to start with; Brian and myself moving on to other TSR games (Top Secret was about to eclipse D&D in a big way, especially for me); and jobs, girls, and the impending end of high school - not necessarily in that order.
But it was the last game of D&D I played with anyone other than my much younger nephew or my much older brother-in-law while I was a teenager. It was the last game with my peers, at the zenith of my pre-adult years.
And that's a shame.
We were young, dumb, social misfits, prone to petty squabbles that seemed to be anything but petty in the heat of the moment. If only we could have seen those game sessions through the eyes of our future selves, with the wall of adult responsibilities and adult concerns rising ever higher between us and our teenage selves. If only we could have known how much the memories of them would come to mean to us later on in life. And how hard it would be to keep them from simply slipping away.
Maybe we'd have seen how fleeting our opportunities to enjoy that sort of totally carefree time with our friends would become.
And maybe we'd have enjoyed the hell out of them, even more than we did.
I thought I'd share one of my favorite sources of inspiration for my old-school science fiction and fantasy gaming: The PorPor Books Blog. It's a lens through which I'm once again able to view the books and periodicals (and their often awesome cover art) of my tender years.
If you're not familiar with it, you should really check it out.
In keeping with the pulp, swords and sorcery theme of recent posts, here's a PSA:
For you dice-chuckers out there that love tabletop miniatures games as much as role playing (or for those who haven't discovered the awesomeness that is a miniatures gaming addiction, er, I mean, hobby) there's a great little home-brew game on teh interwebs called Crom. If you like fantasy minis gaming, or just looking at really awesome pictures of others' minis games, you should check it out:
Princess Cynndra awoke, cold and sore. Her vision was clouded, but she knew she wasn't in her bed in the royal suite. Her flesh - completely bare - was chilled by the cold outdoors air. Not the heavy, moist morning air of her beloved Tredakia, but dry, frigid, alien air.
She tried to rise, but heavy manacles about her ankles, wrists, and neck kept her from doing more than shifting slightly. The rough, cold stone raking at her pale flesh told her that she was chained to a stone slab of some sort.
She suddenly became aware that she wasn't alone. Man-like figures moved close around her, dark and threatening. Their grunting and bestial language was unfamiliar, but loud and clearly full of anger.
As her vision began to clear, she saw the figures more clearly: ape-like men, brutish, armed and armored with crude implements. They were shoving and shouting at each other. One would occasionally push the others away and make to climb atop her, only to be dragged back into the fray.
Cynndra had no idea where she might be, but it was obvious what these ape-men intended for her. She had no desire to wait for them to finally decide which of them would be first to have his way with her. She began pulling at the rough manacles, hoping to free herself. Fortunately, they were made for thicker appendages, and she was able to pull a hand free. Then the other.
She'd just gotten a foot free when a loud, enraged shout silenced the bickering ape-men. They cleared as a larger ape-man, a jagged scar across his face, shoved his way through the crowd. He leered down at Cynndra, his black eyes filled with lust and fury.
Lacking a better option, Cynndra began to scream.
. . . . .
Var had been wandering the strange, desolate wasteland for several days. Food and water were scarce here; Intelligent life, apparently non-existent.
He was packing his camp supplies at the base of a rocky hill when a woman's cry sounded from above him. He turned his head to look over his shoulder at the hill and listened for a moment.
Another cry. And another.
He turned back to his backpack, slowly finished packing it, then stood and slung it over his shoulder.
Casually, he turned and made his way up the rocky slope.
. . . . .
The big ape-man grabbed Cynndra's fine, golden hair and sniffed at it. He then forced his way onto her despite her struggles to fend him off. Even free of her bonds, she could never have overcome the giant brute. She turned her face away as he leaned in close, snorting hot breath against her cheek.
She stopped screaming and clenched her eyes shut, steeling herself for what she knew would come next.
Suddenly, a shout of alarm went up from the group. Then, another. The brute leaned up and looked around. Cynndra opened her eyes.
The ape-men were shouting and hooting, pointing at the crest of the hill. Cynndra's gaze followed the direction in which they were gesturing.
Through the spreading crowd, she saw a figure standing atop the hill, silhouetted against the rising orange sun. At first, it just stood there, as if a mirage. Then, the figure's right arm moved away from its hip, and the thin line of a long, grim blade became apparent.
. . . . .
Var let the backpack slip from his shoulder and drop to the ground as he slowly approached the pack of ravening brutes. His blade hung from his slackened right arm as he continued forward. The blade's steel almost seemed to be singing as the air moved over it.
The ape-men shouted at the raven-haired warrior, their language unknown but clearly threatening.
Var continued to steadily approach them, his face like stone. Then, with a sudden, silent burst of fury, he charged the beasts and leaped into the air. His powerful muscles rippled as he swung up the blade and brought it swiftly back down on the nearest ape-man, cutting it in half, from left shoulder to right hip.
The halves of the beast's body fell away in opposite directions.
Var stepped back from the carcass and crouched into a fighting stance. The other ape-men went silent and backed away.
With a grunt, the large ape-man shoved himself off Cynndra and lumbered toward the swordsman. He pulled a jagged, cleaver-like blade from its place at his side and held it out for Var to see as he bared his teeth and snarled at him.
The brute lifted the blade and swung it down at Var, but in a flash, Var stepped to the side, evading the blow. At nearly the same time, he half-turned and brought his slim blade down on the brute.
The beast's head rolled away. Its black, dead eyes wore a look of complete surprise as it watched its own body fall to the rocks.
The remaining pack of beast men turned to run, then suddenly stopped. They stepped aside as a monstrous member of their race climbed from the lower, westward side of the hill. He snorted derisively at them as he passed and made his way to stand before the swordsman.
The massive ape-man regarded Var with his one good eye - the other was white as milk, dead - as he unstrapped a long, crooked blade from his belt. He hefted the weapon and sneered at Var, then roared and prepared to lunge.
"Vord! Enough!" an authoritative female voice snapped from behind the beast.
The ape-man stopped and dropped his weapon. He fell to one knee as an eight-foot-tall woman approached. The other ape-men followed suit, muttering some sacred chant as the woman passed them.
Var relaxed and stood from his crouch as the woman, a diaphanous white gown covering her lithe, blue-skinned body, came to stand over him.
As promised, here are the player characters in my pulp-/weird-/science-fantasy/planetary romance game, using a slightly modified version of TSR's amazingly fun pulp rules set, Buck Rogers High Adventure Cliffhangers:
Cynndra, Princess of Tredakia, Captain of the Lizard-Fliers, Priestess of the Mystic Ways
From a kingdom in a jungle land filled with dinosaurs, Cynndra is sole heir to the throne and captain of that kingdom's squad of elite flying-lizard riders. She's of the royal bloodline, said to have mixed with the ancient and enigmatic race of lizard-men that preceded humans to her lands. As such, she's also the spiritual leader of her people, keeper of the mystic ways shared with humans by the lizard-men since time immemorial. Cynndra fell asleep in her bed and awoke in a strange land, chained to an altar and about to be violated and sacrificed (not necessarily in that order) by a horde of ape-men.
Var of the Stormlands, Var Kinslayer, Var Hagsbride
A pariah, the brooding swordsman, Var, fled from his Viking-like homeland because of the pain and suffering he inflicted on his loved ones, thanks to the cursed sword and armor to which he's irrevocably bound. Var traveled beneath the wall of ice-tipped mountains that surround his realm and emerged in a desert, under different moons and stars. His first encounter with "intelligent" life in these barren wastes was when he saved a woman from being sacrificed by a group of brutish men.
John "Doc" Vandal, Man of Amber, Earth Man
Product of his scientist-father's biological enhancement experiments, Doc is a near-perfect specimen of the pinnacle of human potential fulfilled. While exploring a newly discovered Egyptian tomb (circa 1937) with his ever-present team of cohorts, there was a sudden, bright flash. When Doc opened his eyes, he was in a strange chamber where a robed and veiled sorcerer dominated his will and forced him to attack a barbaric swordsman and his lovely, regal companion. Fortunately, Doc was able to overcome the sorcerer's spell and the three joined forces to put an end to the demonic sorcerer's depredations..
Coming up next time: Swords Against Sorcery: Skull Temple of the Brown Men!!!
"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!