Thursday, January 26, 2012

Riding that Nostalgia Train

I can only take a certain amount of Aerosmith

I’m back at the Baranof, knocking back a stiff martini, and have Wolfmother piped into my headphones as I type. Why? Because Janie’s Got A Gun was just calling up bad memories. Not even memories really (there were no images attached); just weird-ass, hinky feelings. That song was popular at a time when…well, I don’t remember exactly what was going on at the time, but it couldn’t have been all that great, as I’ve apparently blocked it out. Let’s see: per wikipedia it was released in 1989 with Pump. Yes, I remember that. Peaked at #4 on Billboard in 1990 and was probably on extensive radio airplay the same year. In 1990 I was 17…that was the year my father left my family. (*sigh*) 

High school was not a fantastic time (for a lot o folks it ain’t; that’s nothing special). There were certainly some high points to go with the lows, and things actually started up-swinging for me in a lot of ways with 1991 so I won’t complain (plus I still have a pretty positive, if distant, relationship with my Dad, which is more than a few o my friends can say). But I was definitely pining for Dungeons & Dragons in 1990, that’s for sure. I stopped playing the game, pretty much cold turkey, sometime around 1987 or ’88. Shortly before the release of 2nd edition, which happened around that time. No, it had nothing to do with 2nd edition D&D; if I’d still been playing when 2E was released, I probably would have jumped on the bandwagon and bought into the Forgotten Realms and all that nonsense. No, my reason was both more simple and more complicated…I didn’t have any players. At least not the players I wanted. 

In high school, I did play role-playing games…a number of them, many of the Palladium or White Wolf or Chaosium variety (how’s that for a “grab bag?”). Hell, I made some pretty good friends in high school, some of whom lasted through college and beyond, and who did indeed play (1st edition) AD&D, even in high school. Plus my younger brother still played for awhile (as did his best friend or two) and I acted as a 1E DM for them on multiple occasions (as I’ve talked about before in this blog). But my little brother and his buddies…and even my peers who were in the same age and class as myself…were not “my type” of gamers. I really don’t know how to talk about this without sounding insulting or snobby, but I’ll give it an (admittedly half-assed) shot: none of ‘em were mature enough to play MY brand of AD&D. 

Prior to high school, I had spent…oh, let’s say five or so years playing hardcore with a small group of friends. Five years is an eternity to a kid who’s 14…more than a third of his life. I’m 38 now…I haven’t even been married for a third of my life, and I’ve been married for more than 11 years. Five years is a shitload of time for a kid that age. And consider how much time we spent on the game of D&D. Sure we had sports, we did Boy Scouts or family activities, and school (of course). But we played at school…the same way people “play” on the internet when they’re supposed to be working at their jobs. And we didn’t have jobs or careers…no soul-crushing 8 hours torn from our waking hours. Hell, we could talk D&D on our “commute” (to and from school, via foot and/or dirt bike) as we wanted. We could talk on the phone after school. We could see each other on the weekends. The only relationships we were bent on maintaining were our friendships…and those imaginary ones created in the game. 

My little circle of friends tired of dungeon-crawling pretty fast, as I’ve discussed recently. After that, it was more about creating a real, living and breathing (if imaginary) world. A world in which we were the “movers and shakers.” Our characters had loves and hates, likes and dislikes, friends, allies, and enemies. Hell, we had “turn-on’s and turn-off’s”…all noted on our (rather extensive) character sheets. All aimed at trying to flesh out the imaginary avatar. Give it life, the way authors do their characters. 

Crazy kids. 

AD&D was our jump board to a “higher state” of role-playing. You may disagree that there’s anything “higher” about it (just “different”), but I’ll stick with the term for a moment. We were still “going on adventures” but the adventures had more to do with the characters themselves than with anything insidious in the virtual environment. And little had to do with “backstory.” 

For example, one girl (yes, members of the opposite sex like RPGs) who played with us, Crystal, created a female fighter named “Tangina.” By virtue of random rolls from the DMG, we discovered Tangina was pretty goddamn strong and over 6’ tall…an f’ing amazon, if you will. Tangina also had plenty of gold to equip herself and spent it on half-a-dozen plus weapons, including both a two-handed sword and a man-catcher (“in case I need to catch me a man!”). Typical low-level character derived from random generation. Her “backstory” was pretty short…her family had tried to marry her off to a minor noble who was an asshole (or she just didn’t want to get married, I forget), and she fled to pursue an adventuring life. No one got killed, there were rumors that her ex- was still “searching for her” but I don’t recall a single appearance by him or his henchpeople. Mainly, she was just a wanderer with a simple story explaining why she wasn’t a medieval (very tall) housewife. She had a Halfling henchman named Shorty who was none too bright (in our games, halflings were always NPC comic relief, never as heroic player characters…I don’t think any of us had ever read Tolkien at that point). The point is, with minimal “characterization,” Crystal was able to drop into an imaginary life completely alien to her 13 (maybe 14 or 15?) year old self. Interacting with NPCs (not just killing orcs), looking to make a good (if imaginary) life for herself and NOT worried just about “gaining XP and leveling up.” 

And Crystal was a very minor player in our circle. There’s a lot of talk (at times) in the Old School realm about “D&D’s endgame:” build a castle, gain a dominion, settle down. See, for us, that wasn’t the end of the game but something around the mid-point. Getting the castle and the followers put you on a footing to interact with other landholders (kings and barons and such). It opened up other “adventures,” more interesting than simply “going down the hole looking for loot.” Political machinations and alliances, romances and marriages and betrayals, power and land grabs, revenge and vendetta…not to mention the quest for godhood (a personal favorite, none of this silly “quest for immortality” schtick from Mentzer…I’m talking about displacing Olympians in the celestial pantheon through right of conquest or occult subterfuge). 

These were the games I played as a kid. This was the type of campaign (and we had several) that we adapted to the AD&D vehicle. This was the kind of campaign I was running as a DM (or running IN, as a player), form circa 1983-1987. And I started playing the game in ’81 or ’82. But I lost those friends when I went to high school: Matt, Scott, Jocelyn, even Jason and Rob. It doesn’t matter terribly why our circle ended…I’ve kept in contact with those folks (off and on) over the years…but we did stop gaming together. 

And while I continued gaming, finding new folks that wanted to game, they weren’t interested in the same things I was. They wanted to go into that hole in the ground looking for loot. They wanted to fight through 20 levels of The Temple of Elemental Evil. They wanted to set-up simulacrums of their high level magic-users, blissfully constructing magic items on other planes for fun and profit. Role-playing was still fun…but when you played AD&D, it all came down to who had the biggest sword. 

And I didn’t want to play that. So when I did game with them, we played other RPGs. Sometimes incoherent, poorly designed games…but at least it wasn’t AD&D. Because I couldn’t bear to play a poor excuse for something that had previously lived and breathed and transported me…as both a player and as a DM. 

And why do I bother to write all this tripe? Who cares, right? Stop living in the past and get on with the good gaming available now…people who care (like me) know AD&D is a pretty crap system as is. [and, yes, I still think that to a great degree] But I’ve started playing in Alexis’s AD&D campaign, and its quickly becoming obvious the guy cares a great deal about the game world he presents…more than anyone I’ve met since those friends from my childhood. His approach is different from mine…more logical, more reasonable, more intelligent…but underneath, driving it, is a very similar passion. 

Look, I am very happy to be living in the time and place and real world that I am. I would not prefer to have been born in a medieval-type world with magic and dragons…I like electricity and running water and not needing to carry a sword on my way to work in case there are highwaymen about. I don’t go to RenFairs; I don’t belong to the SCA. 

[I DO own a real (non-replica) sword…but then, I was a fencer for a number of years and when you’re in Toledo, you owe it to yourself to pick up a piece of Spanish steel when presented with the opportunity]

I am NOT saying that I prefer fantasy to reality. What I’m saying is I greatly enjoy and appreciate a chance to dissolve into fantasy as an escape every now and then. And on a regular basis, if at all possible. And in order to do that, you have to have a certain level of “buy in” that meets your personal expectations. Mine are high. Alexis’s are off the fucking chart. I dig on that. 

All right, that’s enough for now. I’m just glad I’m getting a chance to play AD&D with some like-minded folks after so many years (you should see how these players get into character…and there are no funny voices or accents involved. Nice). Can't wait to get me some land grants and titles.
; )


  1. Hm.... No responses to this? Well, okay then. Just dropping in to say that this is really good narrative. Thanks for this. It's like having a window into someone else's great games and friendships of the past.

  2. I agree. Getting the castle is the midpoint. Not only are different adventures opening up, but one has to remember that Gary, Dave, and Bob were wargamers first. They then used the "name level" adventures as "scenario generators" for wargaming.

    Nice read. :)

  3. @ Jeffro & Anthony:


    @ Alexis:

    I'm sure you will!
    : )