Tuesday, May 24, 2011

D&D Kayfabe

There is an important lesson that RPG players of any stripe can learn from the “sport” of professional wrestling. Before I make my central point, allow me to share some of the similarities that wrestling and tabletop roleplaying share. Wrestling, like roleplaying games, is often very silly. The storylines are over-the-top, the violence is sometimes cartoonish, and the outcomes of the matches don't really matter. At its best, though, wrestling (and gaming) is a lot of fun for both the performers and the audience, who all experience many of the same kinds of emotional highs and lows associated with a legitimate sporting event.

The key to making all of these unbelievable parts come together into a cohesive, entertaining whole in wrestling is a concept called kayfabe. The word itself dates back to the secret trade language of carnival workers; It is basically a pig latin way of saying “fake.” The simplest definition would be to say that kayfabe is about suspending disbelief, but it goes farther than that. Years ago, before wrestlers openly admitted that wrestling was predetermined, they used to protect this secret jealously, and not just with their words. Two wrestlers who hated each other on-screen would be careful never to be seen together in public, lest it spoil the illusion. Many wrestlers tried to live their in-ring gimmicks as much as possible, going as far as faking an accent or speaking in a different voice in front of strangers. Wrestling fans, often the butt of a great many jokes, would rally in defense whenever others called their favorite sport fake.

With the exception of the very young or not very intelligent, no one really thought that wrestling was legit, not if they watched it with any regularity. The wrestlers, I imagine, knew that the fans were on to them as well. How could they not? So, what was the point of closely guarding the secret if everyone knew? Why “keep kayfabe” when no one really believed it? The reason, I believe, was that kayfabe is a huge part of what makes wrestling fun. Even in this modern era, where kayfabe is by and large dead, wrestlers and wrestling fans still play along as though they have no idea that what they're watching is a predetermined spectacle. A wrestling fan will assure you that “of course it's fake, but so are sci-fi TV shows, so what?” Put him in the audience, though, and he'll scream for the good guys and boo all the bad guys. This is where D&D players can learn a lesson for their own favorite pass time.

There has been a lot of talk lately, especially among the “Old School Renaissance”, praising the open-ended, or sandbox campaign. The strength of this style of play is that, by not planning out every little detail in advance, the GM leaves himself room to adapt to what the players want to do. If I'm the GM and I bother to stat out and describe every square inch of the Tower of Ill Repute, I'm going to be up a creek (and annoyed) if the players make a beeline around the place and head straight to some forest I haven't had time to even map.

In order for this kind of campaign to work, the people on both sides of the table have to suspend disbelief that the world is a bigger, more detailed place than it actually is, and the GM has to play along while actually making a bunch of it up on the spot. That's D&D kayfabe. Like wrestling fans, the players know that the GM couldn't possibly have created all of this beforehand. He might have some very detailed notes but at least some of the time he's just pulling things out of thin air. The GM has a similar responsibility to maintain the illusion of a complete and living world. If either side breaks kayfabe, it hurts the fun.

That doesn't mean that the GM should never let his guard down and pause the game to say “Hey, guys, I didn't think of that. Give me a few minutes to figure out what's going on.” That kind of thing is fine when it's appropriate to the pace of the game or when it results in a more fair or entertaining outcome. In my opinion, though, the GM should never admit that he hasn't thought up the big, plot-affecting decisions. To do so cheapens the whole experience for everyone involved. It would be like the Rock getting on camera right before a match and telling the crowd “me and Steve Austin, I mean Steve Williams, are going to go plan out the finish of this match. We'll be back in a few minutes to pretend to fight. Get ready to cheer, because I'm going to be playing the good guy...if you smell what I'm cooking!”

Kayfabe isn't just needed for open-ended adventures, either. The opposite of the sandbox campaign is the railroad campaign. In this style, the players' actions are limited to places and events that the GM has carefully planned in advance. The advantage of the railroad style is that, within the constrains of what the GM has developed, there is usually a lot of detail. If you can guarantee that the players are heading to the Tower of Ill Repute, you can spend all your prep time describing the place in novel-like minutia.

A railroad works best when the players maintain D&D kayfabe and willingly bite onto the GM's adventure hooks, while the GM must give the players at least the illusion of free choice. For example, if the PCs are given a choice between two different paths in the dungeon, it breaks kayfabe and kills the fun if you clue them in to the fact that they'll face an ogre no matter what route they take. It's better to keep the untraveled road a mystery than spoil the illusion.

Here's an example of breaking kayfabe from my own gaming experiences:
Between regular campaigns, a friend of one of my players thought to try his hand at GMing. As one of those guys who is almost always behind the screen, I jumped at the chance to roll up a character and actually play for a change. We sat down, jotted down some stats, and within a few hours were ready to start playing.

The adventure was set in a small town in which several citizens had gone missing. Suspecting foul play, we searched around the town for clues. The disappearances, it turned out, correlated with the nights of the full moon. Further research turned up a witness who saw a large wolf lurking about one of the victim's farms shortly before his disappearance. The answer was obvious: someone in town was a werewolf!

Maybe it was because I hadn't gotten to play very often, but I was really enjoying this adventure. We identified three likely suspects, based on clues we'd gathered at the scenes of the crimes. Before we could make our accusation, however, we had to be sure that we had the right man. The wrong decision would mean personal trouble for us, as each suspect had powerful, vengeful allies. Even if we did manage to find the guilty party on the first try, we knew we'd likely face a fight against a desperate, cornered lycanthrope.

The players decided to take a break and resume the game after dinner. A bunch of us piled into a car and headed to a nearby McDonalds. We were all excited, discussing our next course of action while we gobbled down fries. What if we pinpointed the wrong person and the werewolf escaped? We hastily assembled a plan B in which we would trick all three suspects into gathering together in one location. Perhaps, if we were clever, we could bluff the monster into revealing itself. It was a dangerous plan because we'd be putting two innocents in potential harm's way.

At some point during all this planning the GM, motivated by guilt or a sense of camaraderie with me as a fellow referee, leaned over and quietly told me a secret. “You know what's crazy?” the GM asked, “I haven't even decided myself who the werewolf is. I'm just making it up.” With that one little revelation, that one breaking of D&D kayfabe, the GM killed my emotional investment in his game.

As cliched and hastily created as the whole adventure was, I probably could have figured out that he was making most of this up as he went along. In retrospect, the clues he left for us were mostly based on what we expected to find where we expected to find it. It was all very flimsy and unrealistic. At the time, though, I didn't notice. I didn't notice because I was having fun. I was riding high on the emotions of a good game and playing along with the reality of the story this GM had created. By violating his end of the suspension of disbelief, by breaking kayfabe, the GM took me completely out of the adventure. From that point on, I was just going through the motions.

We didn't even have to implement our plan B. When we visited the very first suspect, we found his front door curiously ajar. Entering his house, we found the bodies of several victims half-eaten in his basement. In other words, we found the werewolf on the very first try. Surprise, surprise.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not trying to suggest that D&D players should go along like sheep with whatever adventure the GM has cooked up, even if they aren't enjoying themselves. Nor am I saying that GMs should pretend as though they have reams and reams of notes, maps, and plans when they clearly don't. What I'm trying to do is define the unspoken contract between players and referees that allows us to turn down the volume on the logical parts of our brains just a bit so that the more emotional parts, the parts that I think carry a lot of the fun, can be heard from. I think it's useful to give this concept a name, and I think that kayfabe is as good a name as any.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gargoyles Remastered

The Original
Here is a creature that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. The problem, I think, is that gargoyles are not based on any monster from mythology or literature but a piece of decorative architecture. This seems to be the reason that gargoyles are often depicted as creatures made of stone, or at least with stone-like skin; they're inspired by statues.

Why would gargoyles have stoney skin at all? Wouldn't it make more sense if they were just flesh-and-blood creatures that people, for whatever reason, often made into statues? This is certainly what medieval architects were thinking when they put gargoyles in cathedrals. Their inspiration was the demons of the bible. They only chose stone because it was a logical material from which to carve a statue.

Gargoyles, then, are a weird case of art imitating art, in which the D&D monster is made of stone because it is inspired by a type of statute, yet the statues that inspired the monster also exist in the typical D&D world...leading us to conclude that crazy people are building statues of a monster that naturally looks like statues. Maybe they want to help the gargoyles sneak in to their churches?

Doing a little research, I discovered that D&D gargoyles did not start out as stone. Volume 2 of the Original OD&D books, Monsters and Treasure, has the following to say regarding gargoyles: "As depicted in medieval architecture, the Gargoyle is a reptilian beast with horns, talons, fangs, bat-like wings, and often bipedal." That seems pretty straightforward. Gargoyles are reptilian creatures that look like the familiar statues from medieval architecture. It's probably fair to assume, if your world contains gargoyle statues, that they were patterned after these winged, lizard-monsters.

When we jump ahead to 1st Edition AD&D we find a similar description: "These monsters are ferocious predators of a magical nature. They are typically found amidst ruins or dwelling in underground caverns." Ok, that leaves a bit more room for interpretation. In fact, it doesn't really give a physical description at all. I guess Gygax is relying on the reader's knowledge of what a gargoyle statue looks like to help him imagine the beast. This may be where the "stoney skin" problem takes root, but I note nothing in the gargoyle's stats to imply it's anything other than flesh and scales.

Next, I reference my 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual. Let's see..."Originally, gargoyles were carved roof spouts, representing grotesque human and animal figures...Later, some unknown mage used a powerful enchantment to bring these horrid sculptures to life. The race of gargoyles has flourished, spreading throughout the world." Oh, 2nd Edition, I should have recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board. Not only is THIS the cause of the whole "gargoyles are monsters made of stone" silliness that bled over into 3E, but the book's explanation is the tired old "some crazy wizard did it" cliché. Blech!

The simplest solution would probably be to return to OD&D's approach and just say that gargoyles are winged bipedal reptiles. Come up with a reason why people decorate their churches with statues patterned after the beasts and move on. I don't find that very satisfying, though. Besides, for whatever reason, when the DM says “gargoyles,” most players are going to imagine monsters made out of rock. Rather than try to wage a hopeless battle to change this, it would be easier to accept that concept and try to invent a better explanation for it than a crazy wizard.

The following is designated Open Game Content via the Open Game License, with the exception of portions defined as Product Identity.

"You have coveted material things above the gifts of the divine, and so I give you over to the earth forever. You shall live as beasts and insects, keeping to the dark places of the world for all your days. As you have embraced the coldness of stone above the light and warmth of heaven, stone you shall be forevermore." - The Prophecta

Gargoyles were once divine creatures called the oenar; angelic warriors whose job was to guard sacred places against demons and devils. In their natural form, oenar were humanoid beings of translucent energy with wings made of silvery light. When they appeared on the material plane, the oenar took on physical bodies made of protective stone and hard-packed earth. The oenar often gave these physical forms a monstrous appearance, imitating their demonic adversaries in order to intimidate and confuse them.

Over time, the oenar became corrupted with greed. As they spent more and more of their time in physical form they began to covet jewels and precious metals. The devil Mammon took advantage of the oenar’s growing avarice. He bribed them with gems and gold while whispering of vast wealth hidden in the earth. The oenar became obsessed with finding treasure. One by one, they abandoned their posts as guardians of sacred ground and declared themselves the masters of the earth.

In response, the gods turned their favor away from the oenar and cursed them to a mortal existence. Defeated and permanently trapped in their stoney bodies, the oenar fled into the shadows, trying to hide from the gods they had betrayed. Their degenerate offspring became the creatures now known as gargoyles.

Gargoyles, while not immortal, can live for centuries. They are carnivores, preferring the meat of sentient creatures, but their magical nature allows them to go months without food. Strangely, perhaps due to their close ties to the element of earth, gargoyles never thirst and have no need to drink. They are covetous creatures who like to horde precious metals and uncut gems, which they usually hide somewhere high off the ground. A gargoyle collects treasure only to satisfy its greed; the creatures have no true use for money. A gargoyle will have double the usual chance of possessing each type of treasure, excluding magic items.

Many churches, especially large and ornate cathedrals, still build statues carved in the likeness of gargoyles. This practice dates back to ancient times, when early men made grotesque statues as an homage to the oenar. It is thought that the images of these lost guardians can still ward off demons and evil spirits, and there might be some truth to that belief.

Gargoyles sometimes take advantage of this tradition, hiding motionless amongst statues in order to ambush their victims, particularly in ruined or abandoned places where they are less likely to be noticed. A gargoyle can remain almost completely motionless for a very long time, only revealing its true nature when opportunity or great hunger forces it to move.

Like some types of demons and most undead, gargoyles have an aversion to holy water. While holy water does no damage, even a splash of it will cause a gargoyle to recoil in disgust, thus spoiling its ability to pose as a statue. Also, because of their rock-like skin, gargoyles are susceptible to spells that affect stone.

The oenar were not originally stone, but divine entities that took on an earthen form for protection. While the monsters have devolved quite a bit through the generations, their physical bodies remain somewhat mutable. Over a few years, a gargoyle will come to resemble its surroundings, changing in color and even appearance. It is thus possible to encounter a gargoyle in an unexpected form: a winged lion or other mundane animal, for example, if there are statues of that type in the gargoyle's chosen lair. This process is not something a gargoyle can affect intentionally; it is a product of the creature's curse.

Living testament to the gargoyles' adaptability, the kapoacinth are an aquatic offshoot of the gargoyle species. Their bodies are comprised of hard, pale gray or green coral and often covered in algae. Kapoacinth swim at the same speed that a gargoyle flies, using their wings to aid them. Since their wings have adapted to be more like fins, kapoacinth cannot fly. Some scholars believe that kapoacinth originated in the lost nation of Thenos and became aquatic after that country sank into the ocean.

Monsters Remastered

Monsters Remastered is a semi-regular feature I plan to write that takes classic monsters and fits them into my home-brewed fantasy world. Some of the featured monsters will be creatures that, for whatever reason, don't quite jibe with me. Others will just be creatures that I want to give my own creative bit of fluff. Think of these writeups as an alternate “ecology” entry for each monster. Hopefully, while explaining how the creature works in my world, I can still keep things generic enough that others can use them as well.

Each Monsters Remastered will start with an examination of how I view the monster and its role in the generic gameworld and real-world mythology. From there, I'll talk about how the creature works in my setting and then give game mechanics to back up my ideas. The brunt of this, I think, will be open gaming content so that anyone who wants to can use what I've come up with.

My first creature will be the gargoyle, a D&D monster that comes, I think, with some strange baggage.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My RPG History (Part 5: Finally, Dungeons and Dragons)

(Continued from Part 4, read Part 3, Part 2, or start at Part 1)

My cousin is the oldest of three brothers and lived in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. He always seemed about two steps cooler than me. His house was full of fantastic things: boardgames, books, movies, and a computer! Not only did he have a computer, but he had the most amazing computer games. We spent hours with the likes of Police Quest, Shadows of Yserbius, and others I no longer recall. My cousin also owned an impressive library of second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books.

For some reason, his basement always smelled like cedar. Even now, that smell brings with it memories of flipping wide-eyed through book after book of D&D goodness. My favorites were the monster books; huge binders full of strange creatures! I was struck by how cohesive everything seemed, as if the authors had developed an entire universe and were slowly leaking parts of it out one book at a time. It didn't seem stupid to me that a Haunt was a different creature than a Ghost, not with all that wonderful flavor text to differentiate the two! Screw Rolemaster, this was obviously the real deal!

My first AD&D character, besides the aforementioned dwarf with no name, was a Minotaur named Andrax. The name was stolen from a less than stellar novel called Stormriders (a Rolemaster novel, by the way). Later, Andrax would be reincarnated as a human wizard (not in the game sense, I just made a different dude with the same name, still with my cousin as DM). There in the cedar-smelling basement, Andrax sneaked through a fortress, stole a griffin mount, and defeated some lizard men. It was tremendous fun.

I eventually started playing AD&D with some of my friends from high school, shelving and later losing track of most of my Rolemaster and MERP stuff. Like many hardcore gamers, I found myself running the game more often than I played it. When 2000 came around, I was an early adapter of Third Edition, jumping on that particular bandwagon with help from rules leaked to Eric Noah's Unofficial Third Edition News site, which later became ENWorld. Those were great times to be gamer, a sort of mini golden age for me personally, but that's a post for another day.

Currently, I'm not married to any particular system, but I've found myself drawn to older and simpler versions of D&D. Games like Labyrinth Lord, Castles and Crusades, and Swords and Wizardry have all found their way onto my bookshelves. I'm not playing anything right now (I'm stuck in a foreign country, far away from home), but I am designing a few things for when I get back. If nothing else, it gives me something to blog about over the next several months. If I come out of this with a megadungeon or a set of rules of my own, all the better.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Manifesto

There was a bit on Saturday Night Live that featured a parody of the Dating Game in which a desperate Ted Kaczynski tried to convince the various bachelorettes to read his manifesto. I'm taking a break from all my posts about my personal RPG history to talk about something equally narcissistic: my purpose for creating and updating this blog. Unlike our friend the Unibomber, I'm not particularly concerned with anyone reading this section. It's here mainly for me, so that I can return to it if I need it a reminder of why I started this and why it should continue. So, if you don't care a whit about why I'm here or what my motives are, move along.

In following various RPG-themed blogs over the past, I've seen a few of them close up shop. Usually, the author makes some grand declaration that they've been soured by the online gaming community and they're taking themselves out of the limelight for good. I don't know the situations that led to these particular decisions and I'm not here to pass judgment on anyone. I'm also not so foolish as to think that, by putting my gaming thoughts and RPG creations in a public forum, I'm not going down a similar path. I might remain in complete obscurity, sending my thoughts out to be heard by no one save myself and a few friends. On the other hand, if people do decide to pay attention to what I'm writing, I'm likely to face some kind of negativity and/or criticism.

Here's the important thing that I must keep in mind, if I'm to maintain perspective on all this. This blog is not for anyone else but me. It's open to the public because I'm trying to do something more than journal just for the sake of it. I want to air my thoughts in a public venue. If someone finds value in it, that will be a bonus side effect. If not, it's enough for me that I find it valuable. This blog, like all blogs really, is a vanity project. I welcome feedback, but I don't require it or even expect it. In the end, I'm writing for my own sanity during a period of separation from family and friends. Anything that distracts me from that goal will be ignored.

Retreat forward!

My RPG History (Part 4: James Bond and Bilbo Baggins)

(Continued from Part 3, read Part 2, or start at Part 1)

If D&D was the first roleplaying game I ever played, even if the first adventure only lasted 10 minutes, the first game I ever GM'd was TSR's Top Secret: The Espionage Roleplaying Game. I inherited the Top Secret boxed set from my brother, as well as a copy of the Operation: Orient Express boxed set and two adventures taken from the pages of Dragon Magazine: Wacko World and Whiteout.

When I first started running Top Secret, I literally had no idea what I was doing, and neither did my cousin, who was my one and only player. I had once played spectator while my brother ran Top Secret for some friends, although I don't recall the setting or the circumstances for that particular game. In my brother's adventure, the characters were investigating some kind of abandoned house that turned out to be the front for a secret bad guy headquarters. I remember that there were ninja involved. Also, in the house's backyard, there was a doghouse that contained the skeletal remains of a faithful hound who apparently died while patiently waiting for its master's return. The bones, it turned out, were fake. Furthermore, beneath the faux dog skeleton was the secret trapdoor that led to the bad guy's hideout.

I was so influenced by this adventure that every time I ran Top Secret for my cousin, and we must have played it at least a half dozen times, I tried to run the exact same scenario from memory. Abandoned house? Check. Ninja? Check. Fake dog skeleton on top of a trap door? Check. Ian Fleming, eat your heart out! What I didn't grasp were the actual rules of Top Secret. I knew how to roll up stats with the percentile dice and I guess I had mastered the “hit location” chart, but that was as far as I got into the game system. What can I say, I was rather young.

My cousin's mom found all this indoor play strange, so she gave him a set of spy props like a toy gun and a badge in an effort to encourage us to take things outside. I like to think we were some kind of live-action roleplaying pioneers as he donned sunglasses and climbed the bunkbeds while I rolled ten-sided dice and talked about dog skeletons.

A few years later, when I finally figured out how one was actually supposed to play a roleplaying game, I found that my interest in espionage was lacking. I knew Dungeons and Dragons wasn't an option, so I began to shop around for something that could scratch my gaming itch without raising my mother's ire. The game I settled on was Iron Crown Enterprises' Middle Earth Roleplaying, or MERP.

MERP was not a good representation of Professor Tolkien's works. The designers did a good job with backstory and details about the setting itself. In fact, a great deal of what I know about Middle Earth came from the supplements I owned for MERP. What the game failed to do was capture the feel of Tolkien's books with the rules themselves. Rather than creating a playable game inspired by the stories, Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.) shoehorned Middle Earth into a simplified version of their Rolemaster game. The result was a playable RPG that I enjoyed for a number of years, but it wasn't Middle Earth.

Most of the MERP rulebooks read like an advertisement for Rolemaster. While MERP characters could only raise up to level 10, Rolemaster characters could reach levels 50 or higher. MERP had only a few spell lists and four or five classes, while Rolemaster allowed dozens of character classes an entire book devoted to spells. I was in middle school and I really bought into the ideas these books were selling; that “more rules are better” and “Rolemaster is the most realistic roleplaying game.” Once I got my hands on Rolemaster, though, I rarely actually played it. The game was just far too dense for me to figure out. There were charts upon charts, and many of the supplements got downright crazy with rules. Nowadays, I'd just ignore rules for calculating the precise weight of a giant, for example. Back then, though, I thought if the game included it, it must be something you're supposed to use.

We still gamed, with my buddy taking over a lot of the GM duties for awhile. I don't think we were actually playing Rolemaster, but rather some kind of Frankenstein's monster version of Rolemaster, Middle Earth, and my friend's ill-wrought houserules. We also branched off into Car Wars, Magic the Gathering, and a game of my friend's own creation that, in hindsight, was probably just the world's simplest MERP clone.

Among the people I knew, I was the only hardcore gamer. My friends all played MERP/Rolemaster with us, sure, but that was only because I had introduced them to the game. We heard about D&D, especially from older guys who frequented the local gaming store, but we always dismissed it as a stupid game. I'm not sure where we got that idea, but I guess I developed it as a sort of defense mechanism so I could avoid telling people that I didn't play D&D because my mom was against it. Whatever my motives, I honestly believed that Dungeons and Dragons was a poorly designed game that was vastly inferior to “realistic” games like Rolemaster.

It was a cousin (not the poor guy who had to play through my series of abandoned-house-full-of-ninjas Top Secret adventures) that showed me otherwise.

The next part will be the conclusion to all this needless backstory.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My RPG History (Part 3: The Banning of the Books)

(Continued from Part 2 or start at Part 1)

This next part is tricky to write, mainly because I don't want to give the wrong impression of my mother. She is one of the most giving people I know, wonderful and understanding, and my oldest son's favorite person in the whole world. I don't want her to sound closed-minded, or terribly harsh, or even very strict; she's none of those things. Mom is, however, a Christian with a strong faith. I believe this is one of her most admirable traits and I like to think that she passed a lot of that faith on to me, faith which has helped me through hardships and homesickness in my job as a Soldier and elsewhere.

I said before that my brother played D&D during its peak as a national fad in the 1980s. Along with the fad popularity, and some would say the fuel of that popularity, was the anti-D&D panic. Pat Pulling, a mother who tragically lost her teenage son to suicide, began a crusade to convince the world that D&D was a dangerous game that could lead to suicide and psychological damage. Pulling's efforts led to a very strong backlash against the game among certain religious and law enforcement officials. Tom Hanks starred in a movie in which a D&D-like game drove its main character to murder. Even 60 Minutes, caught up in the sensationalism, produced a story painting D&D as a potentially dangerous game.

It might be easy now, especially in hindsight, to look back at the concerns raised by Pulling and her contemporaries as reactionary hysteria. To a Christian women raising two boys on her own, however, things weren't so cut and dry. All kinds of religious people at the time, many of them simply repeating what they'd heard from others, seemed absolutely convinced that the Dungeons and Dragons game was bad for kids. Mom couldn't just ignore all these warnings. To her, if there was even a small chance that a game could cause suicide or worse, then how could she allow her son to play it? No, D&D was no longer welcome in our house.

While I obviously don't agree that Dungeons and Dragons is a dangerous thing (or even a very serious thing, really), I do understand why my mom did what she did. She loved my brother and was trying to look out for his best interests. She would have done the same if she found a bunch of illicit drugs in his room. In the end, despite her hard stance, Mom was not entirely without compassion. She told my brother that he was allowed to play other roleplaying games, as long as they didn't involve the same occult elements as D&D. For a while, my brother dabbled with Gamma World and the Marvel Superheroes Game. The only gamebook that he bought, though, was the original edition of Top Secret: The Espionage Roleplaying Game. When my brother moved out of the house, he left Top Secret behind for me.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My RPG History (Part 2: My First D&D Game)

(Continued from Part 1 )

I lived in the same town from the year I was born until I was 28, when I raised my right hand and asked the U.S. Military to please send me all over the earth to film stuff. From the day I came home from the hospital until I moved out around 18, I lived in the same house. Thus, it's very easy for me to visualize the exact setting of my very first game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Until my brother moved out, he and I shared a room. As you entered our bedroom, our bunkbed was straight across from you, flush with the wall. We played right there on the floor, with my brother's back to our bunkbed, my back to the door, and a whole bunch of papers and dice between us.

Originally, my childhood home had two stories. At some point before we lived there, it was split horizontally and divided into two separate homes. That seems strange to me now, but growing up I easily accepted the fact that my house was actually the bottom half of a totally different house, the location of which I never thought to ask.

As a side effect of this architectural anomaly, the bedrooms had really tall ceilings. There was a rectangular window just above the top bunk (my brother's bed) that housed a model battleship and a strange plaster cube my brother made in art class that looked like something from an M.C. Escher painting. Above our heads, suspended from the high ceiling by fishing lines, were a pair of homemade, foot-long wooden biplanes. One was brown, as I recall, and the other was painted black and gold; Hawkeye colors, my brother once told me.

It was in this setting that I took my first steps into a hobby that would entertain me for years to come and help me keep my sanity through all the various adventures the U.S Army has sent me on. My brother didn't really ask me if I wanted to play D&D. He just decided, perhaps out of boredom, that I was old enough to play and he might enjoy teaching me the game. I was all for it. What little brother wouldn't jump at a chance to try out such a grown-up game?

For my very first adventure, I played a dwarf. I couldn't have been much more than 5 or 6 years old and my brother was probably about 14. I don't remember rolling any dice to create my dwarf. As young as I was, I'm not sure if I had any real concept of what a “dwarf” even was. I think my character had an ax and a beard; he may have had a name.

My brother started out by explaining that my dwarf was standing in the entrance to a long hall. I could go forward or through a door to my right. The choice was mine. Before I could make a decision, Mom yelled from the living room about some chore my brother had neglected. My memory is hazy, but I think he was supposed to take out the garbage. As he hurried out of the room, my brother gave me a stern reminder: no matter what, I was not to look behind the Dungeon Master's screen while he was gone.

The DM screen, of course, is a flat piece of cardboard that stands up on one side of the table to hide the adventure map and notes from the players. I can't remember if we were using an actual, official DM screen or just an ordinary Meade folder, propped open on one end. Whatever the case, I found the allure far too strong to resist. Crawling on my hands and knees, I peered over the top of the cardboard wall to see just what secrets could possibly hide behind it.

I wasn't trying to cheat. I was eager to know what was behind this mysterious door, dammit, and I couldn't wait the agonizing minutes it would take my brother to finish taking the garbage all the way down to the end of the driveway. Plus, I was a five-year-old boy who had just been told not to do something. I once touched the glass doors of a fireplace just because I was skeptical as to how hot it really could be. That had been stupid and reckless. This was different. Behind that screen was adventure!

Unfortunately, at 5 years old, I could barely read. What I saw lying on my bedroom floor behind the mysterious screen was a confusing jumble of lines and unintelligible writing. As I was trying my best to decipher it all, the bedroom door opened behind me and my brother returned.

I was caught red-handed, committing the ultimate sin of looking at the DM's notes, and my brother was furious! I argued that it shouldn't matter, since I didn't know how to read. (Even at that age I was too smart for my own good). My brother was unconvinced. He'd given me direct instructions and I had disobeyed them. Thus, the game was over and I could never play with him again.

Talk about a hard-ass Dungeon Master.

I think that somewhere in my subconscious, that poor dwarf is still waiting at the entrance to that mysterious dungeon. What's down that hall? What creatures lurk past that door on the right? It's the uncertainty of D&D that has always created the most fun for me as a player; You can't know what's in the dungeon until you strap on your shield and see for yourself.

My brother has long since abandoned the tabletop roleplaying hobby, but he's usually up for a game if I'm in town and twist his arm. One of these days, I should make him rerun that adventure for me. I'm sure that he has no clue what he originally intended, all these years later, but that's not the point. I think it would make a nice ending to this story, to finally open the door on the right and see what's behind it.

I didn't play D&D again for more than 10 years, but the bug for gaming had bitten. Shortly after this incident, as we'll see in part 3, my mom banned D&D from her house and inadvertently steered me toward an entirely different set of RPGs.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My RPG History (Part I)

It's hard for me to remember a time before I knew what a tabletop roleplaying game was. I was a young boy in the 1980s, growing up in a small town that was usually a few years behind whatever fad or fashion was sweeping the rest of the country. My older brother, who moved out when I was ten or so, was caught up in the tail-end of the D&D boom. I'm not sure exactly how I became aware of the game; I don't remember ever watching him play. I was aware of it in more of an indirect fashion. All I knew is that it was a game full of monsters and magic and that it was something my older brother liked to do. I think it was this latter fact that truly peaked my interest in tabletop RPGs.

My brother is about eight years older than me. He was into the normal things for a kid his age, which in the late 70s and early 80s logically included comic books and Dungeons and Dragons. I can remember tagging along with him and a few of his friends while they visiting the local comic/gaming store. I was particularly intrigued by the lead miniatures, which to me were like tiny action figures. The gaming shop was primarily a comicbook store, which I think intertwined the two worlds of RPGs and comicbook superheroes in my mind at a young age. That's probably why, years later, while I've only read a handful of comicbooks cover to cover, I have absorbed enough information about costumed heroes to hold my own in conversations with casual comics fans.

My earliest strong memory of an actual gaming book came when summer after a visit to the local carnival. I remember really wanting to go through a scary funhouse ride that my mom objected to because she thought it would spook me too badly. While funhouses are usually walk-through affairs, I seem to recall riding through this one. Just as mom predicted, the ride scared the heck out of me, and I came home buzzing about it.

As I gushed to my brother about all the strange “monsters” I saw inside the funhouse, he smiled and broke out a Dungeons and Dragons monster book.

“Maybe,” he said, “you can figure out what some of those monsters were called if you look through this book.” I couldn't, but the fantastic creatures I saw in that book stayed with me strongly enough that, even now, monster manuals are perhaps my favorite kind of RPG book. Sometime after the incident with the carnival fun house, I actually got to play in my first (completely unsuccessful) game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Retreat Forward!

The phrase “retreat forward” originally referred to a style of D&D in which the players keep pressing on, deeper and deeper into the action, regardless of consequences. It's not the wisest way to play the game, particularly if one values his character's life, but it's certainly a lot of fun. In the traditional D&D dungeon, the deeper levels contained the most interesting puzzles, the most exciting monsters, and the greatest treasures. “Retreat forward” is about shouldering past the boring orcs so you can get to the good stuff, even if the good stuff might turn you to stone and then blow you up.

I've adapted the spirit of the forward retreat as a kind of tongue-in-cheek life philosophy as well. Sometimes, we all have to do things that we don't want to do, and the only way out is to just go through it. For me, Basic Combat Training was that way. Leaving my family behind for a year while I move to South Korea is a “retreat forward” situation as well. As much as I love what I do, I'm not thrilled to plunge into the relative unknown of a foreign country without my wife and four kids by my side.

This blog is part of how I'm going to cope with the difficulty of being away. South Korea presents an opportunity for me to focus on myself: work a lot of hours, get in better physical shape, work toward a promotion, and hone my writing. I know my personality, though, and I'm the kind of guy who could easily become a hermit, spending my time between shifts cooped up in some lonely corner of my room puttering away at nothing.

To keep me on task, it's important that I give myself a regular schedule; thus, this blog. I don't know yet how often I'll be able to post. My work schedule will dictate how available I actually am. However, I won't let the kobolds and goblins of mundane life keep me from writing at least weekly. The better stuff is at the end of tunnel, dammit, and I'm sprinting right through these traps to get there.

Retreat forward!