Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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.

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