Armagideon Time

“I stayed up last night reading William Blake poems to my dying cat” sounds like the stuff of satire, a dig at the pseudo-intellectual affectations of the hipster class.

Yet it’s the truth, though the cause of it was incidentally pedestrian.

Lil Baby Setzer has hung in there longer than we’d anticipated upon hearing her diagnosis of chronic kidney failure. Her stocky resilience and the suddenness of the illness have resulted in a slow, steady fade over the past two weeks.

She’s near the end of it now. Her connections to this world grow weaker by the moment, but somehow I’ve remained her one fixed beacon. My presence, my voice, my touch are the only things that can still rouse her to attentiveness, eliciting barely audible purrs and glimpses of the adoration she has inexplicably held for me all these years.

“It’s important you spent time with her,” said Maura, and so I have. I’ve been sitting next to her in the space we’ve set up for her in the spare bedroom, stroking her chin, scratching her belly, and telling her what a great companion she has been.

On the opposite wall is a bookshelf filled with various tomes of personal significance we’ve accumulated over the ages. Maura curated it during Big Clean Up, and I’ve never really bothered to look closely at it. Last night, I noticed my Penguin collection of William Blake’s poetry was in there, so I pulled it from the shelf.

The book was an early gift from Maura from the early days of our relationship. Her epigraph references events now lost from memory, but mentioned how she knew I enjoyed Blake’s poetry.

This was true. Blake loomed large during my early undergrad days when I ran high on epic self-mythologizing and bullshit theories of cosmic importance. Blake had been both a poet and and artist, and I fancied myself the same. Revelation and prophecy, mysticism and spiritual revolution, innocence and experience — his work was tailor-made for my muddled mindset. I hand-painted the entirety of “London” on the sleeve of my punk jacket and committed many other poems and passages of his to memory.

“Ancient times,” indeed, and long since fallen by the wayside. I picked up the book again for nostalgia’s sake, but I could feel the old fire come back to me as I flipped though its pages. I began reading favorite selections and, knowing that Setz found comfort in my voice, began reading them aloud to her.

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

After a while, she nodded off and I put the book back on the shelf. I stroked her fur and turned in for the night myself.

Toward the tail end of the Summer of 1987, I began spending less time with my buddy Scott. There was no drama or ill-will behind this slow drift. Scott was a hyper-motivated Type A personality on a fast track to success, and that brought a host of CV-building obligations that cut into his free time. We remained friendly and still did geeky shit together on a regular basis, but our days as inseparable besties had come to an end.

As a consequence, I began hanging out more frequently with Damian, another veteran of the glacial Tomb of Horrors debacle. It turned out to be a good pairing. Where Scott was a nerd who dabbled in geeky stuff, Damian was a full-on unabashed avatar of geekdom whose interests closely aligned with my own teen fanboy obsessions. He was utterly relentless in his eternal pursuit of the next “must-have” thing, and had an indulgent mother who was willing to chauffeur him around Boston’s northwest suburbs in pursuit of them.

His behavior was utterly alien to me and frequently frightening — especially the tantrums when his desires were denied — but I was more than happy to paddle along in his wake as he spent fistfuls of tokens trying to beat Ikari Warriors at the Tewksbury arcade or tried to will an as-yet-unreleased NES game into materializing onto the shelves of the local Toys R Us.

Damian was also a big fan of anime (or “Japanimation,” as it was still called back then) of the giant robot variety, and the only other kid at Kennedy Junior High who still carried a torch for Star Blazers and Robotech. Despite a growing interest in material and small but increasing number of localized offerings, it was still very much a fringe fandom at time — photocopied fanzines, bootleg VHS tapes of unsubbed material, and isolated clusters of fans and pen-pals arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Urusei Yatsura.” Any snippet of information or — better yet — physical artifact that provided further insight into the exotic and unusual scene was a treasure beyond price.

Our shared interest in anime steered the rest of our fandom, particularly in the realm of comics, videogames and role-playing games. The aesthetic was the root of my devotion to both Zillion and Phantasy Star, and Xenon and the domestically produced Robotech comics replaced the D&D monster compendiums as my primary influences in art class. (Meanwhile, two towns over, a seventeen year old Maura was applying to art school in hopes of furthering her dream of becoming a manga artist.)

So when it came to the first non-dice purchase from Games on Call (which was Damian’s discovery, by the way), I opted for the Mekton II rulebook.

Written by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games using its “Interlock System,” the Mekton RPG franchise was created to simulate both the combat and melodrama of mecha-themed anime material.

Unlike Battletech — a wargame which dropped purloined robot designs into a poor man’s version of Dune — Mekton was a sincere effort to capture the hyper-stylized vibe of the source material. The core mechanics were essentially a stripped down cousin of the Hero System used by Champions (and the two would later attempt a fitful merger around the turn of the millennium) and could be easily scaled to handle anything from 60-ton war machines exchanging blows to a handful of wildly coiffed robo-jockeys having a bar fight.

The base mecha creation system was fairly limited, but did cover almost all of the familiar archetypes. This was fleshed out in later supplements which added additional customization options in exchange for more intensive levels of complexity.

The signature component of the “Interlock System” was the “Lifepath System,” a flowchart of random tables used to determine a character’s appearance, motivations, and web of social relationships. The tragic romance, the “lost” sibling, the friend-turned-enemy — all were accounted for in the branching tangle of tables, offering players and the gamemaster ready-made hooks in line with the source material.

It was goofy as heck, but it further emphasized (along with the straight-from-a-Macintosh table design) that Mekton was a product for fans by fans.

I read and reread my copy of the Mekton II rulebook until the covers disintegrated and every page was marked by some kind of food-based stain. I created scores of mechs and colorful characters to pilot them, and spent long hours trying to get my lifted-from-comics sketches of both just right. The litany of strange series titles — such as Aura Battler Dunbine and Armored Troopers Votoms — in the campaign suggestions section filled me with burning envy toward those fortunate few fans who had access to the original laser discs.

When it came to actually playing the game, however? It was the same familiar story.

Like Champions, Mekton required players who were absolutely onboard with the source material and willing to accommodate a rule system ripe for metagaming exploitation. And like Champions, the breakneck pace of the source material’s action sequences was extremely prone to getting bogged down when translated for a gaming table.

As simple as Metkon’s rules were, mecha combat could turn into a slog when more than a handful of combatants were involved. It didn’t help things that my grand vision for a campaign habitually settled on the grand space operas of Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam as their inspiration, when the group would’ve been better served by something closer to Getter Robo‘s monstermech battle of the week focus.

The only modestly successful Mekton runs took part in were ones where role-playing was jettisoned in favor of straight up wargaming — a Star Blazers inspired space combat scenario I staged to irritate some Star Feet Battles purists and series of robo-arena battles between low-tonnage battlesuits refereed by my college pal Mike.

Even though my experiences with the game never matched my stratospheric expectations and my taste for anime has dwindled greatly over the years, I’d still rank Mekton II as one of my favorite RPGs ever — mostly due to the fact it came into my hands at the exactly the moment for it to achieve maximum fandom impact.

When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.

I’ve been working my way through Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died, thanks to a recommendation from Matt Maxwell. The book is ostensibly about the Permian extinction event which wiped out ninety percent of life on earth a quarter billion years ago, but the author also devotes a good deal of space to the political and ideological struggles which shaped paleontology over the past two-and-half centuries. While I’m strictly an amateur historian who deals in popcult artifacts instead of fossils, I’ve found much to ponder in those passages about the shaping of consensual narratives and the absence of a single comprehensive timetable.

You’d think that establishing definitive dates and chains of causality would be easier for someone dealing with human detritus generated within (more or less) the realm of living memory. The archives are amply stocked and don’t involve picking through ancient sedimentary beds for a tantalizing fragment of some primordial bivalve. Sure, biases need to be factored in and filtered out, but there’s no question about the release date of All-Star Squadron #33 or the chart placement of a given Beatles single.

Temporal proximity is a double edged sword, however. Yet, while verifiable facts are easy enough to come by, organizing them into a narrative framework can be an ordeal. That “nearness” means that there are a wide array of parties with a vested interest in shaping the narrative for reasons both personal and political. It can be as insidiously overarching at the erasure of a marginalized group’s accomplishments or as intimately personal as the self-mythologizing nostalgia of an aging hipster. In any case, it means swimming against a current of stakeholders with an active interest in shaping the historical narrative.

It also doesn’t help that the post-industrial will toward “retro” chic has further muddied the waters by imposing a market-driven version of nostalgia based on the vetted pantheon of consensual touchstones. Be it the pomade-and-poodle-skirt version of the “Fifties” peddled by Grease or the 8-bit synthwave depiction of the Eighties, they pander to those old enough to want to selectively remember while presenting a Disney-fied version of history to those too young to have been there.

Even when rare oddities and artifacts come to light, they are places with the context of these narratives. Instead of being taken as part of a wider contextual tapestry, they are held up as singular pinnacles of accomplishment. It’s always “the forgotten band that *really* invented thrash metal” or the “TV show that completely transformed everything” or some other form of marketable spin to promote the flood of documentaries, podcasts, or thinkpieces which follow in the wake of these discoveries. Rarely, if ever, is consideration given to the cultural ecosystems from which the subject arose. And when it is, it also tends to be framed within the prevailing mythic narrative.

I’m hardly immune to nostalgia’s retrograde allure. The archives of this site fairly reek with it, but I try to be conscientious about drawing a line between “what was” and “how I want to remember it.” It’s an absolutely crucial distinction to make for anyone who wants to tread in this swamp and maintain their precarious footing. Mythologized narratives make for enticing reading, but they can be dangerous distractions when associated issues are still being hotly debated.

That urge to untangle an honest semblance of the truth from entrenched legends is what keeps bringing me back to the anti-comics “panic” of the 1950s, the “death” of disco, and the videogame industry crash of the early 1980s. All three events have been rolled up into mythic narratives so entrenched that even “experts” have premised their studies of them around received wisdom that could be easily refuted with a couple of hours to browse the source materials.

It’s not that they’re wrong, per se, but that they present an incomplete picture which just happens to play toward pre-existing biases. Only an idiot would deny that the “disco sucks” movement had its roots in a growing current racist and homophobic sentiments, but fad-driven over-saturation and other industry side issues loomed far larger than Steve Dahl’s nonsense ever did in determining disco’s demise. Clarifying and contextualizing these distinct but interconnected trends doesn’t diminish the former, but rather opens it up for a wider exploration of the issues involved.

And while a lot of these musings end up here in some form or another, I’m not motivated by pageviews or accolades. Armagideon Time is just a slop bowl for what I tend to overthink on my own private time.

As distressing as recent events have been, I think it’s time to return to the Feature That Refuses to Die with a character who exemplifies the kinder, gentler side of Nobody’s Favorites….

…the splendorous Stingray.

The second-rate scourge of sea-borne villainy started his career as Walter Newell, a government scientist and surface-dwelling pal of the surly Sub-Mariner. Following a string of supporting appearances and a near-death experience, Newell decided he could be less of a liability to Prince Namor if he adopted his own superheroic persona.

Electric-blasting, amphibious exoskeleton tech didn’t come cheap, however. In order to achieve his dream of helping the Avenging Son’s oceanic crusade against crime, Newell was forced to accept funding from folks who sought to bring the misunderstood mutant to heel. While Newell managed to whomp Namor in their initial tussle, the oceanographer’s guilty conscience eventually got the better of him. Instead of returning Namor to federal custody as instructed, he decided to prop him up against a lamp post and depart under a cloud of purple prose.

Since his superheroic debut, Stingray has faithfully followed the typical arc for Bronze Age D-listers. He fought the Hulk. He made a brief appearance in the Defenders. He had a brief recurring role in one Marvel-Two-In-One’s attempts at extended story arcs. The character’s big moment to shine took place during the back-half of the Eighties, when he traded access to his hand-me-down Hydro Base for a reservist slot on the Avengers’ roster and became a wrongful target of Tony Stark’s during the two-fisted copyright enforcement known as the “Armor Wars.”

That blip of (mildly) foregrounded prominence didn’t bump the Stingray into the majors, but it did net him a Marvel Comics Presents solo tale and a fair degree of visibility ever since. At the very least, it has spared him from any gory moment of forced pathos which tends to punctuate the never-ending cycle of Big Crossover Events. That’s no small achievement for a bit player in contemporary shared universe superheroics.

I know for a fact that there are at least a few of you who’ve been stammering “but but but Stingray is cool” at your screens while reading the above.

I agree with you. Stingray is cool. He is cool in a way that would’ve (and did) set the fires of my ten year old self’s imagination ablaze. Somewhere beneath the berm which currently caps Woburn’s old city dump rests an old notebook containing page after page of amateurish attempts at “original characters” which bit heavily from Stingray’s entry in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

He was a perfect template to imitate. He had a neat costume, a badass predatorial name, and a respectable set of superpowers. He was high concept at its most elegantly simple.

(Most importantly, he sported a full mask, which was ideal for a kid who had trouble drawing faces.)

No amount of residual childhood affection can offset the fact that Stingray will never skate (HAW!) above his perennial backbencher status. For over six decades, Marvel has struggled to find a compelling role for the Sub-Mariner outside “occasional antagonist” or “ensemble cast member.” If they can’t make that leap for a seminal icon of their shared universe, it’s doubtful they could manage to do better by one of Namor’s supporting characters who also happens to be a situationally-limited, second-rate Iron Man knock-off.

There very well could be a great Stingray solo effort awaiting realization, but I suspect it would be inexorably tied to the vision of a specific creative team. Any buzz or success it generated would only last as long as their stint on the book did. Subsequent efforts to sustain that streak with another team — no matter how hard they tried to imitate their predecessors — would result in a quiet cancellation notice a couple of months later.

In short, “the unvoiced yet ever-present terror that keeps Marvel publishing execs awake at night.”

The bulk of my adventures in RPG mail-order were carried out through Games On Call, a Texas-based firm that advertised heavily in Dragon Magazine. A phone or mail inquiry would net you a free copy of their current catalog, a meticulously categorized newsprint directory containing all manner of ludographical treasures available for purchase.

The selection was mind-blowing to our specialist shop-starved selves, and the members of our little gaming group would pass the catalog around and compile wish lists of all the things we planned to (or simply dreamed about) buying. Ordering was a group activity, with each of us tossing in specific requests and the requisite amount of cash to meet the minimum purchase threshold and defray the S&H costs.

And when it came to our first order, it was all about the dice.

Forget painted miniatures or cardboard screens or graph paper. Nothing can dethrone a set of polyhedral dice as the signature visual-physical artifact of the RPG hobby. The oddness of their forms and specificity of their use imbued them with a strange allure. Up until that point, I had gotten by with the mass-market plastic jobbers that came packed in with the TSR box sets, supplemented by an assortment of d6s purloined from more pedestrian sources.

I envied the more fortunate souls who possessed fistfuls of the more upmarket polyhedral number generators and would cart them around like a collection of precious gems in a repurposed Crown Royal satchel.

The back pages of the Games on Call catalog offered a wide variety of dice for sale — both singly and in sets — and I delved into it with gusto. Opaque or translucent? Numbers of symbols? Sharp-edged or rounded? The color of the markings and prestige options like vari-colored swirls or embedded glitter also factored into the agonizing decision process.

This was important stuff, after all. We were selecting the means by which the fate of characters and kingdoms would be decided. Yet for all that angst and effort I can only specifically remember a handful of my mail order dice purchases — an opaque black d20 with crimson numbers, a translucent purple d8, and a smoky-clear d30 that I bought for coolness’ sake then attempted to shoehorn into actual use.

I never managed to score a Crown Royal bag, either, as the small contingent of my family who weren’t teetotalers considered domestic beer in bottles to be the good stuff. My polyhedral beauties were initially kept in a gray plastic office tray I bought at Staples before getting transferred to a vinyl Star Blazers pencil case Lil Bro found at the Asian import place next to JC Penney on Winn Street. That was fine enough for me, as my growing punk rockitude had killed any urge to lean into the prevailing geek cliches.

That bit in “Brassfist of the Gore” where Neil insists on inspecting Otto’s dice? It was based on a real event, where my anal-retentive dungeon master in college went over everyone’s dice with a jeweler’s loupe before each game session. That’s why I still remember the translucent purple d8 mentioned above. It didn’t make the cut due to some purported “microscopic flaw.”

The current whereabouts of my old gaming dice are unknown. I know I didn’t toss them out, so they’re most likely buried in some corner of my attic in a box marked “shit to sort after the move.” I trust they’ll remain there until a legally designated heir has to inventory all my crap for the inevitable estate sale to come.

I did order a starter set of translucent orange dice off Amazon during a bout of nostalgic reverie a couple years back. They’ve seen some use rolling up Ultimate Powers Jam assignments, but mostly they collect dust in their little case on my computer desk.

Every so often I’ll take them out and roll them around in my hand or hold them up to the light to see if I can feel any trace of the old magic. I almost always do.

My poor baby

April 14th, 2017

This is very difficult for me, because I was raised to believe that my problems are my own to solve.

I took in Lil Baby Setzer (named because we first though she was a male and because ‘stray cat’) when she and her sister Nubby were pregnant ferals hanging around our back yard.

She has been an utterly devoted companion ever since. When I was laid up for weeks with bordeline pneumonia, she refused to leave my side. When I go out in the yard, she sits in the dining room window and keeps vigil to make sure I return. When I play videogames or sit at the computer, she chirps and headbutts my arm with a strength that belies her petite frame.

My wife calls Setz my guardian angel, a “peer not a pet.”

Poor Setz isn’t a good way right now.

Something is up with her kidneys. That’s common with older cats but this came on suddenly and atypically. There was no slow breakdown, but a hard crash.

Yet even through her sickness, she still beamed with joy and gave her signature head butts when I went to check on her.

She has been hospitalized to see what can be done, and it’s not cheap.

At any other time, I’d just plow though I’ve done with past emergencies, but my financial slack is as a low ebb thanks to a recent root canal and the process of preparing to adopt a child from foster care.

I hate begging for help. My wife, in fact, would (and probably will) kill me if knew I was doing this.

I can’t even promise a good outcome. Setz could come home and pass away a week from now. We just don’t know.

The target amount represents part of money we’ve already spent for Setz’s care these past few days. It’s about getting things back to a more managable level, and nothing more.

If you can help, it would be greatly appreciated.

I got into role-playing games during the market correction which followed the fad-driven boom times of the early 1980s, when ads for the D&D Basic Set dropped out of “respectable” publications and slid back into the realm of funnybooks. There were no dedicated game shops within biking distance of Woburn, and the places which did stock RPG material limited themselves to a smallish selection of products from an even smaller selection of publishers.

If you were curious about something that wasn’t published by either TSR, FASA or GDW, you were shit out of luck in terms of cash and carry. That left mail order as the only option, which carried its own set of problems — which, in my case, involved getting my incredibly paranoid grandmother to write out a check to some firm named “The “Bugbear’s Boudoir” or some other hyper-geeky trigger for disapproving frowns.

That act of self-abasement, on top of the hassle of scraping together fifteen bucks while resisting the temptation to blow it all on near-at-hand impulse purchases, set a high hurdle and limited my mail-order purchases to a handful of truly “must haves.”

The first and most prominent of these was the third edition rulebook for ICE’s Champions game…

…ordered by way of a Dragon Magazine ad in the summer of 1987.

Tagged the “super role-playing game” (thanks, to DC and Marvel’s joint trademark on “superhero”), Champions was considered to be the gold standard of costumed crimefighting RPGs due to its detailed character creation and customization system. I didn’t know much else about it apart from a single Dragon article outlining additional superpowers for players to use, but its reputation alone was enough to edge out the more TSR’s more readily available Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

Besides, I wanted to remove any temptation the players might have to play and Captain America or Iron Man by forcing them to create their own original characters…who were thinly veiled analogues of Captain America and Iron Man.

It took three weeks for the book to arrive at my doorstep — which was an excruciating long wait for a fifteen year old — and I spent the another couple of weeks attempting my to familiarize myself with the rules. The “Hero System” mechanics Champions used were both astonishingly simple and hellishly complex. Characters purchased stats, powers, and skills with a pool of points which could be increased by taking on weaknesses such as psychological flaws or vulnerabilities to certain types of attacks. Combat and skill checks were resolved by adding and subtracting derived bonuses and modifiers from a base value of 11, then trying to roll under the resulting target number on a trio of six-sided dice.

It seemed so straightforward compared to AD&D’s hodge-podge agglomeration of conflicting rules, but the devil reigned unchecked in the details. Tweaking powers — like adding auto-fire to a ranged attack or specificity to a form of damage resistance — involved applying cost multipliers and a good deal of old fashioned algebra. Turn order and actions were resolved around a twelve “phase” system with the number of actions determined by the character’s speed stat and applied at fixed intervals. Lethal and “normal” damage were handled through parallel yet distinct systems with shared terminology.

The convoluted details were less of a problem than the glacial pace the inflicted on even the most routine in-game dust-ups. A multi-thug smackdown that would be resolved in under three panels in the four-color source material could take an hour and countless dice rolls around the gaming table. It was possible to fudge things for the sake of streamlining the adventure, but that risked fouling up something else in the system’s tangle of interconnecting parts. The open-ended nature of character creation in Champions and looseness of its rules also made it very easy for a cagey player to exploit the “meta” and unleashing balance-breaking nightmares upon any gamemaster who let their vigilance slip for even a moment.

Champions was a hot mess (and one that gave my scientific calculator a bigger workout than any trig or geometry class ever did), yet it worked really well in the context of my smallish gaming group. It helped that we had been comics fans before we became RPG fans. Heroic fantasy may have been the lingua franca for the hobby, but for us it was a second language. Our first love was funnybooks, and the chance to create and embark on our own superhero epics compelled us to make things work — if not perfectly, then well enough.

After burning ourselves out on AD&D, Champions felt like a homecoming. Our internalization of the genre’s tropes kept things running smoothly as Patriot (not Captain America) and Armor X (not Iron Man) battled Dynatek (not AIM), Baron von Totenkopf (not Doctor Doom), Retrodeth (not Deathstroke), and Violencer (not Elektra). Even the amateurish foul-ups were folded into the campaign narrative, such as when Scott neglected to purchase a defensive power for Armor X. His character was laid low by an almost fatal burst of machine gun fire, leading to his patriotic partner’s capture. I turned Scott’s do-over of his character into a role-playing training montage where he rebuilt his gear in preparation of a desperate rescue mission.

That same familiarity with the source material made it easy to run intertwined solo instances when either Scott or Lil Bro were engaged elsewhere, which helped deepen their engagement while sustaining momentum. The run became a group obsession, and I spent scores of dimes at the Woburn Public Library’s photocopier cranking out grainy photostats of character sheets to be filled with adversaries blatantly lifted from the pages of Who’s Who and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

At the time, I felt like we were creating the basis for a future superhero universe. I also felt like I had a shot at being a legitimate funnybook artist, so, yeah, I’ve matured a bit since then. Even though neither of those dreams came to pass, my Champions phase had an enduring impact on how I looked at superhero comics in general. Writing a funnybook is different than running an RPG campaign, but the experience provided a glimpse into the workings of the sausage machine. What makes an effective adversary? What is the primary purpose of continuity and world-building? What is actual substance and what is stylistic fluff?

Even when the two mediums diverged, there were valuable lessons to be learned about the roles and rationales of genre conventions, as well the need for the narrative equivalent of negative space — why this works in one format but should be jettisoned. My contemplation of the bits that Champions got “wrong” or were unable to emulate inspired me to spend the following decades seeking out every similarly themed RPG in search of one that did capture the spirit of the source material. I’ve read dozens. A few have come close, but none have passed the Scarlet Witch test thus far.*

*The test: Can the game mechanics emulate those instances where Scarlet Witch knocks out a high-powered villain with a sucker punch?

Leech and I first crossed paths with the Lone Punk in the spring of 1992, shortly before our friendship-ending blow-up. We were passing through the cafeteria on the third floor of Wheatley Hall (since converted into the school’s “Venture Capital Center”) when we spotted him eating alone at a corner table. Being two of the most (visually) prominent punk rockers on campus, we decided assume an ambassadorial role and introduce ourselves.

The Lone Punk was a little wary at first, and sized us up with the customary “real deal or poser” stare before introducing himself. His name was Chris and hailed from one of the super-posh exurbs on the western fringes of Metro Boston. He had originally been enrolled at a big name college in Manhattan, but moved back to the Bay State and transferred to UMB after some unspecified incident.

His look was that extreme mash-up of UK82 and proto-crusty which was big in NYC at the time and made it easy to spot the out-of-towners in the Pit on weekends. His hair was sloppily dyed and fixed into semi-permanent spikes with unflavored gelatin and he sported an old wool suit jacket bedecked with spikes, bolts, and industrial hose clamps. It was exceedingly over the top and made my Britpunk/hardcore kid thing look like business casual, but it still fascinated me as a signifier of the Truly Committed.

Chris didn’t care much for Leech, who had a penchant for overloud laughter and chewing with his mouth open (often simultaneously). He didn’t seem to mind me that much, though it might’ve been because he kind of had a thing for Maura. During our handful of conversations, we mostly swapped punk fashion tips and discussed our musical preferences.

I was still heavily into Britpunk and Oi, which made Chris roll his eyes in a way that made me want to sock him in his triple-pierced nose. He, on the other hand, was a devoted fan of anarchopunk and specifically Crass.

At the time, my knowledge of Crass and its creed-driven kindred extended to seeing the band’s symbol sketched and painted on countless punk accouterments and from teen anarcho-blatherings I’d run across in copies of early Eighties punk ‘zines. I’d never listened to Crass’s music or given the band much of a thought apart from mocking the weird cultish vibe of their fans.

As a rich fuck-up taking a temporary breather in a publicly-funded safety net, Chris wasn’t exactly a compelling evangelist for anarchopunk, but the notion still got under my skin. I’d hit an age where Oi’s aggro posturing had begun to feel ridiculous and the music had worn out its welcome. I was long overdue for a change, so my next trip to the record store saw me pick up a cassette copy of Crass’s Best Before 1984 compilation.

It took a bit to wrap my head around the sound, an off-putting mix of amateur and artsy scoring uncompromising political chants. It was challenging in a way I’d never been challenged by punk music before, spawning an ongoing set of internal arguments. To call it a Socratic dialogue would overstate things, but it worked along the same lines. The reflexive “that’s a load of bullshit” shifted into “okay, maybe they have a point” to “PREACH IT, COMRADES.”

It wasn’t the message, but the methodology that dug its hooks into me. Question everything, assume nothing. I became a punk rocker because I was an angry teen who’d experienced a huge personal upheaval, and that rationale worked just fine up until my relationship with Maura got serious and I realized that I needed to as well.

Anarchy had been a buzzword and a symbol devoid of any ideology apart from “you’re not the boss of me” nihilism. It was a dead end. Even if I never fully agreed with their message, Crass revealed a valid path forward.

It was also handy that the entire Crass discography was available cheaply and readily available on vinyl at a time when records were vanishing from shelves and import punk shit commanded extortionate prices. I picked up the entire lot of it — Feeding the 5000, the Christ the Album box set with long and rambling leaflet, Penis Envy, and Stations of the Crass. I painted the symbol on the front of my punk jacket and hung the disturbing gatefold poster from Feeding above the foot of my bed (much to my grandma’s disgust).

More importantly, anarchopunk kicked off a new and still ongoing phase in my political development, one that explored root causes instead of parroting received wisdom. Questions about political violence, pacifism, and the social constructs of oppression and liberation compelled me to further educate myself and explore the numerous contradictions which arose during the process. The bulk of it unfolded long after I’d stopped listening to Crass on a regular basis, but their music and writing had set things in motion.

These days, I’m more likely to get my anarchopunk fix from the likes of Blyth Power or Zounds. I still dig out Penis Envy or some of the singles on occasion, even if the experience is tempered by later revelations that the stridency of the band’s public convictions hid a great deal of in-fighting and a good deal of hypocrisy. The human failings of the messengers, however, mattered less than what their message inspired in me.

After successfully completing a marathon playthrough of the Temple of Elemental Evil “mega-module,” my little brother and my new buddy Scott were itching to take their absurdly overpowered characters to new heights of loot-intensive glory.

As it happened, I had just the adventure for them….

The Mines of Bloodstone.

A follow-up on what had intended to be a one-off scenario, The Mines of Bloodstone was heavily hyped in the pages of Dragon Magazine as the ultimate high level AD&D adventure. That house propaganda organ hard sell was effective enough to convince me to pay full price for the module at Paperback Booksmith in the Woburn Mall. The purchase was made more out of morbid curiosity than any practical intent, but it seemed perfect for keeping the fires of my player’s enthusiasm stoked.

The module took place in a tiny mountain kingdom beleaguered by restive neighbors and nefarious shenanigans unfolding in the cavernous underdark beneath the realm. The scenario itself was fairly uninspired, a bog-standard hackfest distinguished only by the novelty of its “endgame” level scale. It also included not-so-subtle plugs for the newly released Wilderness and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide source books, as well as option bits which required access to TSR’s non-starter rules for running pitched battles.

Straightforward and nonsensical was right up my players’ alley, though. I did dial back the overall difficulty of the module a wee bit, but Lil Bro and Scott’s power-gaming duo of cavalier and paladin would’ve made a joke of things even if I hadn’t. Scores upon scores of elite duergar warriors fell before a whirlwind of +5 sword strokes. A legion of iron golems was reduced to so much enchanted scrap metal. Even a dreaded tarrasque was rapidly carved into so many tiny pieces.

When the time came to confront the evil mastermind of the deep realms, they decided to let him finish his sinister ritual just so they could lay some righteous retribution on the freshly summoned demon prince Orcus.

For their heroic downwards-punching efforts, Scott and Lil Bro’s characters were rewarded with…well, there’s a reason White Dwarf’s scathing review of the adventure particularly singled out its loot rewards.

Lil Bro’s cavalier also ended up — through NPC marriage — as monarch of the valley kingdom, while Scott’s paladin set up a knightly order in its capital village. I attempted to continue the campaign through a handful of homebrew scenarios involving an invading army or orcs and border skirmishes with neighboring warlords, but the thrill was fading fast.

More puritantical RPG enthusiasts would say that was an inevitable consequence of running a high-powered, loot-generous campaign, but I don’t agree with that. The only way a role-playing run can fail is by not fulfilling the players’ expectations — not in terms of predictability or generosity, but of understanding the collective and individual mindsets of folks sitting around the table. We were adolescent boys raised on comics and action flicks. A “serious and mature” interaction-heavy approach would’ve guttered out even sooner than the reckless abandon one I adopted.

We weren’t unhappy with the campaign — quite the contrary — but there was no escaping the sensation it had gone as far as it could go. It’s a pretty typical characteristic of youth, the burning desire to replicate or extend a magic moment which invariably ends on a note of disappointing futility. It was fun while it lasted, but that moment had passed.

The end of the campaign marked the end of our teen Dungeons & Dragons days. I still picked up various D&D products and we made a few attempts at staring over with new characters, but never managed to get a regular run going after that point. Going back to basics was too hard an adjustment for us.

Though we burned ourselves out on D&D, we soon found another object for our role-playing obsessions….

Train in vanity

April 4th, 2017

There are currently seven and a half billion people on this planet. Statistically speaking, that’s a large enough number for there to be three or four people out there who are devoted fans of both model trains and the gimmick-driven, sludgy glam rock of Kiss.

Well, I’ve got some good news for those rare creatures. Your ship has finally sailed in…

…provided your pockets are deep enough to float the $320 buy-in cost.

The “free” track and controller set is a bit odd, as it presumes a buyer who hasn’t already dabbled in the realm of HO scale hobbycraft. But, hey, what do I know? I’m not the genius who combined such obviously complementary concepts as tiny toy choo-choos and shitty shock rock.

I’m sure the value added will be much appreciated by those nighttime rockers/daytime partiers who will spend hours watching the locomotive run a tight loop on the floor of their furnished basements, the sounds of a warped Dressed to Kill LP drowning out the constant stream of collection agency robocalls.

And should you prefer your small-gauge thunder to come from Down Under rather than Detroit Rock City, an AC/DC themed train set is now available for pre-order. I would not suggest buying this model, however….

…as it makes great deal of noise, can’t seem to build up any steam, and seems hellbent on speeding over the nearest cliff.

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