Armagideon Time

It’s only fitting that I follow up last week’s post about the Best of Dragon with a sourcebook that was essentially an officially sanctioned, hardbound edition of those “house rules” anthologies.

I picked up Unearthed Arcana at Toys R Us for a tenner. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. Thirty years later, I’m still a bit baffled by it.

In theory, the sourcebook was assortment of revisions and additions purportedly aimed at shepherding Advanced Dungeons & Dragons onto a new and more robust level. In practice, it was a haphazard mess which only served to muddy the games already murky waters even further. There actually was a lot of interesting stuff going on between its covers, though pulling those scattered items of value from the overall train-wreck was no small task.

The contents were was split into two sections — one for players and one for Dungeonmasters — with some oddly left field appendices about polearms and non-human deities tacked on for semi-adequate measure. Though blessed and helmed by (the soon to be deposed) Lord Gygax himself, much of the additions leaned toward the unbalanced side of the spectrum. New character classes such as cavaliers and barbarians incorporated special abilities which offered extremely generous benefits at the cost of some nonsensical and disruptive restrictions aimed at making the DM and other players experience a living hell. This was also the book that provided rules for the Drow (“Dark Elf”) PC in all their problematic yet popular glory.

Unearthed Arcana‘s most egregious examples of upwards “power creep” was its infamous “Method V” rules for rolling up characters.

The fistfuls of dice and spike in the statistical mean for ability scores was met by more purist DM with complete horror and by White Dwarf Magazine’s games reviewer with utter scorn. For those of us who didn’t give a shit about game balance or tradeoffs, however, it was a powergamer’s wet dream.

The remainder of the book mostly consisted of expanded spell lists (including “zero level” cantrips for which Gygax sported weird hard-on), an expanded armory for players to pick through, and a slew of new magic items of varying utility. These — along with the new character classes — were the big draw for me, as they were most easily adaptable to the bastard hybrid of the basic and advanced rules I was using at the time.

My purchase of Unearthed Arcana also happened to coincide with a new exciting chapter of my role-playing experiences. Up until that time, my gaming group consisted of my brother and which ever of his friends I could press-gang into playing an adventure. The irregularity of that arrangement ruled out the possibility of running an actual long-form campaign.

That changed up when I reconnected with Mike, a friend of a friend who was one of the other players during my first D&D session. Mike was a fellow Skinny Blonde Geekboy who shared my fondness for GI Joe toys and other bits of Reagan Era militaristic ephemera. He was also a huge D&D fan and was looking for a regular group he could join.

That group, such as it was, ended up being Mike and my brother, with me continuing in my role as DM. Mike made up for the lack of numbers by running three characters simultaneously, some half-elf multi-classed triplets which weren’t even’t remotely compliant with the official rules. I coaxed my brother into rolling up (via Method V, natually) a fresh character for the campaign, a human cavalier named Stephan Holgrim that he stuck with through the remainder of our D&D salad days.

The nature of campaign still hewed closely to the slash-n-lootfests of my earlier runs, but Mike’s (selective) knowledge of the rules helped me get a better handle on how things were supposed to work while easing the transition into AD&D proper. The spare Dungeon Master’s Screen he gifted me was an invaluable resource, as was the comprehensive character sheet template he crafted on his Apple II and would be photocopied scores of times by me over the following year at the local library.

I’m pretty sure I still have a few of them — used and blank, the eighth generation reproduction of the original dot matrix printing almost indecipherable — folded up and wedged into various sourcebooks in my grandmother’s attic.

Not in my copy of Unearthed Arcana, though. The binding gave out after a month. What’s left of the book exists in the form of pages scattered throughout the depths of a blue plastic storage crate.

After feeling a bit burnt out on Destiny lately, I decided to check back in on Grand Theft Auto Online and see how the game has been doing during my absence.

Rockstar’s regular (and free) updates to the game have continued to roll in during my hiatus. I’d quit paying attention to them at some point, though I knew the most recent was a biker-themed affair with a new set of vehicles and customization options reflecting that outlaw subculture.

Good pal (and Boo! collaborator) Daniel Butler accompanied me on my return to the virtual world of San Andreas. Our original plan was to scope out the new cosmetic customization content before running a quick heist. Instead, we ended up spending the better part of an hour playing paper dolls with our avatars and the expanded wardrobe options available to them.

I was expecting the biker stuff to feature a lot of leather goods, spikes, and chains, which it certainly did. What I was not expecting, however, was the inclusion of a whole line of moddish retrowear for the those folks who’d rather chug along on a faux Vespa than rip up the asphalt on an overtuned pseudo Harley.

I’ve been playing GTAO on and off since it was released three years ago, and picked up a solid-if-not-exceptional grasp of its shooting ‘n’ driving gameplay. It’s not a mastery of the mechanics that keeps me interested in the game, though. It’s the mastery of style.

The addition of a parka with a bullseye patch doesn’t seem like a radical gamechanger, but it was the latest in a series of minor cosmetic flourishes which completely transformed my engagement with GTAO. It has effected my play style, loadout selection, and general attitude as I tear around the open world in search of easy money and cheap thrills.

It was a small detail, yes, but one that inspired a fresh role-playing narrative and connection with my in-game avatar.

As was the case with similar instances in the past, this reimagining of my character begged the creation of a custom soundtrack to complement the experience.

It’s still a work in progress, but so far it has been shaping up to be my favorite of the lot. The majority of tracks have been pulled from various (mostly forgotten) artists from the late Seventies/early Eighties mod revival, with cuts thrown in from adjacent scenes (ska and powerpop) and rounded out with helpings of Sixties freakbeat, Northern Soul, and British Invasion material.

Taken together, they represents a powerhouse playlist of my Most Favored Music Genres under a single, loose-fitting thematic blanket that fits whatever mayhem is unfolding onscreen.

Whether shooting up a trailer park meth lab or taking a midnight drive along a stretch of coastal highway, you can’t go wrong with Merry Clayon’s soul-tastic rendition of “Gimme Shelter.”

…or this…

…or this…

No longer busy being born

November 30th, 2016

I made it clear to noontime before I remembered today marks the twenty-eight anniversary of my mother’s death.

There are been more immediate concerns as of late, fresh wounds in need of suturing that have taken priority over the luxury of worrying an ugly but ancient scar. The ever-growing temporal gulf between Then and Now has also played a factor. My mother has been gone from my life for nearly twice as long as she was a part of it.

Yet I did remember it, and having remembered it, that old familiar ache has returned.

In past years, I’ve commemorated the date by writing about it. Each subsequent year reflected some fresh bit of insight or point of genuflection about my feelings toward my mother and the consequences of her passing. Her death radically reshaped my reality and led to every life-changing event which followed.

Because my mother died, I won a scholarship for hard luck cases. Because I won the scholarship, I was able to attend UMass Boston. Because I attended UMass Boston, I was able to meet Maura. Because I met Maura, I was able to center my angry adolescent self and realize my worth as a person.

It’s a weird thing to contemplate how the death of a parent could be interpreted as the best thing that ever happened to me, but it is — on a coldly clinical level — true.

I’ve portrayed my mother in a less than flattering light in some of my autobiographical writing, perhaps excessively so relative to the font of emotional cruelty that is my old man. My father was a monster, but I’ve had decades to get the measure of our complicated relationship and make some form of peace with him. I did not get, nor will ever have, the chance to reach the same level of clarity with my mother. Her death froze my frame of reference at a place where her mental illness was hitting a terminal stage while my perspective was that of a confused and resentful sixteen year old.

My father’s antics were boisterous and over the top, an amped-up and especially brutal version of the stock Angry Alcoholic Dad template. My mother’s issues were more difficult to parse. She was a very brittle person, a bundle of stress triggers and unpredictable outbursts. She was able to keep things — and my father — in check for a number of years, but her own irrational obsessions eventually made that impossible. She was terrified of getting older, of her beauty fading, of succumbing to cancer after having a benign growth removed at age thirty.

She was the rock of our family, but one made out of plaster. When she started crumbling, the entire shaky dynamic entered a death spiral. Sometimes my father wonders if he could’ve pulled things back together if he’d made an effort. I’m convinced it was beyond saving. If my mother didn’t die from that fall down the attic stairs, she’d have died of liver failure. Or in a mental hospital.

My mother couldn’t imagine herself getting older and neither can I. There’s simply no roadmap to follow about how she would have reacted to the life I’ve carved out for myself. “She’d be proud of you,” is the default palliative platitude folks offer but there’s no way of ever knowing that.

See, I’m doing it again, despite the fact that my mother was also a very loving and positive influence on me. She was the artist of the family, the creative soul that encouraged flights of fancy against my father’s two-fisted pragmatism. She was a wellspring of stories from Arthurian legend and Classical myth, the value of allegory and metaphors which didn’t involve Nazi Germany. She kept me supplied with texts and materials aimed at encouraging my creativity.

She was a voracious and omnivorous reader. Even when her disorders left her terrified to leave the house, she’d send me down to the library to borrow books — “anything that looks interesting is fine” — for her to devour in the space of an afternoon of two and then recount to my father and me for weeks afterward.

The trips to the library were so ingrained into my schedule that I kept them up after she died. Using her card, I’d borrow books that I thought she might’ve enjoyed. I’d take them back to my bedroom at my grandmothers place and read them while listening to the oldies station on my stereo.

Up until that time, I was never much of a reader outside horror anthologies or non-fiction tomes about favorite subjects (true crime, military history, odd facts). What began as a need to maintain a sense of continuity became an enduring habit in its own right.

That’s the legacy of my mother that I should be remembering today, instead of the weirdness and insanity of her final years.

But then I remember how much she loved Taylor Caldwell‘s writing and the ambivalence comes flooding back again.

The gyre may be widening and the center failing to hold, but I’m not going to let a little thing like the heat death of liberal democracy keep me from updating this pitiful remnant of a once popular website. The world may crumble, but I’ve still got three decades of role playing game memories to unpack before it slides into the abyss.

Besides the clearance aisle of local Toys ‘R’ Us store, the other retail enabler of my early-stage D&D habit was the Paperback Booksmith in the Woburn Mall. Though it never offered much by way of sales or discounts, it did continue to stock a decent range of TSR products at a time when most other shops were divesting themselves from the rapidly contracting fad.

Fifteen bucks for a book (or nine for a module) was still too rich for my blood, but I was more than willing to drop a couple of fivers on the third and fourth volumes of The Best of Dragon anthologies. These slick softcover gazettes (featuring metallic-finish covers which went from slick-looking to grimy over the course of a single readthrough) contained a cornucopia of fluff, essays, and unofficial rules expansions culled from the pages of their namesake periodical.

I hadn’t yet got into the habit of buying Dragon Magazine on a regular basis, but was swayed to pick up this pair of Best of collections by a junior high classmate who’d fallen away from the hobby but was still willing to join in conversations about d20s and THAC0 rolls. The big draw — and the reason I purchased these two volumes in particular — was the inclusion of a whole passel of new and exciting character classes outside the officially sanctioned stock templates. Why settle for some nondescript fighter when you could play as a bounty hunter or death-master or duelist?

Technically, the classes were supposed to be for non-player characters only. In practice, it was pretty much a given that children of the Golden Age of Antihero worship would toss any concerns about “game balance” to the winds when offered a chance to play a medieval fantasy version of Boba Fett. Because I bought these books well before owning my own copy of the Player’s Handbook, these unofficial classes ended up getting more campaign time than the properly sanctioned ones ever did. Volume Three also included simplified rules for the hopelessly convoluted monk and bard classes, which further obviated any need my group felt to adhere to the established rules.

In hindsight, I’m amazed by how improvisational my early D&D runs were both as a player and a dungeon master. For those first few months, my group’s campaigns were cobbled together from the first two D&D box sets and a crazy quilt assortment of random AD&D sourcebooks and supplements. It probably helped that none of the players ran spellcasters or made it past fifth level during that phase. Their adventures were all ludicrous dungeon raids against ludicrous-but-kewl monsters with loot payoffs that would make a more fastidious DM blanch with horror.

But you know what? Even after discounting for rosy nostalgia, they were some of the best times I ever had with the hobby.

Sad Fact: Volume Four included a detailed article about Scando-Germanic runic alphabets and ways to incorporate them in one’s D&D games. So enraptured was I by this nod to my ancestral heritage, I memorized how to write my name in the runes and signed all my tests and class assignments with it for at least half a year.

Cripes, I was an insufferable prat as a teen.

Timely Repost: To eat their own

November 23rd, 2016

Elijah doesn’t remember his father.

He cannot recall a time before he and Mama moved to Grandpa Tim’s farm, view though sometimes he has nightmares where he’s in the backseat of a car while the world burns and screams around him.

Mama said his father died during the Struggle. Elijah daydreamed about him making a heroic stand against the Federals in Babylon, see the way Sister Tina said they did in history class.

Later, doctor while secretly rummaging through Mama’s old suitcase, Elijah found and old brown paper bag. Inside were leaflets and stickers marked with the forbidden names, along with a photograph of a young man with glasses shaking hands with a smiling black man. Then Grandpa Tim walked into the room.

As the pain from the hiding he got subsided into a dull throb, Elijah laid awake in his bed, listening to Grandpa Tim shout at Mama.

Bad enough he got himself killed, he said, you’re going to risk yourself and the boy over his foolishness? Mama sobbed quietly.

Grandpa Tim burned the contents of the bag in an old oil drum the next day. Elijah tried to ask him why, but Grandpa Tim kept stirring the embers with a stick without saying a word.

***

Elijah does remember television.

Mama said it still existed but no one outside the ‘claves can spare the electricity. Sister Tina said that was because the Federals wrecked something called “the grid” as they retreated north. Grandpa Tim said it was because the ‘claves were keeping the best to themselves, before warning of a whupping if Elijah ever repeated that.

There were a few families in town who had generators, but they didn’t get used much these days since gasoline was so hard to come by.

At the town meeting after the Day of Deliverance, the Mayor asked if anyone was able to fix the grid. A man in shorts and a Batman t-shirt leaned his assault rifle against a folding chair and stepped forward. He started talking about how things ought to be according to some man named Paul.

The Mayor said the only Paul he takes orders from is in the Bible. The audience laughed and the Mayor asked why someone who didn’t sacrifice for the Struggle would think he can tell what’s what to the folks who did.

Folks said the man in the Batman shirt left for one of the ‘claves that night, but Grandpa Tim said he was more likely napping on the riverbed.

***

Eventually they stopped allowing women and kids to attend town meetings. Grandpa Tim kept going, always came back in a foul mood.

He told Mama that the Mayor was favoring his fellow Rollers because the thought the Methodists were “a shade too pink.”

Elijah asked if Grandpa Tim was a Methodist. He said he was a “pragmatist.”

Elijah asked if that was like a Methodist. Grandpa Tim said “not at the moment.”

***

A man from the Republic arrived in town today in an Army truck. Elijah could see the traces of the old Federal star underneath the Cross and Eagle on the door. The Mayor ordered the whole town to turn out to greet the man.

No one in town had seen or heard much from the Republic since the Day of Deliverance, when the sounds of gunfire grew more distant and some of the militia boys had started coming home.

The Republic man wore a dress shirt and camouflage pants. With him were a half dozen men in militia garb, including one manning a machine gun on the top of the truck. He was followed by a man in a fancy suit who arrived in a black SUV and carried what Mama called a “tablet” with him.

The man from the Republic said that order was being restored and that glorious times were on their way, God willing. The man from the Republic ended every sentence with “God willing” or “praise Jesus.”

There was a scattering of whoops and applause from the audience.

Then the man said that there is still much work to be done. He said the Federals still were still holding out in the north and spreading the Islamo-socialist poison of the Bungler.

He said that the Republic was close to discovering the launch codes, praise Jesus, but that it still needed support from the congregation of the Elect. He then recited a list of things the Republic required from the townspeople.

The man in the suit, he said, was from the Mart and one of the truly devout. As the Mart’s mission was the Republic’s mission was God’s mission, the town was expected to send a number of its people to work in the Mart’s distribution center.

Brother Jacob, one of the elder members of the militia, said that he didn’t lose three toes during the Struggle just so he could be bossed around by some fancy pants from the ‘claves.

Brother Jacob loved to point out how he’d lost three toes during the struggle. Grandpa Tim loved to point out Brother Jacob had shot them off himself when he was drunk.

The man from the Republic waited for Brother Jacob to finish, then pulled out a pistol and put a bullet through Brother Jacob’s forehead. Some of the other townsfolk began to ready their own weapons, but stopped when the man on the truck swung his machine gun toward the crowd.

The man from the Mart looked uncomfortable for a moment, then went back to fiddling with his tablet.

(originally posted 6/26/2014)

So…

November 21st, 2016

…how have you folks been doing?

Sorry for the content drought. The site isn’t going anywhere. I suspect I’m going to need it as a coping mechanism in the months and years ahead.

Updates will be thin on the ground for the next couple of weeks, however, but that’s a result of day job stuff instead of crippling existential terror.

Meditation #5

November 18th, 2016

Meditation #4

November 17th, 2016

Meditation #3

November 16th, 2016

Meditation #2

November 15th, 2016

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