Armagideon Time

Although my first direct experience with Dungeons & Dragons left me with a desire to delve deeper into the hobby, it would be a good four months before I got around to acting on that particular urge.

The most formidable obstacle on that front was the financial one. Role playing game stuff carries a steep price tag, and I was still dependent on whatever cash could be shaken loose from the increasingly shaky family budget. In theory, I was supposed to be getting twenty bucks a week from my parents to do housework and babysit my little brother. In practice, my parents were fond withholding my allowance as punishment for sins both real and imagined.

I’m not laying claim to any teenage martyrdom — because I was indeed an obnoxious brat — but it was a bit odd how these financial sanctions for my “out of control behavior” always tended to coincide with my parents running low on beer and cigarette money. Balancing my comics, junk food, and toy-buying habits in such precarious circumstances was difficult enough without tossing a new expense into the mix.

Halfway through the summer of 1986, the delivery boy for our local evening paper quit for more lucrative pastures and my parents volunteered my little and brother and me as his replacements. I fucking loathed the job and the destruction the ink wreaked on my cherished collection of Hawaiian shirts, but it did mean a certain degree of financial independence. I broadened my pool of regular funnybook purchases, vastly expanded my library of music cassettes, and finally plunked down the cash for a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

I bought it at the Osco (now a Rite Aid) at Horn Pond Plaza, where it sat in forlorn repose in the store’s general merchandise clearance aisle. The box was beat-to-shit and had been opened at some point, but it still contained all its components (including the cheapjack dice and marking crayon) and was selling for half of what the mall bookstore was asking for a copy.

During the last couple of weeks before the start of classes, I must’ve read the set’s Player and Dungeon Master sourcebooks at least a dozen times each. When my aunts took the the gaggle of Weiss-side cousins out apple picking up in Essex County on Labor Day weekend, I stayed in the car and familiarized myself with clerical spells and armor classes. My brain was afire with ideas for character builds and devious dungeon designs. I even dropped three bucks at CVS for a bound pad of high-quality graph paper (that I still have somewhere in my collection of crap).

There was a slight problem, however. I didn’t have anyone to play the game with. The friends who got me into the game had either moved on or moved elsewhere, and the geek circles at my junior high were tribally defensive in the extreme. So I ended up press-ganging Lil Bro and our cousin Phil into playing the game.

Lil Bro became “Slipknot” the thief, while Phil took up the mantle of “Longsword” the fighter. Inspired names, I know, but none of us had been exposed to the fantasy genre outside Conan comics and Saturday morning cartoon fare.

The campaign only lasted a handful of sessions, because it’s difficult to get two ten year olds to sit around a table when there are forts to build and rocks to toss into the murky depths of the Middlesex Canal. The few games we did manage to run were exclusively hack ‘n’ slash lootfests against creatures chosen more for their coolness factor than narrative logic.

Kill a bunch of things to get things to help kill even more things. It’s the stuff that drives “serious” RPG enthusiasts to despair, but there’s a rough-edged purity in that simple formula that I’ll always find nostalgically endearing — especially during those times when I’ve been mired in a glacially paced interaction-heavy campaign. (And it could also explain why Destiny, Diablo, and Borderlands have sunk their digital hooks into me so deeply.

There was no official end to our proto-campaign. We just stopped playing at some point and moved on to other things.

I was never as close to Phil as my brother was, but I was a bit shocked when I got the news that he passed away a few years back. It was a sudden thing, his heart gave out while he was getting ready for work. He was the first (and thankfully only as of this writing) of the Weiss-side cousins to pass away, which was hard to reconcile with my mental image of us all being kids forever. It was also odd to realize that all that remains of him from my perspective are some increasingly hazy memories, some old photographs, and a Dorito-stained character sheet buried in the depths of a plastic storage crate.

Time-Life’s The Swing Era was a series of LP box sets covering the Big Band era from the early Thirties through the late Forties. Each volume covered a period of a couple of years and focused — often tenuously — around some specific theme or trend, and also included a hardback book full of pictures and other historical notes.

The tracks themselves were then-contemporary re-creations of the original cuts. That was something of a turn-off for purists, but the performances — by the Billy May and Glen Gray Orchestras — offered a crisp, clear omnibus of some of the best material the Big Band Era had to offer.

I had coveted the set since I saw a house ad for it in a late 1960s issue of LIFE, but despaired of ever obtaining one. The series had been re-released multiple times over the years, with certain key tracks migrating between volumes over successive editions. Assembling a complete and cohesive collection of the records was a nigh-impossible task. Even the dodgy mp3 rips I’d managed to dig up were all over the place in terms of consistency and quality (though the first set did serve as my default GTA Online background score for a few months).

Furthermore, my turntable was offline and without a pre-amp or stereo system to render it usable. Without one, my interest in The Swing Era felt like just another expensive and pointless whim.

I never mentioned my interest in the series to my wife, which added an extra level of astonishment when she brought an almost complete set of The Swing Era‘s 1970 edition home from a recent estate sale. Three years of looking and longing, and the damn thing just fell into my lap one Saturday afternoon.

It also happened to coincide with an ongoing decluttering project in which my managed to organize and consolidate the stack of records that constituted our shared collection and clear enough space on the living room entertainment center to support a compact stereo set-up.

My original plan to was to go full retro with woodgrain and chrome cast-offs plucked thrift stores or yard sales, but I ended up opting for a cheap Jensen turntable with integrated speakers instead. It’s about what I expected for under fifty bucks, a limited-feature rig that’s one coating of circus-themed contact paper away from being the machine I played Batman book-and-record sets and the Sgt. Peppers soundtrack on when I was a tyke.

The turntable’s tinniness works in its favor, though, adding a throwback vibe to the sounds emerging from its substandard speakers.

I debated what record should serve as its inaugural platter, angsting over whether to go with a classic Perry Como jam or the original UK pressing of the first Clash LP. In deference to the discs that inspired this whole thing, I ended up opting for Billy May’s rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing, Part One.”

My dog Oliver wasn’t a fan, despite the fact that he resembles a canine refugee from a 1930s Our Gang short.

I still think too much of the current vinyl fetish scene is a hep affection propped up savvy marketing, namely convincing folks to drop insane amounts of cash on shit that used records stores couldn’t give away during my LP buying days. I have no romantic attachment to the format itself, apart from it once being a way to build an impressive music library on the cheap.

That said, I’m really enjoying having the damn thing around. For over fifteen years now, music has been background noise for working, commuting, and writing. Playlists have been relentless curated and cherry picked, while favorite albums have become audio wallpaper. Even when this site was a music blog, the constant search and review process caused a profound sense of burnout to occupy my psychic real estate and never fully vacate that space.

Sitting down and actively listening to music is something I haven’t done in ages. Until this past weekend, I never realized how much I missed that experience.

Though Maura’s consolidation efforts were done with an eye for space-clearing efficiency instead of archival orderliness (which was on me, because I’m the one who shrugged and went back to playing videogames when she asked if I wanted to help her organize it), I did succeed in locating all of my old favorite LPs for some fresh spins.

On one hand, I’m impressed by what I’d managed to accumulate in my wayward youth. On the other, I regret that my younger self’s tastes were had been so damn narrow for so long — leading him to pass up so many stellar gems at fire sale prices in favor of Yet Another Stupid Oi Compilation, Volume XXVIII.

Saturday’s playlist:

- The Swing Era: The Music Of 1937-1938, side two
- The Clash, The Clash (UK version)
- The Clash, Combat Rock, side one
- Modern English, After The Snow
- Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
- Wall of Voodoo, Dark Continent

Sunday’s playlist:

- The Enigma Variations compilation
- Xanadu: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
- Bauhaus, 1979-1983

Still on deck:

- The Partisans, The Time Was Right
- INXS, Kick
- The Beatles, Revolver
- The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks
- Siouxsie & The Banshees, Hyaena
- UK Decay, For Madmen Only

Got the world up my class

September 15th, 2016

“Then Harvey said yes Leningrad was wonderful, and how it was called the Venice of the North on account of how wonderful it was. The man at the other end said yes, and how did Mr. Dempsey like it, and I said it was wonderful but I hadn’t ever heard anyone call Venice the Leningrad of the South, and then there was a silence.”

The above quote comes from Billion-Dollar Brain, the fourth (and my favorite) of Len Deighton’s “Spy With No Name” novels. I think of it a lot, especially whenever the Boston Globe prattles on about how some absurd scheme will turn this region into “the next Silicon Valley” or elevate this benighted collection of shanties and hovels into a truly World Class City.

I would like to point out that I don’t actually read the Boston Globe. My wife buys the Sunday edition of that exercise in journalistic death spirals for the inserts and sales announcements. Over the course of the week following that, I strip off the unread sections so that my dog has a picture of Donald Trump or Charlie Baker to piss on while I’m off at work. On rare occasions, a article will catch my eye long enough to make me wonder if my actions constitute a form of animal cruelty.

For all of its unabashed boosterism, it’s clear that the Globe has no idea what being a World Class City actually entails. A true World Class City doesn’t constantly angst about that status, but wears it with a confidence bordering on arrogance. It is, after all, a center of the civilized universe. They may jostle among themselves for the titles of “global financial capital” or “cultural capital of the world,” but those are just battles of perception involving pre-existing assets.

They certainly don’t need Harold Hill’s great-great-grandkid with a urban planning degree rolling in to collect a fat consultancy fee for suggesting that an Olympic stadium/casino/Formula 1 race event will cure all economic ills and deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. It’s bad enough when a modestly well-off burg like Boston sips of that snake oil, but it’s even more painful when those pipe dreams are peddled to some stagnant Rust Belt town desperate for an economic quick fix.

Places that struggle to pay for basic infrastructure and public sector staffing will eagerly dig themselves into a public debt hole to build all manner of honey pots to attract the oh-so-coveted Young Entrepreneur Class (which is to say, a bunch of mostly doomed dreamers buoyed up by rafts of venture capital).

Is Boston any better because local leaders promised General Electric the moon, stars, and firstborn children to relocate a couple of hundred jobs here? Not as far as I can tell, though the revenue sacrificed through those appalling tax incentives would’ve been put to better use in fixing roads, improving public transportation, and funding education programs. The same goes to the tax credits generously doled out to film and TV productions — who in turn auction them off to huge corporations seeking to dodge paying their rightful due — for the sake of “prestige” and enabling some state rep to snap a selfie with Clint Eastwood.

But, hey, I can sit in traffic for an hour and nearly bust an axle on a pothole so I can “ooh” and “ahh” at a shot of the Tobin Bridge on big screen. Well, providing I have enough money to pay for a ticket after the Governor refuses to honor the terms of my union’s contract.

Nobody’s Favorites: Byrned out

September 13th, 2016

In the realm of comics fandom, you either die happy in your nostalgia or live long enough to have to explain the virtues of something you cherish to folks too young to remember the hoopla firsthand.

You begin with “Well, you have to understand that…” pausing only to hike up your old man pants as you regale the young’uns with tales of a bygone world. Yet even as you dish out steaming piles of historical context and anecdotal data, there’s a nagging feeling in the back of your skull that maybe, just maybe, the kids might be on to something.

Perhaps it has been a while since you’ve actively revisited the thing you’re trying to defend, and your take on it has been colored by an excess of childhood nostalgia. You’re (hopefully) not the same person you were all those decades ago, so maybe a critical revisit is in order. You pull the funnybooks in question from a dingy longbox, sit down on the couch with a refreshing beverage, and proceed to wince as one fond memory after another implodes under a less starry-eyed re-examination.

This has been my experience with John Byrne’s post-Crisis reboot of the Superman franchise, particularly the restarted “v2″ Superman series. It — and its lead-in Man of Steel mini — were huge factors in my drift back towards DC fandom after five years of Marvel Zombiedom. Any irritation I had about Byrne’s abrupt departure from Fantastic Four and The Hulk was offset by the promise of one of my favorite creators breathing new life into the most famous superhero on the planet.

Many of the criticisms I’ve seen — then and now — about Byrne’s take on Superman centered on his back-to-basics approach, jettisoning nearly five decades of continuity trivia which had accumulated around the core concept. From my perspective, that was the one thing Byrne got unquestionably right. I didn’t give a shit if Lois Lane no longer knew Kryptonian karate or if Luthor’s hair loss was natural or the Fortress of Solitude no longer existed. Those were the things that turned me away from the character in the first place, the stodgy formalism and ample arsenal of deus ex machina dodges which confounded every previous attempt to give the Man of Steel some post-Marvel Era relevance.

Byrne gave the character a welcome fresh start, rooted in the now, and with a stronger focus on defining who Clark Kent/Superman was as a person.

At the time, I loved it. And today?

It is very much a product of its times, and those times were unfortunately the mid-to-late 1980s. By contemporary standards, the stories are stylistically stiff and excessively wordy, locked into a temporal pigeon hole as oddly anachronistic as the Curt Swan era’s “Forever 1960″ aesthetic.

And while Byrne was able to nail down certain crucial aspects of Superman and the world he inhabited, his additions to the character’s rogues’ gallery were, at best, underwhelming in the extreme…and the subject of this installment of Nobody’s Favorites.

First up is Bloodsport

…a cliche-spouting Rambo retread who slaughtered the citizens of Metropolis for not appreciating the sacrifices of The Troops. In truth, Bloodsport was a “cowardly” draft evader whose brother lost his arms and legs after taking his place at the induction center. Driven mad from guilt, Bloodsport was plucked out of mental institution by Lex Luthor to serve as a proxy in his war against Superman.

The whole concept was tacky beyond belief, but was able to get the go-ahead because coasted on the sleazy coattails of the then-contemporary fad-ification of the Vietnam War. The War Everyone Wanted to Forget suddenly became the War Nobody Could Shut Up About, a turn of events that spoke to the grotty underside of retro-culture mining and just so happened dovetailed nicely with the Reagan Era rehabilitation of military adventurism.

Platoon got an Oscar. Collections of 1960s pop hits got a boost in sales. Superman got Bloodsport. I got queasy.

Next on the list is Rampage

…who provided Byrne with a chance to sate his She-Hulk dependency while indulging in some Silver Age fake-out shenanigans.

While chatting with a lady scientist about a new and dangerous form of bio-energy, Lois Lane was caught in a catastrophic explosion which destroys the entire building. From the wreckage emerged the not-actually-named Rampage, a statuesque and ever-growing she-creature with powers to match Superman’s own.

Another scientist told Superman that Rampage was actually Lois Lane. Superman tried to stop the creature before it exploded and took Metropolis with it. A bandaged Lois showed up to explain that the creature was really the lady scientist. Superman went on to save the day. Otto Binder’s corpse rolled over in its grave, muttered “for fuck’s sake” with its moldering lips and tongue, then returned to its eternal rest.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t leave out Skyhook

…the rag-clad creature who mutated a gaggle of pre-teen runaways into bat-winged burglars. That’s really all there was to him. The bulk of the issue in which he appeared dealt more with the backstory of Metropolis PD Captain Maggie Sawyer, which explicitly stated (while not using the CCA verboten word) that she was a lesbian in a romantic relationship.

It was a pretty bold move for an all ages title in the late 1980s, and another example of the paradox that is John Byrne — in which forward-thinking moments are undercut by retrograde nonsense and public outbursts defending the same. It’s why I can still be moved to defend the man, though such defenses are necessarily packed with enough qualifiers to fill a couple of container ships.

Although not a Byrne creation, his depiction of the Joker in Superman deserves a mention here…

…if only how inexplicably bizarre it continues to be some three decades later.

Finally, this round up would not be complete without an appearance by the infamously icky Sleez, who showed up in the team-up incarnation of Action Comics which ran parallel to Byrne’s Superman run.

The mid-Eighties Superman reboot took place at a moment when Jack Kirby’s stable of “Fourth World” characters were transitioning from odd (and ridiculed) footnotes to core components of the newly streamlined DC Universe. Byrne approached them with particular gusto, giving them a prominent role in a several stories while making his own additions to the King’s cosmic mythos. Some were pretty clever and fit the milieu, like giving the demagogue Glorious Godfrey as subversive concern troll sister named Amazing Grace.

Sleez did not fall into that category.

I can see where Byrne might have been coming from. If Darkseid is supposed to be Space Hitler, then it makes sense that there might be a Space Julius Streicher in his employ.

Sleez was a discredited henchman of Darkseid who used his mind control abilities to run an illegal blue movie studio. The story features a concerned Darkseid screening a Big Barda porn tape for her horrified husband, Mr. Miracle. Sleez then tried to film a sequel with a both Barda and Superman.

Other folks have discussed this story in detail elsewhere. This is good, because it saves me from having to find a more eloquent way of saying HOW THE FUCK DID ANYONE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA IN ANY FORM OR SHAPE WHATSOEVER DID NOBODY STOP AND CONSIDER THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS IDIOCY BEYOND DURR HURR HURR LOOK WHAT WE GOT AWAY WITH FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

The other half of the Byrne paradox I mentioned above? There you have it.

For all the jaundiced glances and lashings of snark I’ve let fly in this post, if you were to ask me what my favorite Superman comics are, I wouldn’t answer with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” or “For the Man Who Has Everything” or All-Star Superman.

I would reflexively respond with “the John Byrne reboot.”

And I would truly mean it, because nostalgia is one hell of a drug.

My first pen ‘n’ paper role playing game experience happened — hold on, this deserves some appropriate mood music:

Perfect.

Okay, my first pen ‘n’ paper role playing game experience happened in the spring of 1986, during my buddy Scott’s annual birthday sleepover party. I was the only neighborhood (technically, though I’d moved to Woburn Center the previous September) kid invited to the shindig, which was probably due to the fact that I was only member of the old crew who hadn’t drifted into the realm of shoplifting and petty vandalism. The other two guests were kids from Scott’s junior high circle, a scrawny GI Joe fan named Mike and a smart-mouthed dude named Craig whose family had recently moved up to New Hampshire.

Craig had been the dungeonmaster of a D&D campaign that both Scott and Mike and been a part of, and he figured that the sleepover would be a perfect opportunity to tie up any loose ends. Since I was also around, he offered to show me the ropes and roll-up a suitable character for the session.

I picked a magic user for my character. It was a decision based on visions of Dr. Strange gliding through the skies and effortlessly smiting bad guys with bolts of arcane energy. What I ended up with was a near-invalid who could be incapacitated by a light tap and who had a single-shot arsenal of unimpressive spells. My low opinion of D&D’s magic system still hasn’t recovered from that moment of crushing disappointment.

The adventure that Craig wanted to wrap up was AD&D Module S3, the infamous Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Originally created as a springboard for the system that would eventually become Gamma World, the adventure threw aliens, a crashed spaceship, and sci-fi technology into D&D’s world of Tolkien-inspired fantasy. As a first time player tossed into the back half of it with little explanation, it was a bit of a mindfuck.

Though I was thrilled at the prospect of scoring a ray-blaster to replace the underwhelming +2 darts and Stinking Cloud spell my character had been saddled with, my ambitions were repeatedly thwarted by the dreaded “but your character doesn’t know that” veto from the dungeonmaster. Otherwise I don’t remember too much of it, apart from a couple of confusing combat encounters and the unanimous decision that we should go and play Warlords on Scott’s Atari 2600 instead.

Whatever secrets the Barrier Peaks held would forever remain concealed from our ad hoc adventuring party.

The following afternoon the four of us ate lunch at the McDonald’s in the Woburn Mall, and Craig did his best to explain to me the basic rules, requirements and purchases to begin a D&D run. Most of it was lost on me, but enough stuck to sustain a slow-burning sense of curiosity. While I didn’t talk as much with Mike, our shared interests were enough to start a not-quite-friendship that would loom larger down the road.

When I got home from Scott’s house that evening, I was greeted by Lil Bro babbling non-stop over a thing I needed to see “like RIGHT NOW.” I followed him up to our bedroom, where a mountain of Bronze Age comics and fanzines was stacked on the middle of the carpet. My aunt’s comics-collector husband had found Jesus and divested himself of his sinful funnybooks. Lil Bro and I got the better part of that windfall, which included the entire Astonishing Tales Deathlok run along with a shitload of Fantastic Four, Avengers, Daredevil and other treasures beyond price.

That doesn’t have anything to do with role playing games, but does complete this account of the only fond memories I have of my 8th Grade year.

I was going to post second entry in the role-playing game series today, but then I looked down at the corner of my monitor and noticed today’s date — 9/9/16, which makes today the seventeenth anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast’s launch.

As the official record shows, I’ve had historical affection for Sega and its various franchises. I bought a Master System long before I purchased an NES and blew the bulk of my high school graduation party bounty on a Genesis console and a copy of Phantasy Star II. Maura’s 1996 Christmas gift of a Saturn console marked the beginning of my “serious videogaming” phase.

The Saturn’s run in North America was a clusterfuck of missed opportunities and severe disappointments. Despite this, the strength of Sega’s core brand — expressed through titles like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Guardian Heroes, Burning Rangers, and Virtual On — still managed to shine strong enough for me to jump onto the Dreamcast’s hype train. It also helped that Capcom — in the full flower of its Turn of the Millennium renaissance — had pledged to sweeten the deal with its pledged support for the console.

I was so revved up for Dreamcast’s release that I committed to a launch day pre-order of the system, something I have not done before or since. A thirty buck deposit reserved me the core system and a copy of Capcom’s 3D brawler Power Stone, along with a free t-shirt that would end up being part of Maura’s sleepwear for the better part of a decade. (No coyness intended there. She just uses geeky promo tees as pajama tops.)

As it happened, the other big gaming event of September 1999 — the long-awaited release of Final Fantasy IX — happened to fall on the day before the Dreamcast’s gimmicky “9/9/99″ launch date.

When I went to pick up my copy that evening, I ran into my old high school buddy Damian. He’d buffed up a bit and found other ways to overcompensate since I’d last seen him, but he was still the geek I knew during my teen years. After he finished explaining his work as a stereo salesman and champion LARP’er in suitably epic terms, I asked if he was picking up a Dreamcast the following morning.

“Oh, fuck, no. Sega burned me bad enough with the Saturn. Oh, man, I wish you could see the goblin king costume I put together for my last session. Hey, are you in the market for a 12 CD changer?”

The reasons we’d gone our separate ways had never been clearer.

The Big Day turned out to be a complete cock-up. The store’s shipments got screwed up, which meant the horde of early (morning) adopters left with just the core system and a unconvincingly delivered promise that the “games should arrive by this afternoon…maybe.”

I had to work, which meant eight hours of juggling my professional responsibilities with the lingering anxiety that I dropped all the cash on a console with nothing to play on it. An evening return trip to the mall did net me my copy of Powerstone, rung up by an assistant manager who had aged twenty years over the course of the previous twelve hours.

The hits kept on coming, though, as the online shop where I had pre-ordered the other two launch games I desired — Soul Calibur and Blue Stinger — was so overwhelmed by demand and logistic problems that the owner shuttered the place and went to ground. He did have the decency not to charge anyone for their pre-orders, but it still added to the frustrations piling up around Sega’s Last, Best Hope.

Despite those initial irritating setbacks, the Dreamcast really did live up to my expectations. Though it never got as much play as my import-modded PS One, its library of titles include some of my all time favorite games. Tech Romancer, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia 2, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Project Justice, Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, Phantasy Star Online — all of them evoke the freewheeling ephemeral weirdness of my post-college/pre-9/11 days. All that’s missing is a room-temperature bottle of Code Red on my bedroom windowsill and Daft Punk’s Discovery spinning in my CD boom box.

That sense of temporal specificity I associate with the system was further reinforced by Sega’s decision to discontinue Dreamcast support only eighteen months after its North American release.

I’ll concede that much to Damian. He certainly called that one.

My Dreamcast ended up getting overshadowed by my headlong plunge into the world of PC gaming and emulation. Whatever time wasn’t getting monopolized by Baldur’s Gate 2 would be spent sifting through a massive library of retrogaming artifacts and oddities. (Apart from the Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto games, my console playing hours dropped steeply between 2000 and 2008. That’s when Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and upgrade fatigue led me to embrace the shoddily engineered simplicity of an Xbox 360.)

Every so often, I’ll dig out my Dreamcast and a stack of my old favorite games in an attempt to revisit those bygone days. The mood never lasts past an hour or so, enough time to remember how awkward the frisbee-like controller was to use and how shitty the composite cable resolution looks on my HDTV.

Each time I tell myself that I’m going to spring for a S-video converter to fix the issue, but that’s about as likely at this stage as my ever organizing that “Eurodance – Untagged” folder that has been carried over across a succession of external hard drives since the summer of 2001.

Like the lingering pockets of radioactivity in Fallout 4‘s post-apocalypse Greater Boston, discussions about the game’s narrative shortcomings and flubbed opportunities have been experiencing an extended half-life in my social media circles. This excellent write-up by Daniel Ford — a solid dude and author of The Paladin Trilogy — touches on many of the problems that made the Fallout 4 feel somewhat underwhelming in hindsight, but I also felt obliged to toss my own two bottlecaps into the ring by discussing an issue that negatively and quite needlessly impacted my experience with the game.

There are going to be spoilers a’plenty from here on out, so consider yourselves warned.

The protagonist of Fallout 4 is a pre-WW3 suburbanite who seeks refuge from an impeding nuclear attack in a local Vault with her (or his) spouse and infant son. Unbeknownst to them, the underground shelter is actually an experimental facility for preserving its inhabitants in long-term cryogenic suspension. At some point, the protagonist wakes up just long enough to see her spouse murdered and child abducted by a gravel-voiced thug and his cleansuit-garbed accomplice. The protagonist is sent back into the deep freeze, waking up only after some unexplained systems failure that forces to to flee the Vault and enter the savage, post-apocalyptic hellscape of the 23rd Century.

That’s a pretty compelling narrative hook, one that would function just fine in the curated pacing and focus of a film, prose, or funnybook work. Within the free-roaming context of an open world game, however, it just causes a persistent feeling of cognitive dissonance.

Fallout 4‘s world is full of distractions to the point of being overwhelmingly tedious. The are scores of interesting places to explore and even the smallest of settlement has its share of quest-giving NPCs. This meandering approach has been part and parcel of the franchise since its isometric inception, and is one of its core strengths. In previous installments of the series, the overarching narrative that impelled the meandering was urgent, yet not ovewhelmingly so. The original Fallout may have used a time limit mechanic, but it still offered ample slack for players to take in the game at their own pace.

A replacement water chip, a pre-war artifact, a missing father — these are objective that can plausibly support a bit of open world wool-gathering. A stolen infant, on the other hand, suggests a far greater sense of urgency.

“My husband and been murdered and by baby stolen! What? Yeah, I guess I can go retrieve a stolen locket for you.”

There’s no logical reason why the protagonist would waste time tooling around when the life of his or her child is at stake. Mechanically, the player can’t do it without a certain amount of looting and level-grinding, but again that’s illustrative of how Fallout 4 undercuts its own narrative intent.

Contrast that with Red Dead Redemption, a open-world free roaming game set in the Old West. John Marston, that game’s protagonist, has to bring his former criminal associates to justice at the behest of the government. To maintain leverage over Marston, the Feds imprison his wife and son. Ensuring their safe return is Marston’s is main motivation.

He attempts a direct approach right out of the gate, only to get shot down. Marston’s subsequent recovery and reassessment of his mission is where the playable portion of the game begins. The convoluted hoops he has to jump through — from harness racing side-quests to an overlong (and very problematic) sojourn to revolutionary Mexico — all have a place in the greater narrative of building contacts and gathering intel. It’s still very unwieldy in places, but it does make the effort to justify the convoluted twists and turns the story takes while running down the open world game checklist.

Fallout 4 does none of that heavy lifting. In fact, it back-burners the core narrative for long stretch of the game, only to dredge it back up again with a pretty predictable plot twist aimed at contriving feelings of loyalty towards an otherwise odious faction.

“These people have done nothing to convince me that they are anything other than malevolent but, hey, my son’s cool with them!”

The kicker is that Fallout 4 was at its best for me when I ignored the main plot entirely. I didn’t need a missing kid to motivate me. Having my character explore and come to grips life in post-nuke Massachusetts was a compelling enough thread, and should’ve been the basis of the core narrative. You’ve got a timelost stranger in a strange land who emerges at a time when factional power struggles are approaching a critical point and thus becomes the decisive variable which will decide the future of the Commonwealth.

During the early parts of my playthrough, my character sported a spiffy french twist and a suit of pre-war casualwear. She attempted to restore her old home and neighborhood into some semblance of How Things Were. Over time, though all that fell away as she made a new circle of companions and set of responsibilities. She went from survivor to scavenger to Protector General, each step binding her closer to the world in which she had awoken. Every victory and every betrayal counted for something. As a player, it made me feel like I had a personal stake in these events, while my character’s look and habits changed to better fit her role and her surroundings.

That level of attachment, where the role-playing aspects take on a deeper level than dialogue prompts, is what every videogame RPG should strive toward. Yet Fallout 4 achieved it in spite of an overarching narrative that actively worked to derail it.

In the corner of my grandma’s attic rest two storage crates which contain roughly two decades’ worth of my life as an RPG player. Barring some victims of entropic attrition or deliberate destruction, it’s all in there: well-thumbed rulebooks, grease-stained character sheets, smudged graph paper maps, and all the other detritus that comes with the hobby.

While a handful of the most cherished or valuable artifacts of that era did make the move with me to the House on the Hillside, I’ve been content to let the rest of it remain undisturbed. Those two crates constitute a core sample of my life from my mid-teens up through my early thirties. There are many fond memories sealed up in there, alongside many more embarrassing reminders of the person I used to be. It’s not that have any strong reservations about confronting my past (as Armagideon Time’s archives clearly demonstrate), but it has to be on my terms and my timetable — and so this new feature was born.

My goal is to sift through the tangled mess of my RPG experiences and purchases from 1986 to the present day, then chronicle whatever impressions get jostled loose in the process. Ideally, I’d prefer progress chronologically by focusing on one game system or significant artifact at a time, but the history — especially the personal variety — ain’t neat and tidy like that.

It will begin on a most unsurprising note, but first a little contextual meandering is in order.

I all but missed out on the big Dungeons & Dragons craze of the early Eighties, not getting into the hobby until that faddish phase was well into its death spiral. I wasn’t ignorant of the mania, as it played out all around my curious but confused tweener self.

As anyone else in my age bracket will tell you, the stuff was pretty thick on the ground at the time. There were toys. There were model kits. There was a Saturday morning cartoon. There were ads and articles in every periodical I read at the time, from funnybooks to Boys Life to Dynamite to Twilight Zone Magazine.

There were kids in my homeroom who spoke of dungeons and treasures in my junior high homeroom and that one distant cousin who sketched graph paper maps during a family Christmas party. So how did my geeky self managed to stumble through those years without getting drawn into the hobby?

The biggest, simplest, and most baffling in hindsight reason was that I just couldn’t grasp what the game was all about. “Formalized make-believe” may not be that difficult a concept to parse, yet it repeatedly eluded me.

Thinking back, the flood of licensed and “inspired by” Dungeons & Dragons merchandise and media was a big part of the problem. It cultivated a perception of the game at odds with the reality. A game without a board? Characters but no playing pieces? But what about the plastic Umber Hulk that terrorized my Star Wars figures or Dark Tower‘s baroque and envy-inducing electronic take on the dungeon crawl?

What few depictions of D&D managed to filter down into the accessibly masscult realm tended to focus on these visual acoutrements, further compounding my confusion.

It wasn’t until I graduated from Choose Your Own Adventure books to the Fighting Fantasy series of interactive novels that I began to understand what role-playing games actually were. That happened in the summer of 1985, when I found the North American edition of Talisman of Death in the book section of the local Bradlees store. It was just some dice rolling, a little math, and some imagination — a long overdue epiphany, but one with enormous consequences for my adolescent self.

There was still much of it that I didn’t quite understand, but it was enough to whet my appetite. Official role-playing games were still a bit too forbidding — and expensive — for me to take the plunge, but I did rework and expand the Fighting Fantasy mechanics to simple map-based dungeon crawls written up during a study hall and inflicted on my little brother after we got home from school.

One thing in particular I still hadn’t sorted out was the gamesmaster’s role as arbitrator rather than adversary, which means I took Lil Bro’s in-game successes personally and would fudge the rules to ensure he could never beat my homebrew labyrinths.

If you are reading this, kid, I am really sorry about that.

This feature has returned from its five-month hiatus with a album that slipped through the cracks of my increasingly shaky memory.

I suppose it was inevitable that there’d be a few gaps in the chronology, as I have a shit-ton of records and the task of reconstructing a chronology of events that took place over a quarter-century ago. Those times may feel like just yesterday in many ways, but that’s no help for a person who has trouble remember if he ate breakfast this morning.

The forgotten album is Translucence, a 1980 solo effort by former (and regrettably late) X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene. My copy is the Receiver Records reissue from a decade later, picked up during the summer of 1991 at the Newbury Comics flagship store in the Back Bay.

As big a Clash fan as I am, I can state with no hesitation that X-Ray Spex were the best band to come out of the first wave of Britpunk. They were platonically perfect punk in a scene rife with cock-rock backsliding and art school pretensions. The wailing sax, the cruncha-cruncha guitars, Poly’s voice turning from cutesy-girly to utterly savage on a dime as she embraced and dismantled the contradictions of consumerism — the band’s Germfree Adolescents LP even has the Clash’s debut beat when it comes to How Andrew Expects a Punk Album to Sound.

Of all the bands mentioned in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, X-Ray Spex were the one I most eagerly wanted to listen to. Unfortunately, the band’s small catalog of material was inexcusably out of print in 1989. The stuff couldn’t be found on cassette or CD, and even the used vinyl circuit failed to turn up anything except a locked-behind-glass copy of the band’s sole LP sporting a hundred dollar price tag.

It was right at the point that I’d written off ever finding an affordable copy of Germfree Adolescents that the fates finally smiled on me in the form of an taped bootleg sold under the counter by one of the area’s more dodgy shops. It set me back eight bucks, which was big money in my unemployed, pre-scholarship days, but it was worth every penny. I got home too late that night to give it a listen, so I popped in the tape deck the first thing the following morning. I didn’t bother going to my classes that day. I just sat in my room, playing videogames, and listening to the band’s melodically abrasive glory over and over again.

That was the personal-historic context on a summer afternoon in 1991 when I was flipping through the bin in search of anything remotely punky and stumbled across Translucence. A solo album by the best punk band in my (admittedly small) universe? I didn’t even know such an album existed, but willingly forked over the tenner for this unexpected find.

Heightened expectations on that level are never a good thing, and this turned out to be no exception. I dropped the needle expecting a sonic barrage and instead got a very disappointing trip through the realms of hippie-trippie psychedelia and mellow funkified new wave.

I took the record off the turntable.

I put it back in its sleeve.

I put it at the bottom of my still small-ish pile of albums.

I stared at my empty wallet.

I thought about all the vending machine treats and Final Fight games I could have had for ten dollars.

It was such a colossal let-down that I managed to block all memory of owning the record out of my mind until earlier this summer, when it turned up while I was helping my wife organize the clutter in our attic.

I’ve given it a spin or two since that time. The passage of time has seen my tastes come into closer alignment with Tranlucence‘s sound, but still hasn’t reached a point where I can hear the music above the lingering echoes of disappointment.

Maybe I’ll give it another shot in 2042 and see if things have changed.

Don’t stop believin’

September 1st, 2016

Even if I don’t agree with their general sentiments, I do enjoy reading rockist manifestos.

There’s something preciously tragic about their heady blend of tribal loyalty and devout belief, like a listening to a four year old explain how the Easter Bunny is real or having a dedicated Marxist try to convince you that America is on the verge of a socialist revolution.

It’s laughably naive, but the level of sincere conviction lend it the pathos-radiating purity of a fresh snowflake descending towards a grimy sidewalk.

The above example appeared in the letters page of the June 11, 1983 issue of Billboard and isn’t it just so dang adorable?

I especially love the part where he felt obligated to mention his age — as if there was any doubt it was the handiwork of a dude who has ticket stubs to a Styx concert taped to his bedroom mirror — and the holler-from-the-rooftop notion that somehow Simon Le Bon and Boy George are supervillains with access to a mind-control satellite.

Reading it gave me a profound sense a deja vu. It took me a few minutes to figure out why, but it eventually came to me….

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