Sometime during the last few weeks of 1987, my pal Scott spotted something interesting in the back pages of the current issue of Dragon Magazine. Buried between the ads for custom character portraits and play-by-mail adventures was an ad for the Compleat Strategist, a small chain of stores specializing in role-playing and other games.
What set this retailer apart from the scores of others advertised in Dragon was the fact that one of the its stores was located in Boston, on Mass Ave not too far from the Auditorium T station. I’d never ventured past Medford’s (now-demolished) Meadow Glen Mall during my previous public transit excursions, but Scott had made a handful trips into the city proper and thus took the lead in planning our geek pilgrimage.
The trip involved a the 134 bus to the Wellington Orange Line Station, a switch over to a B, C or D Green Line train at Haymarket, and a five minute walk towards the Christian Science Center from the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Ave. It seemed pretty straight forward of paper (or, more accurately, the subway map on the back of the local White Pages book) but felt intimidating in practice, thanks to chatter from concerned parties about the store’s proximity to what city-fearing suburbanites have termed a “bad neighborhood.”
Our parents didn’t forbid the trip, however, so we spent a cold December Saturday jumping from bus to train to trolley car in pursuit of anticipated treasures. We got to the Back Bay without a hitch, but had some difficulty locating the shop itself, as it was located in the recessed retail concourse on the ground floor of a brutalist behemoth.
It was far smaller than we expected it to be, maybe half the size of the generalist hobby store in the Burlington Mall. What it lacked it floor space, it made up for in the utterly bewildering variety of STUFF on display. There was an entire wall of Warhammer miniatures and shelf after shelf of games and supplements that I’d never seen outside of magazine ads.
It was overwhelming to behold. We had planned and made the trip to the store without any specific purchase as an objective, and whatever subconscious wish list I might’ve had got drowned out by the array of choices laid out before us. In the end, I left with a handful of dice selected from a bin by the register and the Armies of the Night module for Twilight 2000.
I discussed the module in detail a few years back. It’s a blatant rip-off of Escape From New York, reworked with some really problematic racial politics for the game’s post-nuclear near future, and sporting some shamelessly derivative interior art. I’m also pretty sure the designers of The Division videogame liberally borrowed from it, because that ouroboros ain’t gonna eat itself.
Though I made only a dozen or so visits to the Complete Strategist in over the next decade, I can still clearly recall each purchase made there. The experience had other lasting consequences, as well. Unlike my suburban peers, whose “gateway” into the city was Harvard Square, the Boston of my teen years was the Mass Ave corridor of the Back Bay. Even after I discovered Cambridge’s wonders, I still gravitated back towards Newbury and Boylston.
The neighborhood was also where I saw my first genuine punk rockers, gawky kids with spiked hair and studded leather jackets. I laughed at their absurdity at the time, unaware that the contagion had started to spread to depths of my own subconsciousness.