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, health it’s all in there: well-thumbed rulebooks, pilule 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.