Apart from the abbreviated session that introduced me to the hobby, I spent the entirety of my early RPG days stuck in the gamemaster role. Lil Bro was too young to handle the task and what other players I could find expressed little interest in taking on the job. I didn’t have too much of a problem with it, mainly because it was clear that the alternative was not playing at all.
It still rankled, though, especially whenever I flipped through a system’s character generation rules. Dozens of cool concepts would race through my mind — and occasionally make it on to paper — before the depressing reality set in.
(Several of these I’d later force onto Lil Bro, who got psychologically strong-armed into becoming my player-side proxy. I feel a little guilty about it now, but at the time I saw it as a prerogative of being the elder sibling.)
Gamma World was going to change all that.
The 3rd edition box set of the post-apocalyptic RPG was a joint purchase between by buddy Mike and myself. I can’t recall who proposed the idea, but the two of us agreed that Mike would run the campaign and I would finally get a chance to sit on the other side of the GM’s screen. I had fleshed out a character concept before we even made the purchase — a cryogenically preserved pre-War super soldier released into a world gone mad.
The idea was shamelessly lifted from the Deathlok comics which had recently been passed on to me by my uncle and instantly became the greatest thing my Armageddon-obessed middle-school geekboy eyes had ever seen. I spent hours attempting to mimic Mike Zeck’s rendition of the Deathlok’s pre-cyberzombie self from a recent Captain America arc, making sure it looked perfect on the character sheet.
Post-nuclear adventures, a bad-ass antihero, someone else taking on the world-building drudgework — it was a dream come true. So, of course it was doomed to fail.
The promised campaign never came to pass. Though he’d held on longer than most of his peers, Mike’s attachment to the hobby had been steadily waning since I met him. A final break with the hobby was inevitable, and with it went the friendship that was centered around said hobby. There was no animosity involved, just the sense of diverging paths common to so many adolescent relationships.
In hindsight, going in on Gamma World together was the geeky pals equivalent to the soon-to-be-divorced couple who decides to have a kid or buy a house.
Our game sessions and lunch hall chats grew less frequent, we started gravitating toward different social circles, and eventually he approached me in the hall to make things official.
“So, uh, I’m going to be really busy with the track team and stuff so maybe you’d like to buy your half of the game off me? Like, five bucks would be fine.”
I took him up on his offer, and he sweetened the post by throwing in a bunch of old AD&D modules — including the copy of Barrier Peaks which started all this nonsense — and a bunch of Gamma World material he clipped from his stash of Dragon Magazine issues.
He handed it over shortly before summer vacation. Any sadness I had about losing a friend (and reliable member of the gaming group) was offset by the fat stack of new-to-me gaming material I’d gained. I couldn’t wait to get home and start sifting through it all, and the bike ride home from school was a manic blur fueled by reckless levels of anticipation.
When I got home, I found out that my maternal grandfather had suffered a massive stroke. He was a month away from retiring, and had been giddy (by taciturn standards of his Maine-folk people) about all the projects he’d now have the time to complete.
I got my chance to browse through the Gamma World rules in the ICU waiting area at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital that night. I remember next to nothing about them and haven’t touched the books since.
My grandfather was in a vegetative state for over two years before he died. We weren’t particularly close, but his final years had a profound impact upon my worldview — namely that life is too short to defer gratification or to suffer the idiocy of others. This is why I’ll never amount to anything creatively, but the truth is we all amount to a couple handfuls of dust in the end no matter what works we create.