While 1987 had been a non-stop shopping spree of (mostly ill-advised) game purchases, 1988 ended up being very subdued on that front.
My family’s dysfunctions had begun to enter their terminal phase, marked by violent outbursts which made me increasingly reluctant to have friends over.
Money became tight. My brother and I lost the paper route after my dad kept pocketing the receipts for beer money. (The fuckers had it coming, but that’s a story for another time.) I got a job as an assistant dairy manager at a non-chain supermarket in Woburn’s South End, but was laid off after the owner used the business as collateral on his gambling debts. (Also a story for another time.)
The money I did take in was subject to an initial 50% parental levy with additional surcharges applied as my parents’ stocks of booze and smokes ran low over the course of the week. Whatever remnant was left to me was carefully rationed between comics and videogames and second-hand books and junk food and music tapes.
Role-playing games ceased being a priority in terms of outlay. I didn’t completely abandon the hobby, but instead made do with the material I’d already accumulated. Holed up in my cluttered bedroom, trying to ignores the drunken roars of my old man downstairs, I rolled up characters and plotted scenarios for Champions, Mekton, and WFRP. Few if any ever saw actual use. It was therapy through geekery, and most of the documentary evidence still exists inside a dog-eared Ocean Pacific folder buried in my grandma’s attic.
As I surrendered the initiative on the role-playing front, my buddy Damian made a dedicated effort to keep the dice a’rolling. It was a welcome change, at first, an opportunity to step outside my default dungeonmaster gig and experience things from the players’ side of the cardboard screen. All the cool character concepts I’d brainstormed in the previous year and a half would finally see some action on the gaming table.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take a crucial factor into account. Damian were close pals who shared a number of geeky interests, but with radically different approaches to fandom. I labored under some serious anxiety of influence and a compulsion to distance myself from direct references. If a member of the group wanted to play Iron Man or Aragorn, I’d work with them to create an analog who possessed the desired traits but lacked the historical baggage and other aspects which could allow players to get devious by citing the published “canon.” It made the characters theirs to invest in, rather than crawling into the skin of some established IP.
Damian, on the other hand, wore his influences on his sleeve, frequently swapping them out for whatever was the Hot New Thing in fanboy circles. His fantasy worlds were places where players would run into the Predator, RoboCop, Eddie from Iron Maiden, Wolverine, Captain Picard, Batman, as well as the combined casts of Nightbreed and RobotJox — all depicted with the accuracy you’d expect from a sixteen year old boy on an enthusiasm high.
He was my friend, though, and so I did my level best to appreciate his efforts even as I choked back my dry heaves.
His first attempt at running a campaign involved Cyborg Commando. The game marked Gary Gygax’s return to the scene following his departure from TSR and the D&D franchise he helped create. It was hyped as the Second Coming of RPG Design Divinity, but the product itself was a lousy Gamma World knock-off featuring goofy-ass cyberwarriors battling the oh-so-original alien race of Xenoborgs.
Damian was especially invested in Cyborg Commando, as he was the first (and only, as it turned out) member of our gaming circle to score a copy. It was a matter of pride. He would be in the vanguard of a bold new world of gaming, one whose rules system somehow missed the playtesting phase. (I’m not joking. Because of the d10x10 resolution mechanic, characters with shitty ability scores had higher chances of success than their more experienced or exceptional counterparts.)
It was banal and broken and stupid as hell, but we were still strong-armed into rolling up characters out of deference to our friend. Fortunately, Damian sobered up from his hype buzz before we got a chance to play the game. There was no formal announcement involved. He just stopped mentioning it one day. The rest of us counted our blessings and didn’t bother asking him why.
For his follow-up effort, Damian tacked into the prevailing winds by picking up a copy of TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG box set.
The group had been considering the system as a simpler and better-paced alternative to Champions‘ tedious complexities, but nothing had come out of it until Damian made the leap for us.
From the beginning, he made it clear that the campaign would be set in the Marvel Universe (albeit one where there was a good chance of meeting an Alien or Hans Gruber as a killer cyborg or whatever). I wasn’t thrilled about it, but the other players were and it seemed like the established universe might constrain Damian’s excesses.
I opted to go with an original character named “Tech-Warp,” a jet-pack boosted humanoid alien who could transmute machines by touching them. For my character sketch, I copied an action shot of Adam Strange from an old issue of JLA.
Tech-Warp’s first battle pitted him against the Maurauders, because they’d just gotten a write-up in Dragon Magazine and Damian thought the Mutant Massacre was “friggin’ badass, man.” I went to touch that one dude with the Fu Manchu ‘stache and single-strap onesie made of broken motherboards (or whatever the hell John Romita Jr. was getting at) in hopes of converting his big-ass cannon into a pair of manacles, and scored the MSH equivalent of a critical hit.
If I had been running the show, I’d have declared that Tech-Warp’s lucky hit transformed the villain’s outfit into a full body restraint which incapacitated him for the rest of the fight. It was a easy call that fit with the tenor and tone of the source material.
Damian, being the type of fellow who had a different Punisher shirt for each day of the week, decided that the critical success meant that my character had punched through the Maurauder’s body and ripped out his spine.
The worst part was the look he shot me as it said it, a smirk of beaming expectation. In his mind, he’d given me most incredible gift in the world and couldn’t wait for me to praise him for its unbridled awesomeness. The best I could muster was a confused “ooooookay, then,” after which I made up a bullshit story about needing to get home for dinner.
In truth, I ended up sipped an oatmeal gruel milkshake* from an old beer stein in my room and read old issues of the Avengers, the stereo turned up loud enough for Booker T & The MGs’ basslines to drown out my father accusing my mother of cheating on him.
*A small handful of instant oatmeal and a lot of water, microwaved for two minutes. Let stand for a minute, and add cold milk, a drop of vanilla extract and a fuckton of sugar. You can live for months on the stuff. I know this first-hand.