Armagideon Time

The autumn of 1988 was an oasis of calm before the impending shitstorm.

My family’s dysfunctions had metastasized into a weird state of equilibrium. My mother was still a basket case and my father was still out of control, but there was a sense that the situation had leveled out just enough for me to carry a faint and futile hope that better times were around the corner.

The abnormal became normal, and things like having no food in the fridge or the utilities getting shut-off for non-payment got lost in comfortable domestic rituals — watching Jeopardy with my dad, discussing comics and videogames with Lil Bro, or listening to my mother talk about Arthurian myths during her more lucid moments. Limited agency and the capacity to rationalize made the unbearable into something grudingly tolerable.

The beginning of my junior year also felt like a turning point. A not-quite-friend in my English class set me up with a part-time gig in the kitchen of the local hospital. The job paid well, had decent hours, and offered a welcome dividend in leftover and purloined foodstuffs. It left me with a decent amount of pocket money — even after forking over a significant percentage of my paycheck to my parents — which put new Sega Master System games and other such luxuries within my reach.

My fifth period class was chemistry, taught in the “new” (built in the 1960s) wing of the high school, which meant I didn’t have to spend my lunch periods crammed into the infernal dungeon across from a boiler room. Two of my classmates were geeky dudes, so I had folks to converse with in the far corner of the cafeteria.

Anthony was a soft-spoken burly fellow with massive sideburns and look copped from an Apollo Era NASA engineer. Steve — who also went by “Adam” — was a more contemporary geek, complete with Kevin Cronin mullet-perm and a pleather Members Only jacket. They were more fellow travellers than actual friends. Our association didn’t extend outside the campus or school hours, but was limited to talking about stupid shit before class and around the lunch table.

Both Anthony and Steve-Adam were heavily into Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the Dragonlance series of novels and modules. I knew of the franchise from my old gaming buddy Mike, whose initial explanation of it got lost in my newbie confusion about D&D in general. My lunchmates’ talk about “Lord Soth” and “Raistlin the Black” and the rest wasn’t any more lucid, but it was impassioned enough to make me pick up the first novel in only to see what the big deal was.

The story was fanfic as Tolkien-lite, right down to cosmetic change-ups to add the stamp of “originality” to the old familiar tropes. Swapping out orcs for hobgoblins and using trade metals as currency were largely superficial revisions, but ones that felt downright radical to the hidebound headspaces of D&D purists. The Dragonlance universe also gave the world the “kender,”
a non-legally actionable halfling analog which quickly became the preferred character race for players who habitually confused “amusing” with “annoying.”

I was a fan of D&D before I became a fan of the fantasy genre. As a result, my tastes tended to follow stuff that either hewed close to or directly inspired the game’s mechanics, namely The Hobbit, >The Lord of the Rings, and some Arthurian revisionist wank. The first Dragonlance trilogy, being the narrative transcript of a series of game modules, played perfectly toward that bias. It was boilerplate epic fantasy where one could hear the sound of d20s rolling with every paragraph. It was entertaining, engaging, and — most importantly — allowed me understand what the hell my Anthony and Steve-Adam were babbing about.

My mom, for whom reading was one of her few remaining comforts besides gallons of port wine, also enjoyed the novels. They were, in fact, the last books she ever read.

I read the Dragonlance books during a crossroads in my fantasy role-playing experience. My initial enthusiasm for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play had dimmed since the beginning of the year. Its system, setting, and grubby outlook appealed to my on multiple levels, but I had difficulty abandoning my emotional investment in Dungeons & Dragons. The best campaign I’d ever ran was an AD&D free-for-all hack ‘n’ lootfest, something that WFRP could never emulate. The Dragonlance novels and lunchtable talk only heightened my ambivalence.

My curiosity led me to buy a second-hand copy of the first module in the series from my old pal Mike (who had given up on the hobby and happened to sit next to me in algebra class) and the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover sourcebook from the sad remnant of Toys R Us’s once mighty TSR display. I browsed through both, made a few notes, and even considered starting a run with my group.

Then my mom took a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs and smashed her skull open, and all that crap went by the wayside.

The the sprawling ruined city map from the module ended up getting repurposed in bits and pieces for various college WFRP adventures, but the rest of it went to a storage crate where it has remained since.

I attempted to revisit the original trilogy of novels during a trash fiction binge ten years back, but was put off by the disjointedness of the plot and the college days discovery that the franchise was essentially a Mormon answer to the Chronicles of Narnia. Honestly, I don’t know enough about Mormon theology to pick up on it (and even devout practitioners of the faith have debated the extent of it), but it was enough to put me off it for good. It’s less about the specific details than the reflexive queasiness I feel whenever I realize some disposable diversion is trying to slip me a spiritual roofie.

It’s like finding out some catchy pop song is a Christian rock jam — and, honestly, Dragonlance wasn’t that catchy to begin with.

Related posts:

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  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Spy game
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Prologue

One Response to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Lanced and drained”

  1. GE

    – a non-legally actionable halfling analog which quickly became the preferred character race for players who habitually confused “amusing” with “annoying.” –

    Ouch. But a pretty damn accurate observation, I suspect. I hope the fact that I was considered the real-life kender of my group of friends in 1988 didn’t mean I was quite so annoying. (They seemed more amused than annoyed, anyway.) Conveniently, though, my most prominent RPG character in those days was the group’s taciturn, cunning badass (in a loose, largely comedic setting), so I guess I wasn’t kender to the bone (or a one-dimensional fictitious character, for that matter).

    Clearing out my parents’ basement a few years back, I briefly leafed through my copies of the first couple of Dragonlance novels and wondered how we’d ever managed to read them back then (and love them – we even trick-or-treated as the characters one year). Not the best or most original writing, and it explains a lot about our own early stabs at fantasy fiction (and the vocabulary therein), though that did help us “get it out of our systems” and become better writers.. They went on the “sell or donate” pile with the rest.

    But when Big Bro – who was always the Flint to my Tas – died last year, his copies ended up on my shelf. I’ll probably never read them again, but I felt a pang letting mine go in the first place, and it’s sort of comforting to have his there (along with a few other specific books).

    I had no idea about the Mormon thing. Huh. I didn’t pick up on the Christian stuff in Narnia when I read it as a kid either, though – I had an almost entirely areligious upbringing, blissfully unaware of that sort of thing.

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