By the time the spring of 1989 rolled around, the post-traumatic shellshock I experienced following my mother’s death faded into a constant state of restless boredom. I welcomed the sense of stability living with my grandmother provided, but there was a part of me that had difficulty adjusting to a life where horrible shit didn’t happen on a daily basis.
Many kids with similar experiences tend to act out in these situations, channeling low self-esteem into destructive behaviors or other attempts to test the boundaries of their new environment. I didn’t do much of either, because I knew how fortunate I’d been (relatively speaking) and didn’t want to fuck things up. Plus, my grandmother already treated me as if I was an adult, so there were no boundaries to test.
I spent most of my restless moments roaming aimlessly around my little corner of suburban Greater Boston. Armed a cassette copy of Electric Sixties and one of the faux Walkmans I got for Christmas, I’d ride my bike around the trails circling the peat bogs and pine barrens on the far side of Horn Pond. Sometimes I’d climb up to the top of Rag Rock at dusk and catch a glimpse of Boston in the distance. And when the opportunity presented itself, I would tag along with my grandmother and aunt on one of their weird shopping excursions.
My aunt shared my mother’s all-in obsession when it came to her current interests. Most of the time, it entailed sudden trips to hole in the wall store which specialized in whatever artistic project she was elbow-deep in at the time. The specifics didn’t concern me, but the opportunity to wander around new-to-me locales did. One of these involved a twilight voyage to Reading Center, where I wandered off on my own in search of anything of interest.
I eventually stumbled across a dusty and disorganized shop which carried a selection of used paperbacks, current comics, and back-issues of geek-centric periodicals. The place wasn’t entirely new to me — I’d picked up a copy of Gumby 3-D #1 there a couple years prior while helping my pal Artie find a spare tire for his moped — but I wasn’t clear on the location or if it still existed. Nothing in the shop really grabbed my attention, so I settled on browsing through a stack of White Dwarf issues next to the display window.
I ended up buying a copy of issue #91 (July 1987), published during that sweet spot between the magazine’s adoption of a sturdy square-bound format and its full transformation into Games Workshop’s house propaganda organ. It was the first issue of White Dwarf I ever bought (or read) and I picked it up because it included articles on critical fumbles and advanced noble careers for my beloved Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.
The first thing I noticed while reading through the issue was how thoroughly British it was in tone, especially in the realm of cheeky wit. Where Dragon tended toward sober and serious takes on the subject matter, White Dwarf‘s editors and writers had no qualms about putting the boot in for the sake of a few laughs. Dave Langford’s book review column called out Orson Scott Card’s sequel to Ender’s Game for its problematic bullshit decades before folks on this side of the pond woke up to it, and the mag’s game reviewers had fun mocking the goofiness of Dragonlance fandom.
Even the articles covering games I didn’t play were worth reading just for the entertainment value. Marcus Rowland’s Paranoia scenario — featuring a race of alien teddy bears influenced by old Dr. Who broadcasts — is easily the most memorably and genuinely hilarious game adventure I’ve ever read.
It was the type of thing I loved about Twilight Zone Magazine back in the day, but had never seen it applied to the realm of role-playing games. It was informed yet irreverent, and fit my own attitude toward the hobby perfectly — sturm und drang delivered with morbid sarcasm and a sly smirk.
About a week afterward, I was laying in my bed and watching the sun set through the trees across the street. In the distance I could hear the Doppler-distorted strains of crowd chatter and shitty pop music bouncing over from some senior’s kegger on the other side of Bucky’s Hill. I never felt so completely lost and isolated, bubbling over with restless energy but with nothing to focus it.
As the last traces of light vanished below the horizon, I told myself that I needed something different, that I needed to reclaim myself.
A few days later, I bought the Repo Man soundtrack, and that missing piece fell into place.