Armagideon Time

I was supposed to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I applied, got accepted, paid the deposit, and even managed to snag a dorm room despite the cautionary language about housing availability in the school’s admissions prospectus.

Unfortunately, my weird legal status — where my grandmother had custody but my father still held legal guardianship — meant that my financial aid paperwork got fouled up. Realizing my hard luck case scholarship from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wasn’t going to cover my expenses, I asked my (very disappointed) guidance counselor for a list of local colleges still accepting fall applications in the middle of June. She suggested the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) and UMass Boston.

She didn’t have an application for the former on hand, so I ended up taking copies of my transcript and handwritten admissions essay to the latter during a “WE STILL NEED WARM BODIES” walk-in event. The admissions officer did a double take when she scanned my paperwork.

Y’see, UMB was a commuter school aimed at serving up an affordable education on “non-traditional” students — veterans, inner city kids, and older folks who’d missed out on (or dropped out of) other, more prestigious institutions. A fresh-from-high-school, top five percentile kid from the suburbs was a rarity and a “get” beyond price in that (pretty problematic) context.

“So exactly why are you interested in coming here?” she asked with a not of disbelief in her voice.

“Because I have nowhere else to go,” I responded, and was accepted on the spot as true UMB material.

Despite the school’s reputation as a “high school after high school” (which it has spent decades and ungodly sums of money trying to shake), I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to college life. In Woburn, I had — for good and ill — a rep that dated back to kindergarten. At UMB, I was just another face in the crowd and had difficulty making connections with students who tended be much older (as in “mid-twenties”) than I was and with a different set of priorities.

I also had a tough time with my classes, thanks to an advisory who steered my into taking both Calc I and Fundamental of Physics in a single semester. I’d be introduced to some new theory or formula in the former that I was expected to be familiar with in the latter, with all of an hour between them to digest the material. My physics lab class — being a more empirical experience — went a bit better for me…until the instructor groped me while reviewing my notes. (Hashtag “MeToo,” I guess.)

Eventually I quit trying altogether, and spent my time reading shitty fantasy novels in one of the student lounges or wandering around Boston to kill time until the train ride back to Woburn.

Sometime around midterms, I saw a flyer posted for an open house held by the school’s funnybook fan club. I hadn’t realized such a thing even existed, and decided to check it out. The club turned out to be a single dude who spent the entire event hitting me up for contributions for his theoretical fanzine. It was easy for him to do so because I was the only idiot who bothered to show up for the open house.

As I was mumbling my excuses and beating a hasty but polite retreat, I got stopped in the hall by Student Life’s head work-study dude. He shot me a “sorry ’bout that” look, offered to introduce me to “the people I really need to meet,” and showed my the way to the cramped, windowless office of the campus Sci-Fi Club. There I met a flamboyantly scraggly punk rocker named Tim and a friendly kid named Mike who served as the org’s secretary. I introduced myself as “Otto,” in a bit of punk self-reinvention, a name that would stick with me through the dawn on the next millennium.

(In hindsight, I should’ve went with “Otis” as it had the same vibe and was my actual middle name and not some sad swipe from Repo Man. Live and learn.)

The Sci-Fi Club became my home away from home and the nexus of a new and exciting social circle. It also got me excited about role-playing games again. The office was the meeting place and staging area for numerous ongoing campaigns by current and former members, and had a deep inventory of rulebooks, minatures, and reusable hex mats available for members’ use. When I mentioned that I used to run Champions for my friends back in Woburn, half a dozen members responded that I should start a campaign for the club.

The run was an utter disaster. It’s one thing to play with pals who learned and help shaped certain house rules over the course of several years, and another to put together something for a group of strangers. I compounded the issue by over-complicating things right out of the gate, an understandable but unfortunate consequence of being desperate to score a home run on the first pitch. The players were exceptionally patient with my shortcomings, but the campaign ended after a single sloppy session and I went back to being a fly on the clubhouse wall.

During the closing weeks of my first semester, I got hit with a double whammy. I got dual notifications of academic probation (for dismal grades) and suspension for non-payment. The academic thing was easy enough to work out and involved promising to meet a minimum GPA target the following spring. The financial issue was a tougher nut to crack. I spent a week wandering between various offices, showing my scholarship award letter to a series of confused and unhelpful administrators.

I’d just about hit the point where I was going to say “fuck it” and drop out when I got a summons to the Bursar’s Office. When I got to the teller’s window, a Levar Burton doppelganger handed me a piece of paper to sign. He looked it over, dropped it into a tray, and slid me a check for fifteen hundred dollars.

“Is…this…mine?”

“Yes, sir. Have a good day. Next in line, please!”

I never stopped to consider that my scholarship extended to living expenses. Since UMB was a commuter school and Boston has a high cost of living relative to the rest of the country, the estimated balance was paid directly back to me. It was more money than I’d ever had at one time in my life, and a glorious bolt from the blue after a year of unemployment.

The first thing I bought was a copy of Herzog Zwei for the Sega Genesis. The following day, I went to a military surplus store near the Prudential Center and invested in a pair of leather Army gloves with wool liners and a surplus German rucksack, before hitting the Mystery Train on Newbury Street and bought a used copy of Bedtime for Democracy on tape and an original promo poster for The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat.

Then I walked home from the train station with a 103 degree fever and was bedridden for a week.

After the projectile vomiting and hallucinating ceased, I paid a visit to Excalibur Hobbies and purchased a copy of Kingdom of Champions. It was one of the first major sourcebooks for the 4th edition of the Champions RPG, and covered the ins, outs, and other important details for including the UK as a campaign setting. Much of it reads like a stripped down tourist’s guide, clearing up common misconceptions and covering specialized areas of interest such as regional slang or the basics of the British legal system as it would pertain to superheroic crimefighting.

The back half of the book contained a pretty diverse roster of pre-generated heroes and villains to incorporate into UK-themed adventures, including Brit-ified analogues of the Bronze Age Avengers and Defenders teams. Most of the characters were well-designed and compelling as far as Champions NPCs went, although their in-game stats demonstrated that the designers’ hope of abolishing the absurd power level creep from previous editions of the game was a vain effort.

Kingdom of Champions had little practical use to me at the gaming table, but it still made for some fascinating reading. It was a perfect companion for the trade collection of Alan Davis’ post-Moore Captain Britain stories, which I was utterly obsessed with at the time.

For that and other sentimental reasons, Kingdom of Champions remains my favorite Champions supplement of all time.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: A la cape
  2. A country fit for traitors
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Hardly heroic

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