Saturday, February 26, 2011

Prodigal Son: My Return to Gaming

Part One

    I’ve liked telling stories since I can remember.  So, it’s no surprise I started to write them down.  I think I first started trying to write in fifth or sixth grade.  I had this idea about really tiny people in a big world.  Sort of like Honey I Shrunk the Kids mixed with The Lord of the Rings.  My mom had always encouraged me to read, and my dad helped me develop my love of science fiction which would become a near obsession for a long time.  And from that fertile field, I reaped many an idea.  I would talk endlessly about them, until finally my dad told me about roleplaying games, and how they might be a good way to channel my creativity and try out some of my ideas.  I already kind of knew about roleplaying.  As a very small child, my brother had humored me by letting me play in his D&D game (I was a lizard man, and I kept eating people…I guess I’ve always been a little warped).  But my father reintroduced me to gaming with The Basic Roleplaying System and Worlds of Wonder.  This was the same core game mechanic used in the classic, venerable Call of Cthulhu.  The system was very simple and very intuitive.  Percentiles are pretty easy to figure.  You have a 50% skill in sailing.  Roll the dice (two ten sided dice to give you percentiles) and try to get 50 or under.  Simple.  Oh, sure, there were other things you could plug in, more advanced rules, special powers, blah, blah, blah.  But once I had the basic idea down, I ran with it.  I quickly started recruiting my friends into a small gaming group, and we began our wonder filled trips into the imagination.

    Fast forward a few years and my oldest brother opened his own game store, and gave me a job.  I was in heaven.  I suddenly had the opportunity to sample many different games, many different gaming groups, and many different gaming philosophies.  I had conversations with other players, and with other game masters (or dungeon masters, or referees, or what have you).  My worlds opened up and my skills both as a player and a game master improved and went into new and unexpected directions.  I even began to feel confident enough to run games for experienced, and much older, players (at about age 19, I had players ranging from around 14 to 45), and to tackle games I had believed to be too daunting for me (Call of Cthulhu, Ars Magica, and more).  I found many different games to love, a few to hate (Dungeons & Dragons…Rifts…I’m looking at you guys!), and I forged many friendships (some that last to this day, despite vast distances).

    But the years went on, the industry changed, the economy changed, the clientele at my brother’s shop changed, and yes, I changed.  As much as I loved gaming, and as much of my life as I’d put in to the shop, I had to move on.  I didn’t leave gaming behind.  I set up a room in my house and continued to run Fading Suns (still a favorite of mine).  But that eventually fell apart, as these things do.  It had a good run; something in the range of two years of fairly regular weekly sessions.  My games became more and more sparse.  I’d play something here, run something there.  But, not being surrounded by games every day or meeting gamers every day, I just didn’t have the access to the network I once had.  This was still the early days of the internet.  It was common, but not as ubiquitous as it is today.  And even when I was finally online and active, most of the fans of the games I liked were scattered across the country and even the world (why was Fading Suns so popular in Germany, when almost nobody played it in the States?), and almost nobody lived within a reasonable travel distance from me.

    Finally, as some friendships ended and others began, schedules became more and more difficult to work around, gamers started settling down and having kids, and I hung up my gaming hat.  Oh, I didn’t know that I had done it.  I didn’t admit it to myself.  But as months turned to years, I eventually realized that I wasn’t gaming anymore.  At some point, I got into reading graphic novels, and suddenly, I found my game books getting boxed up to make room for trade paperbacks of Hellboy and Conan.  Oh, sure, my GURPS historical supplements were still out, so I could grab one of their well researched overviews of various cultures if I needed an interesting tidbit, or needed to know who the Egyptian god of rivers was.  But more and more, they were packed away, put in a closet, and if not forgotten, ignored.

    Over the years, I’ve had occasional spurts of gaming interest.  I meet someone who is interested in playing, or I have a particularly cool idea.  And suddenly, I’m typing away furiously, getting all my ideas down as fast as possible; reading over a few game books to re-familiarize myself with a system or a setting.  I map out a few sessions, and maybe think about where the game might go if it works out and players want to keep going.  Maybe I’ll ask a few other people if they’re interested in getting in on a game.  But then life gets in the way.  Schedules conflict.  People get married.  People move, jobs change, kids show up, etc.  And after a couple months of trying and failing to get things together, the fire dissipates, I get interested in something else, something that is actually happening, like a new graphic novel, or a new TV series, and the hope of playing a game, or running one, goes away again.  It has now been nearly a decade since I gamed regularly.  About half that since I last played or ran anything at all.  I moved to Virginia from my home state of Maine a few years ago, and every now and then have thought about, even attempted getting a game together.  Nearly two years ago, I got so far as to have people make up characters and design a ship for a Star Trek game, that if my memory serves me was a pretty cool idea.  But, again, life got in the way, and the iron cooled, and I was never able to get it hot again.  Numerous times over the years, I’ve got a hankering to run Ars Magica, which is sort of the Holy Grail of gaming as far as I’m concerned.  It’s a massively demanding, but equally rewarding game of epic scope.  But it takes a certain type to run and to play.  I think I can run it (I have to a limited degree a couple times before).  But I have yet to find one, let alone four, six, or eight people to play.  However, of all the games I’ve run or played, it is the one I most frequently come back to, even if it’s all for nothing, to design characters, scenarios, and the like.  Maybe, one day, I’ll make it happen.  I’m still young, sort of.

    This is where I was at, a few weeks ago.  Sure, I know a few people who might be into gaming, but not enough, or not in the right place to get a group together, or not interested in the same things.  Then my former roommate and frequent partner in crime came to me with a lifeline of sorts.  He had two people, plus himself and his wife, who might be interested in doing a little roleplaying.  All four novices.  The initial idea seemed to have been an attempt at reading about or playing D&D, a game I particularly dislike.  Though I might be desperate enough to try it.  I countered with a few ideas of my own.  Some games that might appeal to non-gamers.  And, somewhat secretly, I rubbed my hands together.  The chance to mold gamers; to direct them into the sort of gaming philosophy I like…  Well, maybe.  In this day and age, trying to get people together for a regular, weekly game night seems to be harder than finding the Gold Monkey.  Heck, getting people together for a single gaming session is hardly a picnic.

    But for the first time in quite a while, people are expressing an interest in something that has been close to my heart for a long time.  That special mix of traditional storytelling, improvisational theater, and game that is roleplaying.  As much as I say ‘I’m a writer’ in my heart, I am now and always have been a gamer.  Gaming has changed, and what I like has fallen out of fashion.  Online gaming has somehow snapped players away (I’ll never get that, as the interaction and imagination just aren’t there, even in the best examples).  Social pressures have always hurt, holding gaming perpetually in the realm of super-nerds.  And the consolidation of so much of the gaming industry into the hands of one multi-headed hydra of a company (Hasbro) has killed a good deal of the creativity and variety of the early 90s’ Golden Age, when new and experimental games were hitting the market all the time, and people had enough disposable income to try them out.  But people have always loved a good story.  And who among us hasn’t heard a story and said to themselves, ‘that’s not what I’d have done.’  So long as that remains true, there will be a place for roleplaying games.  Even if it is a quiet, removed, often overlooked place.

    I’ve been away for many years.  Never quite giving up.  Never quite forgetting.  But away, none the less.  I hope this is the story of my journey back.  Back to something that has given me so much joy, spawned so many memories, made so many friendships, and yes, been witness to an occasional heartbreak.  I’m not returning to my youth.  I wouldn’t want to.  But I do want to rediscover an old joy, and perhaps bring it to some new friends. 


1 comment:

  1. If you need any suggestions for fun gateway games, let me know. Also, if you guys are looking to return to OD&D, due to it being so elegant in this day and age, take a look at Labyrinth Lord.