Thursday, July 15, 2010

I, Gamer: A Testimonial in Three Parts (3)

PART THE THIRD: How Drance Got His Game Back
(Ages 25 to the Present)
So, we arrive at my last post in my gaming testimonial. By the end of the second post in the series, I was a young adult in the post-9/11 years, and the terror attacks were a major catalyst in the cessation of most of my gaming activities. By the time I turned 25 I was also heading into a period of personal upheaval with regard to friendships, family relations, and especially my dealings with significant others that would come and go. This era in my life would last for years to come. I won’t go into the details of my baggage, of course. I’m sure you get the idea.

I say MOST of my gaming activities ceased, but I was actually still gaming in various ways. It was just face-to-face, table-top gaming that had totally ceased to exist in my life. And that was a significant source of sadness for me, a malaise that would wax and wane (but never truly leave me) as the years went by.

The primary way in which I got my game on after college was through RPG video games. These, of course, are a good way to get the RPG experience without the need to get together with anyone else. You can have adventures all by yourself. And there were some great games, especially the D&D games like the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series, and later Neverwinter Nights. But these games are a double-edged sword. It’s a great way to get that dose of adventuring you need, but it’s not really roleplaying in the pure sense. There’s no human interaction, and eventually it becomes a hollow experience. I know that some may argue that MMORPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft combine video gaming with a “virtual” human touch, but I never saw the appeal of MMORPGs (I’ve heard a lot of horror stories, most focused around veteran players swindling “noobs”). Call me old-fashioned, or maybe just old.

And as I touched on briefly in my second post, I also got into board games and card games that—in greater or lesser ways—emulated some of the experience of roleplaying. Or I would try to inject some type of roleplaying into a game, with varying degrees of success. These games included the Game of Thrones board game from Fantasy Flight Games, Shadows Over Camelot by Days of Wonder, and a game I discovered called “Thieves Guild.” These did a bit to sate that roleplaying desire, but were never really that fulfilling.

Fantasy Flight Games in particular has a good number of board games and card games that seek to emulate the roleplaying experience (like Runebound and Descent) but the cost for these games is, more often than not, very high. Trust me, these games can be very tempting, because for the most part they are very well done with regard to mechanics, presentation, artwork, etc. But I wasn’t about to try to buy all these different games in order to emulate what I used to be able to do with just a couple of books, a few friends, and our imaginations.

It wasn’t until the late Fall/early Winter of 2006 that the urge to roleplay became overwhelming again. But what was I to do? I decided to search the Web for an outlet.

That’s when I came across play-by-email gaming (PBEM). It was a eureka moment, and I set to work almost immediately to get in on the action. It was this decision that truly set me on the path back to the table-top.

I had of course, over the years, seen advertisements in places like Dragon magazine for play-by-mail games from companies like Flying Buffalo. But these never appealed to me in the slightest. The potential time delay between actions/rounds seemed hideous, to say the least. Call me a fiend for instant gratification if you must, but I really would need more immediacy for my gaming experience.

But play-by-email seemed to me the perfect way to ease myself back into roleplaying. It might not be instantaneous, but it would be a heck of a lot faster than play-by-snail mail. I could conduct PBEM games at a leisurely pace, which appealed to me because I knew I would be extremely rusty as a GM and would not yet be able to handle the much faster/instantaneous pace of a table-top game. And technically the “game session” would never end, because the emails from players could arrive at any time of day, seven days a week. There would be no need to get players together in one place at the same time. I didn’t need to stick to my circle of old friends anymore. And the Internet was a good buffer between me and the strangers I would be soliciting to play in my games.

All of this appealed to me…for the time being.

So in January of 2007 I became a DM again for the first time in ages. The campaign was called Wanderers of Faerûn (WoF), and obviously it was set in the Forgotten Realms, my favorite official campaign world. I decided to set the game up as a Yahoo group.

What might be surprising is that for the campaign’s rule set I used a modified version of the Amber Diceless RPG rules. I may have been ready to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but I wasn’t quite ready to actually use a Dungeons & Dragons rule set!

I advertised the game on the Yahoo group called RPG Player Sanctuary and found a great group of players from across the country. I also managed to get a couple old friends to join the game, both of whom were a part of my earliest D&D experiences. This included my old friend Pat, who originally introduced me to the game. This fact in particular made it seem as if things had come full circle in my gaming life.

The WoF campaign went on for over a year, and I can’t describe to you how great it felt to be back in the DM saddle. The game had some great moments, and my six players all did a fantastic job of making our shared adventures thrilling. And my personal roleplaying itch was well and truly scratched.

But by the beginning of 2008 I could already tell things were slipping into oblivion. Certain players were posting less and less. Those who did post were sometimes resorting to one to two sentence posts. Finally, I decided to call it quits in March 2008, and WoF breathed its last.

I tried to start another game in May of that year, using some of the players from WoF, but that second attempt was far less successful, sputtering along for nine months (and we averaged less than 10 posts per month). I realized I was done with PBEM, and this was disheartening. I had put all my hopes into that particular basket, and I was back where I started again: no immediate roleplaying prospects.

Life events swept me up again for the rest of the year. My daughter had been born in 2006, and she hit the feared second year of human life right about the time my son was born in 2008. For the next year and a half, during my free time, I would sometimes flip through my game books and dream of roleplaying. From mid-2008 right up to the present also saw a severe diminishment in my board and card gaming endeavors as well, due to increasing schedule conflicts among my circle of friends. And I hadn’t played a computer RPG in years. I was in danger of slipping into a new period of gaming deprivation…

Which leads me to the dawn of 2010.

The reason my PBEM game used an Amber Diceless rules set was because I wanted a “rules light” game. But towards the end of the PBEM campaign I felt the diceless system was TOO light. I wanted just a bit more crunch to my rules.

Wizards of the Coast had recently released 4th Edition, but I had no interest in the game for many reasons. Taking a look at the rule books, I just didn’t like the feel of the new rules. I also didn’t like the art for the most part, as shallow as that might be. In addition, it wasn’t economically feasible for me to buy the new edition’s books. I had a ton of other gaming stuff at my disposal already. And irrational as it may seem, I was sort of angry at Wizards of the Coast, who seemed more and more interested in the bottom line (especially since they were bought out by Hasbro) than in the legacy of D&D. They had changed their website, requiring users to pay to access information that had been free during the 3.0-3.5 years. I also had bad feelings towards WotC and Paizo for killing my beloved Dragon magazine.

So, I looked at my game book collection for inspiration. I had the three core books of D&D 3.5, which I had bought years before on a lark, during a time when I had gotten curious about what D&D was like in the 21st century. And it was too much crunch.

Sometime in 2008 I had scored a major find on the Web: a PDF of pretty much all the 2nd Edition books (for the life of me I can’t remember where I found it). So I looked into that, but again, it all seemed overwhelming.

Within the last year or so I had also remembered that my buddy Pat had some of our group’s old D&D stuff. Most of that old material had disappeared over the years, but I remembered that he had our copy of the Rules Cyclopedia (which we had bought but never played). I paid him a visit and picked up the Cyclopedia and whatever other random old D&D materials he had. But for some reason I even found myself overwhelmed by the Cyclopedia. Perhaps it was the small type and the sheer volume of stuff it covered, but even this “simpler” version of D&D seemed beyond me.

I started to get frustrated with myself. What the heck was I looking for?

In despair I turned back to the Web, and that’s when I found the old-school renaissance. I started reading blogs about the subject. And I learned that people were resurrecting the old rules and republishing them in new packages. And most of these "new-old" games, these so-called "retro-clones," were available for FREE. I was instantly intrigued.

So started a personal quest to find the right rules for my return to the GM’s chair! I began to refresh my memory about Original/Basic D&D (which I never really played, having gotten my start with AD&D 1st Edition and moving on to 2nd Edition) and delved into the retro-clones. I really seemed to focus on Swords & Wizardry, but after a time it seemed TOO simple. It took me a while to really get back into the mindset of old-school D&D, where there weren’t rules for everything and there were no feats, skills, and the other stuff that had been added into the game since 2nd Edition (reading Matt Finch’s Old School Primer helped out a lot).

So I began attempting to house-rule Swords & Wizardry into my own “perfect” rule set. And I spent a lot of time on this. I made several attempts, and got fairly far each time. But I discovered that I didn't have the time to really do such an effort justice, with all the adult responsibilities of my life. I just didn't have the time I would need, like I did when I was in my teens (and even most of my 20s for that matter). It was a tough fact to confront, but then I realized that I could just search through all the great games people were resurrecting/ producing and settle on one that most closely fit what I wanted in a game. And believe me, I studied them all: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, even Microlite74 and its ilk.

It turns out that I would settled on a little game called Castles & Crusades for the game I want to run. I know that it's not really a retro-clone (I think). But I feel like, for what I want to do as a dungeon master/game master/referee/castle keeper/whatever, it's the “D&D-esque” game that will allow me to do the least amount of house ruling as possible. So I can focus on game prep and actual gaming. I feel like C&C is "rules light" enough (or I can make it so) and yet has some aspects of more recent versions of D&D (3.0-3.5) that makes it unique. The rumor that it had the involvement/blessing of Mr. Gygax himself is a bonus.

At any rate, I am just happy to have finally settled on a game!

At the same time, I put out a call on the Web (through good old RPG Player Sanctuary) about my desire to meet up with new gamers, since all my old gaming pals had scattered to the four winds. That’s right, I finally overcame my trepidation about playing table-top D&D with strangers. I was at last ready to break away from my association of D&D with just gaming with old friends. Anyway, I was contacted by a guy who I had spoken to briefly in the last year or so with regard to PBEM. He asked if I was interested in joining one of his Pathfinder games, and I've pretty much agreed to do so. And I am very excited about the opportunity. Now, would I ever want to run a Pathfinder game? Probably not. As a GM I know that I want to run something like the older editions of D&D. But damn it, I am itching to get back into the gaming scene, and therefore I have leapt at the chance to join a gaming group. Even if it means I will be playing a more recent edition. Which is more than fine by me.

So there you have it! Writing this testimonial has really been a good experience for me. I’ve been able to finally reflect on my own personal gaming history, and it’s been more of a revelation that I first imagined it would be. Sorry for being so damned verbose, and I hope this doesn't seem too incoherent.

And of course, to those of you who read this, please feel free to share tales of your own gaming histories.

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to read the Epilogue!

P.S. My newfound determination to find new people to game with may even extend to board and card games. Stay tuned…

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