Thursday, July 1, 2010

I, Gamer: A Testimonial in Three Parts (1)

PART THE FIRST: Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man (Ages 13 to 19)

So, in reading many gaming blogs recently, I’ve seen several authors give accounts of their personal RPG journeys. Therefore, unoriginal and potentially boring as it may be, I think I will do the same. This is really more for my own benefit, when it comes down to it. I’m trying to codify my own gaming history to get some perspective, etc.

Here goes nothing:

My mother was into a strict Baptist thing when I was very young, and she therefore saw fit to indoctrinate me, her imaginative and bookish son, into said sect. Suffice to say that as I neared the teenage years and the subject of Dungeons & Dragons came up, she and the preachers at the church went all hellfire and brimstone and denounced it as a tool of the Devil. And of course, I was given the infamous Jack Chick tract.

And the smear campaign worked…for a while. Yes, for a while I was very VERY scared of Dungeons & Dragons, and how the game could supposedly lead my immortal soul into the clutches of Satan himself.

Oh, brother. Well, he who isn’t naïve as a child is a rare bird indeed, and much poorer for it.

But as time went on, certain elements within me conspired to eliminate my fears. First was the obligatory teenage rebelliousness. Second was my inexhaustible imagination, curiosity, and innate open-mindedness, fueled by devouring many books over the years (much to the chagrin of my blue-collar father and my macho older brother). And third was my best friend at the time, Pat, who happened to possess several Dungeons & Dragons books (I believe they were the 1E AD&D books with the revised covers). Pat was a Catholic, also, and I think the Catholic priests were much less rigorous than their Protestant cousins in their denouncement of Dungeons & Dragons.

Around the time that Pat was showing me D&D (this was the late 80s, around '87 or '88), I also discovered a book called Stormblade, a novel in the Dragonlance world (I’ve read/heard some controversy surrounding the supposedly “negative” influence of Dragonlance and other “shared worlds” on D&D, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Stormblade was a revelation for me. Something about the fantasy genre intrigued me like nothing else before. I had heretofore been mostly a fan of Star Wars and science fiction, but it felt like destiny for me to read that Dragonlance book. I had come home, arrived at my preferred genre. Here was an accessible story that appealed to the sense of adventure and escapism that I craved. The fact that it was derived from a Dungeons & Dragons game world only furthered my interest in the game. Of course all this was before the stigma of “gaming fiction” versus the works of the likes of Howard and Tolkien. Conan and Middle Earth were things I had heard of, but hadn’t delved into as of yet. And I’d never even heard of Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber at that point.

(I know there’s someone out there reading this that is really balking at the fact that a Dragonlance novel was my first real experience with fantasy fiction. Hey, no one’s perfect…)

Back to the game itself. So, after reading Stormblade and having listened to Pat’s rave reviews of D&D, I finally decided that I didn’t believe it was evil anymore. At this time I also had a budding desire to be a writer of fiction someday in the hazy future of adulthood. And therefore the shared storytelling aspect of D&D was also a great draw to me. I wanted in.

I started out as a player, creating characters to play in games where Pat was the Dungeon Master. But as time went on I grew ever more eager to take the reins, devise stories and characters, weave my own legends of valor for my friends to experience.

That was the golden age, a span of a roughly two years (13 to 15) when everything was new. I can see us around the gaming table in Pat’s room…me and Pat and our friends Jay, Dan, and Pat’s younger brother Sean. We spent hours upon hours poring over the D&D tomes in our possession. Whole weekends were devoted to the adventures we faced. We didn’t worry about rules, or the fact that none of our campaigns ever really had conclusions (or that said campaigns lasted no more than a month or two). We started fresh so many times and had a blast every time.

But time ground on inexorably, as it does. And our attentions were drawn further and further away from D&D as we journeyed through the teens. The distractions of high school drama, girls, and other pastimes like video games (which were getting better and better than the old Atari stuff we played when we were really young) and plain old TV ate up precious time (how we squandered it! Youth is truly wasted on the young!).

Between ages 15 and 19 D&D would rise and fall among our group in fits and starts. By my senior year in high school we had started playing D&D with two guys who were from the neighborhood but we hadn’t really been friends with. But we thought it would be a good idea to bring some new blood to the table. As it turns out, that really wasn’t a good idea.

These two had a very aggressive style of play that focused on player characters as just above the level of villains. They were fond of playing drow elves, for the most part. And they introduced us to the concept of the anti-paladin…which never made sense to me. I mean, isn’t a paladin of an evil deity still just called a paladin? Suffice to say that these two guys were “munchkins,” “roll-players," and “min-maxers” to the Nth degree. But since we didn’t know those terms, or they didn’t exist yet, we just called them “a-holes.”

But somehow we got roped in to their antics. And our roleplaying lives suffered for it. Specifically the D&D roleplaying we were still doing. We began arguing over rules, getting angry at bad dice rolls…all of the behaviors that reveal the fact that the pastime was no longer fun.

From 15 to 19 we had also branched out from D&D to explore other RPGs. We as a group became primarily entrenched in the Palladium game system. We played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninjas & Superspies, Heroes Unlimited, and finally Rifts. All of which served also pull us further and further away from the grandfather of all roleplaying games. We slowly began to disrespect our elders, so to speak, and an insidious disdain for D&D crept into our hearts. We began to see it as a kid’s game, in a way, and looked to other games like the Palladium offerings for a more “adult” experience.

By the time high school came to a close, we also turned our focus on the impending higher education experience. To which I was looking forward with great anticipation, having finally been freed from the prison of high school. True to dorky form, I had been tormented for my bookish ways for four years (except for some grudging respect I temporarily garnered for playing on the football team in 10th grade).

By the time I was 19, all roleplaying fell to the wayside. I spent the summer before starting college in sort of a vision quest of self realization. I was full of youthful fire, thinking existential thoughts and plumbing the depths of philosophy with a few close friends. I was an embryonic adult, and had no time for games. I was preparing to come out of my cocoon, to read “real Literature” (there was no doubt I would be an English major in college, my mind firmly set on the certainty of becoming a published author someday). I still loved to read fantasy literature, but was content to use that, rather than a D&D campaign, as my avenue of escape from the trials of life. And I was also determined to really develop a social life beyond the friends of my childhood and teenage years.

For the moment, I had left the gaming table behind…

Continued in Part Two!


  1. Oh, and I also wanted to mention that I delved into gamebooks during my teens as well. I started out with Choose Your Own Adventure and then moved on to the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Here's one of my favorites:

    I never got into TSR's Endless Quest, though.

  2. Having a read through this, and it sounds eerily similar to my own early teen years with role playing and DnD. That comic you linked, while I had heard of that sort of thing growing up, I'd never seen it for myself. That is absolutely insane.