Sunday, 9 March 2008

NerdGenesis IV: The RPG Years

I can hear the confused caterwauling now. What happened to the first three parts of NerdGenesis? Is there something wrong with Blogger? Actually, this is the fifteenth draft of this post today, the others having been randomly lost by Blogger, so yes, there is something wrong with it, but that's not why there are three mythical posts lost in the ether. Believe me, there is no way I would bore anyone with the first three installments of the epic tale of how I became an adult nerd, because it's the same as every other nerd's tale, with the principal figures in my childhood being those old staples Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Stan Lee. It's not exactly a new story.

To be honest, part IV isn't that original either. I bet there were at least a couple of dozen role-playing gamers out there. I'd guess there were more, as the blog outpourings suggest, but I've found it's easier to get people to describe their teenage masturbation habits than it is to get them to talk about battling Shoggoths and making rolls against Sanity, so for all I know the industry was kept going by eight people with a really large amount of disposable income.

Much as I don't want to turn this blog into a rollcall for the deceased of terminally ill, the death of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax got me thinking about my childhood love of role-playing games. As with my recent trip into nostalgia upon playing John Woo's Stranglehold, reading those internet tributes to the gaming pioneer brought back heart-twitching memories of early years spent absorbing vast tables of statistics that I would never ever use again. I was amazed at how vivid those memories were, and how pleasant. I thought I would be an actual old man before I started getting rose-tinted flashbacks to my youth, but I'm already having flashbacks like Swann and his petite madeleines, except with my much more mundane memories. With apologies to Proust, I was all like:
She sent out for one of those tiny, shiny little plastic polyhedrons called d20, which look as though they had been made en masse in a die factory. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I picked up a beaker into which rattled the small randomness generator. No sooner had the muted clatter, and the tactile experience of a vibration clicking through the sides of the beaker, touched my hand and ears than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place... at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, its lack of saving rolls against magic attacks forgivable...


Forgive me for going on a self-indulgent reminiscence trip when I could be bleating on about Lost again, but having Roy Scheider and Steve Gerber die recently already had me thinking about those years, and now this happens and I wonder how many people with a nerd past (and/or present) have been having the same feelings. I know I had practically forgotten those hours hiding behind a keeper's screen, but upon realising that I needed to go on about it here, at the expense of the reader's patience, I found this picture of the pretty red 1983 basic Dungeons and Dragons set that was the first RPG I bought (image discovered via Google and this excellent archive), and my heart skipped a beat. Seriously, I hate to succumb to nostalgic feeling, and hope that this isn't the beginning of a trend for re-evaluating what was often not that great a time in my life, but this cover made me giddy as a kid, and has done the same to me now. ::choke::

What makes this moist-eyed Desmond-Hume-style flashbacking ridiculous is that in actuality I very rarely got to play these games. Most of my childhood peers were more interested in throwing iron bars at my head and insulting my family than in studying rules books with me and then going on An Adventure Of The Imagination, so it was only on occasion that I was able to find a player. It didn't matter that much, though. Most of my enjoyment was to be had by staring at the rules, studying tables of damage multipliers and experience point allocations, and imagining how the game was meant to turn out.

While discussing Gygax's passing at work, a colleague who not only admits to playing RPGs when young (though thankfully not so eager to discuss masturbation), but actually sold me his dogeared copy of Golden Heroes, said that his primary source of game-related enjoyment was absorbing those rules. Rules fascism was a cardinal sin in RPG circles, but that's when you're playing with others. Reading the manuals and understanding the way the game creators have managed to replicate the physics and biology of an imaginary world with numbers was fascinating. Ace afro-wearer and reality-parser Malcolm Gladwell discussed something along those lines in the opening chapters of Blink, with a baseball simulation that relied on studying complex tables. At least, I think it was Blink. I've got a copy of it right here and I can't find that bit. But I remember it! Oh man, my consciousness is unstuck in time all the way back to the 80s, but I can't properly recall something I read just a year ago.

Still, I did get some game time in, and found myself much more attracted to the role of gameskeeper (or whatever you choose to call it) than to that of player. Maybe it was because I liked knowing the secrets of the scenarios we played. Or maybe it was because I got a thrill out of controlling something in this world that seemed to churn away around me without showing any indication that I had any effect on it. Or maybe it's because my one experience as a player, during a fairly long run playing Cyberpunk, was tainted by a falling-out with the gameskeeper which led to my beloved, sweet-talking hacker character being blown up and turned into a cyborg over a real-world dispute that amounted to nothing! Nothing, you son of a bitch! NOTHING!!! Yeah, maybe that was the main reason.

That was one of the rare bad moments in my young gaming life. Just a couple of days ago I caught some of the Adam Sandler comedy Click, featuring the magnificent 100% entertainment generator Christopher Walken as the creator of a remote control that allows you to manipulate your life as you would a DVD. There's often a scene in all but the worst movies that chime with me, and this had a moment when Sandler, taking a break from nasally droning all of his dialogue, uses the remote to revisit his happiest childhood memory; a summer camp trip. It was a sweet moment. Then, a few minutes later he's flicking through memories of his previous sexual partners and pointing out how ugly they are. And Walken has to join in! It was painful to hear the generally wonderful Walken have to say stuff like, "I can't even tell if she's a man or a woman!" I need to rewatch King of New York, stat.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking about what my happy childhood memory was, and with Gygax's passing still on my mind I realised it was spending hours in the Birmingham branch of Games Workshop, situated inside the infamous Bull Ring Shopping Centre. I couldn't afford the games, and probably wouldn't have played them even if I'd been able to buy them, but that didn't stop me browsing for ages and drooling over the vast array of AD&D scenario packs, Traveller expansion books, Stormbringer miniature sets, and lovely lovely polyhedral dice. It occurred to me during my recent reverie that I obviously don't have any photos of the shop, and I could find none on the web either. So that happy memory of a gloomy, cramped and overpopulated nerd paradise remains locked in my head, degrading in quality and accuracy, eventually to be lost forever. ::sigh:: Someone hand me a madeleine.

Still, the net is good for something. This
excellent resource collects pictures and info tidbits about hundreds of RPGs and board games, triggering so many bursts of memory that I feel like Johnny Mnemonic up in this bitch. Just seeing the expansion packs for my favourite RPG, Call of Cthulhu, gave me something like chills. I was also happy to find out that even a poorly received RPG like Star Frontiers can still have a loyal following, and found this page cataloguing TSR's Indiana Jones game, featuring several post-Raiders scenario packs that, as far as I can remember, curiously gave no mention of their origin as Marvel comics with John Byrne art. I can imagine that Sizzlin' Stan Lee would have been pissed by this behaviour. Approximately this pissed.

Nevertheless, he would retract that devastating finger if he knew that according to this, when TSR's hold of the Indy licence lapsed, all unsold copies got burnt. That breaks my heart, though. It was a lousy game, but I loved generating enormously complicated dungeons filled with so many traps and religious artifacts and murderous Nazi scumbags that even Indy himself would baulk.

So yeah, that was my weekend. As I'm surrounded by job uncertainty, IT woes, financial strife, the re-encrappening of the temporarily semi-competent Torchwood, and the sudden inexplicable popularity and ubiquity of supermodel Agyness Deyn (please bear with me, I have no idea where this sudden brain-paralysing antipathy I have has come from), this memory-blast made it all go away. For that, and for hours and hours of childhood happiness, and for creating a system and a multi-million pound industry that transformed pop culture, and for uniting nerds the world over in a seemingly secret society of RPG-deniers that perhaps this week felt a little better about shedding a tear when reading the Guardian obituary page, I give my eternal thanks.

Though no thanks for unintentionally bringing about the creation of this cinematic abomination.

There is just no excuse for Jeremy Irons in that movie. It almost negated Dead Ringers. Truth.

P.S. Anyone who wants to make me happy on my next birthday needs to be looking online for cheap copies of this.

It's got maps of Serenity in it. Maps! I rest my case.


johnilf said...

Jesus, Admiral you are not still mad at Jacko for the Cyberpunk debacle... i told you you shouldn't piss him off because he is a cyborg cyberpunk. Damn i can still see your ranting and jacko's emotionless black eyes as he plucked that sadistic storyline out of the air!

Very funny.

Admiral Neck said...

Genius. Yeah, I'm still mad, but you're right, there was a kind of sick brilliance to his mean-spirited actions. But still, it shows how attached someone can get to the imaginary character they play in a Neuromancer rip-off. Even now, about 18 years later, I'm pissed about it.

Still, it could have been worse. I could have ended up like Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters. There ain't no coming back from that kind of crazy.

Now that I have purged myself via this blog, I shall let it lie.

Jaredan said...

His sadism was truly the stuff of legend, I also remember someone using his hammer hand to remove your character's jaw.


That's what happens when you try and set someone up in an elaborate pornography revenge plot.