The Early Years
Regular readers of Critical Miss will have heard many tales ripped straight from my gaming table, describing my misadventures with Bubba, Bog Boy, Mark, General Tangent, TAFKAC, John, Bill, Ben and others. I started roleplaying with those guys in my early twenties, and had many good times. But that wasn't when I first started roleplaying, and those weren't the guys I started roleplaying with.
This is the story of my earlier, teenaged, period of roleplaying, and the guys I played with then.
It's a story that will be described with a fair degree of vagueness. Partly, this is because I'm describing events that happened around thirty years ago, and at a time when I was still young. But it is partly also because they happened during a period in my life that was far from happy, which I didn't perhaps want to remember. I've had periods of unhappiness since, but for sheer sustained misery, the first five years at secondary school (ages 11 to 16) were probably the worst years of my life. I think this is why I've only briefly mentioned my earlier roleplaying in my various writings to date.
But while time doesn't perhaps heal wounds, they do scab over. Things that I once found traumatic to even think about now feel like a faded, crackling, and frankly slightly boring film of someone else's life. So I think the time has come to tell the story of just how I came to be a roleplayer.
Roleplaying came into my life when I was probably twelve or so, about a year or two after my previously happy existence had been totally shattered by a simple change of schools. During that transition from junior school to secondary school I'd essentially lost contact with my previous best friends, but had acquired three new friends: Steve, who was in most of my classes, and Rik and Rich who were in a different set of classes. (I came to know Rik and Rich because Steve and Rik used to take the same bus to school).
I can't remember how it came up, but at some point they started talking about a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Steve's elder brother apparently played it, and had taught Steve how to play. Rik and Rich seemed to know all about it, with me the only one who'd never heard of it.
Plans were hatched. We would meet up the next Saturday at Rich's place (strictly speaking, in his bedroom, at his parent's place) and play this game. But there was apparently something that needed to be done first, and I was the one who needed to do it. We needed something called a module, which could be purchased from a particular toy / games shop in Feltham High Street. Steve made it very clear that I wasn't to read any of the module's contents. It seemed slightly weird that I would buy something, own it, but not be allowed to use it, but I headed off to the shop with my mum and found the module.
I should stress that this wasn't a games shop, friendly or otherwise. Anything like that was a Tube journey away. This was more a toy shop, with perhaps a little model plane type section, and just a small selection of board games and an even smaller section of Dungeons & Dragons stuff. It was one of those bits of everything shop that you don't seem to get these days, in an era where people either travel further or just order off the Net.
Researching back now, I'm pretty sure it was this module:
In Search of the Unknown is a module for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, designed for use with the Basic Set of rules. It was written by game designer Mike Carr and was first published in 1979 by TSR, Inc. The module details a hidden complex known as the Caverns of Quasqueton.
Reviewers considered it a good quality introduction to the game that was written in the so-called dungeon crawl style, where the primary goal of the players is the exploration of a dangerous labyrinth to battle monsters and obtain treasure.
So we started, and I created my first character. This was old school stuff of course, before it became old school. Roll three six-sided dice, add them up, then write the result down on a piece of lined A4 paper ripped out of someone's school pad. We didn't have character sheets. I wouldn't encounter those for another year or so, and when I did, I thought them terribly sophisticated and exotic.
He was a cleric, I think. And his name might have been Derek. No really. I wasn't taking the piss. I'd just never really read any fantasy. I hadn't quite clicked that in Tolkienesque worlds, religious knights didn't go around being called Derek. Hell, in our real world I don't think any Middle ages religious types went around with the moniker of Derek. I don't think there's any St Derek's hiding out in the Catholic pantheon - although there was that Father Derek on Brookside, who lost his faith, broke his vows and shagged young, gorgeous nanny Margaret, although not, of course, in that order).
Questions of realism aside, I had my character Derek... the cleric, and I was about to head off into this game that I still didn't quite understand but was eager to try. I was a little nervous, I think, but I didn't need to be (at least not about the game). As is often said, roleplaying is hard to explain but easy to demonstrate. As soon as our gang of adventurers hit the village at the start of the module it all became very clear. The idea that I could have my character do anything, literally anything, was mind-blowing. Within minutes we'd entered a clichˇd tavern and encountered a buxom serving girl, which led to the following exchange between me and Steve.
Steve (GM): What do you want to do?
Me: I'll see if I can take the serving girl down to the cellar and like, you know, do her!
Steve (GM): Okay. You take the serving girl down to the cellar and do her.
In my defence, I was twelve, and deep into that late tweens / early teens sniggering phase. (And also clearly oblivious to the whole "cleric being a religious bloke" thing).
I think we would have been quite happy to wonder around the village all afternoon, but Steve was eager to get us onto the dungeon itself, so he breezily announced that we needed to leave the village because the guards were looking to arrest me for rape.
Me: [Stunned] Rape? I haven't raped anyone!
Steve (GM): Yeah you have, the serving girl. She didn't want to have sex with you but you had sex with her anyway.
Me: [Wailing] You didn't tell me she didn't want to have sex with me!
Steve (GM): [Shrugging] You didn't ask.
To me now, it's clear that Steve was being a dickhead of John Holmesian proportions. I'm not sure it was so clear to me then.
But we did what he wanted, and headed on over to the dungeon. It was pretty easy. We gradually worked our way through a series of rooms and corridors, finding treasure and coins. There might have been a few dead bodies. As we penetrated further and further and further into the complex, Steve started to get more and more confused, muttering questions to himself about an apparent lack of "monsters". Eventually, he flipped through the module and found a set of random monsters at the back with instructions to the GM to go through the module before play, adding them into the various rooms as he saw fit. (Or something. The upshot was that there were supposed to have been monsters, but there hadn't been.)
Eventually, we broke for the afternoon. I got on my bike and headed home.
After just that one afternoon I was hooked. For a young boy living through a frankly horrible period of his life, the idea that you could be transported into another world, and live another life, was intoxicating. I could be that religious knight in shining armour riding into town, who then sallied forth into the wilderness to fight evil - albeit after accidentally raping a serving girl following a misunderstanding over consent and intent.
From that point on, we played D&D every Saturday afternoon. I should have happy memories when I think back on those afternoons, but I don't, not quite. I had a good time, and as my life then went those were, I guess, the better bits. But while they were better, I'm not quite sure they were good. The problem was that my friends weren't very, well, nice, for want of a better world. To be fair to them, they were only twelve, and probably being bullied themselves. But it always seemed to be me who was the butt of the jokes, like it was good for them to know that however low on the social pecking order they were, at least there was someone else (me) who was lower.
I was having a pretty rough time at school back then. I remember an acquaintance once stunning me with the comment, "You love school don't you? I bet you're really gutted on Friday when it finishes!"
The truth was that Friday evening was the happiest day of my week, because I so hated school that by Saturday morning I was starting to feel slightly sick at the thought of going back. It wasn't just one bloke who was bullying me, it seemed like everyone. They say you never forget the teachers who make a difference in your life. Well I've certainly never forgotten my bastard first year English teacher Mister Owen, who used to like to linger in the staff room to finish his cup of tea at break-time, not giving a damn that in the meantime I was being beaten up in the queue for his English class.
My five years at that school changed me for ever, and not really for the better. Some years later one of my (to be fair, occasional) tormentors managed to book himself a slot on the BASE Fatality List. I'm not as ashamed as I perhaps should be to admit that I laughed when I found this out. Maybe it's not very nice to take pleasure in someone else's misfortune, but then it hadn't been very nice of him to hurl a large chunk of ice into the side of my head, very hard, from a range of about six inches.
I don't seem to recall us every actually achieving anything during my initial few weeks or months of roleplaying. I think I played several characters, but never had one advance to second level - and I don't recall the other guys achieving that either. Then for some reason, we had a session where it was just me and Steve. I can't remember why. Maybe the other two guys were on holiday.
As there were just the two of us, Steve GMing and me as PC, Steve created two NPCs to accompany my fighter - a thief and a magic-user. (This was basic red-box D&D, when TSR believed in calling a spade a spade and thieves really were "thieves" rather than the wimpy "rogues" they would become in 2nd edition. Mind you, calling a bloke who uses magic a "magic-user" is not so much calling a spade a spade as calling it a "digging thing".)
We set off into the dungeon: me, the wizard, and the thief. It was a simple dungeon - I think it might have been an example one in the red box itself. The only thing I can remember about it is finding a room full of straw, from which a rat emerged, which I then shot with my crossbow. Another rat emerged, so I shot that. And another rat, which I shot, and then another rat, and another, and another, and another.
Quite frankly, I'd have been happy to stay there all day shooting rats. It wasn't as though I was keeping track of how many crossbow bolts I had. But eventually the thief (or more likely Steve) got bored and tossed his lit torch into the pile of straw, which immediately burst into flames, incinerating the infinite quantity of rats that it apparently contained.
We carried on like that, and by the end of the afternoon, the dungeon had been fully cleared and looted. We didn't cheat, quite. We carried out all combats properly, rolled the dice, the works. But Steve ruled that the two NPCs were nice enough to let me keep all of the treasure, and thus all of the experience points (XPs). At the time, it didn't occur to me that this was in any way out of order, but now, of course, I can see that it's quite dodgy.
At the end of it all, when Steve totted up the XPs, my fighter had not only advanced one level, but two. I had a third level character! I couldn't wait to the next Saturday when I could tell Rich and Rik about what I'd done and see how impressed they were.
But when that Saturday came, they weren't impressed at all. Firstly, because it wasn't news to them. Steve had told them at some point during the week. But secondly, because they each had loads of high-level characters, seventh and eight levels and even higher. They had, they now told me, been having loads of extra D&D sessions on weeknights to which I hadn't been invited, highly successful sessions in which they'd had many adventures, achieved much success, and earned many XPs.
I felt crushed. If I'd had the wisdom of adulthood, I'd have known immediately that this was all a cruel pack of lies designed to rob me of my moment of glory. But I was very na•ve then and swallowed whole whatever people told me. However, I think there was something more to it.
I had practically no self-esteem at the time. I felt bad enough at the fact that I'd been excluded from all the cool games, the ones that weren't full of incompetence and messing around. But if I chose to "believe" them then I still had "friends". If I chose to call them on their lies I risked provoking a confrontation that might end with me being dumped, and ending up absolutely friendless, doomed to spend the next four years at school wondering the playground alone and having no-one to sit next to in class.
If I'd have thought about it, I'd have known deep-down it was bullshit. But I chose not to think about it.
A few months, perhaps a year, later, our roleplaying took a turn very much for the better, when Stu joined the game (sometimes accompanied by his younger brother Stephen). I say that it took a turn for the better not because Stu was a good roleplayer, although he was, and not because he was a fun and witty companion, because he is. I say it took a turn for the better because he wasn't a complete git to me. (Of the four of them, he's the only one I've stayed in contact with - he's the Stu mentioned on the Issue 10 introduction to my Warpcon 2005 write-up as not being able to come to the con).
Note: In the interests of fairness and accuracy, I should probably point out that they weren't always complete gits to me. I am talking about my three best friends from school, the blokes I was closest to from the ages of eleven or twelve through to eighteen, nineteen and twenty respectively. I'm sure if they were to read this they'd say that I'm being unfair, that I'm picking certain things out of context, ignoring the good things and forgetting that all teenagers can be cruel at times. That's quite possibly true, and it's certainly true that I've done things in my life that I wouldn't like to have to defend. Also, I think Steve was perhaps less guilty than Rik and Rich.
In the end, this is a truthful account, but not necessarily a complete one, and told from a perspective of enough years that my memories are perhaps encrusted with bitterness. Anyhow, it's my story, and they aren't here, so frankly, bollocks to balance.
When he arrived, Stuart really had been playing D&D, with his younger brother and some cousins. Not long after he joined our Saturday afternoons group he DMed a high-level module. Having looked around, I think it's this one:
The goal of the PCs is the tomb of the millennium-dead wizard Martek. The tomb lies in the vast Desert of Desolation, and the majority of the adventure takes place within Martek's tomb. The adventurers have to cross a sea of glass on skate-ships, and then pass through the Crystal Prism and the Mobius Tower in order to reach the final crypt.
The adventure is organized into seven parts, taking the party from the desert through a number of planes on their way to the Citadel of Martek. They must use the Star Gems to revive the dead wizard. When they have done so, he lets them choose from a variety of magical treasure, and leaves to defeat the Efreet.
The only problem was that it was for levels 7 to 9, and I only had my third-level fighter. Rik, Rich and Steve were okay of course - they had all their high-level characters from the "other" roleplaying sessions.
It simply wouldn't have been possible for me to play my third-level fighter. It wasn't just that he would have fared about as well in high-level combat as a banana fares in a blender - there were bits in the module where the PCs take several hours to cross a desert, taking D6 hitpoint damage per hour. To have taken him on the module would have resulted in nothing more than a rotting corpse on a drifting sand dune.
So Stu gave me one of the sample characters in the back of the module, a ninth-level thief. Even then, he still wasn't as good as the other guys' characters, because although they were of similar levels, they were all laden to the gills with magical items acquired during their "other" campaigns. And their attributes were better too. While my thief had a pretty standard set of attributes, they had characters that had multiple eighteens, sometimes 18/00.
About Attribute Scores
By now, we'd switched from the red-box Basic D&D (accompanied by the blue box that Steve had got from his brother) to 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).
In both D&D and AD&D, to determine each of your six attributes, you rolled three six-sided dice and added their scores together, doing this six times to generate your six attribute scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma). The chance of getting an eighteen on a single attribute roll is one in two hundred and sixteen, or 0.46%. Given that you roll for six attributes, this means that the probability of one of your attributes being eighteen is a little over two and a half percent.
Having two of them is clearly very unlikely, although still possible.
But AD&D had a further twist. If you were lucky enough to roll an eighteen (three sixes), you then rolled two ten-sided percentile dice to get a number of between 1 and 100 (00), to see just how super-humanly strong your character was.
So the odds on rolling 18/00 were the odds of first rolling three sixes on six sided dice and then rolling two zeros on ten sided dice, which works out at 0.0046%, or 1 in 21,600. This isn't quite "more than there are grains of sand in the universe" territory, but it's clearly pretty unlikely to have happened by random chance, and clearly incredibly unlikely to have happened more than once.
I'm not sure that the percentile part of an eighteen strength made much difference in the game. Hell, one of the criticisms of pre-3rd Edition D&D was that attributes in general didn't make much difference in the game. I personally think the designers of 1st Edition put the percentile bit in there purely as a way of tricking cheating bastards into outing themselves.
Of course, the other guys didn't just let me get away with starting my character at 9th level. They repeatedly made snide remarks about how I was cheating by not playing my character up from 1st level. And the crap thing was, I believed them. I honestly believed then that there was only one way to play D&D, and that was to start your character at 1st level and play him or her up from there. I felt quite strong shame at what I was doing, almost feeling like the honourable thing to have done would have been to opt out of the entire scenario rather than do something so shameful as start my character at 9th level. I think the other guys spotted that shame, and nurtured it, like a man blowing on a newly lit fire.
But that aside, I seem to recall really enjoying the scenario. I say "seem" because I can hardly remember any of it, except for three bits: the desert, us going through various planes, and a stop in a village set within a sort of "dome world".
As best as I can remember, you had an entire world that was inside a sort of hemispherical cave thing. Just a round patch of land with a domed "sky" and a single village. To the villagers, that was the entire world. It was almost science-fictiony, like some kind of space colony or generation ship. I seem to recall leading a revolution of sorts, which is the sort of thing I love doing in fantasy scenarios. I think we might actually have finished the scenario, but I don't recall ever playing my thief again. (I might have done, I just don't recall it).
After Stu's arrival gaming continued, now on the rota of my place, Stu's, Rik's and Rich's. We never played at Steve's for some reason. In fact, I never actually went round Steve's house, ever, for anything. This was probably a smart move by him, because the times when it was my turn to be host were never fun.
Part of the problem was that I kept a diary. Actually, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that in a moment of madness I'd let the guys know I kept a diary - and they'd immediately demanded that they be allowed to read it. They were pretty insistent. I was equally insistent that they couldn't, not for general reasons of privacy, but for one specific reason: the diary revealed that my family and I were church-goers.
Each Sunday I would go to church with my parents, attending the first part of the church service and then Sunday school. And like a complete snitch, my diary faithfully recorded that.
Some of you in the US might not be understanding the problem here. While a majority of the population of the UK might claim to be "Christian", actual attendance at a church outside of weddings, christenings and the occasional midnight Christmas mass is regarded as quite deeply weird by most people. (Not me, I might add. As an atheist, I find it bizarre that someone would tick the "Christian" box on the census and then sneer at people who actually are Christians.)
Schools are pretty cruel places at the best of times. For it to become known that you go to church would be social suicide, not only at a bog-standard state school like mine, but even, bizarrely, at a church school, as happened (random tangent coming up) in a story my mother relayed to me a couple of years ago.
About 5% of state schools in the UK are actually run by churches, in a rather archaic deal in which they pay for the buildings, the state pays for the teachers' wages, and the church gets to add their own religious teaching on top of the standard curriculum.
Competition to get into these schools is pretty intense, not because there are a lot of religious people, but because these schools generally provide a much better education than standard state schools, while still being entirely free of charge. This generally isn't because the teaching's any better, but because the effect of the selection process is to have an intake drawn entirely from middle class families with a strong interest in their children's education.
To get your child into a church school requires both an investment in time and a fair bit of lying, in that you have to fake Christianity for several years by attending your local church each week, so the vicar will give you a letter for the school confirming that your child is from a Christian family. This might be a bit tiresome, but when the alternative is to pay very expensive fees for a private school, giving up your Sunday mornings for a few years probably seems quite reasonable.
I seem to recall the TV sitcom "Rev" summing it up quite nicely in a line from an MP character who was only attending the church in order to get his kids into the local church school:
"Get on your knees, avoid the fees!"
Of course, as soon as your youngest child is into the school, you can stop going, because once in, a child won't be kicked out.
But the reason why I'm telling you all this is to give context to my mother's anecdote. She knew a family who genuinely were Christians, and who'd sent their daughter to a local church school not for a better education, but for a specifically Christian one. As Christians, they'd carried on going to church even after they'd got all their children into the school.
Unfortunately, the other girls at the school had discovered this, and as a result, their daughter was bullied and ostracised.
At a "Christian" school. For being an actual Christian. It's a corrupt, lying world sometimes.
I was terrified of being "outed" as someone who went to church. It would have been a nightmare. The level of abuse and derision I was facing was already pretty bad. Outside of school, I would be greeted by my full name by people I'd never met before who would gleefully inform me that they'd heard I was a complete wanker. (Being insulted, by name, by complete strangers, is a strange and surrealistic experience). If it came out that I went to church, my already horribly existence would have got several notches worse.
Each Sunday, when I made the walk from the church to the adjoining Sunday School building with the other kids, my stomach was always knotted with the fear that I might be spotted by someone from school. I had contingency plans if this happened - I would simply carry on walking and not turn into the Sunday School, as though I'd simply happened to be walking along when they came out. But what if one of the Sunday School teachers called out after me?
Once the existence of the diary became apparent life became much more difficult. My house and Stu's were much nearer the school than the other guy's houses, so as well as Saturday afternoons, they used to come round our houses at lunchtime, alternating first with my place, and then Stu's.
And whenever they were in the house, I literally could not turn my back on them. And I mean literally. It was one of the house rules that they had to stay where I could see them, and that they had to let me always stay between them and the stairs, because they'd made it very clear that given the chance, they would ransack my bedroom in search of the diary. They once tried to make a rush for it, when I'd unwisely allowed myself to drift out of position. I managed to make it there ahead of them, but was then forced to try and hold the bedroom's sliding door closed while they tried to force it open.
They actually ended up pulling the door off its runners, at which point they did at least call off the attempt.
When we roleplayed, we handled the issue of characters not currently being in a scene by having the player physically leave the room. (I think it literally didn't occur to us that we could just roleplay not knowing the things our characters didn't know). So the GM and players currently playing would sit in my house's front room, while anyone not currently involved in the game would sit in the back room, with my parents, if they were there. Between the two rooms was a small hallway from which led the stairs.
So you had: front room -> door -> hallway with stairs -> door -> back room.
We operated on an "airlock" system, in which only one door must ever be closed at any particular time, chosen so that I could always see the hallway and the stairs. If I was in the front room, then the front room to hallway door was open and the hallway to back room door closed. If I was in the back room, it was the other way round. All so that I could know they weren't sneaking up to my bedroom to ransack it.
It wasn't the most fun way to play, especially during the time when I spent two and a half sessions waiting to enter play, unable to leave the back room because to do so would leave the hallway unguarded. (Rich was GMing, and had come up with the idea of a campaign that started with the PCs arriving in a city one by one rather than at the same time. Mine was the last PC to arrive, some 13 hours into play).
In an attempt to cope with things, Stu and I instituted a system of formal "bannings", with an agreement that we would honour each others sentences. (i.e. They couldn't simply get around the banning by simply going to the other person's house instead). We would hand out bans for a specified period of days for bad behaviour such as the above.
For a while this held the line, until, disaster - the guys managed to find out that I went to church anyhow. I think while rummaging around they found a bible my parents had given me, with a message inscribed inside, and it all unravelled from there. They informed me, in a pretty blunt and matter of fact manner, that from now on I had to let them round the house whenever they wanted, however they behaved. Because if they didn't, they'd tell everyone at school that I went to church.
I believe the word to describe this is "blackmail". I'm not sure what the word to describe them is. Not "friends" I suspect.
Through all of this, we carried on playing D&D, still without any kind of success or continuity that I recall. I don't recall us ever doing "campaigns" as such. Different people would take it in turn to DM a scenario, but each scenario was approached in isolation, with each one set in some kind of formless "D&DLand", with characters bound only to their owner's scrappy folder of character sheets. One session your character might be playing in a Greyhawk scenario DMed by Stu. The next session that same character might be playing in a setting-less scenario from White Dwarf magazine DMed by Rik - and quite possibly with an entirely different set of of PCs, with no explanation as to how.
And I still don't recall us ever really finishing a scenario, or me ever really having characters go up levels. I guess we must have done, but when I read about people who at the same age played the same ongoing D&D campaign for years, it strikes no previously forgotten bells with me. I have only fragmented memories.
I remember Rich doing a quite neat dungeon in which certain rooms would quietly rotate after you entered, something we only realised after noticing that the entire "second half" of the dungeon we'd mapped out on squared paper was not only a mirror image of the first half, but contained corpses identical to the ones we'd previously created. And I remember a game where our boat was attacked by some kind of shark, with him playing the Jaws theme on his stereo and timing the attacks to the music's climaxes.
And I remember Stu having a PC who'd not only managed to acquire two million gold pieces in what must have been something of a "Monty Haul" set of games with his cousins, but had acquired a magical, floating, coffin-sized bit of luggage in which he stored his stash. I remember a cruel DM parting Stu from it, with us spending a session chasing fleeting glimpses of it around a dungeon.
(Stu tells me that in one session, the other PCs broke my PC's legs, dumped me onto the "luggage", and sent me into rooms as a kind of scout / probe. I have no recollection of that, but it sounds like the sort of thing they'd have done.)
I do recall at least one bt of PC on PC violence that I bought upon myself, during a wilderness adventure in which our PCs had stopped for the night. I guess I was a little bored, or just perhaps in a stupid mood. Anyhow, I initiated a discussion on how our PCs handled what could euphemistically be termed "toilet matters". My magic-user was okay, I announced smugly, because he had a few dozen small sacks in his backpack.
(When it came to spending starting cash, I always liked to spent my last couple of gold pieces on the really cheap, silver and copper-piece items on the equipment list. So my PCs would habitually set off into the wilderness with their backpack stuffed full of something like thirty small sacks, twenty iron spikes, fifteen torches, two hundred feet of rope, and a dozen ten-foot poles. And now you come to ask, no, we didn't use the encumbrance rules. And yes, it wasn't until several years later that it occurred to me that it would be bloody difficult to walk around a low ceilinged dungeon with a single ten-foot pole, let alone a dozen of them. At least I bothered to buy a backpack to "notionally" put it all in. I'm not sure the other guys even bothered to do that.)
Stu's younger brother Steven was with with us that day, playing a Fighter/Thief as far as I recall. He quickly exchanged a series of notes with the DM, dice were rolled, and one exchange of laughter later I was informed that he had stolen a sack out of my back-pack without my magic-user noticing, had gone off into the bushes and "used" the sack, and had then returned and handed me back the "used" sack.
I then declared that I was shoving the now shit-encrusted sack into his face, at which point his fighter-thief pulled out his sword and killed my magic-user.
As the years went by, things did gradually change. We tried playing other games: Traveller, WFRP, Call of Cthulhu, Judge Dredd, Toon and Golden Heroes being the ones that come to mind now. In those pre-Internet days I picked Golden Heroes over Champions on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, simply because it was the one the shop had.
The Golden Heroes rules had style and tone in buckets, if perhaps being a bit clunky, and I managed to run a reasonably successful, if not particularly long-lived, campaign set in Cornwall. Over several sessions, Kernewek Taran ("Cornish Thunder" in the Cornish language) defended Cornwall from a variety of foes. I did make one major mistake though, in that having ended up with one PC with magical powers (Steve) and another with mental powers (Rich), I allowed them to select the sub-options for those powers rather than rolling, with both picking that power's "ranged blast" type ability.
Them having ranged attacks was bad enough. I think I later noted that of the five PCs, four of them had some sort of ranged attack, three of them could fly, and one could teleport, meaning that combats typically resembled not so much the traditional, four-colour, fist-fight slugfest, as the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But the truly unbalancing part of their powers was revealed when I tried to introduce a Hulk-like villain (copied from one in the rulebook) specifically designed to be too powerful to simply defeat in combat. In think I gave him the powers Strength-3, Vigour-3, Tough Skin-3, and some sort or regeneration power, which in Golden Heroes amounts to having an obscene damage bonus when he punches you, having a ridiculous amount of hit-points, continuously regenerating any hitpoints he might lose, and on top of all that, being almost impossible to hurt, anyway.
The way both the Tough Skin and Armour powers worked in Golden Heroes was quite clever. They didn't subtract from damage - they divided it. I think in his case, any damage you did to him was divided by five, meaning that unless you had a pretty obscene damage bonus yourself, you were only going to be doing one or two points of damage each time you hit him, which was below the rate he could regenerate them.
Unless you had a power that could bypass his tough skin, a power whose description specifically stated that it ignored damage dividers. Like a magical blast. Or a psionic blast.
I'd intended this to be an long, attributional scenario, in which the heroes tracked his inexorable progress across Cornwall, a series of desperate encounters in which they were never able to stop him, but able only to protect and evacuate those who found themselves in his path.
I think he lasted two and a half rounds before they had him down, unconscious. He never even got to land a punch. It wasn't quite "nuke the site from orbit" but that's it felt.
I can't remember much about our games of Paranoia. When the line was re-launched some years ago, it could be played in one of three modes: a new dark-satire mode; "classic"; and "slapstick". I think our games many years before were effectively "slapstick" even before the concept was created. I seem to recall it being a challenge just to make it out of the briefing. I think a classic session of Paranoia would be:
GM: Okay. You're in the briefing room. [Someone who isn't wearing red] steps up to brief you.
Player 1: I'll the pull the pin on my thermite grenade, count a few seconds, and throw it into the centre of the room.
GM: Okay. The grenade blows up and kills everyone. Your second clones get woken up and taken to the briefing room. [Someone who isn't wearing red] steps up to brief you.
Player 2: Hey what secret society is everyone? I'm the Sierra Club!
Player 3: I'm [something].
Player 1: I'll the pull the pin on my thermite grenade, count a few seconds, and throw it into the centre of the room.
GM: Okay. The grenade blows up and kills everyone. Your third clones get woken up and taken to the briefing room. [Someone who isn't wearing red] steps up to brief you.
Player 4: I'm wearing sunglasses!
Player 1: I'll the pull the pin on my thermite grenade, count a few seconds, and throw it into the centre of the room.
GM: Okay. The grenade blows up and kills everyone. Your fourth clones get woken up and taken to the briefing room. [Someone who isn't wearing red] steps up to brief you.
Player 2: And what about mutant powers? I'm telepathic!
Player 3: [Totally failing to spot the obvious joke about a telepath asking people questions]. I've got [something].
And so on, and so on. I think we did usually make it out of the briefing without going through all six clones, but I don't recall our endeavours ever amounting to much. And I'm not sure if we ever cottoned onto the idea that there isn't much "paranoia" if everyone knows everyone else's mutant powers and secret societies (you're supposed to keep it a secret, as the penalty for belonging to a secret society or being a mutant is death).
In our sixteenth year, we sat O Levels and CSEs (for English people under the age of 40, these were the precursors to today's GCSEs - for everyone else, these were the first set of proper exams you sat, after which you could either leave school, or stay on another two years to do A Levels). By mid-to-late June we'd finished and were out of school, meaning that instead of the standard six-week summer break we instead had something like twelve glorious weeks before we were back in school (having all decided to stay on).
To me then, it seemed like the sort of summer forty year-old rock stars write songs about, albeit possibly on a more geeky theme. We didn't hang around on beaches or spent our time trying to meet girls. Instead we would roleplay, day after glorious day in what seemed like an endless summer. We must have roleplayed a lot, and yet I still can't remember what we actually did. It's strange. You'd have thought we'd have set ourselves some sort of epic task, got ourselves one of those legendary massive scenarios people still talk about. You'd think I'd haves tales now to tell of how my miller's son picked up his father's sword, headed into some mountain of myth, and emerged twelve weeks of play later as a grizzled, thirtieth level knight, dripping with gold and magical items and equipped with a thousand yard stare men would still talk about centuries hence.
But no. I think we just pissed pointlessly around as usual.
That summer was something of an Indian summer for our roleplaying. It's often said that things are brightest and most vibrant when they're just about to die, and this was no exception. From a situation where it seemed like we might roleplay for ever, slowly, imperceptibly, inevitably, we weren't. In moving from compulsory to voluntary education (education was only compulsory up to the age of sixteen), our year group had shrunk from something like 250 people to around 70, with most of the wankers having pissed off to a lifetime hopefully spent regretting their decision at age 11 to spent their school years being little shits. (Bitter? Me? Nooooo...)
We were no longer the five despised outsiders. Suddenly we were accepted, popular even. There was a new in-crowd now, in which entrance was gained through wit and geekiness, rather than though ability in sports or proclivity to violence. Other things were becoming possible. New pastimes were opening up. Not girls, obviously! It was one notch we'd gone up on the social scale, not several. But we were now thinking that we should be going out to the pub, or to the pictures.
At the same time, it seemed like the roleplaying world was dying. I'd got into buying roleplaying magazines later than the other guys. By time I finally bought a copy of TSR UK's Imagine magazine, it was just in time for it to be the last. I switched to Games Workshop's White Dwarf, but within a year it transformed itself from a roleplaying magazine to a Warhammer Fantasy Battles Magazine, a move accompanied by its parent company dropping all their roleplaying and board games, gutting the UK RPG hobby in the process.
My beloved Golden Heroes was dead in the water, after only two scenarios had been published. And my nearest games shop, the Games Workshop in Hammersmith, scene of many a visit while returning from London on the Piccadilly Line, would soon no longer be worth visiting.
I didn't spot it at the time, but the staff of White Dwarf left their own message to their new boss Bryan Ansell, the man whose Citadel Miniatures had bought Games Workshop and converted it into a miniatures wargames company.
(Hint: Look at the first letters of each of the descriptions, not the titles, of the articles in the table of contents).
So I had no roleplaying magazine to read, no roleplaying shop to visit, and pretty soon, no friends who wanted to roleplay. I don't think we simply stopped; I think we more stuttered to a halt, playing less and less regularly over the two years of A Levels. In researching this piece, I've realised that we played on longer than I'd realised. I think the last thing we ever played must have been the Star Wars RPG, the original D6 version from West End Games, which apparently came out in October 1987, which would have been after we'd all finished school, when I was now at collage, Rik, Steve and Stu were working, and we were no longer speaking to Rich.
I think I bought this from the Virgin Games Centre on Oxford Street, which I seem to recall lingered on as a roleplaying games source for a few years longer than the Games Workshop in Hammersmith. Certainly, I remember reading the game on the tube home and being amazed by how well it fitted together. I don't recall ever being so impressed with the plain "rightness" of the simplicity, elegance and universality of the rules.
I ran a session for the guys at my house. I have a vague recollection that this was something of a revival, quite some time after our regular sessions had stopped, and perhaps an attempt by me to get the roleplaying going again. I'd set the start of my intended campaign on a water world, with the PCs finding themselves working at a sort of oil-rig like platform. Steve's character, a pilot, was patrolling in a cloud-car, just at the point at which the Empire attacked. The plan was that he would be shot down by one of the swarm of attacking TIE fighters. Comparing the stats of a cloud car versus a TIE fighter, I figured he had no chance.
Except that he did. To first my amazement, and then my creeping horror, it turned out that it was almost impossible for the TIE fighters to shoot him down.
"Dodging" in ship to ship combat was handled in exactly the same way as dodging in man-to-man combat, except with Piloting skill substituting for Dodge skill. There was just one kind of dodge, and if you chose to try it, you added the results of your dodge roll onto the difficulty your opponent was rolling against. You could do other things beside dodge, with the only penalty being a minus one die on both your dodge roll and the other roll. Since dodging typically made it a lot harder to hit you with only a small penalty to what you were doing, it made sense to always dodge, every time.
To hit Steve, the pursuing TIE pilots would have had to roll nearly all sixes. I think in the end they either got lucky, or I fudged it, and he got shot down, but I think my plans were fatally derailed.
Afterwards, when I tested out the rules, I realised that most gun-fights would never have a resolution. Everyone would simply keep successfully dodging. Now some of you might be shaking your heads, saying that this isn't how it works in D6, that I've got confused between the two different kinds of dodge, full and combat.
Except that I haven't. This was how it worked in the books as they were written when they came out, in the first printing of the first edition. The way way dodge then worked was that you got the effects of a full dodge for the cost of a combat dodge. A few months later, the first scenario Tatooine Manhunt was released, and it came with a "rules update" booklet which introduced the combat and full dodges. Now, unless you were doing nothing save trying to avoid being hit, you substituted your dodge roll for the difficulty, rather than adding it on. D6 Star Wars was a brilliant game, but I'm still amazed as to how they managed to release it with a key part of the rules so fundamentally broken.
I think that one session of Star Wars was the last time we ever played, although I can't be certain. I'm pretty sure I would have quite liked to continue, but it was the other guys who were no longer interested. Unlike me, they had jobs, and the money to go out as many evenings in a wek as they liked, and perhaps that was the final nail in the coffin.
I am quite struck by how little I remember of those years I spent roleplaying. I can't remember when we started, I'm not quite sure when we finished, and I don't recall much of what we did. I think I missed it a bit, but not a lot.
After those five years of misery, my life was opening up. Where once I'd not dared look forward, it now seemed like I might actually have a future ahead of me, at least, a future in which people actually wanted to talk to me. This is probably the point where I should say what roleplaying meant to me then, what part it played in my life, and what it taught me. But I don't think I can say any of that. I think the truth is that it was something I did then. And when I had something else to do, I did that instead. There was no meaning in it - not surprising given the dysfunctional way in which we played. And there were no lessons.
It was just something I did, during a period of my life in which I was just happy to have something, anything, to do. I guess as gifts go, that's not bad.
Copyright © 2011 Jonny Nexus