Atlas Games posted a list of 31 “Reverb Gamers 2012” prompts for blogging. The idea is that for the month of January, roleplaying bloggers will take a prompt each day and write a short post. Me being me, the impetus to blog daily has proved elusive. But the first prompt really stirred some thoughts, so I’d like to tackle it, however belatedly:
What was your first roleplaying experience? How did that introduction shape the gamer you’ve become?
When I was about 11 years old, I attended a small Christian school. I mean, like, small small: 9-12 students, across all grades. Though my dad was a pastor, it operated out of a different church in the area. It was little more than a home school co-op, run entirely by parents on a volunteer basis. It was a very close-knit community, but it also provided scant opportunities for varied social activity.
So we built forts out of wooden pallets on the wooded embankment behind the church, and glued our eyes to the games playing out in black and white on the school’s Commodore VIC-20 computers. There were about 5 of us in my age group; me, my middle brother Anthony, my best friend Lee, and his brother and sister. Then there was my little brother Matt, and then there were the Older Kids.
The Older Kids, mainly, were the Todd Brothers, kids of Pastor Todd who ran the school. Benji was the oldest, and a really nice, funny guy. Andy was a jerk, both a mild physical bully and a constant mocker of all the super-lame kiddies he was forced to hang out with. They both seemed impossibly cool to me.
I was a pastor’s kid like them, but their world seemed nothing like mine. My upbringing was sheltered and strict, carefully shielded from “worldly” influences like rock and roll, and cussing, and cool clothes, and rebellious hairstyles, and edgy comics, and violent movies. And of course, Dungeons & Dragons.
My father had heard about Dungeons & Dragons years before, when our previous church staged an intervention of sorts for a youth group leader who ran a D&D game. The senior pastor knew all about this Satanic pastime, and took my dad (the assistant pastor) and the deacon board down to sit in and observe the game. What they saw stuck with my dad for the rest of his life; from his perspective it looked like an orgy of graphic violence and occultism. And the fact that the youth leader, when given a choice between continuing to play D&D and continuing to work in the church, chose to give up the church, “proved” to the church leaders that the game had an unnatural hold on the man. From then on, my dad would refer to D&D, repeatedly and verbatim, as “a game straight out of the pit of hell.”
Dungeons and Dragons, along with Rock Music and R-rated movies, formed a trifecta of absolutely forbidden entertainments in our household.
Pastor Todd was much more permissive, and the teenage Todds were (by my standards at the time), hip, knowing, and incredibly lucky. They read X-men while I was watching Transformers. They dressed in the height of 80s cool (Benji more new-wave, Andy more metal, complete with 80s mullet). They watched movies with naked ladies in them. They told dirty jokes. They possessed a million nuggets of pop culture that I’m still scrambling to catch up on. And they knew just how to apply their knowledge, in the presence of kids and adults, for maximum social dominance. Whereas I’d repeat their jokes and just get in trouble, or get laughed at. Or both.
So of course they played Dungeons and Dragons. They were just that damn cool. They lived on a trailer on church property, and whenever I got to go in there I’d see comics and D&D books lying around (I remember seeing the 1st edition Fiend Folio in their living room once and getting the idea that it was about a Fiend named Folio). they looked so forbidden, so tantalizing; I was a little afraid of them, yet I longed to read them.
One day, Benji (the nice one) offered to run a roleplaying game for me after school. He knew D&D was off limits, and he wasn’t about to set foot in that minefield. So he ran a one on one session of Marvel Super Heroes. It was pretty simple stuff. I picked Spider-man to play, and I swung into action to stop Doctor Octopus from doing… something. We fought, I knocked him out, and lowered him to the cops via webline. And the next day the Daily Bugle headline proclaimed that Spider-Man and Doc Ock were in cahoots.
I loved it to death. It hit every beat my 11 year old brain recognized in an iconic Spidey yarn. And what’s more, I wasn’t just reading or viewing a story; I was participating! My input wasn’t terribly creative, but something important awoke in me that afternoon: a realization that I could have an active role in art. My friends and I could make our own entertainment together! This was wonderful! Mind-blowing! Revolutionary!
From that moment on, roleplaying was in my blood. I couldn’t wait to share this wildly new thing with my friends.
Soon, when my brother Anthony and I were stuck in the back seat while my mom drove around town for her weekly grocery bargain-hunt, I laid my new-found insight on him. I didn’t have a book of rules, so I made up my own: invented some stats, assigned Health scores, and devised a system of adjudicating success from a pair of 6-sided dice. We were into Transformers, so we decided our characters were robots, wandering some unnamed planet (of course we were both of us gamemasters and players at the same time—why not?). We swept through a nondescript robot town like a pair of titanium Clint Eastwoods, leaving a trail of lasered-up “bad guys” (hint: everyone was a bad guy) in our wake. A couple of days later, I realized I’d forgotten to have the bad guys shoot back.
This unnamed robot game spread throughout the friend group. We’d sit down on recess to have unstructured battles royale between whatever robotic combatants we’d written up that day. The stats, weapon damages, health totals, etc. were whatever each player decided. the die-rolling system the only point of consistency. The numerical ratings was kept in check merely by an unspoken sense of what was “reasonable.” We never really had arguments over these numbers that I can recall—whatever you brought to the table was fair game. The only real check on abuse of that freedom was escalation of counter-abuse. I suppose When Anthony got it in his head to give his character a “500 hit-point Mega-Bazooka,” he probably thought he’d found an exploit in our rules(-less) system… but then Andy’s invisible thief-robot stole the bazooka within the first ten minutes of play (there was of course, a lengthy argument over whether this was possible). Later, Benji’s character, a floating metal slab operated remotely by a retired dude in Florida, ended the session by using its matter-transmuting ray to convert a bulkhead into antimatter.
The Brothers Todd were, obviously, far more skilled than the rest of us in the finesse of power abuse.
One thing I notice, though, in reflecting on these protean experiences, is that the Todds, incredibly learned in roleplaying esoterica though they were, played our game on our level. They didn’t try to dictate the “right” way to play, or tell us our way was stupid, or introduce us to new rules to make the game more “fun.” They just looked at these enthusiastic kids doing their thing, and said “Oh, you’re playing a half-formed game with a simple dicerolling rule and no restrictions on character abilities? Cool, I’ll give it a shot!”
Now, I have little doubt that Andy did so because it was an easy way to get his jollies playing gotcha games with a bunch of rubes who didn’t know any better. But Benji was different. Benji just seemed to be guilelessly playing along, and gently teaching by example: “Hey, this game where you can do ‘anything’? Here, let me show you what the range of possibilities really looks like.”
I realize that I learned a lot from Benji, but it took a long time for those lessons to germinate and take root. When Lee acquired his own Marvel Super Heroes game we quickly abandoned our freewheeling robot-shooting ways; now we had a “real” game with rules! Never mind that we didn’t understand or follow most of them; those awkwardly written and shoddily illustrated booklets clearly lent an air of legitimacy to our play that we seldom questioned. Lee and I discussed giving our old freeform system a spin again, just as a lark, but the idea fizzled. We couldn’t see how we could just “forget” that there were “standards” of balance and fairness and objectivity for rules to adhere to. Making up “just anything” was just impossible now, with our brains’ new wiring.
We played Marvel Super Heroes like a crude video game: pick some heroes and some villains, plunk ’em down on the map and make ’em fight. Even speaking dialogue was alien at first. Which was pretty much how we played our Certainly-Not-Transformers-No-Sir game, as well.
But the true seed that Benji Todd planted DID grow, eventually. The idea that roleplaying was a way to tell stories with friends, to really participate in storymaking instead of passively consuming, was alive within me though I didn’t understand it for many years. The boundless possibilities that Benji unlocked for me in that one afternoon with Spider-Man, Doc Ock and a pair of 10-sided dice represent a debt I can never repay.