A Gamer’s Odyssey, 1980-PresentPosted by Anthony Pryor
Here, for those who demanded it (both of you) is the conclusion of my gaming biography, following the ups and downs of my life for the past 30 years or so. It’s of necessity somewhat abridged, and hopefully contains enough juicy gossip and insider stuff for the most jaded reader. Or at least it’s slightly amusing. Read on, and see the rest of my history.
Man in the Wilderness (1980-2000)
With the advent of my first marriage (I might go into more details about that little escapade later), my gaming life grew kind of sporadic. It didn’t die, exactly, in fact it happened fairly often, it just seemed to do so without any particular center or organization. I started a gaming group of sorts at PSU called ORC — the Orcish Revolutionary Council, after an obscure joke in an old SPI game (which I still own, tucked nearly up on the shelf in my gaming room) called “Swords and Sorcery.” It was another example of that kind of strange dissociation that seems to plague me — a weird notion that everyone else will understand my references and think they’re funny. The name was a joke, but it meant nothing to anyone besides me, and I couldn’t understand why no one else got it.
ORC didn’t really game that much. It attracted a couple of folks who ended up becoming long-term friends, like Scott, Greg and Sam, and through them I ended up meeting other gamer-types. I participated in some other people’s D&D games, but they were more of the paranoiac powergamer fantasy types that I’d developed a distaste for.
In one typical session, the adventurers encountered a nasty black dragon. One of the fighters reached into his portable hole and pulled out his sword cabinet, from which he selected his Sword of Nasty Black Dragon Slaying, which he then used to kill the dragon with one blow. Another player objected, saying that his PC was under a geas to slay every dragon he met. The party discussed this, and accordingly resurrected the dragon so that the geased PC could kill it. Another player objected, stating that his PC was a “dragon lord” and had sworn an oath to issue the coup de grace against any wounded dragon, and thus retain the honor and gratitude of the draconic race. Guess what? They resurrected the poor dragon AGAIN so he could slay it. And I believe they got XPs for all three of the unfortunate dragon’s deaths.
Needless to say, this approach to gaming did not float my boat. I wanted story, I wanted roleplaying and I wanted to emulate the excitement of the fantasy novels that I now devoured on an almost daily basis. Hell, I even read and enjoyed The Sword of Shannara (kind of the 70s version of The Wheel of Time) and that’s saying something.
My attempts to run a campaign rarely lasted more than a couple of sessions. I was bad about setting gaming dates and the players tended to be as chaotic as I was. Not that this was bad — the PSU guys, especially Scott and his best friend Bob, were among the most imaginative and focused gamers I’d ever met. We played regular wargames as well as rpgs. Bob in particular had a knack for reading rules and immediately absorbing their subtleties, then immediately turning them against you. He usually won through skill while Scott, who I think was every bit as smart and capable, often lost through horrifically bad die rolling.
In one incident we were playing Advanced Squad Leader in a late war city fight. I had two Soviet T34/85s and Scott advanced on me with a fearsome SS King Tiger. I kept my T34s hull down since I knew I had little chance of penetrating the Tiger’s front armor, but was unable to maneuver due to the narrow, rubble-choked streets. As I attempted to move one of my tanks into position for a flank shot, Scott got a fix on me and fired.
Or rather, he attempted to fire. He rolled a jam, and the fearsome 88mm shell fizzled harmlessly in the breach. Immediately, the skilled SS crew worked to clear the jam. Scott rolled on the jam table. He rolled a “1″. Jam permanent. Gun disabled. Scott — and without doubt the Tiger’s commander — howled in frustration.
The T34s rumbled out of cover, their crews shouting revolutionary slogans as they advanced on the lumbering and now-helpless Tiger. The German’s coaxial machine gun spat an ineffectual stream of bullets at the advancing Russians, but all seemed lost and the Soviet commander licked his lips in anticipation of the kill.
Then Bob’s infantry, which had been hiding nearby watching the battle, opened up with a Panzershrek and destroyed both my T34s.
That happened a couple of decades ago, and it still stings…
Roleplaying was, as noted, spotty. I must have started and abandoned a half-dozen D&D campaigns. We also flirted with GURPS, Runequest and (see if you remember this one) Powers and Perils. P&P (or just “pee-pee” to those in the know) was a horrible game created by the then-largest gaming company, Avalon Hill. Character creation took literally hours and involved a great deal of math. The actual system was clumsy and unwieldy. I don’t think we ever got past character generation. I still have a copy of this monstrosity for posterity, but I’ve still never played it.
Dale tried his hand at a couple of games throughout this time. He was enthusiastic about Champions, and I likewise took to it, designing numerous characters and painstakingly typing them up and doing my own illustrations. He tried a campaign with me and our mutual girlfriends (yes, I finally got one) but the group fell to bickering and never quite worked out.
I also ran a few individual Call of Cthulhu games. My girlfriend at the time (who had been warned away from the hobby in no uncertain terms by a couple of her friends) was interested but had a tendency to suicide her characters. Not on purpose, mind you — she just did really stupid things, like having her character go for the pistol at his belt while the degenerate Scottish cultists had three shotguns pointed at his midsection. I was nice and said that her character survived the multiple shotgun blasts.
I made an unfortunate tactical error when I married the girlfriend in question, a relationship which clocked in at about four years and ended poorly, partly because I was an insufferable shit and partly because she was a an immature pain in the ass. I still nurse some regrets over the entire fiasco and wonder how things might have gone if had we both behaved like adults instead of stupid kids. Ah, well…
I began to write professionally soon after my divorce. Starting with FASA’s Battletech, I went on to work with other outfits. My contract with Steve Jackson Games ended badly when I turned in a really crappy adventure, but this did lead to better things when SJG editor Bill Armintrout brought me on board with a group of freelance writers he was managing. We produced material for Bard Games and TSR, leading to my first round of D&D products. While I wrote, my actual gaming — while relatively plentiful — ended up being scattered and chaotic. I was definitely a man in the gaming wilderness.
When I first started writing this section, I thought that 1980-2000 were a gaming drought for me. In reality, now that I think about it more, I gamed a lot. I just never stuck with anything for very long. My roleplaying campaigns rarely went more than a session or two, because of my own inability to keep a group together and my players’ randomness. All the same, we did have some fun experiences.
I started to run the Dragon Mountain campaign with Scott, Bob and company. I designed a couple of continents and got people together with some success. The tragic loss of Dale’s female orcish love priestess took place during this time.
I collected Warhammer miniatures as well, and bought every new edition of the game. I played only rarely, however, though my painting skills steadily improved. Today, I believe that my miniatures painting skills compare favorably to the best and most professional miniature painters of 1985.
The 90s were pretty tumultuous on my personal front, beginning with the birth of my daughter and my second marriage (not to the mother of my daughter, either — that’s another long story), some strange adventures in the alternative lifestyle world, the appearance of the Wulf stories on Usenet, my brief flirtation with the life of a comic writer, and my own descent into madness. I guess my second marriage was more successful than the first — it lasted nine years and we managed to raise my daughter to adolescence, but besides that I can’t say that I much cared for it.
As the 90s drew to a close, my writing assignments grew fewer. FASA faded into the sunset; I sent them a proposal back in 2000, but they folded soon after, with their products taken over by other companies. TSR fell into its famous financial troubles and was bought by up-and-coming Wizards of the Coast. Though I started a few projects for WotC everything was swept away by the world-changing success of Magic: The Gathering, a game which I initially embraced and later rejected. The WotC regime in those days was a bit odd, and has been well-chronicled elsewhere, In this article by John Tynes, for example, and most of the folks I knew back then are no longer with the new, improved, Hasbro-owned WotC.
I knew a lot of the people in the Tynes article, and I well remember the references to “Continuous Quality Improvement” at early company meetings that I attended. I doubt that I would have taken well to wearing my sexual orientation on my shirt, and if a manager had ever told me to put a bottle of lotion in a basket before he’d speak to me, I would have probably shoved the bottle up said manager’s ass. I probably wouldn’t have been a good fit for WotC in those days.
Then again I wasn’t entirely different. In those days my wife and made another one of those minor tactical errors that I’m so famous for when we took on a female “partner” who was a bit on the legally-old-enough-but-way-too-immature-for-an-adult-relationship-especially-a-three-way side. She was dating, among others, at least one of the folks from WotC (one who is actually mentioned in the Tynes article a couple of times). One particularly fond memory is that of my wife and me waiting patiently for her to get ready to go out to breakfast, only to discover that she was having sex with her WotC friend up in her bedroom. I accordingly seized a cat, flung open her door and threw the cat on them at what was apparently a rather inopportune moment. She barreled naked down the stairs, screaming indignantly and we ambushed her with supersoakers while her date watched, somewhat bemused.
Yeah, good times I guess…
It wasn’t always fun, and gaming politics can be worse than the regular kind. I still remember an incident in which I was on a panel at Orycon, the local SF con, in which we were discussing the impact of CCGs on the gaming industry. I noted that as the rise of CCGs had cut into sales of more mainstream RPGs and said that I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
Apparently there were a couple of female employees of a major CCG company in the audience. They maintained a steady stream of snarky comments about me and my work, revealing that they had a pretty detailed knowledge of me — interestingly enough I didn’t know either of them, but this suggested to me that I was somehow the subject of industry gossip even though I was, then as now, a lowly freelancer.
These two ladies made the mistake of spouting off about me in the middle of an audience surrounded by my friends, and while sitting immediately in front of my wife, my best friend and my best friend’s wife. My understanding is that they got a bit of a talking-to later, but it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference since in the end they and just about everyone else involved in CCGs lost their jobs when the bubble burst. Yeah, M:tG and some others are still out there, but believe me it ain’t what it was back in the 90s.
From about 1994 to 2000, both gaming and writing slowed to a crawl, though there were occasional bright spots. My friend Vic (an ex-tanker and psych warfare expert who speaks fluent Russian) proved his mettle as one of the best GMs I’ve played under, running a couple of limited GURPS SF mini-campaigns, as well as what I remember as a really cool pirates game. Dale ran two D&D games; I don’t remember too much about the first other than my friend Mark played a cleric who was obsessed with parsley chips. Later Dale ran Forgotten Realms game in which I had the misfortune of playing a pacifist cleric who got beaten up a lot. I believe my wife’s character was a lesbian ranger, and I ended up writing her into a regular D&D module that I wrote for TSR, though I never revealed her sexual orientation (much in the same way that I tried to write a black paladin into the “Marco Volo” trilogy, with only limited success).
I didn’t game with my wife as much as I’d have liked to, which was sad since she was a confirmed roleplaying geek, and had been closely associated with the gaming frat in college. We ran in Dale’s two brief Forgotten Realms games, and she participated with enthusiasm in my Greyhawk adventures, particularly the one in which we playtested Patriots of Ulek (one of my old D&D modules, which has been compared to the greatest modules such as Dark Tower and Temple of Elemental Evil — in that people said “Temple of Elemental Evil was cool! Patriots of Ulek sucked!”). I ran a pretty large Thystra-based game with a bunch of poly gamer folks — you’d have thought this would be a winner, but I didn’t follow through. As I was to later discover, the mundane world often sabotages what’s really important.
My second (and if I have anything to say about it, last) divorce was the result of poor communication on the part of all parties, and I suppose if I learned anything it was that I’m not a mind reader and I shouldn’t expect anyone else to be either. Unknown to myself, I was also nursing an undiagnosed and rather serious case of diabetes, which affected attitude, outlook, behavior and just about everything else. In early 2000, in a state of near-collapse I fled to southern California, intending to start a new life, but instead just fucking everything up even worse.
It’s both good and also really sad that my second divorce also heralded a return to regular roleplaying and other forms of gaming. As I noted before, I deeply regret not gaming more with my ex, especially since she had been an enthusiastic gamer and would have gone along with anything I’d stuck with. I suppose that any little straw of encouragement I could grab was welcome, so upon my return to Portland from my disastrous LA sojourn I immediately latched onto the long-awaited third edition of D&D, and threw myself into a new campaign.
Lost and Found (2000-2005)
I think it was d20 and my return to Portland from my brief but disastrous sojourn in LA that brought me back to gaming. Just to get a handle on the new system, I proposed a short-term dungeon bash set in Thystra, the world of the Wulf Archives, during the great elvish campaign when the elves turned evil and tried to conquer everyone in the name of racial purity. The larger events were just the backdrop, as a group of adventurers of every race and description ventured to an ancient temple in the jungles of Xesh after being sent by an aging dragon who saw visions of death and blood if they did not succeed.
I have to say, it was a lot of fun. Though I did it to get familiar with the d20 system, I also (in typical fashion) dumped a bunch of my stuff into the mix. The book races weren’t enough for Thystra, no. Dale and our friend (and award-winning figure painter) Devin played Kaitian (tiger-people for the uninitiated) cousins, Dale a sorcerer and Devin a paladin. Dale’s wife Leann played a tandu (leopard-person; I don’t remember his class, though), friend Rachel was a minotaur, her boyfriend Brian was a winged one (those elves who can heal through sex) monk and Vic was a ratling rogue sniper with about a +37 to his ranged attacks.
Through a series of events way too complicated to detail here, I’d also met a woman who has at various times since the dawn of the millennium been my friend, lover, collaborator, cowriter, singer and seriously frustrating gadfly and of course she was a hardcore gamer. Rhia joined up a little later as a wolfen cleric with a 17 wisdom and a 7 intelligence, a very typical character for her.
No humans. Nope, not a one. No other book races, either. Jeez, what was I thinking? My very first 3E campaign and I had to go and create a raft of new races without a good handle on what was balanced or sensible. Oh yeah — I also think I started them at 5th level or so… I was just asking for trouble.
And boy did I get a crash course in d20 mechanics. Vic’s ratling could shoot the eyes off a gnat at 1000 yards. Devin’s paladin routinely rolled 30+ on his attacks. Rachel’s charge was irresistible. Brian’s winged one was sleeping with anything that was wounded. Dale, Leann and Rhia played it a bit more subtly, but this was balls-out dungeon bash with no serious rationale, so they tended to go for broke a lot too.
I learned several interesting things about the new game. One, those CRs are pretty critical. I didn’t realize that they were geared for ideal groups of four players, not SEVEN. I was actually pretty nervous about having the group face a pair of beholders, fearful that they would cause a TPK. I soon saw the error of my ways and despaired for my unfortunate creatures as the party took turns using them as piñatas.
I spent a great deal of time working on a cool, awesome drow villain, giving him one of the baddest ass weapons I’ve ever come up with (double sword — one blade flame, the other ice… It was echoed by a very expensive artifact item in the later Scarred Lands campaign, but the White Wolf guys thought it up independently) and two very, very hot drow babe minions. In the end I had to keep upping their stats to make them competitive; to my relief, none of them got killed.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the most amusing moments was when the party, led by the lawful-irritating Kaitian paladin, smashed down the doors of the drow’s quarters, to find the two drow babes en flagrante delicto (this adventure WAS set in the Wulf universe, after all…). The paladin was all for killing them because, a) they were evil and b) obviously perverts, while Rhia’s simple-minded but wise wolfen cleric argued that even though the paladin “detected” evil, they weren’t actually doing anything evil, so why kill them? I suspect that Devin’s paladin went to the late, lamented Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, since he seemed as annoyed at the hot girl-on-girl action as he was by the whole “evil” thing… (I also note here in Devin’s defense that he was ROLEPLAYING a tight-assed LG paladin and is a far more tolerant individual in real life.)
Managing a group of seven mid-level characters of varied race, motivation and outlook is like herding cats. A site-based adventure is far, far preferable for such a group, and in the end we actually managed to get through the limited campaign with some success. I think everyone had a good time (they all TOLD me they did, anyway), and in the end Brian had his character voluntarily give his life to save the world (and do something, I don’t remember what… rest assured it was all world-savey and stuff), and the drow were so impressed by his sacrifice that they all turned chaotic good (I told Devin that his paladin no longer detected evil on them) — now THAT was definitely not out of the “some races are inherently evil and should be instantly slaughtered even if they’re innocent babies” crowd’s playbook, was it?
As I said, a relatively splendid time was had by all, and I was back in roleplaying with a vengeance. I have not looked back since.
It was during this time that I started writing to game companies again, and through the fine folks at Necromancer started down the path that would lead to the Scarred Lands and beyond.
Now it was Dale’s turn to get excited about roleplaying again. He came up with an idea for a purely urban-based campaign set in a vast settlement known only as “The City.” There were no maps — he kept it all in his head, and he also came up with a very convincing and satisfying culture and history of the place. I always thought of Constantinople — crossroads of the world, where various cultures and races met, traded and mixed freely. It was a similar group to the Thystra campaign — me, Brian, Rachel, Leann, Vic and Devin. I played a fighter/rogue named Raven who fought for the common people in secret, while her public persona was an exotic dancer named Kheletara who performed at the House of Infinite Dreams. I never went too specifically into exactly what kind of dances she performed, but my experience with some of my other female acquaintances gave me some vague idea.
This was a good example of dedicated roleplaying and character design. Raven was NOT min/maxed, or else I wouldn’t have given her a 16 Charisma. As everyone knows, Charisma is the “dump stat” for fighters, rogues and the like, but I had a character who was a professional performer and also lurked in the night, sneaking about in form-fitting black leather, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Power gamers might turn their noses up at my faggy “roleplaying” and tell me how much ass their 18 Strength, 4 Charisma fighter kicks, but let’s see that guy hold an audience spellbound with the exotic Dance of the Prowling Tiger…
Anyway, I digress. I am blessed by friends who are excellent game masters. Dale ran one of the best games I’ve ever played in, though he himself was overly self-critical and occasionally got unnecessarily flustered. For my part I’m a pretty mellow roleplayer and don’t worry too much about the rules unless they’re really being used to screw me, so I didn’t get into too many discussions, and if I noted a bad ruling from Dale or someone else I didn’t mention it until much later, after the game had ended. Like so many of us, Dale doesn’t always acknowledge or accept his own strengths, but I think after we all hammered him on what a great campaign he had run, some of it might finally have sunk in.
My friends had been in long-term roleplaying campaigns for a while. They were just reaching the climax of a long, long Hero System campaign in which the PCs actually got to take on the gods for control of their game world (damn, how I wanted to run a campaign that was that long and that satisfying…) and Dale had just finished running a highly successful GURPS Black Ops game (mostly while I was in the midst of divorce and hiding in LA, so I didn’t get to play, but got lots of cool after-action reports). I on the other hand, despite my impressive resume of professional gaming credits and a couple of decades of gaming, still felt slightly out of my depth and not sure of myself.
That ended pretty quickly as my fellows embraced the roleplaying experience. They all had their agendas and personalities. Vic’s character had the lowest overall stats (though he was still pretty tough), and had relatives all over town whom he could turn to for help. Devin became the magic item crafter and wheeler-dealer. Brian’s wife Rachel played Simoleon, brother to Brian’s character, Geadas. For his part, Geadas developed a huge crush on Raven (another one of those ticklish roleplaying situations), and I decided that she treated him like many women in my life have treated me — with arm’s length friendship interrupted occasionally by sex, and followed by a return to normal “you’re like a brother to me” intimacy. Needless to say, Geadas lived in a perpetual state of frustration.
It’s been a few years now so I don’t remember a lot of the plotlines. I remember that Dale, like every good GM, made sure that characters got the spotlight periodically. Raven, for example, was an agnostic (possibly atheist) in a world where the gods were quite real and even showed up now and then. The goddess of rogues took an interest in Raven, wanting her as a chief worshiper and figuring “Hey, if I can convert this bitch, I’m doing okay,” but Raven resisted, and the interplay between the two made for some very interesting sessions. Mind you, if this had happened in Thystra, Raven and said goddess would have had sex eventually, but Dale’s style was a bit more reserved than that.
I did take to d20 pretty readily, and I like to think that I’m fairly familiar with the system (the occasional misreading notwithstanding). Raven evolved into a pretty rad character, with high Charisma, excellent Perform (dance) skills (another one of those “wasted” skills that have nothing to do with kicking ass and getting XPs), deadly in combat and an excellent rogue/thief type. She located a magical rapier whose powers she had begun to explore by the end of the campaign, and excelled in two-weapon fighting, using the magic rapier alongside her personal masterwork blade “Ravensclaw.” My only regret was that the campaign petered out (as so many do) just before she was due to get the Whirlwind Attack feat, which would have made her freakin’ awesome.
(I also noted that when WotC released the mistimed “D20 3.5″ edition, the superfluous “gateway” Ambidextrous feat was removed, which would have allowed her to get Whirlwind Attack sooner, and would have made her so awesomely cool… My character in the current Pathfinder campaign is something of a Raven retcon, using the same backstory and character build… Oh, Jesus. I’m going all D&D fanboy. Sorry.)
As I said, the campaign kind of died off, despite the fact that everyone enjoyed it. Dale flirted with bringing it back, but I think that he found the larger group too unwieldy. He later was to run a short Stargate campaign and a likewise short Blue Rose game with smaller groups. We haven’t yet returned to the City, and may never do so, but it continues to stand as an example of how flexible and varied the d20 system can be.
I’ve previously noted how grateful I am that I know good GMs. Dale is one, Vic is another (and there are still others like Devin whom I haven’t actually gamed with yet, but whom I know by reputation). Vic’s skills were very much on display when he proposed a new campaign using WotC’s new Star Wars D20 system. I was happy to play, though I’ve always shied away from playing in licensed settings — one player’s encyclopedic knowledge of the setting often trumps another’s skill at roleplaying. That the campaign evolved so dramatically is testimony to Victor’s unparalleled gamemastering abilities.
We were going to be “regular” Star Wars characters. No Jedi, no force, no rebel commanders. We’d interact with the “main” characters and find our own way, and the events of Episodes IV, V and VI would be going on as a backdrop to our own adventures. I played a Rhodian rogue and wanna-be bounty hunter named Rydu, while Dale and Leann played married couple Glin and Jade Lokin. Three PCs. That was it. And what a ride it proved to be.
The campaign was split into two segments, each about one year long. In the initial campaign, we went from a gang of would-be criminals and wheeler-dealers to seasoned adventurers who finally realized that the Empire was hopelessly corrupt, and that the only route to ultimate survival lay through the Rebellion. Our criminal ambitions were dashed when the Hutts backstabbed us and proved that crime doesn’t pay — the first part of the campaign ended with our smuggler (same model as the Millennium Falcon, natch) swooping down and blasting the evil Hutt crime boss Tarfu with turbo lasers (messy, but satisfying), and us flying off to join the rebellion.
There were simply too many good parts of the campaign to really relate the whole thing — it was one of those campaigns that truly would have made a great series of novels. We encountered Glin’s double who was a force-using crook, helped a Gungan Jedi (no, really — a Gungan Jedi — and he talked normally, too) escape from the Empire, crossed paths with the regular Star Wars iconic characters, and were conned by my character’s hero, the bounty hunter Bleedo, who was so famous that a trivid series dramatizing his adventures was actually produced. When the criminal syndicate blew up our old freighter, we stole the stealth-smuggler Jade Zephyr out from under their noses. We attracted a gungan sidekick named Bin-Bin (other options were “Box-Box”, “Can-Can” and “Barrel-Barrel” — from the traditional Gungan “Container-Container” naming conventions) who died tragically while saving us from enemies… Or so we thought…
In this case, familiarity with the Star Wars setting was a real liberator. We knew that Vader was bad news. My character thought Luke Skywalker was a jumped-up farm boy with delusions of grandeur — when he heard that Skywalker destroyed the Death Star, Rydu began grumbling about hayseed backwater hicks who made lucky shots and got all the credit. We turned down a Spice run for Jabba the Hutt, only to have some upstart named Han Solo take it instead (heh-heh…). It was all Star Wars Fanboy heaven, definitely.
It was the only time I’d played a character from the ground up. We started as first level, and ended up at 18th. The ending was as epic as such a campaign should be — with Jade and Rydu lying wounded, facing the renegade force-user who wanted to steal the Emperor’s collection of Sith lore and refound the Sith dynasty — Glin took one last, desperate blaster shot, Dale rolled the die…
And yup, it came up 20. And he confirmed. The very last shot of the campaign took down one of the galaxy’s greatest villains (in our version of the setting anyway), and we didn’t have to fudge anything. Battered and wounded, our heroes emerged triumphant as heroes of the New Republic, ready to fight evil and darkness wherever it rose. Needless to say, we ended the campaign there, because we all agreed that the Yuzhan Vong were really stupid and none of us really wanted to fight them.
Nevertheless, it was the best campaign I’d ever played in. The force was with us and Vic, lemme tell ya. A later attempt to duplicate its success ended in what I consider to be another huge fiasco, but I think I’m going to focus on the good times…
During a hiatus in the Star Wars saga Vic ran a Mutants and Masterminds campaign, using Green Ronin’s streamlined system that started with Blue Rose and would eventually evolve into the current True20 game. Here was an interesting animal that pointed up some common concerns about superhero roleplaying.
First, a points-based system like M&M in which characters are built using specific powers and abilities can be iffy from a player’s standpoint. I’ve played a couple of superhero games (including a short Champions game run by Dale many moons ago) and in both cases I ran into the same problem — I designed what I thought would be a cool character, but until I actually ran him I didn’t know what to expect. In both cases my cool character came across as kind of lame, and his awesome abilities were actually somewhat weenie.
(I would use this as an argument for having GMs allow character tweaking in point-based systems like Champions and M&M, since the abilities and limitations of the character aren’t as obvious as they are in straight D20, GURPS or other rpgs, but that’s probably another argument.)
So there I was with an insubstantial-type character (The Wraith) with powers somewhat akin to Shadowcat from X-Men, but discovered that I was all but useless in combat. And every session ended with a massive combat showdown with the bad guys — after all, it was a superheroes campaign. I usually managed to get a hit or two in, but the other guys got all the glory in terms of combat, which was what the game was normally all about.
So what redeemed the M&M campaign for me? Again, an example of how good GMing can make or break a game. You see, in addition to the combat, Vic went out of his way to give everyone B-plots, i.e. background and personal adventures that they had to contend with in addition to all the damnable supervillains. Dale’s braniac psychic character had a large, extensive family that included a former Blaxploitation star who looked and acted a lot like Pam Grier. Rhia’s flying energy projector heroine had to deal with the attentions of the evil Japanese Doc Otaku, who plagued us with robots in the form of hot teenagers in Japanese schoolgirl outfits, and who wanted to abduct Rhia’s character to his secret “love hotel.” Other players had similar issues and problems, and I always enjoyed the roleplaying aspects more than the combat sequences.
My own subplot was actually a fave of the other players as well. My character was a wunderkind honors student, son of a prominent used car dealer, with a jock brother who was the apple of mom and dad’s eye. That their son turned out to be a superhero was kind of an embarrassment to dad, who was more noted for his loud sport coats than for his fatherly qualities. My character’s brother Biff was the guy who was supposed to succeed, and as my character watched, he slowly spiraled into alcoholism and failure. The Wraith’s dealings with his family were alternately poignant, embarrassing and funny, and in the course of the campaign — of course — he never did win father’s approval or reform his brother.
An odd animal indeed. The game ran into scheduling problems, and Vic threw a curveball at both my and Rhia’s characters when they accidentally killed a couple of villains’ mooks. I decided to deal with it in comic book fashion — i.e. brood about it for an issue or two, then decide that it was a terrible accident and that Wraith had learned from it, and would be more respectful of human life, even villains’, in the future. Short and sweet. Poor Rhia, who takes her roleplaying very seriously, suffered quite a bit and her character started going slightly psycho — this may have made for some interesting sessions, but things ended before that. It was another notable campaign that we all enjoyed and would not mind seeing return someday.
During my involvement with the development of the Scarred Lands setting I began to run a campaign with Vic, Leann, Dale and Rhia that was set in Serpent Hill, a small village on the edge of the Hornsaw Forest. The scene of an ancient battle between the evil titan Mormo and the Gods, the place was a hotbed of intrigue and weirdness. Out in the forest, an ancient evil stirred while the lost tribe of wild elves who had once lived in the region lingered on, their spirits bound to the land itself. The evil king of Calastia sought to claim the region for his own, and also to further the aims of his wife, the even still more eviller Queen Geleeda. The PCs were sent there to claim an old and almost forgotten inheritance as nobles of the region, and encountered both the ancient evil of Mormo and her servants, and the beleaguered forces of good that included an exiled elven druidess, a wild elf ranger, the local constables and priestess, and — surprisingly — an ally in the form of a lawful evil agent of Calastia, who revealed himself in the climactic battle with the Titans’ minions.
My Scarred Lands campaign was the one game that I had run up to that point in which everything fit together and clicked. The PCs got along, their goals were unified, there was excellent roleplaying, there were surprises, there was horror, humor, violence, tragedy and triumph. The first portion of the campaign ended with a massive battle between the townsfolk and the PCs on one side and the titanic hordes of the forest on the other. With the intervention of the gods, our heroes sent the enemy fleeing and “good” triumphed. Unfortunately Calastia used the propaganda victory to move in, ostensibly to aid the unfortunate townsfolk, and just incidentally install a governor and a garrison.
When civil war broke out in Calastia between the forces of the queen and those still loyal to the king, it spread to Serpent Hill, forcing the heroes to flee across the wilderness, to take refuge in the necromancers’ city of Hollowfaust.
And, unfortunately, there it ended. I wanted to pick it up again later, but most felt that too much time had passed. My d20 Modern game had started, and my own family situation had fragmented so badly that I couldn’t do more than one game at a time, and that one a chore at best.
I almost find it difficult to write about the SL campaign, due to its lost potential and the exciting direction that it had moved in. I had visions of an epic climax like the battle scenes in wuxia flicks like “Hero” in which the PCs aided the gods against the resurgent titans and saved the world, but it was not to be. I still lament the passing of the Scarred Lands, in both the world of D20 and in my own gaming life. A pity, truly.
Another strange experience was my d20 Modern campaign. It started positively, with high hopes and excellent prospects but ended early, a casualty of my own problems at home and other, less tangible issues. The campaign may be over now but, unlike the SL, the Shepherds WILL return some day and this time I’ll do it right.
I started with what I thought was a pretty innovative idea. The PCS — a daredevil Xtreme sports guy Skyler, his brother Christian (a Catholic divinity student — who’d have thunk it?), law student Connie and young business major Mick — encountered a horrifying situation in which a close friend was possessed by a murderous demonic entity. They aided the cops in bringing him down, but were aware that they had faced something supernatural.
Five years passed, and all the PCs were now fifth level. Mick had made a tidy amount before the dot-com crash, Connie was a Portland police officer, and Chris had earned his collar and was serving the church as a priest. Of the group, Skyler remained a bit rootless, but upon meeting his old girlfriend events were set in motion. Her best friend had disappeared, and claimed that evil things had happened to the benign Shepherd Foundation, once a charitable organization devoted to aiding homeless youth.
Working together, the PCs uncovered an occult conspiracy run by the head of the foundation, a conspiracy dedicated to gaining longevity and the powers of demons, leading (naturally) to world domination. After foiling the conspiracy’s leader, the president of the Shepherd Foundation, the PCs found themselves in control of the foundation, and now dedicated to hunting down the cult, and also saving the world from various powers of darkness.
Hell, I still think it was a cool concept. The initial sessions went well, but real life threw me some more curve balls in the form of some very bad problems at work and worse problems at home, my imagination failed and the adventures suffered for it. The group helped defeat an attempt to summon the old gods and destroy New York, fought an evil family of hicks and a vampire on the way home, stole a mystical gem from said vampire, had the gem stolen by the demon cult on their return and were forced into an alternate universe where the vamps and the demon worshipers were fighting for dominance.
By this time both Rhia and Vic were beginning to see shortcomings in their characters, so we switched. Rhia’s sorceress/punk rock chick stayed behind in the alternate universe to fight for truth and justice, while Mick took some wounds and retired. They were replaced by new characters and we ran two more sessions, but the campaign didn’t last much longer. I realized that I’d strayed from my original plotline, and figured I’d get us back on track, resolve the initial conflict and then wrap the campaign up. It was a difficult decision since it had been a campaign I’d wanted to do for a long time, but personal pressures put me in a position where I really didn’t feel I could continue.
So the PCs, including Rhia and Vic’s newly-minted characters, helped to heal the rift in time and space, reunited the two alternate timelines, and continued on with their adventures — Rhia’s character, now a powerful arcanist, survived in the reunified world, and the friend who had perished in the prolog five years previously never actually died. Happy ending, but the world is still full of evil, so the fight goes on.
It was okay. Ending a campaign prematurely was preferable to simply having it die on the vine, like my Scarred Lands game, but I still feel some regret that things didn’t work out quite the way that I’d wanted. Some folks complained that the d20 Modern system was overly bland and the character classes didn’t really excite them too much. I’m actually thinking of going MORE generic if I restart the campaign and rechristening it using Green Ronin’s True20 system, but time will tell.
Chicago by Night
Yes, it’s the title of a World of Darkness supplement, but in our case it was a campaign run by Vic and based upon Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels (and years ahead of the current Dresden Files rpg). Once more it was myself, Dale and Leann, as the members of the Millennium Detective Agency, run by playboy and man-about-town Monty McGill, with his partners, Dale’s Octagonal Order wizard and LeeAnn’s living vampire. As I hadn’t read any Harry Dresden I didn’t know which elements were lifted from the novels and which weren’t, but that didn’t really matter. Once more Vic’s GM skills shone and we had a great time.
Interestingly enough, we used the Mutants and Masterminds rules for low-powered superheroes, and Vic generated the characters for us initially. We ended up caught in the big conflict between the Black and Red vampire courts and the Summer and Winter Courts of faerie, with interference from the Chicago PD, the Octagonal and the occasional renegade demon or wizard thrown in. It was a blast, actually, and Vic did his usual good job of thinking on his feet while developing complex mystery plots on the fly. I doubt I’d be able to do anything similar.
The game lasted about a year and a half, usually involving single-session mysteries with the entire vamp/fae plot hovering over our heads the entire time. In the end we made peace between the warring factions and presumably went on to continue solving occult mysteries in the wilds of Chicago. We ended this campaign as well to move on to a more traditional D&D campaign.
Sunlight and Shadow (2006-present)
Something happened around 2006-2007. I’m not entirely sure what it was. Maybe part of me finally grew up after years of stupid, pointless, self-destructive behavior. Maybe I was just tired of my life running in circles. Maybe it was the fact that my relationship with my daughter finally settled down and turned into something that we’re both proud of. Or I finally got sick of being unlucky in love and decided to do something about it. Or it was discovering music, or getting back to writing fiction regularly. I don’t know. Whatever it was, I felt like I’d finally stepped out of long shadows. And despite reverses and frustrations, I’m still there.
Gaming has continued pretty much continuously ever since, and life definitely has improved. Our campaigns have had varying degrees of success — I ran two short pulp campaigns, one called “Dark Empire” utilizing Adamant Entertainment’s Thrilling Tales rules, with Dale as a rocket-pack wearing scientist, LeAnn as an ace reporter and Vic as a mysterious masked crimefighter. The second was an attempt at what is now called “planetary romance” in the Burroughs/Dray Prescott mold, and was titled Overlords of Zaraan, with the usual cast of gaming suspects playing Victorian travelers accidentally transported to a strange and wondrous alien world and helping the populace overthrow the titular overlords.
I also ran a successful three-year D20 campaign (actually the swan-song of D&D 3E/3.5E since 4E reared its ugly head while we were in the middle of the game) titled The Viridian Legacy, and included Brian, Rachel, our friend Dan, and friend Teverant, whom I met during the LA fiasco and has unaccountably stuck with me ever since, to the point that he now plays drums in my band.
The Legacy utilized the old Judges Guild Wilderlands setting, updated by Necromancer Games, as well as the classic and hoary City State of the Invincible Overlord (absent the tables that determine a woman’s hair color and measurements of course). The characters were plunged into a war between the evil Viridian emperor and the slightly-less evil Invincible Overlord, and ended up defeating them both and becoming themselves the new leaders of a reunited continent. It’s the first and only time I’ve actually overseen characters from start to finish, beginning at 1st level and ending up at 17th or 18th or so.
High points included Dan’s gods-damned gnomish beguiler taking mental control of every nasty monster I threw at him and turning them on the bad guys, an extended flashback in which the PCs played heroes of 1,000 years previously, and the memorable scene in which Dan’s gnome, mounted on a griffon, bursts out of the guts of a raging red dragon, sword in one hand, and magical gemstone in the other in what Dale described as “the most awesome heavy metal album cover ever.”
I loved running the game, though my damned schedule made it slightly irregular, and there were a couple of hiatuses, but we did indeed bring the thing to a suitably epic conclusion. My chief regret is that the climatic sessions were nowhere near as cool and brutal (in the Metalocalypse sense) as they should have been and I wish that I had given more individuals the spotlight in the final battle. Well, I’ll take that as a lesson for the future.
Dale is running a wild west campaign inspired somewhat by Deadwood and set in the small town of Redemption, using the simple-but-flexible Coyote Trail rules from Precis Intermedia. My aging, tubercular and alcoholic but honorable town marshal has been framed for murder and who knows how that’s going to end. I played in my friend Travis’ 4E campaign long enough to realize that the changes that they made to D20 simply don’t work for me and never will. Travis is currently running the Shackled City adventure path for Pathfinder and I’ve slightly retconned Raven from Dale’s old “City” campaign. She’s even more kickass in Pathfinder.
As for Pathfinder, I’m just starting to run EnWorld’s Zeitgeist campaign with a familiar crew — Dale, Rhia, Teverant, my old friend and gaming buddy Lev and my girlfriend (the one I’m keeping this time) Beth. This particular campaign is being published serially on the Enworld.org site and looks to be one of the most mature, intelligent, complex and (wait for it) philosophical rpg series I have ever read. I’ll be chronicling it here on my blog, so keep an eye out.
(BTW, I’m not going to go too much into my personal life here, but when I mention Beth keep in mind she’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and this time I’m sticking around for the duration.)
I’ve even written a couple of pieces of Pathfinder, and I’m definitely hoping for more, but in the meantime I’ve written three novels in four years and I’m working on a fourth, I’ve started a band called Megatherium with Tev and Rhia and Rhia’s boyfriend Daniel, I’ve gotten my old Wulf stories up at Smashwords, I’ve started this blog and will be relaunching the Wulf site again soon…
I’m not done with gaming, not by a longshot. I’ll still be rolling d20s when they nail the coffin shut. I’m signed up for the new D&D playtest. I’ve run some games with Travis and Beth and their friends using the new Hunter: The Vigil rules, and I’ll be doing a new Cthulhu mini-campaign with them as well. I want to keep writing for Pathfinder and I’m hoping to work on the Song of Ice and Fire rpg. Beth and I go to Gencon every year.
My problem is that I’ve got too many ideas and not enough time. I’m willing to play in just about anything — if Dale wants to run (as he has in the past) a Risus campaign that features superheroes seeking ingredients for the Iron Chef show I’m game.
I am always game. And this time I’m staying in the light.
Completing this far-from-exhaustive overview of my life in roleplaying, I can now see what a huge part it’s played for me. I guess it’s okay — I’m not like the stereotypical game geek portrayed in Knights of the Dinner Table, or Gamers — a lifeless social reject living in his parents’ basement and using D&D and computers as a substitute for sex. I’m a professional and a father, and if gaming defines me, then so be it. There are worse things to be defined by.
I even manage to make part of my living in the industry that I enjoy so much, though the vaster proportion of my income is derived from those damned humming boxes with the lights on the front. I’m still looking for the gaming groupies who will share their passions with me because I used to write for White Wolf or have my name on a current WotC product (and I am talking about the FEMALE variety of gaming groupies here, people — preferably the sad-eyed neogoth type, but I’m not particular), but I guess if they don’t ever show up it’s okay by me. I made most of my friends through gaming, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, and with Devon’s help I’m unleashing the next generation of gamers on the world. Good luck dealing with them — you’ll need it.