Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons (And Me): Part Four

Fourth Edition Is Here, Everybody Cheer  I Need A Beer
Although I have no hard evidence to back this up, anecdotal evidence seems to imply that D&D Fourth Edition (or D&D 4E for short) was without a doubt the most divisive version of the game ever put out. Gamers as a whole are resistant to change, but this one really polarized players. Some loved it; many hated it.

Gamers express polite displeasure at 4th Edition.
What most people seem to agree on is that Wizards came out with 4E in order to lure in the World of Warcraft crowd. Rules were streamlined, things were dropped out, new destructive abilities were dished out, making for a game that was actually a very good miniatures system; but the soul of the game had been gutted. It was the gaming equivalent of the Dawn of the Dead remake: a good product, but it failed to capture the essence of the original and what made the original so great.

So, in essence, Wizards was taking a gamble here by trying to appeal to the people who had dismissed paper and dice role-playing games in favor of online gaming, while simultaneously alienating the loyal RPG fan base. People like yours truly.

Pathfinder To The Rescue
Wizards took D&D 3.0/3.5 and made it an Open Gaming License. Paizo Publishing, which if you remember took over Dungeon and Dragon magazines, took the rules system, really cleaned it up nicely, added some of their own touches, and released it as Pathfinder.

Now, this little bit here is not opinion: Pathfinder eventually ended up dominating D&D 4E sales-wise. One may possibly infer from this that Pathfinder was more like Dungeons and Dragons than Dungeons and Dragons itself was.

The Return Of Hawkhaven
In the past, it's been customary for TSR/Wizards to shake up the Forgotten Realms every time a new version of D&D comes out. I got my hands on the Forgotten Realms for 4E and eagerly looked to see what changes they had done. After the screaming stopped, I concluded that they had gone too far, changed too much, and that many of the changes quite frankly stank out loud.

We had already decided to jump to Pathfinder, while still holding on to some concepts from D&D 3.5. But what to do about the campaign world? I know we could have kept the old Forgotten Realms, but there's something about gaming in a "current" setting that just makes you feel more a part of the overall game; it's hard to explain. But the changes had me too pissed to want to stick with the Realms.

"This is crap," I muttered. "Hell, I could put together a better setting than this!"

At this point, choose the revelation bit that suits you best:

1. The sound of a needle scratching across a record while I look up with wide-eyed realization.
2. Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder saying "Hang on.....!"
3. Groo from Despicable Me saying "Light buuuuulb!"

Not only could I put together a better setting, I had done so already! I dashed downstairs to the cellar, past the laundry stuff, the haunt props, and the collection of litter boxes known as Cat Poop Alley, to the back of the cellar, where all of my gaming stuff lay in boxes and plastic storage tubs. All of it. As in, 32 years' worth.

Hey! Leave us out of this!
We're talking every edition of D&D (except 4th), scads of other gaming systems, a briefcase with every character sheet from the late 70's to mid 80's, even the people who were one-shot players, and also my big collection of lead gaming miniatures (please, no one call the EPA, ok?). And one other box: Hawkhaven. All of the gaming material. The old dungeons, the old timelines, the non-player characters, everything. Well, except for the big map I used to have (and of course the one thing I really wanted above all else!). But no worries, I could reconstruct it from memory! It was only about 30 years ago, right? I got this!

After I got the material together I brought it upstairs and began working like a man insane. OK, well, maybe I'm insane anyway, but whatever. Since I had learned so much in the decades since I last ran my old campaign, I had to retool it and change a lot of things. Added a lot of things, too! I winced as I read some of the stuff I had actually presented with a straight face 35 years ago. I toned things down, but also added some stuff that should have always been there.

One of the big things that definitely needed changing was the timeline. I wanted to avoid the possibility of any of our veteran players wanting to play their old AD&D characters, once converted to Pathfinder of course So I pushed the timeline a bit; like over 2,000 years! All the old characters, all of their strongholds and castles, all of it, is gone. The old empire that had been created at that time of our first campaign as a beacon of good and law had collapsed centuries ago. Some of the old characters' names and deeds live on in what's now legends and outright myths. Most, however, have been forgotten.

This was the tabula rasa that I used to bring in a new group into what I like to call Hawkhaven 2.0. And on May 1, 2010, we began that new campaign. Hawkhaven was reborn!!

Our Group Today
Some of our gamers. My two sons are the first and second
guys on the left, back row. Yours truly has the rule book.
The group today consists of a roster of fourteen players, not counting Yours Truly. Not all of them show up at the same time, thanks to real-life obligations, so we usually average about two-thirds attendance. It works perfectly. The group is made up of Carol and my two sons (both daughters have bowed out, though our youngest, Rhiannon's, boyfriend is intrigued about D&D and wants to learn more; mwahaha), a bunch of veterans of past games, at least one player from The Beginning, a returned player from the Second Schism, and two friends who we met and got to know from our haunter hobby. It's quite a cross-section of people, and the variety makes it all the more fun. All ages, all walks of life.

Of course, everyday obligations have cut into playing time, and scheduling an every other week game was proving to be problematic. Carol suggested that we choose just one Saturday a month, but make it an all-day affair. Play from one in the afternoon till about nine or ten PM. When you get right down to it, that's about two sessions worth of net playing time.
Another one, this time with my Better Half, holding
the Necronomicon

And so, that's what we do. People bring munchies and beer, and they can come over as early as an hour before and hang out, work on characters, or just schmooze. We start at one (more or less), play till about six, order out for food and take about a half hour break, then resume till anywhere from 930 to 1000.

We're on our third batch of Hawkhaven characters. Traditionally, we play one campaign for about a year, maybe a little more, then create a new group of characters in the same setting, but a different locale, and do another adventure. After all, when the characters get too powerful, things lose a little of the tension and thrill of danger. Then, every so often, taking a page from what I used to do with the old Forgotten Realms campaigns, I have a Great Crisis that lets people each select one character from the various campaigns we've played thus far and play them in a combined adventure.

People from the Old Days coming into our campaign would still recognize a lot of what we do. A lot of terms like Initiative, Critical Hit, Fumble, all of that is still there. There's just a better D&D in place now, with rules that cover actions that were not allowed in the past because there was no way to adjudicate them (e/g/ "What do you mean I can't take a swing at that bad guy who's walking right by me? So what if I already took my turn!? HE'S RIGHT THERE!"). People can still have their characters select God as their deity; I simply pulled a Narnia and changed His name on this world to Adonai, the big Kahuna of Lawful Good gods.

Oh, yeah...and there's also cats. And definitely more beer.

As for the old characters, yes, they're all dead and gone, but Easter eggs abound. One of the Kevins in our group, the friend who married Carol and I, played Nahac, a Gnome in the bad old days, and that character is now revered as a Gnomish folk hero among the race, a sort of Gnomish George Washington. Another friend, also called Kevin, played a character called Kedar, one of the most enduring (and frustrating) anti-heroes in the old campaign. Nowadays, he's morphed into a almost-immortal Tiefling (part human, part evil outsider), and still exists on a layer of Hell, having carved out his own little fiefdom. We even had a character ascend to sainthood. Hooday, an annoying gnome with a blue mohawk and a hideous laugh, is the only known Gnomish saint. Here is the player who played him. A classic case of D&Der makes good, goes to Hollywood and becomes a writer and producer.

Last year, the players actually stumbled upon the ruins of Manderley, the stronghold of Toriane and Aragorn, two characters from that very first group of five players I ran back in the late 70's. Yes, Manderley, as in from "Rebecca". And did I happen to mention that our old campaign also had a Castle Roogna, and a kingdom of Leah? Had. Past tense. All gone now.

And as for that character of mine, Noro, the elvish tavern boy who became my first adventuring character, well, he survived all of the dungeons and indignities that insane DMs like Joe could throw at him, and in the waning days of the old Hawkhaven campaign, he organized all of the elves in the general campaign area, and led them on a westward march to set up a forest kingdom, away from the eyes of so-called humanity (yeah, ok, I was heavily under the influence of Tolkien). Twenty-three centuries later, the now old elf stepped down from his throne in favor of his grandson and, with a final wave and a wink, wandered off along with his faithful black cat familiar into the deepest forests of the elvish kingdom of Hanael to his final, ultimate rest.

At least, that's what the stories say. No bodies have ever been found... Kind of makes one wonder.

Conventional Thinking, Part 2
Sometimes, Carol runs Gaslight Cthulhu
A bunch of players in my group and I attended ConnCon (held, appropriately enough, in Connecticut. Duh) for many years. I stopped going after 2000, having lost interest in it. I haven't been to GenCon since it moved to Indianapolis, and have vowed to make it out there at least once, provided I get the time and money together, and am sure that my immediate reaction to every setback there won't be "It was better in Milwaukee". Hey, I'm aware of my limitations, you know?

These days, the only gaming convention I do is OGC, held in Nashua itself in the middle of the summer. Every year, in my role as de facto special guest, I run multiple rounds of classic 1920's Call of Cthulhu. I also do my yearly skewering of modern culture by running multiple rounds of Paranoia, wherein I put my players through the wringer, including making them stand in a chorus line and sing show tunes.
Attention, Citizen! You are about to play Paranoia!
Please check your dignity at the door! Thank you!

The Future of D&D
This is all speculation, but here's what my gamer and marketing instincts tell me regarding the upcoming new system. Thanks to 4E, Wizards lost a lot of people to either Pathfinder or even to retro version gaming. D & D Next, aka 5th Edition, aka D&D: The Apology, is supposed to be an amalgam of everything awesome from the first four versions.

Problem is, and I'm really trying to be objective about this, who determines "awesome"? Oh, wait. They're depending on feedback from the gaming public. Because all gamers agree on what's awesome, right? Right?

I don't know. It may work. But I see the law of decreased marginal utility kicking in, or perhaps the law of diminishing returns. One of those, anyway. Every successive version of the game released results in fewer people playing it because there is a greater number of previous versions they can cling to. In other words, while I see D&D Next definitely doing better than 4E, I think the damage has already been done. And do people really want to sink more money into yet another version?

Throw in there the continued success of Pathfinder, the proliferation of third party companies, the way the
Internet and social media make it easy to create and release new original material, and I forecast doom for the corporate approach to D&D.

Wouldn't it be a riot if someday D&D went back to its roots, a game put out by a small group of dedicated people operating out of someone's house? Would that really be so bad?

The Future Of Me
What can I say? Life is good. We game once a month, and things are great. I freelance still, but not in the gaming world (hint: the real world pays WAY better than the gaming industry). I have a "regular" job as an editor in a non-gaming field. Carol and I are thick as thieves. Rhiannon, the youngest, lives with us. The other three, Adrienne, John, and Chris are now in various stages of living adult lives. My ex and I have a good relationship as well, and she comes up for some of our parties and sometimes for Thanksgiving. She and Carol have always gotten along, and it's nice that we can all get together every so often as one big, strange, House of Terra family unit.

Some church-going folk are still convinced that D&D
is the Devil's screwdriver, or something like that
And although my experiences with churches have left me still quite gun-shy, I know it's not an "if" but rather a "when" we return to one. It's just a matter of finding a church that won't string us up for enjoying gaming, horror movies, and Halloween. In the meantime, my faith has healed up nicely, though my dogma no longer leans to the conservative side; more like moderation, with a healthy dose of "Hey, maybe people out there should just mind their own damn business and tend to their own lives." Yeah, a radical concept, I know.

Will I keep gaming? Sure, why not? I recall, back in Seekers, an exasperated critic of role-playing asking me "What will you do when you're 50!?" My reply was something along the lines of "I'll be 30 years older than I am now, and still playing D&D!" God willing, I have a few more decades of this.

Decades. Man, that's mind-boggling with a side order of awesome. I think one of the reasons I put this blog series together, other than being inspired by the 40th anniversary of D&D, was indirectly a way to sort of take stock of where I've come from and where I am, and plot out what I hope is the second half, the second round, of the adventure.

Sure, my zeal for the game has moderated somewhat, and I'm into a lot of other stuff as well, but gaming is still my number one pastime. Some people may look askance at that, but let me tell you: I've also been running since 1980 (and boy are my legs tired! Ba-doom!), and yet no one considers it strange. So why should gaming be any different?

And when the Ultimate DM decides that I failed my Fortitude save for the last time, well, it will have been a good run. Will any of my kids follow in my footsteps and be a DM? Hard to tell. I do know that my younger son, Chris, has begun running some of his friends at UMass through some Pathfinder stuff, and used some maps copied from Hawkhaven as a setting. Hmm, a bunch of college kids getting together to roll dice and play role-playing games. Where have I heard THAT one before? So yeah, there's hope that it won't end with me, after all.

Do you know the one thing I'd love to see happen gaming-wise before I go? I'd LOVE to see a huge game, where the current group of gamers meets a collection of some of the more notable veterans of yesteryear for a Great Crisis to end all Great Crises. Sure, it'd be disorganized and chaotic (not to mention freaking crowded!) and who knows how much we'd really get done. But wow. The role-playing opportunities alone would make it worth it. Of course, since both groups are separated by several millennia, there'd have to be some plot device that somehow spans the years and brings them together, some wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey string pulling.

What Have I Learned From D&D So Far?
When you defend D&D as often enough as I have, you practically memorize the litany of benefits of the game: it teaches you math, it encourages reading and fosters comprehension, it exercises your imagination, it builds teamwork. These may sound cliche, but they're all true.

Thanks to D&D, I've been made aware of so many fine fantasy series that I would have otherwise overlooked. Because of the hobby and my role as a freelancer, my writing skills have been sharpened with practice, and by becoming an expert in role-playing, I've also gotten turned on to other aspects of the geek sub-culture. Thanks to the game, I got my foot in the door to become a published author and freelancer.

As a Dungeon Master, my skills at organization and planning have increased, and when I create a dungeon, my ability to anticipate what others may do has subsequently been sharpened.

And sometimes, those friends fly in from Australia
for a pint at the Peddler's Daughter
Thanks to D&D, I've met some absolutely amazing people, many who've gone from simply being players to becoming friends. And thanks to social media, I can actually stay in contact with them.

I met the love of my life thanks to this crazy game. And the game helped me forge some real strong enduring bonds with all four of my kids. Those two reasons alone make all of the hassles, all of the pains, all of the arguments, disappointments and grudges, more than well worth it.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Although my games are not morally preachy, there's little surprise in seeing that many of my adventures do turn out to be little morality plays, with good rising up to fight evil. I've learned that being good is not simply the absence of evil, but rather means actively going out there and standing up for what is right, for helping people, for resisting greed and corruption. D&D has shown me that it's possible to take a stand against wrong, and fight back, and with trustworthy dedicated friends working with you, it's a struggle you don't have to engage in alone. And although there's no guarantee that you will win every time, there's always hope, a fighting chance.

To me, D&D is the perfect place to illustrate the Edmund Burke quote: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Sure, not everyone plays a squeaky clean character, nor should they; it would get boring. A little mischief, a little chaos, can be refreshing. But when you get a group of people together who have different ideas on what to do and how to do it, and yet get them to move as one, that's an accomplishment worth being proud of.

I've also learned that some of the sweetest victories aren't the ones won by the sword, but by words. After all, it's far better to reform an enemy into a friend than to simply destroy him.

One of the most asked questions by people who have little to no idea about the game is, "How do you win?" You don't win. Its an ongoing struggle, filled with victories and setbacks. Just like life. And the decisions you make, the actions you take, have repercussions later down the road. You fight, you triumph, you become stronger through your victory, then you roll up your sleeves and get ready for the next challenge. Or if you lose, you learn from your mistakes, get up off the ground, brush yourself off, and try again.

All the while, you work to improve yourself, to become better than you  were the day before. You're always striving to be stronger, wiser, more capable. And even if you come up short sometimes, it's the effort that exalts you.

And, of course, D&D has shown me that there's a time and a place for everything, and that includes hefting a tankard of ale in each hand, calmly surveying the tavern brawl in front of you, yelling "Cowabunga!", and jumping head-first into the fray, consequences be damned.

Does it surprise anyone who knows me and plays the game to realize that my favorite class is the Paladin, and my favorite race are Gnomes? No, I didn't think so.

Here's my advice to you, to all of you, whether you play or not. Don't give up on the things that bring you joy simply because others may think you're too old. Keep at it. Cheer like an idiot every time Luke Skywalker gets that one in a million shot on the Death Star. Cry like a baby every time you see the Spock death scene in the real Wrath of Khan movie. Play video games. Play role-playing games. Dress up for Halloween. Dress up for not Halloween. Do the Snoopy dance when you watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Don't let anyone dictate to you how long you should pursue your hobbies, interests, and avocations. The only one fit to make that sort of judgement is YOU.

Be childlike, but not childish. Do right by your loved ones, your country, your faith, and carry out your responsibilities to the best of your abilities. Then have fun. Have a lot of fun. And don't let the miserable people drag you down to their level. Leave the sticks in the mud behind while you rush off to play Kick-the-Can. Cue Rod Serling.

Never consider yourself too old to learn something new, or perhaps revisit an idea that you've rejected before. And by all means, read. Read everything. Read books, game manuals, articles, blogs, cereal boxes, magazines, newspapers. Use your brain, use your imagination.

Yes, that's what D&D has done for and to me. That's what it taught me. May your passion, your mania, do the same for you.

Truer words were never spoken...
Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a few dungeon levels I need to put some finishing touches on. Those player character asses won't kick themselves, despite the amusing visual.

God bless, live long and prosper, and 'till swords part.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons (And Me): Part Three

When we last left our intrepid hero and the hobby as a whole, we were transitioning, more or less, from the Awesome Eighties to the Nihilistic Nineties. Let's get started, shall we?

This is Pauly Shore. He was popular in the 90s. This is
actual evidence that the decade blew.

My Writing Career
Now with two kids under the roof, life at home was getting even more interesting. I was writing for TSR, West End Games, Mayfair Games, FASA, and Flying Buffalo. My freelance work was at an all-time high, and my name was definitely out there in the gaming community.  While I wasn't an A or B lister in the gaming world, I was still a known quantity, and best as I can piece together, had a good, respectable reputation.

As a freelancer and a frequent fixture at GenCon, especially at the RPGA tournaments, I had the pleasure of making friends with a lot of amazing people that I would otherwise never have met. Fortunately, through the miracle (snort!) of Facebook, I'm still in contact with them.

One freelancing high-water mark was being picked to be one of the guests at Gen Con one year, and was included on a panel at a seminar.  I also ended up as a Guest of Honor at Contrary, a local gaming convention in Springfield, Mass. Nowadays, I'm sort of a perpetual featured guest at OGC, another local gaming convention, right here in Nashua. But I have a sense of perspective about the whole thing, and have often compared it to the line from the movie "To Be Or Not To Be", where that great actor Frederick Bronski announces that he's world-famous, in Poland. That's me; world-famous in Poland, and I'm cool with that.

But there was something else that Gen Con brought into my life.

Enter: Carol!
Here's where the RPGA used to have their Gen Con
tournaments, back when the RPGA was awesome.
I had written and ran a Call of Cthulhu scenario entitled "Wild Weekend at Turner Junction" for the RPGA, and ran it at Gen Con 25 in 1992. The scenario was well received, and two people were particularly impressed by it: Carol and her then-boyfriend. They both wanted to meet the author, so an RPGA staff member arranged it and soon I was on the steps of MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center Auditorium), talking with this affable guy and his very bright, knockout girlfriend. Now, I was married at the time, but that didn't stop me from coming to the realization that yes, some extremely stunning women were gamers too.

When I found out that this charming couple (both were knowledgeable about gaming and about Cthulhu in particular) were also from Massachusetts, I invited them into my campaign back home.

As time went on, Carol's boyfriend ended up being a regular, Carol not so much, but I had forged and maintained a friendship with both of them, even after they broke up. Contact with Carol was limited to an occasional phone call, or a chance "Hey how you doing, how's life, okay seeya" run-in at local gaming conventions like ConnCon.

An Empty Chair At The Table
In the early 90's, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of a gamer via this newfangled thing called gaming bulletin boards on something known as the In-ter-net. It was via this online service called GEnie, and you had to plug your computer into a modem, and connect the modem to a phone line, and...well...hey you kids, get off my lawn!

Anyways, I had the pleasure to meet a man named Martin who was a gamer in the Boston area. He joined our gaming group, and he was one of the nicest, most articulate, thoughtful, just all around decent people I had ever met. Unfortunately, one day, he up and moved away. Turns out that he had contracted pneumonia as a result of HIV, and had gone home to his family to die. He passed away in 1994.

Exit TSR, Hello Wizards Of The Coast
In 1996, TSR had been hit hard with some financial setbacks, to the point where they couldn't even pay the company that handled their products' printing and shipping. With no money in reserves, no means of printing more products to generate capital, the company ended up getting sold to Wizards of the Coast, the makers of the Magic: The Gathering card game, in 1997.

Needless to say (but let's say it anyway), freelancing opportunities dried up. In fact, most role-playing game companies were undergoing hard times, and some blame the rise of the collectible card game hobby (as referenced by the aforementioned Magic).

Trivia: I never did end up getting my authors' copies for my last TSR project, Four From Cormyr.

But TSR wasn't the only thing crashing and burning.

The End Of A Marriage
My marriage was over, I had a beard, Chris' sneakers had
Velcro. It was a dark time all around.
For reasons of confidentiality and the fact that it's no one's damn business, I'm not going into the gory details about the collapse of my first marriage. Suffice to say, we married too young and too quickly, and grew into two very different people as time went on, and leave it at that.

After a few stupid actions on my part, I moved out of the house and moved into an apartment in the same town, so I could be close to my kids. You know how people who know both partners in a marriage feel odd when the couple splits up? Well, the gaming group underwent the same awkward transition. Some stayed with the campaign when it resumed after a brief hiatus. Others, feeling like they should be supporting my soon to be ex, stayed away.

My kids stayed over every other weekend, and since the two oldest, Adrienne and John, gamed, they played in my campaign. Chris was still too young, but he enjoyed sitting in the corner and watching, until he gradually nodded off to sleep and I put him to bed. It was something we all liked and had in common, so it helped us to bond more, despite the separation.

Those D&D games with my kids and friends was something that kept me sane and grounded. It was a little bit of the old routine, some normalcy, still in place, and I latched onto that as I struggled to get my head together and figure things out. At the risk of descending into cliche, it was a dark time, but my damaged faith, my kids, and certain of my gaming friends kept me from jumping the rails completely.

Where "Monopoly" Is More Than Just A Game Title
In 1999, game colossus Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast. Inevitably, the changes began. The magazines Dragon, Dungeon, and Polyhedron were sourced out to Paizo Publishing. Gen Con was sold to Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast, and GenCon was moved to Indianapolis in 2003.

Third Edition Comes Out
Wizards of the Coast released D&D version 3.0 in 2000. This was a radical rebuilding of the game. Gone was the venerable acronym THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0). Now, Armor Class was a difficulty number that the attacker had to hit. Now, any race could be any class, all past restrictions were gone, and that included level restrictions. Saving throws were simplified, non-weapon proficiencies went away, replaced by actual skills. Feats, special abilities for player characters, were introduced as well. It was also now easier to multi-class. Even initiative had been cleaned up.

This was the breath of fresh air that D&D needed. Oh yes, that was the other thing: there was no longer Basic and Advanced D&D. It was now just D&D.

Carol Returns
Carol and I began dating in August of 2000, and I invited her into our Forgotten Realms campaign, since after all, she was in fact a gamer, so why not? Unfortunately, this caused another gamer schism, as her ex-boyfriend didn't want to game in the same group, and I was accused of thinking with the "other" head. So he and his girlfriend left, some other folks left as well, and once again, the group seemed dead in the water. And on top of this, Carol and I weren't on speaking terms anymore with her ex and his girlfriend, a girlfriend who actually was an ex girlfriend of mine. Hey, who needs to watch a soap opera when you can live in one?

In retrospect, the schism was inevitable. It was not a happy gaming group by the late 90's. There was a lot of friction between people, and it seemed that every other week I was being told that I had to get rid of one player or another, or else other players were going to walk. The thing that threw me for a loop was, in the 12 years of gaming that I had done up to that point, I had never seen such a profound breakup of a group before. I didn't know then, nor do I know now, if such a thing is more commonplace elsewhere.

But a friend from work named Jason had an entire group of people who were looking for a game, since he had just wrapped up a campaign with them, and before you could say "roll for initiative", I had acquired five new players, which then got supplemented by an additional four players a few months later, people who were also connected in one way or another with Jason's circle of friends. A revitalized group, a new girlfriend, a newer better edition of D&D; I was back!

The Kingdoms Of Kalamar
KenzerCo, the company that produced the Knights of the Dinner Table comic book and the Hackmaster RPG, also came out with their own D&D 3.0 compatible campaign world called Kingdoms of Kalamar (known in some circles as "Kingdoms of Kill 'Em All", for the setting's alleged difficulty; personally I never felt that way but hey).

I ended up doing some freelance writing for them, so the group switched from Forgotten Realms to Kalamar, and once again the group's number swelled to about fifteen. The more the merrier, eh?

Eventually, though, we switched back to Forgotten Realms. It was just more fun.

My freelancing for KenzerCo signaled the beginning of the end of my freelance gaming days. The last product I ended up doing was part of a gaming book for Wizard of the Coast's Star Wars role-playing game. Specifically, it was called Coruscant and the Core Worlds, released in 2003.

Oh, and speaking of Star Wars role-playing, West End Games had come out with a d6 version of Star Wars a few years prior to Wizards acquiring the license rights. I did a bunch of Star Wars products for West End, including a supplement called Elrood Sector. Imagine my surprise when I found Elrood Sector used in a whole bunch of products afterward. Here's the entry for Elrood Sector. Just so you know, if the new Star Wars movies ever make mention of Elrood Sector, you can jump up, point at the screen, and loudly declare "I know who came up with that!". You'll probably get booted out (or in certain areas of the country, shot), but you CAN do this.

Mr and Mrs T.
Carol and I got married in September 2002, in a surprise ceremony at our house, on the same day as our scheduled game. We "just so happened" to have a marriage license, my best friend Larry "just so happened" to be visiting and performed for the second (and final!) time the duties of Best Man, we "just so happened" to have my old friend Kevin McBride, a pastor at a church in Raymond, NH, to administer the vows, and we "just so happened" to have a wedding cake from Frederick's Bakery.

After the ceremony and the cake, we took up dice and gamed. And of course, that's one of the few times where I managed to kill Carol's character. Yeahhh. Nice timing there, John!

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5
In 2003, Wizards of the Coast released an updated version of Third Edition. Since it wasn't a fully new version, it was billed as D&D 3.5. For the life of me, I'm not sure why they did this, or more specifically, why they needed to do this. Was 3.0 not play-tested enough? Sure, 3.5 represented a dramatic improvement but still. There were many guesses and theories as to why, but if I had to guess, I'd go with "insufficient play-testing". That wouldn't have happened if my group had reprised their roles as play-testers, you know! Because we were just that awesome. Just saying...

What The...ANOTHER Schism!!?!?
Oh, come on! Even I only had ONE schism, and it was over
something way more important than gaming!
Sometimes, it seems that the biggest tempests in a teapot begin with the most innocuous of circumstances or innocent phrases. One of the players in my group took offense at how I praised her character. I had given her the maximum role-playing award at the end of a session, but her nose was out of joint because I didn't specifically call attention to another accomplishment of hers. Something like that, anyways. She remained pissed despite a few attempts reconciliation, so she, her boyfriend, and a goodly number of those new people, who knew her longer and better than they knew me and felt they should support her or something like that, left the game. In fact, of the ten people directly or indirectly part of Jason's contingent, only two stayed. In the wake of this, Carol and I are no longer on speaking terms with this woman and her significant other. But the damage was done, and the group was once again wrecked.

Another Empty Chair At The Table
A young friend of mine who I had known since infancy and who was starting to game with us died suddenly.  Even as a baby, he was such an awesome kid, and in fact it was his good behavior as a baby that indirectly convinced me that reproducing was something to consider after all. He is still profoundly missed.

What A Crappy Decade (Give Or Take A Few Years)
Still not convinced that the 90's stunk?
This is Fred Durst. I rest my case.
 Let's face it, with a few bright exceptions, the 90's and first few years of the Aughts sucked hard, with 2003 being particularly nasty.

I don't know what this says about D&D that out of all the people that are or ever have been in my life, there are only four with which there is a mutual "persona non grata" situation existing, and it had to do either directly with the hobby, or the hobby played a deciding role in it. And although Carol and I would certainly change the whole silent treatment deal if approached, the other parties don't want it, so this is where things remain.

Things Get Better
Anyway, our group persevered, and a new group arose from the ashes, which included Carol, all three of my kids, a bunch of my friends including the two survivors from the big breakup, and a few new folks as well, people who we now value as friends. We kept at the Forgotten Realms, and D&D 3.5 was our game of choice.

By the mid-Aught's, things were finally stabilizing and getting better. We gamed every other week, still coinciding with the weekend visits from the kids, though this was starting to become irrelevant, as my kids were getting to legal age, and could visit whenever they wanted (and even drive themselves!). In 2006, Carol, Rhiannon and I moved from our apartment in Nashua to a house that we bought, also in Nashua. The House of Terra had been reborn!

In early 2007, there was concern and rumors that Wizards of the Coast was going to abandon D&D 3.5 and release a new version. Although I can't swear to this so take it with a grain of salt, I seem to recall reading word (or maybe it was something I heard) from Wizards that there was nothing to worry about; D&D 3.5 was doing fine, and there were no immediate plans to come out with a new version. Phew! That's a relief!

In August of that same year, a countdown/announcement was released for Fourth Edition, coming in 2008....

Next (and Last) Part: Pathfinder Triumphant, The Return of Hawkhaven, and Awesomeness Ensues

Photo Credits: Pauly Shore,
Fred Durst

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons (and Me): Part Two

Years before game companies went bonkers  got greedy and released new game editions at the drop of a hat and with the flimsiest of justifications, games like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D for short) chugged along nicely for years with few changes. New ideas and variants were brought in via Dragon Magazine, TSR's monthly role-playing game magazine, but other than that, things remained fairly consistent and unchanging.

Historical Note: One of THE coolest things ever to come out of Dragon was issue #39's article "Good Hits, Bad Misses", a set of tables for determining critical hits and fumbles. Strictly a non-official set of rules, it  nonetheless brought an element of sheer awesomeness, insane destruction, and unbridled hilarity heretofore unimagined, to the game. It also let one of our players kill a manticore by throwing a rock at it.

I Gamed Too!
Although DMing was far and away my favorite activity in D&D, I did get the urge to play my own characters every now and then. At Origins IV I had met this fellow gamer who lived out in the Worcester area, named Joe, who happened to be a DM as well. On the days when I wasn't running, I'd play in his campaign.

Joe is the classic example of what you get when you put a functionally insane person behind the DM screen. That's not to say that he didn't have his good and sometimes even awesome moments, but Joe was really "out there", and a full-fledged "Monty Haul" DM. Yes, I suppose to some extent I was too, but he was in a class (or padded cell) by himself.

I couldn't find a picture of Crazy Joe, so instead here's
Weird Al, posing with my two oldest kids, circa 1999.
He was also one of those DMs who would throw extra stuff at you if you were doing too well. Or if your character made a peep in the dungeon corridors it invariably would bring wandering monsters down on you. Accidentally say "Orcus" just once, and POOF! there would be Orcus, materializing in front of you, with an honor guard of six Balrogs.

My primary character was Noro, the elven tavern boy I described in Part One, now a few years older and striking out on his own. He's elven Chaotic Good Fighter/Magic User. Ah, good times.

Fortunately, for sanity's sake, Joe wasn't the only DM I had access to. A few of my friends also tried their hands at DMing, and I opened the Hawkhaven campaign up into a shared world sort of deal.

And so things went, with us gaming at least once a week, still with a large group, and still having a ton of crazy fun. Life was good, and things were stable.

The Insane Opposition
One thing that was most emphatically NOT stable was the opposition to the game by concerned parents and church groups. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear makes people act stupid. The game, a new and relatively unknown quantity, worried many people way more than it ever should have.

It didn't help that there was a case of a troubled young man named James Egbert III, who played D&D, and who engaged in several acts of self-harm that eventually culminated in him shooting himself in 1980. But before he did this, there was an incident where Egbert disappeared and it was theorized that he was acting out a live action D&D experience in the maze of steam tunnels under Michigan State University. This created a lot of bad press, to say the least.

Number one on the list of projects Tom Hanks would love
to forget ever existed. Yes, this includes "Bosom Buddies".
And it didn't help that a book and tv movie called "Mazes and Monsters" came out, starring a young Tom Hanks, and sucked AND made gaming look even worse. Two crimes for the price of one!

But certain ministries and so-called Christian groups didn't help matters either. There were "experts" who toured churches and youth groups and gave lectures on the evils of D&D (and rock music, etc.). One of these charlatans, in an attempt to show how evil D&D and TSR were, pulled passages from a gaming product called Arduin Grimoire, a most emphatically NON TSR publication whose content could be sometimes be charitably described as dicey. But this lecturer pulled the text from Arduin and misrepresented it as Dungeons and Dragons. After all, if you want people to hate and fear something, take something else that's far worse and not even a good representation of the overwhelming majority, and declare it a good example of the thing. Very honest, and very Christian.

Then there were the Godly, rational, fair-minded insane, conspiracy-loving, Pope-hating nutjobs at Chick Tracts, who were responsible for that classic tract, "Dark Dungeons". But then again, this was the same group that insisted the television show "Bewitched" was a tool to recruit people into being witches, Pagans, Satan worshippers, Democrats, I don't get the idea. Let's not overlook the reality that "Bewitched" is about as effective a tool for recruiting new witches as "Hogans Heroes" is for encouraging people to become Nazis ("Don't be stupid, be a smarty; come and join the Nazi party!"- The Producers).

The whole anti-D&D thing would eventually affect me directly in the late 80's, and in the aftermath it would play a big part in pretty much destroying my desire to adhere to conservative Christianity from that point on (not Christianity as a whole; just the more hardcore, right-wing, stricter form). Let's just say it brought on some cataclysmic changes, but not because I dared play D&D, but rather because of how a non-incident was handled and how it left me devastated in its wake. But that's a long story for a different blog post, and I actually have to psych myself up to do it. Some whiskey may help too. The good stuff. And would it kill you to get some nachos going too?

The Name Game
On to happier topics! Yay! Since all of the players were neophytes to one degree or another, the naming conventions for characters was a mixed bag, to say the least. People didn't have much experience with nomenclature so they winged it best they could. Naturally, the fantasy genre was a rich goldmine of ideas.

For instance, we had a Strider, Samwise, Aragorn, Shasta, Galahad, Isildur, Galadriel, Luthien,
"You! Shall not! Rip off my name!"
Balinor, Rohan, Gollum, El Gallo, D'Artagnan, Hawkeye, Covenant, and Menion. Gain 500 XP if you can identify the sources of all these names.

Some went historical, like Bede, Gengis, Melchizedek, Zane Grey, and Dylan Thomas.

Others decided to take their first or last name and reverse it, yielding names like Lorac, Lemrac, Ellehcim, or Namllit.

Then there were the people who thought that their character names should reflect who they were, such as Sneeky the Thief, Revela the Bard, and Temptra the Paladin (wait...what!?!).

And let's not forget the people who thought they were being funny, with names like Pleighwood the Druid, or Yu Hengue the Fighter. We also had names like Wimp, Bogus, Snivel, Sneeze, Dart-Canyon, and Grimy Wormdung.

It got to the point that I had to institute something called the Dumb Name Syndrome. If in my opinion people weren't taking the game seriously enough, something that a stupid name was usually a dead giveaway for, I'd target that character and kill it ASAP. While this may sound a bit draconian (heheh), consider this: if you were putting together a touch football team and you had one person who just sort of stood there and did nothing, you'd probably ask them to sit down. If everyone's into the game and that person isn't, it ruins it for the rest of the players. You can't rely on them. Everyone else is getting into it and contributing, except for this one lump. In D&D, if everyone's in character and expecting all the other characters to cover their backs, then there's some bored person who's named his fighter Buttmunch and doesn't care enough to take things seriously within the context of the game, well, maybe it's time for Buttmunch to meet an ignominious end courtesy of a kobold poison trap.

At least people's character concepts were fairly sound. Well, except for one player who, in his never-ending bid to be different, came up with characters who necessitate creating a new adjective called "WTF-y".

For instance, since I allowed people's characters to worship God, he decided to create a Jewish paladin. And he couldn't adventure on the Sabbath. Since I hadn't created a fantasy world calendar yet, the day usually defaulted to the real day. Saturday. So, his character couldn't go into the dungeon, which made people scream "What's the point of this character!?!?!" at him. At least this prompted me to create a calendar.
"My next character will be a sentient bowl of hummus!"

So he replaced this non-character with a Ranger. A Ranger with amnesia. He had no idea who he was, or his alignment, or what languages he knew, or how to track, or use weapons, or anything. So basically, he was useless, which made people scream "What's the point of this character!?!?!" at him.

Eventually, he decided to put together a female thief who described as "a bald Grace Jones with a wooden foot".

Okay, so he was prone to creating flat-out weird and ultimately useless characters. But on the other hand, he also brought his own drinks and munchies to the game and didn't want to share, though he did help himself to the community munchies that other people brought.


Other Games Butt In
Although we were tooling along nicely with AD&D, other games caught our attention. These other games offered new rules systems, different genres, new settings, and new challenges. We were introduced to Top Secret (modern day espionage), Traveller (far future SF space adventure), Twilight 2000 (World War III action in Central Europe), Paranoia ("Brazil" meets Kafka meets "1984" meets The Marx Brothers), and Call of Cthulhu (::twitch, twitch:: Ia, Shub-Niggurath! Fthagn! AIIEEEEE!).

But the biggest threat to our AD&D campaign was when we started a Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game campaign. We lost some hardcore D&Ders, gained some science fiction nuts and Trekkies, and ran a strong campaign for years.

It was a good thing we learned about all of these other games, though, because it prepared us for...

Conventional Thinking
We got directions to Milwaukee, a fist full of gas money,
and our dice bags. Let's roll.
Yours truly is second from the left.
Okay, remember the first part of this series, and the wargames conventions? Well, role-players have conventions too, but we were just not tuned into this. That changed fairly quickly. The first convention our players hit was called East Con, held at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.

But the big Kahuna of the gaming convention circuit was and still is Gen Con, which was held at the time in Wisconsin. I went to Gen Con 18 with a friend (we drove), and it became a fixture on our summer calendar. Hey, you pile four or five people in a car, take a 20-hour drive, end up gaming along the way there and back, it's all good!

And it was at Gen Con that we heard about the Role Playing Gamers Association (RPGA). Wow! We gamers actually had an association! We were organized! You paid your membership, got a nifty pin, a membership card, a subscription to their monthly zine "The Polyhedron", and you also got the chance to play and run RPGA sanctioned tournaments, and gain levels as a player! This was all mind-blowing stuff to us!

Here's the other cool thing about Gen Con in those days; it was very affordable. The prices weren't out of control, and yeah, if you could get a bunch of people together who could tolerate a long drive, the entire experience was very economical and a lot of fun. The FTE ratio (Fun To Expense) was very favorable.

D&D Helps My Writing Career
Dragon Magazine was always looking (and paying) for new material, and so in 1985 I decided to turn my talents in that direction and see what happened. I wrote the editor, Roger Moore (not the actor), and decided to take a different tack: I asked him what game topics he'd love to see covered but that people seemed to avoid writing about. His immediate reply: Top Secret. So I sent a pair of articles, he liked them, and published them. That opened the door to me being picked to write freelance for...TSR itself! WOOOO!

Here's some quick advice for people who want to become writers: Write what you know, take
Follow my writing advice and someday, you too can do
autograph sessions!
assignments no one else wants, and remember the almighty deadline and keep it holy. You're welcome.

So before I knew it, I was on the roster of TSR freelancers, working with Acquisitions Editor Bruce Heard, and I was getting an increasing amount of assignments. This worked out rather well for me timing-wise, because my then wife Ellen was pregnant with our first child, and the talk turned to who would stay at home. Full time care was prohibitively expensive. She was a Registered Nurse in a very good job at a prestigious Boston hospital. I was a low-level white-collar CMS hack at a desk job at Harvard Community Health Plan, and I always wanted to write. Well, I was writing now and earning money from it, so it was decided that I'd be the stay at home dad and become a full-time freelancer.

Announcing: AD&D Second Edition!
At long last, TSR announced that they were working on a new edition of AD&D and they wanted play-testers. Courtesy of my TSR connections, I immediately volunteered my group, and we hurriedly put away all other game systems and created a whole new batch of characters. But by this time, Hawkhaven was sadly over-worked, so instead, I picked up a boxed set, a pre-packaged TSR campaign setting called the Forgotten Realms and used that as the backdrop for the new, second edition characters rolled up, starting up fresh. We had 13 players by this time.

Those 13 players had characters who all started out in the town's militia. So, in order to give them cohesion, they were called the 13th Regiment. When the RPGA introduced the concept of registering gaming clubs, we joined up calling ourselves The Valiant 13th Regiment. The Valiant part came from the campaign ship in our Star Trek game, the USS Valiant, NCC-1718.

I also found out, years later, that though other New England based RPGA clubs thought that we were a formidable group with excellent players, we also had the reputation of being snobby, except for me. Well, then. Nice to know.

So back to the playtest. Eventually, it ended and AD&D Second Edition came out in 1989. None of our ideas were used (though we're not bitter), and we felt that, though it was a good version, it didn't take the changes far enough. This became the definitive version of D&D for the rest of the 1900's, then Third Edition came to play in 2000. During this edition's tenure, my players really enjoyed showing off the fact that their names were in the credits of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide.  Some of the guys even managed to parlay their new found gaming fame into success with the ladies.

Actually no. No they didn't.

Other Campaign Settings
The Forgotten Realms was just one of TSR's campaign settings. There was also Dragonlance, Greyhawk (THE original D&D setting), Mystara, Ravenloft (Gothic horror with vampires when they were still awesome, not whiny sparkling wimps or sex maniacs), and of course, Dark Sun.

Dark Sun was a desert world where magic had pretty much sucked most of the life of the planet away. Think Mad Max, minus the cars and firearms. Characters started off at fourth level, everyone had at least one psionic power, metal items were scarce, magic was hated, the gods were practically non-existent, and stats could exceed 18 (unheard of at the time!). It was also incredibly brutal and violent. We started a Dark Sun campaign and after a few sessions, I ended up doing a Total Party Kill (TPK) on the group courtesy of a random encounter. Rather than create new characters, we all looked at each other and said "No, let's not go back to Dark's a silly place" (for best effect, read that quote as if you were a Knight of the Round Table).

So instead, we went back to the Forgotten Realms and kept playing, happy as clams, while I raised the kids and did freelancing for not only TSR, but other gaming companies as well. We were all unaware that the nineties were approaching. Well, that's to say, we knew the nineties were coming; I mean we could count and such, but it's more a case of what the 90's brought with them. Some of the stuff we just did not see coming.

Photo Credit: Tom Hanks, Crazy Guy

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dungeons And Dragons (and Me): Part One

Dungeons and Dragons turns 40 this month, and considering how prominent a part of my life it's been, I'd be remiss if I didn't create a post series about it. In fact, I recently came to the sobering conclusion that there have been two major forces in my life that have shaped who and what I am, and those are Christianity and D&D, in that order. Furthermore, it's amazing how much those two forces have come together in my life.

So sit back and enjoy my reminiscing of how this crazy game, in all of its iterations, helped make me who I am today. Call it my way of celebrating this amazing hobby.

Anyways, allons-y!

The Beginning
Welcome to historic Park Street Church,
where I learned about God, gaming,
zombies in shopping malls, and
sex parasites

When I was in high school, I attended a Christian youth fellowship at Park Street Church in beautiful downtown Boston. PSC is a conservative Congregationalist Evangelical church, and is one of the heavy hitters in the New England church scene. It's even a stop on the Freedom Trail, since it's been around since the War of 1812.

It was in this church's teen group that a staff member introduced me to Avalon Hill wargames. I always enjoyed board games and history, and this staffer, named Bob, thought this would be right up my alley. So, I was brought into this hobby by Midway, a game that recreated the historic carrier battle. As high school progressed, I learned how to play Luftwaffe, Third Reich, Jutland, and Wooden Ships/Iron Men. I was satisfied with this hobby, and had heard very little about D&D at the time.

I had gone to Origins II, III, and IV (the annual national wargame convention) and had heard rumblings about D&D. But it seemed that wargamers hated the D&D people, and the D&D people hated the wargamers. Sort of like the feuds between the 19th century frontier cattlemen versus the sheep ranchers, only much stupider. In any event, I was a wargamer. D&Ders were stupid.

Then when I entered college in 1977, I began attending Park Street's college-age Christian fellowship, called Seekers. I met a guy there who ended up becoming a good friend of mine, a man named Bill Hussar. To this day I consider Bill my mentor, since he steered me in the direction of many aspects of geek culture.

Well, one day, Bill  invited me to play Dungeons and Dragons. His brother was going to be something known as a "Dungeon Master". Bill and I each rolled up three characters, and his brother ran us through a dungeon he made.

Incidentally, that's how we had to play D&D back then when we only had a few people around us that we knew of who played the game. You rolled up a handful of characters at once, watched in horror as many of them didn't make it, and odds were, you'd come out with a few strong ones that hung in there. Sort of like starting a family in the 17th and 18th centuries.

So anyway, we played that first game. That's when the sky opened up, the sun shone, and the angels sang.

I was hooked! I've always had a wild imagination and a big streak of creativity, and here I was exposed to the tools to let that creativity go nuts. I could create a world, and people could interact with it! After that first session, I went home and hurriedly tried my hand at creating a dungeon of my own. Naturally, this meant getting that nifty boxed set that had the dice that you had to color in the numbers with the crayons provided. The cover showed this fearsome dragon, in a dungeon (naturally), with a warrior and a wizard about to attack! AWESOME!

So yes, I learned how to play D&D thanks to my participation in a conservative church's college-age group. It was also thanks to people in this group that I was taken to my first George Romero movie (Dawn of the Dead), and was introduced to the movies of David Cronenberg. Yeah, I know. I'm still trying to figure that one out, and it was 35 years ago.

The Golden Age
If you can gaze upon the awesomeness that is
this cover and not want to play, then you
have no soul. None.
Anyways, this boxed set came with its own pre-made adventure, Into The Unknown. It had maps and room descriptions, but it let you fill in the monsters and treasure yourself. I was thrilled! All I needed to do was to find people to play!

In the summer of 1979 I moved in with four guys from MIT who lived in a triple-decker in Charlestown and were also fellow Seekers. Now, I'm sure you're thinking "Four MIT guys, eh? Sounds like fertile D&D fodder!" But no! No, they weren't. Even though one of them did in fact play (his name was Tim, and he had a cleric named....Tim). They were too busy working on theses and splitting atoms and doing other sciencey stuff. But the four women who lived downstairs, who also went to Seekers, ah, they were another story. They were intrigued enough to give it a try.

(Yeah, I was in an arrangement where I lived with four turbo-nerds, and adjacent to us were four women, and we all knew each other and were friends. It's was like "Big Bang Theory", except there were more women, no drinking, no sex, and it wasn't in California. And no one was from India. And no one was Jewish. And there was a lot more praying and Bible study. Otherwise, totally the same.)

They were hooked. So was I. And so, my first campaign began, with me as a newly minted Dungeon Master, and the all-female pack of players, although by all accounts at the time, women weren't really into this sort of gaming. Good thing we never really paid attention to all accounts.

But of course, the dungeon they ran through meant the players' characters needed a place to rest and heal up. So, I created the Three Crown Inn, with a recurring NPC, a young elven teenager named Noro Goldentree, using Tolkien as a means of giving me an idea what the heck to name an elf. He was the tavern boy who waited on the heroes and looked up to them. And of course, the inn and the dungeon needed to be placed somewhere, so I had to create a bit of land. And we'll put a forest here, a coastline here, and hey, there seems to be a lot of hawks who use the forest as a haven, so we'll refer to this area as Hawkhaven. Okay, that works.

As I bought more D&D modules, I'd sprinkle them in this newly created land, expanding its borders, adding more details like roads, more inns, a town or two, a city, rivers, swamps. I was beside myself. I had finally found my element!

The land wasn't the only thing that expanded. As more people heard of the game and how much fun
we were having, they wanted to join as well. The fifth player yet was another woman. Someone outside the group suggested I name the group "Johnny's Angels". I wasn't amused. Then we got our first guy, one of my roomies who wasn't doing the thesis thing yet. Then Bill joined in occasionally. Then a floodgate of people from Seekers joined the game.

Things got so insane that we had to play at the Miles Standish dorm at Boston University, commandeering one of the common areas, and played on Saturday nights pretty much from 6 pm to oh, whenever. And since Seekers met on Sunday evenings, we didn't have to worry about getting up for church on Sunday mornings. We'd sleep in on Sunday morning, then go to the Seekers meetings in the late afternoon, hit the evening service, then back to the second Seekers meeting. So we played till all hours the night before with no ill effect.

In fact, I recall one game that went rather late, and ended with the party getting a huge haul of treasure (of course), and let me tell you, people dickered over that pile of treasure with a level of conviction and avarice that would make a pack of  red dragons blush. I remember passing out, seated upright with my back against a dresser, then regaining consciousness as a beam of the rising sun shone through a window and struck my face, while the players adamantly made their cases for who'd get the +5 shield from the treasure hoard. Apparently, the Vorpal Blade had already been allocated.

This period was the crazy insane time, the time that most of us old gaming farts remember with mixed measures of fondness and horror. My average group size was around sixteen people. By this time, the holy trinity of D&D books had come out: The AD&D Players Handbook, The Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual! JOY! More classes! More monsters! More treasure! And hey, psionics! You could blow up people's brains, just like in Scanners!

And, Hawkhaven became a sort of bizarre Monty Haul/Kitchen Sink hybrid that incorporated ideas from Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles, Earthsea, Arthurian Legends, and some greasy steak and cheese sub-inspired dreams from the night before. Then, when Deities and Demigods came out, things got REALLY nuts.

See, when the original Deities and Demigods came out, TSR (the makers of D&D) threw together stats for a wild selection of pantheons: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Norse, American Indian, Indian, Finnish, was nuts. But unfortunately (for them, anyway), they also included some intellectual properties that they weren't supposed to: namely the worlds of Elric of Melnibone, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Oh, and one other, a mythos that made me ask a fateful question:

"What's a Cthulhu?"

Incidentally, TSR was eventually brought up to speed on the whole "using other authors' copywritten work was BAD" concept and had to pull the Melnibonean, Nehwon, and Lovecraftian material out of Deities and Demigods, and release a new edited version. I'm proud to say I still have my original Deities and Demigods, though it was slightly damaged by a rabbit.

Don't ask.

Anyways, as the DM, I let people choose whichever god they wanted to worship. Nothing was rejected; I simply absorbed it into the game and made it work. But, speaking of worship and gods...

Onward, Christian Paladins
An excerpt from the rollicking comedy pamphlet
"Dark Dungeons" by Chick Publications
What needs to be stated here for the record is that every single one of us was a practicing Christian. Yes, that's right. Every. Last. One of us. We all came from Seekers, so what do you expect? Naturally, this caused some friction and raised eyebrows in other quarters of the group, since this is also when the stories about how D&D was absolutely positively corrupting our youth were starting to circulate. You know the drill, it's evil, it's Say-tanic, green pea soup spouting everywhere, heads revolving completely around, dogs and cats living together...

Anyways, since we were all Christians, I allowed people to choose God as their character's deity, especially if it helped overcome any reservations they had about the game as a whole. Naturally, that meant their character needed to be either Lawful Good or Chaotic Good.

And we started every session with a word of prayer. No joke. Swear to God (oops). Among other reasons, it made the whole evening seem more like an organized gathering of Christians for the purposes of fellowship, you know? So, we'd start with a word of prayer, and soon be hip deep in orc blood, giant viscera, and undead. And arguing over stuff. And doing barmaids.

Of course, you throw together over a dozen people ranging in age from late teens to early 20's, and you know there's going to be drama. There were real-life romantic triangles played through each person's respective characters, arguments, grudges, shouting matches, the usual. Hey, I said we were all Christians; I said nothing about perfection! I shudder to imagine what it would have been like if there had been alcohol served. But there was none, because Christians.

And people who did stuff in the game that annoyed others, would carry that around for a long time. Sort of like how you never forget your friend who dropped the ball in the 9th inning during that big softball game. One player's Ranger ran away from an encounter while everyone else got blasted by red dragon's breath, and let me tell you, that player was NEVER allowed to forget it. You know, the usual gamer insanity.

The quests got crazier and yet also more over the top fun. Battling liches who turned player characters into giant cucumbers and ate them, or finding the Holy Grail, or battling Orcus, or exploring the sunken island of R'lyeh. Nothing was off-limits. No adventure too weird, no treasure too big. Except I never sent them looking for the One Ring. That would have just been stupid.

A few of the more hard-core members of Seekers express
concerns about Dungeons and Dragons
Well, anyways, Seekers leadership never interfered with the game nor suggest we stop. A few people did have misgivings and suspicions about it, expressed in a variety of ways, including bad poetry.

Which made it all the funnier when in the summer of 1980 I ended up being appointed to a leadership role in that very group! I was a member of Seekers summer staff that year, and in fact, four other members of staff were also avid AD&D players, and a fifth player was an avid wargamer. Our infiltration was complete (insert evil laughter here).

But like all good things, this one had to come to an end. As people graduated college and moved on from Seekers, the group began to dwindle. Boston being a college town that lures in students from all over the country (and the world), a lot of Seekers who attended school consequently left the area when they graduated.

So there I was, looking to continue the game going by rallying together the people who remained in the area. Fortunately, I had a good solid core to work with since a good number ended up staying, and soon we supplemented our ranks with new blood. This set the stage for the eighties!

Next time: AD&D goes 2nd Edition, and I go pro.

Photo Credits: Park Street Church, ArcticJane