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


  1. Can't wait for the next installment. Great so far! And yes, the 90s blew donkeys.

  2. They had their moments. But it's interesting that it seems that the 60's and 80's were awesome, while the 70's and 90's pretty much blew goats. It's like the Star Trek Even/Odd movie observations. The Even numbered ones were good. The Odd ones, fairly bad.