Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Landsscape of the Imagination ... with Dice

It feels so dignified to be the subject of a portrait.

While I was running my "Terrible Thunder Lizards" scenario for Stars Without Number at Fear the Con X last weekend, unknown to me Jeb Brack was sitting behind us painting the whole tableau of the game-in-progress.

Since we're all middle-aged nerds, this probably mostly still counts as a Still Life.

The reveal of the work at the end was a humbling surprise; I'm glad I happened to be wearing a colorful shirt that day. Mr. Brack is amiable to sending me a full scan, so I'll likely get to have this framed on the wall of my home gaming parlor before too long.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

So it Began

Talking with folk at last weekend's DieCon, I was reminded that my initiation into tabletop roleplaying seems to be atypical of most others in the OSR audience.

As a kid in the 1980's, I didn't have a an older brother or wargaming uncle (or venerable SF-fandom aunt) to show me how to throw my first d20, nor a hobby/SF/Computer/AV club to hang out with. Growing up literally isolated in the hills, I didn't have many friends to hang out with at all, so if there were kids caught up in the (by that point waning) D&D fad in my area, I never met them. What I did have though was a TV and a heedless dedication to adventure cartoons. So my introduction to "Dungeons & Dragons" was the eponymous Saturday morning show. And that show was amazing back then (actually, it still holds up pretty well even today). 

Episode 16 The City at the Edge of Midnight

Of course, though it was great entertainment, the cartoon wasn't at all good at conveying what D&D actually was. Somehow, probably general pop-culture osmosis, I got the insight that D&D was originally a game ... but at the time and at that age, "games" meant to me either boring old boardgames like Monopoly and Scrabble, or hot exciting computer games (mostly in arcades), and I had never seen Dungeons & Dragons in either of those contexts. Eventually however, I caught the right ad and I finally knew what D&D really was: a bulky squawking castle-shaped slab that you moved an adventurer around trying to find the treasure before the dragon got you and the buzzer went off.

Yes, that was what little-me thought the show (and all those D&D action figures and comics and coloring books) was based on.

But wait, it gets even goofier: the first roleplaying book I ever bought was the 1st edition Monster Manual, but only in an act of complete misapprehension. Through the 80's, parapsychology was still a fad, and "non-fiction" books listing monsters and ghosts were common, particularly illustrated ones written in list-format directed at kids like myself. So when I found the Monster Manual in a hobby shop, I took it for another encyclopedia of monsters for its own sake, albeit with spectacularly involved stat spreads (sorta like baseball cards). As for the "D&D" branding on the cover ... well, it was a time of Battlestar Galactica beach towels and Kool-Aid video games; trade dress often had nothing to do with function. 

Really, with that great cover image, it's surprising I ever got around to even reading the title.
Eventually enough clues piled up that I figured out, "oh, this is a paper & pencil version of Rogue ... and I can play it without a computer!" Like I said, I'd met computer games first, and played uncounted hours of the ASCII-dungeon game Rogue on a primordial desktop (which both gave me a head-start on a lot of D&D's concepts but a lot of incorrect notions about others). 

Still prefer Rogue to NetHack; that little dog is a pain.

Entranced by the boundless possibilities, next birthday I asked for the Red Box Basic set, much to my father's chagrin. He was distressed at my persistent interest in monsters and science fiction and fantasy, things he thought I had to grow away from in order to become a real man (he was already annoyed I'd wasted all that time on the computer playing Rogue instead of learning how to make spreadsheets). So I was disappointed but not surprised when the celebratory day came and went without the requested gift. But the next day, my mother conspiratorially handed me a brand new Red Box. She said they just forgot to bring it out with other presents, but I suspect there was a behind-the-scenes showdown and late visit to the hobby store in defiance of the old man's gruff. Thanks mom, you're the best.

So there it is, I'm a testament to successful media licensing.

Where it all started ... eventually.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Casting Woo onto the Dice

The annual Pagan Picnic is this weekend here in St Louis. Though I long ago filed away witchcraft, wicca, faery magic and other pagan revivalism into the category of "benign bullshit," I yet still love to participate in gatherings dominated by such magical thinking and perspectives. The vibe is just so positive, the craftwork so sincere and the community so welcoming. I'll even buy the occasional Green Man or Artemis icon just to be supportive.

Official event photo, credit unknown

Another thing it quickens is a particular sense of nostalgia, one integral to my approach to roleplaying. I don't hear it often mentioned anymore, but some of the earliest adopters of Dungeons & Dragons after it got away from the war-gamers were Medievalists (SCA'dians, Renaissance Fest actors) and late-era bohemians, especially the one's heavily into Tolkien and pantheistic spiritualism. Though by the time I found roleplaying it was not physically present in the circles I gamed in, their foundational influence was still a big part of the culture. Articles and rulebooks would discuss running campaigns taking more-than-casual inspiration from history, ancient art and "personal discovery." It was an approach that resonated with me, much more so than play focused on combat or advancement-hunting, because it was reaching, however vaguely, for something sublime. Not to say it was dourly serious-minded; these were the folks who loved Monty Python, after all.

As far as I've seen, contemporary game texts don't really acknowledge that flavor of "Woo" anymore ("woo" meaning a soft, non-rigorous belief in magic, a bit of harmless irrationality). Sometimes I wonder if it all got drawn off into then used up by the Gothic aesthetic of the World of Darkness. Todays' tabletop culture seems largely dominated by hackers and collectors, builders of spreadsheets and action figure archives, not a tarot card reader to be found. Sometimes I ache to experience a game with a little old-tyme magik in it, and I don't mean a spell list.