Our culture has changed significantly since I paid attention to it, which was quite some time ago. I suspect that fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) aren’t considered quite as nerdy now as they were in my time, but I could be wrong. With the mainstream popularity of video games, it seems that the pen-and-paper games should also enjoy a little more cachet.
Without them, I would not be a writer. Games like D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Villains and Vigilantes, etc. were quite formative in my social life and helped build my mental landscape. Without use, your imagination shrinks. The stories we told during those games were really quite extraordinary.
It was on a rainy day in 1980 that my older brother introduced us to Dungeons and Dragons, the blue box version. Though fairly young at the time, I was utterly captivated. We played, of course, The Keep on the Borderlands module (we called them “modules” because that was what was printed on the box; more properly, they’d be called stories, or scenarios). Those early games didn’t last long for reasons I no longer recall, but the game had lit a fire in me.
A couple years later, we unearthed those old D&D rulebooks and played again, mostly just my younger and I, with me as the Dungeon Master (also called “referee” or “game master”). Then, during a trip to a local bookstore, I found the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Manual for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Advanced! Wait: you could be both an Elf and a Magic-User? That was when things got really fun.
In high school, I joined the D&D club (called the Simulations Club) on a whim, which was one of the best decisions of my life: it helped me get out of my shell a little and introduced me to people who are still friends today. One afternoon a week, we’d spend a couple hours after school killing monsters, sneaking into castles, and other such things. All on paper.
From there, I found the game Call of Cthulhu: rather than play Lord of the Rings-style adventures, you took on the role of a 1920’s paranormal investigator dealing with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It was neat, but what really made it come alive for our gaming group was the Dreamlands expansion, where you could descend the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber, and from there emerge into a fantasy world both surreal and horrifying. Zoogs and horned Men of Leng, cat-inhabited Ulthar and Kuranes’ Celephais, moonbeasts and magicians.
By this time, I was typically the game master, the one who ran the Sunday night games: it was a role I enjoyed more than playing. The games got even more interesting when I acquired both the Stormbringer and Hawkmoon role-playing game sets, which had the same core rules as Call of Cthulhu (all of them were published by Chaosium). Rather than a limited universe of Earth and the Dreamlands, the players went further afield to Granbretan and the Young Kingdoms, and from there to the multiverse.
And then something new came around: Nephilim. Also a Chaosium game, it had a similar rule set, but the setting was so different, so intriguing, that it couldn’t be folded into the long-running game. We started anew. The basic premise of Nephilim was that the players took on the role of semi-immortal spirits who possessed human beings throughout history, acquiring magical power and influence. It was a world of secret societies, of changing human events to suit inhuman schemes. Just creating a character took the whole day.
Eventually, as marriages, careers, children, and other elements of daily life took over, the game broke up. For a while I resurrected it online with some of the old players, using a telnet client, but it didn’t have the same oomph as gathering around a kitchen or rec room table, playing face-to-face.
There’s a lot here I didn’t mention in detail: the Friday night D&D sessions, forays into Vampire: The Masquerade, Villains and Vigilantes, the Illuminati and Family Business card games, Dune, Axis and Allies, and poker. All of them are worthy of pages of description. Except for poker, which is fairly pedestrian, even when you get into variations like Follow the Wild Queen Chicago Recall.
Sometimes, I miss it. But I’m too busy now telling my stories my way to collaborate the way these old games required.
Without it, though, without D&D and Call of Cthulhu, I wouldn’t be here, doing what I’m doing now. There was true magic in those old games, and the spell they laid on me will last my entire life. The rule books are still in boxes somewhere, waiting to be opened and enjoyed again.