Thursday, January 28, 2016

Departure from the norm to something different? Part 2

So here I was, staring at a web page about a kickstarter for a module being designed by the son of the one and only Gary Gygax.  Not only that, but there was history attached.  Of young Ernie solo manning the counter of the Hobby Shop Dungeon, enticing folks to try out his own creation.  Luring TSR workers from the Hotel Clair above him to abandon their warm cubicles for the dank, dark depths of the unknown.  Not only that, but from what I have been able to piece together, like a lot of us, he carried bits of pieces of this dungeon around with him for decades.  Now that...THAT, I could get behind and understand.  I fully knew the love that can come from building upon something through years and years of play.  How sentimental and like a child that project can be.

Folks, I then began to cry.  Yup, totally not gonna lie, have little to no care how nerdy it makes me, 10:45 at night, my eyes a little bleary from all the reading I had just done, I felt tears well up.  I finally understood.  It was like a light from heaven shined down with Gary's voice above saying the words "There ya go finally, it took you long enough"  I was not crying because of some pent up emotional issue, I was crying because I too had created something that I drug around in 14 Binders and various folders and 17 rolled up poster sized graph pages filled with maps inside an old surveyor's map case.  I had drug it from Indiana, to my barracks to my first apartment to another set of barracks and another apartment after that.  I had ran people from age 9 till I was 27 years old through my world.  There had been deaths, births, marriages, political infighting, an Empire formed, an Empire destroyed, treasures found and evil smited.  In my memory as the DM, these events were almost like real.  Not only could I remember the characters but I could remember the players that had ran them.

Sadly all that was lost to a tornado in 2002 along with most of my 1st edition and 2nd edition materials.  Scattered to the four winds.At the time, I was working at a gas station in Swansea, Illinois, not far from my apartment, and had just left the Air Force while I pondered my next step.  I saw the roof of my apartment, or at least part of it fly over me as I was pulling a branch off of a ladies car so she could get inside to relative safety from the storm.   I remember idly thinking, man I feel sorry for those people.  Well, turns out those people, were me.  But this story is not about that journey so I digress.  It is safe to say, after getting off work and coming home to a pile of rubble, I was sure I would never see Aenarion again.  As I sat staring at the kickstarter page, emotion just welled up inside me.  I was sad all over again at my own loss, but I was also overwhelmed with a desire to not let that be the end of the story.

You see, as I learned more about Ernie Gygax, and Robert Kuntz and others tied to the original incarnation of AD&D, I saw a lot of myself in them.  I saw that 13 year old kid in the basement of the Brown County Public Library, thumbing through the monster manual looking for a creature to terrorize my group.  I smelled the moldy basement, saw the flickering light that was always threatening to go out but never did, heard the clatter of the dice on the old wooden table.  Remembered misty dungeon entrances, dripping with slime and ichor, and most of all remembered the endless hours of laughing (that should have probably been spent doing homework)  and general mirth that ensued with every session.  Ya sure, we were not the jocks of Brown County High School.  The cheerleaders would not even give us a passing glance, and most people were loath to admit how much they did actually like Star Wars (something that still annoys me is seeing folks love on Star Wars now that brutally taunted my cousin and I for wearing Star Wars T-Shirts etc back then.  You know who you are and you don't deserve to wield your plastic colored stick sir!)

I sensed all of that in Ernie's project.  He was going to bring his past back to the forefront and not only that, he was going to share it with the world.  But he was not going to share it in the spoon fed mode, he was going to give us enticing backstory, to spur the mind, relevant background information on the setting but still loose enough it could easily fit into any campaign regardless of the system etc.  Genius, I thought, he is doing it just like Gary wanted.  He is providing the bones and muscle but like his dad he is leaving it to us to flesh it out.  Then it dawned on me, as Benoist kindly answered one of my questions on the facebook page for the Marmorial Tomb project.  I was still asking the kind of questions that all those other folks back in 1979 and even 2006 had been asking Gary.  Why can't elves be druids my son wants to know?   Benoist referenced where Gary got his inspiration from, a little author named Poul Anderson, as a place to find answers.

I promptly found a copy of The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.  I also picked up Jack Vance as well, though for whatever reason it was not my cup of tea, I stuck with it long enough to see where Gygax drew his magic system inspiration from.  From Anderson I understood why he chose to portray Elves the way he did.  They were not Tolkiens haunting beauties that were more Haughty human with pointed ears then fey.  These elves were alien in every sense of the word.  Their motivations were that of someone who lives forever and to which every pleasure was soon boring and trite.   They did things not out of direct malice but out of indifference.  Humans are short lived beasts to them, a play toy to amuse them briefly in the long stretch of endless millennia of tedium.  I then began to think how I portrayed my elves, and realized I too had been influenced by an author, Gav Thorpe, who portrayed his elves as something in between Anderson and Tolkiens view.

So right away I began thinking about  how I would implement this new epiphany into my game...and then I stopped myself.  Here I was conforming, using someone else's idea of how to do things without standing up for my own way of running them for decades.  You see the spoon fed nature I had been bred into was once again working on me.  I was going to change what I was doing just to be like other DM's and conform to a standard that honestly did not need to be conformed to.  After all, Aenarion was MY world, with MY elves and MY story.  How I chose to perceive elves or dwarves or magic was entirely up to my whims in my world.  That is the true gift Gary gave us, was the TOOLS to bring these worlds to life, not to try to be just like greyhawk, or just like forgotten realms, but to make our own story and our own legacy.  He never intended for us to try to run a game exactly how he and Rob use to run Castle Greyhawk.  For one thing, like most DM's from the sound of things Castle Greyhawk was a hot mess of papers and doodles and stats and maps, that changed based on the drive of the story and whom was running it at the time.

I went outside a little later that night and sucked in the cold mountain air of Colorado.  I pondered long and hard (till I couldn't feel my tootsies anymore) on what I wanted to do.  First off Empire of Imagination and spurred me to do one thing.  I was going to run my children through my own Gygaxian inspired adventure.  I had studied up on past player comments from some of his convention days as well as players who plaued sessions with Frank Mentzer as well.  I had always loved The Temple of Elemental Evil and The Village of Hommlet.  BUT, this time I was going to keep a constant journal, and as any opportunity came around for a plot hook I would throw it down.  Soon by the month of December I had named every villager between Hommlet and Nulb, went back and given motivations to a lot of them, and began running my kids and friends through Hommlet.  Not only was it different this time, but it was back to feeling like those days down in the basement of the Library.  Everyone showed up to the game with an air of excitement.  They might die!!!  They might find treasure!!!  It took one or two encounters before all at the table soon were white knuckling dice rolls and lamenting the loss of a favorite henchmen to a Giant toad.

It is not that 1st Edition plays any better or worse then any other game out there.  But what is important to note, is that it was the first.  People argue that one style of RPG is vastly superior to another.  I disagree completely.  I think one GM or DM is better then another.  I think groups of players may be better or worse then others.  I think the game is a tool and nothing more.  The experience is made by us.  I literally cannot wait till the HSD is in my hands.  Not because I am incapable of writing my own stuff, but because this is a project of love that is written from a place I understand.  Someone else who sat at his dad's table and friends tables and thought grander dreams into existence then some folks ever have.  Ernie never gave up, and frankly with folks like Benoist to help him hoist the flag high, I hope he never will.  I know that is what I have learned more then anything. NEVER GIVE UP.

Since Benoist did a video addressing his reason for joining the HSD Project I have also been inspired.  I have began to write my own RPG for the first time...well ever.  My son wanted to work with me and so we bought web space, we registered our domain, and my wife begins working on the website for Rolling Bones Games.  Our first project is something called Precipice and I am trying to create my own science fiction game that gives the freedoms of Traveller but with an original back story straight out of our imaginations rather then tied to any one piece of literature or inspiration.  It has been hard work but its flowing out of my brain a lot faster then it ever has.  Forty Seven pages in thus far and no end in sight.  Even if it never gets finished, it gives me time with my son and my cousin and a few other friends whom want to help with it.  That is the other lesson that Empire of Imagination taught me.  Gary made a few choice mistakes with his family life, I am not perfect either by any stretch, but I think I will take one positive from his life.  I intend to have my family with me for the whole ride.

So in summary, thanks to everyone who has documented their journey with the HSD Project.  It has serveed as inspiration to myself and I am sure many others.  Thank you to Ernie for leading me on a unintentional journey of self re-discovery, and most importantly thanks to every fan out there whom rolls the bones whenever able.  Our hobby is one unrestricted by technology changes, bandwidth limits and gas prices.  A few pencils, some dice and paper, a smatter of books and a light source and we are golden!  Oh ya, Imagination required but not included! Also, Aenarion has slowly been getting resurrected.  I may not have my original information intact, but I have contact with several of the 50ish or so different players to run through it over the years and most of the time with little bits of input whole details come back to me.  I made a mock map up for now, and slowly began from the northwest corner to rewrite the story of the lands incorporating past adventures into the official history.  My own personal Hobby Shop Dungeon I guess!

Keep your chin up!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Departure from the norm to something different?

I haven't blogged in a few years honestly.  I had every intention too, but lets face it, life happens.  At some point I had desired in my mind's eye to be a writer.  However, I have found that writing is a far more intense effort then I had first expected.  Sure the ideas flood in, you jot them down quickly, but what I have found is that my ideas always come more like a Dungeon Master.  By that I mean, a large story arc, with several small encounters built in, but not a coherent long strain of thought.  I guess the best way to let you all understand is, A dungeon master provides what the eyes see, what noses smell, what the players hear and touch.  He plays every nefarious villain, with alignments to guide "how" that non player character will act.  But he does not write complex dialogue beyond what his creatures and villains need to say.  The innkeeper may seem very verbose, but you can bet if you start drilling me after a bit I am going to stumble,

Taking all of this into account, and examining my very large stack of failed writing attempts, what exactly was my issue.  I could spin a great yarn around a table but could never make it past 30 or so pages in writing a book of any kind before I just lost the drive, lost the thread of thought even with the outline I had produced.  I pondered this question for about a year now.  Was I just lazy?  Was I just making excuses.  Then in November I read a little book called "The Empire of Imagination"  In this book the writer, Michael Witwer, examines the life and inspirations behind Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons.  It is a very honest, and unflinching look at the life of a man whom in his genesis, was not your typical "Nerd"  More James Dean then Sheldon Cooper.  Do not get me wrong, by his late 20's he was firmly entrenched in nerddom and the seeds of what would one day become Dungeons and Dragons were starting to sprout.

Something more important happened to me from reading this book.  I felt inspired.  So many of Gygax's life experiences were mirrored in my own past.  Here is a guy who got it.  He had 1000's of ideas firing around and only a fraction hit paper.  More importantly he understood something that I think a lot of Dungeon Masters miss.  The piece I was missing in my own writing was the dialogue that happens around the table.  The players provide the story through their own roleplaying.  When my son cackles with glee at his nefarious Cleric of Nerull getting away with some evil deed, My daughters roar of triumph when she takes out the orc that was about to kill the druid with a single shot from her bow...those are the details that the players bring to the tale.   Gygax got this early on.  In the late 70's as D&D was hitting the height of its popularity, players and DM's alike began crying out for more and more information relating too Gary's version of Greyhawk.  Gamers have chomped at the bit to find out what the 13 levels of Castle Greyhawk held.  But Gary, while still a business man, felt it was crucial that every game be unique to the group.  That modules be just guidelines and not hard fixed instructions as to how the game was to progress.

I also realized something.  When TSR was helmed by Gary, game products were designed for mostly the DM in mind.  This did not cause the product overload because if you got 6 D&D players usually 1 or 2 maximum are DM's, the rest are all players.  Production was kept to as close to demand oriented as it could be.  Players generally speaking in Gary's Day bought the players handbook, and MAYBE the monster manuals.  Other then that most products were reserved for the DM's eyes only.  This was because Gary did not want people trying to replicate what he was doing in Lake Geneva with Luke, Ernie, Rob, Elise and others.  He wanted us to make our own stories and tales.  In fact, as evidence of this, if you read any of his old responses on the Troll Lord games boards even, he was still answering the same questions I found him answering in 1979 in Dragon magazine.  Do dwarf women have beards?  Why cant elves be paladins or rangers or druids?  Over and over the same litany of questions.  But if you compare his 1979 answer to his 2006 answer, you see a vastly different Gary.

I theorize the difference in the answer is not just maturity, but instead understanding.  You see Gary had come to see his beloved game and what the money seeking harpies of certain companies have become, and what that effect had caused to occur within his own creation.  In order to make money, TSR switched its focus from tools and guidelines to spoonfeeding.  If you look at the product changes from 1st to 2nd edition AD&D, they became more spoon fed and less outlines or skeletons. So now players and DM's alike were not even rationalizing their own explanations for these questions.  Instead they were waiting for someone, anyone to tell them this is the reason why an elf cant do this etc etc.  This was only further egged on by the fact that TSR copped to the demands of the player base and began reversing some of these design decisions.  Suddenly to capture that player market they produced a glut of kit books, and player options.  TSR went after the players hardcore.  But as their business history shows, that was kind of a huge mistake for them.  Instead of focusing on how to increase their market appeal and attract new gamers, they opted to follow the 80's model used in comic books, baseball cards and the like.  Flood the market till it bursts with product.  

I promise this long winded explanation will eventually get back to my writing.  It ties together with the culture I was immersed in.  I was a young pre-teen and teen in the late 80's to early 90's stretch of gaming.  Though I got into D&D around 1982, I was very young and it was the red basic book with holes punched in it for binder use.  I did not graduate to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons till around 1985/86 which is when sadly Gary had been screwed out of his own company by a particularly vicious breed of gold seeking harpies.  I had no idea that 2nd edition did not come from the mind of the man that had inspired me but instead as a ploy in part to further stick it in and break it off in the guy who and invented the hobby in the first place.  I gobbled up whatever I could afford with my chore money and regularly begged my parents for trips to 25th Century five and dime in Bloomington, Indiana to pick up the latest bit of D&D goodness.  I paused over shrink wrapped modules in B-Dalton and Waldenbooks, and when the computer RPG versions hit the market I was the first kid to grab up the golden boxed treasures.  The whole time, much like a hero in a Poul Anderson novel I was being led away from my goal is writing and being creative that Gary had intended and instead being driven into the "don't think for yourself and create, buy buy buy and just regurgitate" medium that our hobby became and nearly died too.

In fact it is fair to say, even though I collect RPG's, I honestly was not collecting out of a desire to learn something new, most of them got flipped through once or twice and then sat upon a shelf, untouched and unused because and I quote "I WAS NOT ACTUALLY USING THEM".  You see even then at the height of second edition, I was still doing things like adapting Arcanum second edition to my game, or writing my own intense plots, that inevitably did not take place in the realms, or dragonlance or even greyhawk, but instead my own world Aenarion.  But I was so blinded to the fact that I was doing the hobby as the creator had intended that instead I still felt like I was doing something wrong.  Now let's be clear.  The glut of D&D products that were made are still high quality fun products by great authors.  I am not in any fashion knocking them, and were I in the author's position and offered the chance to write an adventure my way and get paid for it, or hell even see my name in print, I would have been all over it.  The politics and morality attached to pulling something farther and farther away from the vision of it's creator never once would have dawned on me.

So, fast forward to 3rd edition, I was in the military, and frankly moving quite a bit which made gaming pretty harsh.  I continued to run my world of Aenarion though frankly, it had devolved more into being just Forgotten Realms with touches of my world stuck in here and there...till at last by the time 3.5 was announced, I had completely given over to just running published modules with slight alterations as needed.  I think it was later when 4th edition came out to replace it and I was showing up to these tiny little sessions with me and a handful 14-18 year old kids for a 3 hour encounter adventure that I finally said forget this.  I knew in my heart something was wrong.  I knew now that while these kids had the right spirit, they were lacking the true vision of what the game was about.  It was all meta gaming min/maxing characters as the game became more World of Warcraft and less D&D.  

Now I was a 30 year old man with 2 very young children.  I was a civilian and my dreams of Dungeons and Dragons were just that...dreams.  Coupled with a Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and Diabetes within the same week and within months of just having a new daughter born and frankly, I was just done.  The spark that was my imagination burned low, and while I still tried to recapture writing adventures and short stories, my mind was spent just trying to figure out my own adventure with all these new challenges.  A few years later I met an on again off again friend named Sergio who also liked to roll bones.  We worked at Sherwin Williams for years together through some hectic times and built up a strong work relationship that just somehow never found its way into a strong out of work relationship.  We started and stopped half a dozen games over the course of the next few years as work and real life always won out.  I just could never get into 4th edition.  Something was missing from it, like a beautiful woman with no soul, I would pour through the 4th edition books and find pretty pictures and jaw dropping concepts but frankly the gameplay was all about dice rolling and not the "ROLE" of the character.  Something was beginning to break loose inside me that wanted answers but they were still a few years in coming.

Fast forward to 2015.  My kids now being pre teens and being extremely smart, loved to be read too.  My wife and I took so much pleasure doing this that at 10 and 12 years of age we are still reading to them even right now.  Not only that but a year or two before that I started bringing them to the table.  My son ,who is very logically minded, began to love the math and tactics of 4th edition.  I kept trying to explain to him how it was just not daddy's cup of tea, but he loved it so much we still ran many a game.  However then I discover this:

and soon my mind was blown yet again.  I poured over the website, researched the history of the authors and artists and became intrigued.  These were guys from my era making a product that was in the vein of what I remember.  Not only that, they were doing it for a reason I could back, to honor the memory of the man that gave this hobby to me.  I then knew what it was I had to do...but you will have to wait to find out what happened in my next blog entry!