Tuesday 29 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 9 - 1991

*stone hits window*


*stone hits window again*


I sleepily open the window and stare down at the dimly-lit street below my bedroom. It's Nick.

'What? What do you want?' I whisper down. The neighbour's dog has already started barking.

'Are you okay to game?' Nick tries to whisper, but let's face it, he's shouting.

'It's... it's 1:00 in the fucking morning!' I blurt out loudly when my eyes finally focus on the red glowing numbers on my alarm clock.

'Yeah, but are you okay to game right now?'

Now, I was still living at home at this time. I wouldn't move out until the end of this year, but it was the only place many of my gaming friends could come to regularly for games. And I was gaming a lot. Even at 1:00 in the morning, on a workday, when Nick had had a few beers and decided that playing his Star Wars character was a good idea. And he'd walked three miles to do so.

I worked out recently that I was gaming four times a week - Paul, PaulG and group, Paul Mark and Nick, and Nick. Nick, at 1:00 in the morning. The games did get intense with Nick, sometimes too much so, and we'd game until stupid o'clock in the morning... when my mom had gone away, of course. I perfected a few GMing skills during this period, learned how to combine a player's need to control his PCs destiny without compromising the story. In fact, these were some of my first ever sadnbox games, the kind of games I revel in. Sometimes I was given such short notice I had to run a game on the fly. After all, 1:00 in the morning is pretty damn short notice. I learned by the seat of my GMing pants.

That was a lot of gaming. I was playing a lot, only GMing every now and then, but playing a lot. Some games were good, some bad, some amazing, some atrocious. Now, Tere Swordsong had retired - not died or been defeated, he'd just retired - and we were playing a lot of Star Wars D6. A lot. Me and Paul had kind of locked horns on how cool our primary PCs were, and we had started to not only have a stab but royally screw each other over as we GM'd for each other. This was my Mary Sue period - my Star Wars PC, Goah Galletti, was simply the best and I expected respect when I played him and demanded respect when I GM'd him as an NPC. Me and Paul fought back and forth, always trying to outdo each other, and awarded our PCs special plaudits and equipment whilst NPCing them. I'm sure there was some great gaming in there somewhere, but mostly it was juvenile rubbish. Sadly, it's the juvenile rubbish that I remember the most.

I was also partying. A lot. My hair grew long, I started to smoke, I barely got through the weekends sober. Towards the end of the year RPGs had suddenly become a week-time thing, as weekends were far too valuable to use up on dice when there was beer to be had. Beer and cigarettes. And girls. By the end of December I'd moved out of my home and into a house with Nick and Stan, and that house became the party house for not only our friends but pretty much everyone we ever met.

I'm not saying this to give myself some kind of street cred, considering that I've been going on and on about my roleplaying. I had no intention of giving up RPGs as I loved them too much, but I found out that there was more to life than rulebooks and dice.

It's when I tried to mix the two that things went crazy.

My Gaming Memoirs Part 8 - 1990

This was a very active year for me.

On top of the gaming I was also playing Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat (in which Paul kicked my arse), Dark Future (in which I kicked Paul's arse), BattleTech (in which Paul made me look like a massive loser by kicking my arse) and Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (in which Paul continued to kick my arse). Our MERP games were still going strong but Paul obviously wanted to get back to the 'big fight' kind of games and we found that in MechWarrior - enter Matthew Haskenn, crap as a secret service investigator but give him a Rorynex and a few grenades and he'll blow up entire planets. If you ever meet Paul, ask him about Haskenn, the grenade, the ammo dump and 'Chariots of Fire'. Hilarity will be sure to ensue.

I'd started a new job that year so I now had some money to spend on gaming materials. I got in new books and RPGs that caught my eye - my roleplaying collection had started in earnest. 2300AD, Twilight: 2000, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu... my shelves begam to fill with books and material and I lost myself in the rules and settings. They'd be played - not much but they would be played - but I wanted them for the pleasure of reading them and experiencing other forms of roleplaying.

Anyway, Nick had entered the gaming group by creating a character for our Setnin Sector Star Wars D6 games. The games were getting longer, incorporating many wolrds and NPCs, and a large ring-binder folder had been started to catalogue all the designs, and locations. It was turning into a big campaign. Nick also gamed with some guys at a house only five minuites walk from where I lived, so after a few introductions I became involved in an AD&D 2nd Edition game with PaulG, Dave, Phil, Darren, PhilP and Rob. I'd already fallen out of love with D&D after several abismal games, and these games only hardened my opinion. This isn't to criticise the gaming group or PaulG who DM'd the games, it was just that I did not like the system at all. I introduced them to Warhammer FRP and we played some Star Wars D6, and we even went on and played Shadowrun (Paul, MERP Paul, had introduced me to that already, but I wasn't hot on it). I tried to get into character or try to throw them in to epic, emotionally-driven or story-centric plots but most of the time I just made myself look stupid because they didn't go for it - we'd end up just taking the piss and drinking more. They were an excellent group of gamers and friends, and we'd game together and socialise together.

These were fun, dungeon-bashing games. I could bop orcs over the head and moan about treaure, XP and dodgy players whilst knocking back beers in one environment, and get into character, play a role and tell a story in another. I had the best of both worlds. It was MERP I still enjoyed the most, though, but, sadly, Tere Swordsong's adventures would come to an end the next year.

Oh, yeah - I kind of discovered alcohol this year, too. That's a story all of itself, but my party habits didn't really affect my gaming for a couple more years. More on that later.

Monday 28 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 7 - 1989

MERP. A scout named Tere Swordsong. Clannad.

These three things would define roleplaying for me, and set me on a gaming course I've hardly ever steered from. And it's thanks to Paul, that crazy bastard, that I game the way I do today. God bless his mom and dad for knowing what he wanted for Christmas.

I was used to simple systems. Basic D&D, Star Wars D6 - hell, I'd even run some games of Fighting Fantasy for some people. I was used to spending half an hour tops in the character creation process, I'd slap a quick name onto them and send them in. They'd usually be dead in a few games, but to me they were playing pieces and I'd be as attached to them as I was to the top hat in Monopoly so it wasn't a problem. Shot in the head? Roll up a new character. Squashed by boulders? Pass me another character sheet. Ejected into space in only his underwear? Give me ten minutes, I'll have his successor ready. Not a problem.

It took me the better part of two hours to create Tere Swordsong. I was excited about playing MERP - after all, I was deeply in love with Tolkien's world so to be able to play in it sounded amazing. I decided on a scout, rolled for his stats under the watchful eye of Paul (it was his first time playing MERP, as well) and built him up.

Now, let me put this into perspective. One of my favourite shows on television was Robin of Sherwood, the Michael Praed episodes especially. I'd always wanted to play a character like Robin, the way Praed played him, and I had always failed to do so. So, I designed this one specifically to be good with a sword and a bow. He wasn't great - I didn't choose the best class for the job - but he was well-rounded and skilled. So, when I turn up for the first gaming session at Paul's house I'm ready to go, and what music does Paul unknowingly put on in the background? Clannad's 'Legend'. The soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood. It was like the fates had taken an interest in RPGs, all of a sudden.

So, the game begins. The character also had two large mountain lions as pets (don't ask me, Paul said I was allowed) and I enter the Trollshaws and the Inn of the Last Bridge... yep, the introductory adventures in the MERP boxset. Paul used the adventures to stretch his legs and get used to the system. I got ready for the game in the expectation that it'd be like all the others I'd played in. Kill-loot-XP-kill-loot-XP-death.

But that didn't happen at all. Walking into the inn I had to ask around for news and adventure. I talked, actually had conversations with, the locals and the barman. For the first hour of the adventure I asked questions and learned things, about the trolls that had kidnapped the innkeeper's son, about the tumbled down tower in the hills. I drank ale, ate ham and cheese, smoked my long pipe and sat back by the fire whilst the patrons talked and joked and laughed with me. I slept long to gain strength and then went out to find the inkeepers son. I found the troll lair, got in, fought the trolls, broke my ankle for the trouble (that was embarressing - I threw my shield and fumbled the throw, and it rebounded back at me and hit me in the shin) and saved the boy. I was helped with a magical healing salve and just in time, too; horsemen were bearing down on us, crying out that we must not report their presence! After deftly blocking a mounted rider's strike with my shield I hit back with a roll of 60 on an 'E' critical! Bingo! (if you know MERP, you'll know what that means). After driving off the others we got back to the inn and reported what had happened - who were these soldiers, and why were they hiding in the woods? The innkeeper offered me treasure and Paul the GM offered me expereince points, but for the first time ever I was thinking, 'Gold and XP be damned! What were those soldiers up to?!?'

And that was it. I had had my first fully immersive roleplaying experience. It had taken the better part of five years to get to this point, to this moment of sheer passion and enjoyment and the excitement of beginning the next adventure. I had almost given up the hobby several times, but now I was here to stay. I understood now how profound an emotional experience an immersive RPG could be, like losing yourself in a good book or becoming embroiled with a movie.

I tried to emulate what Paul was doing with my own games, I ran some Basic D&D and I bought the softback version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay which I put on the shelf pretty quickly (it would be a few years before WFRP would dominate my gaming life) but I was lousy at it. I'd be trying so hard to push the drama and the story I'd forget about the players and they'd soon become bored of the whole thing. Paul had a natural talent, he had an instinct and he knew how to run an amazing game. I was wasting my time trying to copy that but I didn't realise it at the time, I just kept trying. I think, in reality, I was so impatient for the next game that I was trying that for a gaming fix. That's how good Paul's GMing was. That's how hooked I was.

I still ran Star Wars D6 every now and then and the games got bigger, but it was mainly me, Mark and Paul. When Nick came on the scene later that year he introduced me to other gamers in the area and my gaming social circle explosively increased. Suddenly, I was gaming much more than I'd hoped.

My Gaming Memoirs Part 6 - 1988

It took a little while for things to get off the ground. First of all my family and I had to move house - in which several books of my collection and many figures went missing. I managed to replace the gamebooks that disappeared (luckily, none of them were any of the original prints that I had acquired) but I could never replace my orc warband and bolt thrower, but mostly I could never replace the missing model of my first ever RPG character, the badly-painted slinking thief Jamm Donut. It was quite a blow and I was sorely disappointed.

It took quite a while to settle into the new house, but gaming soon commenced. Along with my two friends and regular gamers Mark and Paul we set about delving into a huge Star Wars campaign, starting with some simple adventures that eventually grew into huge campaigns. I got my inspiration from the movies - if we'd been to see it at the flicks, then I'd run a game based on it. Aliens? Kelly's Heroes? Rambo III? Top Gun? If you'd watched it, I'd GM it. There were times we'd get back to my house, still buzzing after watching a suitably high-octane movie, and say 'Hey - maybe we could do a Star Wars version of that!' and out came the dice.

It was fun, but this is where the problems started. Firstly, we'd made a mess of the character development rules so the PCs were advancing at an incredible rate, which made the games almost impossible to enjoy when some rolls would take more than a dozen dice. We rectified that pretty quick, I can tell you, and basically started our characters from scratch with a couple of extra building dice.

Then there was the problem of recreating the movies. The games started to become flat and dull, with predictable stories and obvious plot changes to make the adventure seem original. It was just someone else's creation with a story change and the serial numbers filed off, and out of all of us I was the culprit. I was in danger of stunting my interest in roleplaying games because I was starting to become thoroughly bored with the whole thing.

But then, for Christmas 1988, Paul got MERP, and things changed. I finally began to understand what the word 'role' in 'roleplaying' actually meant.

Friday 18 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 5 - 1987

'What? Star Wars? A Star Wars roleplaying game?'

I was incredulous but there it was, the bright pictures taunting me from the back of the magazine. It was going to happen - there was going to be a Star Wars roleplaying game and I would have the players, players that would not only game with me but they loved the Star Wars universe. What could be better?

But it would be a long, long wait. My home life had improved somewhat - my father had finally left - and things were much more quiet. I would have to wait until the end of the year before I could get hold of the rulebooks and it was a long, long summer. I dabbled in D&D, ran some more Fighting Fantasy RPGs and basically bided my time. Me and my friend Mark had been creating a huge Star Wars setting with our stories and cassette dramas. It was called the Setnin Sector, and we already had dozens of characters, worlds and stories under our belts. So, we already had a campaign setting designed, fleshed out and mapped. All we need was the game.

It wasn't until the November of that year that I was able to walk into Game and hand over the cash. A week later, a trip to the Virgin Megastore got me the Sourcebook.

I was ready. I was ready and able and confident to run Star Wars games. The system was easy and fluid, the atmosphere was amazing. The game captured the movies wonderfully - remember, it had only been about three years since Return of the Jedi had been released - and I was ready.

A fellow gamer named Paul joined the mix and we began. The game that would dominate my RPG hobby for the next seven years had started, and the players had to find out what had happened to a Rebel outpost that had been destroyed by unknown assailants...

The erratic nature of my roleplaying was coming to an end. With Star Wars I had a small group of dedicated players with whom I gamed regularly. Nothing could stop us.

It took a few months for the problems to start.

Thursday 17 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 4 - 1986

Things were bleak. My home life was a mess and my only escape, other than the cassette dramas me and my friend Mark were making and my gamebooks, were my very few forays into RPGs. A stolen game here, a quick lunch break scenario there. I managed to sit in on a couple of sessions of a Star Wars-themed game of Traveller, but the erratic nature of the game and the fact that I didn't feel altogether welcome at the table put me off it. I hadn't tried any of the AD&D stuff - I only had the first three Basic boxes - so my RPG experience was very limited. I was only looking at games I could find in the local toyshop and that was just D&D and miniatures.

But then I made a fateful trip into the next city and it was here, nestled in between plenty of other mainstream shops and not tucked away down a back alley, was a gaming shop.

I can't remember what it was called, I'm pretty sure it was just called 'Game', long before the chain we now know as the electronic gaming shop. And in there I had life breathed into my flagging RPG enthusiasm.

There were dozens of games. Lots of boxsets, loads of AD&D stuff, science fiction and fantasy and pseudo-historical and historical and just plain weird - shelves and shelves of games and accessories and figures and dice. It was like walking into a revelation - RPGs were HUGE! Much bigger than I had ever thought, and here were other gamers standing and talking and exchanging views and ideas. I was only 15 years old and still very shy and nervous so I stood and listened whilst thumbing through books and gazing lovingly at miniatures.

I purchased a copy of 'Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World' (which sits proudly in my bookcase, signed by both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at the 2010 UK Games Expo) and walked out, stunned and deleriously happy. The prospect of going home to the anger and the trauma didn't mean anything in those precious minutes I had spent gazing longingly at the myriad of games I so desperately wanted to own. I had been lost in the world of games, realised that I wasn't the only one with a passion for these things which meant I didn't feel so alone. I'd danced in the worlds of those books and boxsets, and I was determined to play more regularly and with other players who appreciated RPGs. I wanted stories in my games, not encounters. Characters, not playing pieces. Adventures, not incidents. I wanted to tell stories with my games, and the players and I would create sagas.

At least, that's what my 15 year old self would have said those many years ago, though probably not so articulately. But what game would attract players to the kind of games I wanted to play?

Monday 14 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 3 - 1985

So. My parents were getting a divorce. And it wasn't a mutual decision. My mother needed to leave my bully of a father after many long years of sadness and so she bravely took the plunge and started the ball rolling.

Over the next couple of years things would become increasingly bleak in my home. My parents would become embroiled in constant arguments, long evenings of threats and abuse, sometimes degenerating into violence. I'm not fishing for sympathy - this was many years ago and the issues have long since been dealt with. Suffice to say that my mother and the two remaining children of her six offspring were put through an abusive, torturous hell by a violent bully of a father. And that's the first time I've ever said that in public, so there you go. That's what it was like.

How did I handle this? I tucked myself away inside gamebooks and RPGs. I was still an impressionable youth at 14 years old and the world had suddenly become a dangerous, violent and scary place. I had no control over it, no say in what happened in my home, no way to change or influence the outcome of every single long day and even longer night. Gamebooks and RPGs gave me that control. I wanted that control so badly I switched from being a player to running the games as the GM, so that I could have control and everyone would be able to have fun because I decided it. My grades suffered (it was, after all, the lead up to my final 'O' level exams at 16) and my schoolwork was pretty much neglected, thanks to the battle going on in my home. Strangely, the blame was laid squarely on the fact that I spent a lot of time with my nose in these books and not enough time studying. Yeah, right - so the blazing rows until 2:00 in the morning and the crashing doors had nothing to do with it, then.

It was during this period that I discovered another kind of roleplaying; me and my best friend Mark who helped me through this difficult time also made radio plays on cassette tapes, both dramatic (usually Star Wars) and comedy (our own juvenile creations). It was the Star Wars stories that stuck and grew - in later years these roots would be the beginnings of the longest ever campaign I had ever run.

But that was still 4 years away.

My actual RPG gaming time was lacking during this year as people drifted from the hobby into the arms of ZX Spectrums and C64s - even then the power of the computer game was looming. I had the red box D&D and I ran a couple of games using the Fighting Fantasy introductory RPG for a couple of friends and even my family. I didn't really know what I was doing, but it was fun to run a game. I stocked up on miniatures (my first 'army' was an orc standard bearer, drummer, general, about four warriors and a bolt thrower crew, all from Citadel Miniatures). I realised very early on that I didn't have either the patience or the talent to colour up my models and the majority of them stayed silver. It didn't matter. They were mine, and they were perfect for the very few games I got to play.

I played so little, in fact, I almost stopped gaming altogether, but the following year something happened to keep me on the gaming track.

Sunday 13 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 2 - 1984

'Dungeons and Dragons? What's that?'

I'd heard of the game but never actually seen or played it. I was knee-deep in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and had no inkling that the experience could go beyond choosing paragraph entries. This was long before the internet made such things easier to find and learn about. I think the only time I'd ever seen the game even mentioned was on the back of an old issue of Conan the Barbarian (which, incidentally, I still possess).

'It's called a role-playing game,' said Des, one of my school mates. 'It's supposed to be really good. You like playing those gamebooks, yeah?'


'Yeah, well, they're supposed to be like that, but you can do what you want'.

My 13-year old brain was slightly muddled. A game like that? With my curiosity piqued, me and my new best friend Mark sought out more information.

We didn't have to look far. It turned out that one of the teachers at school, Mr Bowen, was starting a D&D after school club in room 1A, and potential gamers of all ages and sexes were invited. I was lucky to get a seat at the table of Jason, my first ever DM and a member of my present-day gaming circle. Jason had been dabbling in the dark arts of DMing for a short while and this was his first big game. Room 1A filled up and the games began.

My very first Basic D&D character, in fact my very first RPG character period, was a thief named Jamm Donut. Okay, not a great start but we were all young and we didn't really know what we were doing. Fighting alongside Mark's character, a wizard named Taskmaster, and several other players we assembled in a tavern and trudged down to the dungeons. I can't remember much about the adventure but I do remember my very first kill - a random skeleton wandering the dungeon. After taking a hefty hit I managed to defeat it and Jason described it collapsing in a heap of bones at my feet. It was exhilirating.

After a couple more weeks the dungeon ended with us defeating the bad guy and being catapulted through a portal back to the inn where we had started with our spoils.

It was an incredible experience. Many times I had wondered what I could have done beyond the choices in a gamebook, even decried the fact that there were choices I would have preferred, and here was a way to do that. I was hooked. Within weeks I had saved up enough pocket money to buy my own Basic D&D red box, and then my money after that went on miniatures and paints.

The club, sadly, did not last and we began to travel to each others houses to play. The hobby waned for some but I couldn't put it down, always eager to play. Others didn't really understand it and drifted away and others really bought into it and played not only D&D but other games, such as Traveller and RuneQuest. But it was always Basic D&D that thrilled me.

The following year, roleplaying games and gamebooks would become an important and much sought-after escape for my teenage self as my family life entered a traumatic period.

Saturday 12 March 2011

My Gaming Memoirs Part 1 - 1983

Is that how you spell memoirs? I suppose I could have looked it up on an online dictionary but I didn't. I guess I could have looked it up in the time it's taken me to type this up, but now that I've spent the time writing this it seems a shame to delete it all. Ah, well, I'll go with 'memoirs'.


It's 1983. My little sister Christina is still at primary school and I've not long started secondary school. She comes home one night with a small pamphlet filled with small images of children's books, all published by Puffin and being made available to schools. She wants to know if anyone wants anything as she is going to purchase a book or two.

Up until this point I've been a passive observer of the science fiction/fantasy genres. I've cut my teeth on Star Wars, Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds, the BBC dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings and plenty of classic sci-fi movies such as This Island Earth, The Thing From Another World and the Day The Earth Stood Still. I was still a distance from appreciating science fiction and fantasy in all it's forms - I still didn't like Blade Runner because Han Solo wasn't doing what I expected him to do.

So I'm scouring these book images for anything that seems even slightly quirky when my roving eyes fall on the image of some kind of cat/wolf beast with black fur and red eyes, at the head of a long line of beasts all exiting a castle as bat-winged creatures soar through a blood-red sky. It's 'The Citadel of Chaos', book two of the Fighting Fantasy series, and I'm intrigued. An original fighting fantasy adventure in which YOU are the hero? Whatever could this mean?

So, bang goes a week's pocket money and the book is ordered. Several days later, I sit down on a rainy Saturday afternoon to read it and I'm perplexed by these scores, dice and apparent rules. After raiding the tattered Monopoly box for two six-sided dice I tentatively have a first go at the book.

I don't remember how well I did, but I do remember missing my tea as I was totally absorbed by the book. I went to bed late and arose early the next Sunday morning, like pre-8 o'clock early, to carry on playing and it was only when my mom physically dragged me out of the bedroom to eat my Sunday dinner was I able to get any kind of grasp on the real world. At school the following Monday I gushed to classmates about this book, how amazing it was and how it allowed you to take part in and even decide the outcome of a story. I was hooked, and after I located a copy of 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain' I began to collect the books in earnest. I loved reading and my over-active imagination loved adventures - how could it get any better than this?

The following year, I'd have that question answered.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

My Convention Disaster

It was the UK Games Expo a couple of years ago and I offered my services for the Friday RPG sessions as a GM to help fill a table and demo my SKETCH game. I designed a dungeon, advertised it and got some interest. I was alloted six places and I filled them all.

I got there in plenty of time on the Friday, set up, and watched the eight or nine other tables around me fill up. I sat there eagerly waiting.

And nobody came.

While the other gamers roared and laughed and rolled their dice I sat there with a vast empty table, the seats all pushed under, the spaces filled with character sheets and notes. The dice were piled in the centre of the table in a neat pyramid and didn't move for the two hours I waited. I sat and wrote notes and tried to look busy, but considering the trade halls were not open until the next day I couldn't even take a wander around the show.

As I was also covering the show for two online magazines I was given a free pass for the weekend so it wasn't a total loss. But I never found out why they never came - as far as I can tell they all signed up independantly and they never knew each other, so it's not like they all bailed for the same reason.

The thing I remember the most is the lady DM running a game at the next table looking over at me with a pained expression, like she really felt my pain, and then leaned over and whispered, 'Are you sure you got your times right?'

Yes. Yes, I did.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

STORMLAND - My D&D campaign setting

I'll be putting up my fantasy campaign setting STORMLAND for people to use at their whim, soon. I'll make it available as a free download at Farsight Games. It's mainly fluff and the races/classes in the D&D 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder books, including all the monsters and magic, can be used willy nilly.