I got the Basic D&D box set in 1981 as a birthday gift. I was a kid. I figured out how to run it with my sister, though her patience was limited back then, and soon I was running games for my friends. I quickly moved on to games besides D&D, not just fantasy games but every other available genre. My friends and I found D&D to be quite limiting in several respects, and its mechanics seemed sloppy, so we didn’t play it much. Eventually, over many years, I played dozens of different published games with dozens of gamers. All of them knew D&D but none of them was playing D&D, at least while I knew them, or held it in special esteem, except in the way you might regard a much older and out-of-touch relative with respect. This was my gaming scene in the early to late ‘80s in a midwestern city within easy driving range of GenCon, which I attended several times. “Old School” gamers who talk as if D&D was the only game in town during the pioneer period of adventure gaming have it wrong. Maybe that’s how it seemed to them, but not for us, and we were many.
I was almost always the Gamemaster in my groups. It’s what I did as a young fellow for a good fifteen years. It’s shocking to me in hindsight to think how often and for how many consecutive hours I played with my friends, with multiple groups of friends, throughout my later childhood and through college. Those gamer friends were some of my best friends ever. We played a lot, and our role-playing games grew more intense and immersive as we worked together. Through our roles and stories we gradually bared our souls to each other and learned about each other inside and out. We had games so exciting that players felt elation, games so heart-wrenchingly sad that everybody at the table once started crying, games so terrifying that players physically jumped up and screamed “I run!”
I ran those engrossing games. I was good at it, but it worked only because I had core groups of players who were fully committed to immersive collaborative storytelling structured by game rules. My players fleshed out their character with depth and detail and motivation and back-stories without any mechanical rules requirements. New players who joined us would learn this from the others. The shared experience bound us together. We were the artists and the sole audience at the same time. We talked about it as an art form even as kids, an art form that nobody else could share with us. As we matured, we used our maturity in the games. Our games could entail experiments in political thought or explorations of identity, consciousness, gender, or personality. We studied books and movies for methods to build and shape atmosphere. We talked about genre and motivation and philosophy in the margins of the games. We talked about them as stories, not mere games. This was my “old school,” already in the mid-‘80s, well before game designers started to make their game mechanics explicitly conducive to genre-specific stories or to present them as primarily vehicles for storytelling rather than storytelling games.
I am certain that we weren’t the only ones playing like that, but I never met others who said that they played this way. We did know players for whom the game was only a chance for a power trip, and we avoided them. Members of my player groups certainly enjoyed power trips, and we all regarded it as fun, but nobody in my groups cared for that only. Many of the players in my groups came to relish playing flawed characters—tragic, comedic, absurd, or a mixture of tones—more than heroes.
I stopped playing when I moved far away from the gamers I knew. Maybe it’s because there was no way to replace those relationships. Maybe it’s because my career was taking off and it was more engrossing than any game. The real world is an interesting place. I traveled to distant places. I went and got an advanced degree. I got a paying job. I got married. We had kids. I like my work and I love my family. I love spending time with them. I have had no time for role-playing games. I have had better things to do.
During the decades of non-gaming that have elapsed for me, the internet became pervasive and online computer games became immersive. Computer games took over the name “role-playing,” so that now I have to specify that what I did was “tabletop role-playing games.” Our whole culture changed during a period in which I scarcely thought about gaming in any format, but gaming changed along with these changes in our culture. Coming back to the hobby now, it seems somewhat alien.
Once upon a time, I had copies of just about every role-playing game rule set published in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s. I deliberately collected them even when I didn’t play them. I got permission to get a part-time job at an early age and I used the money basically to buy role-playing games. I thought about these games all the time. I was seriously contemplating a career in game design. But that didn’t happen. After a few decades of not playing, I had long since sold off most of my collection or just given stuff away. Sometimes I even threw them out. That’s how completely I had moved on to other things.
As years passed, imaginary worlds started to seem like a dead end. I sometimes thought of what I might have done as a young person with the time I had spent gaming. In more distant hindsight, I see how imaginary worlds were helpful for me. In my case, they were a shelter from abusive parents and ferocious school bullies. Imaginary worlds were my soul jar through years of suicidal depression. You never lose the scars, but I think that role-playing games contributed to my survival into adulthood, to fatherhood, and to a stage in which I made my own family, and in which I could play the part of father better than my own did.
But I came back. The next entry will explain how.