RPGs: Origins

In this introductory episode of a new series on roleplaying, Steve Mackenzie takes you back to his origins as a role-player, and guides you through his development from new comer to his  present day dungeon mastering exploits.

“And one man in his time plays many parts.”

RPG Stock Image 1 (by Robin Lees)Like all first instalments, this is something of an origin story. It’s a prologue that establishes the setting for more exciting episodes to come. It is the mandatory back-story the narrator is obliged to tell to create a connection between protagonist and audience, before all the good bits can be introduced. Not that I’m using that as an excuse, of course! It’s just that this bit has to come first. Future posts will analyse elements and mechanics of popular roleplay systems, delve into what makes a good character and an even better Dungeon Master. I realise the term DM is somewhat outdated, given that it has been almost entirely superseded by Games Master (GM), but my earliest gaming memories are of adventuring through the dank dungeons and creepy corridors of Heroquest. Dungeon Master was the term I became most familiar with to describe the guy round the table trying to kill the rest of us – and it’s the term that has stuck.

My gaming history is filled with more hours of roleplaying than actual board gaming. It was the cornerstone of my formative years, provided me with a friendship group and developed my social skills. (Oh, wait, that’s why I’m like this!) There are few things I remember from my school days more vividly than the characters I lived vicariously through – Tarin Lightfoot, Warhammer High Elf rogue, Shrink-Man, Heroes Unlimited diminutive protagonist, and not forgetting Spike, the teenage mutant ninja porcupine. There are several campaign settings and individual events I can recall in more detail than my 10th to 15th birthday parties. I was lucky enough to be a teenager of the 90s, long after the ‘demon worshipping’ furore surrounding early roleplay games had died out and teen nerds were allowed to lock themselves in a room and role dice without fear of an angry mob with pitchforks rudely interrupting. I don’t remember if we were outcasts in the eyes of our cooler, sportier classmates. I’m sure there were jokes and light ridiculing. To be honest I just didn’t care. Roleplaying with my friends (and that vast array of lead miniatures under my bed) meant the world to me.

I can pinpoint the moment I first played a roleplay game, an alien concept at the time with a piece of paper and some funny dice (and no board). September 1991, you’ll forgive that I can’t remember the exact day of the week! It was raining out so the class were kept inside during lunch. We were slightly bored and had taken to drawing juvenile (read, rude) images on the whiteboard and from his bag my friend produced a large, shiny, paperback book and some dice. My very first roleplay experience had literally just been brought to the table. I’m paraphrasing slightly when I say his words were, “Anyone want to play?” But it was something just as innocent. There was no fanfare, no 76 trombones to herald in this most important of moments. This was pre-MP3 of course, so there wasn’t even a tinny soundtrack emanating from the cool corner of the classroom (unlike a Zach Braff movie, where every defining milestone is accompanied by a hip tune). Needless to say, bored and confronted by awesome dice (twenty, TWENTY sides!), a group of us agreed. I have never looked back.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness RPG Cover
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness ©Palladium Books (August 1987)

The RPG in question was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness (TMNT for short), a comic I was familiar with. I had seen the British cartoon starring Leonardo and his shell-shod pals, although due to some odd law forbidding the use of the word ‘ninja’ it had been renamed to the kid-friendly, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Yet, these weren’t the bright, smiley, cowabunga Turtles I knew. The artwork was dark and sketchy, the descriptions were gritty: for an 11 year-old boy this was new and exciting, maybe just a touch subversive (without the need for a pitchfork-wielding mob, of course). Building a character seemed, at first, complicated and unwieldy. Rolling lots of dice and adding various, seemingly random, numbers to define my statistics blew my brain. But our DM knew the book cover to cover and made the process as streamlined as possible. As an aside, this is such an important point that can never be overstated: the DM must know the source materials, rules and character actions inside-out, and certainly better than the rest of the players. In no time I had my very first RPG character, a paired-sai swinging, mutated porcupine. I thought I was being clever when I christened him Spike.

Our very first adventure was taking down a group of demonic teddy bears, I kid ye not, that I’m pretty sure weirded-out my 11 year-old self. The dice rolling and split-second (not always correct) decision making soon became second nature. The Palladium d20 system was intuitive and logical: here’s a number, roll more than that with this dice. There was a palpable excitement in rolling a natural 20, pulling off whatever action you were doing with élan, especially if that meant chopping the bad guy’s arm off! This coupled with the fear of rolling a 1 and slipping on your butt while trying to complete a tricky acrobatic feat, leading to total indignity for your mutant feline and showering shame on the player who rolled it.

TMNT provided our gateway into other Palladium RPGs such as Ninjas and Superspies and Heroes Unlimited. For the uninitiated, these are pretty self-explanatory titles: in the first you could play, well, ninjas and spies and in the second, superheroes. My comic habit didn’t develop until much later in my life (early 20s if you must know) but what boy doesn’t love the thought of playing the heroes from Saturday morning cartoons? You had to roll on several large matrices using percentile d10s to discover your major and minor powers. My friends became radioactive heroes, impervious to wounds and mighty mutants who could fly and climb walls. They got to be Superman, Hulk and Spidey. Dead cool! My poor rolling meant that my character would shrink when he came into contact with water. I was part Ant-Man, part Aquaman. Umm… not so cool! But, like any character you hang around with for long enough, I grew to love him despite his fishy, miniature abilities.

And this, to me, is the key to the best roleplaying experiences. I want to love my character, feel for them and defend them to the bitter end, in spite of, or maybe because of, their deficiencies. So what if my strength and dexterity are low? I’ll charm the orc with my witty banter. Failing that, if I should die think only this of me… that I will be back with a new character next session. And I shall reroll those strength die until I am a warrior with such a legendary sword arm that even Conan would run to his mother. Of course whether DMs should kill characters is a debate for an entire future post, but the fact that death doesn’t mean the end is pretty comforting. Often I chose to run recklessly into fire, water, a band of angry goblins or some such, knowing I was only one sheet of paper away from rejoining the game should the whole endeavour go southwards.

Rifts RPG Cover
Rifts RPG Cover ©Palladium Books (August 1990)

The name Kevin Siembieda had become as familiar to us as the English authors we had to study at school and from the young-teen friendly turtles/spies/heroes Palladium games we soon graduated into Rifts and what we felt, at the time, was a more grown up RPG setting. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, with elements of cyberpunk, sci fi, horror, thriller, myth and fantasy thrown together, Rifts was indeed a logical next step. It described itself as an ‘advanced’ roleplaying game and it felt right to graduate. The Rifts ‘Megaverse’ was huge; offering a multitude of adventures and game styles and it occupied many of our sessions. It was probably, in my opinion, never bettered as a gaming experience. The atmosphere was always tense but suffused with a sci-fi magic concocted from a heady mixture of films like Predator and Alien, late night TV programs we were all probably still too young to watch by law, and the far more innocent scene with the creature in Jabba’s palace with more breasts than she ought to have had. The whole thing felt slightly risqué. Like the nervous teen making out with their partner, while their parents were sat downstairs. This was the closest most of us got to that feeling. What if your mum walked in just as you shouted, “Die crazy mutha!”?

Allow me to reminisce slightly more self-indulgently for a paragraph, if you will. I remember distinctly sitting in my friend’s house on a cold, dark night. Our group had been split and we had been deposited in various rooms in the DM’s house so we couldn’t communicate with each other – in the game or in real life. One guy sat alone in the lounge, while two of us waited nervously in the dining room. The game had become so edgy that we had managed to wind each other up while the DM was destroying a different part of the world, occupied by our friend, all alone on the sofa. That he was, in reality, just the other side of the kitchen door was meaningless. The DM came through and told us we could hear screaming from inside the cave. We knew it was either our friend or our quarry. We sprang into action… well, in hindsight we should have done. The two of us sat and looked at each other, as anxious as our characters standing in front of the black chasm that opened up in front of them like the very mouth of Hell. We didn’t do anything. We were both petrified by the consequences of entering the cave that we agreed to wait it out and see if the screaming stopped.

It was a game. We had a piece of paper in front of us and some coloured dice. We could have easily sauntered into that cave, killed the evil-doer with our guns (yes, we were heavily armed) and strolled back out. But isn’t that just the most brilliant thing about roleplaying? Isn’t it the one feeling you couldn’t possibly hope to convey to someone who gives you ‘that look’ when you tell them you like RPGs? Clearly it was never just ‘a game’. Ask a sports fanatic, they will tell you the same thing. Needless to say the screaming was coming from our friend, who was being tortured and awaiting our rescue party. He was furious with us for standing around like dolts for so long he was half-dead before we finally went in (after the screaming stopped, obviously). He quite rightly found that difficult to let go of.

He wasn’t the only one of our merry band of teen RPGers who fell foul of group shenanigans and in-jokes. During a game of Ninjas and Superspies early in our roleplaying days we convinced a boy to drive his character into an energy pylon and we would do what was necessary to make it safe for him to do so and we would successfully complete the mission. We had no plan. It was unlikely there was even a way to ‘make it safe’. He died, heroically but brutally, and we won. He never quite forgave us for the betrayal, made worse when the rest of us decided to make his death/sacrifice a ‘thing’ in each subsequent game. It was our own little nerdy meme. In a different game of Rifts we realised one of the player’s characters had become way too powerful and was hogging the limelight and getting to do all the cool stuff. There was no ceremony this time. We just shot him.

As a gamer maturing during the 90s in the UK I was surrounded by Games Workshop products. Crudely painted Warhammer armies filled shelves; Man O’War, Blood Bowl and Space Hulk filled cupboard space. We played the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game quite sparingly considering the GW clutter in our bedrooms. However, what we did play was as equally memorable as anything we did in the Palladium universe. The careers and advances system meant a great storyline for your character and plenty of options to enhance replayability (although I was always a High Elf – I forget the reason why). The combat system was similar to the tabletop battle system and was thus incredibly brutal. A ‘Critical Hit’ was very much a critical hit in every sense and would often kill a character in one blow. But this made sense. These were big, tough knights and barbarians with steel swords and spiked maces. One blow would have killed you, or at least had crippling results. I liked those odds.

Warhammer Adventure RPG: The Enemy Within RPG Cover
Warhammer Adventure RPG: The Enemy Within RPG Cover © Games Workshop (1986-1989)

There were several memorable campaigns for Warhammer. The Enemy Within campaign, including Death on the Reik, Shadows over Bogenhafen, Power Behind the Throne and Something Rotten in Kislev, still has pride of place on my bookshelf. Having moved to Denmark, with no chance of playing it any time soon, it was still one of the first things I packed to bring out here. It isn’t just a wonderful setting and source book; it is very much an artefact of my formative years. It will sit alongside my copy of Shadows Over Camelot and my X-Wing fleet inside my sarcophagus (yes, I want to be buried in a pyramid, thanks).

There were other RPG settings brought to the table over the years, although never with the same enthusiasm or the longevity of the Palladium games. GURPS for Middle Earth Roleplay (MERP),   Shadowrun, Ravenloft and Deadlands all got a run from time to time. But I seemed in my early 20s to be growing out of RPGs and my obsession with CCGs was in full swing. My collections of CCGs led to me to board gaming and roleplay opportunities all but dried up. That was until a few years ago, by then about to hit my 30s, and surely too old to pretend to be an Elven mage with a magical staff and fireballs at his fingertips.

The gaming group were strong in number and universally older than me, which made me feel better. Two of them were very close friends and, despite having played numerous board games with both, I never had them down as roleplayers. I suppose it goes to show that “all the men and women” can be merely players, not just the spotty teenagers. I had played a little D&D back in the day but very little. Now I was properly introduced to D&D 3.5 and the world of Eberron. I found it difficult at first. I associated RPGs with my younger years and it took a while to open up in new company. However, my love of playing the role, immersing in the story and putting on all the silly voices soon returned, rekindled by an enthusiastic and engaging DM. Eberron was a fun setting that required a great depth of in-role play. One of our compatriots was a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature and he played it brilliantly, murmuring Incredible Hulk nonsense. There was a steampunk feel, with skyships and trains but we deliberately kept the tone of the sessions light and flippant. I expect it could have been much darker and pulpier, maybe somewhat seedier, given half the chance.

With my love of RPGs rediscovered I bought into the world of Dungeons and Dragons. My shelves were full of weighty hardback sourcebooks and a menagerie of bestiaries once more. Sadly, like so many frivolous purchases, the whole set went on eBay when I moved house. Along with it went a complete set of Vampire: The Masquerade tomes that I had never actually got to play. There were smaller sets of other systems too numerous to mention, although I’m sure future posts will find occasion to touch on some of them. It took a second epiphany moment earlier this year to re-establish my love of RPGs for a third time. Now mid-30s and desperate to be DM myself I set about collecting together as much Pathfinder as I could. Struck by its similarities to Warhammer and its beautiful artwork and well-established world, I have purchased enough core books, campaign settings, card decks and modules to get a band of adventurers to level 30 and beyond! Now I just need to gather that merry band together.

What struck me most when first buying into Pathfinder, was how broad the swathe of resources one can purchase. Beyond the usual, expected rules and supplements, there are a world of maps, cards and pawns to buy and use. Everything designed to make the roleplaying experience easier for the DM and the players. I love the whole range, especially the card decks that speak to my inner CCG-monger. However, I have one strong caveat to the use of these sexy yet extraneous items. It may very well make my life as DM easier and it will certainly help the players to see the world around them and the people and items that inhabit it. But then, isn’t that half the fun and almost all of the hard work expected from the group? Back in the early 90s we didn’t have NPC artwork beyond what the DM could scribble down or screw up his face into. We did the storytelling with voices, a few props and a wealth of imagination. Let’s hope the multitude of cards and maps don’t mess that up. Because if that happens, they will have to make do with just sitting and looking pretty on my shelf.

I opened this post with a Shakespearean quote, but you all knew that. Not just because it is so apt (“the world’s a stage…merely players…exits and entrances…many parts…”) but because there is something about this kind of gaming that is as epic as Shakespeare’s plays. They are wordy, ingenious, inspired, irritating, heartbreaking, entertaining and poetic. They’ll take you places not even Ryanair can fly you. You’ll meet creatures you can’t friend on Facebook. You’ll play out storylines that George RR Martin could only wish he’d dreamt up. And all for the cost of a rulebook and a bunch of multi-sided dice.

For me there really is no better gaming experience. I’m not fussed how amazing the board game is you’ve just put on the table, and trust me I am a huge fan of plenty of board games, if there is an opportunity to roleplay then that gets my vote. Every time. There is a world of RPGs I’ve just been given an enticing opportunity to play – Fate, Fiasco, Pathfinder, Age of Rebellion, Shadowrun 5th Edition – and I can’t wait to get started. I am one man and in my time, thus far, I have not played enough parts.