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Once Upon A Time:
My Roleplaying History and Other Strangeness

by Laughing Wolf

An exercise in revisionist history and tall tales told


My story starts in an age when Vampire meant nothing more to me than Kiefer Sutherland and his blood-sucking pals from "The Lost Boys". But even then, I and my cohorts had characters that were all suffering from a distinct lack of humanity. They were clawed, fanged, gun-toting, sword-wielding psychopathic animals, with not an ounce of humanity in their cold, furry souls.

My first system was not AD&D, or Gamma World, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. So rather than wizards, warriors and dragons, I cut my teeth on ninjas, more ninjas and other assorted mooks to be cut down by high-powered automatic weapons.

Now, before you blanch in merchandising-induced horror, this was well before that evil Archie Comics heresy (both the comic books, that horrid cartoon and the subsequent films) that turned the whole phenomenon into a sad excuse to grab kiddie bucks. The original Mirage Studios comics shared little beyond the main characters with those atrocities. This rather good line is still in production but the quality has never really recovered from the whole fiasco.

But let's go back to the beginning...

I Killed The Lizard King!

People get into gaming in the strangest ways. For me, it was a Choose Your Own Adventure book that my grandparents gave me when I was about ten. The book itself was pretty depressing: I kept getting killed by a volcano in New Zealand somewhere, but the idea of being able to choose from multiple paths seemed pretty cool at the time.

We fade to black for quite some time and then I bumped into Fighting Fantasy novels. For those who don't remember them, Fighting Fantasy novels were like Choose Your Own Adventure books, but with more edge. What made Fighting Fantasy novels so cool was they had combat. You also had dice (only D6 though, as anyone can get their hands on some D6-es if they try) and you would roll them to resolve combat and other situations. You had characteristics (Strength, Stamina and Luck), weapons, an inventory and could even sometimes cast spells. It was almost all the trappings of roleplaying.

Fighting Fantasy novels, especially the more quality ones like Trial of Champions and Deathpit Dungeon, (yes, of the same name as the cheesecake computer game) were essentially little one man modules. I thought they were amazing. I started collecting Fighting Fantasy books like a man possessed. Well-meaning friends of the family kept a cautious eye on my exploits, warning my gullible mother of "that evil game that people commit suicide over". For those of you who have got into gaming since, the early eighties was a scary time for anti-gaming hysteria.

Every second weekend, the tabloid newspapers would print this or that article exposing the evils of this pagan menace and how it was killing "our kids". Ironically, it was because of all this hysteria that I became aware that Dungeons and Dragons existed. Well, that and those ads in the back of comic books.

The first Fighting Fantasy game I ever played, and still my favourite, was "Island of the Lizard King". I borrowed it off Guy, my oldest friend, the one who got me started on roleplaying, and still the most strongly associated with roleplaying of all my friends.

The premise of the book was that your boat crashed on an island. Ruling ths island was... a lizard king. You had to go about getting together enough weaponry and knowledge to go after said Lizard King and kill him, so that the people of the Island would be free and you could get the hell off the island. At least, that's how I remember the plot. I learned many things about gaming from The Island of the Lizard King. Here are two of particular importance:

Tip #1: if you want to reassure your parents about the mental soundness of your hobby, don't run out into the living area shouting "I killed the Lizard King! I killed the Lizard King!". It's especially bad if you have parents stuck in the sixties. They might disown you for breaking up The Doors.

Tip #2: if someone asks you what you're doing while you're playing a Fighting Fantasy novel, don't look up from rolling those combat dice and say "killing things" with a fiery glare. Even if you are. It upsets them.

One thing they don't tell you about Fighting Fantasy is that these things are Gaming Marijuana: a starting fix designed as a stepping stone to harder drugs. So, while my note paper, pencil and dice stolen from my sister's Monopoly game were all it took to keep me happy for a while, I began yearning for something more. So did Guy. We knew of Dungeons and Dragons and were eager for a piece of the action, but didn't know where to get the books and didn't know anyone who had them. So we languished for a time, and even started making up our own Swords and Sorcery roleplaying game in desperation.

As it turned out, we would be introduced to roleplaying, but not by the main entry way through which most people enter this hobby. We snuck in a side door.

First Impressions

There is no moment more magical than your first roleplaying session. It may be run by hacks, you may have no idea what is going on, you may be flinching in uncomprehending horror at the mass of numbers and tables before you (and that's just the character sheet) but somewhere, somehow, you have a feeling of your horizons being forceably ripped wider. You'll never be the same. Unless, of course, you were never destined to be a roleplayer, in which case, you forget the whole thing and go back to whatever you were doing before your friend subjected you to this geeky torture.

The first time I roleplayed was with Guy, the same person responsible for getting me started on Fighting Fantasy. As so often happens, it all began over "summer break", or the Christmas holidays, to drop the Americanisms. With three months to kill somehow, it's inevitable to run into at least one new avenue of entertainment. That year, it was roleplaying. Real, honest-to-goodness, funny-shaped-dice roleplaying.

Guy's friend was the game master, the person with the books, the dice and the attitude. The game was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. Now, as I said, this was before the TV show or the movie, before the Turtles had become a marketing phenomenon of any scope. So the title meant nothing to me (apart from being an attention grabber); the game existed in a complete vacuum. I was thus able to appreciate the whole thing without any prejudice.

The whole situation was kind of rushed, so I just got a character sheet shoved under my nose and was told I was a mutant animal. I filed that under "Bad". I also, however, had an automatic weapon and apparently carte blanche clearance with some weird sort of James Bond-ish secret organisation that dealt with experimental weaponry, with its own undersea fortress. I filed both of those under "Good". Laughing Wolf Like Big Boomsticks.

For those who don't know, the TMNT RPG casts the players as half-human, half-animal hybrids, who engage in cinematic kung-fu crime wars against comicbook villains. A points-based character creation system is used to balance the amount of beast in you. Spend too much on cool animal things like fangs, claws or prehensile tails and you won't be able to afford human traits like looks, bipedal stance or (most importantly if you're going to operate guns and the like) human hands.

I can't remember what animal I was, but I can remember quite clearly that Guy was a mutant owl. And here's why:

During the course of the session, Guy came into some information I wanted. I asked for it. Guy declined. Annoyed, I flew Guy out over the ocean in a Chinook helicopter, with two mutant Rhinocerus heavies. As they kept Guy's character pinned down, I threatened to throw him out of the helicopter, to his death on the ocean below. I asked for the information again. Guy declined.

At this point, both of us had forgotten the fact that his character had wings. Guy continued to be recalcitrant, so I threw him out of the helicopter. His owl, born with the gift of flight, plummeted to an abrupt and painful death on impact with the sea. Not a single flap out of him. Not even a glide. Just a splat.

This was the first important lesson of roleplaying that I learnt: remember what your character can do. Often, you have weird and wonderful powers that are so far away from the norm that you forget them, thinking in a mindset more appropriate to you than your character. But if your abilities slip your mind, you'll most likely end up kicking youself over an unnecessary (but probably humorous) and fatal mishap.

Now, the actual roleplaying itself was kind of fun, but once it was over I was intruiged more by the book. Now that I had tasted, I wanted it all. I find now that the easiest way to relive the magic of your first ever roleplaying game is to buy a new roleplaying game. Getting a new game is like a roleplaying Christmas: a whole new world for you to comprehend and to command, new characters, new factions, new stats and generally, a sexy new layout with cool graphics. The strangeness of it all really brings back that early sense of wonder.

TMNT was no exception to the rule. In fact, it had everything to keep an adolescent male happy. Sharp pointy weapons. Ninjas. Martial arts. More ninjas. Machine guns. Some more ninjas. The Foot. And the four Turtles. And, to boot, it was blessedly bereft of that TSR cheesecake art. If there is one thing I hate, it's being marketed at through my groin, not my brain.

The Turtles were cool. The game was cool. I was sold on it. So when Guy's friend disappeared to the same place that sucks up second socks and decent TV shows, I bought my own copy of the TMNT sourcebook. And so began a long, long journey.

Logic Takes a Holiday

Your first system is not only the most fun, it is also the one from which you get the funniest anecdotes, cos you keep doing the screwiest things. I'm no exception to this. Here are some of my best:

Let's start the ceremonies with some really stupid visual humour. Remember the mutant animals I was talking about in the first paragraph? Well, one thing I didn't mention is that our mutated characters were, mostly, one foot tall. Allow me to explain.

As well as using your character creation points to buy human hands and the gift of flight, TMNT also balances things out between species by allowing you to buy size. Each animal starts off with a base size level and a points pool that tends to average out: things like rodents and birds start off small but with a large amount of points; large creatures like rhinoceroses or elephants start out large, but with few points. So small creatures can spend their points to get up to a respectable size, and larger creatures can get more points (and hence more goodies) by shifting down in size levels.

So, being the powergamers we were, we'd always run down in size levels as far as possible in order to be able to buy all the neat animal gimmicks we could get. Which, of course, meant that we'd end up being around one foot high. So there'd be these pint-sized mutant animals running around with three foot katanas or using automatic weapons twice as large as themselves (never mind the recoil). We also had these babies driving vehicles (including 16-wheelers) at breakneck speeds and performing all sorts of peculiar feats. You can imagine the terror of being chased down a corridor by several huge dai-katana, bobbing up and down, completely obscuring behind it the small fuzzball who was supposed to be carrying it.

(I have fond memories of doing the exact reverse: there is precious little as frightening - or as destructive - as a hummingbird the size of an elephant. Ed.)

When they were driving, I always visualised this little toilet-brush with arms and legs, spread-eagled over the steering wheel and using its weight to turn the wheel (parking must have been a bugger). I guess when they needed to use the horn, they just headbutted it. It's still a mystery, of course, how they could see what was on the road. Or work the pedals. Or the gears. Or change the radio station, for that matter.

Sometimes we went from making absolutely no sense because we were ignoring the rules, to going similarly off the wall thanks to a slavish dedication to what the rulebook said. I remember this with crystal clarity, as it was one of the stupidest (and funniest, if you were there) things that I've done as a referee. One of these tiny terrors was starting up his 16-wheeler and pulling out of a large, empty parking lot. So, seeing as they're acting, I guess it's time for a skill check, right? So, a skill check for driving at cruise speed for a large vehicle is rolled. The PC fails. Badly. Roll on "Bad Result" chart: Vehicle tips over. So, what just happened was some poor slob just started their vehicle and rolled a huge rig just by turning the key in the slot. Now that's talent.

And They All Roleplayed Happily Ever After

The most important thing of all, though, is that we had FUN! There are so many characters, scenes and moments that I remember fondly from my early roleplaying days during High School and afterwards. While all this Mutant Mayhem was going on, we also finally got into AD&D, the staple diet of all new roleplayers back then. And from there, anything was possible. Currently, we've got a Vampire game running with Mage and AD&D campaigns starting up.

Roleplaying has now become my staple social activity. Without fail, all of my friends have taken up roleplaying fanatically, which is a blessing. I was lucky enough to be able to form a roleplaying group from my friends, rather than choosing friends from my roleplaying group. There are some great people out there in the roleplaying scene but having people you are comfortable and familiar with as your first roleplaying group makes things a little less intimidating. Best of all, my partner doesn't hassle me when I'm going to go roleplaying, she hassles me that we haven't roleplayed recently.

One of the best things we ever did was discover the Brisbane convention scene. Going to your first convention is almost like your first roleplaying experience all over again. If you're into roleplaying, I can't recommend conventions enough. The chance to be exposed to so many systems and so many different refereeing techniques is something you just can't get anywhere else. Since attending conventions, we've picked up Magic: the Gathering, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Vampire, Mage, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Trek, Toon, Freeforming and Multiforming

My friends and I formed a team of regular convention attendees and still go by the name we chose at our first convention (Briscon '94): The Steel Wolves. We continue to play at conventions rabidly, and last year we had a chance to help run one, when we formed half of the committee for ConJure. We've now even got a website for our group, so if you're interested, why not have a look?

RPGs have totally changed how I spend my leisure time, but it goes further than that. Gaming is the doorway to so many amazing things. Through roleplaying and gaming conventions, I've discovered Medieval Faires, become interested in medieval history (particularly the Knights Templar), acquired an interest in the Klingon tongue, learnt some real religious history and have become actively interested in the martial arts, taking up Karate and Kung Fu. It's also put in my hands several classics of literature I would not otherwise have read: The Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince and the works of Nietschze.

It's amazing what you learn from roleplaying, too. If a band of ninja were to jump through the window while I was typing this, I could call out the name of next to every sharp pointy thing and blunt whacky thing that they hurt me with. Blunt weight on a chain? Kawanga. Evil-looking sickle on a chain? Kusari-gama. And how did I learn this? From poring through roleplaying books.

But most of all, roleplaying has been fun. So whoever you are, whatever your Gaming Poison is, just make sure you have fun.

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