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Once Upon a Time:
The Untimely Death of the Casual Gamer

by Dan Davenport

In which the author reflects on the price of maturity


 

I was always a do-it-yourself kind of kid when it came to entertainment. It came from being an only child for twelve years, I suppose. Whatever the reason, I always preferred toys that gave me the maximum amount of control. Tinker Toys, plastic soldier sets, Matchbox cars -- you name it, if it didn't run by itself, I played with it.

To a certain extent, I took that same attitude when it came to reading. Don't get me wrong, I read novels like there was no tomorrow, but I was also fascinated by a peculiar breed of sci-fi book that appeared in the waning years of the 1970s. These books didn't tell a story, per se; rather, they were written as though they were actual reference books from the future, complete with schematics, diagrams, and vital statistics for aliens, organizations, and spacecraft. I was captivated. With such books, I could take the "facts" of these wondrous worlds and imagine my own tales of adventure.

Then one day in 1980, I spotted a book that seemed to be the fantasy equivalent of these tomes of sci-fi lore. It was a book all about monsters. A Monster Manual, in fact.

And oh, such a book! Like the sci-fi reference books, the Manual didn't just describe the monsters - it detailed them with hard numbers. And the fact that many of said statistics were meaningless to me simply made the write-ups all the more wonderfully arcane. What did I care what "hit dice" were? I could tell that trolls had more of them than ogres, and giants still more than trolls, and that was what mattered.

I'd heard of "Dungeons and Dragons", of course - I'm sure most kids at that time probably had - but I had no idea how it was played. I assumed it was some kind of board game. What else could it have been? It certainly wasn't a card game... I knew some friends of mine played it fairly regularly, and I was mystified at their descriptions of their game sessions. "What an awesome game!" I recall a buddy enthusing. "My dwarf stabbed a hill giant in the nuts!"

How the heck could he have determined that in a board game, I wondered? And why did he have to spend the next few hours "dividing up treasure"? What kind of game required homework?

Later on, I heard other kids in school describing D&D sessions of their own, and lo and behold, they were using the same kinds of statistics found in my beloved Monster Manual! Why, I had part of this mysterious game in my possession all along! Of course, I still couldn't figure out what kind of game would involve stabbing some poor giant in the family jewels...

Eventually, I caught on. I picked up the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide, and I stumbled through my first session as DM without the foggiest notion of what I was doing. (It was "Steading of the Hill Giant Chief", as I recall. I suppose I was hoping to see a repeat of that legendary nut-stabbing.) Once I hit my stride, however, I found this strange new kind of game to be a perfect match for me. I could pick up those marvellous "dungeon modules" and enjoy them twice - once reading them and imagining the adventures to come, and once actually running them. I played whenever I got the chance, which wasn't as often as I'd have liked, but what the heck? When I couldn't play the game, I could read it. It was food for my ravenous imagination.

And actually, as long as the wait between them seemed at the time, games were really quite easy to get together in those days. We'd pick a module, the guys would "roll up" a few characters apiece - it was a small group, you see - and off we'd go! It wasn't unlike deciding to play Atari, really. It just took a bit longer to plug in the cartridges.

That, no doubt, is what made the early 80s unique in my roleplaying experience: it was an era of casual roleplaying. The guys I played with weren't my "gamer" friends. They weren't really even "gamers". They were just "the guys". True, I did join the junior high D&D club, whose members fell more closely along the modern gamer lines, and true, I myself was well on my way to becoming a "hard core" gamer... But when I got together with those same old friends, a game of D&D was as much of an option for an afternoon's entertainment as was a trip to the mall or an acorn fight. (What can I say? We liked throwing stuff at each other. Kids are morons.)

I even started writing my own adventures. Sure, it took a lot more time, but I just loved writing out those maps and stocking those dungeons! And besides, I always knew that they'd get used eventually, in one of those spontaneous games somewhere down the road.

Then I discovered the Marvel Super Heroes RPG... and with it, the rules changed. This was something new, my first taste of spray from the new wave of gaming's future. Sure, the game offered adventure modules, but now they started showing signs of a plot. That meant my homegrown equivalents would require a bit more work to stack up - no more simple dungeons to clear out. More importantly, character creation required more work from my players. Gaming became a lot less spontaneous, my regular group of friends started playing a lot less, and the subtle divide between my gaming and non-gaming friends suddenly grew more distinct. It was a divide destined to grow wider as time wore on.

As (un)luck would have it, however, that social split became a moot point not long after it appeared. It was now the mid-1980s, and the Great D&D Satanism Scare finally got its poisonous hooks into my parents. They threw away my roleplaying supplies, and that was pretty much all she wrote for roleplaying for the next two years.

Cut ahead to high school. I was working at a framing shop in a local upscale mall. Just down the way from us was perhaps one of the coolest little game and comic shops I've ever seen. The whole place was moodily dark, yet not so dark that you couldn't see what you were looking for. And in the back of the store waited a room that was a veritable treasure trove of RPG supplies. Oh GOD how I kick myself for not stocking up on some of the wonders I found there - the kinds of things on which I could easily have doubled my money on Ebay if I still had them today (and if I were willing to sell them). But, hindsight being what it is, my eyes were drawn instead to a poster advertising an upcoming release. Something about it just pulled me in and wouldn't let go. It pictured a gritty, Bladerunner-esque street scene, and I knew enough about the term "cyberpunk" at the time to correctly label it as such...but did the guy jacking into that computer terminal in the alley have pointed ears? Was the hot chick covering his back with her shotgun casting a spell? And did the goons blazing away at her gang with high-tech machine guns have tusks?

"Shadowrun," said the poster in one of the coolest logos I have ever seen. "Where Man meets Magic and Machine."

Fantasy and sci-fi mixing it up in one setting? Could it be true? Sure, I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the idea - I had, after all, made a laughable attempt at running "Expedition to Barrier Peaks", Gary Gygax's bizarre AD&D module about a crashed flying saucer - but I'd never imagined a crossover of this scale. I couldn't imagine a more intoxicating setting.

When I ran my first game, my buddies wholeheartedly agreed. Something about being outlaws literally running in the shadows on clandestine missions appealed to them, drawing them into the game in a way that AD&D never had. Sadly, since there were just the two of them playing, they each had to play two characters. That hadn't been a problem in AD&D, in which we never gave characterization a second thought, but here it was more of an open wound.

More troublesome, though, was the Shadowrun system itself. We were only running our second adventure when their passion and mine faded quickly, as the climactic battle took up several sessions and went, in the end, unfinished. We left Shadowrun behind. I had, however, caught the multi-genre bug.

Luckily, another game was waiting to fulfil this need, big time: TORG. Here was a game in which I thought my imagination could run wild and never tire - a setting combining horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroics into one big gloriously chaotic slugfest. And, unlike Shadowrun, TORG's mechanics were relatively quick and simple. We had a nice run with TORG, but unfortunately, the setting didn't quite click with my buddies as well as it did with me. After getting of the way through the game's first published campaign, the group just gradually sputtered out.

Meanwhile, I noticed a troubling trend. Just as important to me that my toys be powered only by my imagination was my desire to get everything needed to play with them in one neat package - I'd take that army of plastic soldiers over a couple of action figures any day. Such comprehensive packaging had begun slipping away from the roleplaying industry. While AD&D had (for the most part) simply required three books to play - and just a single boxed set for Basic D&D - newer games like TORG began scattering vital rules across countless supplements. Being the completist that I am, I'd naturally buy all that I could... but the industry had taken another huge step away from the days of casual gaming. Roleplaying had become a hobby that required a serious investment of money as well as time.

It was around this time that I was happy to discover at least one game stubbornly bucking this trend: Call of Cthulhu. Here was a game that literally contained everything I needed to play - all the monsters, all the spells, all the rules. Strangely, despite all of the games' largesse, it, too, wasn't a game for casual play. Sure, it offered modules - lots and LOTS of modules - but they, like the adventures for Shadowrun, were much more involved than simple AD&D dungeon crawls. More so, in fact, since CoC adventures relied so heavily on investigation rather than combat. The adventures may have been written for me, but they still required work - not the stuff of casual gaming.

Soon thereafter, I purchased yet another horror game - one that couldn't have been more different from CoC in execution: Vampire: the Masquerade. In this game I saw the death-knell of casual gaming in every conceivable way. Despite my friends' fascination with the subject matter, I knew right away it was a game I'd never play with them. It combined the creakingly-slow rules of Shadowrun with the rules dissemination of TORG carried to all new heights - in it were rules for vampires and only vampires, with some feebly jury-rigged rules for other creatures based on vampire stats. (Wanna play a werewolf? Oh, that's an entirely different game - you'll need to buy the same basic rules over again to get the werewolf rules. Ditto for wizards, ghosts, and faeries.)

Furthermore, adventures for the game quickly became few and far between in lieu of endless city- and clan books - no spur-of-the moment games to be had here. (A White Wolf representatives actually told me on rec.games.frp.misc that "real" roleplayers - i.e., White Wolf gamers - write their own adventures, and that their customers demand more sourcebooks, not modules. This, of course, blithely ignores the fact that a hobby that now requires 8+ hours of preparation for a single game will naturally weed out less dedicated fans. How often would you play tennis if you had to string your own racquet for every single game?)

I came to the conclusion that if I truly wanted to game, I was going to have to be a bit more proactive. I'd need to find people who wanted to game seriously, and regularly. And wonder of wonders, I found the answer in the form of a bulletin board posting at a local game store announcing a gaming group looking for more players for TORG, Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: The Masquerade. Huzzah!

Ironically, out of the many, many different games we played, we never actually played Vampire, played Call of Cthulhu only two or three times, and only played TORG years later for a one-shot game. It was, however, the most serious gaming I'd done up to that point, and the most playing I'd done (as opposed to GMing) since I'd been in the junior high D&D club.

But the transformation was complete. I knew from the start that these new friends and my old ones would never get along. These were gaming friends. My old buddies, the casual gamers, had been forever left behind by the hobby.

I still have the GMing bug, though... especially since I still find myself obsessively buying RPGs to read and fuel my imagination, just like I had with that first Monster Manual so many years before. Now, however, there's much more required for a game session than just calling my buddies across the street on the spur of the moment, and I've met with only sporadic success in getting games organised.

I'll continue to play whenever and wherever I can - online, as a player in the group mentioned above, and as a GM in whatever groups I can get together. I've no choice. It's in my blood now. I'm addicted. I'm even soon to write an honest-to-God roleplaying sourcebook myself - fittingly, it's that game's version of the Monster Manual.

And, when I'm particularly honest with myself, I'll admit that I don't want the hobby to go back to nothing but mindless monster-filled mazes, no matter how quick and easy they are to run.

But God, do I miss the days when I could call up my pals on a Friday night and say, "Hey, wanna come play some D&D?"




Dan has been roleplaying since 1980 and enjoys any game with simple mechanics and lots of published adventures. He works in a marketing agency in Dallas, Texas but aspires to be some degree of professional writer. Between his all-too-infrequent roleplaying sessions, he enjoys disc golf, writing, racquetball, and the occasional game of poker.

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