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Once Upon A Time: Follow the Bouncing … Raft?

by Michael John Timonin

In which the author looks at his gaming origins, and rafts


Many people have written about how they got into gaming. Almost everyone has made it sound so easy, something they picked up along the way. Not so with me. Gaming was a long, rocky road.

My first experiences with gaming came in high school, seventh or eighth grade, I guess. Scott, a friend of mine, and a fellow comic collector, ordered a pewter model of a Star Trek vessel from the back of a comic. When it arrived, he was disappointed with the model (it was too small), but it came with a FASA catalogue. FASA, as I'm sure you all know, manufactures the Battletech/Mechwarrior products. We were enthralled with the idea of large robots beating each other up, so we pooled our funds and ordered a copy of Battletech.

It was brilliant. We set up everything in Scott's basement, ran through the basic stuff with the pre-made mechs, the complex stuff with the pre-made mechs and then got really creative and built our own mechs. Within a month, we were commanding lances of mechs and beating the tar out of each other all over the map.

FASA also makes Shadowrun. A different friend, seeing the product in the catalogue, ordered a copy of the first edition Shadowrun book. He was baffled by the character creation, so he gave the book to me to explain. I read through it, whipped up a character, highlighted the vital information and gave it back. And that was the last I heard of that. No one ever played Shadowrun while I was around (although I understand they had a pretty good game running after I left).

About this time, one of our friends mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, we all knew about the game, and our mothers had warned us not to play, or Satan would take our souls. But this guy had all the stuff, and wanted to run a campaign. It sounded good to me, so I said I would play. And that's the last I heard of it. We never made characters, I never even saw a Player's Handbook.

Then I moved. Dad was in the Coast Guard, and we moved just about every 5 or 6 years. A bit hard on the social life, but I got to see a lot of Canada, which is not so bad.

In my new school, I eventually hooked up with some other people who thought role playing was pretty cool. They had Shadowrun and GURPS and Rifts and any number of different games that were kicking around. What they didn't have was a consistent schedule. I built another Shadowrun character. I built countless Marvel Superheroes. I built a pretty nifty GURPS character and several Rifts characters, and I think I played each character exactly once before the game broke up. I even tried to run some games: a strange Mechwarrior (2nd edition) game, involving Clanner expatriates and a talking cat; a tabletop game of Shadowrun; a play by e-mail Shadowrun game. Building characters was fun, but I wanted to play for more than just one game.

In university, I met more people who played. Devin ran a semi-regular AD&D game, using the Darksun universe, and I built some characters for that. Geoff liked Forgotten Realms, and I built some characters for that too. We played a couple of times - when everyone could get together. It was better than in high school, but it's rough when you can't play more than once or twice a month. They were also not the greatest DM's - I won't go into detail, but Devin has a penchant for slaughtering parties and Geoff tends to be fairly free when it comes to rolling (oh, well, 17 is ALMOST 20, I'll give you the double damage…), and neither of these tendencies makes for consistent gaming.

And then we met Kevin. Kevin is one of the best GM's I know, and that's what counts. (I should really point out that he's a pain in the ass as a player, though. He knows all the rules!)

My first experience with an extended, consistent role-playing campaign was in a game called Time Cops. It is a created universe making use of the HERO system produced by Hero Games. The GM was Kevin. The players were me, some friends and eventually my wife Lora. We were his pawns in a vast game of interdimensional chess where the players were demons, vampires and vast corporations. But none of that is important now. What is important, what is absolutely vital for you to remember, is the six man inflatable yellow rubber raft.

My first character in the wacky world of Time Cops was a 1950's gangster. He was a cat burglar ,an escape artist and fabulously wealthy. I mean, country purchasing wealthy. Of course, none of that was important, what was important was that, due to a failed experiment sometime in 2010, he was trapped in time, away from his empire and his massive supply of cash. Plus, people kept taking away his gun. So when Noq, the rotund demon 'running' the Time Cops offered him the opportunity to go through the equipment locker, he naturally took it. And, along with ammo and an extra gun, he acquired a six man, inflatable yellow rubber raft. And this is vital, as you will soon see.

Sometime after I acquired this raft (time being somewhat strained in a game involving time travel), our party was making use of a backup time machine, being separated by circumstance from the main system. This backup machine took the form of a large costume trunk with a rounded lid. The trunk was pink and covered with big yellow polka dots. Canadians will recognize it as Mr. Dressup's Tickle Trunk. When you opened the trunk, there was a short flight of stairs into a three room apartment. In the living room were some controls that allowed you to pick a year and a location to which to travel. There were two key problems with this machine. The first was that it took three months to travel from any one time to any other. The second was that the trunk lid needed to be sealed or the black mist that separates time lines would ooze in and kill us all. You can see where this is going, can't you?

Some goon grabs the trunk just as we're planning to head out. One of us tosses a grenade at him, blowing the lid open just as we leave the time stream. Black mist starts oozing into the stairwell – so I inflate the raft into the stairwell, blocking the door and saving everyone's life.

That's just the beginning of the raft saga. We kept a list of the number of times that the raft saved our lives. I think we were up to six before my character was transformed into a vampire who was killed during a blood frenzy. Drat those well armed gang members. We used that raft to slide down a steep incline, as cushioning while jumping out of a building, and in other, even more unbelievable schemes. On only one occasion was it actually used as a raft – after the trunk re-entered time above a lake in Central Park. And so, ever since that time, all Time Cops teams are issued with a six man, inflatable yellow rubber raft.

As far as I'm concerned, the true joy of the extended, consistent campaign is the ability to use these kind of running gags. Don't get me wrong, I'm also in favor of the pick-up game. I enjoy playing one-offs, or even short campaigns, but for character development and humor value, I'll take the long run instead.

Kevin is really the reason that I still play role playing games. I think the same can said for most of his regular players. You see, he was flexible when it was important to be flexible, but rigid when we needed rules. One of the players hated making characters - so he would say what he wanted and Kevin would build the character. I, on the other hand, enjoy building characters - lots of characters, characters all over the place. So he explained the rules to me so that I could build characters by myself. As a result, Kevin kept us both happy, and we continued to play.

Another player likes to play absurdly powerful characters, so Kevin built campaigns that allowed him to build unstoppable characters and then threw him big monsters for him to destroy. My wife, Lora, enjoys complex characters with strong personalities. Kevin wove an intricate plot of romance and character development in behind the big monsters, and she played the most character-driven PC I've ever seen. The last player in our team likes to play strong characters with bizarre traits, so Kevin let him build large characters who blow things up and generally strangle themselves in their own complex plots. His campaigns always had something for everyone, and, just as we were becoming disillusioned with Devin's D&D stylings, we were reinvigorated and kept in the hobby by Kevin. Such is the power of a good GM.

Since our first sessions together, most of the other guys have started their own games. Kevin is still with Time Cops, and Lora and I are now running our own campaign in a different city and under a different name. So, all in all, everyone wins, and that's what roleplaying is all about, right?


Michael is a Canadian living in the United States, where, despite finally joining a roleplaying club, he still plays a lot less than he used to. He is currently involved in a game of Vampire:The Dark Ages and has just started running his own Time Cops campaign.

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