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Once Upon A Time:
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and I had just sat down in the living room with both coffee and laptop in hand, planning to start this article when I stopped for a moment to consider what exactly I might write about. Thinking about it, I cleared a space on the coffee table to rest my feet on when it dawned on me that my article topic was right there in front of me. Mixed together with the personal finance and coastal living magazines was my copy of GURPS Traveller and a mint condition AD&D L1 The Secret of Bone Hill Module that I had just scored off of Ebay. Reaching for my coffee and silently debating between rereading The Secret of Bone Hill and starting the house cleaning, I realized one thing was for sure. I was a classic gamer.
Like so many who have written this column before me, I too grasped the chains of role-playing games in the early 1980s. My dad was (and still is) an avid and very skilled model builder, so as a kid I spent plenty of time in hobby shops and as you can imagine it didn't bother me one bit. I remember I was on a family vacation in Florida in 1982 when after being on good behavior the entire trip down I was rewarded with the Basic D&D boxed set. I remember how fascinated I was by the B2 Module Keep on the Border Lands, and never once questioned why six starving Orcs were hanging out in one room just waiting to kill my character when they could have instead gone next door where the giant spider was waiting and have eaten him. More importantly perhaps, what the heck was a panther doing in a northern European-like cave complex randomly wandering the corridors between Orcs and giant spiders? Needless to say at age 11 random dungeon bashing was anthropologically uncomplicated, glorious, and rewarding. A gamer was born.
In high school I continued playing RPGs extensively. Having tried and lost interest in Basic D&D, Indiana Jones, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Super Heroes, I plunged into AD&D and Top Secret, the latter of which I absolutely loved. I remember going on secret missions behind the wall in East Germany, making contact with an agent in Yugoslavia, and stopping a missile transport somewhere near Kiev. Finally in the late 1980s I discovered Traveller, and being fascinated with space exploration and science fiction, it became my game of choice throughout college. I ran an incredibly successful Megatraveller campaign almost weekly for three years. It even resulted in my first serious relationship with a girl, which needless to say ended not long after the campaign was over.
Upon entering university in 1993 my RPGs went into long-term storage. There were a lot of reasons for it, including the fact that my interests had largely changed to girls and playing rugby, but also due to the fact that at times it seemed that I was never going to repeat the success of my Megatraveller campaign anyway, so why bother? My gaming group had split up to go to various universities and a single visit to my own university gaming club quickly convinced me not to return. I did dungeon master a 1st Edition rules campaign for six or seven months but found that both the genre and the players had changed. There was less emphasis on the nature of the adventure, it seemed, and more on the persona of the character. Our sessions started to resemble 'Dork Tower' cartoons, and while I was willing to poke fun at my own hobby, I found others less so. The campaign ended with the semester and we never returned to it. I thought afterwards that perhaps I was past gaming altogether, and even sold a good portion of my stuff to pay for schoolbooks. A gamer had died.
Perhaps it was for the better. In the mid-1990s a lot of things had turned me away from RPGs in general. I was increasingly disappointed with the products that were appearing, it seemed that every film or story was getting turned into an RPG, which left one with the feeling that the imagination so closely associated with role-playing was gone. Collectible card games (CCGs) were also dominating the market and most of my friends who were gamers were playing Magic, but I had no interest in it. I didn't hate CCGs, but it just didn't have the feel or look of a role-playing session. To me CCGs had no continuity or story. It wasn't like reading a cool adventure that one of my friends had just written. It was just a pile of cards with so-so artwork on them. I missed the story - the campaign. I also missed the classic AD&D artwork - you know the stuff where dungeon crawlers wore bell-bottoms. I was simply getting nostalgic about the hobby.
I also realized that there was a small sociological rift in gaming and I had fallen to one side of it. The people at the university gaming club simply scared me. I was not into Live Action Role Playing (LARP) and had not gone off the deep end into cyberpunk or vampire type gaming or lifestyle. I also found adult RPGers increasingly annoying. I remember the time when one of my roommates was complaining that the guy playing the magic user in his Forgotten Realms campaign just wasn't performing up to standard. "He refuses to execute the required words and hand gestures when casting a spell", he said, "and I had to stop the game for an hour until he agreed to do it." To this I replied, "Why did you do that? It's just a game." He gave me this look like I had just driven a truck over his favorite kitten. Twice. That's when I realized that I was a classic gamer who increasingly didn't fit into modern gaming at all. In fact I barely recognized it.
I looked elsewhere. A brief flirtation with Warhammer 40K resulted in several well-painted miniatures and the conclusion that the game genre was so impossible that I couldn't suspend my belief so far as to accept it. A futuristic universe where they've mastered star travel but the best tank developed closely resembles the speed, maneuverability, and firepower of a First World War British Mark V? Right.
I probably would have abandoned RPGs all together if not for a friend I met while completing graduate studies at another university a few years ago. A little older than me, Rob also grew up on AD&D and had the same fascination for 'the good old days' of gaming that I did. We commiserated about the state of the hobby over beers and wings, and wondered aloud whether or not we would ever get back into it at all. For one thing, I had all but done away with my RPG material, save for a few treasured items that I just couldn't part with. But conversations with Rob resulted in digging my RPG material out of the old boxes and taking stock of what I had. A monster manual, the introduction module from the Top Secret boxed set, the complete set of AD&D modules for the Against the Giants and Vault of the Drow campaign. And of course, some well used and loved Megatraveller source books. Not pretty, but it was a start. I loved these games and had more good memories of playing them than anything else I did as a kid. I wanted back in.
So nearly ten years after I had put RPGs away, I returned to the hobby and now find myself making regular trips back to the local gaming store. Though the shelves are awash with D20 system rules and a plethora of specialized genres and settings to satisfy almost any taste, I've discovered that I don't feel as lost in the hobby as I did in the mid- 1990s. While I can't say for certain that I'll dive right into AD&D 3e, I do appreciate the re-appearance of 'classic' style AD&D modules like those put out by Goodman Games, and have noticed that in fact a lot of older material is getting republished or updated. The entire classic Traveller series is being reproduced (yahoo!) for example, and overall there seems to be a small renaissance in the gaming industry, of a return to the imagination that once drove the hobby from its niche into the mainstream. My coffee table contents are a good example of that. While no big fan of GURPS, I love what they have done with the Traveller series, and I've been using Ebay and other Internet sites to slowly rebuild the collection of classic AD&D modules I once owned and loved.
Essentially, I have become a classic gamer. I grew up on AD&D and Traveller, played it, loved it, hated it, and abandoned it. I diversified, only to discover that the best RPGs and games were at the root. I walked away, and have now returned. I have less interest in acquiring hordes of new gaming material, but instead have sought to revamp the collections I once owned, and complete them. I've gotten nostalgic about the hobby, and my friends and I have even decided that this summer over beers we're going to have another go at role-playing, with me writing a classic campaign, no less, while our wives shake their heads slightly at the 'boys' but think it's cute. I wonder if I will still be playing in ten years, or will the post-modern RPG industry push me out again? We'll have to wait and see.
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