Friday, June 26, 2020

I kind of remember the first time I was a Dungeon Master. 

There was me and two friends, a fighter and a cleric. I had sketched out a dungeon on green graph paper. Maybe we had even taken the one page example dungeon in the rulebook as our starting point. There were hobgoblins to kill and I am sure there must have been a hidden trap door with spikes at the bottom. The whole of the bottom level of the dungeon was a dragon's lair. I think I said that the hobgoblins brought gold and captive princesses as tribute to the dragon so he wouldn't eat them: even back then I was infected with the idea that Dungeons & Dragons was a story; that it needed to make sense. I was the only person who knew the rules so no one could quibble about them. I think they quibbled about internal logic but I think I was fair and impartial about that. I have no idea how I allowed two first level characters to kill even the smallest and least exciting kind of dragon—maybe I pretended it had rolled 1 for all its hit dice?—but they did; and I positively remember then cheering when the end of level guardian went down.
I can't remember the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons. I think maybe my character was an Elf; who had a lot of Ls in his name. I think he had a bow and arrow. I think I also had a Magic User. I have a terrible awful feeling his name was Gandlin. Or possibly Merdalf. 
The first character I positively remember was Marsorior The Black. Mars, because he was a warrior. Warrior, because he was a warrior. Really. Traditionally, the cerebral boys play Magic Users; and more aggressive boys play Fighters and the girls play Clerics. (This was before girls.) But all of my favourite characters have been Fighters. 

Marsorior was inspired by Prince Acroyear, who was one of the original Micronauts. The Micronauts were some of the first action figures. Action Man was a soldier doll with an infinite array of uniforms and costumes. You could even dress him as a Nazi if you wanted to: the Action Man Gestapo uniforms go for small fortunes on Ebay. He came literally from the same mould as the American G.I. Joe, but I don't think G.I. Joe had anything like the same range of accessories. Those same moulds were used by a Japanese firm to create Henshin Cyborg; and Henshin Cyborg was released in the UK as my beloved Cyborg and Muton, all transparent with internal organs and replaceable body-parts. They in turn inspirated the Interchangeable World of The Micronauts. The most generic Micronauts figure, Time Traveller, was clearly a very-small version of Cyborg: equally small and transparent and plastic. You could pull off Cyborg's hand and replace it with an atomic liquid blaster ray but in principle you could dismantle any Micronaut and replace his body parts with the body parts of any other Micronaut. I never owned a Micronauts toy so they are still unsullied in my memory.
Their enemy was Baron Karza. Although the Micronauts came out slightly before Star Wars, Baron Karza looks more like Darth Vader than Darth Vader does. 
It appears that in the original line of toys, Baron Karza was green. After Star Wars was sweeping all before it he was remoulded in black. He had an evil black horse and you could remove the horses head and Karza's legs and create a centaur. The leader of the goodies was called Force Commander, and he could also turn into a horse if your mum had bought you the right accessories. In 1979 Marvel turned the toys into characters in a comic book, written by reliable and occasionally inspired hack Bill Mantlo. The comic was an unashamed homage to Star Wars.7
Everyone knows who Darth Vader is. Your mum and your granny know who Darth Vader is. Little and Large made jokes about Darth Vader on Seaside Special. Russell who went to the toughest scout troupe in Barnet and had certainly never read a Spider-Man comic had seen Star Wars, although I don't think he loved it in quite the way it ought to have been loved. 
When I look at a picture of Darth Vader I see a picture of Darth Vader. I have to squint and squeeze my eyes to see him as he originally was: an Arthurian Knight crossed with an evil steam locomotive. You can't ride the tribal sloth for very long. 8
Baron Karza is less famous than Darth Vader. I have not seen him nearly so often, and the rest of the world has never looked at him at all. So when I look at him I can still see his blackness and his helmet and his eviltude and am transported back to the time when I could still see Darth Vader. I first met Baron Karza a full eighteen months before I knew whose father Darth Vader was. It was 1979 and I was already feeling nostalgic about Star Wars. 
Acroyear was one of the Micronauts. He was essentially a Klingon: full of honour and alien rituals that we don't quite understand. Eventually he channels the World-Mind and destroys his own planet. I don't remember what that achieved but it was very cool. He had an evil brother who may have also been called Acroyear. The evil Acroyear had stolen the throne and capitulated with Baron Karza. Almost always the Acroyears kept their helmets on. (Acroyear was named after his race: Acroyear, king of the Acroyears, brother of Acroyear from the planet Acroyear. The Micronaut's homeworld was called Homeworld.) When Prince Acroyear is finally unmasked we find out that he has hideous tattoos on his face to show that he has been shamed or dishonoured. 
This was a fourth division Marvel Comic written by uber-hack Bill Mantlo; and yet even the subplot draws on Hamlet and the Iliad and is more like Star Wars than Star Wars. No wonder I found it so hard to fully commit to reading Mansfield Park for O level. 
So: Marsoriar was Acroyear. He wore black armour with wings on the helm. He never took his helmet off. I think the referee eventually persuaded him to have a mask instead. I forget what he had done: was he a renegade cult member or a lost prince or possibly a ninja? But definitely, he had tattoos or branding on his face. He had a feud with another player character, Scorpion the Assassin. I remember that when Scorpion was killed by a black dragon, Marsoriar tried to retrieve his body from the assassins guild because a Cleric owed him a resurrection spell. There was a scene in which Scorpion's body was being pulled through the City in a coffin on a cart and Marsoriar jumped on the coffin and started fending off assassins with his Black Sword. His Black Sword was called Mormegil. I had not read the Silmarillion, but I had read the hell out of the index to the Silmarillion.
I was thirteen. I wanted to be cool and honourable and heroic and mysterious and have a black sword and wings on my helmet. When people tell me that I want to take all the fun out of role-playing games and that I won't allow anyone to play anything less sophisticated than Dostoyevsky, Marsoriar is the character I think of. 
Most of the characters I remember were fighters. S. John Ross, in his clever notes for his clever role-playing game Risus, deconstructs the idea of characters. You shouldn't be looking at what the character does in the story so much as what the player does in the game. Scientist characters don't really do science and magical characters don't really do magic. Probably, the referee is feeding the scientist character information, and the scientist is relaying it to the other players. So being a scientist appeals to the kind of drama-queen who enjoys saying "He's dead Jim", and "That's the same kind of organic fungus resin that wiped out the entire colony of Milton Keynes." Being interested in mysticism and spiritual stuff doesn't make you a good Jedi Knight in a Star Wars RPG: the Jedi player is the one who can be bothered to go through the rule book and understand what all the different Force spells are and how they work. So Fighters suited me because they didn't have too many extra rules to learn; and because you could be reactive and dramatic. 
"There are Goblins."
"I attack them." 
"Which Goblins."
"The Goblins on the left."
"They fall over."
I played in a Dungeons & Dragons tournament at Dragonmeet or Games Day. I played a little dwarf warrior. When he saw a bunch of orcs he went berserk and attacked them, even though he was out-numbered, because he had read the Lord of the Rings and knew that orcs were the enemies of dwarves. I won a small metal trophy for that. 
You might say that those of us who hated P.E. and never got into fights were naturally going to embrace fantasy worlds where we could be real men. Or you might say that all those mighty warriors—strong, cruel, and not-very-bright—were parodies of the bullies and P.E. teachers who made real life so hateful. I don't think that fantasy violence begets real violence; but I think that role-playing games sometimes gave us a pretext to talk about things that we wouldn't talk about in any other context; and that as some of us grew into tenth level fighters we positively enjoyed being able to say "take that slave outside and chop his head off." I am told that this made postal games very unpleasant to administer. There would always be a player who would say "I tie the princess up and rape her" behind a cloak of moderate anonymity. 
The trouble with playing a fighter in Dungeons & Dragons is that fighting in Dungeons & Dragons is not very interesting. It had really been designed as a tactical war-game and the combat rules were about adjudicating encounters and quickly establishing who had won and who had lost; not about enacting dramatic, blow-by-blow fight-scenes. We were trying to use a squad-level tactical war-game to adjudicate improvised radio theatre.
"Oh, but Andrew it was exactly that dichotomy, that sense of forcing square pigs into round hollows that made the early years of role-playing so fruitful."
You may very well have a point there. 
In Dungeons & Dragons, both heroes and monsters have an Armour Class and a number of Hit Points. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Combat Tables were printed in White Dwarf9 Issue #10, the one with Conan the Barbarian on the cover, and for months and years those two pages pretty much defined our games. You cross-referenced your Level and the monsters Armour Class on the chart, which gave you a number between 1 and 20. You had to role that number on a D2010 to hit the monster with your sword, club or bohemian ear spoon. Eventually, some genius spotted that the combat tables were all done in integers so if you knew that you need a 17 to hit Armour Class 0 then you needed a 12 to hit armour class 5. Some people called this the THACO11 system; I called it cheating.
So obviously a lot of dice were rolled. If you liked rolling a lot of dice it was quite fun. First you tried to roll your To-Hit number from the chart. Then you rolled the Damage-Score of your weapon. Small swords did 1D6 damage and big swords did 1D10 damage and no-one knew what bohemian ear spoons did. You knocked the damage score off the monster's Hit Points. Then the monster rolled a D20 and tried to hit you, and if he hit you, he rolled his damage, and you knocked that off your Hit Points. And so on; for months at a time. So many zillions of dice are rolled that it all evens out in the end.
Roll to hit, roll damage; role to hit, roll damage; either you kill the monster, in which case you go right on and kill the next monster; or the monster kills you, in which case you are dead.
I had an ambivalent relationship with Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. The first time I heard of the game, what I heard of was a photo of a very elaborately painted 25mm wizard; but I could no more paint the whites of a 25mm figure's eyes than I could assemble a plastic model of HMS Victory, or, indeed, hand in geography homework with no smudges in it.
The Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook didn't seem quite clear what you did with miniatures. You could each have a model representing your character, it said, and you could put them on the table in their marching order and imagine them strolling through the dungeon. But you could equally well use chess pieces. I feel confident that since the invention of the polyhedral dice, no human being has ever played Dungeons & Dragons using chess pieces. 
Dungeons & Dragons combat resolves what is going on; it resolves it fairly and randomly; it allows you to make an educated assessment about whether you are going to bet your character's life on this fight; and it allows you the option of pulling out if things look bad. But it isn't exciting. It isn't swashbuckling. There is no sense that Volstof The Viking with the battle axe that is three times as big as he is has a different fighting style to Louis the Frenchman who can slip his tiny little rapier between your ribs before you can say "ooo la la". 
I came in half way through the argument. People only five years older than me (people who were old enough to vote and go to bed with girls) had been in from the very beginning. There were clear battle lines: between the people who thought that Dungeons & Dragons—already, in 1976—was a shocking old dinosaur, and that the new wave systems like Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry & Sorcery and something called Runequest were the way to go; and people who thought that if you weren't playing Dungeons & Dragons you weren't playing Dungeons & Dragons and that was that. If there were too many systems the hobby would fragment. 
Naturally, I aligned myself alongside the Old Guard. Someone would say that the Dungeons & Dragons combat system was silly: that Armour didn't make you harder to hit, it made you, if anything, easier to hit, but it sucked up some of the damage. I stroked my beard and said that that was what people always said; but that only showed that they didn't really understand Dungeons & Dragons. Of course you could make a system that was realistic. But these so-called realistic systems were too complicated and no fun. I had invested several weekends and several weeks pocket money in the Basic Rulebook, the Advanced Players Handbook and White Dwarf #10. There would come a weekend when I would change my allegiance; but it was not this weekend. 
And so we carried on playing; Sunday afternoon after Sunday afternoon. Roll D20, 15, hit, roll D10, 4 points of damage, well done, first Goblin goes down, one Goblin attacks each member of the party, role D20, 17, hit, 2 points of damage to Marsoriar, 16, hit, 4 points of damage to Scorpion, new combat round, what do you want to do, attack the Goblins again, roll D20... And on and on and on and on.
There must have been something incredibly appealing in the idea of Dungeons & Dragons to keep us at it. Or maybe we couldn't quite admit that it was all a bit of a con. 
What kept some people playing; what Mark Barrowcliffe describes very well indeed, is the desire and liking and obsession for of and with numbers and figures and rules simply in themselves. Dungeons & Dragons works according to a fabulously complicated but theoretically graspable set of rules. The toughness of a Level IV Arch-demon is expressible as a three digit number in a way that the toughness of Russel's Scout troupe really wasn't. What kept so many people playing Dungeons & Dragons was the books and books of spells and lists and lists of different kinds of swords and pages and pages of magic items; all there to be learned and grasped and memorized and understood. The fun and the skill of Dungeons & Dragons lay in knowing that the best spell to counter a Grimwalker is Sporkus' Sprog of Many Colours. 
Dungeons & Dragons, in that first incarnation, had no Official Setting—no Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms or Fantastick Wilderlands Beyond— but there was a kind of implicit background. Some of the spells were named after famous wizards who you had never heard of; and the texture of the spells was more colourful and psychedelic than anything in Conan ther Barbarian or Lord of the Rings. I now understand that Gary Gygax12 was consciously copying the nomenclature of Jack Vance's Dying Earth, one of a number of high brow pulp novels by which some people swear but of which I have always been quite unable to see the point. 
Dungeons & Dragons wizards could not, on the whole, turn people into toads or fly on broomsticks; but they could possibly muster Randalph's Prizmatic Spray. Well then: Dungeons & Dragons was telling us about Real Wizards; as opposed to the silly Made Up Wizards of fairy tales and folk lore. Dungeons & Dragons combat was real combat because it was so boring; Dungeons & Dragons magic was real magic because it was so hard to understand. 
There were rule books and magazines and metal miniatures; but there was precious little information about how we were supposed to play these games. We dutifully ran up lots of blind alleys. The games were not that much fun and the fact that we weren't having much fun convinced me that I was a proper serious gamer. White Dwarf was full of solemn warnings against what were called Monty Hall Dungeons: adventures in which it was too easy to acquire treasure and magic items. If magic items were too easy to obtain then they would lose their... well, their magic. If characters shot up from first level to twentieth level in the first gaming session, then how could the DM provide them with a challenge in the second one. Dutifully, I kept my players running around at first level for whole terms, killing Kobolds13 for copper pieces, and occasionally rewarding them with a Plus One Sword of Swording. Thus I convinced myself I was a serious grown up Dungeon Master. 

And yet, they kept on coming; Saturday afternoon after Saturday afternoon; whole days during the school holidays. My Mum's cheese sandwiches were good, but not that good. We must have been getting something out of it.

7 "In the way that Ronnie Biggs is known as the Great Train Homager".

8 I have no idea what that means, but it appears in my first draft and I didn't have the heart to delete it, in case it turns out to mean something very profound.

9 In the 1970s, Games Workshop were the main retailer of role-playing games in the UK; and White Dwarf, their house-magazine, was the main source of information about D& D and Traveller. In the 1980s Games Workshop became a game and miniatures manufacturer and from then on White Dwarf published exclusively support material for their own products. Gamers of a certain age are still quite cross about this.

10 1D20 means "one twenty sided dice". 3D6 means "three six sided dice".

11 To Hit Armour Class 0.

12 Dungeons & Dragons was created by two gamers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

13 A kobold is the smallest and weakest baddie in Dungeons & Dragons. They were usually depicted as blue-skinned goblins. Very probably they could climb through a water tap and even a through small key hole.

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1 comment:

  1. "Scout troupe" has suddenly rerendered a whole chunk of my teenage years. It's going to take me a while to process this properly.


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