"He was turning into the worst thing on the planet: an old bitter dork."
"He was turning into the worst thing on the planet: an old bitter dork."
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
I wake up too late but still tired.
I put the duvet into an Ikea blanket box and return the sofa/bed to some semblance of a sofa.
I make a strong Aeropress.
Brian says that before you make an Aeropress you need to weigh the coffee on a special coffee-weighing scale, and check the temperature of the water with a special coffee thermometer and use a special coffee kettle with a swan shaped spout to measure out precisely the right amount of water.
I stick two spoonfuls of coffee in the tube, top it up with the boiled water stir it, and squeeze it into the cup.
It tastes, as a very wise man said many years ago, like a cup of coffee.
I fire up the PC and open up Blogger and re-read, for the twentieth time, the second part of my third series of essays on Mark's Gospel.
In the last days of Cerebus the Aardvark Dave Sim gave the comic-book entirely over to pages and pages of what he called Torah Commentaries. They were widely regarded as evidence that he had gone entirely mad. I hope that my Gospel commentaries are not taking me in the same direction. The point of Dave Sim's essays was that he'd worked out exactly what the Bible really means. The point of mine is that I still don't have the faintest idea. When I was at Sussex University I wrote an essay for a course called The Modern European Mind. I think it was on Hegel and Methodism. "This is all very well, Andrew," wrote my tutor "but where are you in all of this?" I suspect he would say that about my blog as well. I have since heard the Sussex University Modern European Mind course described as legendary. I am afraid I regarded it as one of the pointless compulsory courses I had to turn up for even though I would sooner have been studying Chaucer and Malory. In truth I probably regarded Chaucer and Malory as one of the things I had to study so I could carry on playing Pendragon and Runequest in the evenings. I eventually did an MA in Medieval Studies at a completely different university, largely so I could spend another two years playing Runequest and Pendragon with a completely different set of people.
I put on my black shirt and bright yellow tie and black Australian style leather hat.
I bought the hat at the Trowbridge folk festival in 2016 and have worn it ever since. Either it suited me or it fitted me ironically. Two or three times a day complete strangers shout "I like your hat!" or "Yea-hah, cowboy!" at me. Sometimes they open the windows of their cars in order to do so. Mostly I say "Thanks." Sometimes I say "No-one has ever said that before!" I wonder what would happen if I shouted out comments about strangers clothes? "Hey, nice high vis jacket." "Hey, nice hoodie." "Hey, nice bum crack." I think that some people literally have to speak every thought that passes through their head out loud. As opposed to writing them down and publishing them on the internet, like normal folk. Before Trowbridge, the same people used to shout "fucking fattie" out of the same cars. That is probably the real reason I now wear a bright yellow tie and a black hat. Once, and only once, when a stranger shouted "You're fucking fat!" at me, I had the presence of mind to reply "Well, you're fucking stupid, but I can go on a diet." Women get this kind of thing more than men and black people get it more than white people, so I am not particularly complaining.
I walk to work.
"Work" is a branch library. Five years ago it was shiny and new, but now it is starting to look a bit lived-in. Like my hat. There is a great big sign outside. As I walk under the sign I always imagine that this is the credit sequence for my TV show. Andrew Rilstone: Librarian.
I take books out of crates. Someone asks me how to print a document from an email attachment. I put some of the books into different crates and some of them on the shelves. Someone else asks me how to print a document from an email attachment. I take some books off the shelves and put them in a third kind of crate. A third person asks me how to print a document from an email attachment. At lunchtime I do my Story-time for small children and their parents. We start with a little ditty of my own composition:
Now it's time for story time,
doo dah doo dah
Now it's time for story time
doo dah doo dah day
doo dah doo dah
Now it's time for story time
doo dah doo dah day
Occasionally I have wild fantasies that we will sing The Car Song or Goodnight Little Arlo instead. I own a ukulele but have not quite reached the three chords stage. I have a sharpie ready for the day I can write "this machine kills fascists" on it.
There is a small overpriced coffee shop near the station which was recommended to me by Brian.
If I had all the money I have spent on posh coffee over the years I would spend it on posh coffee. When I gave up working in the games industry some fifteen years ago owing to an unfortunate misunderstanding with a mobile phone game company in Manchester the main reason for coming back to Bristol was that it had a coffee shop called the Boston Tea Party. Shortly after my return the Boston Tea Party opened a branch at the bottom of my street. I felt that was karma.
I return to the library after drinking coffee with a bacon sandwich. Someone is trying to print an attachment from their email.
In the evening Louise and I watch the end of season 7 of Game of Thrones. We binged on it last time round, watched the whole lot in a single weekend, so we are working through it more slowly this time before season 8 comes along. I have long since lost track of most of the characters: I think in terms of "dragon lady", "the dwarf", "the assassinny one", "the gruff beardy one", "the other gruff beardy one". It is all ladies riding dragons and pirates marching into throne rooms and very bloody fights and ladies with their tops off and men with their front bits out and prophecies and scrolls. When it is all over I may even read the book. I suppose next we will have to go back to American Gods. I am so far behind on the Marvel TV Universe that I may have to declare myself bankrupt.
Some days I go to places with names like the Folk House and the Arts Centre to hear folk music. Some days we go to a little pub theatre and watch little pub theatre plays. Sometimes we even go to the Old Vic. I have recently discovered a club which stages performance fairy-tales in an art-house cinema.
This is what I do. This is my life. It seems to fit me. When I have had enough I can go back to my flat with my books and my comics and my computer.
I have not played Runequest or Pendragon in twenty years.
I read a book called The Elfish Gene. The title made me very angry. I wish I had thought of it first.
Imagine a book by a fanatical tee-totaller; a recovering alcoholic who keeps telling you that his life was ruined by alcohol and that no-one should touch the demon drink under any circumstances but that if you do the ten year old Laphroaig is definitely worth the extra money.
The guy seemed genuinely ashamed of having played Dungeons & Dragons: because it was un-hip; because it made him do embarrassing things; because he honestly thought that he had wasted his youth. In between these tirades, he has an absolute knack for explaining what Dungeons & Dragons was and what made it so compelling.
The main comic trope in the book is wild exaggeration. I am quite willing to believe that he used to invite a large gaming group to his house without warning his parents first; I am not so sure that his mum once had to provide impromptu scones for 250. I am well aware that there was still quite a bit of corporal punishment around in the early 1980s; I don't believe that his school was slightly worse than Abu Ghraib. I often have the same problem will Bill Bryson.
Attacking and accusing your former self is a disreputable tactic. It allows you to self-righteously abuse other people while seeming to be modest and contrite. You tell the congregation how ashamed you are of your former wickedness; but really you are telling the people who still order whisky and coke or check out the top shelf in the newsagents how wicked they are. Mark Barrowcliffe gets laughs from portraying himself as a socially inept sexually immature obsessive, but really he is saying that people who still play The Bad Game are immature and inept. I expect he shouts out at people with funny hats.
The idea of the comic book geek and the gaming geek is already a bit obsolescent. It reminds me of the tabloid press's habit of talking about "motorists" as if they were an obscure, specialist, sub-clan. Doesn't everyone drive a motor-car nowadays? Doesn't everyone have at least a couple of arcade games on their mobile phones?
There was a bit of fuss in the newspapers because some art-house directors said that super-hero movies were not proper cinema; which is kind of true. If proper cinema is the kind of cinema that is shown in art houses then superhero movies are not movies of that kind. What interested me was that the art-house directors had all seen enough Marvel Movies to know that they didn't like them. Even a decade ago, the idea that anyone outside a tiny-little comic-book bubble would know who Thanos or Ant-Man even were would have been inconceivable. We've gone in half a lifetime from a world where comic-books were found on spinners in dark corners of disreputable newsagents to one where obscure third-wave Kirby titles are getting big-screen incarnations; where the Prime Minister can reference the Incredible Hulk and expect to be understood. I still find it strange that ordinary mainstream human beings know who Spider-Man is. By 2021 we can expect to hear expressions like "the Fourth Host" and "the Boom Tube" referenced in Guardian op eds.
There is a comic called the Superhero Tots, or some such. As a result even my little god-daughter knows who Darksied and Granny Goodness are.
I spent the whole of 1978 in a dark cinema watching Star Wars. I may have come out long enough to see some of Blake's Seven in black and white. If Punk Rock and Youth Rebellion were breaking out in the street outside I was completely unaware of them. While my contemporaries were marching through Trafalgar Square trying to free Nelson Mandela I was riding down the Spinward Marches trying to free Princess Some-Name-I-Have-Forgotten from the lair of Some-Monster-Whose-Name-I-Cannot-At-This-Juncture-Recall.
Truthfully, this doesn't do full justice to the horror. In my Punk Years I was actually listening to the Wombles and watching the Val Doonican Show on a black and white TV huddled round a metallic brick filled storage heater.
And the Black and White Minstrels. It was the 1970s. Everyone watched the Black and White Minstrels.
Most people imagine that everyone in the world is cooler than they are. Even as grown-ups we imagine that everyone else in the office spent the weekend drinking cocktails and listening to experimental jazz, when all they did was hoover the dining room and watch Strictly Bake-Off on I-Player. As a schoolboy I devoutly believed that I was the only person in my class who didn't spend his weekend drinking cans of lager, vandalizing phone boxes, joy-riding motorbikes and doing the mysterious sex-thing with the equally mysterious girl-things. It was certainly true that some of my peers went to the park by themselves and played football. (This was before paedophiles.) But I am sure their weekends really consisted of television and church and grandparents, just like mine. One famously delinquent boy in my class who had a skinhead hair cut, a pierced ear and the unique accolade of having been caned by the headmaster, let slip into a conversation that he attended the Boy Scouts. "But it happens to be the hardest Boy Scout troupe in Barnet" he assured us.
I listened to a Wombles LP a few months ago. It's really very good indeed. I doubt if the Sex Pistols have aged as well.
I have told this story before: too often. You have heard it before: it is not always about me.
Lonely bookish kid. Bog-standard comprehensive school that wasn't nearly as bad as he makes it out to be. A whole series of cultural fireworks go off: Tolkien; Tom Baker; Stan Lee; George Lucas; Jack Kirby. He spends his time in his own head playing with action figures and model spacecraft when he is really much too old for toys and dolls; making up, but not writing down, stories and adventures. At some specific moment Dungeons & Dragons explodes into his life and he emerges and starts playing with real human beings again.
Did anyone but me ever encounter a thing called Star Games? It is proper ephemera; existing only in my memory. It was a big puzzle book, bound in the style of the Star Fleet Technical Manual and the Star Trek Concordance, but without any official status. The puzzles were linked in fairly clever and imaginative ways so they formed a first-person narrative where YOU were the hero. (This was before Fighting Fantasy.) YOU were a space agent who had to perform some incredibly dangerous and important mission behind alien lines and save the Galactic Federation. To hack the aliens' computer YOU had to solve a moderately complex cryptography puzzle. To get to the secret weapon store YOU had to navigate a more than usually complicated labyrinth. There was even a kind of ship-to-ship dogfight on the final page. I think YOU shot enemy ships by memorizing their positions on a grid.
It wasn't terribly good. It was truthfully only one level up from the puzzle pages you used to get in children's TV annuals. For four consecutive years I failed to qualify for the Anti-Dalek-Force. But for a fortnight it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. To everybody else I seemed to be the one who wasn't much good at French, was hopeless at football and spent the weekend at Sunday School. But secretly I was an agent of the Galactic Federation.
I never have been able to explain it. It may be a literally over-active imagination; an ability to put reality into interlocking frames. A year or three back I went to the Doctor Who Experience: an exhibition of Doctor Who props presented as an immersive narrative experience. Obviously (obviously) I knew ("knew") that it was not real. I am not a mental case. I don't really think that you can start in a warehouse in Cardiff and be beamed onto a Dalek Spaceship. But at the same time I would have been ready to punch anyone who broke the illusion; who said "this is only a model" or "that is not the Doctor speaking to you, it is a recording Matt Smith made some time ago." I suppose I was playing at playing, playing at being on a Dalek Spaceship. But there was no part of me that said "gosh, this is a very clever illusion". It was more "I am on a Dalek spaceship, being shouted at by Daleks, and it's what I have always wanted".
I am told grown-ups get a similar affect when doing the guided tour of the Coronation Street studios. At one level they are learning about how their favourite TV show gets made; at another level they are literally visiting Ken Barlowe's house. They can hold both ideas in their head at the same time.
The Walt Disney Star Wars theme park people have understood this very well. "I have waited my whole life for this."
I continued to believe in Father Christmas for much longer than most children do, which is to say: I think that I maintained the pretence of believing in Father Christmas; I continued to play out and enjoy the annual consensual folk drama in which Mum said "has Father Christmas come?" and I said "yes he has" and the game would have been spoiled if either of us had said "you know this is a game, don't you?"
If I continue too far down this line of thought, I will start to wonder if the ability to both believe and not believe in Santa, and to frame walking around a film set as if you were really on board an alien space ship; and to somehow fill in pages in a puzzle book while imagining that you are Space Agent is in anyway related to the religious impulse. And that would be a troubling thought.
Grant Morrison says that Superman—Superman himself—once literally appeared to him and told him that he, Superman, wanted him, Grant Morrison, to take over the job of chronicling his life; and that is why Grant Morrison started to write Superman comic books. At some level, he, Grant Morrison, literally believes that Superman exists, or is a representation of something which literally exists, on some other plane of reality. But the place where Superman appeared to him was a comic-book convention. He seemed older and fatter than you would expect, and his costume was rather creased up. "But isn't it more likely that what he talked to was not Superman, but a fan in a Superman costume?" Yes, of course: it was a person taking on the role of one of the gods. But it was also one of the gods. That's how ritual magic works.
When I was very small, if you had said, "what do you want to be when you grow up" I would have said "a space man"; but as soon as I was old enough to grasp what being an astronaut involved, I realized that it wasn't a viable career option for me. At some point before Star Games I read the long forgotten and terribly dated kid science fiction novels of Hugh Walters. Their astronomy was pretty poor, but their orbital mechanics was pretty good. They were rip-roaring adventures but they made it pretty clear that the job of an astronaut involved a lot of hard work, a lot of extra P.E. lessons, and that the process of launch and re-entry would probably make you sick. I liked the way Chris and Serge and Tony were bestest best friends and laid down their lives for each other at least twice in each novel. But I knew they were doing something I could never really do.
Pretending to do something is very different from actually wanting to do it. This often comes up in discussions of the darker recesses of the internet: you can like reading about disgustingly kinky stuff without actually being disgusting or kinky.
I never did work out what I wanted to be when I grew up, although "librarian" suits me. I suppose that if anyone had looked at that annoying bookish little boy with a plastic space helmet they would have said "Oh I bet he is going to become a librarian."
There was a range of crisps called Outer Spacers; little corn rockets and little corn space stations. If you collected a hundred crisp bags you could send away for a series of big Outer Space posters—arty paintings of different kinds of space ship. The posters were drawn as if you were looking through a window or portal on the side of another space ship; so if you collected all four, which naturally I did, you could put them alongside each other, and turn YOUR bedroom into a cabin on an Outer Space Ship.
They were printed on heavy paper, and for some reason it was permissible for me to ruin the wallpaper in my bedroom with blu-tack but not permissible to ruin it with tape, so the posters fell off the wall about twice a day. But the idea that MY bedroom was a spaceship was well worth the trouble. I remember when I first saw the advertisement. This is what I have been waiting for all my life.
The House at Pooh Corner ends with Christopher Robin leaving the Enchanted Forest. It is perhaps the most sadistically sentimental thing ever written. Phil Jupitus tells the story of offering to read it at a book event and being unable to get to the end. Rather bizarrely John Major picked it as one of his favourite pieces of writing on the Radio Four show With Great Pleasure.
"Pooh, when I'm—you know—when I'm not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?"
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
But it is hard to unpick. Is it two friends saying goodbye; or is it a seven year old boy growing out of his toys? They are using the language of death and bereavement; but no-one is dead. Little boys do in fact grow up and Winnie-the-Pooh is, in fact, only some fur and sawdust and glass eyes. Is it us grown-ups who are mourning our childhood; or are we begging children not to grow up? We spot that Peter Pan is a bit creepy, particularly when we know about J.M. Barrie's rather intense interest in young men; but no-one ever suggested that there was anything untoward about A.A. Milne's relationship with his son. A bit too distant and Victorian maybe, a bit too certain that once you are grown up you are grown up and that's the end of it, but sweet and wholesome and not without a streak of healthy cynicism on both sides.
No-one thinks that grown men should carry on playing with teddy bears forever. So are we mourning the death of the idea of a person; acknowledging that our friends were imaginary and consigning them to non-existence? Granny used to exist but now she doesn't. Pooh doesn't exist, but then he never did.
Milne introduces his first book of children's poetry with a riff about William Wordsworth. (Wordsworth, he says, used to introduce each of his poems with a few words of explanation; but he, Milne, is going to let the readers figure things out for themselves.) Wordsworth, as everyone knows, believed that heaven lay about us in our infancy. He didn't mean that childhood is innocent and heavenly and nothing bad ever happens there. He is very much aware of poverty and bereavement and chimney-sweeps. But he agrees with Plato that human beings are connected with a supernatural order of reality, and that children have inside knowledge of that supernatural order, because they haven't had a chance to forget about it yet. C.S. Lewis was undoubtedly correct in saying that meadow, grove and stream only appeared retrospectively to be apparelled in celestial light: Wordsworth was not writing about what it was like to be a child, but what it was like to be a middle-aged man remembering his childhood. But that's okay too. The fact, said the Professor, that hills look blue from a certain distance is a fact about hills, as good as any other fact.
There was a time when I could take a poster that had been jotted down in a hurry by some commercial artist in order to sell calorific salty corn snacks and genuinely feel that I was on a spaceship. Or pretend that I felt that I was on a spaceship; or pretend that I was pretending. There was a time when I could take a plastic doll that looked very slightly like a character from a TV show that was made before I was born and find that three hours had passed by and an epic adventure had taken place in my head.
I was about to type "wondrous adventure" but I have no memory of building Narnian Castles in my head. My stories were rather mundane. Toy Red Indians could spend a whole half term trecking across the desert. Look at us, they would say, being Red Indians and trecking across the desert. Once I had successfully turned my bedroom into a space craft what I wanted was to be on a routine space flight from earth to Alpha Centuri, and to hear there was a slight problem with warp engine number two, and run down to the engine room with a spanner and fix it. I didn't populate the woods in the park with dragons and elves; but I did imagine I was carrying a routine message from King Arthur and would be back in Camelot in time for tea.
Tolkien is sometimes accused of appalling tedium; of chapters and chapters in which characters do nothing but look at trees and make soup. I think we were very much on the same wavelength. I would have been happy if the 3D-chess scene in Star Wars had gone on for ever.
Perhaps this is what Christopher Robin was mourning; or what William Wordsworth was remembering. Christopher Robin never does anything in the Hundred Acre Wood: he just goes for walks and looks at the trees. Unstructured imagination; flow-state; being in the zone. The ability to look at a toy or a picture and flip into a different head-space. Is this what people mean by meditation or mindfulness? Is it the edge of mysticism, direct knowledge of God, the cloud of unknowing? Or is it just that when we were very young we had a lot of time to waste and that now we are six we feel as busy as Rabbit?
A long time ago I wrote a little pamphlet called Tangled Up in Pooh in which I argued that what is really happening in A.A. Milne's stories is that structure and hierarchy is interposing itself between the child's mind and the subjective, experienced world. The male pencil mediates the maternal forest, and all you are left with is the written-down stories, not the experience itself.
Yes, I know you are laughing, but I am pretty sure I am right. Certainly Christopher Robin's animals all see learning to read as a kind of Edenic fall.
The death of Christopher Robin: putting the action figures away in the box: finding that although Cyborg and Muton still thrill me with their messianic transparency, I can't meaningfully tell myself stories about them any more. I can dress them up and put them on display and even have some fun making "pew pew" blaster noises but the days when I really felt that I was enacting the last great battle to save the human race are long gone.
Oh Stan Lee, Stan Lee. I had a box of plastic spacemen and when any decent child would have been flying around his bedroom making laser gun noises, I would imagine one of them falling to earth and getting separated from his people and experiencing the human race first hand and bewailing man's inhumanity to man.
A long time ago I wrote an article called All The Boys Are Marching Out of Step Except My Johnny1. It was a kind of eulogy to role-playing games; it should really have been my last word on them. The substantive point was that when I played a game I wanted to pretend to be a character and get caught up in the flow of the narrative but that rules systems and models and even maps kept pulling me out of the flow.
I wrote the piece in a fit of irritation after dropping out of a particularly pointless game of Star Wars. Playing games with strangers is never a very good idea. What had irritated me was that the other players were keeping track of ammunition and weight and what supplies they had in their backpacks, which seemed to me to be wildly out of keeping with the style of Star Wars and the Star Wars role-playing game in particular, which is all about melodramatic stunts and action. I think the rules say that guns run out of ammunition at the point where it would be dramatically appropriate for them to do so.
Who remembers Toon?2 It was written by some of the same people who wrote the Star Wars game. You could probably split the role-player fraternity rather neatly into those who thought it was a revelation and those who thought that it was an abomination. There was no character advancement to speak of; and no puzzles to solve or objectives to fulfil. The only reason for playing it was the process: to think up silly cartoon characters and bounce them off each other for a while. The game said quite explicitly that any rule could be broken or ignored provided it was funny. Toon came out rather before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it was obviously thinking along the same lines.
—You mean you could have escaped at any time?
—No, not at any time. Only when it was funny.
The Star Wars role-playing game had that same rule, stated or un-stated. You can do anything you want provided it is heroic: you can do anything you want provided it is the kind of thing which might happen in a Star Wars movie. The first rule of Star Wars is that you have to play it like Star Wars.
Of course, the group I flounced out of after one session were playing Star Wars like Dungeons & Dragons, because at that time everyone played everything like Dungeons & Dragons, because Dungeons & Dragons was what role-playing games were like. The whole fun of Dungeons & Dragons was trying to predict what equipment you needed to survive in the dungeon and how many 10 foot poles you could fit in a backpack; and whether it was worth wasting your one-use-only Wand Of Goblin Evaporation this early in the adventure. I believe that clever referees set up little puzzles with this in mind: monsters that could be defeated by the clever use of particular pieces of equipment in particular combinations. The guy who says "let's not worry about how many magic arrows the elf has left" is about as welcome as the guy who says "rooks and pawns, who can tell them apart?"
What all us clever and sophisticated role-players used to dismiss as "rules lawyering" or "munchkinism" was the very thing that made the game world seem real to those players: a different way of looking through the crisp packet and seeing the space ship on the other side. Before they could imagine that they are bounty hunters or stormtroopers they had to have some sense of the physicality of their gun; how far it fires; how many shots it fires; how you recharge it. Saying "it's a medium sized gun; it kills people; and it runs out of bullets when the referee says it does" is a cheat which brings them out of the game-setting; just as surely as five minutes of calculating wind resistance and range and angle of acceleration and percentage hit ratios made the game world melt away from me.
I turned my moan about the bad Star Wars game into a rant about how gaming wasn't as good as it used to be: a lament about how gamers' nowadays kept interrupting my pure Star Wars experience with their rules and their numbers and their dice and their maps and their waiting their turn and their letting other players get a word in edgeways. Perhaps what I was really saying was "It is high time I admitted that I am over those silly games and should have a go at writing stories instead..."
I like stories, but I can't be arsed to make any up. Like Philip Larkin, I basically find human beings too boring to want to become a novelist or a journalist.
I have told this story before: too often. The discovery of Dungeons & Dragons in a green box in the basement of a very trendy toy shop, carpeted, wooden walls rocking horses, hand- knitted dolls, science construction sets, green boxes of Basic Dungeons & Dragons.
Where was the shop? Not in my village, for sure. We had an old fashioned toy shop, with teddy bears and model kits and an old lady who disapproved of children, but nothing trendy or fashionable. It was called The Toy Shop. It was a few doors up from The Sweet Shop and next to The Wool Shop. I sometimes think I grew up in an episode of Milly-Molly-Mandy. (They have now been turned into The Tatooist, The Nail Bar and The Undertakers.)
The guy in the Elfish Gene is old enough to remember the three little brown booklets: Men and Magic; Monsters and Treasure; The Underworld and the Wilderness. By the time I was on the scene they were known as ORIGINAL Dungeons & Dragons. I know them only by reputation; they were already being sold as facsimile collectors' editions. I have never handled a set: perhaps I should. The box I saw in the trendy toyshop was BASIC Dungeons & Dragons, which was in turn replaced by ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons. I had a trendy Aunt who drank wine and cooked with garlic and lived in Kew so perhaps that is where the toyshop was.
Some weeks later I found a shop much closer to home. It was called Tally Ho Games; because it was near a part of Finchley called Tally Ho Corner. It was called Tally Ho Corner because there used to be a pub called the Tally Ho even though there wasn't a fox for miles around. The Tally Ho Gaumant was where I saw Star Wars for the very, very, very first time. The local MP was called Margaret Thatcher.
After the war, to combat malnutrition, every school child was given a free half-pint of milk to drink every day. Milk-time and milk-monitors are a central motif in the childhood memories of people of a certain age. Crates of tiny milk bottles in playgrounds; children drinking slightly off milk through straws; hi-jinks involving concealing bottles and making cheese... As minister for education Margaret Thatcher decided that this was not something which the country could afford. The English never forgave her. Chumbawamba celebrated her death with a song which went "When I first came to commons law; it was easy you see; stole the milk from the children's mouths; you get nothing for free." On the 5th of November we still burn her effigy on a bonfire while chanting "THATCHER! THATCHER! MILK SNATCHER!"
Tally Ho games was next to, and may in fact have been a sub-branch of, Michael's Models, which mostly sold intimidating military model kits and radio controlled aircraft but also sold unpainted lead war-game and fantasy figures in tiny little plastic bags and hand-written labels, "hobgoblins, set of three, £1.50". The basic Dungeons & Dragons set cost some absurd amount of money like seven pounds fifty; but it turned out that you could buy the rulebook by itself for two pounds ninety five. I am not sure how I got this princely sum together. I don't think it can have been a present because I remember reading it on the bus-ride home.
I know it's a cliche, but the smell of that book, the cheap ink, the slightly haphazard type-setting can send me into a Wordsworthian spiral. Not making the memories come flooding back (they don't) and not longing to be eleven years old (everything else about being eleven was horrible) but somehow reconnecting with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons, the possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons, and going back to the day or week or month when there was nothing in the universe but a knight with a bow and a wizard with a staff and a dragon with a huge pile of treasure. Remember what C.S. Lewis said about bicycles?
Perhaps my mistake was opening the box; moving from the moment when role-playing games were esoteric and unobtainable tomes with names like Empire of the Petal Throne and Nomad Gods to the moment when they were impenetrable and untested rules-sets in tiny type-faces.
This is the free trader Beowulf calling someone. Anyone. S.O.S. S.O.S
The mistake was reading the books and supposing that you could actually play these things; that four eleven year old boys in an empty classroom with old fashioned wooden ink-well desks could ever have anything to do with those free-floating concepts.
Ral Parthar. Apple Lane. City State of the Invincible Overlord. Vault of the Drow.
I have told this story too many times, and told it wrongly.
Role-playing games did not start in 1977; they started in 1983. Star Wars and Michael's Models and Outer Spacers were over. Sylvester McCoy was in the future. I managed to stretch "university" out to cover a fair proportion of my life. An undergraduate degree, some time living at home and doing a dead-end job; a post graduate degree; some time living in my old college house after my degree was over. "Work" and "study" were only ever the things which happened in between gaming meet-ups with two sets of old college friends: 1983 to 1995. That was when I created Aslan3, perpetrated Interactive Fantasy4, single-handedly invented free-form games5, created Once Upon a Time6 ("with others"); and even published some truly dreadful Warhammer scenarios without ever having played Warhammer. I reviewed a lot of games which I hadn't played for a couple of magazines I despised, and ended up with a column in an actually quite good magazine called Arcane. There was a picture of me and everything. The Terrible Star Wars Game would have been in about 1994. My twenties and thirties were the years the dragons ate. So why all this Proustian wrangling with the enchanted neighbourhood of Andrew's childhood days?
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."
"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.
A First Level Dungeons & Dragons Magic User had, and for all I know still has, four hit points. This means that being hit by anything at any time will put him out of the game. He is allowed one (1) spell, which might allow him to put an enemy to sleep or open a locked door; which means that pretty much by definition he can only do one (1) thing in each gaming session, so that a person who wants to be a wizard has to effectively sit out the first few sessions while the fighters knock hit-points off Kobolds on his behalf. This would not matter very much if the game was mostly about exploring, negotiating and solving puzzles; but most Dungeons & Dragons games are pretty much about fighting and nothing else. Playing a wizard in low level Dungeons & Dragons is like agreeing to play a conscientious objector in a game which is purely and entirely about crawling around no-man's land with a rifle.
I spent all those years writing fandom articles condemning munchkins and rules lawyers and fantasy frothers and the person I was really accusing was myself. I was a serious G.M. I hated the frothers and the munchkins as they rampaged around their Monty Halls because they seemed to be having fun.
Puritanism. The lingering fear that someone, somewhere, is having a better time than you are.
Of course, now I get it. Dungeons & Dragons was a war-game. Magic Users and Fighting Men were playing pieces. The Magic User was like a cannon; very strong in attack; but very weak in defence. The job of the Fighting Men was to protect the Magic User and get him to the point where he could release his 6D6 fireball at the orcs lair.14 And of course, Dungeons & Dragons was meant to be a Monty Hall. There were scrolls which only Magic Users could read; and magic staves and wands which only Magic Users could wield. The wizard was supposed to be wandering around the dungeons veritably piled up with rods of lightning and gloves of thunder; splaffing monsters left, right and centre. The wizard's one spell was intended to be a final back up, the thing that the wizard could unleash in the last resort. I cannot remember the difference between a wand and a staff, but I am darn sure there was one. I do remember that the plural of "staff" is "staves", a piece of knowledge which has often come in useful.
But I had read Lewis Pulsipher. I knew that if I allowed any of the magic items (which filled up about a quarter of the rule book) into the players hands then I was a bad G.M. a Monty Hall referee.
Roll attack; roll damage. Roll attack, roll damage.
And yet they carried on coming.
There is now a whole genre of what are called "deck building card games". Some of them, like Magic the Gathering, require players to buy small packs of cards and build their deck from those; others give you a big box of cards, only some of which come into play in any one session. They are based on a carefully designed and balanced numerical sequences of card permutations. The better you know the deck and the possibilities of the deck the more ideas you will have about what can be done with those cards. Playing the game means exploring the possibilities that the cards present. There is a huge pool of cards, but you only ever see a small subset of them; and each new game, or each new pack of cards, reveals more possibilities.
Those of us who play those games only casually; those of us who do not have the correct kind of memory for facts and numbers and lists; those of us who never collected stamps or engine numbers find ourselves baffled by these games.
"I am going to teach you to play Settlers of Carcasone. The main thing to remember is never to play your Sheep card and your Curling Tongs at the same time, unless, of course, someone has already released Hornets and you also have Chewing Gum."
For many people, Dungeons & Dragons was a deck building game before there were decks; the monsters and magic items were the cards; the skill was in knowing what to use and when. Gary Gygax said in so many words that that was how the game was meant to be played. Role-playing mastery is knowing the rules. Role-playing grand mastery is knowing the rules of several games. Role-playing ultra-grand-mastery is designing some rules of your own. Role-playing super-ultra-grand-mastery is being the designer of Dungeons & Dragons.
To some of us, the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio and Deities and Demigods were repositories of narrative; a whole box of possible stories, wound up and ready to go. The first I ever knew of Cthulhu was that he had 400 hit points; the first I ever knew of Elric was that he was a fifteenth level fighter. I sought out the novels to flesh out the statistics.
Overpowered, magic item heavy, Monty Hall campaigns couldn't have been as rare, or as disapproved of, as White Dwarf would have had me believe. If there was a book which told you how many hit points Cthulhu had, there must have been groups prepared to countenance having a fight with him.
A dragon in a fantasy story is always a disappointment because he is only ever one dragon in particular, the author's attempt to catch the idea of dragons and put it onto a page. Most fantasy writers baulk a little at even doing that: a reptilian dragon sleeping in a cave on a pile of treasure is too dreadful a cliche to actually put into a book. Anne McCaffrey and Ursula le Guin wrote fantastic dragon-stories but did they get anywhere near the Idea of Dragon?
Stay away from pirates. Even if you are Johnny Depp, stay away from pirates. Pirates are the most potent idea of all; but they won't go into a game or a story. Get within shouting distance and they stop being pirates and become a bunch of ruffians on a boat. We will come back to pirates.
Did Plato say that numbers were the only real thing in the universe? So is turning a dragon into an armour class and a number of hit points and a damage rating the closest we can get to capturing the true essence of dragonnyness? Or does it trap the idea in particularity just as much as the books do? If dragons are going to fly anywhere at all they are going to have to fly in your imagination.
People play Dungeons & Dragons because they like manipulating numbers and rules. People play Dungeons & Dragons because they like the physical sensation of rolling dice. People play Dungeons & Dragons because they like the idea of wizards and dragons and because turning the pages of a book and pushing little models around gives them a general sense that they are engaging in fantasy. People play Dungeons & Dragons because it is obscure and esoteric. People play Dungeons & Dragons because the Christian Union has told them not to. People play Dungeons & Dragons because it seems to offer a connection with Tolkien's world. If only I could get the rules to work. If only I could get a set of players who loved the game as I loved it. If only I were three years older and had jumped on board when it was three little stapled books. Then everything would come together and the world on the hex paper would become as real as French and P.E. and Sunday School...
There was a short story in Dragon Magazine about a group of role-players who find that the magic ring has somehow followed them out of the game and into the real world and who made a wish that their real lives would become the fantasy and the fantasy world would become their reality. (I do not recall if any of them had a liking for coloured lip gloss or synthetic hosiery.) "Their Dungeons & Dragons game had become more dear to them than their life outside it" said the narrator. I wanted that to be true. I felt that it ought to be true. Sometimes I convinced myself it was true.
About the same time came Ralph Bakshi's well-intentioned but catastrophic cartoon version of Lord of the Rings. The trailer included the phrase:
"A world more real than any other."
A world more real than any other. That is what I wanted.
I managed to create quite a little cult following in Mr Hall's classroom. We were allowed to play Dungeons & Dragons in Long Registration provided we did it quietly, and had permission to use an empty classroom at break time. Mr Hall was a popular teacher, although he had a very bad temper. There was a crack in the plaster of the wall of the French room where he had once tried to throw a desk at a pupil. Or possibly he threw the pupil against the wall: accounts vary. It turns out that every school has a crack which a mild mannered French teacher once threw a desk at; in the same way that every university has a library which nearly collapsed due to the architect failing to take into account the weight of the books. He was universally known as Henry Hall. Henry Hall had ceased to be a famous band-leader a decade before any of us had been born. Such is the persistence of oral tradition. Perhaps his first name was Monty.
The second game we played was called Melee. It came in a tiny little folder and cost about a quid. It was called a "micro-game". There were quite a lot of "micro-games". Small but not trivial. A serious tactical war-game that you can put in your pocket and play over lunch. One of them was called Car Wars. Another one was called Ogre. Slightly bigger, but in the same format, was an utterly unplayable behemoth called Star Fleet Battles. Melee was just a set of combat rules; it had a companion, Wizard, which was just a set of magic rules. Melee and Wizard tried to mate: they became a wannabe Dungeons & Dragons alternative called The Fantasy Trip. The Fantasy Trip never took off, but it eventually cloned into something called GURPS, which did rather well.
Melee defined characters on a simple sliding scale. You had Strength and Dexterity; you split a pool of points between them; you could be strong but slow or quick but weedy. (The were lots of 16/8 characters and 8/16 characters and some 12/12 characters, but not a lot in between.) You had to roll under your dexterity on three dice to hit. The stronger you were the bigger the weapon you could carry: bigger weapons did more damage. Armour and shields reduced the amount of damage you took but also reduced your Dexterity. There was a little hex board representing an arena. Characters circled round each other. There were little counters so you could throw and drop weapons and see where they were left. If you won a fight in an arena you got an experience point which eventually got you an extra point of Strength or Dexterity. We played it nearly every lunchtime; when other people were playing top trumps or football. It became a bit like conkers. (No-one in real life has ever played conkers.) You built up stronger and stronger characters and waited to see if someone else could knock you off your perch. I think we worked out a seeding system so people with too many experience points had to retire. Obviously the correct thing to have done would have been to use the Melee combat system to resolve fights in Dungeons & Dragons. But we stayed loyal to our first love.
The third game I played was Traveller. Traveller was a big science fiction game invented by an American military war-gamer; one of those universes where every planet and star has been colonised and flying from world to world is as normal as crossing the sea in the age of sail. Traveller came as three little books, like Original Dungeons & Dragons. It had a black cover and a grey atmosphere. What we all wanted from a science fiction game was Star Wars. The first supplement for Traveller consisted of a thousand and one pre-rolled characters. It was called One Thousand and One Characters. It included stats for Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
Marc Miller15 said he was quite relieved, when Star Wars came out, that it was possible to represent the characters in terms of the Traveller rules set. This was only partly true. It was certainly possible to create a character who had ridiculously good piloting skills and psychic, or as Traveller preferred to call them, psionic, powers; it was even possible to give him a sword. Traveller had no lightsabers, but it did include a weapon called a vibro-blade. The rule book pointed out, perfectly sensibly, that you didn't need to invent laser swords or even ray-guns because whether you were on Earth or Mars you could conveniently put your enemy out of action with a bullet.
"Yes: but lightsabers and ray-guns are cool. "
"This isn't about being cool. We don't play role-playing games for fun, you know."
But even if you worked out the game mechanics for a Pilot/Psychic/Farmboy and a Cyborg/Pilot/Wizard, Traveller's nuts and boltsy ex-marines rules set ensured that nothing remotely like a space fantasy movie could ever happen.
Traveller resolved battles between spaceships using a Newtonian vector system. You drew wobbly lines to represent the gravity-wells of planets. It was perfectly possible to end a game by inadvertently crashing your space ship into the sun.
White Dwarf did make a valiant attempt to introduce some fun or at any rate local colour into Traveller, with unofficial articles about robots and aliens and black holes. But if you wanted to role-play space adventures you had to buy into the official Traveller universe. It was all there was.
Traveller was designed to be about the military: in the first version everyone was a space soldier, a space sailor, or a space scout although subsequent rule books included things like pirates and bureaucrats. (There is an idea for a game: Pirates & Bureaucrats.) The structure was military: your character went through one or more 4 year "terms of service" during which he acquired skills and got promoted. The game started after he retired. Characters could get killed off during the character creation process.
Dungeons & Dragons took it for granted that you were a tomb robber and a dungeon plunderer. If you thought your Cleric should stay at home and support his local temple then hard luck. Traveller was much more upfront about the idea that players were traders and mercenaries. A very large amount of the rules was based on the idea that you would fill your spaceship up with trade goods in one location, fly on to the next location and sell them at a profit. I don't know quite when Traveller occurred relative to the computer game Elite, but they were in the same solar system conceptually.
A disconcerting proportion of the young American population had either recently fought in a war, narrowly avoided fighting in a war or just possibly refused to fight in a war. In the UK, war stories were already more the province of Granddads than Dads. In the US everyone's big brother had been to Vietnam. This didn't necessarily mean that American game designers were more violent or more conservative or indeed more pacifist or hippy-dippy than their European equivalents. But it did mean that they had some idea what fighting and soldiering was like; had a knowledge of and interest in hardware; and were disinclined to talk about a single universal zap-gun. An unofficial Dungeons & Dragons clone, the Arduin Grimoire, had a deliberately gory system of critical hits because the writer knew what it was like to be in combat.
Say what you like about Dungeons & Dragons; no-one was in any doubt about what you were meant to do with it. You drew maps of little rooms; you connected the little rooms together with little corridors; you noted what kind of monster was in each room (or maybe you made a chart and picked them at random as you went along) you created parties of heroes; the heroes walked along tunnels and into the rooms and killed the monsters.
Break the door down: kill the monsters: take their stuff. Continue forever. But what was Traveller for?
I used to ogle the Games Workshop catalogue like pornography. For some unspeakably huge amount of money, six pounds maybe or even seven, there was something called City State Of The Invincible Overlord which was a map of a whole city. And for some more money, you could get the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and the Fantastick Wilderlands Beyond. But so far as I can tell, cities were pretty much the same as dungeons. You walked around them as a party, you broke down doors, you killed inhabitants and you took their stuff.
Traveller had no dungeons. You could draw a map of a spaceship if you wanted to. There were complicated rules about what could fit into each kind of spaceship; based on tonnage and displacement and how many hard-points it had and what the technology level of the planet where you built it was. Designing a starship was pretty much like filling up your backpack for Dungeons & Dragons. Planets were rolled up like characters; instead of having scores for Strength and Dexterity they had scores for Temperature and Population and Sea Level; a whole world defined by a six or seven digit number. You randomly determined their position on a hexagonal star map and worked out where the hyperspace corridors were according to an algorithm. But once you knew that three hexes away from the democratic planet with low gravity was a primitive planet with low technology it wasn't clear what you were meant to do with that information. In Dungeons & Dragons you said "I walk down the corridor. I turn left. The elf gets his arrow ready while the Fighter breaks the door down. We attack the orcs." In Traveller you said "We fly to the low tech planet." That takes a week. "We refuel at the star port." Okay. But then what? You couldn't "explore" a planet in the way you explored a dungeon or even a city. There couldn't possibly be a map. It was just a list of numbers.
I get, now, that what you were supposed to do was trade: find stuff that could be made cheaply on Planet A and sell it for a profit on Planet B and use the money to buy a bigger spaceship. If the trading wasn't working you could do missions but the missions were conceived of in abstract terms. It wasn't like "Here is an evil enemy base full of storm-troopers; hatch a daring plot to break in and steal the dilithium reactor." It was "Obtain a Dilithium Reactor for your Patron. If you roll a 13 on 2D6 you succeed. You can add three to your score if you have any of the following skills...." Where Dungeons & Dragons was a small unit war-game that had reluctantly mutated into an RPG, Traveller was a game of trade and business, almost certainly intended to be played through the post.
Perhaps I am particularly paranoid; or perhaps my first Dungeons & Dragons group was particularly immature; but I think that they regarded even the intrusion of a trap or a puzzle or a little-old-man as an annoying interruption into the monster-killing which they had come for. They put up with my digressions: to keep the D.M. on side; buttering him up for the next time there was a rules dispute. And anyway Andrew was the only person whose Mum was mad enough to let him buy all these rule books and to have his friends round every Sunday to play, and to give them sandwiches and Pepsi. So you had to indulge him sometimes. But how I got them to play Traveller. I can't think.
You kill clown. You kill clown. I was clown. Famous Clown Charlie. That was me. I killed him.16
Chivalry and Sorcery can go on the pile next to Traveller. I read it fifty times but I never actually played the thing.
It turned out that Dungeons & Dragons was a Bad Thing because it wasn't rooted in history; even a dragon and an orc needed a social context. You can't have a knight-in-armour if you don't have a village of peasants to support him. The main part of rolling up a character in Traveller had been finding out what he did during his time in the army. All characters were ex-servicemen by definition. The main part of character creation in Chivalry & Sorcery was rolling for your Social Class. This guaranteed that 99% of characters were peasants and farmers and artisans and only 1% were permitted to bare arms.
There could be a goode game in which ye people of ye village pull together to save each other from ye dragonne; and even one in which they had to remember to plant ye crops and milk ye cows. But what ever were you meant to do with the endless charts and tables in the Chivalry & Sorcery rulebook? Magicians spent most of their time in their towers researching and reading as opposed to mucking about in dungeons. This may very well have accurately reflected the "real" life of the "real" medieval wizard but what was meant to happen when we all sat down round a table and started to play a game?
"There are rumours that ye Questing Beaste is stealing sheep on ye moors and that he lives in ye cave near ye castle. What wilt thou doest?"
"I shalt write a Scroll of Scrying"
"Good: roll on ye dice in six months time to see if ye succeedeth."
"I shall maketh a pair of shoes."
"Roll a dice on ye shoe making table to see if if ye suceedeth..."
I may perhaps not be remembering all this entirely accurately.
Chivalry & Sorcery was, in fact, another game which grew out of the wreckage of a huge postal campaign, and was never really meant to be played round a table like Dungeons & Dragons. It was an economic game in which the players filled out forms about what the various wizards, knights, peasants and cheesemakers on their estate were going to do over the next twelve months, and the referee calculated the results. "You have a fine crop of turnips; you have a few pieces of gold; your knight has travelled the country and successfully righted three wrongs." The retrofitting of it into the Dungeons & Dragons mould left everyone very confused indeed.
Villains & Vigilantes worked better. We actually played Villians & Vigilantes and had a good time. It was technically the first superhero game. It had an idea in it which I still like and which everyone else hates: namely, your character in the game was YOURSELF, as YOU would be if YOU had superpowers. Your day to day life provided your secret identity; some dice throws determined your super-powers.
"What if Andrew Rilstone, fourteen year old Comp School Boy in Norf London, woke up one morning with the powers of the Incredible Hulk?" could have been a fun question to build a game around. But it is only fun if he is allowed to rampage around East Barnet, demolish the gym block and stick the P.E. teachers basketball in some anatomically impossible bodily cavity. As a grown-up referee; I could have run that kind of a game. It would either have been a grimdark psychodrama in which everyone explores their super-heroic side. Or else I would have to create a sort of Silver Age cartoon-strip analogue to the "real world". (What would East Barnet look like if it had been drawn by Jack Kirby? Bobbies on penny farthing bicycles and haystacks as far as they eye could see?) Either way, I would have required a pre-determined roster of heroes and villains based on other "real" people in the community. If the Green Geek is really going to try to smash the school to pieces then the referee has to have a super-powered football team available to stop him; or at the very least a Local Police Officer armed with a Blue Lantern Power Ring.
The writers of Villains & Vigilantes were never terribly interested in that aspect of the game. The scenarios they published were all bog-standard adventures about super-villains with world-domination plans set in made-up comic-book universes.
Basic Dungeons & Dragons had included a single page of squared paper with a map of a dungeon on it but there was really no attempt to make it make sense. Four Goblins lived in Room A and Three Zombies lived in Room B and Room A and Room B were linked by ten foot wide corridor; but there was no suggestion that the zombies and the goblins would ever meet or quarrel or form an anti-dungeon explorer alliance. Their job was to sit in their respective rooms waiting to be killed.
Dungeons didn't make sense, but they were fun.
And we couldn't allow that.
The moral message coming out of White Dwarf was now that if you were writing silly, irrational, zoo-like Dungeons, you were not a serious gamer. Of course, it might very well happen that you met a goblin or a dragon in a cave—that is where goblins and dragons live, after all. And castles really do have dungeons underneath them, and castle dungeons might perfectly well be inhabited by something not very nice. But the irrational dungeon was now forbidden. You had to brainstorm reasons why creatures lived together. You had to tell a story even if it was a story set in some caves. Monsters wouldn't just sit around with piles of treasure; they would hide it and try to take care of it. And anyway, why on earth would a goblin with a bag of gold be in a ten by ten room rather than out at the tavern getting drunk?
I tried. I tried to create living dungeons and ecological dungeons. Dungeons where bigger bad guys preyed on smaller ones; where the dragon could only carry on being a dragon if it had a source of food. My players got more and more baffled. Instead of fighting six goblins in a room, they would meet six goblins on their way from one room to another; or encounter six goblins in the middle of a fight with six dwarfs. So they ran back to the empty goblin room and took their treasure. So the goblins came and tried to get their treasure back. Which was an interesting reversal, I suppose.
It still came down to roll to hit, roll damage, roll to hit, roll damage.
It is never a good idea to take your symbols literally. Yes, of course, if you look at it from a certain angle, Star Trek is incredibly racist. One race are all scientists, one race are all traders, one race are all psychologists and one race are all warriors. On paper, the Federation is about all the different races in the universe living in mutual peace and understanding, but in practice humans are the goodies and Klingons are the baddies and that is the way things have always been.
But as a matter of fact [spoilers follow] Star Trek is not real. And the Vulcans and Klingons and Ferengi are a symbol set for talking about overly rational and overly war-like and overly greedy humans.
Same with Tolkien. It's a wilful misreading of Lord of the Rings to say that Elves represent Aryans and Orcs represent inferior races: anyone can see that they are externalized projections of the potential good and the potential evil which everyone carries in them. And obviously, externalized projections of the human potential for good are white and rural, where externalized projections of the human potential for evil look Chinese and sound like East End Cockneys. It's complicated.
All fantasy worlds are ultimately concrete projections of a writer's psyche; some are better than others at disguising the fact.
There is a great big door, usually in the side of a hill. "Ah, this must be the entrance to the dungeon" we say "We'll find what we're looking for here." It leads down into the dark spaces underneath the castle where all the nameless bad things are hidden, and the deeper you go the nastier and more nameless the things become: through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year. And if you sneaked past your inner demons; or tricked them; or bound them; or killed them you emerged from the dungeon with shiny gold coins. But you didn't use those shiny gold coins to buy beer in the pub. They were in fact only metaphorical gold coins. They magically turned into experience points. And what do points mean? More hit-points. Lower To Hit numbers on the combat charts. More than one spell. You got bigger and stronger and more powerful which meant you could go deeper and deeper to where the dark nameless things were bigger and stronger and had even more gold.
Sometimes, at the very bottom of the dungeon there would be an end of level guardian; a demon or a dragon or a demigod or something else beginning with a D. Not infrequently it had a captive princess, sometimes asleep and sometimes surrounded by a ring of fire so the final result of all your descending and ascending was to bring back a woman.
There are not two characters here; but only one. The aggressive male hero is one side of YOUR personality, and he has to go down, down, down into the burning ring of fire and find the other, feminine side of his personality which has been buried deep. That is why it became such a cliche that dungeons contained wise old men who could show adventurers the way when they got lost. Never young wise men; never old wise women. I suppose the Fighter, the Magic User and the Cleric represented Body, Intellect and Spirit.
Knights represent aggression in stories. Princesses represent compassion in stories. In real life girls can be just as tuff as boys and boys can be just as soft as girls and everything in between. And girls can play Dungeons & Dragons just as well as boys. But on the whole they didn't.
Andrew: you have just talked for ten pages about rules and mechanics; about hex paper with dotted lines connecting different planets; about squared paper with wobbly pencil lines marking the rooms in the dungeon; about yearning to role enough dice to play a Monk; about trying to use High Guard17 to construct a Death Star; about lining up the miniatures and knocking off their hit points...
What about the games; the stories; the adventures?
I can't remember.
I can remember tiny details of TV shows I watched and books I read and the backs of old crisp packets I collected fourty years ago.
Two children on a generation star ship; when they make planet-fall the nasty captain accidentally-on-purpose loses them in a forest; they make contact with the natives and live happily ever after.18 An anthropomorphic bear from the bear pits a Berne is shipwrecked on a desert island; she makes friends with the natives, but tries to scrub their black faces with Persil. A young American girl is hired by gangsters who try to pass her off as the lost grand-daughter of an eccentric British lady and steal her inheritance.19 Some boys run away to Switzerland to prevent space aliens putting mind control devices on their heads. A scientist stitches a monster together out of dead bodies.
Why can't I remember a single game?
I think Roger tried to run the Giants Against The Drow In a Vault Up a Hill series but they are very complicated and require very high level characters. Everyone knows that dark elves are called Drow; although it is something which Dungeons & Dragons invented with no mythological basis whatsoever. There are Dark Elves in Tolkien, but they are dark in the sense of living in the darkness: they came to Middle-earth before the creation of the Sun and the Moon.
I wrote a gigantic dungeon—a whole exercise book—called The Temple of (Tolkien forgive me) Tegas-Fer-Roden. There were sections of the temple full of treasure guarded by religious ninja; and sections that had become infested with orcs, and yes, I am very well aware of the implications of the word "infestation". At the very bottom there was a magic portal which took you to the Lawful Good Dimension where you could actually meet up with Tegas Fer Roden. He was very male and very handsome and very nude and was very probably very influenced by the fact that Who Mourns For Adonis was the very first episode of Star Trek I ever saw.
I started to draw a larger map, with "the village", "the city" and "the temple of Tegas fer Rogan marked on it". In one corner another hand has pencilled in "Martin's Dungeon" suggesting that we had wild ambitions to create a shared universe.
There was going to eventually be a huge quest in which Tegas Fer Rodin sent the players to replant his magic apple tree on a paradisal island on the other side of the map. Martin's fighter and Roger's thief and Sean's magic user and Sean's Friend's Cleric tramping across a hex map with Tegas Fer Rogan's apple trying to find his magic garden and being attacked by goblins and wolves and skeletons, oh my. I started introducing each session with a summary of the previous weeks adventures rendered in rhyming couplets. I think that was the point at which the other players finally decided they had had enough.
I had absorbed some of the ambience from Lord of the Rings even if I never finished reading it. We stood outside Tally Ho games and complained about the cartoon: not good enough for those of "us" who have read the book, but far too difficult for other people to understand. The battle of Helms deep was quite cool, but I had no idea what they were fighting about.
I don't think I really understood the Lord of the Rings until I came back to it in my thirties. But that's what it is: a long bitter middle aged book for long bitter middle aged people: its popularity with hippies entirely accidental. But still: wizards and rangers and broken swords and fellowships and long desperate quests and that sepia poster everyone had on their wall. I think the prog-rock instrumental album with the Rodney Matthews cover was first record I ever owned. The first record which didn't have Womble or Smurf in the title. Who said you needed to read a book to love it?
I worry, sometimes, in my long bitter middle-aged way about my friend’s kids and their tablet computers. I know that there are lots of incredibly cool things on tablets, for adults as well as kids, and I am sure that my friends are responsible enough to stop their kids getting on to inappropriate sites. I am actually surprised that parents let quite young kids watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and worse, but I am very much aware that in each generation there are old people who think that young people's entertainment is more violent, more sexy and more sweary than it was in their day. And without such good tunes.
It is normal for older people not to approve of younger people's culture and it is normal for younger people to seek out the kind of culture that older people think is inappropriate for them.
"Oh for heavens sake" I said some years ago when my little niece played me some music by Westlife or possibly One Direction.20 "This is old fashioned rock and roll with a tune. I quite like it. You ought to be listening to music that people of my age find incomprehensible." She now follows celebrities on YouTube.
But I am a bit bothered by the whole Minecraft thing.
I was never a Lego Kid. My Lego buildings fell down just as surely as my Airfix Kits got stuck to the carpet. But I can fully see the appeal of a box of Lego without a bottom, a game in which you can literally build Lego Cities and Lego Death Stars and then walk around inside them.
Yeah: I see why that could be fun. But I can't help wondering if there is going to be an entire generation of adults who will say of the first 20 years of their life: what did we do in the Special Years? Oh, we spent it playing Minecraft. Youth is wasted on the young.
"What did you do in the Special Years Andrew?"
I watched TV. I read comic books about space gods and read novels about the walking dead and anthropomorphic bears. But mostly I watched TV. The Golden Age of TV, mind you, not just Doctor Who and Star Trek, but also Bagpuss and the Clangers; and Blue Peter and the Perils of Penelope Pit-stop; and Songs of Praise and Stars on Sunday; and BBC documentaries about barrel organs; and the test card...
Grown ups never liked the fact that I used to be absorbed in my Tablet on beautiful sunny days when I should have been putting three sticks in the ground and defending them with a fourth. In those days Tablets were called Books; but grown ups still disapproved of them. They did. Don't let anyone tell you they didn't.
But behind the book or the TV there was a creative mind. The time you spent watching TV wasn't wasted time. Not all of it, anyway. I may have wasted a considerable proportion of my youth listening to Valerie Singleton narrate the story of the Tolepuddle Martyrs or Marie Antoinette or Grimaldi the Clown; but I also spent some of it usefully watching Dick Dastardly and his pals trying to catch a pigeon for some under-determined reason.
No-one knows what does harm and what does good.
Doctor Who. Spider-Man. Blue Peter. Whacky Races. The Tripods. Hope and Keen's Crazy Bus. Crown Court. Hickory House. The Tomorrow People. Basil Brush. The Long Chase. The Good Old Days. Val Meets the VIPs. Hong Kong Fuey. The Happy Planet. Mary Plane's Big Adventure. Candleshoe. The Tripods. Frankenstien. The Cat From Outer Space. Escape from Witch Mountain. Digby the Biggest Dog in the World. Star Wars. Herbie Goes To Monty Carlo. Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I have been asked more than once if I have ever had an autism diagnosis; I suppose because of the way in which I obsess about detail and take certain kinds of literature very literally indeed. I may have mentioned that I have seen Star Wars more than fifty times. (Twelve times in its first run, and at least once a year thereafter. That makes fifty nine.) In fact I score very low on all the standard tests. But I do wonder if the availability of certain kinds of entry level fantasy drug—Star Wars, Doctor Who, Dungeons & Dragons—just as I was going through puberty turned me into some kind of pseudo-geek or quasi-nerd. Perhaps if I had been born in 1955 I would have become a cricketer or a mountaineer rather than a Dungeon Master.
I look at the young people spending years which will never come again building cities with non-existent Lego or following invisible Pokemon with their cellphones; and I think of myself designing dungeons I would never explore and spaceships I would never fly and learning the rules of games I would never play and I could just weep for the wasted years.
Life is waste. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.
Hello, I am Andrew. I have a moderately good Masters degree in an obscure subject; a 2:1 BA in English; three good but not exceptionally good A levels, one in Sociology; a piece of paper saying that I can swim three widths and another piece of paper saying I got a distinction in BTEC print journalism. I have written theatre reviews for local magazines and self published half a dozen books. A singer who I greatly admire once thanked me because my critical review of his CD had been "so real". If you google the name of my place of work you will find that children's story-time is run by a "wonderfully theatrical man" who is "unfortunately completely tone deaf". I listen to live music or go to live theatre several times a week. I didn't have a proper job until I was nearly 40. I do not hold a driving licence. I am interested in politics but do not care enough to become informed about political ideas or to knock on strangers doors. I know more about the Bible, especially the four gospels, than most people, but have increasingly found that church is an alien space to me. The movie Into the Spider-Verse reminded me of exactly how much I love Spider-Man and so, come to think of it, did my long series of essays about the original Spider-Man comic. I can write cleverly and wittily about other people's texts but have never created anything of my own. I realized a very long time ago that I cannot do plot and definitely cannot do dialogue. I am overweight to the point where I think I may have an eating disorder as opposed to merely being a greedy piggie. Folk music absorbs me; nearly everything else is raw material for me to make clever remarks about.
Many people like alcoholic drinks but are perfectly able to stop drinking them when they have had enough. I myself have three bottles of good whisky on the shelf and no particular urge to drink them, even though I really like whisky. If there were an open box of chocolates they would be consumed within days if not hours. I would not eat them until I was sick but I would eat them far past the point where I was getting any pleasure. Some people cannot control their consumption of alcohol; cannot stop until the whole bottle is empty; lose days and weeks to what is for me just a quite pleasant taste. Such people cannot ever go into a public house or have a bottle of whisky in their homes. The overwhelming majority of the people I played Dungeons & Dragons with at school and college and in the wasteland of years after college simply stopped playing in the same way that they stopped borrowing traffic cones from building sites or worrying about which Boy Scout troupe was the hardest. It had been fun but it was not part of their identity. There should be no shame in saying "I did this for a while: I liked doing it: but I have stopped doing it now." There should be no compulsion to say "I never liked doing this in the first place." I should never have been allowed near a role-playing game, a comic book, a science fiction movie: I am too prone to spiritual addiction. There was never any chance I was going to listen to one or two Fairport Convention records and call it a day. If it hadn't been folk music it would have been something else. If it hadn't been Dungeons & Dragons it would have been something else. I could never have been protected from every rabbit hole that I might have fallen into. If I could have back all the time I spent playing Dungeons & Dragons I would spend it playing Dungeons & Dragons. Why do I feel that I have betrayed myself simply because I am not actively involved in a hobby that I used to like? It feels like part of me has gone missing. And yet most of the time I do not miss it. I am gone away from my own bosom; I have lost my true identity, my real self somewhere between the crown and where I sit. What was it C.S Lewis said about bicycles?
I went to a Games Convention: it may have been Dragonmeet or Games Day. It may have been the same one where I won the small metal trophy for my excellent characterisation of a dwarf.
I heard a talk by Marc Miller who invented Traveller.
I had read the three little books and knew that they talked about the Imperium as if I already knew what it was, so I assumed that everyone apart from me knew what it was. In fact the Imperium was Marc Miiler's own little game world and no-one outside his own little game group could be expected to have heard of it.
Games happened mostly in fanzines I didn't read; games happened in the back rooms of pubs I was not old enough to go inside; games happened in clubs at colleges and universities in parts of London I never went to.
If I decided that I wanted to play Traveller tomorrow I could (I assume) by a great big book that would tell me what the Imperium was and why there was a Scout Service and what marches are and how spinward ones differed from any other kind. There are probably web pages as well. There is probably more information out there than any one person can remember; but I would at least know where to start.
Back then there was no way to find out about the Imperium and the Spinward Marches and the Solomani and the Zhodani except by gleaning it from the margins of the three little books (and their one or two little supplements) and from what people in the loop had written in fanzines.
This is the advantage of Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings as gaming settings. It is also the advantage of bland generic fantasy with wizards and orcs and knights and princesses and clerics and dragons and dark lords and towers... You can tell me "you are playing an X-Wing pilot in the Rebellion" or "you are playing a bounty hunter working for Jabba the Hutt" and I immediately have a picture in my head. If you are a strict world-builder, there is lots of stuff in Star Wars which is under-defined or incoherent. Some days Jabba seems to be a mafiosi; some days more like the prince of renaissance city state. I couldn't tell you what planet he comes from (Hutt, probably). I don't know if he is the kind of slug who has disgraced all the other slugs by turning to crime; or if the whole slug culture is crime in the way the whole Vulcan culture is science. But you have a general idea what the words mean.
So: Marc Miller handed out A4 folded sheets detailing the aliens in the Traveller Universe. The three books had, astonishingly, not contained any real rules for aliens. I thought this was a moral high horse and I immediately climbed on board it. We do not have aliens in this game about faster than light travel and interstellar empires because the idea of aliens and robots is preposterously far-fetched. And anyway, aren't human beings as interesting and heroic and evil and strange as any aliens?
But it turned out there were aliens.
He spent a page on each alien. There were cat people called the Aslan. There were Insect people called the Hive or the Drone who turned out to be connected to the Ancients who had scattered lost alien technology all over the hex map. There were Centaur People with bald heads and necklaces. I can't remember what they were called. It looked somehow so exotic and serious and evocative, and Marc talked about the Solomani and the Zhodani as if he was talking about actual history, or serious literature.
The idea behind the Zhodani came, he said, out of Doc Smith's Lensmen. (I honestly thought that this was the first time I had ever been in a room with someone else who had read Lensmen.) He said that the Lensmen are basically cops; but that they are literally infallible and wear grey uniforms. Once your cops are literally infallible then ideas like due process and burden of proof and fair trials go out of the airlock. Kimball Kinnison naturally knows who are the goodies and who are the baddies and can execute wrong'uns on the spot. A world of telepaths in grey uniforms would appear to be fascistic to any non-telepaths; so the antagonists in Traveller are telepathic fascists: the Zhodani.
I do not know how many times I read those four pieces of paper.
I think that I had a sense that one day, eventually, far down the line I would be one of the people who played Traveller and said, oh, yes, Space-Centaurs, as casually as you might say, oh, yes, Frenchmen, and everyone would know I was a proper role-player. Eventually the Traveller aliens books came out, and they were more long lists of skills and six digit numbers.
I may not have understood these games. I may not have been very good at these games: not good at remembering numbers; not good at drawing neat diagrams and painting figures; not one of the in-crowd who knew his Solomani Rim from his Snake Pipe Hollow.
But sometimes, from time to time, I got to say "I". As long as I was playing Traveller, it was sometimes possible to say "This is MY spaceship, I have made some special modifications, WE are going to fly to Smugglers Base on the Planet Woggle; I know a special short-cut." As long as I was playing Dungeons & Dragons I was sometimes allowed to say "Come back to MY cave and I will look in MY spell book and see if I can learn about the monster that lives under your castle."
MY spaceship, MY sword, MY spells. A series of fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero.
That was very nearly enough.
Of course, we also read books.
The point of Dungeons & Dragons was that it was a fantasy saga in which YOU became the hero. But fantasy sagas were in short supply. We endlessly sought out books that felt like role-playing games. "I want to game this" was the highest accolade one could give a story.
Dungeons & Dragons was based on the holy trinity of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. A professor of Anglo Saxon; a leading light of the 1960s counter culture and a manic depressive hack from small town Texas; of course they got together and formed a band.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was sometimes mentioned. The Dungeons & Dragons magic system was vaguely lifted out of Jack Vance. Every Dungeons & Dragons fantasy city—indeed, every fantasy city—more or less acknowledges Fritz Leiber as its onlie begatter. Traveller was based rather explicitly on a writer named E.C. Tubb who wrote a series of, oh god, 33 books about Dumerest a hero bumming around the universe taking jobs while trying to find his way back to his lost home planet.21
I had read the Hobbit and started the Lord of the Rings. The blue Dungeons & Dragons book is linked in my mind with the awful terrible dreadful not good Lord of the Rings movie; and those huge unplayable collectors' item S.P.I Wargames with names like Helms Deep and Minas Tirith, simulating parts of the novels I had mostly skipped. It all merges in my head into one great big proto-Star-Wars fantasy mush.
There was no internet. There were libraries but on the whole they didn't believe in pulp science fiction. I think I found a few volumes of Elric, in fairness, and a rather elegant John Carter omnibus, with maps of Mars on the flyleaf, in the adult section. I may not have understood the finer points of Traveller, but at least I could scoff at people who said "Mars" rather than "Barsoom"...
...and once again we are pining for a long gone universe when there was no such thing as a Mall and Wood Green Shopping City was scarily exhilaratingly modern. McDonalds had not arrived, but Wimpy Bars half understood what hamburgers were and gave away Marvel Comics stickers with every milk shake and I once found a Spider-Man mug in a "slight seconds" china shop. But the centre of Shopping City and possibly the universe was W.H Smiths: a whole alcove of lurid covers: Illuminatus and Dune, the Beasts of Tarzan and the first Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy novels alongside Protect and Survive, book tokens and pocket money and just going to gape at the covers and make mental reading lists and rushing home for the next episode of Planet of Evil...
Now there are Official Dungeons & Dragons novels and Official Warhammer novels and god-help-us official Minecraft novels; so you can fall into an endless single genre loop, books of games and games of books and games of books of games. It would be physically impossible to read every Star Wars novel and every Doctor Who novel even if you wanted to. Then we had to scour through cheap paperback reprints of cheap pulp magazines searching for intimations of Dungeons & Dragons in books by novelists who had never heard of it.
Sometimes, in indoor markets and seaside spinners you would find books with yellow or blue page edges and stern warnings about not circulating them in different bindings. This was the hard stuff: American editions, the Shadow and Doc Savage and stories about barbarian ladies with not nearly enough clothes on. The Gor Series, surprisingly, was sold openly in Smiths.
At one point the British Marvel reprint comics must have run out of Avengers stories to publish, and started rotating lead strips, so that one week you had The Avengers Starring the Master Of Kung Fu and the next week you had The Avengers Starring Conan the Barbarian and a week or so later it reverted back to The Avengers Starring the Avengers. Those early Conan comics are legendary: Barry Smith is one of the prettiest comic book artists there ever was. Cerebus the Aardvark started life as a worshipful re-creation of Smith's Conan. But at the age of eleven I found them, the Conan comics, incredibly boring. I have gone back to them as an adult and discovered that this was because they are, as a matter of fact, incredibly boring.
I dutifully tried to read the novels. Like so much that was coming out at that time, they were aimed at people who were fans. They assumed you knew lots of stuff already and refused to bring you up to speed. Each chapter started with an excerpt from a text called "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career." Was this a book I could go into a shop and buy? A piece of real history? A made up tome, like those quotations from the complete works of Princess Irulan that disfigure the Dune series? I only found out quite recently that it was nothing more than a piece of fan-fic that someone had sent to Robert Howard in the 1930s.
The Conan books which you could buy in 1970s Smiths now look a lot like exercises in fan-fiction. Robert E. Howard had only written a handful of Conan stories before inconveniently shooting himself. The books were bulked out with stories by people with names like L Sprog De Carter; some of them based on Howard's outlines; some of them repurposed from Howard stories without Conan in them; and some made up out of their heads.
This desecration of Howard's legacy now looks like one of the most disreputable products of the fanboy mindset. Conan's handlers explicitly compared themselves with Sherlockians. Take a fictional character, they said, pretend that he was a real historical figure, they said, and proceed accordingly. There are hundreds of non-canonical Holmes stories: but everyone agrees that the canon begins and ends with Sir Arthur's original series of novels and short stories. Most/many/some of the Holmes apocrypha is by clever writers of detective fiction: presenting us with a Holmes story which would have been worth reading even if it wasn't about Holmes. Corporate Conan seemed happy to ploddingly invent texts in which Conan killed him a wolf when he was only fourteen because it says on the back of one of Bob Howard's envelopes that the boy Conan was in a certain forest in a certain winter at a certain age.
Howard never thought of world-building in that way. Conan and the Hyperborean Age were only ever literary devices to allow for the creation of fast-moving masculine pornographic violence fests.
"Robert E. Howard was a not a fantasy writer", I once told a True Believer.
"Oh? Then what was he?"
"A pulp writer. The best pulp writer in the whole wide world."
More recently it has become possible to read the Conan stories in their original magazine form: Robert E. Howard, all of Robert E. Howard and nothing but Robert E. Howard. About one in five of them are very good indeed. Rollicking power and energy and fight scenes and a little light flagellation. And an actual crucifixion. Ladies are always naked and Conan is always naked "save for a loin cloth".
Today I would say that Dungeons & Dragons took the blood spattered historical action pulp pastiche of Conan and reduced him to a piece on a chess-board; a very sanitized impression of a very vibrant series of books. Back then it seem that Conan was Dungeons & Dragons with all the colour drained out; quests and dungeons replaced with slogs through featureless landscapes; orcs replaced with foreigners; wizards rare and mad. Dungeons & Dragons is golden and deep green. Conan is snowy and grey and brown.
Michael Moorcock I liked. The best Michael Moorcock story is the one you read first: so my favourite is the Prince Corum trilogy. It would be interesting to pinpoint the exact moment when it ceased to be true that Alan Moore was trying to be Michael Moorcock and became true that Michael Moorcock resented the fact that he was not Alan Moore.
He tossed off entire fantasy trilogies over long weekends. They contain landscapes and cosmology and undigested ideas. He is easy to understand but his worlds are wholly alien. No-one can successfully illustrate Michael Moorcock. The little paperbacks had abstract covers that would have served for hippy LPs and possibly did. Prince Corum is an immortal being who lives on a very ancient earth, at a time when primitive orc-like creatures called humans are taking over. His mutilated hand has been replaced by a magic item called the Hand Of Kwill. In the final volume a scary one handed giant called Kwill turns up, fairly miffed. Corum is the re-incarnation of all of Moorcock's other heroes. The idea of the Eternal Champion is pretty thrilling even before you have encountered Joseph Campbell.
I read a book called Swords Against Deviltry. I have never heard the word "deviltry" in any other context. Fafhrd is a viking with red hair and the Grey Mouser is a wizard. There is a horrible city called Lankhmar which morphed into Sanctuary and then into Ankh Morpok. Unnecessary consonants are very much the order of the day. Swords Against Deviltry was the first in a series: Swords in the Night; Swords and Ice Magic; Swords in the Mist; Swords In a Balloon Up a Creek. I now understand that, like the Conan stories, the books were fixed together from magazine stories of widely different vintages, assembled according to narrative chronology. They only made sense if you already knew what was going on. Why am I supposed to care about this viking whose village is getting wiped out? Why am I now supposed to care about this urban thief who wants to learn magic? Because in several stories time they are going to bump into each other in the city and form a partnership. There were lots of short stories about the wizarding / smiting partnership, but volume one was a prequel. I never reached volume two.
This is how I know that it is a terrible idea to read the Magician's Nephew before you have read the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and a terrible idea to watch The Phantom Menace before you have watched A New Hope. Swords and Deviltry ruins Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Triplanetary very nearly kills the Lensemen series. The labyrinthine attempt to create a chronological Conan could only have been attempted by someone who had completely failed to understand Conan.
Edgar Rice Burroughs I loved. One day I will re-read all the Mars books and the Venus books and fill in the gaps in the Pellucidar books and the later Tarzan books. Edgar Rice Burroughs bridges the gap between H.G. Wells and Stan Lee. Reading the Gods of Mars, which begins and ends in a cliffhanger, stands alongside Star Wars and Spider-Man and Rhinegold as one of the main events in my adolescence.
Everyone has heard of Tarzan. The Tarzan books are good enough. People sometimes picture Tarzan as a pulp reworking of the Jungle Book, with monkeys instead of wolves. Burroughs doesn't know or care about jungles or animals or monkeys. He thought there were tigers in Africa. Reading Tarzan is more like reading Robinson Crusoe. We are centred in Tarzan's mind; we learn what he learns; we know what tools he has in his tree-house. Tarzan is the direct ancestor of Conan. The best Tarzan book is the one where he is an uncivilized brute in Paris, getting into fights and duels. When Burroughs gets going it is not so much a story as movement and exhilaration and plummeting from one plot point to the next. But he can stop for chapters and tell you about Martian or Venusian animals and plants and customs in a way that makes you think of Olaf Stapleton. I read Last and First Men, and Star Maker as a well. I wanted to base a role-playing game on them.
Bob Howard was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. Everyone was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. Michael Moorcock wrote a point for point pastiche of the Mars books under the name Edward P. Bradbury. (E.P.B: get it?) There is a scene in To Kill a Mocking Bird where Scout and her friends are acting out scenes from Tarzan and the Ant Men. Not just a generic Tarzan story: that one in particular. Cognoscenti think Ant-Men is the best thing E.R.B. ever wrote.
The Mars Books were magical. I had heard about the Mars Books for months before I could actually find them. They never even reached the hallowed shores of W.H. Smiths; but they could be obtained as imports in the exotic Soho fleshpot that was Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Just reading the titles was thrilling enough. What on earth could a story with a title like Chess Men of Mars be about? (It was about people on Mars who play chess. Martian chess is not about killing the King, it's about capturing the Princess. They play it with live princesses.) A Princess of Mars exists in the same narrative space as Tarzan; not so much spinning a yarn as slowly taking us on a travelogue and building up details of an alien world. The language is so old-fashioned it seems transgressive; as if we are reading an old school text book or a Mowgli story, but hearing, not about elephants and Hindoos but about six-armed-apes and red-skinned egg-laying women. The second, Gods of Mars, adds mythology and mysticism; it has our hero waking up at the wrong end of the River of Death from which no Martian ever returns. It ends on a cliffhanger which the third volume entirely fails to pay off on. The others merge into a single mass of sword fights, lizards, amazing technicolour Martians, arenas, scantily clad ladies and light bondage.
I forget if John Carter really shouts "I still live!" at his enemies or ever describes himself as the greatest swordsman in three worlds. He briefly visits Saturn in one of the latter episodes.
Dungeons & Dragons turned me into a reader. But it turned me into a reader of a very particular kind. There may have been a moment when I was disappointed with Dungeons & Dragons because it didn't really allow me to become a character from Lord of the Rings; but I rapidly became disappointed with Lord of the Rings because it stupidly and carelessly failed to follow the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.
One man can be killed by a single arrow said Pippin to Denethor, and Boromir was pierced by many. Except that Boromir must be at least fifth level, which is like, 25 hit-points easily and arrows only do a D4 so you are talking thirteen or fourteen arrows to kill him minimum....
Someone put the Mines of Moria into White Dwarf as an introductory scenario. I have no idea how many hit points the Balrog had. The writer pointed out that although Gandalf is the most powerful wizard of the Third Age, he never does any of the things a 20th level Dungeons & Dragons wizard would do. No Temporal Sphere or Prismatic Stasis. He makes a few bangs and flashes and knows a lot of passwords for opening doors. He's actually more like a third level cleric. This excited me. Gandalf is a third level Cleric. Gandalf is a third level Cleric. I excitedly told everyone who would listen. "Gandalf can't be a third level Cleric" they told me "He uses a sword."22
And so gaming consumed literature. The more times I saw Star Wars, the more Star Wars reminded me of Traveller. Later it reminded me of the Star Wars RPG. Tolkien was that thing Middle Earth Role Playing had been based on. I eventually read Roger Zelazny so I could understand Amber. Call of Cthulhu is so important they named a game after it.
I have a dream.
Dreams change as you get older. I don't think I have ever specifically dreamt about leaving my homework on the bus but I do sometimes have complicated, sexless, dreams in which I take a shower in a hotel and find that I have locked myself out of my room and decide to go down to breakfast naked and hope that no-one notices; or in which I get changed into to my swimmers on the beach and realizing that everyone I know is staring at me. People get locked out of their rooms with no clothes on so frequently in real life that Travelodge has spare dressing gowns in all the broom cupboards.
I don't think I have ever specifically dreamt about going on stage in a play without knowing my lines; but I have had much more detailed ones about reluctantly agreeing to be in The Revengers' Tragedy and then not bothering to go to rehearsals and hoping that they forget about me. I am sitting in the audience and gradually everyone realizes that the very important attendant lord is missing and that his absence has ruined the play.
Several times a year I dream that I have misread the timetable and missed all my French lessons for a whole term. French happens in a very small classroom on the bottom corridor just near the coat hooks. It was the same room we sometimes played Traveller in. I have sat in bed fully awake wondering whether it is better to admit that I have not been to a single French class or to go ahead and take the exam and get zero percent. Only after several minutes, sometimes while making the coffee or brushing my teeth, do I think "I am nearly thirty-five. I do not have to attend French lessons any more." Sigmund Freud said he would sometimes be half way through his breakfast before it occurred to him that he was an eminent consultant psychiatrist and did not need to worry about failing his first-year medical exams.
There is also the dream where I realize that I have not handed in my chemistry paper at college. It is very specifically a chemistry paper. It involves moles. I have written the first half, at some length, and quite well, but for some reason never gone back to it. If I could finish the thing, however perfunctorily, it would count towards my final exam; but I am not sure if I am brave enough to go and admit that I have forgotten a whole assignment. There are huge temple-like concrete stairs up to the library, but the chemistry books are way over in a section I hardly ever go in. Maybe they will still give me my degree without the chemistry paper? I have never taken a chemistry course in my entire life.
I think that the school-dreams mean that I still think of myself as an imposter; that I have never really grown up; that I still feel surprised when someone refers to me as "that man" or calls me "Mister". White people do not have coming-of-age rituals and English schools do not have graduation ceremonies.
I think that the chemistry dream has to do with a sense that I squandered my time at college and could have done better if I had put my mind to it and had a better relationship with the tutors.
In general, the dream of being on stage and not knowing any of your lines is about the feeling that we are all blundering through life without a script. I did Am-Dram for a while because Miss Beale said in one of my reports that I had "true dramatic ability". (I now realize that she meant I was a bit of a show-off.) I have bona fide flashbacks to my theatrical disasters; I come out in palpitations and cold sweats when I recall my walk on part in The Idiot wearing a white wig that didn't fit.
The nudity dreams are about the fact that I sleep under a duvet and sometimes kick it off in the middle of the night.
I liked Sandman. I think it is a very good comic book. For a long while I was slightly, very slightly, dismissive of it.
My Mum had been going to the opera all her life; queuing to sit in "the gods" at Sadlers Wells as a teenager, going to fabulous productions at the Paris Opera on her honeymoon; latterly holding a season ticket to the English National Opera. She understandably resented the fact that people who hardly knew the plot of Carmen said that they "liked opera" because they had once heard a tenor singing Nessum Dorma on the radio.
Sandman was wildly popular with people who thought they wouldn't like comics. So I sat in the corner sulkily and said "Sandman is all very well but you should read what Ditko was doing to Doctor Strange thirty six years ago."
I was in the right; at any rate Neil Gaiman would have agreed with me. Doctor Strange was a "better" comic than Sandman and Steve Ditko was one of the all-time greats. People who had never read any other comic came along and claimed to like Sandman. Well, good for them. If I had shown them one of my silver age shibboleths all they would have seen was a kids' funny book and some primitivist sketch work.
I was right, but irrelevantly right. Perhaps you cannot fully understand or appreciate Sandman without some affinity for the half-century of comic-book process of which it was a part. But people did. Perhaps you can't fully appreciate Oliver Twist without reading all the other Victorian workhouse novels which Dickens was drawing on: but people do. "Get out of my private fantasy realm" is never a good look.
My real complaint was about the ludicrous over-praising of Sandman from some circles. Volume one was one of the best fantasy themed comic books of the 1980s; volume two was the best contemporary comic book of any kind; volume three was the best comic book of all time; volume four was the only good comic book in a field otherwise composed purely of men in their underwear shouting KAPOW; volume five was the best fantasy story of all time; volume six was the greatest work of fiction since man invented the alphabet...
Does "tragedy" mean "a story with a sad ending"? Or does it mean "a serious, major work with something important to say about life?" If I said "I just read some bad Literature", would you reply "Well then, it wasn't Literature?" Is there such a thing as a Bad Tragedy? Are we permitted to dignify all those large print love stories with names like "The Unprepossessing Secretary Married The Hunky, Rich Italian Businessman" with the name of Novel? It follows that there can never be a good comic book. People had to invent silly words like "graphic novel" before they could admit to liking Sandman.
SF's no good, the bellow 'til we're deaf.
I like Sandman. I think that it is a very good funny-book. But it did require some buy-in to an idea I am not quite prepared to invest in: an idea that came from Jung via Joseph Campbell by way of George Lucas; an idea which Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have turned into a religion.
Dreams are very important; because dreams are where stories come from, and "Story" is a privileged, incantatory term. A story is not just something which happened. A story is not just something which someone made up, with a pleasing form, a beginning a middle and an end. A story is not even a way of remembering an important thing which happened a long time ago; so that the Christmas armistice and the life of Jesus can only come down to us as stories. Story is a magical category; a word of power; a religious artefact. The incantatory use of the word story fades into Gaiman's other famous spell: "make...good....art".
I am not quite sure what "make good art" means, and why it is necessarily a more inspiring message than "make good porridge" or "do your best". But the spell infects everything it touches: Doctor Who on its return became increasingly about Stories with a capital S; the main character increasingly aware that he was inside a story. ("We are all stories. Make sure it is a good one.") In its previous existence, a Doctor Who story meant running around a quarry trying to escape from monsters for six weeks at a time. In black and white. I think possibly maybe that the fun went out of role-playing games precisely when they stopped being about adventures and became about stories.
Sandman lives in a place called Ther Dreaming. Ther Dreaming is where dreams come from and where stories are born. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison believe increasingly literally in a realm called Idea Space where ideas are born and where ideas go when they die.
We spoke earlier about Weekenvy, the belief that everyone else uses their days off more constructively than you do. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are selling a slightly more insidious Dream Envy: the belief that everyone else's dreams are more interesting than yours.
Some people say that they do not dream. I am not quite sure if I believe them. I think that they are waiting for the Rabbit Hole or the guided tour of Purgatory. I don't think they realize that the vague, incoherent images and emotions which dance through their head just before they wake up are what the rest of us are talking about when we talk about dreams.
I have never made contact with The Dreaming. I have never dreamt of flying, although I have dreamt of tripping up. Agreeing to appear in the Revenger's Tragedy and forgetting to turn up on the opening night is, I promise you, one of the more interesting ones. If I kept a dream diary you would find that I have five kinds of dreams.
1: None of your business
2: Something incredibly mundane: ordering a cup of coffee but weirdly being served by the lady who works in the pharmacy.
3: Needing to go to the toilet
4: None of your business
5: Literal nonsense: that time I found there was not enough jam on my self-assessment return, so I had to put extra flags on the puppy.
The nonsense ones are a bit interesting, because they occur in a liminal state, just before you wake up, where joining the Cornish separatist party in order to recharge the hedgehog appears to be an entirely logical thing to be doing; and you can't quite keep hold of it; leaving you with a sense that you were briefly in touch with some entirely different mode of being. I suppose that is what Death, or Heaven, or Being on Acid must be like. Proust talks about waking up and briefly thinking that he himself was the quarrel between Francois I and Charles V.
Knausgaard, mercifully, is relatively uninterested in dreams.
Someone gives me a ticket for a live adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses; in a city I don't know. Maybe I have gone to Dublin specially. There is an old fashioned box office with a glass screen like a bank. It is orange. There is a bar in the theatre; you are allowed to buy drinks during the show. It turns out to be one of those immersive productions; in a dark circular room. I gradually realize that the man checking my ticket and the man serving in the bar are characters in the play. In fact, the whole of the audience are actors; I may be the only real person present. Did I miss the memo about coming in costume? Someone is reciting a long poem; I try to listen but the words are inarticulate. Maybe they are in Gaelic; or maybe I just forget them when I wake up. I always find that writing in dreams is in some language and script I cannot understand. Someone is riding a bike, very slowly, around the room. I recognize the cyclist: he is one of the moderately well-known folk-singers whose gigs I go to. I am nervous he may recognize me. He is cycling far too slowly; far more slowly than you could really ride a bike without falling off. I get up and leave the show. I never normally leave cinemas or gigs until the show is over, however much I hate it. I have to get a very late coach home. It is raining. It is nearly light when I get back to my flat. How will I tell the person who found me the ticket that I did not even stay until the end of the first half? Perhaps I can find a review and lie? When I wake up the dream is so vivid that I literally have to switch on the computer in my pyjamas and check that there is no live-action immersive production of Ulysses running in the UK at the moment. I have never read Ulysses.
A lot of things are mixed up in that, and none very significant. I have been to several immersive productions of plays; Bristol is full of them. I used to write reviews and got sent free tickets. I once saw a production of a Samuel Becket radio play in which the actors walked among the audience, but the audience were required to wear blindfolds. I sometimes feel embarrassed at venues I regularly attend because I recognize the performers and I am not sure if they recognize me. I do not know if it is appropriate to say hello to a stranger just because you have paid to see them on the stage. I once saw one of my favourite singers in the audience in a very small theatre: I suppose a friend or relative was in the show. We both clocked each other, but it was clear he didn't want to be bothered "off-duty" and I entirely respected that. It was he who was cycling round the theatre in my dream. The first time I went to Glastonbury: long after the main stages were finished, I found a field I had not been in before, where people were playing folk music and experimental jazz long into the night. In one corner of the tent was a man on an exercise bike. The tent was so green that the bike was generating electricity so if the man had stopped cycling the lights would have gone out. The experience felt very like a dream. There is a scene in Malone Dies23 in which a man accidentally runs over a dog on a bike.
A lot of real-world memories had shuffled around in my head and produced a dream narrative which was entirely nonsensical, yet at the same time so believable that I had to fact-check it the next morning.
I think that the grammar of how the real-world memories moved around in my head to produce that real-seeming dream experience would be worth exploring. Are modern psychologists interested in that sort of thing? The real productions of Becket and Moby Dick turned into a dream production of James Joyce; the somewhat famous singer in the audience turned into the somewhat famous singer on the cycle; the man powering the show at Glastonbury became the man cycling round the theatre in Dublin. I suppose moments of heightened emotions—seeing a play with a blindfold on; feeling embarrassed by sitting near someone a little bit famous—may be "flagged" or "tagged" in my folder of memories. Flagged memories are more likely to be cut and pasted into dreams.
In that way writing and dreaming are very much the same kind of thing. You jump from one subject to another, guided by an associative progression rather than by any logical thread; and what you are left with is not a story or an argument but the foot prints of the route you happened to take. But in dreams there is no-one to gently guide you back to the original point.
I have a dream. Literally, I mean. I dream that I have asked all my old friends over to play a role-playing game. Including the ones I am not speaking to any more. Including the ones who have died.24
I have not prepared a scenario. I have not prepared any characters, in the same way I had not prepared for my role in the Revenger's Tragedy. It is not Traveller or Pendragon or any of the old ones. It is Risus, a very cut back dice-pool system intended for light-hearted or comedy games.
It is one of those systems where you can choose any skill you like, however silly, and assign it a point value.
I am going to specifically run Risus: Pirates. I very specifically tell the players that they can play any piratical character they want.
Name: James Hook
- Pirate With Hook - 3 dice
- Ex-public school boy - 2 dice
- Music Hall Singer - 1 dice
Name: John Silver
- Pirate With Pegleg - 3 dice
- Ship's Cook - 2 dice
- Owns Parrot - 1 dice
Perhaps I have a map of the Spanish Main. Perhaps I have some ideas about rival pirate ships; pirate hunters; and gold-laiden-Spanish-galleons. Perhaps there is an incredibly sexy lady pirate whose first mate is a mighty-thewed barbarian. Perhaps there is a ship entirely crewed by ghosts. But the idea is that the players, the people I invited over, are going to create such interesting characters that the game is mostly going to run itself.
Paul Mason had a fanzine called Imazine. He talked about the narrative approach to RPGs; games which were about telling stories and not about rules and dice. You could have rules and dice but only if they made the Story more like a story.
My own fanzine was called Aslan. I endorsed the idea of Narrative Approach, but I called it "player centred narrative approach". Games where the player characters were free to choose their own paths through the game world. They might now be called "sandbox" games.
Paul Mason said that the addition of "player centred" was a bit irrelevant and redundant. That hurt. The great Paul Mason telling me I was wrong.
I had a perception that fanzines were publishing narrative scenarios which were simply scripts or storylines; a story for the referee to tell the players. There had been an—actually quite interesting—role-playing game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark in which it appeared impossible for the player's to deviate from the plot of the movie in any respect. I felt personally insulted by this.
A role-playing game is an infinite series of interactions between a player and a referee; the player says "I do such and such" and the referee says "Well, such and such happens" and the player says "Then I do such and such" and so on until the princess is rescued from the type VII demon. The rulebook makes sure that that process keeps going with a minimum of fuss: the demon will be wounded if you roll a double six; your sword will break on the demon's leather hide if you roll a double one.
In Dungeons & Dragons the exchange generally goes:
"I walk down the corridor and turn left at the intersection"
"You see a door."
But there is no particular reason it couldn't go:
"I press the button"
"The planet Alderaan blows up".
"I go home and wait for eleven years"
"The boy wizard is unaware of his identity and living under some stairs in the working class end of Birmingham."
It was never clear to me how these exchanges worked in the heavily narrative scenarios. Possibly you were supposed to infer a branching narrative. Possibly the idea was that the players solved a puzzle or killed a bad guy and were rewarded with the next bit of the plot.
A dungeon is really only a flow chart rendered in bricks, mortar and 25mm figures; or, put another way, a story is only a dungeon made of words. I wanted to cut the story away and replace it with a world. I wanted the story to be whatever the players chose to do. I wanted the players to look back on whatever it was they had done in the gaming session and said "Oh: that was a good story". Life is what happens to you while the referee is busy making other plans. Above all, when I was piloting my own spaceship I wanted to be able to choose—or appear to choose or pretend I was choosing—whether to hang out in the bar or fly to visit my old friend on the gas giant or retire and open the first launderette on Tatooine. (Clothes must get pretty filthy with all that sand.)
Let me say it first. The games I actually ran were nothing like this. The games I actually ran were railroaded and plotted and invoked DMs Fiat25 to a shameless degree. If I wanted a particular monster to appear at this point, or a particular character to die at that point, then by God they appeared or died. Rules were fudged. Over-powerful non-player characters were invoked. Some players felt helpless. But they kept on coming, week after week, so something fun must have been happening.
And I honestly never pre-plotted. The players were honestly free to say "Forsooth, let us launcheth a raid on the black castle of Sir Hector the Horrendous for he did mock us most mockingly in the last game"; and there was a good chance I knew where Hector the Horrendous was on the map and how many men and weapons he had guarding the Castle of Horrendousness. But it would suddenly occur to me, halfway through the session, that it would be a wonderful wheeze if it turned out that Sir Hector the Horrendous had Princess Arlene the Attractive (fair lady love of Sir Theodor the Thick) in his dungeon, and in his dungeon she would jolly well be however many steps Sir Theodor had taken to keep her safe in his absence.
The relationship between me and the players was interactive but unbalanced. They were never actually free to run around a sandbox. I have never had the patience or commitment to create a detailed world, or even understand someone else's. But they were perfectly free to propose story ideas. What really happened was that the players said—"Wouldn't it be fun if Thing X happened?" and I responded "Wouldn't it be even more fun if Thing Y happened" and the story came out as some compromise between Thing X and Thing Y. The compromise being whatever I said it was.
My Platonic ideal of a player centred narrative would have been a game in which the players freely decided what their characters did and the referee freely decided what the non-player characters did, and the completely neutral rules adjudicated the result. In practice, everyone pretended that that was what was going on; but everyone knew that we were operating according to the Toon imperative: "You can do anything you like, provided it's funny." And the referee gets to decide what is and what is not funny. So you can do anything you like provided it is what the referee thinks is funny. You can do anything you like provided it is what the referee wanted you to do.
And we carried on playing.
The only genuinely good idea I have ever had ("with others") was a card game in which a number of different players were trying to hammer a story towards different conclusions.
My dream players have written down very short descriptions of their characters on very small pieces of paper; and they all have big piles of dice in front of them. I think I allow them to have back-up characters as well: or possibly I have some minor non-player characters who they can take over control of if their main character dies.
I think they also have pirate toys. I am far too old to believe that little metal miniatures are part of a role-playing game; but I am still young enough to think that Lego Pirates and Playmobil Pirates are way cool. So there are a lot of toy plastic pirates in my dream game, cheap as you like, the cheaper the better, bought in a little plastic bag at an old fashioned post-office, lined up on the table. Maybe that is how the players create their characters? Pick a plastic figure and play that character, peg-leg, pistol, cutlass, parrot, canon, whatever....
At this point, the dream bifurcates.
I am not sure if I have dreamt it both ways on different occasions; or if the logic of The Dreaming means that you can dream two contradictory things at the same time.
You come to a fork in the plot. If you go starboard, turn to paragraph 18. If you go anti-clockwise, turn to paragraph Gamma.
When the players has finished rolling up the characters they calls out "Arrrr!" and "Bejabbers!" and I says "What do ye do?" and they says "We sets out along the SPANISH MAIN me hearties" and I says "Be rollin' on your ship handling skill, jim lad, and ye may lay to that" and they says "I be rolling two sixes and a one, belay and be-like" and I says "The ship slips out of port awful pretty and sails toward the horizon, so it does" and they says "Be there any rum on board?" and I says "There be rum, but it be running awful low since the last adventure" and they says "We looks for a ship a-laden with rum, so we do!" and I says "Which of ye has a telescope?" and they says "Roger the Cabin Boy!" and I says "Maybe I will and maybe I won't but which of ye has a telescope?" and Roger roles on his "Spotting Ships on the Horizon" skill and I says "Ye sees a ship fresh from Florida Quay on the horizon, it's likely laden with rum" and they says "Arrr".....
But somehow, we are now on an actual ship. Sometimes it is a full scale replica of a sloop or a pinnace. (Blackbeard the Pirate had a very small pinnace. Fnarr, fnarr.) Sometimes it is a small riverboat that we have decided to pretend is a pirate ship. Someone is standing at the wheel. Someone is standing up aloft. Someone is standing down below. Everyone is shouting "Arr" and "Belay" and "Belike". I know that I am dreaming and in the dream I know that we are just ordinary people playing at being pirates: but there is a door marked "Captain's Cabin" and there is a treasure chest and a globe and an hour glass inside it, and sails and spare Jolly Rogers and we all sail off, the people I used to play games with, the people I have grown apart from, the ones I am no longer on speaking terms with, the ones who would not play a game with me now if I got down on my knees and begged them, the ones who are actually quite cross with me for sending them a copy of this book, and we all sail off together. Bring me that horizon.
They all finish rolling up their characters and look at me expectantly, and I look at my notes, and say "there is a ship" and there is an awkward pause and one of them says "we chase after the ship" and there is another awkward pause and I say "you catch up with the ship" and there is another awkward pause and they say "we fire our cannons" and I say "the ship goes down" and we all sit and look embarrassed for a few minutes and then we talk about Pirates of the Caribbean for a bit and everyone goes home feeling cross with me for having wasted their Saturday evening.
I liked pirates before Pirates of the Caribbean made them briefly fashionable. I don't know why, exactly: I suppose there is an aesthetic or style, the idea of baddies who wear lace; the idea of baddies who can do whatever they like; the idea of baddies who are totally lawless and cut off from civilisation and are resigned to the fact that they will be hanged and go to hell. (They really believe in hell.) They spend their cash on looking flash and grabbing our attention. It is a glorious thing to be a pirate king. Although we're kings of all dry land, yet they're kings of the sea. Jack Sparrow is an idiot, but he is a stylish idiot. The idea of the pirate is the idea of Hannibal Lecter and Jacob Rees-Mogg: it is okay to be entirely lacking in human empathy provided you do it with style.
Heroic pirates are no good. Heroic pirates are forced into it. Douglas Fairbanks in the silent movie and Errol Flynn in the talkie: they are posh Jacobites forced onto the high sea by circumstance and they despise the low-life they have to work with.
Like Robin Hood. He started out as just a common man, standing up for his rights—not even for his rights, just for his dinner. Then he became a nobleman, exiled into the greenwood, with a hey-nonny-no; then a Saxon rebel standing up to the Normans; and finally the pagan spirit of the woods, Hern the Hunter. Which is all good fun, but rather spoils Robin Hood the Outlaw.
Is there a Pirate story where the captain is the personification of the sea? The Nephew of Neptune? I suppose if the Sea is an alluring woman, the King of the Sea has to be a rollicking man. Pirates of the Caribbean turned Davey Jones into an actual character. Conflated him with the Flying Dutchman they did; and turned him into a squid.
You need the whole package. Flags and parrots and bandanas and tricorn hats and desert islands and sleazy Tudor streets and the cat of nine tails and the plank and rum cocktails and bodily modification. And sea shanties. Arrrr....!
Pirates only say "Arrrr" because Robert Newton said "Arrr" in Disney's Treasure Island and a TV spin-off. Many pirates were from the West Country: Edward Teach canonically came from Bristol and Gilbert and Sullivan thought Penzance was a good place for pirates to live. But they didn't say "Arrrrr..." Talk Like a Pirate day is "Talk like an American doing an imitation of a Bristol Accent day."
People in Bristol never say "I be..." for "I am...", but they do occasionally say "It makes I thirsty" or "It made I laugh". Curiously, a certain sort of cod-Jamaican patois also inverts pronouns. It would not be very surprising if the Brizzle pirates had picked up some Afro-Carribean mannerisms, and vice versa.
My granny was Cornish. She made pasties; great huge pasties that you could hardly eat in one sitting, circles of pastry cut out with dinner plates; full of meat and potato and onion and turnip; cooked very slowly. It wasn't an affectation, in the way that Scotch Haggis is arguably a signifier of identity; it seems to have been what Cornish people really ate. "Now, your daddy, 'ee were some 'orror for pasties!" She never called anyone "me 'andsome" let alone "me 'earty" but she did bake dry fruit loaves and buns, very yeasty and strongly flavoured with bright orange saffron. They used to say "as expensive as saffron" because you just used a couple of little stems; one tiny bit of a rare flower; and threw the rest away. It took hundreds of flowers to make enough saffron to flavour one bun. My mother bought some once; a little plastic bottle like a pill dispenser with a few grains of the precious stuff. She never really worked out how to use it to flavour a cake. Saffron doesn't grow in Cornwall and the Jamaicans have a spicey meat and pastry pie called a "pattie". There is a pub in St Pauls that plays reggae and sells Red Stripe beer. It is called Jamaica Inn.
In the final issue of Aslan I said that I would never become a professional. I meant of course that I would never become a "professional", with fifty foot high air quotes around the word.
Shortly thereafter I got a job working on a failing magazine called Games Man; and shortly thereafter I became the Product Manager at Hogshead Games (working out of James Wallis's spare bedroom); and shortly after that I got a job designing computer games in Bristol; and then I tested mobile phone games in Cambridge and Manchester and then I thought "fuck this" and came back to Bristol, took a course in journalism and became a librarian, and I have been happy ever since.
All the disappointing and annoying periods of my life have arisen from trying to make money out of my hobby; I am always at my happiest when writing a book, like this one, which only 48 people are likely to read.
48 people are likely to buy it. Not all of them will actually read it. Dave Sim said that he thought that only sixteen or seventeen people read Cerebus right through to the end. I know three of them personally; I still have a notion that we could track down the other fourteen and hire a function room in a pub.
It was a mistake to think that I could work with, by, or for James Wallis; it was a mistake to move to Bristol and bluff my way into the computer business. It was a mistake to move to Cambridge when the Bristol job died and it was an act of suicidal insanity to follow the Cambridge job to Manchester. Not even Manchester: Macclesfield. Not even Macclesfield. Sodding Bollington. Bollington has literally nothing to recommend it except a folk club and a quite good Indian restaurant. Guess who was not interested in folk music when he lived in Bollington? It was hard to admit that "gamer" was no longer part of my professional identity.
And yet here I am in Bristol, on what is sometimes nominated as the trendiest street in England, sitting in a vegan cafe typing an extended essay which I am very interested in over a bowl of sweet potato soup.
I am not a vegan. The cafe has gone dairy free. I drink my coffee black.
I came to Bristol in an attempt to go professional. I came to Bristol in order to work 9 till 5 for a computer games company. It was an unmitigated disaster. I have treated this as a great joke. It used to be on my C.V. "His first game, Cutthroats, was described by the Daily Telegraph as 'adequate'". What I did not say was that that "adequate" description was by some miles the kindest thing anyone said about the game including the producer, artists and programmers. "I suppose it is possible to play this game for some minutes without suffering any actual physical injuries" was the second kindest."
Hell; I was young.
Actually, I wasn't all that young; I was way past thirty but had still not learned how to interact with human beings; and I certainly hadn't learned to interact with computer coders, who are a special case. I was writing a computer game about pirates so I invested in the piratical subject matter, reading Defoe and Stevenson and playing all the previous pirate games.
I was a gamer. I was not going to let any of these pesky artists and programmers divert my game into something I didn't want it to be. I was the great Andrew Rilstone and this was my hour.
Sadly I didn't know the first thing about computer games and didn't even play them to any great extent. I got to the end of Doom and quite a long way into Diablo but that didn't qualify me to be the lead designer on a major project. I don't know what the company were thinking when they hired me. I think the other designer had also been a board-gamer so they may at the beginning have positively wanted people who knew lots about games and lots about pirates but was not really that much into computer games. Perhaps I was meant to have the vision of what I thought a wonderful game about pirates would be like and then the techy boys were going to turn my vision into a game which could actually be realized on a PC. I believe that approach was tried successfully with some comic books in the 1960s: the major creative sat in his office and had big ideas, and then handed them over to any old artist to turn into marketable product.
So there was I in a posh office block overlooking Bristol with a huge pile of imposter syndrome on my desk, trying to conceal how few computer games I had played and trying to come up with a spec which wasn't quite what I wanted but which was a little bit like the one that I thought that they thought that the punters would like. The poor bastard coders had to turn my RPG spec, full of matrices and charts, into something code-able, in some cases retrofitting my ideas into something PC savvy without telling me, so that when I said "Oh, I have decided to change one line of the matrix" they had to rewrite a thousand lines of code.
Probably they did tell me and I wasn't listening.
I had taken the bosses seriously when they said that they wanted a game about the historical pirates, Morgan and Kidd and Teach and all. So I found out what I could about historical pirates and I found it fascinating but everyone else remained resolutely unfascinated. "When is someone going to swing in the rigging or slide down a mainsail with his dagger between his teeth?" they said. "Oh", I said, "They never did that in real life, but I have found some really interesting stuff about how they paid out a kind of insurance for injured pirates and have come up with a way of putting that in the game." At least once I started shouting and yelling and throwing things around the fucking open plan fucking office, and the boss, rather than firing me, came up with a quiet office where I could work without being disturbed or disturbing anyone.
As I said, I was young: who has grown out of temper tantrums at 35?
The project was about two years late and the whole team was laid off and I imagine they were very pleased to get rid of me.
My big idea was that Piracy was all about reputation. There was no money in sinking ships; there was no money in killing people. The whole point of having a big black flag with a skull on it was to scare people and make them give up their cargo without a fight. It wouldn't have been gold-laiden galleons, of course: it was much more likely to have been some poor tradesman getting relieved of his salt-pork. Blackbeard's reputation survives into the 21st century, but he arguably never did anything very horrible: he set fire to his own hair, and burned sulphur in his cabin to find out what hell would be like, and shot one of his own men to show everyone else who was boss, so everyone assumed he was a monster and gave him their stuff.
Come, let us make a hell for ourselves and try how long we can endure it. He never said that; Daniel Defoe made it up for him after he died26. But it's a good line. Neil Gaiman was right about stories.
I think I had a decent idea for a board game. Develop a reputation. Strike a balance between being so feared everyone will surrender to you and so hated that everyone will run away from you. Maybe allow the British to think that you are a Patriot sinking Spanish ships. (But watch out: if England and Spain make peace the whole deal will fall through.) Eventually divide up the money and live like a king in Patagonia. It might even have been a good idea for a computer game a decade earlier. But when the artists said "Do we get to animate sword fights yet?" I said "I've come up with a new idea for representing the political model in the game." There was an amazingly detailed economic model; in theory if you sunk all the coffee ships then the price of coffee would go up and you could sell coffee back to the coffee ports at inflated prices. I think it was entirely invisible to the players.
I believed in the game. I thought the idea of building up a pirate ship with a cast of characters and having a sandbox model of the Caribbean through which you sailed your virtual pirate ship could have been incredibly cool. I could have sold it to the team and management in six words. "Like Elite, only with sailing ships." But of course I had never played Elite.
When I started to talk about a sequel I started to talk about things which barely qualified as games. In the original game, "crew" was a statistic: you might have a crew of 76 but lose 20 of them in a battle and recruit 15 more in port. The more crew you lost the harder it was to recruit men; the more treasure you found, the more people wanted to join your band. For my imaginary sequel I wanted a computer-based pirate RPG. I wanted a 3D model of a boat. I wanted little animated pirates. I wanted ship-to-ship engagements to end with the player saying "Poor Mr Sands has lost his left hand and replaced it with a hook" or "Mr Teach went berserk and killed twelve of the Kings men"...
Almost immediately, a game called The Sims came out in which you built houses and populated them with humans who studied and cooked dinner and went to the loo and had babies. It was intended to be a game about interior decor, with the construction of interesting and pretty houses the main driving force; but it quickly became a dating game; where creating situations where your Sims would make friends and have partners and get married was the main objective.
Or possibly it was about shopping. The happier you were, the more money you earned. The more money you had, the more hardware you could buy. The more hardware you had, the happier you would become. Or maybe it was a Soap Opera Game; a way of looking in at the lives of little people who lived in your computer. (This was before Big Brother.) The abstraction of it; the fact that you were always two or three levels removed from the characters tended to heighten this sense of "reality". You could see that the characters were fighting, but not hear what they were saying. You could hardly help yourself imagining what was really happening—seeing the shapes in the animated Rorschach blot. It could feel extremely real because you were imagining at least a third of it yourself.
So I vaguely pitched Pirate Sims, waving my hands around and quoting Defoe and quite convinced that if everyone had stuck more closely to my wonderful spec Cutthroats would have been a runaway success.
Pirate Sims. You don't fire the canons: you send Shooty McShootFace down to the gun deck. And maybe Shooty is a good shot; but maybe also he is prone to get distracted with a bottle of rum and start fights with other gunners; so you'd better position Catty McWhipface down there as well to maintain discipline; except a strict officer ordering everyone about makes for miserable pirates who are likely to desert at the next port. And of course the enemy ships would have crews with personalities as well, and there was always a chance that Pegleg McLimpy would fall in love with Cross Dressed Mary in the middle of the battle. You would have to have a pretty small crew; but in children's books and fiction we seem to accept the idea of ten or fifteen people running a pirate ship on their own.
Not a game, really, just a lot of virtual pirate Lego that generates stories whether you are controlling it or not; a role-playing game which circumvents the need to interact with pesky human beings. Has anyone done anything like this in the years I've been away?
We used to go on holiday to Brighton, in the years before the oceans drank the West Pier. It was already a memorial to itself, a relic of a fading age. There was an arcade—a "penny arcade" they still said—but all the games were mechanical. It still had those horrible shock tableaux, with figurines that someone years ago must have taken some trouble over, with titles like "the execution of Dr Crippen" or "beheading in a French Jail". You could literally put one old penny in the slot and push a button and chop the murderer's head off. The change-counter changed one modern five pence for two old pennies.
This sort of thing depends on you using your imagination. You have to be imagining that you are the puppet with the rope round its neck, or the puppet pulling the lever, or at any rate one of the puppets witnessing the procedure, or you don't get even a tiny 2.5 new pence worth of morbid thrill. No-one could possibly suppose that what they were looking at was real or realistic; but it represented something horrible. It presented a morbid idea and your imagination did the rest. In Madame Tussauds you could see a full sized waxwork of a murderer being hanged by a full size waxwork of Alfred Pierpoint. That was fairly realistic and gave me nightmares for a week.
On the same pier there were shooting games. Dioramas created out of physical models, reflected in mirrors, toy soldiers and tanks and flying saucers; lights and flashes and bullets which whooshed across the mirror as you shot them down. There was one where you looked down a periscope and shot model ships as they moved at different speeds across your field of view, and a similar one in which you had to shoot down model flying saucers. There were some in which you played against a human opponent. Two players each controlled a small plastic figure of a cowboy, and the person who shot most accurately won. The loser's doll collapsed rather impressively.
I do not know how any of these games determined hits and misses. Certainly the cowboy game wasn't tracking the trajectories of virtual bullets. I suppose at best it was based on something as simple as a reflex-timer: the person who pulled the trigger first was deemed to have hit his target. Or maybe it was all pre-programmed "for entertainment only" and when you pulled the trigger had no effect on when the other guy fell over. I have heard that most of those games where you try and grab a toy with a set of metal claws are really just lotteries. The grabber is programmed to give out a toy one time in twenty regardless of which buttons the human controller pushes. Hughie Green's clap-o-meter was also a scam; you know. A Thames Television staffer, just off-screen, manually twiddled a dial based on his impression of how much people were clapping; or his own opinion of how good the act had been. The Clapometer was for fun only. It was my vote that counted.
There was still an old News Cinema on Victoria Station. Mummy would sometimes take me and my little sister there if we had been to London to go shopping or go to the zoo or the museums. In the olden days, which I cannot imagine or remember, but which were really only a few years before I was born, most people did not have televisions. But it was possible to see the Queen opening parliament or the main goals in Saturday's football by watching weekly newsreels at small cinemas. There was a News Cinema on all the big railway stations. Remarkably, as late as the 1970s, a few of them survived. They had been rebranded as Cartoon Cinemas; it cost about a quid for a 45 minute show. I suppose that if I could go back now I would find it comically small: not much bigger than the widescreen TV in my front room; seating maybe 50 people; but in my memory it feels like a West End movie palace; with someone selling popcorn and ice cream and an usherette to show you to your seat with a torch.
They cycled endlessly through a small number of Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry cartoons, along with that week's British Movietone News. (British Movietone News only finally came to an end in 1979: by this point a "newsreel" was likely to be a short documentary about the fascinating Sunderland cheese-making industry or how one man is preparing for next years caber-tossing tournament.) On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion they showed the old black and white Republic Captain Marvel serial. I only ever saw the first episode. The Adventures of Captain Marvel has very little to do with the Captain Marvel comic book. There is no wizard, and Billy Batson is an adult. But it is still quite visually impressive, given the limited technological resources of the time. The actor jumping off an off-screen trampoline; thunderflashes; a dummy being propelled through the air; a quick cut to the actor in the air on a wire with a wind machine blowing in his face: they were going to some trouble to make you believe a man could fly. I never saw any more episodes. Is it possible that the cartoon cinema carried on showing Episode 1 every week? Few kids could have gone to the cinema regularly and even fewer commuters cared about Captain Marvel.
One year we tried to go to the Cartoon Cinema and found that the pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Tom & Jerry had been taken down and replaced with pictures of grown up ladies in their bathing costumes. Mummy didn't think we would find that so interesting.
The concession where they sold bags of malteasers and peanuts had a slot machine in the corner. It didn't contain models or mirrors or dials: it was like a television set. The television screen only showed one colour, green; but there were levers on the console. And here is the amazing thing. The levers affected what was taking place on the screen. Little blocks moved up and down at your command. TV, which had always been entirely passive was now in the palm of my hand. The third wall had truthfully and permenantly been breached. I think the game was called Pong. I was not very good at it.
The next year at the seaside every arcade was full of screen-based computer games. I think it took a while for Space Invaders to take over: there was an interim year of slightly more primitive games. I remember one that was very probably called Space Wars. Big spaceships which looked suspiciously like the Starship Enterprise zig-zagged unpredictably across a black and white screen. Your blaster had a fixed set of cross-hairs in the middle of that screen, so the skill was to hit the "fire" button when one of the randomly moving craft moved into the cross-hairs; or perhaps a split second before. You also had a small number of photon torpedoes that destroyed everything on the screen. It was unwieldy and uncool compared with Space Invaders. Once you had lost all three lives a message would appear on the screen which said "Sensor Detects Another Dime In Your Pocket. Try Again." The aliens couldn't tell English 10p pieces from American dimes.
These games were very basic exercises in hand/eye coordination but they were fun and they worked. I think the reason we get frequent reboots and releases of "classic" era arcade games is because there were no bells and whistles available. They only worked as games if they worked as games.
But it was never just about the games. I was as bad at Space Invaders and Space War and that complicated one with eggs and space birds as I was at every other game or sport I have ever tried to play. But the machines had weird, cool imagery on the side, pictures that could have come off rock albums, images which have since become iconic. It didn't matter if I achieved a high score in Space Invaders or had been shot to pieces in Space Wars. What mattered was that I had saved the earth from aliens; that I had given my life nobly in a futile attempt to hold off the Martian hoards. I had worked out a fantasy in my head that when I, Andrew Rilstone, put a coin in the slot I, Andrew Rilstone, was plugging myself into an actual space ship somewhere and somehow contributing to the very real struggle against the evil empire. (This was before The Last Starfighter.)
I remember a comic that came out around the same time as 2000AD.
British Comics in those days had peculiar editorial backstories: each issue of Warlord came with a letter from Lord Peter Flint, somewhere on the front-line, postmarked 1942. 2000AD was edited by an alien named Tharg and written and drawn by a team of robots; Tornado was edited by Dave Gibbons in a superhero costume.
The editorial material in Star Lord was based around the conceit that the comic was a recruiting paper for the Earth Defence League and that the comic strips were training briefings to help human agents understand some of the things which they might have to face when they were eventually out there in the field fighting the Evil Interstellar Federation. This was joy and bliss and exhilaration for me.
It wasn't real. I needed it to be real. I didn't need it to be real but I wanted to act as if I needed it to be real. Real and not-real are false categorisations. What mattered was the story about Andrew Rilstone fighting the Space Invaders on behalf of Star Lord which I knew and no-one else knew.
Cuthroats, the pirate game, bombed. It very probably brought the company down. It was very probably my fault, although some one should have spotted earlier that they had bought a board gamer to a knife fight.
But for the first three months after the game had come out, there was a very active online forum written by people who were very committed to the game. They were alive to its flaws more than anyone: they were cross about the bugs. ("Making people pay to be Beta Testers" was a common refrain.) But they got it. They saw what the game was trying to do much better than the programmers and management had. They sailed their ships around the hopelessly confused map and encountered confusing icons of traders and pirate hunters and warships and other pirates. And they reported their adventures in the forum. As if it had all happened to them personally. "I am on the Spanish Main now....I think I have outrun the Pirate Hunters...I have found the Spanish Treasure Fleet and am chasing it."
There was no Spanish Treasure Fleet. That's the best sort of game: the one where the players' find things which aren't actually there. Whether it is Star Lord or Space Invaders or grotesque models of hangings, your own imagination does two thirds of the work. The people on the forum were getting out of the game exactly what I wanted them to get out of it.
Has my entire life been a process of playing catch-up?
When I first read comic books, Stan Lee talked about Roy Thomas and Irving Forbush and the Bullpen as if I ought to know who they were. When I started to get copies of FOOM27 magazine there were interviews with the second-generation of comic book writers—your Steve Gerbers and Tony Isabellas and Don McGregors. They seemed to speak to me from a different world. They may not have quite remembered the Second World War but they were products of the years straight afterwards; when radio was still a thing; when Elvis and the Beatles and Star Trek were fresh and new; the first Golden Age of TV. They had bought Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four when they first came out; some of them were old enough to remember the original Captain America.
We talk about how "the boomers" put the culture of their youth on a pedestal and how popular culture is consuming itself; but we have forgotten that it always did. Today's old people are shocked that today's young people have not heard of the Beatles; but yesterday's old people brought up yesterday's young people to believe that they were very unfortunate to have missed the Second World War. Kids in 1970s playgrounds still sang songs about Hitler and every second TV show and every third comic was about how us English beat the Germans (on our own, with no help from anyone else). It was assumed that we knew names like Vera Lynn and Arthur Askey and could sing We'll Meet Blue Birds Over The White Cliffs of Dover because they were the songs which our parents grew up with. It is an immutable law of the universe that the favourite song of anyone over the age of 55 has always been It's A Long Way To Tipperary.
TV propelled everything into the present tense. Victorian times and Medieval times and Roman times are just collectively the Olden Days irrevocably lost. But the 1950s and 1960s we can watch repeats of. I don't think that it is tragic that I can't nip out and watch an 1850s Music Hall Act, any more than I think it is tragic that I missed the first night of Euripides. But the discovery that the BBC deliberately wiped an entire season of Morecambe and Wise feels like a loss, a theft, a tragedy; not merely a pair of old vaudeville stars retreating into the past.
Comic books are the most ephemeral of all art forms. They are sold in newsagents and news-stands and what the Americans bafflingly call drug-stores; and yet somehow I felt, even at the age of eight, that I had missed out by not having read the comics of the sixties and fifties and the forties and the thirties and that it ought to be possible to catch up, to become, like the writers and the artists, someone who grew up with the Adventures of Captain Marvel...
Marvel Comics were frozen in the 60s, children's TV was frozen in the 50s; and the Beano was frozen in some strange interwar utopia of milkmen's horses and sausage suppers.
By being born at the wrong time I had just barely missed Dan Dare, William Hartnell, Flash Gordon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan the Barbarian, taking a dime to the drug store, the Beatles, Elvis, In Town Tonight, rationing, national service, hippies. If I consume sufficient media I will eventually catch up. That is what I am still doing when I task myself to read all the golden age comics on Marvel Unlimited and when I try to watch all the black and white Doctor Who stories, including the ones which no longer exist.
Proper books are not like that. There are a huge number of proper books in the library and I am happy to nibble like an epicurean. Last year I happened to have a go at On The Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and found I didn't care for the taste. I am still munching my way through Julian Barnes. I start each year with Salman Rushdie; something tells me I ought to sniff Alisdair Grey. Some day it might feel right to go back to Joyce; I fully expect to die without finishing Tristram Shandy.
There are still new comics coming out; far more than I could possibly read. I have tried taking the line that the only comics worth reading are the old ones, but that only works for so long. So as well as catching up with the things that I missed out on through being born too late I am trying to keep up with the things I missed out on through being born too early.
The line between "doing a thing because you love it"; "doing a thing because you used to love it" and "doing a thing because it is the kind of thing you do" can be quite grey and fuzzy.
This is why I unapologetically listen to so much live folk music, even though some people think I am mad and some people are quite cross about it. It has not yet become a pursuit. When Jon Boden starts on The Rose in June (all eighteen verses) I know exactly what I came for.
I wasted so much of my life playing games. Some people are happy to say: "I did the Thing at one time in my life. I played games, collected Pokemon cards, injected heroin, listened to hip hop. Then I stopped doing the Thing. Now I do a different Thing." Some people deprecate the Thing they used to do; but that is probably only the old deprecating the young. I used to play role-playing games, but I'm all better now. But I feel that that would be a betrayal of who I used to be. I would rather be the old guy of nearly forty who turns up for Dungeons & Dragons sessions than the old guy of fifty who used to be a gamer but now says it was all a waste of time.
I am told that Alan Moore will not go into a comic shop any more; will not look at the comic books on display, many of which he would like; most of which are more or less consciously influenced by his work. He says it hurts too much.
Some kinds of alcoholics are not allowed to have even a little small drink. It is too dangerous for them. One whisky does no harm, but one whisky will lead to another and another and another and undo decades of not drinking whisky.
I hardly read newspapers, particularly not since the election; particularly not on subjects I am interested in. Long essays in the Guardian about Stan Lee or Tolkien or the Bible make me frightened or sad; either because they are wrong or (more rarely) because they make me think "I could have written that." I am a little frightened and a little sad when I hear about a new role-playing game which sounds like the kind of thing I might be interested in. Like the kind of thing I might have once been interested in.
Hello. I'm Andrew. I used to play RPGs but I've been clean for ten years.
I now have to own up to a guilty secret. I don't like comic books all that much.
What I like is superheroes. People tell me that an American artist called Bradley O'Such-and-such is producing marvellous—fabulous—work; and I fully accept that the work is fabulous and marvellous. But there are thousands of young adult novels about two teenage guys realizing they are gay and a soldier in Syria realizing that it's all a lot more complicated than he thought and what it's like to become an atheist after a very religious upbringing. They are fabulous as well. I haven't read them either.
I did read a Y.A book about two kids with terminal cancer a couple of years ago; it had a very clever post modern twist and it made me cry. I read a comic called Blankets which a friend gave me which I thought was okay. It was about a young American Christian losing his faith and having sex. The same guy wrote a thing about Islam which made me uncomfortable, although it was clearly very well done.
I like particular superheroes, like Spider-Man and I like particular superhero stories like, the one where Peter Parker is trapped under the iron girders, but mostly I just like superheroes. There is no point in telling a cowboy fan that you can take out the stetson hats and the six shooters and still do pithy ninety minute morality plays which assert masculine virtues and American patriotism. The stetson hats and the six-shooters are what make it a cowboy film. They love cowboy films because they are cowboy films, not for some other reason.
I don't say that people who like cowboy films only like them on a superficial level. They aren't only in love with the signifiers and the furniture. Many of them have a deep knowledge and love of American history and folklore and landscape and find that the pioneer spirit speaks to something deep in their heart where the buffalo roam and the wandering stars are born. Some of them honestly think that things were better in them thar days and that a jolly good atomic war would bring back an age when men were men and women were women and kids took their lickings without any fuss. Some of them can see that cowboy stories are incredibly reactionary and problematic and like revisionist westerns that deconstruct the genre. Most of them are somewhere in between. Cowboy films are a set of symbols which you can use to say all sorts of shit. But the symbols themselves are mighty purdy.
Some of us like superheroes at a sophisticated level, our heads full of Nietzsche and Campbell and the history of the mask in literature. Some of us just like the masks and the capes and the cheap printing and the sound effects. Zap! Kapow! Comics are still mostly for kids! There are bad people who think that Rorschach is the hero and good people who honestly want to live their lives according to Ben Parker's values. You don't have to scratch the surface very hard to find Steve Ditko's almost-fascist objectivism in Spider-Man or to find Alan Moore's fully anarchist mysticism in Watchmen. But there are people who are happy to just look at the surface.
Some of us fell out of love with that particular symbol-set. If we are decent people we say that this is a language we used to speak but don't speak any longer. If we are less decent people we may say that anyone who still speaks the language is bad and immature; as bad and immature as we used to be before we got over it. Some of us even deny that we ever liked superhero comics in the first place. Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.
I kind of know the rules of football. I can kind of see why you might want to watch someone younger and prettier and fitter than you running really, really fast and jumping really, really high. So I suppose I could watch a football match and have some notion of what was going on. The man in the red shirt has dropped the ball on the line and the man in the white shirt is trying to stop him dropping a ball on the line, and if the first man can now kick the ball over the bar he scores a point. At the end of the day the person with the most points gets a cup. For the sake of argument I will pretend that I want the Red Team to win the cup.
But that is like working out what Rambeau means with a phrase book and a dictionary. It will take you some of the way but it won't make you a reader of French poetry. I don't get sport. I don't see how your identity and your personality could be entangled with it; how it could become a matter of national pride that the English footballer drops the ball on the line more times than the Australian footballer did; how two people could actually have a fight about which football team they support. I know that these things are true; but I don't understand what they would feel like.
When someone claims not to understand superhero movies, they are not asking for information, as I might be if I watched an episode of Emerdale Farm. "I am sorry, why is the bar-maid so angry with the stranger who just walked into the tavern?" "Why is Captain America so personally invested in his fight with Winter Soldier?" (He is the fiance who jilted her on their wedding day. He is his best friend who he believed died in the war.) When someone claims not to "understand" superhero movies, they are not asking those kinds of questions. They are affecting not to understand why anyone—anyone—would care.
Superhero movies have much more in common with soap operas than soap operas do with football matches. Many of the things which happen in an Avengers movie are very similar to the things which happen in gangster movies and cowboy movies and Greek myths. Love. Hate. Jealousy. Secret identities. Explosions. When Thanos earns the missing soul gem at the cost of his daughter's life, which of us did not think "Aha! Euripides!"?
Some people cannot see past the symbols. If the characters are wearing tights and capes and masks they will be unable to discern any other qualities that the story might have. Sometimes this expresses itself as a pure prejudice. "I don't read superhero stories. I just don't." Like being a vegan or keeping kosher; I suppose. All black and white movies are out of date; all sub-titled movies are boring. For some, it becomes an object of faith; a belief about reality. I have been told directly and in so many words that someone will not have a look at Watchmen because no matter what I say all superhero comics are childish and silly. Watchmen only seems clever because we fanboys overthink it.
And some of us love the symbols so much that we can tolerate almost anything. Even Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice.
Hello. I'm Andrew and I like superhero comics. I don't read as many as I used to. I mostly re-read the old ones. But I like Ms Marvel, Nova, Moon Girl, the Dan Slott Silver Surfer reboot and Godsland. (Godsland was a Kitby pastiche and came out some years ago so it probably doesn't count.) I long ago lost track of Saga. I have seen all the Marvel movies except Ant-Man and the Wasp. I really need to take a couple of days off work and binge my way through the Netflicks Daredevil/Jessica Jones/Punisher cycle. In 2018 I read right through the 1970s/80s Master of Kung-Fu. It was ever so slightly incredibly racist but I kind of liked it. When I go into a comic book shop I am overcome by a vague sense of melancholy because there are so many superhero comics that I am never going to read. It is the cosmic ones28 which get to me most: the endless reiterations of Thanos and Galactus and Darksied and the Legion. Pictures of half-familiar characters; operatic worlds where practically everyone is a superhero and dresses the part. Stories about characters who have moved on since I knew them; text pages which say "since the death of Darksied..." "Clark Kent and his wife Lois..." "The surviving members of the Fantastic Four..." Reworkings of old themes in the new, more sophisticated, more photorealistic art style. One half of me says "No way is that Thanos!" and the other half of me says "Holy shit! That is what Thanos would have looked like if Starlin had been drawing him from life!" Some of them live up to the artwork on the covers and some of them are boring exercises in continuity and fanwank. I literally want to take every copy of Doomsday Clock and rip it to shreds and then take all the little shreds and jump on them until I get blisters. Which shows that I still care.
Hello, I'm Andrew. Last year I read Karl Ove Knausgaard right the way through and this year I am reading all the novels of Julian Barnes, omitting the short story collections. I am writing a series of essays on the Gospel According to Mark and I hold a Masters degree in Medieval Literature. I work in a library. I am drawn irresistibly to lurid colours and outlandish costumes; to flying saucers landing on mountains and giant purple men in shorts with viking horns. I am drawn to dragons and barbarians and taverns and orcs and wizards and towers and wands and crystals and caves and skeletons and lizard men and castles and cities and space ships and aliens and ray guns and space ports and cantinas and robots and aliens and lenses and rings and lightsabers and dark lords and princesses and space parliaments and spice smugglers. I haven't played Pendragon or Runequest for ten years.
Even those of us who like graphic novels sometimes catch ourselves saying "Oh, the Sun isn't a newspaper, it's just a comic." You would insult a fantasy novel if you said that it was like a game of Dungeons & Dragons. But we read Conan and Elric and Lord of the Rings and Thieves World and Sword of Shanara and Earthsea and Thongorr Ther Barbarian and the Grey Ruddy Mouser only to be endlessly disappointed that it wasn’t full to the brim of goblins and wizards and clerics and monks and +4 swords of smiting and dragons and for that matter dungeons. A fantasy story which feels like a game of Dungeons & Dragons is precisely what we are all looking for. Dungeons & Dragons is a substitute for a kind of literature which doesn't exist.
I liked Game of Thrones. I didn't even mind the ending. I didn't object to all the tits and cocks but I had to look away during some of the torture. Even when I couldn't follow the plot (who is which's half-brother's lost sister again?) I enjoyed the sheer amount of stuff that danced across the TV screen. The pirate ships with the dwarf and the dragon on board coming up against the city with the throne made of swords while the giant with the undead ice-dragon was smashing down the walls of the castle where the barbarian Jedi live...
This is what a fantasy world is meant to be like; deserts and hidden cities in the South, barbarians in the north, assassins and mystics and telepathic trees.
"Feels like a role-playing game," said some people.
"Yeah", I said. "Feels like the biggest and grandest role-playing game ever. When can I play it?" Even the fat scholarly one gets to be a hero by the end.
Is there such a thing as an RPG aesthetic? Is there a way in which role-players build worlds which is different from the way in which writers build worlds? Or is it just that RPG designers are more profligate with their archetypes?
Tolkien's Middle-earth has been used as a setting for role-playing games, but it isn't really fit for purpose. It isn't interesting enough or fantastic enough or diverse enough. It's a thousand page fog of ancient forests and dark towers. If you aren't Aragorn or Arwen you are probably a footsoldier whose job is to stick to his post and get killed in the first cavalry charge. Frodo is a hero because he keeps plodding along the path God set out for him. Sam is a hero because he keeps plodding along behind Frodo. I remember the old ICE supplements, which provided you with corridor by corridor maps of the inside of the Barad Dûr: it wasn't quite clear what you were supposed to do with them. (Maybe there were MERP29 groups who broke into the dark tower and killed Sauron and took his stuff: just like there were some Dungeons & Dragons groups who killed Cthulhu.) Most of them seemed to assume that you were going to be a group of woodsman on the edge of Mirkwood fighting small raids against the Orcs; or little Hobbit watchmen keeping the Shire safe from wolves.
Which might be fun. Anything might be fun. Why not write a whole game about the sanitation crew on the Death Star? Why not play the cook who has to wash up after all those Pentecost feasts at Camelot? But it represents a massive repurposing of Tolkien's setting; almost, taking some words and shapes out of Lord of the Rings and using them to build a role-playing setting of your own.
Tolkien wrote the first few pages of a grimdark sequel to Lord of the Rings, in which sinister Eldritch cultists were worshipping Sauron and naughty punk rockers were dressing up as orcs. The heroes would have been nice Minas Tirithian police officers. He decided after a few pages that the story wouldn't be worth telling. C.S. Lewis often said that there was no point in telling a story about some settlers on Mars if it was very much the same story you might have told about some settlers in New South Wales.
Conan's universe feels campaign-ready from page 1; practically everyone he meets is a Player Character, a mercenary or a thief or a wandering hero or a pirate. His world is basically a lot of different historical backdrops glued together; so there are Vikings in the North and Ancient Egyptians in the South and Pirates on the Spanish Main and a frontier stockade which wandered in from one of the serious historical westerns Bob Howard would have written if the depression hadn't killed him first. There is just enough background to make it all hang together; but largely this is an exercise in style, not backstory. The Hyperborian Age makes sense because Robert E. Howard tells you it makes sense.
New writers are often cautioned against becoming too concerned with world-building. If this means "Just because you created a setting for your Dungeons & Dragons game, don't assume that you know how to write a novel" then it is very good advice. But if it means "Good books are never concerned with their setting; setting is only ever window-dressing for the characters to walk in front of" then I think it is very bad advice.
I think that this is what trips up a lot of people who don't get Tolkien. They have been taught since infancy to follow the holy word of E.M. Forster: that books are about the internal psychology of fully-rounded characters. They find in Sam, Frodo and Smeagle a genuinely interesting psychological triad. But they find that their character-driven drama keeps getting interrupted by history and poetry and landscape and a big war, and conclude that Tolkien doesn't know how to write novels.
Which by their definition he doesn't. And neither do Herman Melville and Victor Hugo.
Tolkien created a world; then he told stories which happened in that world. Robert E. Howard told stories and created a world for those stories to happen in. Michael Moorcock didn't care much one way or the other.
I see boxes of games with fantasy imagery on the cover; a symbol set which I instantly recognize; unashamed imagery of barbarians and wizards and dragons and spaceships which would never find their way into a book without being deconstructed to death.
Perhaps the whole role-playing interlude was never about anything other than that blue book: the knights in armour; the wizards in pointy hats; the dragon sitting on a pile of gold. Perhaps I should have framed the picture and avoided the whole process of actually playing the games.
The dragon sleeping on the pile of gold comes, obviously, from Tolkien, who got it from Wagner, who got it from Beowulf, who got it from some source lost in antiquity. The knight is Arthurian; the real hardware of the Wars of the Roses back-projected to the dark ages and given a heavy overlay of Christian allegory, and then misunderstood by the Victorians and Hollywood. The pointy hatted wizard comes from the same world. Wizards wear pointy hats just as inevitably as pirates go "arrrr". What had brought them all to that point where they were about to fight a dragon? What was their history and their back story? None, obviously. They were three cliches in search of a context.
I am playing Conan the Barbarian. You are playing Prince Acroyear of Acroyear. She is playing a Teenaged Ninja. We are going into a fairy tale wood out of the brothers Grimm and killing Orcs out of Lord of the Rings. If Superman came down from heaven to save us, no-one would bat an eye-lid.
Is that, in fact, what Jung meant by archetype: an element of a story that can be thought of outside of the context of the story which it is an element of? The wise old man of whom Gandalf and Father Christmas and Moses are all copies? The post-modernists would say that that is potentially true of all characters. In principal, you can put Tony the Tiger alongside Jean Valjean and generate new constellations of meaning. Post-modernism has a good deal in common with Alan Moore's magical theories. All stories are true.
So I go into a games shop and I see boxes and boxes of games which speak to me in my own private language.
I do not like or understand all of it. The Games Workshop world is too one-note, too fascist, too spiky, too much itself. I don't really understand where the giant cathedral shaped robots come from. I like the idea of a small army of orcs fighting a small army of dwarfs on a small table. (I believe the rules give the individual units personalities, like in my pirate game.) But Games Workshop is all about models and I could no more paint a miniature than I could play the Internationales on the Northumbrian small pipes.
But there are many which draw me in. It is harder to tell the RPGs from the boardgames than it used to be: there are single player and cooperative boardgames which seem to have a lot in common with role-games. They come in boxes you can barely lift and can cost £100. Here is one where you are a space smuggler like Han Solo; here is one set in the world of Star Trek. I can do without the endless vampires and werewolves and ghosts; but here is one about pirates and here is one about space soldiers. More fantasy themed quests than could be experienced in a whole lifetime of summer holidays.
If I was someone else I might say to me: be a little epicurean about this. Remember what C.S. Lewis said about bicycles. If you like the pictures, just look at the pictures. If the game shop makes you feel nostalgic then enjoy the nostalgia. It is pleasurable to look at fantasy pictures because they remind you of the happy games you used to play when you were a schoolboy, the only time in your childhood when you had any friends, before your father got sick; then enjoy that pleasure. If the pictures are pretty than look at the pretty pictures. Lots of us have a beloved old teddy bear on the the shelf; and lots of us get warm feelings looking at him; but that doesn't mean that we are ever again going to make little honey sandwiches and have teddy-bears picnics on the bedroom floor.
Here comes another confession: I like the rules of role-playing games.
I, Andrew Rilstone, who invented free-form games and story-telling games and coined absurd phrases like player centred narrative. I like the rules of role-playing games.
I like the clatter of dice across the table. I like holding ten dice in my hand, and when someone says "Just how good an X-Wing pilot are you?" chucking them across the table and saying "This good".
Yes, when I was a referee I used to fudge and cheat and ignore the rules to facilitate the game play experience I wanted. But I still believed there should be rules there for to me to fudge.
I don't particularly like the idea of a universe happily demarcated into neat little formulae. I don't think that knowing the rules should necessarily give you more control over the story. This is what some people like; it is clearly what Barrowcliffe liked. He was delighted when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out because it contained a whole new pattern of numbers and monsters and spells for him to memorize. It seems to be how Gary Gygax literally believed the universe worked.
But there was fun, in the old days, in cashing in your one thousand Experience Points to go from being a First Level Magic User to being a Second Level Magic User. There was fun in spending your gold on weapons and armour and the inevitable ten foot pole. But I was uneasy from the very beginning about a world where if you said that someone was a Seventh Level Chaotic Good Dwarf Cleric you had said all that needed to be said about them. We weren't using numbers and rules to quantify and interpret an imaginary world. The rules and the numbers came first. The world was made of rules. Dungeons & Dragons was a game which knew that it was a game.30
Philosophers argue about how words are connected to things. Would there be any things if we didn't have words to describe them? Or are words just vague labels that equate fairly usefully to objects we can perceive? Are stories created by rules? Or are rules just blunt instruments some people use to adjudicate stories? Has anyone ever tried to write a novel about a Dungeons & Dragons obsessed gentleman who dresses up in his LARP gear and mistakes the local windmills for some 20D6 AC1 Hill Giants?
Here is a story:
I am playing Runequest—I am playing Basic Role-Playing, never having got to grips with Glorantha. I am playing a crazy berserker fighting man. There is, for good and adequate reasons, a bloody great giant demon running about in the catacombs.
I slice my way through the cultists. Mooks fall beneath my swirling sword. I see through a red haze. I come face to ankle with the demon. I roll to hit it with my sword. I do a few points of damage. It doesn't seem to care. I prepare to beat a tactical withdrawal.
"The demon is trying to grab you" says the referee. "Roll [some number] on your dexterity to avoid its mighty claws."
I roll much lower than [some number]. Its mighty claws duly grab me. It lifts me up in the direction of its mighty teeth.
"Is it wearing a helmet?" I ask
"It is not wearing a helmet", says the referee
"Then can I get one smash on the head with my sword before it eats me?" says I.
"Certainly you may", say the referee.
I roll my Sword Attack, expecting to die.
In Runequest, a role of 00 on a percentage dice31 represents a critical hit. Maximum possible damage.
Guess what I rolled?
Double damage to the monsters head.
The demon goes down
I escape and for as long as I played that character, who didn't in fact have particularly high combat stats compared with what the game allows, I had the reputation for invincibility. Varos The Demon Slayer.
I know all about the maths of Casinos. I know that so many dice are thrown in Vegas that people role triple sixes and are dealt quadruple aces every night of the week. I suppose I must have thrown ten thousand dice in my RPG career so some of them were bound to be double-zeros.
What Runequest did, if I remember the rules correctly and am not confusing them with Pendragon, is encode some possibility that even a relatively weak character will occasionally have a lucky hit and that even the strongest character will occasionally mess something up. Where a Dungeons & Dragons character will gradually have his hit points whittled away and hope to leave the dungeon with two or three points intact, a Runequest character might go for a whole adventure without being wounded; but even the weakest enemy has a small chance of finding that chink in his armour and ending his career. So every fight is exciting, and heroic, and blood thirsty.
Here is another story:
We are playing Star Wars; the old West End D6-based Star Wars game.
One of the rules mechanics of Star Wars was the Force Point. All the players had Force Points, not just the Jedi, but none of the baddies did. You could spend your Force Point—"call on the Force"—and temporarily double all your skills. This meant that once per session, everyone could do something ridiculously heroic—shoot down a whole room full of storm-troopers; leap across a chasm; perfectly shoot a proton torpedo into a tiny hole.
We are playing one of our periodic Final Battles to definitely save the Rebellion and totally defeat the Empire. One of the players is playing a Retired Imperial Captain: one of those veddy honourable admirals who Darth Vader keeps strangling, defected to the Rebellion. He is in command of a giant Rebel capital ship, while my character, Lance Starstrider (no, don't laugh) is zooming around in an X-Wing picking off Tie Fighters and trying to avoid his evil half brother who is in one of those big pointy Tie Interceptors.
Realizing that they are hopelessly outgunned, the Retired Imperial Captain orders that his ship accelerate to ramming speed. The rebel ship collides with the Imperial Star Destroyer, knocking it off course, before it can zap the Rebel Base, and sending flames and sparks across the rebel flight deck.
"I remain standing calmly at attention," says the Retired Imperial Captain.
"You will need to role a very hard dexterity check to do that", says the referee.
"Very well: I remain standing calmly at attention and spend a Force Point" says the Retired Imperial Captain.32
Here is one more story:
We are playing Pendragon. We have been playing Pendragon for a very long time. Two ancient enemies meet on the battlefield. The good guy's sword skill is 40 on a scale of 1-20. This means that he gets to add +20 to each roll of the dice, which means that every time he swings his sword he will do a Critical Hit and score Double Damage—which will certainly kill any opponent. The bad guy's sword skill is also 40 on a scale of 1-20. This means that every time he tries to defend himself, he will roll a critical parry and take no damage at all. However, regardless of skills, a role of 1 on a 20 sided dice is always a fumble, a total automatic failure. And so the fight goes on, long after everyone else is dead or fled; while the legendary kingdom of Lyoness is falling into the sea around them. Critical hit; critical parry. Crash. Critical hit; critical parry. Crash. Eventually, after hours, the ancient enemy roles a 1. He fumbles. He fails to parry. He is hit for double damage and dies in a single blow. The good guy is victorious, knee deep in the blood of his enemies.
Poets still write songs about the epic confrontation.
I have no interest in games in which you track the individual trajectory of a bullet in 10/1000th of a second melee rounds using advanced quantum mechanics, so my bullet might be a 10th of the way to your head while you have only pulled 33% of your trigger. There really was a game which worked like that. I have very little interest in games where designing your character is like filling in a tax form and it pays to know all the loopholes and special cases. And I never had any interest in learning spell lists and skill trees and knowing which combination of weapon and magic item and spell best exploits each monsters weakness. If I wanted to do that I would play Magic The Gathering.
But I never liked the purely systemless games as much as I sometimes pretended to. I have always secretly liked game rules which feed into a style of play—rules which cleverly create a particular kind of story. I do not believe in transparent, neutral rules-systems any more than I believe in transparent, neutral news reporting or transparent, neutral interpretations of Hamlet. A physically realistic simulation of a seventeenth century full rigged sailing ship is not a pirate game even if it has pirates in it. A pirate game is one which encourages ye to talk like a pirate; which permits ye to use your dagger to slide down the mainsail—nay, which encourages ye, forces ye, to do so.
Many games have a system of Initiative; an artificial way of deciding who goes first. I have little interest in playing the Doctor Who role-playing game; but I take my literal hat off to whoever came up with the rule that people trying to run away go first; people trying to talk or take some other action go second; and people trying to attack go last.
And this is why I still like the idea of role-playing games. This is why I am still fascinated to hear about new systems. This is why I have boxes and shelves of role-playing games I will never, ever, play. Because these networks of initiative systems and critical hits and Force Points are a form of literary criticism. The Star Wars rule-set excited me because it appeared to be a code which described every possible Star Wars story; which describes the genre which Star Wars is trying to be. Not everyone liked it. Some people found it simplistic and game-like and too heavily weighted in favour of the invincible player characters. Some people felt that a Star Wars game should have tried to realistically simulate the aerodynamics and engineering of an X-Wing Fighter...to tell us what its operational parameters are and how much G force is exerted on a pilot doing a loop...to give us a sense of what it would be like to be in the cockpit of one of those things if they really existed. But that isn't a criticism of the Star Wars role-playing game. It is a disagreement about Star Wars: a disagreement about what kind of a story it is, about how we ought to be reading it. More than one right answer can exist.
This is why the cover of a superhero role-playing game, or a fantasy role-playing game, or a space-opera role-playing game still excites me in a way that actual comic books and fantasy novels hardly ever do. Any one game of Traveller or Dungeons & Dragons is simply one experience, a particular story, which may be exciting or funny or boring or even sometimes moving and traumatic—just like an episode of Game of Thrones or He-Man or Grange Hill. But the game itself, the product, the thing in the box is not a story. It is, until you start to play, every possible story. It is as close as you can possibly get to the idea of Story, separated from the sequential one-thing-after-another-ness of a particular narrative. It is langue as opposed to parole.
There is chess, and there is a game of chess. A role-playing system is a great big box of potential story.
In 1982 I started my English degree at Sussex University. Everything I knew about university came out of The History Man...
I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one's first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false -- even if all possible promises of it are false.
C.S Lewis -- Talking About Bicycles
1 See Appendix
2 A role-playing game in which the players take the roles of Warner Brother style cartoon characters.
3 An A5 photocopied fanzine about role-playing games.
4 A square bound pseudo-academic journal about "story making systems".
5 It says so on the internet so it must be true
6 A story telling card game.
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.
14 A lot of Dungeons & Dragons was about genocide, but perhaps we will not go into that this morning.
15 The designer of Traveller
16 Literally no idea.
17 Advanced space ship and space navy rules for Traveller.
18 SPOILER: It was the earth all along.
19 SPOILER: She really was the eccentric old lady's grand-daughter
20 "She's got a boyfriend, he drives her round the bend, he's 23, he's in the marines, he'd kill me." It was McFly. I checked.
21 SPOILER: It was the earth all along.
22 For reasons lost in the Mists of Time Clerics are not allowed to shed blood with a sword; but they can smash people's heads open with a mace.
23 The more readable of Samuel Beckett's novels
24 One of the lads I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with at school who was in a car accident years later.
The guy at college with congenital muscle disease beat the doctors by several decades.
The very clever student union guy who got brain cancer.
The guy who played in all my college games who was in a major train crash.
25 When something happens because the referee says it happens, not because it is generated by the rule-set.
26 Pretend there was a long digression about the authorship of the General History of the Pirates in this space.
27 The Marvel Comics in-house fanzine
28 Spelt "kosmic"
29 Middle Earth Role Playing.
30 Never mention FRUP.
31 i.e two dice numbered 0-9; read as two digits, between 01 and 99, with 00 counting as a hundred
32 This was the same player who died in the railway accident.