Friday, February 12, 2021

40 Years in Fantasyland

Feb. 13th, 1981 was the day I first played D&D. It took place in an open space between several schoolrooms, and later that day, in an empty classroom, at my Junior High School (then in the process of being converted into a 'Middle School'), on the day when the school officially celebrated Lincoln's birthday (and Valentine's Day, which came after, at the start of a long weekend, or possibly, a week-long mid-winter break - I do not recall). The day was given over to students to do what they wanted, so two people, with whom I was relatively friendly, and who had played with one another for roughly two years, asked if I wanted to join in.

I had been waiting to be invited to play for a long time. The idea of a game with dice but without a playing board still made no sense to me, but in other respects, I had been preparing to step through that door since the previous year. Partly at the prompting of one of the two people who introduced me to the game, I started reading the Lord of the Rings, and in the course of that year, I had read the entire trilogy, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion, and various other pieces of the Tolkien canon. I was thus relatively knowledgeable about what the fantasy genre was, and began to explore other key writers - Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander certainly stand out in my mind, and there may have been others that I had started to read before my initial foray into the world of RPGs. For years prior to arriving in the US in early 1978, I had also been greatly influenced by folklore - Russian fairytales, the Kalevala, compendia of Kurdish fairytales and the Thousand and One Nights, and mythology of various kinds. When I became aware that there was a game which allowed you to model all these stories, and even spin open-ended tales of your own, it seemed like a natural fit. I had been warned that the game was highly addictive, and could cause you to become lost in it, like one could succumb to the power of the One Ring. But given my predisposition toward fantasy and myth, and the difficulties of transitioning to adolescence in a new country and within a family recently broken by divorce, I was undaunted.

My initial experience with the game was pretty typical for a kid who was genuinely interested (as opposed to trying it to go along, or to fit in with someone). I had no idea what was going on, and I loved every minute of it. We were playing AD&D (now referred to as "1e") - the dominant system used at the time, especially by players that had joined the hobby after the appearance of the hardback rulebooks in 1978. The rules were sufficiently complex to be daunting for someone with no background with RPGs or wargames. Not only was there no gameboard, but there were already three core rulebooks (plus one supplement on Deities and Demigods). There were already many character options - 11 character class types (including what would later be called a 'prestige class' - the bard), and seven races. To help me along, the acquaintance who assumed the role of DM just told me to pick my favorite race from Lord of the Rings, and naturally enough, I picked a dwarf. Given the racial limitations of 1e, as well as the dictates of simplicity and my ignorance of the system, I naturally went with a fighter. So Dain the dwarf fighter - my first-ever character, was born. Dain, because unlike the more famous Thorin, he had survived the Battle of Five Armies, and went on to become king of the most powerful dwarf realm in Middle Earth. My Dain also survived. I don't remember whether he ever got killed and raised, but he survived until my senior year of high school, and reached, if memory serves, 11th level. I moved on to other characters, other games, and other activities, and Dain just faded away, but never perished. Like his namesake in the Peter Jackson trilogy, and like his player, he was proud, headstrong, and on occasion, a bit of a badass. 

I don't remember exactly what we did during that first session. There was some sort of jungle temple complex we explored - not the most natural place for Dain the Dwarf. My companion was another fighter - Ungawa the half-orc. We probably wouldn't like each other too much, my fellow player told me, but we would have to work together. In any case, I had no choice - he was two levels higher than me, and in any case, I didn't know the rules, and wouldn't have been able to challenge him even if I had wanted to. We played for three hours without anyone in the school bothering us much, and the adventure bled into a subsequent weekend. I do remember coming out of that expedition two levels higher, and with a suit of +4 plate armor that someone had somehow misplaced in a jungle temple. That armor subsequently became Dain's signature item - he was always hard to hit, and acted like it. To the D&D gatekeepers who defined how the game should be played, that sort of giveaway would have been a sign of a "Monty Haul" campaign, though I recall that the group that subsequently formed around the three of us was actually quite conservative, especially given our age, and we often lambasted other players at our school for the speed of their characters' advancement, and the crazy number of artifacts their characters had (one kid famously told us that every character in his party had a Wand of Orcus). 

The playing group that got me started had an interesting destiny. The relationship between the core members of the group was a difficult one, and witnessed a number of (in-game and even more so, out-of-game) betrayals and changes of fortune. The DM and Ungawa's player had been best friends for years prior to inviting me into their inner sanctum. By the start of the following year, they parted ways with me (the details of the process are not particularly interesting, though today they would have been called "bullying"). By the end of that year, the two "best friends" themselves had a falling out along pretty similar lines. One - the DM of my first game - reached out to me. By that time, I had been pretty heavily involved in a gaming club at the local Ivy campus, and had started running games in my own right. I had an idea for an epic adventure - Snow Wight and the Seven Dwarves, I called it. So our group was reconstituted during the summer - Ungawa's player came slinking back, and there were several others. That summer, every weekday between noon and 5 PM, we gathered at the public library, torturing the poor functionary whose office was located next to the conference table on the mezzanine with our intemperate outbursts. But by the end of the summer, the Snow Wight had been vanquished, not without a little help from a certain DM PC named Dain (it did seem a little galling that everyone was gaining levels, and he wasn't). 

Our group of five or six persisted for the next year to a year and a half, not without more strife, primarily between the two erstwhile best friends, as I recall. DMing duties generally rotated, though the original three did the bulk of running games, and I think I ran more often than the others. By the middle of sophomore year in high school, we drifted apart for good. Of the peripheral players, some moved away, and the rest were relatively lukewarm toward the game without someone prodding them. Ungawa's player, bright and tactically sound, had begun to lose interest, and drifted toward athletics. We were cordial for the last year or two of high school, but largely revolved in different circles. I ran into him once in college, but haven't seen him since. He subsequently became a biology professor, following (in part) in the footsteps of his physicist father. The DM of my first session, on the other hand, remained interested in games, and in D&D in particular, though toward our time together, he also found religion. He attended seminary after college and briefly served as a minister in the Midwest before getting a job with Wizards of the Coast in the late 1990s. He was a major motive force behind 3e and 4e, and has remained a key designer of 5e despite being moved over to their Magic the Gathering division.

For my part, I remained involved with the campus group until graduating from high school. The club was structured as a multi-DM group that would run pick-up games on Fridays and Saturdays. After I paid my dues as the 8th grader trying to earn my right to play with high schoolers, college students and adults, I became a DM in my own right, and made several longterm friends in the group. The experience of being at the bottom of the social totem pole and of three months of failing to have my characters survive past 1st level has probably influenced my penchant for a gritty game (levels must be earned!) as well as a certain amount of tolerance for intraparty strife (though nowhere near to the extent of that group).

Though club play influenced me a great deal, I never entirely liked the disjointed play of the pick-up games, and the constant world-hopping of characters who had few interests outside of accumulating XP and treasure. I much preferred the campaign-style play of my first group, and by the end of sophomore year in high school, I reconstituted a small group of four people that mostly stayed together until graduation, and reformed at least twice in subsequent years. I started off as the main DM of the group, though after a time, referee duties were shared between two of us. The two worlds were entirely discrete, with their own cast of characters and their own stories. Characteristically, the strongest characters in each campaign belonged to the DM of the other setting. But pretty much everyone played multiple characters at once, because we both ran gritty games that smaller parties in which each player only ran a single character would not have survived. Aside from that, our styles were quite different, and provided a nice contrast. My friend was far more influenced by television and pop-culture, and for pure entertainment value, his campaign probably exceeded mine. I had begun to return to my original interests in mythology and history, and had a much more serious take on campaign integrity. My world was vaguely Indian, though it almost certainly owed more to Roger Zelazny than to Hindu mythology. Later, after arming myself with Chivalry and Sorcery, I launched a new world based on Renaissance Italy, for which I had tried to create a more realistic social structure and economy. I know sometimes my penchant for "realism" was not entirely appreciated, though I recall having a slightly lower overall body count.

We used to compete over who had the largest
DM screen. This is my latest effort, from
about two years back. I have a lot of new
custom charts for Lukomorye.

By the end of high school, I had gone back to the university club, though much of the time senior year was filled with teenage hijinks of various kinds. After departing for college, I played a few games with various friends, but my main playing activity was centered around the local gaming club that was dominated by Call of Cthulhu. Almost all the games were run by one person - a Frenchman, who was the first person to introduce me to an RP-driven game. His games were well-run and interesting, though probably had too many players, and there were definite moments when I thought he pulled punches when he shouldn't have. He left school at the end of that year, to start his own gaming company. But the following year, I heard that the company had failed, and that he committed suicide. Only later did I learn that he was a close relative of Charles Lindbergh.

I returned to my hometown for the last two years of college, bringing my newfound interest in Call of Cthulhu back to my old D&D group. The game I ran for them was somewhat satirical and somewhat political - a Ceaușescu-era diplomat at the Romanian consulate in New York (and, predictably, a vampire) had come to consult with a local Jewish cabalist who resided in Great Neck about building a golem to protect his castle from peasants who had gotten it into their heads that their local party functionary was no mere scion of an ancient noble lineage. The start of the game was quite good, though it soon got bogged down in trying to figure out how to expedite the inevitable court procedure against characters who were a little too free about using grenade launchers. In any event, the party was sent to Romania to hunt down the returned official, though neither the players nor, to be honest, the Keeper, had much idea about how to operate in what was at the time one of the most repressive regimes in the Soviet-led bloc. Eventually, it came down to a confrontation at the vampire's castle (for which I used the ground map from Ravenloft), which concluded with one of the players hot-wiring the vampire's cabriolet, placing a brick on the accelerator, and ramming it into the golem, which went tumbling into the ravine beneath the castle. The greatest irony of that campaign was that one of the players later ended up moving to Great Neck, and I myself stayed with him for several months last year (I didn't find any golems or vampires in any of the cul-de-sacs, though).

I did spend a few years prior to graduation playing 2e with some people from our old 1e game and a few who had participated in the club game and in the Cthulhu campaign, though it was far more irregular. One game persisted a few months into grad school, since my university was located only an hour away from home. Distance and schoolwork soon caused it to peter out. However, my grad school roommate turned out to have been a gamer in his high school days, and before the year came to an end, our conversations had prompted him to buy replacement 1e rulebooks. Soon, he left school, but dived headlong back into gaming. His interests were far more varied and far less campaign-oriented than mine. We did keep in touch after his departure, and on a visit to his house, we played an impromptu D&D game in which he played a priest, a fool, and a were-raven. That game was the earliest prototype of Lukomorye, and received an extension after I roped him and several friends who had remained at home into a brief campaign. Several years later, I tried my hand at formalizing some of the custom character types derived from the Australian game Rüs as 3e character variants, but I never completed the effort, becoming distracted by other projects (including other games, schoolwork, marriage, and children).

In turn, my former roommate soon introduced me to Vampire and the World of Darkness, and we spent a few years, off and on, playing games set in the town where our graduate program was located - a great postindustrial site for Vampire, complete with its own warehouse-cathedral, as I called it. He also ran a game set in Tokyo, where capital networks laid down by a Genoese clan of Giovanni finally converged on a skyscraper mystically connected with counterparts in New York and London. And I ran a game in Ur-Prague, where the neoliberal and post-socialist worlds collided with horizon realms based on the worlds of Gustav Meyrink, Franz Kafka, Karel Čapek, and especially, Jaroslav Hašek - author of the Good Soldier Šveik (the latter inevitably appeared as the trouble-causing assistant of the hapless PC). Many of those ideas were subsequently recycled in a Mage game I ran for a new group of players after moving to Illinois. The conceit of the game was that the characters all inherited a research institute from a mysterious benefactor. The researchers fought predictable battles with the Technocracy, found a device that allowed them to directly intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without leaving home, and discovered a Lurianic sect of cabalists who encoded information about the Holy Grail into an epic poem (here, I tried my hand out at writing a fragment of a Chrétien de Troyes-style epic - one of my better efforts, judging by the reactions, but now, unfortunately, lost to posterity). In any event, the part of that game that those involved most remember was Pazuzu - a haggard, annoying demon in the shape of an old man who was discovered in the basement of the research institute, and became the errand boy who did most of the mages' dirty work.

My erstwhile roommate also turned me on to Everway - a card-based rules-light game of mythic fantasy. I don't remember ever playing the game in person, but it turned out to be well-suited to online play. The game was recommended as a story-oriented game of multicultural fantasy, though to my mind, the city of Everway and the Walker's Pyramid at its center was a great metaphor for the unraveling of globalization in the wake of 9/11. The game I ran featured a Conclave gathered from across the spheres to select the new king of what had become an increasingly integrated multiverse (though the whole episode was in fact a behind-the-scenes plot of the Whiteoar family to exploit the growing fissures to take back power). Much about that campaign was enjoyable and memorable, and playing by text allowed to provide more thoughtful responses player actions, as well as a detailed log of everything that happened (a practice I subsequently adopted for other games). On the other hand, the long lag between moves, and the fact that players had to be nagged to get moves in so the campaign plotline would not become too unbalanced between different characters was something I did not enjoy much. The virtual character of the game made it difficult to read social clues that would have been far clearer in an in-person game. Finally, the rules-light game design created, to my mind, more problems than it solved with regard to action adjudication. It was the first instance, though not the last, that has made me somewhat suspicious of both rules-light games, and of storygamers who ostensibly focused on story-first elements, but when push came to shove, wanted to have more powerful characters. But though we did not get anywhere near as far as I wanted, I kept that game going for about a year and a half (though it was only a few days of game time).

In between Mage and Everway, the third edition of D&D came out. By that point, I had not played any kind of D&D for seven or eight years, but a couple of my Mage players were running Sunless Citadel, and asked me to join in. The rules, at least at low levels, still felt very familiar, and the adventure was terrific - to my mind, still one of the best low-level scenarios (along with Saltmarsh, Shrine of the Reptile God, and the Lost Mines). We successfully completed it, and then continued onto the Forge of Fury, which I thought was a major letdown. But I did recruit the same group for a Lukomorye-style 3e game for a few months - the second dry run.

The intervening period was one with very little gaming. I spent a year in the former Soviet Union, returned to the US to finish my dissertation, became the father of a second daughter, got a full-time academic job, and then, opted to return to Central Asia to teach for three years. Prior to leaving, I sold off the box of all my old RPGs, going back to the earliest 1e hardcovers, which had some pictures hand-colored in pencil and magic marker. I did not expect to return to RPGs. 

I returned to the US in 2011, and spent a few more years in academia. Two years later, while searching through a cardboard box full of odds and ends in the living room, my daughters discovered a mysterious cloth bag with drawstrings. Pulling on them, they discovered a bunch of strange colorful multisided objects with numbers on them. It was the last physical remnant of my old gaming life. They started to ask what they were, and as they were now 12 and seven, I decided that the time had come to initiate them into the mysteries. I had been completely unaware of what had been happening in the world of D&D for a good decade, so I looked up some rulebooks online, and discovered 4e. The changes from the D&D I knew were quite profound, but it was familiar enough, and the distinctions between the editions were quite lost on the kids, so I figured I would try it out. I made a simple series of tunnels and imported the kobold Meepo from Sunless Citadel as a cute sidekick, which went over pretty well. 

Our playing was pretty irregular, but the subsequent summer, the new 5th edition boxed set appeared. The three of us were visiting my mom, still living in the town where I started by gaming life, and on the day of the release, we triumphantly went to the FLGS, and purchased the box. The same day, the two of them made characters for the Lost Mines module included in the box set. Of course since I was running that game, it came with a twist. Though I didn't have time to design a full-fledged setting at that time, I flipped the map over, making the Sword Coast the eastern edge of a newly discovered continent rather than the western edge of Faerun . Over the next several years, that world evolved into four other campaigns in the Gethen setting (the name was shamelessly stolen, along with much else in that world). Little was left of the Forgotten Realms - Gethen's history that drew on the history of colonial New Netherlands, Tolkien's Akallabeth, the myth of Atlantis, and a rather sardonic view of elves that derived from Yeskov's Last Ringbearer. The longest-lasting of these four was a virtual game initially played over Google Hangouts with my friend from Great Neck, the former grad school roommate, a veteran from the research institute Mage game, and a friend I met at a history conference who, as it later turned out, had also played D&D in the 80s. The game ran, with one long hiatus, for about three years, and it inspired one of the players to set his own home campaign in a world that strongly resembled Gethen.

Lukomorye was an idea that I began to revisit while the main Gethen game was still running. I first made a draft of changeling and shapeshifter races, figuring the latter would be an easy sell, and then recruited the kids. For a time, the first Lukomorye game became a full family game, and within a year, my three nephews joined in as well. One of them became an especially avid gamer, and would pester us to get back to playing as often as one of the characters on Stranger Things. Within a couple of years, I had finished a full draft of the Lukomorye rules variant that I had begun thinking about nearly three decades earlier. For several years, Lukomorye was the only thing I played (aside from a handful of forays as a player on the other side of the screen). To date, there have been five separate Lukomorye campaigns, two of which are still running. There were also two brief spinoffs - one run by a longterm player of mine whom I had met online, the other run by my younger daughter, who based her scenario on the One Night Werewolf card game. Though she hadn't gotten the hang of how to award experience, I thought the way she ran the game was quite inventive.

Shortly after deciding to run games online, I became immersed in internet gaming culture. For me, this meant learning to use online gaming platforms and tools (e.g. mapping software), joining electronic discussion lists and bulletin boards to recruit new players, and following a few streamers. I struck up a few longterm virtual friendships, started this blog, and began to try to gauge the level of interest in possibly publishing Lukomorye. The latter project took me into the Russian segment of online gaming culture, and I even played a couple of games on a Russophone Discord channel. Though most of the players were pretty young, and the DM an almost complete newbie, I found the level of play, and especially, RP, to be quite high. That Russian remained the lingua franca of gamers who now lived in different post-Soviet states was not particularly surprising. But a certain level of skepticism toward my project was. Russian-speaking gamers are still fairly cosmopolitan in cultural outlook (many speak passable English), and a few regarded Lukomorye as a distasteful sort of flag-waving nationalism. Others, conversely, saw it as cultural appropriation, especially since it was written in English. One of these accused me of making the fool character class as emblematic of a Slavic-Russian setting, though my response was that fools appear in many cultures, and their absence in the standard 5e game is a charge that should be leveled at the game's custodians at Wizards of the Coast, not at me. A few actually read the text closely, and were pretty impressed with the range of folkloric, historical, and literary materials on which it drew. But on the whole, I don't think the Russian Internet is ready for Lukomorye. Not quite yet.   

Lukomorye went on hiatus for most of 2020 because I had personal issues to straighten out. Both campaigns returned in the fall of last year as regular fortnightly games. At the same time, I also started a weekly Markwald game, mostly with Lukomorye veterans, but also a few new players. This was a setting I had sketched out shortly before taking my hiatus, but as a Black Death game, it became particularly salient in the intervening period because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Markwald is much closer to a standard 5e game than Lukomorye, though it draws quite a bit from the Lukomorye variants, and, as time goes on, it will probably drift further from the normal 5e ruleset. It is also closer to Gethen than to Lukomorye in being a much more heavily intrigue-based game. I enjoy the whimsical and fairy-tale aspects of both settings, but I do find myself drifting into intrigue, especially when particular arcs become too unilinear and combat-centric. The main Markwald game is now drifting toward the "elves who have seen better days" theme that was so prominent in Gethen, though to compensate, there is a new Markwald campaign with the kids that I will try to keep more oriented around classic Grimm themes - bandits, animals who want to become musicians, and witches with secret forest hideouts.

* * *

I was originally going to conclude this retrospective with some general observations about FRPGs, their impact on my life and on social change, but as I have made my views clear elsewhere on this blog, I'll keep things brief. Role-playing games have greatly impacted my life, probably for good and ill. Though they have distracted me from study, family and career at various points, they have also proved to be an indispensable balm at various points, and have performed this function better than chemicals and therapy most of the time. Recently, I have received communication from a young woman in the Midwest who is engaged in a study of the impact of D&D on building resilience and developing coping skills among LGBTQ+ teens. The issue is of particular interest to me as my daughter, who has been an occasional gamer for over seven years, has recently come out as bi, and also has experienced mental health problems throughout the past year. The possible therapeutic properties of D&D have received a great deal of attention since the advent of 5e, and I try to follow the research and discussion on this subject, though as I've indicated earlier, I do retain concern in individual cases that attempts to implement D&D as therapy can draw upon and reinforce other ethnic and political stereotypes.

The transformation of D&D from a nerd pastime into mainstream culture speaks to the fundamental success of Tolkien's project of creating fantasy literature as a vehicle for the restoration of myth to its proper place in human society - a position one can hold without subscribing to Tolkien's politics. The project of disenchanting modern life and denuding it of ludic elements was never as successful or complete as its partisans let on. What happened was that myth and games were far more intimately wrapped up with exoteric processes - economic competition and growth, ideological politics, and on a cultural level, the the articulation of symbols and archetypes as "the subconscious". Re-enchantment is not, in and of itself, responsible for the mass psychoses of contemporary politics. We humans have always lived in a reality divided into a multiplicity of worlds, and a saner lifestyle necessitates coming to terms with this complexity, rather than decrying it (or, conversely, insisting that all of the myriad worlds around us are identically constituted or of equal value). We have never been disenchanted, but realizing that this is so is a painful process.

The mainstreaming of D&D since the advent of 5e (which roughly coincided with my return to gaming) has exposed the hobby to many of the cultural and political conflicts which were more muted while the hobby remained confined to the margins. These conflicts are the price of success, and need to be accepted, rather than wished away, in hopes that a pristine Golden Age of the 1970s and 80s will return to us, and we can just get back to playing, rather than resolving social and political conflicts. The Golden Age was far from conflict-free, and my own experiences bear witness to the scars gamers inflicted on one another (this despite the fact that today, I am not categorized as belonging to a disadvantaged group). At the same time, it will not do to reject the lessons of the past simply because times have changed, and we now know better. Yes, the hobby needs to be more inclusive, and it is the stronger for it. But that doesn't mean that we need every setting to valorize every identity. We play these games to construct different worlds, with different rules. Often, historical and mythological models are much richer than contemporary fantasy, even though they often features that are distasteful to the contemporary mentality. We must take this mentality into account when we invite players into our worlds, but we also need to keep in mind that playing in these worlds is about learning to deal with adversity - something that epic heroes knew well. That is why the 'tyranny of fun' can in fact be tyrannical - because it homogenizes worlds and playing experiences, which some believe have to be equalized for everybody.

The same thing, it should be said, applies to gaming's 'narrative turn'. Play is better when suffused with compelling stories and compelling characters. But ideas about dramatic structure often derive from very few sources, typically filtered through recent mass culture. To my mind, the use of dice and randomness are actually more epic, because they are much better at modeling the incommensurability of forces, the disjuncture between humans, spirits, and gods, the tragedy and the comedy of the epic, than standardized narrative structures. Relatedly, the penchant for 'rules-light' systems and a preference for 'rulings not rules' or the 'rule of cool' miss the fact that the continuity of gaming culture, and, in fact, the survival of D&D as top dog in the hobby are a product of the fact that rules and structure help create continuity. Even "gatekeeping", often decried, can play a positive role. When people argue about rules and their application, when people learn systems and become more adept at applying them toward creating more effective characters or challenging encounters, they actually create strengthen community: discussions proliferate, and models to emulate arise. There is no reason why models and discussions cannot be technical (as well as dramaturgical [see Matt Mercer]). And after all, few would remember Tolkien to day if he stopped writing after the Hobbit. It was the Lord of the Rings, with its histories, its linguistics, and its genealogies that made Middle Earth nerd-bait, but also an institution.

All of this helps account for the fact that I do not really mind being a Forever DM (though this also comes with age). I have definite ideas about how I think this game should work, and I like being able to put these ideas into practice. Of course, other people have ideas, too. I am, finally, starting to play a little more. Enough to see that others' ideas are also good, sometimes.  😆




  1. You writing is deep and rich. It's a pleasure I look forward to. Thank you.

  2. Hi Boris, is there a Russian version of Lukomorye? To be honest, I'm pretty bad at reading English, especially large text.

  3. @Александр Шавкунов - к сожалению, пока нет. Есть некоторые планы перевести содержание на русский, но в данный момент, времени очень мало.