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This Gaming Life: Systems Error
There are two givens in anyone’s history in gaming; you start with D&D, and then you move on.
Having had my toe in the water, I needed to jump in properly, and that meant having a collection, and being a master of all games, not just the ones with dungeons in. No-one I knew played D&D any more, that was down the shallow end of RPGs. Other games were out there, and they were the real deal, more realistic and way more role play. No hobbyist is as serious as a teenage hobbyist, and I wanted to take my fun very seriously indeed. That meant it had to be obscure, I had to get in early, and I had to be dismissive of everything else. Yeah I know, nothing’s changed…!
In the early 80s there was a pretty varied selection of RPGs to be honest, at least on the other side of the Atlantic. There was a flourishing of publishers, and small press operations advertised all over the sainted White Dwarf. Trouble being, they were very difficult to get hold of. You needed a postal order (ask your parents) and in many cases, blind faith in its eventual appearance. They weren’t cheap either, especially when your entire disposable income came from a paper round. Back then that was £5 per week, and some of that had to be hived off for Texan Bars and Top Deck Shandy.
My only option (bar shoplifting) was to wait for birthdays and Christmas’s and then offer up the most exotic and baroque list my poor mother had ever set her eyes upon. I have no idea what she made of the scrawled request; “Empire of the Petal Throne box set, or just ask in the shop for Tekumel”. I know she tried though, because she came back with RuneQuest, said to me “Will this do?” and then wrapped it up in front of me. She didn’t want to waste her time or money on the wrong thing, bless her.
Would it do? Course it would! How did I know? Because White Dwarf had said it was a great game and even devoted a monthly column to it, Rune Rites by Oliver Dickinson and Dave Morris. If it was good enough for the hallowed Dwarf it was more than good enough for me. I didn’t understand a word of those WD articles, but if they printed it, then I wanted it. It didn’t hurt that it came in a lovely looking deep magenta box with the GW logo stamped on it. The mark of gold standard quality.
I really tried hard with RuneQuest, honest I did. I made up a character, even going so far as to write it in pen directly onto the character sheet in the book. I studied FANGS, the monster book, and I struggled through Apple Lane looking for an adventure. I even read all the errata on the inside covers of the main book. The very best thing in the whole box, and the thing I kept returning to, was the map of Sartar and Prax, to this day my favourite fantasy map. I just wanted to know what The Block was. I don’t think I ever really found out.
You see, I found RQ utterly impenetrable. It was like a game your older brother would have played and understood, except I didn’t have an older brother, I had a younger sister who was more interested in Leroy out of Fame than some percentile dice and broo infested caverns. The fool. I couldn’t get my head round all the gods and cults. To be frank, I found it all a little bit intimidating and frightening. I convinced myself it was all a bit too dull and boring and historical. I didn’t want any of that. I liked heroic stuff like in my beloved Marvel comics, not swords and sandals. That just reminded me of dull Sunday films with Argonauts in them. (Don’t worry, I’ve changed my mind since. About Harryhausen, not Stafford, he’s still baffling)
I knew it was quality, so I shelved it carefully and told myself it would be worth good money some day. This despite the fact I’d carefully coloured in the inside of the box with my felt tips. And so the collector gene kicked in. This was an unexpected corollary to my new hobby, not only could you play it, but you could just buy it, barely read it, and put it in a special box, so you could tell the other guys you owned it. Brilliant!
I needed a new game. The obvious answer was to go to another WD fave, Traveller. I was a pretty big sci fi fan even then. In fact, if push comes to shove I’ll always read a sci fi novel over a fantasy one. I queued up to see Star Wars first time round after all. Couldn’t be bothered to do the same for Empire or Jedi, because they’d gotten far too popular obviously. That’s right, genre snobbery from an early age.
Traveller has the greatest RPG cover ever produced. A masterpiece of minimalist graphic design, coupled with the best short story ever written. Mayday… Beowulf. Swoon. How could you not want to dive into this small but perfectly formed black box with three booklets, already a classic, and an entire universe of possibilities.
Except it was nothing like Larry Niven’s Known Space books. Or Buck Rogers. Or Battlestar Galactica. Or Space: 1999. I had no idea what it was like actually. It seemed to be very grown up indeed, with all kinds of words I didn’t understand like interdiction, and commission. AD&D had hugely expanded my vocabulary, but in an engaging manner. This was like reading the instruction booklet that came with our first top loading VCR. And there were formulas. Many people decry the whole dying in chargen thing, but honestly I don’t think I ever got that far. As a budding Referee I wasn’t really in the business of rolling up characters. I came unstuck at hex paper for mapping sectors. I tried to draw some blanks by hand. Can’t say I wasn’t dedicated. Traveller defeated me, like RuneQuest, because it was hard.
Third time lucky, and this time there could be no mistake. The only game that no-one had a single word of criticism for, and another GW favourite, the eerily compelling Call of Cthulhu. I had never ever heard of HP Lovecraft before this, and I was in no way a fan of horror at all. I once brought home a grisly looking paperback from the library, The Howling, just to try to get the hang of horror. My mum confiscated it. I eagerly devoured the boxed set, loving the look of the illustrations and antique props. The book read well. I skipped the whole character generation thing as usual, skipping ahead to the DMs section. Hang on a minute, Keeper of Arcane Lore?! Where do I sign!
The book made absolutely no sense whatsoever. It was all laid out in a familiar D&D style format. Characters, monsters, treasure, although all using different words. I even understood most of the rules from my abortive RQ days. The real problem was, I would never be able to write an adventure for this. I was not the sort of fellow who could figure out an Agatha Christie before the end, and the Twenties might as well have been Neptune for all I knew about them. Luckily, the book contained a scenario all ready to go, The Haunting. I ran it dozens of times. With groups, solo, with a single player. That bedstead was a killer surprise every single time. A faultless experience, and it spoiled me for adventures for a very long time.
I have a thing for published scenarios. I never thought I would be as good a writer or GM as the professionals. I bought modules to see how the game was supposed to work. With Cthulhu, I was spoiled for choice. Orient Express. Nyarlathotep. Mountains of Madness. Green and Pleasant Land. Trail of Tsogottha or whatever it was called. Yowsers! The only thing that stopped me getting all these original masterpieces was cost. Well, that and the fact I couldn’t run the damn things very well. You see, horror wasn’t my thing. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know how to scare people and frankly, I didn’t enjoy it either. I didn’t like being frightened, it scared me. Just like the other games, I knew this was good quality stuff, but equally I knew I couldn’t do it justice. Cthulhu kind of ate itself too. Once you’d played it once, all the surprises were gone, and it became about spotting the monsters and then committing suicide in new and ever elaborate ways. To this day, the very best gaming sessions I’ve ever had were with Cthulhu, and unfortunately all the very worst too. Shelved, with reluctance.
If only there was a fantasy game, with the investigative scenarios of Cthulhu, the rich setting of RuneQuest, loved by White Dwarf, and available in my local store…
Enter the Warhammer.