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My RPG DNA, Part 2: The Early Memphis Years

Last time, I talked about my early gaming experiences in junior high/high school in Texas in the ’80s.  Star Frontiers, Red Box D&D, and AD&D, almost always DM, with some diceless, PvP, and single player action mixed in there.  College, nothing except about two nights of a Basic game (oh, and one visit to OwlCon, where I played in an extremely amusing Paranoia game – one of the other players was such a twerp that when the Computer asked us all who the traitor was, the entire rest of the table pointed at him without hesitation).

Part 2: The (Early) Memphis Years

After college, I moved to Memphis, Tennessee for a job with FedEx corporate IT.  At first, I didn’t know anyone at all (let alone gamers) and Memphis wasn’t exactly a happening gaming mecca.  In fact, it took me a little while to get used to Memphis in general – I came from the Houston area where there were all kinds of people, but in Memphis at the time there were pretty much two kinds, black and white, and to my horror there were seriously billboards up saying things like “say no to racial violence.”  I remember wanting a specific classical CD (this was the era of huge music stores, before Amazon, you whippersnappers) so I opened up the Yellow Pages and found the biggest ad for a music store, a Sound Warehouse.  I called them up, and I knew whatever clerk I got wouldn’t be able to tell me if they had what I wanted (Karl Orff’s De Temporum Fine Comedia, for the record; I was in a production of Carmina Burana in college and was looking for more stuff by the guy) so I just asked “Hey, do you have a separate classical music room?”  Many of the big music stores of the time had a separate little classical room where the whatever they were playing in the main store didn’t penetrate.  The clerk on the phone paused a moment, and finally said, “You’re not from here, are you?”  So suffice to say, “geek stuff”, along with most things associated with “book learnin’,” were in short supply.

Anyway, through work I met some geeks, and after about a year someone heard about this new card game, Magic: The Gathering.  We all got into it about Fallen Empires time and started to play and amass cards.  (I just found my big ol’ boxes of cards in my garage, actually, if anyone’s buying!)  Then, a British contractor we were hanging out with (“Mind if I kip on your floor?”  “Uh…  Will that leave a stain?”) decided he wanted to run some Runequest for us.  We all readily assented;  the Indian contractors kept making us play cricket and it was a welcome change. In true UK fashion the games were short and brutal.  But that planted the seed.  A little while later, while we were all playing Magic, I got fed up and said, “We’re spending enough time and money on this we might as well be doing REAL roleplaying and not this card game crap!  Who’s with me?” And they were.

Back Into Gaming

I had made a network of IT friends through work and a network of medical student friends through my roommate, a med student I had known from Rice.  A quick canvas revealed that a lot of these folks had either gamed before or were up for it.  Big Mike, Kevin, and Tim came from one side of the family and Robert, Suzanne, and Little Mike came from the other side.  They were the mainstays, but there were other visitors (Jason, Joy, “sweating out the mushrooms” guy…)  And we were off to the races.  I was still mostly the DM.  We played Second Edition AD&D, and we found it cool.  More coherent than the brilliant but fragmented “Here’s some harlots!” approach of AD&D 1e, and with more meat to it than Basic, we played the heck out of some 2e (although 1e adventures were often drafted into service with little or no conversion, since the 2e adventures kinda sucked).

We all played Second Edition for a while, mostly at my Midtown apartment, and it was good.  But the best was yet to come.  Memphis was getting better – I got more used to it, and it’s definitely a place that is much better if you know the scene, but also it was growing and becoming more diverse and advanced.  And also, I made a great new friend, Hal!  Hal knew Robert and had just moved to town; he needed a roommate and Robert, my previous roommate, married Suzanne, so we moved in together and fell in geek love.  We got into anime, Hong Kong movies, roleplaying, et cetera in spades.  We went to Gen Cons, Tenncons, and MidSouthCons.  Spending so much free time doing that stuff, we really began to branch out, and one of the first things we did was to escape the “D&D Ghetto.”

Out of the D&D Ghetto

Second Edition was getting long in the tooth and the stuff coming out for it was increasingly bizarre.  And it’s not like I hadn’t played other games before, but of course D&D was always the common denominator that you could find people to play.  But with two of us, we went nuts, and luckily there was a whole wave of stuff coming out at the same time.  Fading Suns, Feng Shui, Alternity, Call of Cthulhu (5e), and dozens more.  We hit Half Price Books, game auctions, etc. and my bookcase swelled with different games in every genre.  I was positively indiscriminate.  It was great, being exposed to all kinds of different games, modes of play, etc.  Somehow I didn’t ever get into the other “big” second string games like GURPS, Palladium, or World of Darkness (well, a little; I have a playtester credit in Wraith: The Great War in the strength of playing it at a Tenncon), which was probably best because it meant we moved from game to game a lot.

But the best was yet to come.  So we had a bunch of gamers, a lot of games (and a lot of spare money and free time).  All the raw materials were together, and the spark was lit.  Next time, Night Below, the FORGE, and Living Greyhawk, Freeport, and 3e!

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My RPG DNA, Part 1: The Texas Years

The Chatty DM has been running a series on his RPG history.  In short:

Which is somewhat similar to my RPG history in some respects, though my history’s different enough it got me to thinking, and thence to share with you!

Part 1: The Texas Years

My first RPG wasn’t D&D.  Shocking, I know.  I was a science fiction fan back in my youth.  I was eleven, and I went into a game store at the mall and purchased a little tactical chit game called Attack Force that caught my eye.  It was put out by a company I’d never heard of named TSR.  I enjoyed it, and went back to the store looking for other stuff by that same company, and came across Star Frontiers.  It was a science fiction game, where you could play humans or insectoid aliens or blobs or glider monkeys and shoot each other with lasers or needler weapons or gyrojet guns…  I had never seen a role-playing game before (well, maybe the D&D playing scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and it blew my mind.  I read it, got a couple friends together, and started to play.  The most notable thing about this (besides that I understood that D&D isn’t the only RPG in the world, a revelation that still escapes many gamers) is that I didn’t require an established gaming group to introduce me to gaming.  Many games have punted on being approachable at all on the grounds that “everyone learns gaming from a preexisting group of gamers,” and I’m not at ALL sure that’s true.  Also, playing a non-D&D game first, and a reasonably realistic science fiction game at that, formed a lot of my gaming preconceptions.

I was introduced to D&D by Dragon Magazine, which I bought occasionally off the newsstand when they had one of their “Ares” science fiction columns.  I was mildly griped about having to buy a full magazine that had like one article I could use; I remember reading some of the others and thinking “What the hell is a Hit Dice?”  It took me a while to give it a try – I’ll be honest, I had a bit of a prejudice against the fantasy genre.  Science fiction was for intellectuals, fantasy was escapist trash.  I liked the Hobbit and all, but…  Then I played in a pickup game of D&D run in the cars on the way to Boy Scout camp – no dice, just the DM making calls; everyone had Blackrazor or Whelm or a crossbow (oddly, the crossbow was the most powerful) and most scenes ended up with the characters doing each other in to get all the loot.  (So my first D&D experience was both diceless and PvP, two things that people nowadays don’t believe can happen or is wicked and evil…)  It was vaguely entertaining, and I had all the Star Frontiers stuff they had put out, so I got the D&D Red Box soon after it came out and decided I loved it as well!  So during junior high, I would always DM and I’d have one or two guys over to play either D&D or Star Frontiers.

High School

With high school, I graduated to AD&D; moving to the more complex rules and grittier world of all those lovely 1e adventures just seemed natural.  Got all the books, ran most of the modules.  A lot of the time it would be just one player and some NPCs – I remember my friend Johnny’s character Kuroth the Barbarian (courtesy of Unearthed Arcana) – he went through I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City and got a magic broadsword sword that could do a heal once a week, giving himself a virtual pool of nearly 200 hit points!  He was a god among men at only like seventh level.  Good times.  Oddly, I had other friends I’d run games for but it seemed natural to run separate solo games most of the time.  I was also a computer gamer (Commodore 64, bitches!) and ran all the way through Pool of Radiance – though for fantasy games, my money’s still on Ultima IV for best ever.  And I read something in the neighborhood of a thousand science fiction and fantasy novels over the course of those years – I was always a terrifyingly fast reader; in the summer I’d go to the library and get 14 books (you could check them out for two weeks, so that was one a day) and grind through them.

College

Then I went to college, and gaming mostly stopped.  Electrical engineering at Rice U. didn’t leave a lot of fiddling around time, and spare time was spent doing all kinds of random college type stuff with friends.  I ran a night or two of Basic for the gang one year for kicks, but that was about it, all my 1e books gathered dust back home in the bookcase.

My gaming days could have been over…  But it was not to be!  Tune in next time for Part 2: The Memphis Years!