Good Times in the Realms (and Other Places)

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series RPG Gaming and Me

Continuing on my memories and reflections on RPGing as a hobby in my life…

A few days ago, I ran across some fanfic I wrote in middle school. It was fanfic for someone else’s world, but not for a movie–though I’d been writing that (for Ghostbusters and, thinly veiled, The Neverending Story/The Princess Bride) for a long time.

No, this was fanfic that I felt was my own creation, even if it was set in the franchised world of TSR’s The Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Realms is a sticky thing for me, now: for a few years, I spent every bit of my pocket money, paper route earnings, and Christmas and birthday money on supplements. Somehow, I couldn’t keep up, though. There were just too many supplements. All you guys at TSR, I hope you know I was just a kid out there, paying into your kids’ college funds. Ha!

The cover from the original boxed set of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The first of many Realms products I spent my pocket money on.
The cover from the original boxed set of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The first of many Realms products I spent my pocket money on.

I started gaming with a guy named Devin Waldner, who, with his elder brothers, introduced me to D&D Basic at around the time when his brothers were getting him into AD&D. We played for a year until I moved away to another part of town and his home was suddenly a 40 minute bike ride instead of a 20-minute one. We met up again a few years later, by which time I had the full set of D&D Basic boxed sets (yes, even the basically unplayable box #5, Immortals) and a few modules and things photocopied from the local library’s collection of Dragon magazine.

I’ll be honest: I fell for The Realms because of the articles Ed Greenwood contributed to Dragon. The articles were sometimes a little cutesy, with Elminster showing up and requesting pina coladas in exchange for some Realms lore, but you know, Greenwood almost always had a neat character class, magical item, or other gaming idea to throw into the mix. I loved those articles, and collected them as much as I could. I even went so far as to buy an old copy of a Dragon magazine for an article about, I think it was, the “Incantatrix” spellcaster class.

My dad always very patiently copied those articles for me at work, because kids would come in and tear the articles out of the magazines instead of just copying them. Ah, Dad. I remember him once sitting down and rolling up an elven warrior and trying to play D&D with me. It was obvious he was kind of determined to be baffled by it, to not get why it was fun, and I think there was even some element of him hoping he could show me, by example, how not-fun it was, but you gotta give him points for rolling up a character anyway. Even years later, after we’d moved to Saskatoon, he’d patiently give me a lift to the local gamer bookshop, The Dragon’s Den, and he’d even sometimes suggest it to me when he knew I hadn’t been there in a while. That’s supportiveness, if there ever was such thing.

But this was in Prince Albert, years before, and the main place to get D&D books was at a little shop named Eagle Stationery. I think there were other places, a bookstore here and a hobby shop there, but Eagle Stationery was for a long time the place to get books. (Later, when I first arrived in Saskatoon and before The Dragon’s Den opened up, there were two places: a chain bookstore called Coles, and a comic shop downtown. You could, occasionally, find used gaming books at Tramps, but the comic shop downtown was a much better bet. They had everything, man.

(I could go on about the main RPG bookstore in Montreal, too, Le Valet D’Coeur, but I won’t, except to say I still drop by when I’m in the city… even if I haven’t run a game in years.)

Anyway, Devin and I actually reconnected through a mutual acquaintance named Kevin (yes, they rhymed), with whom I’d tried Marvel Super Heroes. Didn’t get to play that long, nor any other game for very long, with those two. We played AD&D together for a while, and then I’m not sure what happened, but something went bad between the three of us. A very confusing altercation on my front lawn brought the end of my gaming days with Devin and Kevin. And while I still wonder what was behind the very sudden change in their attitude, I do feel gratitude to Devin, at least, for introducing me to one of my biggest hobbies ever.

I changed schools again, and again, and somehow, I managed to form another gaming group. It swelled actually, to numbers so great it was hard to run a game with all of them, but the crowd had some individuals you might not have expected to play RPGs. One guy in particular sticks out in my memory, a classmate of mine named Chad Lussier, and there was another really neat guy named Meka Phaneuf. Those are the players I remember, but there were others, too, whose names I’ve forgotten. This was in the second year of middle school. Chad had been, only a year before, the kind of kid who’d scared the crap out of me: an unrepentant cusser, a major fan of hockey, claiming to have had sex with girls (in the 8th grade!) but somehow gaming brought us together for a while. We played Gamma World, mostly, as I remember it, in those days, but also sometimes AD&D 1st edition, and even, as I started to get the books, 2nd edition.

Meanwhile, I collected Forgotten Realms supplements (and novels) obsessively, read them constantly, and very much–despite myself–bent over backwards to keep up, to keep my own version of the world in line with “official developments” in the game franchise. That is, I did exactly what one should not do when using a canned game setting or campaign. I knew this, but I couldn’t help myself. This was where I discovered how much of a compleatist I am by nature.

It’s not healthy, I know. Looking back on it, I realize that I could have had just as much fun making up a world, stealing bits and pieces from novels, creating my own monsters and adventures and maps and the rest. I had a great imagination, but I was just so into the Realms thing, for some reason I may never quite understand.

The sad thing is, I have come to dislike Realms mostly because of how it was such an obvious money-sink, but also because I couldn’t really see it as a money-sink at the time. How I wish I’d gone off and started playing some other RPG system, like Shadowrun maybe, or started making up my own world for characters to explore. I had the imagination and the brains to do it, but… well, I wasn’t even lazy. I think it was the officialness of this campaign setting: somewhere, it was pronounced that all modules and future products would be compatible with Forgotten Realms, and I somehow became convinced that having the complete set of supplements and complete knowledge of the setting would be very, very cool, someday in the far-off future. Maybe it would have, if I’d gotten into game design. I can see that having happened, if I hadn’t studied music and taken time off from gaming and writing. Maybe not, though. I think, in the end, it was that old instinct for collecting that got me so caught up in it all. That’s how it is sometimes, right?

(Which makes me wonder what it’d be like for me to run a D&D-based game today. I’d absolutely be making up my own world for it, probably piece by piece. It wouldn’t likely, be as weird or edgy as Dark Sun, but there were things I thought up that were kind of cool, back when I played with creating my own fantasy game world back in the mid-90s. Magic being inherently destabilizing, so that mages who advanced in levels became increasingly incorporeal and increasingly bound to a “power-rich” site or location. Priests whose gods had taken overt leave of the universe in the wake of an enormous, cataclysmic divine war, of which the vaguest of signs were visible in the gameworld. A pair of metropoli on opposite sides of one continent, constantly threatening war and propagandizing the barbarian folk who populated the majority of the continent, which was something like Siberia. Shamans who could channel the ghosts of the dead and communicate with wildlife–sort of an adaptation of druids. And a power-struggle going on off on some other continent or in some far-flung archipelago that was, literally, depleting the magic in the world, such that characters would be driven eventually to go put a stop to it, if they could.)

But for the time being, I played a very strictly Forgotten Realms campaign. I’d withstood my mother’s worry–she’d seen some of the D&D-related moral panic crap on TV, and tried to get me to quit playing, but I loved the game and knew that it was just right-wing theofascist idiots and a sensationalist media hyping the danger. I knew, full well, that gaming didn’t make people crazy. Even if, as my mother pointed out example after example in our community, some people did get a little too obsessed with it and screw up at school. I didn’t, and wouldn’t, do that, no matter how boring school got.

Did I draw maps in class sometimes? Damn straight. I also sometimes sketched characters, and wrote stories about them. But it wasn’t because D&D was making me crazy. it was because school was boring the living crap out of me. School was, in essence, an exercise in learning to tolerate boredom as teacher after teacher taught to the middle 60% of the class. I was not in the middle 60%. Nor are most kids who get into RPG gaming.

I usually managed to find some of those top 20% kids, fortunately, each time I moved from one school to another. This changing of schools, by the way, was constant about once every year or two for almost my whole school career. Some of it was moving from one house to another, one city to another. Some of it was that every year through middle school, a new school was opened and a certain chunk of the student population was shifted over there. (Which meant about half a new class, and often lost friends, every time I went up a grade. Ha, went up a grade: it sounds like going up a level, doesn’t it?)

In any case, my next group was relatively small for most of the life of this campaign: only two guys (Mike Armstrong and Ryan Bandet) and myself played together really consistently, though the Sklar brothers (Aaron was the brother my age, I think his little brother’s name was Damon) played with us for a good run too. (Those two got really into the miniatures side of gaming, for whatever reason. We never used the miniatures much, but they loved painting them and arranging them in scenes.) I don’t know why the Sklars lost interest, but sooner or later it was just Ryan and Mike and me, plus random people sitting in.

Without the Sklars,  group was, indeed, so small that I ended up rolling up a character of my own to run as a kind of quasi-player character NPC, just to fill out the group. My character was Ardell, a bard-mage who ended up, somewhere along the way, getting knocked up by one or another deity and bearing a half-god son. The other characters were Nemesis, an elven mage-priest, and, most memorable, Mike’s apparently suicidal dwarven cleric-warrior Rydag, also known as “Hammer” (presumably because every problem he saw, he felt could be solved with a hammer–a warhammer).

Here’s a sketch of our characters that I dug out of a small pile of papers I brought back to Korea after my last trip to Saskatoon:

The characters in my longest-running AD&D campaign. The girl on the left was my character, a bard-mage who ended up birthing a half-god child with some god of music or something.

While I was an experienced GM, I was tiring of dungeon crawl high fantasy type gaming by this point, and so I sent the characters on some utterly bonkers quests. I remember at one point Rydag falling down a hole and ending up on some plane or another of hell, to battle out a major demon or spend eternity there, hammering steel among all the other greedy dwarves lured into the underworld. (Or something like that.)

The characters were loaded down with magical items, so much so that when I threw a freaking tarrasque or an evil deity at them, they didn’t run. (Tarrasques are so nasty that someone’s actually posted a detailed strategy guide to killing them. Not your normal monster.) When an army of goblins attacked them in an oil-saturated room, they calculated how long it would take to escape and simply set it on fire, if I remember right, because they had enough hit points to survive, and they had enough magic items that they could have melted them down and minted a themselves a One True Ring if they wanted–and in fact I seem to recall Rydag getting his hands on some body-part of Vecna, maybe this one.

Yes, Monty Haul is a good word for what kind of campaign it ended up being: that’s a gamer term explained here, for those who can’t guess the meaning. I think at some point, I actually stripped the characters of their magical items and treasure, as much as possible, just to try transfuse a little more playability into the game. Here they were, high-level characters with no real gear. I don’t remember, but this may have been what killed off the game.

Then I moved from Prince Albert, SK to Saskatoon, and found myself busy with other things–especially playing the saxophone. I met other games, and occasionally played: a guy named Rob Ferguson was running a Greyhawk campaign, if I remember right, with a few other guys in my school. (Especially one Pedro, whom I told off years later, in university, for supposedly saying racist things about my best friend.) But the people I was mostly hanging out with didn’t game, and the money that was being spent on my music lessons impelled me to spend a lot of time practicing the saxophone.

I would later get back into RPG gaming, once I got to university, however. I discussed that period of my gaming life in the earlier post on this series, though. There’s one thing I left out, which was that my ex had a couple of friends outside of our White Wolf gaming group, who liked to play AD&D. One of them GMed.

They were not, on the whole, a fun group to game with. The problem with that group, basically, was that a few of them had decided that real life ought to be an RPG through and through. Some of the people in the gaming group had obvious mental illnesses, claiming that their surroundings were haunted by “tribbles” and that they had to create a “din room” inside their heads in order to be safe. One of them, under whose ostensible direction I performed in a musical one year–that’s how we met her–ended up changing her name (to something ridiculously flamboyant) and hair color and quit school to become a stripper. (Apparently she now works in the pork industry, and by pork, I mean pigs, agriculture, hog farmin’.) My ex’s closest friend in the group was a woman who… well, let’s just say she had a lot of problems, and turned out to be an amazing backstabber. (It’s always the people most polite to your face, the most concerned to present a mild-mannered appearance, isn’t it?)

All of this stupid drama added up that last foray into AD&D being, well, fairly unsatisfactory. Not because of the game, but because of the people I was playing with. (Though one of my friends who came to Saskatoon, and into my life, later on ended up gaming with the same group, mind you, and was quite happy, apparently. So, well, there’s a subjective element here.) Nobody interesting I knew was still playing D&D, and I’d grown sick of high fantasy, so, as I discussed in my earlier post, from then on I mostly played White Wolf Games.

That’s it for pen-and-paper gaming. I have two more planned more posts for this series left to come: online gaming (which for me was limited to Play-By-Email, as I never really got into video/computer games), and what I learned from gaming (as a writer, and as a person). They’ll be up in the next few days, I think, unless something comes up.

A better look at my bard-mage character. Here she looks vaguely Cree, come to think of it. Well, but I did get my start at gaming in Prince Albert, SK, which has a pretty big native and Metis population.
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7 thoughts on “Good Times in the Realms (and Other Places)

  1. Ryan Bruce…not Bandet.

    Since you introduced me to D&D in grade 7, my first character I ever played with you was the in the basic set.
    t was just me and you initially…with intermittent appearances of the Sklar brothers. Though they were more interested in getting us to come over and do yard work than playing games.

    You had a fighter with a name that started with B…and I had a cleric named “Spell Binder”. We ended up taking them to level 30…all the way through the immortal edition and trying to become gods.

    Later on when Ryan joined us we started with Rydag and Nemesis.

  2. Oh yeah,

    I just remembered the “Drag-inn”

    A magical Inn we created inside the animated corpse of a great wyrm. It flew around the planes….

    Now that would be a good story.

  3. Ah, Ryan Bruce. Yes! Ryan Bandet was another friend in a different circle. (He ended up dating the girl I liked in 4th/5th grade… and then, when I met him again, in university, he was dating a different girl I was hung up on at the time.)

    And while I forgot about the yard work at the Sklars’–was that very often?–I do remember Aaron’s fascination with his dad’s XXX movie collection, and also the weird things those guys did with their dogs. Er, of which I will say no more. (Shudder.) But they seemed interested in gaming for a while, anyway. They went nuts on the miniatures, and all that.

    Spellbinder’s comrade-at-arms was called Bladewhistler. Ha. It’s like no time has passed, “Bladewhistler and Spellbinder” just rolls off the tongue. Did either of us notice that the acronym for that pair would be “B.S.”? Pretty sure I wrote some fanfic of those two, too.

    The Drag-inn.. now I remember that. I think somewhere during that adventure was a halfling that talked like some kind of rapper or something? Or actually rapped?

  4. No, we didn’t do yard work THAT often…but certainly more than I did at home.

    Right…Bladewhistler…good times.

    I also played with you with a female Fighter/wizard named Valkalla. Most of this must have been at Holy Cross…then a year later I moved to St. Francis and there was a year when we broke up and you went to St. Johns. But we still continued playing almost constantly…all night game/sleep-overs.

    And I totally remember the Sklar brothers porn collection. Marilyn Munroe…oh yeah!

  5. Ha, I remember Valkalla now, though just the name. For me, Mike Armstrong’s character is and always will be Rydag/Hammer. And yeah, we were both at Cross and at St. Francis, but then I shifted to St. John’s. I think it was then that Chad started playing, but I don’t remember.

    I definitely remember the overnight gaming sessions. So many of them!

    And of the Sklars’ collection, I don’t remember much. I was shocked and had never seen such things, and actually averted my eyes at a number of points, truth be told.

  6. My very first RPG was Paranoia, now that I think of it.

    I think we dropped it for the Palladium TMNT game because it was the late 80s and that was the era of a growing TMNT mania….

  7. Ha, I was always curious about Paranoia, but never got to try it. I imagine it was bizarre, having your character die every few minutes or so, and then a clone popping out to take his place?

    Also never tried TMNT, but was never really into them so no surprise there.

    Now I’m curious about that RPG that advertised in Dragon Magazine, with the line “No Elves!” being the slogan…

    Ah, it’s Talislanta. Which can now be checked out for free, it seems…

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