Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Life is but a game"

It's funny that I don't always realize how much I rely on role-playing games to distract me from whatever damages my calm as I go through the day-to-day of a life of quiet desperation.

I used to do creative writing as an outlet, but I easily grow dissatisfied and bored with my stories. I'm usually uncomfortable sharing them for much-needed feedback and critique and they tend to wither without some kind of interplay or reaction. So I wind up with dozens and dozens of outlined or half-written (half-written if I've been especially productive) stories that languish in dusty corners of hard drives or on printout in forgotten boxes in my apartment.

When I was a teen, I got into table-top gaming. It started with TSR's "Star Frontiers". I'd played "Dungeons and Dragons" a few times before that, but never really got the hang of the game. Concepts like "armor class" and arbitrary alignments puzzled me or left me cold. I was heady from whatever was the latest sci-fi craze at the time and the cover to a boxed set of the recently-released "Star Frontiers" called to me like a siren luring a sailor.

The rules were simple. There were alien races and humans. There were lasers and spaceships. There were only two dice (2 ten-siders, or "2d10" in the parlance) not the six-bajillion dice that D&D requires. I was in love.

My friends and I played, created worlds and crazy campaigns. We fought aliens, wars, and conspiracies. It was as glorious as teenage minds could conjure up in-between the pressures and demands of school as well as the competing the draw of girls, cars, movies, and what-not.

"Star Frontiers" opened the doors to us to try other games. TSR did some kind of Marvel superhero game we tried that was entertaining enough. We played a "Doctor Who" RPG that got really weird at times (as befits the subject matter). We tried out "Gamma World" (a post-apocalyptic setting) and then I came across a new system with a weird name.

A company called "Steve Jackson Games" had created a new system called "G.U.R.P.S.", which stood for "Generic Universal Role-Playing System".

I swear it was the answer to my gaming nerd prayers at the time.

You see, I'm fickle by nature and easily-distracted by whatever tickles my imagination. One moment, I'm dreaming about some kind of scenario with spaceships, blasters, and force-fields. The next I'm dreaming about people with paranormal powers in a modern setting. Or a near-future setting. Or I'm thinking of the sort of fantasy stuff that flooded the shelves of so many bookstores (and still floods the few bookstores that remain). To have a generic, one-set-of-rules-fits-all, system was a dream come true.

We started playing with the rules (second edition, still in a box... I still have the dice that came with it, nearly rounded from use and almost impossible to read). It took some getting used to, but my group got hooked. We played the "canned" adventures then slowly crafted our own mythology and interwove it in the canned settings.

Then college happened.

We gamed occasionally in college, but my main gaming friends were scattered across different schools and it was hard to gather regularly. Still, we stayed in touch and got together on occasion to continue the epic adventures of our [insert genre archetypes here]. I met a few people at my own school who gamed a bit. I did a short game with a few guys in my dorm that went weird and dark really fast before the semester put that to an abrupt end. I made a lifelong friend the semester after who, in addition to becoming like a brother to me, became an integral part of my gaming endeavors from that point forward.

Eventually I moved out of the dorms and with that friend and others, continued our games, both in the apartment I had in college and at other friends' places at their colleges.

The game continued and our campaigns became more involved and more personal. We created personalized villains, intricate backgrounds, lives, followers, spouses, children, and homes for our characters. It was, I imagine, like having a child and watching that child grow into what you wished.

As I muddled my way through school and trying to figure out the future, it served as an anchor to keep me grounded a bit.

Fast-forward to the post-school days. "Real life" kicked in and free time for gaming was... hard to come by. My friends became scattered further and further. Some move to different states. The game faded into the background as other distractions took hold. In my case, it was martial arts, a couple of clubs, attempts at creative writing, and just trying not to have a nervous breakdown from my laundry list of soul-crushing employment opportunities.

Fate, being a bit of a weirdo, decided enough was enough and got my gaming friends together again in a roughly-convenient geographic location. And they brought fellow nerds with them.

Next thing I knew, we had more gamers. At some points, we had more than we knew what to do with. Personalities conflicted over the table. Arguments got personal. It was weird, and sometimes uncomfortable, but we didn't walk away from it. Funny thing that.

At one point, some of those friends and I talked. I can't remember who came up with the idea. I wonder if only one of us did. We decided to create our own campaign worlds fresh. We'd engage in communal world-building.

Four of us met and drew maps, discussed cultures and religions, planned out different peoples and races, discussed magics and villains and heroes. When we were done, we had the skeleton of a world.

It took a lot of convincing to get the others on-board to play, but we managed. The four creators turned into three. The three would assume the rotating role of "game master" and we'd keep the world on a roughly-even track.

The three became two as life caused one to move away. Our numbers in the game shifted as people came and went. The two expanded "GM duties" to others, on occasion. We occasionally left our home-spun fantasy world for other endeavors in this time. Homemade "space opera" settings and modern-day "paranormal powers" settings served as alternates. Continuity started to consume my thoughts and fuel my OCD just a little too much. We started recording our stuff on websites. First a Yahoo eGroup and later a Google Group. Then another.

By my count, the two sites that exist for the games I currently contribute creative content for have about 616 pages of content. I've authored or heavily-edited approximately 600 of those pages myself.

And that's just the online stuff. My hard drives and Dropbox folders have so much more that it occasionally overwhelms me.

I recognize all of this for what it is: escapism and a desperate attempt to find stability and control in a world that's a bit beyond me. It's an exercise for my OCD and a compensating tactic for the parts of life I can't seem to handle. And I'm comfortable with that. I'm not sure I'd ever have it any other way.


Aaron Britton said...

As one of the creators that moved away, that world was totally awesome dude! Ha!

Those were some good times. That is really that last time I got to game. Once I moved away I was never able to get involved with another gaming group.

J said...

And you are missed, my friend.