by JIM KNIPFEL
February 28, 2016
When I was in my early teens, I was as geeky as they come. I wore thick glasses and nerdy clothes and had a bad, crooked haircut. I always carried an armload of books, listened to unpopular music, was good at math and science, had a fancy calculator, and planned on becoming a theoretical physicist. Yeah. I was a geek’s geek, with one exception. Apart from Poe, Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, I never read much science fiction or fantasy. Never had the patience for it, and to be honest I simply didn’t care. I loved sci-fi movies, but when it came to books at the time I mostly stuck with real science, Russian novels, and old crime writers like Chandler and James M. Cain. At the heart of it I found most fantasy novels silly, trite and dull. All my friends back then worshipped J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted him endlessly, but I simply didn’t give a good goddamn about Lord of the Rings. Don’t even think I ever finished the whole thing. As soon as I start running into wizards, elves, trolls, magic spells, mystical talismans, dragons, and a bunch of deadly serious characters speaking in some form of stilted faux Middle English, I always find myself wondering what might be on TV.
So then the question becomes, if I had no patience for elves and wizards and cloaks of invisibility, how in the fuck did I end up getting so deeply involved in fantasy role-playing games when I was in high school? Well, the simple answer is “Remember all those above-mentioned Tolkien-spouting friends?”
Dungeons & Dragons was created in the nineteen seventies by a Wisconsinite named Gary Gygax and slowly spread across college campuses, where it was popular among the nerdier, fantasy-reading set. They either played the game in their dorm rooms with little metal figures, several sets of dice ranging from four to twenty sides, and sheets of graph paper or, if they were more adventurous, acted out the game in underground steam tunnels. D’n’D came to the public’s attention after a couple of well-publicized cases in which unbalanced players lost the ability to distinguish between the mundane, sad realities of their daily lives and the exciting fantasy world of the game. For awhile there, D’n’D was demonized by some civic leaders, psychologists and fundamentalist religious types, the latter of whom saw it as the work of the devil, a gateway into Satanism, and a much bigger threat to the young people than heavy metal music.
By the early eighties most all of that had been forgotten, and “D’n’D” had entered the cultural lexicon as a form of shorthand for “hapless geek.” By that time, when video games were still relatively crude and primitive, role-playing games (or RPGs) had become very big business. There were hundreds of them on the market, targeting a wide swath of geeky interests. There were war games which focused on re-creating famous historical conflicts from the War of the Roses and the crusades through famous battles of World War II and Vietnam. There were science fiction RPGs, Western RPGs, Arthurian legend RPGs, post-apocalypse RPGs, and RPGs set in ancient Egypt and Rome. There were several RPGs based on Sherlock Homes, and at least one based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Most of them, though, were straight fantasy games set in assorted Tolkienesque universes, with the standard array of wizards and elves and other such dumbness. Specialty stores began popping up in unlikely towns (like Green Bay), where you could buy not only the instruction manuals and box sets full of the addenda, ephemera, character sheets and what all the hell else was necessary to play the damn things, but also highly-detailed little metal figurines (from generic dwarves to specific copyrighted characters) and fancy dice. There were slick monthly magazines devoted to RPGs and annual conventions around the country where thousands of losers and shut-ins risked exposing themselves to daylight in order to play marathon sessions that could go on for a week or more. For a game essentially played with dice and imagination, it was all so complicated and expensive.
By the time I started getting suckered into it, Dungeons and Dragons had become old hat and kind of a joke among gamers. It was silly, simple-minded cartoon stuff for the ten-year-old crowd, with its slam bang array of fireballs and giant monsters and exciting new dangers that needed conquering every few minutes. The new generation of gamers took things very, very seriously, and the games themselves reflected this.
Peter, the kid in my circle of friends who quoted Tolkien more freely than anyone, was also the one who was most insistent we all start getting together every weekend, every time we had a few days off school, and three or four nights a week during the summer to play until three or four in the morning. Peter was extremely bright and charismatic, but was also one of those types who sometimes seem to find it difficult to distinguish between banal reality and the fantasy world of the game. He still read the occasional fantasy novel, but spent most of his time in high school poring over game instruction manuals and assorted game-related minutiae, sketching out game scenarios and character sheets, and rolling dice to check on certain action outcomes. The gaming universe, see, really was determined by the roll of a die of however many sides. Get a good roll and you could suddenly find yourself with the strength of twelve orcs or the power to control the four winds. Get a bad random roll and you could be dead and out of the game.
Peter’s game of choice, unfortunately, and so the one we were all obligated to play most of the time, was something called RuneQuest. It was a much more detailed, much more complicated, and much more serious, realistic, adult version of D’n’D. And by that I mean it was incredibly boring. I never really knew what the point of it all was, let alone the attraction. Everything took place on a much smaller scale than it had in D’n’D. Instead of having the power to shoot devastating blasts of energy out of your palms or call down a rain of fire on a specific target or anything snazzy like that, the magic powers in RuneQuest didn’t seem to get much beyond, oh, conjuring up a small wineskin of water or communicating with the frogs. And after using those special powers, your character was exhausted and useless for some time afterward. It was the only game I ever played in which characters were required to go off somewhere and sleep for eighteen hours at a stretch. Most of the monsters were gone too, replaced with, Christ, surly trees or quicksand. And instead of the grand quests to lay siege to a kingdom or find a magical Golden Cufflink of Power, most RuneQuest adventures, as I remember them today, involved getting together with a couple of other characters and walking a long way, the drama arising when you decided to take a break to go foraging for some lunch. (“You find a raspberry bush!”) It all left me dreaming of creating my own game, one in which your character has to put on his shoes and walk the three blocks to the grocery store to get more Spaghetti-Os, or put more gas in the car before the prices went up.
Here was the thing, though: As frighteningly serious as Peter took it all, none of the rest of us—on a given night there could be anywhere from three to seven other players—gave a damn about the stupid game. For us, it was just a chance to get together and joke around in a way we could never get away with in school.
On chosen gaming nights, we’d all show up at someone’s house (usually my friend Steve’s). Someone always brought snacks of some kind, someone else brought the inevitable two-liter jug of Pepsi, and Steve would put on a record. Everyone would drag out the necessary paperwork and dice for the game, we’d settle in around the table as Peter reviewed his notes and rolled his dice in preparation for that night’s “adventure,” and then the jokes would start. We’d trade quips and insults, launch into improvised sketches, crack wise about Steve’s musical choice (inevitably ABBA or somehow ABBA-related), grouse about school, eat some more snacks, make an emergency Ding Dong run, laugh at stupid shit, prove to one another how intellectually superior we were, laugh at more stupid shit, and occasionally actually play the fucking game. Even though it could go on for seven or eight hours a night, in between all the gabbing and joking and planning other non-game related things, I’d guess we’d spend an average of ten or fifteen minutes a night actually playing.
Afterwards, on the way home and in the days leading up to the next game night, Peter would complain privately and bitterly about this, that no one was concentrating on the game and so nothing was happening on this latest quest, and I would assure him that next time, sure, we’d really play and everyone would take it seriously. Then we’d get together and the wisecracks would start again.
So maybe that’s how I survived all my years as an RPGer, and also why I came away with the understanding that RuneQuest was a game in which nothing ever happened save for a lot of walking and foraging for roots and vegetables.
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