Dice, Rulebooks, Character sheets….Action! Role Playing Games: The enduring memories of a cult hobby

25 Nov

The 1983 edition of Basic D&D: More ’80s than a ‘Frankie Says’ T-Shirt.

The last time I played a video game properly, where I actually knew what I was doing, was many years ago. Sure, I’ve tried some game my nephew had (was it Call of Duty?  I don’t know, but it just seemed very violent and relentlessly scary, you know, like I was really going to get shot). Even Tomb Raider seemed a bit more fun than this. In my comfort zone of yore, I’m actually going back to games like Attic Attack, where the graphics on the screen were engaging and colourful but (let’s be fair) were in no way realistic. A barely three dimensional effect one colour dungeon with giant keys and exaggerated skeletons is hardly the kind of thing you think would have had ‘moral watchdog’ Mary Whitehouse worried. If Whitehouse was alive today, she’d be having some sort of arrest after viewing Call of Duty III. Plus, given that many of the games of the ‘80s required some sort of intellectual application and logic, you’d think the media of the time would be quite supportive. Infact, as some of these fantasy games involved sitting around a table talking to each other and using English and Maths skills and a lot of imagination, well, you’d expect them to practically be on the school curriculum. Well, sadly not, no…

“Right, I’m gonna go into the goblin’s house, crap on his table and vandalise his shed”…”Ok…but you’ve made a big mistake. The goblin was house sitting for an Ogre.”

I come to a genre of game that has just about weathered the digital revolution, but only just about. It will probably never have such a large and fervent cult following as it did in the 1970s and ‘80s. I speak of the much maligned Role Playing Game. Now struck with an image problem of being the hobby followed by nerdy male losers of school age, in the ‘80s the RPG had something of an enigmatic cache about it; like a vaguely illicit secret society involving an initiation of polyhedral dice and lead figurines, where game sessions were overseen by the story telling referee or Dungeon Master. The Grand Daddy of all role playing games, and the only one to really survive the past forty years, is of course, the American Dungeons & Dragons game. Originally produced in incomprehensible booklets by games company TSR, and presented in a yellow box with all the attraction of a Maths exam, the original set came out in 1974. Created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s theme took a lot of inspiration from the literary works of Tolkien, Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard , to name a few, and had a medieval European flavour. This, added to the rustic low budget look of the original, made the early sets look like a poster for a Folk festival. Thankfully as the game caught on, and the production values increased, by the turn of the ‘80s there was an Advanced version of the game in colour bound hardbacks, for “serious” gamers, while your eight year old brother could get the basic rules version. To anyone not familiar with D&D and its like, the game sounded nonsensical. Where’s the game board? Are players supposed to ‘act’? How could the game rules account for all choices a player’s character could make? Reasonable questions, all easily explained once one had a look at the rule mechanics, if you could understand them. Actually, the way most kids got to understand the rules was by playing it, usually after being accepted into a circle of older gamers who would tolerate your presence like a policeman at a drugs party. RPGs had that element of being a special club, where the house rules weren’t readily explained to outsiders; almost an element of pomposity. The bland reasons for the 20 sided dice and supplementary materials like floor plans and lead miniatures became clear as soon as you started playing (D&D had its origins in tabletop war games), but the attraction of pretending to be an elf called Ravenwood is something that can still amuse one’s adult mind. But within the confines of such a geeky pursuit, was also a very cool thing to be doing indeed.

The Rolls Royce of ’80s RPGs.

Other games quickly followed, most notably RuneQuest and Traveller. RuneQuest fancied itself as the conoisseurs version of D&D, with more realistic rules and a whole pre-designed fantasy setting called Glorantha to play around in. By the time I started to understand these games, RuneQuest had just been re-issued and cost about £30 for the basic boxed rules, which in 1985 was like asking a teenager if he could afford a trip to the moon. Not many people I knew had it, let’s put it that way. Traveller on the other hand, was a sci-fi RPG, with an influence somewhere between Lucas and Asimov. Unfortunately it really did come in booklets that looked like maths examinations. If these were D&D’s biggest competitors, you can understand why they weren’t losing much sleep over them. But to be fair, it was nice to have the variety and someone always knew someone who knew someone who had them.; usually some rich uppity git in an older school year than us, that went to posh events like Games Day (a bit like Glastonbury with dice).

Call of Cthulhu- not one to play with your Gran.

The really atmospheric RPG was Call of Cthulhu, a Horror game which suggested the 1920s as its primary setting. Players would play ‘investigators’ from various walks of life, who had been given a teasing glimpse into H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu mythos’- a universe in which mankind are as insignificant ants, there is no God and ancient pan-dimensional, grotesque beings of great power were slowly awakening from deep cosmic slumber, to generally overtake and destroy humanity…

“…dear, your tea’s ready!”

…”Sorry, Mum, down in a minute, we’re just trying to destroy the foul spawn of Necrethlotep!”

One striking feature of this morbidly fascinating game, was that it replicated Lovecraft’s imaginings completely, even down to the SANITY points each character had. How many games your character could survive without his or her Sanity falling to zero was a constant source of tension. Once in the minus the character was declared insane and removed from play. Disturbingly, this being a role playing game, one had the macabre indignity of seeing your character continue to survive and exist outside of your control, now controlled by the referee, in the world of the game’s ongoing soap opera. After an Indiana Jones style epic, the characters would often take stock in the local imaginary pub, and reflect that one of the characters was now in the local nuthouse and the cosmic horror was still threatening all of mankind, unbeknown to the world at large.

Trust me, it beats Monopoly any day.

The only book with pictures in that you will never finish. If you do, you’re seriously cheating dude..

The pre-digital hobby peaked around the mid ‘80s, with game scenarios and supplements abound for all manner of games. D&D had innumerable adventures to send your characters on, and more hardback rule books than an encyclopaedia.The brand’s success became so ubiquitous that D&D briefly became a popular but vacuous TV cartoon series. There were also rival games as diverse as Toon (a Loony Tunes style cartoon game where no character ever really dies), Paranoia (seriously black comedy in an Orwellian world where you’d be lucky if your character survives half an hours game play), and obvious tie in games based on Conan, Marvel, DC, Dr. Who and Star Wars. The emphasis in these later games was on realistic rules and game play. Players were encouraged to talk and think instead of hacking and slaying their way to success. Apparently if your character got shot in the Dr. Who game, your character was pretty much not getting up again. Teenage controlled Timelords were encouraged to talk as much as the one on the telly.

There were complaints about the reading matter in the dentists’ waiting room.

Of course, any game involving copious amounts of imagination and presenting such creatures that make John Carpenter’s The Thing, look, you know, normal…moral panic was sure to come the role playing game’s way. Despite the British based Games Workshop doing great business, and its magazine White Dwarf becoming one of the cult periodicals of the ‘80s, the RPG’s image problem in the ’80s was more akin to Ozzy Osborne than Woody Allen. Role players, you see, were devil worshippers. No other explanation was good enough for the Daily Mail, who famously linked the games to Michael Ryan’s tragic massacre in Hungerford, after it was revealed that Ryan had once played D&D. Teenagers across the nation were harbouring secret demonic pacts to murder their townsfolk. It didn’t help that some of the covers of White Dwarf around this time would have made Alistair Crowley terrified. Imagine me explaining the Lovecraftian menace on the cover of White Dwarf 75 to my Catholic mother, or any number of images featuring fire breathing Balrogs and blood saturated Orcs. Even the seemingly more timid Fighting Fantasy solo game books, published by Puffin, had some cover art that wouldn’t have been out of place in a horror film. I’m surprised the lizard blokes on The Forest of Doom and Island of the Lizard King didn’t inspire David Icke to get started on his books earlier; the one on Doom is actually an Ikean  style shape shifter. In the course of playing the game-book, you have a good chance of meeting him in the woods, and he’s not very talkative. Man, is he pissed off to see you. He doesn’t give two shits about your mission to find the sacred dwarf hammer or whatever the hell it is you’re supposed to be looking for, he just wants to kick your ass. So kiss those dice and hope it’s a good roll. ‘Cause you don’t get any other option but to fight him or read that disheartening page that says, “Your adventure ends here”. Not that anyone I knew actually played those books without cheating. But cheat or not, nobody ever finished The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, except by some immense fluke of luck. Kids up and down the land were probably found sobbing in school libraries after being trapped in the Maze of Zagor and bumping into the same drunk dwarves for the tenth time. Yes, Drunken dwarves, imagine if Whitehouse had got wind of that one. To be fair, she probably had her work cut out with the demons, Lizard men and Orcs. You know, other imaginative stuff.

Better than Airfix, by a LONG way.

You see, that was the thing. In spite of all the adult hullaballoo about their supposed negativity, Role playing games helped a whole generation of teenage boys (and a few girls too as I recall). They helped by giving us an engaging and exciting outlet for our imaginations, and made damn sure we could read, write and get our numbers right too. There was nothing more embarrassing when you’re twelve, and in the company of older kids, than not being able to add up a few dice. No room for thick bastards round those bygone game tables let me tell you. Now it’s different. There are no dice.

Things moved on. Games Workshop stopped making RPGs some years back, preferring to concentrate on computer games and its tabletop war-game Warhammer (which ironically wouldn’t have existed unless GW had been founded on the back of D&D’s imported success). For a new generation, painting the miniature figures, produced by GW subsidiary Citadel Miniatures, has become a hobby in itself, and the Role Playing Game isn’t much of concern to them. White Dwarf is now largely a GW catalogue, and not the grass rooted, witty and punk spirited title of the ’80s. Most RPGs are on sale in bookshops, and appear to be American imports (D&D is still going strong, and Call of Cthulhu is still around).

But for many, the Role Playing Game will always be a pivotal part of an ‘80s childhood and teenage years.  Sure, we had video games, as mentioned, but the idea of gathering together to take our alter-egos out on another adventure (or pick up from the last session) was wonderfully intoxicating. In time, loud music, women and beer all superseded the love of Hit Points and percentage dice rolls, and that’s as it should be.  But the hobby inspired me to draw, paint, read, and above all, to write and put my imaginings down on paper. My oldest friend at the time once thought we could write a novel better than Tolkien. Who knows, there’s time yet. I personally reckon a good 75% chance, plus skill bonuses, and I’m going to cast a +1 charm spell to overcome the wall of adversity.

Dammit, gonna have to leave it there.

My Mum’s got my tea ready.

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