Friday, January 27, 2017

The Awakening

In 1899, Kate Chopin published a short novel called The Awakening. Considered controversial at the time for its feminist themes and the candid way in which it deals with female sexuality, it has gone on to become a major headache for unsuspecting high-school and college literature students everywhere. 

Thankfully, this essay has nothing to do with it. 

The “awakening” I’m referring to was—for lack of a better term—an event that took place during my freshman year of high school, though it was not related to school itself. In June of 1988, I celebrated my fourteenth birthday. One of the gifts I received was a Nintendo game called The Legend of Zelda. Since then, it has spawned numerous sequels across numerous systems, has been featured in cartoons and comic books, and has appeared on t-shirts, tote bags, and even cereal boxes, but at the time it was a brand-new thing. I had gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) the previous Christmas, and, having grown weary of Super Mario Bros., the game that came with it and of which I had at one time been a rabid fan, and Elevator Action, the second title I had picked up, I was eager to get into something else. I had no idea what Zelda was all about. At that time, the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist, of course, so you could only get information about NES games from Nintendo Fun Club News (the precursor to Nintendo Power), to which I did not have a subscription, or from word of mouth. I didn’t know anyone who had played the game, but I had seen a lot of commercials for it, so I decided to give it a shot. After all, Nintendo had cultivated a reputation for quality, so the odds of its being a letdown were slim. 

I imagine that for many players Zelda was a revolutionary game, as it was for me. Up to that point, most console games lacked an adventure component. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros., for example, only allowed you to go in a predetermined direction, and backtracking was not permitted. If you missed something, you had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. Zelda was different. Its world was open and, for the time, vast. You could revisit areas again and again. In fact, one of the chief elements of the game was exploration. You were not told what to do or how to do it. You had to figure everything out through trial and error, to traverse deadly forests and spooky graveyards to find the entrances to the game’s various levels. You had to determine how weapons and items worked and when they should be used. A map and instruction manual were included, but they only told you so much. Every now and then a wise old man in a cave would give you a clue, but it was often cryptic. For the most part, you were on your own. 

Computer-game players were already familiar with this kind of thing. Games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard’s Tale worked this way. The difference was that while these games required exploration and puzzle solving, they lacked action. The outcomes of battles were resolved by the computer, in a fashion similar to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). In a sense, the computer rolled the dice for you during an encounter and told you the outcome. In many of these games, the player controlled an entire party of characters rather than just one. The reason for this is that tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) are designed to be played by a group rather than an individual, with each player having a specific function within the party (a fighter for combat, a wizard for magic, a cleric for healing, et cetera). 

Zelda, by contrast, was an action game through and through. It required fast reflexes and could be terribly frustrating at times, particularly if you wandered into an area filled with monsters you were not prepared to fight. Like computer adventure games, it had an overhead view rather than a side-scrolling one. Its closest antecedent was the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but while this game required exploration and experimentation and featured rudimentary action sequences (mostly running from dragons or trying to stab them), it was much smaller in scope, did not allow you to carry more than one item at a time, and had primitive graphics due to the system’s limitations. No one had seen anything like Zelda before.  

As I recall, it took me about a month to conquer it. For those four weeks, it was pretty much all I thought about. I even took the map with me when we went on vacation. It was the most immersive game I had ever encountered. But the experience of playing the game, while rewarding, was not the most important thing. I got something much greater out of it. It was my introduction to fantasy.


As an avid collector of Masters of the Universe (MoTU) action figures and a devoted fan of the tie-in cartoon during my younger years, I had been exposed to the concept of fantasy, but I had never really thought of it as a genre. I didn't even know what “genre” meant. I just found it cool that the warriors fought with swords and axes and that there were magic and monsters involved. D&D had become huge by the early 1980s, and many toy lines reflected its influence. I was a fan of many of the MoTU knockoffs, as well, including Thundercats, Blackstar, and The Other World, the first two of which also had their own cartoons. There was even a toy line actually based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was the preeminent version of the game at the time. The most memorable figure was probably Warduke, who was later made into a miniature as part of the D&D Miniatures set “War Drums.” Of course, there was also the D&D cartoon (the “Advanced” was likely removed to prevent confusion, although that didn't stop DC Comics from using it in the title of its early-'90s comic book series), which was fairly controversial due to the absurd allegations that the game was linked to suicide, antisocial behavior, and devil worship. I can remember watching it standing up so I could keep an eye on the door of my parents' bedroom. Not even kidding. 

By the time Zelda came along I hadn't given fantasy much thought in several years, having become instead interested in Garbage Pail Kids, Madballs, and horror films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Soon after I began playing it, I became intrigued by Zelda's fantasy setting, and when I had finished the game I began looking for others in a similar vein. When school started, I met a guy named John (with whom I remain friends to this day), who was a computer- and console-game enthusiast, an RPG player, and a fan of speculative fiction. He was the first full-on nerd I had ever met, and I mean that as an enormous compliment. He introduced me to D&D, Commodore 64 adventure games (with their cloth maps and copy-protection wheels), and Dragonlance novels. (I subsequently turned him onto Forgotten Realms novels, thus returning the favor.) It didn't take long to realize that I was onto something big. At the start of 1989, I began collecting comic books. I had grown up enjoying Superfriends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and The Incredible Hulk on Saturday mornings, but I was a reluctant reader, so I had never bought many comics. Even though most comic books are not fantasy in the strictest sense, they feature speculative tales of a similar nature and borrow elements from fantasy, so there are, therefore, a lot of crossover fans. There's a reason that many comic-book shops also carry RPG books and accessories. 

The “awakening” was, hence, my discovery of fantasy fandom. In the span of just a few months, I had found my niche, and I have remained there ever since. Today, I have a comic-book and magazine collection that would have made fourteen-year-old me lose control of his bodily functions. I have well over 700 miniatures, a plethora of dice (especially d20s, my favorites), and a number of publications related to fantasy games going back to the 1970s, which are just engaging to read. I have used my writing ability as a means of sharing my passion, contributing to the hobby, and “giving back” to the community. I have found incalculable joy in the books and games I have picked up during the last 28 years.  

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had never slid The Legend of Zelda into my Nintendo Entertainment System in the summer of 1988. Traversing the environs of the fictional world of Hyrule helped me discover myself.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Alternatives to Traditional Roleplaying

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the world’s first roleplaying game (RPG), was introduced in 1974. The original version of the game was, in essence, an expansion for Gary Gygax’s tabletop miniatures game Chainmail and, thus, did not have its own unique combat system. You had to have a copy of the miniatures game in order to play it. It was also, for some, difficult to understand. While these and other issues led some players to the conclusion that the rules needed clarifications and/or further development, there was no doubt that the fledgling company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) had a hit on its hands.

Within a short time, similar games were coming out of the woodwork. It seemed as though the gaming community had been waiting for the fantasy RPG to be created and just didn’t know it. The first of these was Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls (T&T), which debuted about a year after D&D. While its predecessor was a fairly serious game, T&T was designed in a more lighthearted vein. It was also less complex and was the first game system to offer single-player options. One of the biggest challenges intrinsic to RPGs is getting a group together (and, having done so, preventing that group from imploding). By design, RPGs require at least two players, preferably more. Someone has to run the game in which the players take part (a Game Master (GM) in general terms or a Dungeon Master (DM) in D&D). But what do you do when you crave a fantasy adventure but don’t have anyone to play with?  

To solve this problem, T&T introduced solo adventures. These took the form of short books in which players make choices at certain points and turn to the corresponding section. For example, the text might say something like, “You enter a dimly-lit room. There are doors to the north and west. A small chest stands in one corner. To go north, turn to 25. To go west, turn to 78. To open the chest, turn to 44.” If this sounds familiar, it was later used by the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, although the T&T books differed in that players use a character sheet and roll dice to determine outcomes, just like in a traditional session. Basically, the book was the GM.

Games Workshop (the British company known these days for the miniatures game Warhammer) founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone introduced Fighting Fantasy in 1982. Unlike the T&T solo adventures, these books were self-contained; they did not require players to use the rules of the “parent” game, as there wasn’t one. With titles such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, Temple of Terror, and House of Hell, this high-quality series proved very popular and remained in publication until 1995, totaling 59 books.

Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, launched in 1984, was similarly well received. It was unique in that the same eponymous character appears in every book, making it a true series. Other excellent offerings from various publishers include Fabled Lands, Middle-Earth Quest, and Blood Sword.  Dever also released a series called Combat Heroes that featured illustrations rather than text (a compass at the bottom of each scene had a page number at each point). These adventures could be played solo or against an opponent who had the corresponding book.

It is interesting that there were two game designers named Steve Jackson, a British one and an American one. The American, while working for Metagaming Concepts, gave the world the first “microgame,” Ogre, in 1977. Microgames were a brilliant innovation. They came in plastic Ziploc bags and contained only a rulebook, a map, and punch-out “counters,” i.e. game pieces. The publishers saved money and space by assuming that players would already have dice. Ogre, despite its name, was neither an RPG nor a fantasy game at all (it was, rather, a game of tank warfare). It could also not be played solo. However, games that followed, such as The Fantasy Trip, fulfilled both criteria. Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) followed with Deathmaze, which is only an RPG in the loosest sense but can be played by a single adventurer. In fact, many fans of the game insist that this is the best way to do it. Players build the dungeon as they go along by randomly placing room counters adjacent to one another. They then draw monster tiles, also at random, to introduce combat. In this way, the game is different every time.


There were a number of magazines that came with games included, as well. Both Flying Buffalo’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Games Workshop’s Warlock featured short solo adventures. Ares magazine was noted for its inclusion of a microgame, complete with counters, with every issue. Some of these games, such as Citadel of Blood, were rereleased as box sets. Ares was later absorbed into TSR’s Dragon, but it only lasted for a few issues before being discontinued.

Of course, computer games were also an option. In addition to text adventures such as Infocom’s Zork, players could delve into the dungeons of Rogue, a game created in 1980. It featured very basic graphics, with monsters and items and even the player himself represented by ASCII characters. The player was symbolized by the @; a B could represent a bat and a ! could denote a potion. Similar to Deathmaze, every game was different. Rogue proved so popular that its design was copied numerous times and even spawned a subset of computer games called Roguelikes, which continue to flourish today. Many of these, such as Moria, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, NetHack, and Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), are available for free download.

For players who crave the “old school” experience, many of these options are still available. Gamebooks can easily be found on Amazon. In fact, some of the older ones, such as Fighting Fantasy, Blood Sword, and Golden Dragon, have been reprinted in recent years in nice trade editions. The more obscure titles can usually be found through independent sellers offering books in Amazon Marketplace. Of course, used bookstores are also a good bet. Microgames are no longer being produced, but if you’re willing to shell out the money they’re not impossible to obtain. Also, issues of Ares are available as PDFs on sites such as (You’ll have to cut out rather than punch out the counters, but that’s a relatively insignificant inconvenience.) 


I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the British Steve Jackon’s F. I. S. T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone). In 1988, the Fighting Fantasy co-author came up with the idea for a telephone-based RPG. Callers would descend into a dungeon through a radio-drama-like experience in which they battled monsters and made choices using their phone’s keypad. Having seen ads for it in comic books of the time, I was interested in giving it a try, but it was a pay-by-the-minute thing, and I could see how it had the potential to add up quickly, so I never did (thus evading my father’s wrath). Jackson reportedly made a boatload of money with it. Of course, this kind of thing simply wouldn’t fly in our modern, cellular world. It was purely an idea of its time, which is what makes it so interesting when we look back on it today.        

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Nostalgia

I was in ninth grade, in 1989, when I experienced nostalgia for the first time.

I had recently begun collecting comics, and while flipping through an issue of The Incredible Hulk from early in the decade, which I had gotten from a friend along with a stack of others, I ran across an advertisement for a book of puzzles and games featuring characters from classic video games (Pac-Man, Q*Bert, et al). You might recall how they merchandized the crap out of these characters during the so-called Golden Age of Arcade Games. I remember stuffed animals, PVC figurines, t-shirts, candy, and jewelry, amongst tons of other junk.

I had, of course, been a video-game enthusiast since 1980, when I played Pac-Man in the local Kroger for the first time (I had no idea what I was doing, but I was hooked). I spent a lot of time in arcades, which in those days were everywhere. I grew up in a pretty small town, and we had at least five or six of them. I didn’t get an Atari 2600 until the price went down to twenty-five bucks (despite numerous attempts, I could never get my dad to shell out the bread for one before this development, even though he bought a Commodore Vic-20, which I really only used as a video-game console), but my cousin had one, and we spent an insane amount of time playing it. My uncle even subscribed to some sort of “cartridge of the month” club that mailed new games to you every few weeks. We were, perhaps not surprisingly, completely oblivious to the fact that the market crashed in 1983; all we knew was that you could suddenly get Atari games for pennies on the dollar.

Since then, I had graduated to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which I still consider the greatest console ever made. Even though it had only been seven or eight years since the Atari heyday, video games, both home and arcade versions, had changed immensely in that time. Even though we played a lot of Atari, we often complained about the poor quality of the graphics and gameplay. The home ports didn’t come anywhere close to stacking up to their arcade counterparts (the worst example of this was, of course, the Atari port of Pac-Man, which was infamously thrown together quickly so it could reach stores by the Christmas season and was a major contributor to the aforementioned crash). We always hoped for something better. When the NES hit, it felt like we had entered a completely different world.

I had fallen in love with Super Mario Bros. and played it in the Wal-Mart game room several days a week (I must admit that I once wet my pants in front of the machine because I refused to leave the game to go to the bathroom, which is pathetic behavior usually reserved for Las Vegas slot-machine jockeys). When I learned that the NES version was virtually identical (it turns out that there were actually some pretty significant differences, coupled with the fact that the game had originally been released on the Famicon in Japan before the arcade version, but I was blissfully unaware of any of this), I couldn’t believe it. The idea of a home system that was the equal of an arcade machine was a revolutionary idea. Even though my dad had been hesitant to buy an Atari at full price, he was willing to put an NES under the Christmas tree in 1987. (I was, ahem, relieved to find that the home version had a pause feature, thus obviating all future urine-related mishaps).

As I sat looking at the advertisement in that comic book, I began to feel peculiar. A warmth overcame me (thankfully, this time it wasn't pee), and I was filled with a profound sense of contentment. I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time, but I soon came to realize that it was nostalgia. While seven years feels like nothing to me now, in 1989 it was half of my life. As images of the hours spent playing Atari at my cousin’s apartment ran through my mind, I began to long for those bygone days. It was a simpler time, a time before the drama of junior high and high school, a time when no one really cared where your shoes came from or whether or not you were privy to the latest fads. I remembered days when I had to stay out of school due to illness, and my mom would take me to the Harbin Clinic and then to Revco so my prescription could be filled. I reminisced about Saturday afternoons with her at Madden’s Cheese Ltd. at the corner of Gala Shopping Center, where I’d get a sandwich and watch the ABC Weekend Special on the television on top of the drink cooler. I thought of seemingly insignificant trips I’d take with my dad to stores around town, where I’d get candy dispensers shaped like Star Wars characters or cheap toys that would invariably become part of some collection or other within the microcosm of my bedroom closet.

More than anything, though, I thought about what it was like being a kid. Were things actually better back then? Probably not, but my memory had romanticized those times, made them seem preferable to what my life had become in the ensuing years. I had grown to associate my life with my hobbies and pastimes. They had practically become my identity, and, thus, much of my nostalgia was inextricably linked to them. As I closed the cover of that comic, I found myself wanting more. It became something of an addiction. I began seeking out old (or old to me, anyway) books and magazines, ones that just about anyone else would find uninteresting. I once found a stack of yellowed video-game strategy guides at a used bookstore for about a quarter apiece. These days, those kinds of books are highly sought after by collectors, but back then no one else cared. I was ahead of the curve. Nostalgia for me is not just about video games, though; they were just the key that unlocked the vault and remain the best sources of it. Anything that reminds me of the 1980s is usually worth a look, especially if it’s related to one of the speculative genres.

I continue to take frequent trips down memory lane. The creation of MAME (Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator), which I can play on my laptop, provides doses of arcade nostalgia whenever I desire them, and the proliferation of plug-and-play consoles featuring both arcade and home games has made access to the past easier than ever (I’ll refrain from expressing my anger concerning the NES Classic Edition debacle at this juncture). Moreover, YouTube is a treasure trove of 1980s cartoons and commercials, as well as videos of people playing video games on every system imaginable.

Interestingly enough, I have found that there are two kinds of nostalgia: actual nostalgia and what I like to call “pseudo-nostalgia.” The latter is a peculiar thing indeed, but I in all ways embrace it. It allows me to look at something that I’m not familiar with from a particular era and get a feeling of nostalgia from it even though it was something outside my sphere of experience. I never played the Bally Astrocade, for example, but when I see an ad for it or read an article in an issue of Electronic Games, I can experience nostalgia because it is from the same time period that I was playing Burgertime and Tempest in the arcade. I also have a collection of old role-playing game (RPG) books and magazines (some of which I’ve found online in PDF format for free) from which I derive a great deal of joy, even though I didn’t discover those kinds of games until around the time that I got into comics. I love looking through them and imagining how exciting it must have been for those early players, when RPGs were just beginning to ramp up and everything was so new.

Do I credit myself as the creator of 1980s nostalgia, you ask?

Yes, I do.