Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Retro-Stupid Defined

In the past, I've enjoyed posting some of my favorite essays from my days of reading Dragon magazine. Lately, I'd been thinking about posting my all-time favorite Roger E. Moore editorial, a piece entitled "Legend"...but since Amityville Mike beat me to it, I figured I'd post my other all-time favorite Roger E. Moore essay instead, his contribution to the "First Quest" series that used to run in Dragon Magazine.

I've referenced this essay in past posts, but here it is in its entirety. To me, it is the ne plus ultra of Retro-Stupid while simultaneously serving as a perfect document of everything that makes RPGs great.

(Then again, the essay's legacy is decidedly mixed in my old gaming group, since on the one hand it opened up my perceptions of what one could do with D&D, but on the other hand it directly influenced my friend Alex to take his gaming into major Retro-Stupid territory, much to everyone else's dismay... On the third hand, it did inspire me to start a file of old character sheets and adventures that I maintain to this day in a beat-up old shoebox, so I guess it wasn't all bad.)

At any rate, here it is: "Verix Dwarfstomper Made Me Do It" (Dragon #204):

I was cleaning out the basement when I came across a thick manila folder full of old papers. I didn't recognize the folder at first, but the moment I flipped it open everything came back to me. The folder contained all my old player-character (PC) sheets for the AD&D® and other roleplaying games (RPGs), stretching back to the time when I first began to play. I hadn't seen the folder in several years. I sat down later with the folder and went through it. In moments I was back at Fort Bragg, NC., in Lannie's house with a living room full of laughing gamers. It was the summer of 1977, and my PC's name was Sk't-tsu.

My very first RPG character was an Oriental fighter named for a psychosis, schizophrenia (I was a mental-health counselor at the time). Sk't-tsu was rolled up from the original tan-cover D&D® game booklets that I still have. He had a Strength of 17 and an Intelligence of 5, and he carried two long swords in case he lost one. I was filled with excitement and wonder right to the very moment the orcs got him.

My next character lasted long enough to reach 2nd level before the berserkers got him. Verix Dwarfstomper was a chaotic half-orc cleric, rolled up using an article in DRAGON® issue #3, and he set the personality trend that most of my future PCs would follow: He was completely irreverent and relentlessly obnoxious. Aside from his name, which provoked howls of indignation from the dwarves in the party, Verix ate anything he could find. He ate other people's iron rations. He ate spoiled food. He ate dead monsters. He became famous for smelling at doors to detect the creatures behind them (he was accurate, too). I painted up a miniature of him, piggy snout and all, with a shield that had the Coca-Cola emblem on it (very out of character for the campaign). He worshiped the Lovecraftian god Azathoth, lord of insanity, which I assumed explained everything. The group was relieved when the berserkers finished him off, but I was just getting started.

After Verix came a procession of characters that would look fairly bizarre by purist D&D and AD&D game standards. I had a half-elf paladin/magic-user, a goblin fighter, a winged half-fairy fighter/magic-user/thief, a centaur, and a werebear berserker who was reincarnated into a silver dragon (and a reasonably successful one at that). My characters were killed by phase spiders, goblin arrows, assassins, lizard men, evil high priests, giant rats, giant snakes, something called a "mind exchanger," something else called a "laser lance," and a large group of flaming, 10-foot tall balrogs who played Catch-the-Character with one of my many half-orcs.

My characters also had really strange names. After Verix, there came Orjetax Elfgrabber, Alfred E. Beethoven (a favorite), and Porky Elric-Friend, all half-orcs. Harley Quinn was a gnome warrior, Barfonix was a goblin, Sir Aqualung was a centaur, and Fairy Fawcett Majors was (of course) the half-fairy. Cyragnome de Bergerac, Obi-Gnome Kenobi, Luke Gnomewalker, and the Gnome Alasca were also racially self-evident; they were part of my "gnome period" when I was transferred from Fort Bragg to West Germany (when there was such a place) and started gaming there.

In Germany, my cast of characters became even stranger. I had Ryn the Mighty (a minotaur with gills); Dauntless the Giant Eagle (reincarnated from Gnome Alasca); Conan the Hobbit (we weren't calling them halflings then); a gold dragon whose henchdragons were named Farrah, Kate, and Jacqueline (can anyone guess why?); and a winged kobold thief who grabbed a cursed magical item and was reluctantly blown up by his own party. I even had a halfling thief who was reincarnated into a black pudding, a hippogriff, and an assassin before the rest of the party got bored with the process and blew him up for good.

Cyragnome de Bergerac, mentioned earlier, was a contender for being my most obnoxious character ever. He spoke with an outrageous French accent, insulted and stole from the rest of the party and pronounced booby-trapped chests "pairfectlee zafe". He was once told to watch the group's horses instead of going adventuring, so he took the horses to town and sold them. (The paladin's war horse fetched several hundred in gold, though it bit him.)

Perhaps as obnoxious as Cyragnome was Krud 2305, a futuristic character from GDW's TRAVELLER* game I made up who was basically a pipe-smoking dwarf in chain mail with a battle axe. He also carried a .38 revolver and a backpack with 600 bullets in it. He was fond of spontaneously reciting bad poetry while spilling bullets all over the place trying to reload during firefights.

In Germany I also went through a "half-ogre period," rolling up an assortment that included the semi-famous John Grond and the not-so-famous but much bigger Snowy Humber, who had a gorilla for a henchman. (Most of the characters created in Germany did much better than those at Fort Bragg, as I was used to the game by then and was making fewer mistakes.) There were a few token dwarves, elves, and humans, and a halfling named Paladin Brandybuck, a lawful good fighter/thief who collected short henchmen like leprechauns and brownies. One human Norse cleric, Hrothgar Redbeard, took over a dungeon that the group had cleared out and began converting it into his fortress and temple to Thor. I made up another Norse cleric (a barbarian) to playtest a science-fiction campaign, and he destroyed a starship's cafeteria in the process of building his own sanctuary. I think the crew had him thrown out into space.

I returned to the U.S. in 1981 and began gaming with groups around Louisville, Ky. I was deep into a pattern of creating weird characters who could not behave themselves or take anything seriously. I played to be entertaining. I tried Metagaming's THE FANTASY TRIP*, Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU* and RUNEQUEST*, and superhero games, creating barbarian halflings, hill-giant warriors, and a mutant android who used city buses as clubs. One very gross and disgusting RUNEQUEST* character of mine, a fat dwarf named Gumbo Burgher, kept a pet giant rat. When his ship was attacked by pirates, he picked up a rowboat and threw it overboard on the pirates' heads, injuring many. I think I once role-played a duck, too, and I wanted to play a two-headed giant but no one would let me.

When I came to work for TSR, my characters were in full bloom, every one of them a direct descendant of my most obnoxious Fort Bragg personas. If everyone else in a TRAVELLER* game had a fierce human Marine, I had a lazy wolflike Vargr with revolting personal habits who also gave terrible tactical advice in combat.("I'm gonna kill you, Lassie!" screamed one Marine at a particularly sensitive and touching moment.)

My Vargr, however, didn't hold a candle to Dave Blutarsky, private occult investigator. Dave was my first CALL OF CTHULHU* game character, played after I'd run the game for years. I knew that no matter what we did, the characters were doomed to go insane and die. I decided my PC would be crazy before he even started play. Dave Blutarsky, a burned-out war veteran who had a B.A. in military science, also had a business card that carried his name and profession with the reassuring note: "I have a degree in killing from Northwestern University, and I saw things in France in 1917."

Dave knew, absolutely knew, that there were unearthly things out there trying to conquer the world, and he knew they would definitely try to kill him first. He spent every last penny he had on firearms and ammo, then borrowed more money from the other characters and bought even more. The group came to fear his eager look more than the alien monstrosities they searched for. Dave never saw combat with any alien monstrosities, however. After an unfortunate incident involving a stray cat hiding in a bush, the rest of the group had Dave arrested and sent to prison for 5-10 years on weapons-related charges. He was later kidnapped by space aliens, frozen for several decades, then thawed out in time to join a campaign of West End Games' GHOSTBUSTERS* game. He was given an unlicensed nuclear reactor as a weapon, with which he burned down a grocery store while checking a report involving demon-possessed cereal boxes. ("All in a day's work!" said Dave.).

The CALL OF CTHULHU* game also produced Mortimer Methuselah Northrop III, a hunchbacked laboratory assistant who once worked for a mad scientist until the latter blew himself up. "Nort" was fond of dressing in World War I aviator goggles and leather helmet, a colorful flying scarf, and a black undertaker's suit. A proud graduate of Warren G. Harding High School in Akron, Ohio, Nort carried around the brain of his third cousin "for research purposes." I can't remember his fate, but I don't think it was particularly good.

The character folder was full of other little memorabilia: a sketch I made of Cyragnome on his axebeak mount (he had two, one for riding and one for cargo); a unit logo from the "Bad Boys" 151st Dungeon Buster's Army ("We steal from the rich to make ourselves rich!"); a note passed to a CALL OF CTHULHU* game master stating that Dave Blutarsky was "taking a sabbatical to get first-hand experience in military science across America"; a list of monsters one character met, including a red dragon whose napalm-like breath was a quarter of a mile long; a personal history of a Norse cleric PC from "Belushia"; and a detailed account of the "Rumble on Luna," in which Snowy Humber, his ape-friend Joe, and a few other luminaries killed the second-to-last avatar of the villainous Sarth the Bastard (those avatars were the pits, each one worse than the one before).

I closed the folder reluctantly. The threads of role-playing have been woven into my life for over 15 years, but that first moment in Lannie's living room, rolling six-sided dice while helpful gamers pointed out all the rules I needed to know, seems like it happened just last weekend. I wonder sometimes where everyone is who ever gamed with me. Wherever you are, my characters and I wish you well--and thank you for not beating me up. It was great.
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