Gaming With the Stars

Aside from my love for games, comic books, movies and associated hallmarks of geekdom, I’m a longtime fan of AMC’s Mad Men which wraps up its sixth season this coming Sunday. One of the much-maligned characters on the show is the media buyer and TV man Harry Crane played by Rich Sommer.

What the average fan of the show probably doesn’t know is that Sommer is one of the increasingly-prominent stars of the small and big screen who has a deep passion for gaming. Although currently on hiatus, Sommers until recently posted frequently about his gaming exploits on his blog Rich Likes Games, and he has appeared on a number of webisodes of gaming sites like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. Wheaton’s show will soon be premiering new episodes featuring a new crowd of writers, comedians, actors and other creative friends with the common love of rolling dice, playing cards and out-strategizing their opponents across the table.

The ability for gaming to bring together diverse groups of people, the famous and not-so-famous alike, is one of the wonderful things about the hobby. There’s an oft-told tale of Vin Diesel introducing Judi Dench to Dungeons & Dragons on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick, leading to Dench dungeon-mastering subsequent games for her grandchildren. There are all sorts of stories out there and extensive lists of celebrities who place themselves among the worldwide population of gamers. Among them are Stephen Colbert, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Mike Meyers, Robin Williams, John Favreau and Joss Whedon. Go back further and there are stories of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., King Vidor, Cole Porter, Harold Ross and Amelia Earhart partaking in gaming.

What I’ve found in my own experience is that gamers come from all walks of life but share a commonality in creativity, reason, knowledge, problem-solving, logic and alternating collaborative and competitive natures. These are obvious traits to be found in people who occupy prominent positions in the culture but also in the regular folks I game with on a regular basis. I find this every week at Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn where different combinations of ages, background and experience come together to play.

I recall being at a gaming convention a few years back watching a young guy with a mohawk, lipstick, piercings and dressed in head-to-toe black speaking passionately with a retired buttoned-down US Army veteran about some tactical minutae of a WWII engagement. Thinking back to that scene, it serves as my Diesel-Dench moment where those of us who share nothing and everything randomly encounter each other in our worlds of gaming.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Choose Your Own Adventure Books

       

This week there was news the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book series is to be developed into a film series by 20th Century Fox. Launched in 1979, the series was enormously popular throughout the 80s and 90s, sold over 250 million copies and is still published today. The movie announcement got me thinking about how these books played yet another part in my personal growth as a gamer.

The CYOA series follows the form of a gamebook which allows a reader to participate in how a story unfolds through a a variety of choices made along the way. To a young kid, the CYOA books shared a lot in common with my role playing game interests. Each book presented a fantastically-themed self-contained adventure, International travel, outerspace journeys, crime investigations and sword and sorcery tales filled the pages of each paperback, and collecting them was part of the fun. Choices made while reading each story could take you to more than 20, 30 or 40 different endings to the book, making for a lot of re-reading value in seeing how things might turn out differently each time.

The CYOA mechanic provided the feel of a solo game for when no one else was around with which to play something a bit more complex like D&D. Looking back from today, the structure of jumping back and forth through the narrative is akin to the experience of clicking through hyperlinks online. Even videogames today like 2012’s award-winning The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games share in the basic chapter and choices format people of my generation grew up on.

There’s no telling what shape the proposed Choose Your Own Adventure movies series will take, and it may prove to be yet another Hollywood move to attempt to cash-in on a known property. That said, it’s interesting to see just one more way these books continue to ripple through the culture over 30 years later.

Collector’s Note: The Choose Your Own Adventure series is still published today and can also be picked up fairly easily used starting at about $3-5 each on eBay. For true collectors, first editions from books early in the series can go from hundreds or even over a thosand dollars from rare book dealers like AbeBooks.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dungeon Dwellers

    

I was already a fairly experienced D&D gamer by the time I encountered the Heritage Dungeon Dwellers series of miniatures and game sets in the early 1980s. Aside from playing creative games and campaigns dripping with swords, sorcery and all things creepy and crawly in the underworld of our imaginations, my brother and I were quickly filling up our free time with miniature painting. If it was tiny, cast in lead and even mildly gruesome, chances were it was on our radar.

We were already pretty familiar with Ral Partha’s growing line of D&D lead miniatures picked up at our local five-and-dime, bookstore and hobby shops in Rochester, NY when we encountered Dungeon Dwellers. At the time, we had no idea Heritage was producing boxed sets and blister packs of figures similar to Ral Partha. What we did know was that holding these two green Dungeon Dwellers boxed sets in our hands was clearly something different.

Unlike the sets of miniatures from Ral Partha and other suppliers of the time, Heritage Dungeon Dwellers offered two all-in-one model and gaming sets. Each box contained a number of monster and adventurer figures, paints and a simplified self-contained game with rules and a map. This off-the-shelf game was an easy and rare counterpoint to the expansive D&D universe of the era. Each set — “Caverns of Doom” and “Crypt of the Sorcerer” — read like a D&D module with a defined scenario in which to play. The models were animated, unique and somewhat more appealing than some of the widely-available Ral Partha lines. I particularly recall the multi-piece winged dragon from “Caverns of Doom” and the fire-casting wizard from “Crypt of the Sorcerer” as being favorites.

Despite the limited replay value on the surface, these two sets got a lot of outsized-use when I was a kid. Thinking back, they combined the best aspects of board, miniatures and role-playing games, plus they allowed us to cut our chops on our painting skills. Serious gamers of the time probably dismissed these sets as pandering to the growing fantasy gaming fad of the day, but for a growing gamer in the early 1980s, Heritage Dungeon Dwellers really made an impression.

Collector’s Note: The Dungeon Dwellers boxed sets are exceedingly hard to come by, but miniatures sets and individual figures are readily available on eBay for just a few dollars for an individual figure up to well over $100 for sets.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Gamma World

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures in pop culture were big fascinations of mine as a kid. Planet of the Apes premiered the year I was born, and the movie sequels, live-action TV show, Saturday morning cartoon and toys were a big part of my imagination through the first half of the 1970s. As I grew into a budding sci-fi fan, movies like The Omega Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Logan’s Run, as well as television re-runs of The Twilight Zone further filled my brain with visions of future what-ifs and the destruction of the human race.

In 1981, two things happened. Ronald Reagan became President and would go on to occupy the White House for all my teenage years. During this formative period of my life, my waking mind and night time dreams were filled with the ever-looming threat of nuclear war flowing from Reagan’s amped-up rhetoric toward what was then still the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the fictionalized visions of the end of civilization seemed very, very real.

That same year, I saw Mad Max 2, (aka The Road Warrior). Although shot in Australia with an Aussie-accented Mel Gibson in the lead, the movie resonated as very American to me. With it’s high-desert setting, gunfights, chase scenes and a hero with a hidden past, the film struck me very much like Westerns (particularly those of Clint Eastwood) I already loved. Wrapping the Western genre up in a post-apocalyptic story hit all the right notes in my 13-year-old imagination.

Along the way in the late 70s through early 80s, I was spending a lot of time gaming with Dungeons & Dragons. In 1983, I ran across the second edition of Gamma World in the local bookstore where I bought most of my D&D gaming stuff. Originally introduced in 1978 by TSR, the makers of D&D, Gamma World was a role-playing game set in a post-nuclear war 25th-century Earth populated  by mutants, cyborgs and remnants of the human race. While D&D drew its influence from various fantasy sword-and-sorcery antecedents, Gamma World’s dystopian setting was rooted in the sci-fi themes of stories and movies I loved. From a game mechanics standpoint, Gamma World had a familiar feel to D&D with character attributes, fantastical equipment and a chart and dice-driven combat and encounters system. The similiarities with D&D made it easy to slide into the entirely different storylines Gamma World offered.

I never took to Gamma World with the same depth of interest as D&D, but playing it was pretty fantastic. The world of the game was occupied by giant rabbits, humanoid lizard people, deadly plantlife, robotic killing machines and all other manner of deadly foes and allies. Weaponry ranged from spears and traffic sign shields to laser rifles and nuclear devices. Maps represented entire crumbling city street grids or hidden underground survivalist bunkers. An adventure could involve a quest for an “ancient” 20th-century manuscript holding the key to human salvation or an infiltration mission to destroy a cyborg factory. To my friends and me, Gamma World allowed us to write the scripts and play through the dozens of unmade post-apocalyptic movies living in our heads and influenced by the films already ingested into our psyches.

Gamma World is still published by Wizards of the Coast today, but the popular trend in zombie-themed games occupies most of today’s gaming interest in post-apocalyptic scenarios. That said, for a purely futuristic, dystopian, sky’s-the-limit role-playing game, fast-wording a few centuries to Gamma World can’t be beaten.

Collector’s Note: Original TSR-published Gamma World boxed sets and expansion modules can be found on eBay. Modules and indivdual rule books can run in the range of $15-75 while original complete boxed sets of early editions can run into the hundreds of dollars.

Gaming Wars In The 21st Century

I was pleasantly surprised to open the back page of this past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review section to an article on the 100th anniversary of H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars.” The book’s Edwardian-era style, classism and occasional not-so-thinly-veiled sexism is mixed with the mechanics of a gaming system which makes it a relevant read even today.  Before “Little Wars,” wargaming had largely resided in Europe’s war colleges and in the parlors of the ruling elite. Even with its English intellectual, upper-crust trappings, “Little Wars” sought to expand the popularity of wargaming. As the article points out, “Little Wars” is an important foundational document and should be required reading for those who are interested in how we’ve arrived at the business of gaming on the tabletops and screens of the world today.

“Little Wars” is widely available for free online and for e-readers today, and “ownership” of gaming is largely the subject of a post today on BoingBoing about Dungeons & Dragons retro-gamers. Whether driven by nostalgia or as a reaction to corporate ownership of a beloved game of their youth, “old school” D&D gamers stress what they believe to be a truer game style more focused on role-playing and less-so on action-driven play. To stay relevant to a new generation brought up on CGI special effects, so the argument goes, the now-owners of D&D Wizards of the Coast have increasingly made the game more combat-heavy (read: more like video games). In reaction to this, retro D&D gamers have created an increasingly-active community of story-driven gamers who look to old rules for inspiration. The ability to share thoughts, opinions and out-of-print rulesets online has only fuelled the movement.

Old school gamers are just the latest combatants  in the war over gaming. The history of wargaming rules development winds its way from military schools and H.G. Wells to postal games and strategy boardgames in the mid-20th century. Games and rules were more fluid in the 1940s-60s where there was little profit to be had in wargaming, and a big part of the gaming community was in the debates over what rules were the most realistic or playable. With a few exceptions, ownership in those days was based more on pride and ego than copyrights and profit. This timeline is well-documented in Jon Peterson’s “Playing At The World” which finally arrives at the early days of D&D.  Even before D&D made the great leap into a world-wide phenomemon there were arguments and accustaions over copyright and ownership. Peterson’s recent analysis of a transitional draft of D&D (the Dalluhn Manuscript) not only adds greater nuanace to the development of the rules themselves but I think also provides another chapter on the concepts of evolutionary, intellectual and legal ownership of games.

Much of the digital conversation today — whether about games, photos, movies or music — hinges on the topics of openness, control and copyright. Along with the free and independent gaming forums and sites, we’ve now been given a new frontier of games on Kickstarter. What used to take years (or even decades) of slow development and debate by word-of-mouth fanzines and postal newsletters, Kickstarter achieves in weeks or days. Players vote with their wallets in support of games which can now easily garner six and seven-figure funding levels, all but guaranteeing a fanbase that literally buys-in at the ground floor. Sites like BoardGameGeek can help make or break the success of a new game and then go on to serve as R&D for game expansions, rule variations and subsequent editions.

A hundred years after “Little Wars” pulled the ownership of wargaming out of the fists of Europe’s elite, we’re still warring over our games. Copyright laws, digital distribution and individual financial investment will continue to shape the next hundred years of the ownership conversation, but gaming is certain to remain a very personal investment for some time to come, too.

The History of Games in Western New York

I grew up in Western New York State about 40 miles South of Rochester. To my childhood self, going to Rochester was “going to the city.” Rochester was where I headed for big touring concerts, independent movies and museums. On my rare trips home these days, one of my favorites and one of the more unique museums to visit in Rochester remains the National Museum of Play.

Opened in the early 1980s, the National Museum of Play grew out of the Strong Museum and the collection of industrial heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. The museum originally housed the enormous doll and toy collection Strong acquired over decades of worldwide travel in the first half of the 20th-century. In the past 30 years, the mission of the museum has evolved to be one of the preeminent repositories and exhibitors of toys, games, video games, dolls, action figures, children’s books and all things devoted to occupying the childhood development of children through that most basic of juvenile pursuits: play.

Among its collections, the museum has risen to prominence in the past few years with the opening of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The ICHEG publicly displays some 140 playable classic video arcade games and also maintains an archive of hundreds of thousands gaming systems, games, advertisements, manuals, corporate documents and other ephemera devoted to video games from their earliest development to their contemporary innovations and cultural dominance.

The museum made news this past week with the announcement of the temporary display of the “Dalluhn Manuscript” (photo at right) in their newest permanent exhibit called Game Time! This space will eventually devote the entire second floor of the museum to the history of American play through a series of interactive exhibits. The Dalluhn Manuscript is important as what is the earliest know draft of what would eventually become the world-changing game Dungeons & Dragons. The manuscript is on loan from Jon Peterson whose massive book “Playing At The World” took the scholarly investigation of the history of strategic gaming to new heights when it was published last year. Peterson has updated his book with a free appendix available through his blog that delves deep into the significance of the manuscript on display in Rochester. If you’ve read his book or have any desire to take a rare peek into the minutiae of how D&D came about, seeing this piece of gaming legend is a must-do over the coming months. Think of it as the Magna Carta or a first draft of the Declaration of Independence for gamers and you’ll have some idea of what a treasure these few pages are.

In general, I would urge anyone interested in games and play to visit the National Museum of Play in Rochester. It’s one of those rare museums where people of all ages will truly find something that speaks to them. If you can’t make it to Rochester, take a spin through their online archives where thousands of photos of toys, dolls and games are on view. With centuries of play behind us and unknown adventures ahead, a trip through our shared history is almost as enjoyable as a few hours of play itself.

Downloading: Dungeons & Dragons Classics

I just finished reading Jon Peterson’s epic history of wargaming, “Playing At The World,” this past week. Reading through several hundred pages of gaming lore centered around the development of Dungeons & Dragons by TSR, I’ve had a yen to track down some of my old D&D rule books from those glory days of my early adolescent years in the late 1970s and early 80s. Well, as if the gaming gods themselves were reading my thoughts, the now-owners of the D&D franchise, Wizards of the Coast, launched a partnership just this week with DriveThruRPG to begin offering every piece of classic D&D as digital downloads.

The new web store, www.danddclassics.com, launched with more than 80 classic bits of D&D, from whole rule sets to module campaign adventures to detailed expansions. With a few downloads initially available for free and dozens more in the $5 to just under $20 range, the site promises to eventually release more material long-since out our print from the 1970s-90s. The site struggled under the massive weight of countless rabid fans and crashed over and over again on its first day, clearly demonstrating the pent-up demand for long-lost D&D material only to be found at the bottom of abandoned teenage closets and on eBay at inflated prices.

After multiple site time-outs and crashes, I managed to download a free file today: 1979’s B1 module “In Search of the Unknown.” For new players like me just getting into D&D as 1980 and my teen years neared, “In Search of the Unknown” and B2 “The Keep on the Borderlands” (available online now for $5) were our first forays into the professionally-developed D&D modules that showed us the way toward creating our own adventures. These self-contained adventures allowed players like my friends and me to jump right into a few hours of gaming with story background, maps, treasure and monsters neatly set forward in about 20 pages. These books also served as teaching tools as we learned to craft our own elaborate adventures in our childhood bedrooms, basements and classrooms after school.

With the release of 1979’s “blue book” Basic Rules (shown at right), TSR presented a serious clean-up and consolidation of the D&D rules which had been slowly released in multiple pamphlets throughout the early to mid 1970s. Though D&D had already established itself as the king of the role-playing game world, it was the release of the Basic Rules that roped-in hundreds of thousands of new players like myself. From these rules onward, a constant flow of modules, new iterations of the rules and expansion books became one of the most exciting aspects to me about D&D while also being much criticized by many for TSR’s strategy of extracting every last dime out of its faithful fans.

And so, here we are again some 30+ years later with D&D waging melee combat on our wallets with the spectre of a full-compliment of its back catalog coming soon. Already I see many module favorites of mine available like G1-3 “Against the Giants” and Q1 “Queen of the Demonweb Pits.” Hardcover classics such as the ancient religions and mythologies compilation of  “Deities and Demigods” and the odder European-themed monster compilation “Fiend Folio” are also currently available. I credit “Deities and Demigods” in particular for providing me a sort of independent study comparative religions primer at the age of 13. A few years later, this interest would lead me to Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” as well as his earlier writings. Three decades on, my life-long interest in the intersection of the stories of faith in the world’s societies — what I commonly refer to as the “holy mish-mash” — continues to shape my outlook on life. D&D is just chocked full of these kind of rippling memories for me.

The re-release of this material seems obvious for a whole host of reasons as I and my fellow first-generation D&D players are entering mid-life with our own children and a load of nostalgia for a pre-video game world in tow. Then again, as I scrolled through all the D&D titles again this week, I was reminded of the precedent D&D set in so many ways for today’s electronic gamers. Of course the basics of hit points, armor class, found items, completed missions and skill advancement laid out in D&D provided the foundation for today’s popular video gaming universe. But with each of these additional D&D modules and rules expansions, TSR also provided an early blueprint for the constant version updates and downloadable content of maps, missions, skins and characters that any inhabitant of the world of the Xbox and Playstation finds every day.

As always, what is old is new again, and I’m slowly getting to a place where I want to unplug my kids for a few hours some afternoon, help them roll-up a couple characters and blow the digital dust off these D&D treasures now just a click away.