Friday, March 30, 2012

1977: Dreams of the

Books containing movie screenplays, and, more importantly, story board artwork, were starting to hit the book stores back in 1977. This inspired me to fill up a few 60 page spiral notebooks with "first person views" of the first three levels to my mega-dungeon, The Tower of Terror.

This illustration device was put to good use on some of the more famous modules (I'm looking at you 'Tomb of Horrors' and 'Expedition to the Barrier Peaks') which included a separate book of images that showed the players what was inside of the hallways and chambers. But I rendered everything. You'd flip through the book, and it's be a 30 foot long hallway for a few pages, but then, you'd turn the page, and it'd be a monster, (or a pit trap, or a set of doors at the end of the hall, or whatever). You'd roll some dice, fight the monster, avoid the trap, decide which door to take etc. It was "Pick a Path" meets "Doom" the video game. It was an upgrade from the paper/pencil tank wars we used to play before class.*

I was swayed by my pals to take it into middle school. It was a minor hit with the gang, until it was confiscated by the teacher and never seen again.

The teacher probably thought she was doing my parents a favor. I suspect the dead skeletons on the floor, and the attacking monsters (zombie owl bears, werewolves, green slime covered doorways and more) didn't help my case. In my defense, there were jewels, books and magic swords in there. So, it wasn't all torture chambers and locked prisons ... Wait a minute ...Okay, there was a torture chamber, and a set of prisons. What did they expect? I just read The Man In the Iron Mask for my 3rd period English class (an assigned book report). At least I absorbed the material (and it spurred me on into a huge Alexander Dumas kick: Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers, and his plays). 

We tried building a working R2-D2 droid, and instead learned how to splice radio wires for a low tech version of 'surround sound'. The Odyssey, the first home video game console/computer, came out back in 1972. We didn’t have that, but my next door neighbors had the Pong/Breakout video game console in 1976-77. There were portable synthesizers, and smaller guitar amplifiers, large radios known as “boom boxes”, and the LATEST HITS mixed-tapes and albums, with sound effects, and cheap VCR film cassettes were released to a new form of shopping center, called “The Mall”.  

It was the dawn of the home video entertainment systems. Pong consoles, Atari, (and later, VCR) machines were around, and they gave you new ways to spend hours in front of the television. We'd record their sound effects off the TV and 'warp' them with a boom box we'd hook up to the stereo. We made action flick trailers, music videos and experimental art films. We built elaborate movie sets in our basements, attics, garages, and backyards. The 'art of noisemaking' and ‘housetrashing’ my dad would say. If you didn't want to watch that re-run of 'The Incredible Hulk' or 'Hogan's Heroes', you could just turn it channel 3 and watch the movie scenes we just shot. It was all "hands on experience".

What did we do before we had the computers of today? We were dreaming up ways to build computers.

 *(If you are unfamiliar with this game, it went like this: You'd get a piece of notebook paper, lay it down on a table, and you and your buddy would draw 10 to 20 tanks on opposite ends of the page. Then you'd take turns drawing 10 dashes towards the other player, simulating tank movements. Then you'd hold the pencil by the eraser and attempt to hit your opponent's tanks, with one stroke. Easier said than done. The first to destroy all of his opponent's tanks was the winner. Eventually, the tank vs. tank mechanics evolved into plane vs. plane, then UFO vs. UFO (and later, vampire vs. mummy, soldiers vs. aliens etc). When the arcades started opening up around town, with games like "Space Invaders", “Defender”, "Missile Command", "Asteroids", and of course, "Pac-Man", we never looked back).



1976 to 1982: Memories of Dungeons and Dragons

WotC's re-release of Gary Gygax's Advanced D+D's Dungeon Master's Guide has psychologically shifted my focus back to my early days of gaming. Do I have one word to sum up the bizarre, (yet strangely inventive), days over summer vacations and long Christmas Holidays, spent knee deep in dice throwing mind games ? No, not really. Nostalgic doesn't cut it. A while back, I went to a convention for pop culture artifacts: classic toys, collector cards, action figures, board games, movie posters, and display shelves filled with memorabilia from my childhood. It was like time traveling, but through the power of memories, instead of a time machine. Although one name comes to mind every so often: Christopher Livingston.*
I'm the notorious middle child of five in my family, and, growing up, we usually moved into neighborhoods with other large families; each with wildly different family values. So, we'd blend in with our various counterparts in ages. Middle kids "teaming up" together has always come with a weird price (vandalism, pyromania, shop lifting, and ill conceived romances, that went spectacularly bad, to name a few). I should say it was also some of the most exhilarating and action-packed times in my life (re-enacting scenes from the summer movies of 1975 to 1983: The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Martial Art action flicks etc).
                             Dressed as rebel pilot, or as Han Solo, (depending on the day) with Patricia, an old friend of the family.

It wasn't long before I was involved with the older kids, and their crazy life experiences. Somebody was always 'lip synching', singing, or playing stuff off of the radio (ACDC to the Beatles, to Led Zepplin to Queen, to Tchaikovsky to Verdi). And, through my older sibling's connections, I spent many summer nights watching and playing with the older girls (chasing each other around the nearby fields, woods, and basketball courts). I heard the early Steve Martin and George Carlin albums on my friend's older brother's record player. If it sounds like a wonderful life, it's because I'm editing out all the humiliating and ambivalent hours I wasted. Those terrible details and bad decisions are for the novel, I'll write in the next life.

In ninth grade I met up with Chris. His family lived in 'the nice part' of the neighborhood- you'd have to hike up four long hilly streets to get there-where doctors and lawyers lived in large houses around lush arboreal cul de sacs. He was in the 11th grade and we were both in the chess club. We played a few games (he knew my older brother), but I lost interest and dropped out a month later.

That fall, I was invited to play a D+D game, up at Chris' house, (held down in the basement, which had been converted into a carpeted covered 'game room' with comfortable chairs, and a 10' long wooden table, with eight to ten kids sitting around it, from ages 10 to 17 years old). The room was loaded to the brim with board games, and D+D paraphernalia, (miniatures, models, and RPG magazines, sitting on "built in wall shelves" and inside wooden cabinets) next to a ping pong table, a TV set with an Atari console, a stereo counter, and more. There was a set of stairs that lead up to the outside backyard, where everybody would park their bikes.
                                 The intrepid (yet camera shy) players gather before the game begins.

I discovered the Basic and Expert sets back in the seventh grade (1978). So did a lot of the boys I knew (Monsters and half naked ladies. What's not to like?) Chris had been around for the first wave with Dr. Holmes and the early low print runs of mini adventures. By 1981 he had all of the TSR modules and supplemental books, and he would sit at the head of the table and run the games like a tournament match. He'd set up the situation, (from behind the module's cover), and point to each person around the table and say, "You have 10 seconds to tell me what you're doing. Go!" Then he'd roll some fake dice, and start down the line: "You hear this…” and “You spot that...” and “You think you see something, but it's really just…You, when you stubbed your foot on a loose stone...” and “You are hungry,” and “you are..." etc. The older kids would have a comical reaction moment, usually brought on by the younger kid's shock, surprise, or disappointment (oh the disappointment) at the turn of events.

Chris had to be a referee first and a story teller second. He'd move you through a game that didn't last more than 2 hours (the intrusion factor in larger families is pretty high). I could only make it to a half a dozen gaming sessions, but they were fun. Unfortunately, three feet of snow made the hikes less appealing, and more treacherous. He was one of the few guys I knew who could actually play the game.
He went off to college, and by that time, I was running my own games, with a couple of friends after school and kids closer to home (expanding into Boot Hill, Gamma World, and Top Secret- we played A LOT of Top Secret). I hope to bring some of that quirky, unpredictable energy back when you get one of our games in the mail. Time travel via memory banks. Let's call it "Shockstalgia".

(*For legal reason, that's not his real name).


Sunday, March 25, 2012

My First Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Game

The Time: May, 1978
The Setting: James Dugan's* dining room with three other 12 year olds. James informs I've just randomly rolled up my first Advanced D+D character: a half-orc.

Action: Forget everything you know about orcs now-a-days. The half-orc in the Player's Hand Book wasn't exactly the "go to guy" for character generation. The fantasy adventure game that builds a magic land of swords and sorcery could randomly turn one of the players into a monster you've killed countless times, back in the Basic / Expert Games. Nobody 'played' the half-orc. Not on purpose. Everybody wanted to be Gandalf, Aragorn, or Legolas (or one of the stars from the movie, Excalibur), which made for a strange experience around the table, with nobody (except James, who owned the books) having seen the PHB picture of a half-orc before that night.

The upside was I also rolled my first, officially corroborated, straight 18 Strength roll (with the percentage bonus and everything) that night. We chewed up a lot of time with character generation, but eventually we found an abandoned castle, fought off a few wolves, and I battled 2 skeletons before falling into a spiked pit trap: most of it determined by James through random die rolls (some behind the screen, some not). That's how he DM’d, and since he was the only one with the DMG, we figured that's how you played Advanced D+D. Later, I learned he determined everything by random die rolls. That's how I got the half-orc in the first place.


The Take Away: I out-lasted everybody but the fighter (who was quickly killed by another skeleton down the hall). So, even though we didn't make it out of the first level, we still had fun. What kind I say? The game builds character.

*(For legal purposes, not his real name. And the above picture is from the 1978 Player's Handbook by Gary Gygax, pg. 18. Trademarked by TSR/ Wizards of the Coast, 2012).  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Old School In Session

Sure, you know a thing or two about role playing games.

When it comes to strange dice and saving throws, you're an expert. And if it involves arrows of slaying, or an intelligent sword's ego score, you're in the know. But have you heard about the Sherlock Holmes adventure set on an asteroid station run by Dr. Doom? Or the one with top secret agents infiltrating a ring of Los Angeles car thieves only to discover that JFK's assassination was ordered by Jackie-O and a "star chamber" made up of war driven generals? Well, prepare to be in the loop. Over the next few months, Jason and I are introducing you to a new world of role playing games, each one with a personal touch as unique and mind blowing as the next. Because when you live in a world where an evil wizard is turned into a devious (yet "charming") Hippogriff with a taste for human flesh, and a fast-running, undead minotaur hunts down your players in a magic cave with no exits, it's time to turn off your screens, and start rolling some "to hit" scores.

In the next few months, Underworld Ink will release a series of mini-adventures. We hope these games will provide you with hours of fun, which could either save the hobby as we know it - or be another sign that the Apocalypse is imminent. One or the other. It could go either way.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mythellaneous Conjurings

Hey everybody, welcome to my blog. Before I stamp your ticket to hilarious fun, there are a few important announcements.

First: my life story. There's been a lot of weirdness in my life- including a couple of automobile accidents in my formative years (you've got to expect that growing up on the rainy streets of Seattle), summer trips to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (in the early 1970's, before legal restrictions on amusement parks, you literally risked your life on those rides), and a handful of cross country trips (with stops into the sexual freedom loving culture of San Francisco, CA and the drug loving culture of Austin, TX...or is that the other way around? I can't remember), and finally ending up in Northwestern Pennsylvania (a great place if you like trees, snow, and abandoned factories). I've worked as a security guard for a movie company (and background extra) and at just about every dead end job you can name: paper boy, stock boy, dishwasher, baker, prep chef, janitor, councilor (for the deranged), and as a cafeteria worker for a private school. In rock-n-roll bands, I was the drummer.
Secondly, I've been drawing, writing and making movies from the time I could legibly print my name (say, first grade). Just so we're clear: These "projects" were for fun (and to meet girls). I made little or no money from any of these ventures. Nor do I have any formal ties to help anyone to get into "the biz". These "projects" were designed to get my foot in the door, but I was always at the wrong address.
Those of you searching for in-depth analysis about pop culture and ancient mythology; I'll be featuring plenty of random thoughts, incoherent ideas, mistaken conclusions, flawed understandings and weird rants. I've written some plays, experimented with radio comedy (The Beatnik Spy Guys), and created half a dozen Halloween costumes (including a Haunted House with working lights, ghost sounds and more). I'm a father, a smoker, a drinker, and I'll probably be dead before I'm fifty. I've owned dogs, cats, birds, fish, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, ferrets, amphibians, and a there was that year when I fed live crickets to a monitor lizard.
Lastly, a few of you may have 'looked me up' in an effort to 'track me down'. You found me. Mythellaneous Conjurings was primarily built to sell my gaming fanzines, and I'm sending you this semi famous quote from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me". (Rorschach from Watchmen, issue 6, pg. 13, 1986-1987, Trademarked and owned by DC Comics 2012).
That's about it. Be safe, and take care of yourselves. Remember, it's one nation under CCTV. Let the fun begin !