Despite being confined to quarters via hermetic seal, barred from the outside world and its plague-ridden winds, in Anno 2020 the gateway to Role Playing Games has never been wider, more gilded or more inviting. Traditional barriers to entry have been supplanted by myriad resources that for better or worse, render what was once arcane into an easily grasped nettle that entices more and more acolytes with every passing year.
I’m sure many of you remember the shroud of esoteric mystery that once enveloped the entire endeavour as countless attempts were put to paper in describing the act and process of turning these dusty tomes of lore and arcane tables into an actual gaming experience. It was the sort of thing that could only be grasped by immersing yourself in the actual act of play. A leap of faith was required as you dove into a limitless sea that revealed its secrets both slowly and in a succession of eureka moments that punctuated your journey, as pieces fell into place, cogwheels locked and the wide vistas of possibility revealed themselves.
By contrast, today there are any number of dedicated YouTube Channels that enable initiates to witness the act of playing in a way that will inform and perhaps constrict their nascent endeavours. Forums and FAQ’s abound in the wild proliferation of memetic symbiosis and reproduction that is the internet, and programs such as Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds et al enable remote play and access to an enormous community that has the capacity to tutor, mentor and welcome the mewling novice into the billowing folds of its ample bosom.
Woe betide then the brave argonauts who were first tasked with explaining this amorphous phenomenon armed with only the printed page and a grognardic lexicon at their disposal. This Sisyphean process underwent continual evolutions as the concept of roleplaying took its first faltering steps out of twin cities basements and blinking into the limelight of wider consciousness.
In the murky timeline of antiquity, Moldvay built on Holmes who built on Gygax who built on Arneson who built on Wesley, each iteration refining both the mechanical and conceptual frameworks of the games, as well as the ‘more art than science’ process of indoctrination via expository blurb.
It was however, in 1983, from the pen of Frank Mentzer that upon these foundations the format was first perfected with a brevity, a breadcrumb trail and an emotional impact that still resonates wildly some 40 years later.
I was nine years old in 1987 when I received what is still the finest Christmas gift that ever steered a lad’s trajectory. I had been bestowed with ten whole dollars with which I could finally (finally!) acquire and invite it into my home, my head. The iconic red box bulged under my arm during the car ride home as I busily failed utterly to comprehend what I was letting myself in for.
From out of that unassuming cardboard crypt emerged a lifetime of engagement as well as a particular trauma that as the years passed and recollections were shared, I realised had seemingly afflicted an entire generation.
Cannily drawing upon the solo-play pioneered by St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls system and later ferried to prominence by a certain Zagor of Firetop Mountain, the Players Guide component of this set ushered us in gently with its introduction of player agency being funnelled down to a selection of binary narrative choices accompanied by some rudimentary stat tracking and amateur cartography.
Via this Thesean string, players were invited into, rather than out of the labyrinth in a manner that was both easily digestible and utterly enthralling to the fertile pre-teen lobes of the brain. And within its slim volume, it contained a tragedy in three acts that taught us invaluable lessons about weight, consequence and permanence within this brave new world.
The fact that it did so by drawing upon only the mustiest of archetypal tropes perhaps only lent further heft to its resonance with a target audience that was still yet to decode the recurring symbols and semiotics of popular culture, myth and legend that would later serve to bookend and stifle our imaginative sweep as we resorted to a default shorthand engendered by the familiarity that ubiquity brings.
Those of you who trod this path surely know where I’m going with this by now.
Aleena was my first crush. Bargle my first nemesis. Lost, floundering and wounded in that first-of-many mazes with monsters, an angelic beacon appeared that beckoned, promising salvation with an intoxicating blend of stern pragmatic experience, and peak Elmore-rendered doe-eyed wistful beauty.
Her appearance was our first real encounter with a companion, a sage-like benefactor, and to the more cynical adult revisionist- a weapons-grade pre-teen dream etched provocatively to push emerging hormonal buttons all in one.
Oh how we pondered the many and varied adventures we would undertake together. The dank recesses of the underworld we would plumb, the fell beasts we would subdue and the plunder we would haul in encumbrance-defying feats back to our cosy nest for two. With our sword arm taut and her healing hands cradling the counter-weighted grip of her menacing mace, our backs would press together to fend off the encroaching darkness in a litany of tales that would surely inspire bardic soliloquy throughout the known world.
It is with heavy heart I recall the hope that sprung fluttering in my belly that day lasted all of three pages. Cowl-shrouded and missile-flinging he emerged to shatter my illusions. Bargle. The name still cloys like ashes on my tongue. As swiftly as the dream unfurled, it was punctured by a trio of bolts that pierced not only the beautiful Aleena’s frame, but also our sense of certainty, goodness and justice, both in the game and the wider world at large.
Before the death of a grandparent, before the move to an upstate farm by a beloved childhood pet, Bargle was there to leer at us with his stunted introduction to the concept of death.
The hook was now baited, and we were left to nurse our aching breasts as all the while we plotted our revenge. Our arc of justice would be swift and bend towards the righteous. Our journey would be anchored and our eyes fixed on resolution.
But of course it wasn’t like that. The Red Box beget the Blue Box, beget the Green Box, beget the hardbacks, beget the clones, the off-shoots, the indies, the hexes and counters, the abstracts, the entire spectrum of an evolving, living thing as we rode its scaly back throughout the years. Countless antagonists would emerge out of the murk to provoke and imperil us. Countless companions and personas would flit in and out of our parties, our consciousness and our notepads to help, hinder and harangue us throughout our travails. But none would ascend into the pantheon of our formative firmament with the speed and insistence of the black-hearted Bargle and the poor, doomed Aleena.
Feel the lump in your throat even now and remember.
And you can stick that in your Lost Mine and smoke it.