I’ve written this little essay about personal transformations for the RPG Carnival, hosted at Critical Hits.
I’ve gone through many transformations much as the characters I’ve played or the worlds I’ve created have gone through. I think that is just as much reflective on my own experiences as much as the fact that gaming has transformed over the years from pen-paper to now massive universes generated on a computer to millions of people daily. My journey has taken me through Holmes Basic D&D to AD&D to 3rd Edition D&D, tasting 4th edition D&D, trying out d20 variants as well as playing CRPGs such as Ultima, Bards Tale, Diablo, Dungeon Siege and the like.

when I first picked up the Holmes boxed set on a whim in a Rinks department store in the late 70s, I was a nerdy kid looking for something neat and wonderful to echo my experiences at drawing and imagining Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, Alien and the like. I had read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and I was hooked on the concept of high fantasy and some way of re-enacting those adventures. This game, with the wierd “chits”, sounded like the coolest thing alive!

I quickly transformed from someone drawing pictures on paper using protractors and rulers to someone creating worlds, dungeons, castles, towns and filling them with stories and horrible monsters! Nobody else I knew played this strange game, so I filled my hours and many a ream of graph paper and notebooks with my own imagination. They always centered around the dark and dangerous dungeons, and were always death traps for 1st level characters. I wanted to create my own stories my own crazy teenage worlds, said adventures/worlds obsessively slaved over for the tiniest of details, yet lacking a good overall approach that experience teaches you.

Eventually, I found a group of people to play with, although by then, I had bought the 1st Edition AD&D Players Handbook (and five fingered the Dungeon Master Guide… which, erm, wasn’t a highlight of my teenage years, but impacted me nonetheless with a thrill towards the game that it had somehow become a bit more real with my thieving skills. Misguided, but there you have it.). We tore through modules, warped ideas, and thus one of my most favorite character “George” was born. I had transformed from someone who wanted to connect with others and share these words to someone who finally had all that. I had a wonderful time of playing Basic and AD&D and learning to love the experience of growing a character through adventure.

At the same time, adolescence and the video game craze occurred, as well as my love affair with the Personal Computer. Early on, I discovered the “Dungeon” game for the Commodore Pet computer, my earliest experience with what a computer could do for a D&D nerd.

As time went on, I found fewer people my age were playing paper/dice D&D and more were playing the Ultima games and Bards Tale, so I became one of them. I transformed into the CRPG geek: guarding my 5.25″ floppy disks as if they were my life, hex editing my characters, solving the puzzles and rejoicing in surviving to the end. Instead of a campaign lasting months and years, I could play a game in a few weeks and see real transformation of my character from a weak 1st level guy to a high level world savior. Yet, I always had the most fun at first level, barely surviving and feeling the thrill of getting to second level and no. That love affair with CRPGs took me from about 1982/3 till recent.

That transformation into a CRPG geek mirrored my life, as I went through young adulthood. I would seek out these games and play them, and yet I felt like I was missing something by being able to interact with others, experiencing that fun of either running a game and creating a world and story, or living in someone else’s world. Still, despite that little tickle in the back of my head, I stayed in CRPGs.

Finally, about the time that 3e was just ready to come out, I “rediscovered” D&D through the “Fast Play” modules. These had the D&D rules basically self contained in a simple package. I played these with my (at the time) wife and got her hooked on D&D. We had a blast in the “Vale” campaign that I created for her. Unfortunately this was shortlived. 3e came out shortly thereafter and I found myself semi-involved with 3e, what I could understand of it. I was going through a divorce, and Diablo I/II was distracting me at the time.

I finally did get into 3e, as it appealed to the programming geek in me. Here were rules by the many, with charts and calculations and spreadsheets and many things to juggle/roll/do, ohmy! Unfortunately, I couldn’t play that much 3e as life took me away and I found myself still turning to CPRGs.

I skipped/am skipping the MMORPG craze. The graphics and gameplay are undeniably intricate and obsessively compelling. Morrowind single player and the many sleepless nights taught me that. I knew how addictive WoW or something similar would be for me. Neverwinter Nights/AOL circa 1991 and the Achaea MUD and $500 in credits circa 2001 taught me that.

Finally, this year, I paid attention to that little tickle, got up the nerve to seek out other gamers and get reinvolved in good old fashioned paper/pencil gaming. I wanted to get away from the screen. I wanted to see miniatures, I wanted to hear dice roll, I wanted to feel that collective gasp as the trap popped and we were encircled with a cloud of smoke.

I played a few games with a group of great people nearby, but this was just as 4e was coming out. I played 4e several times and came away with the same feeling – a whole lot of emphasis on the bang but it just felt “meh” after the game was done. It seemed like everyone was concentrating on fiddly bits to maximize their at-will powers, mega-feats and healing surges. It just left me feeling empty. I didn’t like the game. I didn’t like the way it played or felt.

At about the same time, I found microlite20 and it stood me on my ear. A complete game on two sheets of paper! In using microlite20 and sketching out some scenarios, I went back to the place where my teenage RPG cut his teeth and found his love – this was an easy to understand system, without the concentration on rules and mega-characters. I found myself back to enjoying the same things that I had originally gotten into – story, facing odds, overcoming them, building a stronghold, making a home and surviving to tell his stories – being a first level paper tissue character, surviving a single room and running back to town to recharge/heal and go back and try the next room, and the next.

Ironically, I find myself in the same position I’ve had a lot through my years as an RPG’er – unable to find a group of players who I “feel” a part of. I’ve “convinced” (OK, suckered) my (new) wife into playing microlite74, and after one game, we had a blast and I feel as excited as I did when I first unwrapped my dungeons of death on my friends back in the early 80s. I’d love to find people local who feel that way, but most people here play 4e, and my nearest game store is 45 min away.

I’ve watched an industry transform into a many headed hydra with tons of options for tons of people to have their own sense of fun, and I think that’s good. I learn from all sorts of people, although I tend to gravitate towards the “grognards”, because that’s where I feel comfortable. I’ve watched game/book stores transform from comic/games to the huge mall stores and now to individual online places that sell thousands of PDFs. I’m amazed at just how huge RPG is, and yet how simple of a concept it all comes down to – someone living their own story in a different world. That’s from watching my son lose himself in Gunbound, or Wow, or Oblivion. I’m happy because he’s finding his own story and his own RPG transformations, things he’ll remember almost 30 years from now.

As for me, I’ve transformed from a “dungeon diver” to a CRPG’er, to someone involved in the intricacies of 3.xe and now back full circle to someone who appreciates simple game mechanics and fun/involving gameplay around dungeon diving.

I know that as I continue to transform, it’s nice to have many options and it’s nice to see many people talking to each other. I think the industry is doing that as well – people enjoy many different versions, there’s a vibrant hobby publishing cottage industry and yet the hobby progresses in new ways. Some say in bad ways, other say in good ways. I think it’s transformation that will always happen.