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Once Upon A Time:
All My Mother's Fault

by Steve Dempsey


I guess it was really my mum's fault. It was the summer of 1972. It was what every parent dreads. The kids have been off school for only two weeks and already the dreaded refrain "I'm bored!" was ringing out.

I was seven years old at the time. My mum had just read us The Hobbit for a bedtime story, which probably explains a lot of what followed. She put my one-year-old sister in a high chair and declared her to be the beautiful princess that had been kidnapped by her, the fearsome, though not necessarily ugly, witch. My brother and I were to be the dashing heroes on a quest to rescue the princess.

There was a catch, however. If the witch saw us, we would be captured and put in a pot to make her dinner. All we had was a clue written on a tiny scroll to the location of a magic cloak of invisibility. We followed the clues, making daring incursions into the witch's kitchen. We occasionally fell prey to her evil machinations, but rescued each other and finally, after several days play, we found the cloak and delivered the princess home in time for tea.

I still remember this short period with great fondness. Remember how you felt the first time you played an RPG? The wonder at having your scrawny first level thief sneak into a building during the dark of night and actually steal something! The terror you felt when you met your first Orc, and you knew you could actually die! This all tends to wear off as you become more familiar with the territory. You start to demand other things from your games than just the wonder of playing at all. But in the Summer of '72, it was magic. The witch really couldn't see us under the cloak, and there really was a princess to be rescued.

Although this was the only LARP that my Mum ever ran, she did encourage us to write our own games. We took off to our local library and borrowed all the books we could find on Wargaming. There wasn't anything on role-playing, but we thought that Wargaming would be the next best thing. We found out weapon ranges and tank movement rates and we wrote our own rules. We thought that, as our soldiers were an inch tall, the scale 1" = 6' in height had to be applied to the vertical as well. Given an effective gun range of 300 yards this meant a playing board twelve and a half feet across! Our battles between two squads of 6 soldiers each would occupy the whole backyard. The games would last hours and usually not a lot would happen. Most of our time was spent ducking behind cover until someone got fed up and made a break for it, and then the carnage would start. I guess we had reinvented trench warfare.

We also wrote rules for biplane dogfights, using Lego bricks to represent height differences. This lead to lots of complications in working out distances between planes, and since my brother never could get the hang of Pythagoras, the games usually ended in tears.

In 1976 we moved to rural France and this put an end to our research. It was 30 miles to the nearest library! None of our new friends were interested so it wasn't until 1980 when on holiday in the UK that I discovered The Fantasy Trip. There were two books of rules, Melee and Wizard. Each contained the basic rules for duels between fighters or between wizards. Accordingly they only envisaged three sorts of games: Combat to the Death, Arena Combat (to surrender) and Practice Combat! They best bit in each book however was in the introduction. This was a small piece of Pulp Fantasy which could actually be reenacted by playing the game! It was so exciting: I wanted to be Flavius Marcellus, youngest centurion of the Legion, on patrol in Barbarian Germany . My brother and I did a lot of duelling but this was ultimately unsatisfactory as we knew each other too well and it wasn't really a role-playing game. There were however, these great little solo quests that were close. And if you completed them, they would actually lead you to finding a real silver dragon buried in the USA! Apparently Mount Palomar was the location, but I never got there. Subsequently, Metagaming did produce a "bolt-on" RPG supplement, which introduced the concepts of Game Mastering and Hero Talents. But by then I had found another way to satisfy my desire for adventure.

The next year when we went to England, I found a shop on Oxford Street which had some of these solo games in the basement. On the same shelves was a box set of Dungeons & Dragons...

In it was the classic (as in bad but fondly remembered) adventure, B2: Keep On The Borederlands. My brother and I thought it was just like a soloquest, so we didn't have a DM. We just had three characters each and we read the boxes as we came across them and dealt with the monsters accordingly. But do you really ever forget the first time you hear those boxed text words: " You enter a chamber, it is 10' by 10', there is a chest against the far wall, guarded by what seems to be an Orc"?

It wasn't so much fun as TFT soloquests, because the text didn't hang together quite so well. So I took the plunge and read all of the rules. The next time we played, I was DM and my brother had six characters. It still wasn't really role-playing, but it was a start.

What I wanted was differentiated characters that disagreed with each other, but reached a common goal inspite of these problems. I wanted Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, I wanted the Fellowship of the Ring. What we had was a mutli-headed combat entity with a fighter (infantry), a wizard (artillery), a cleric (medic) and a thief (camp follower). With only one player, it was still very much like Wargaming, with the sole point being to destroy the enemy rather than to enjoy the journey.

I realised that to get what I wanted out of the game, I had to write my own adventures. But for that I needed more support. That Christmas, I got my Grandparents to buy me the full kit: The Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master's Guide. They of course read them to check for suitability and were surprised that I should want any book which had a harlot encounter table! You don't really get quality like that anymore in RPGs. Fortunately, Mum cleared it as suitable. And so, once again, it was all her fault, really.

We played the early TSR games and managed to interest a few more players but something was always lacking from them. I realised that the thing I did not like about the TSR adventures was that they were always pitched at a certain level of character. You couldn't wander off the beaten path and fall in with some bandits, nor just run away, because that would end the story. I decided to create my own world, where this sort of thing could happen.

I wrote my largest ever campaign: Xilba, a Lankhmar-esque city, infested with your usual medieval melting pot of thieves, wizards, ghosts and Gods. But I also added sensible things: there were peasants that farmed the land, there were lords that ruled and priests that prayed. Then I wrote a timeline, a future history of what the NPCs were doing, and added plenty of plot hooks. Mysterious ruined castles, unexplored wilderness with hidden treasures, trouble in the dwarven mines and enmities with the Thieves Guild. Finally, we created some players that fitted into the background. I hardly needed to write a plot. The PCs already had goals and fears and hopes. They knew that they wouldn't just meet kobolds if they wandered into the deep woods. They knew that since there was no linear adventure to follow, their actions could affect the entire world. They grew to respect the city as they explored its strengths and weaknesses and very soon they became part of it.

During the next four years, I ran the Xilba campaign twice, once in France and once in England. It became more than just a game, in some ways it acquired a reality of its own. I could tell you the name of the dwarven shipping magnate who ran the illegal still in the woods just north of Xilba, which of his sons had run up big gambling debts. And If the PCs didn't collect on the debt, you could be sure that someone else would.

This is where role-playing is interesting for me. It is not just about players or characters but also about Worlds. These places we create should have their own internal dynamics that are not dependent on the players. This gives the PCs the sense that the world is alive and not just existing around them, and this engages the imagination so much more, which is what I have always looked for in my games. The more I play, the less worried I become about rules and mechanics, for they seem to only interfere with the real point of the game, which is recreating that initial wonder I felt, 26 years ago, back in my mum's kitchen.

If you count Cowboys and Indians, Steve has been roleplaying for over 28 years. He enjoys Over The Edge, Traveller and anything with not too many dice. When not thrilling us with nostalgia, he is an evil fraud analyst for Big Brother. He and his equally fanatical gamer wife live in London.

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