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Once Upon A Time:
Set in Fantasy

by Jake de Oude


My introduction to RPG's wasn't one single event. It was a long road, with some important milestones on it.

My first major step on this road was my introduction to fantasy literature. This introduction involved the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. I read The Hobbit when I was about 10 years old. Both my mom and my older brother had read it and thought I should read it too. In retrospect, I'm grateful for this gentle push in the right direction. I devoured The Hobbit and about a year later, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Since then, I've read countless fantasy and science fiction books, including the Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert's complete Dune cycle, and the complete Belgariad and Malloreon by David Eddings. How great these books all are, and the impression they and Tolkien's work has made on me cannot be overemphasized.

The next step toward gaming-hood was the arrival of Magic: The Gathering. I was 14 at the time and a friend's friend urged us to take a look at it, so my friend and I bought some starter decks. Coincidentally, the decks arrived in store at precisely the same day we decided to buy them. Hand of God? Divine Intervention?

Magic had all these cards with lush pictures depicting all sorts of fantastic creatures. Art has always interested me, and Magic was chock full of it. Also,Magic had a lot of strategy in it. So much actually, that many articles and even books have been written about Magic and strategy, particular deck building. I was hooked, and it took me four years to get rid of the addiction.

So how is this important? Because Magic was the first non-computer game I ever played, apart from staples like Monopoly. It opened my mind to other games. At first, these were only card games, but that would change in time.

The second reason Magic was so important to me was that with it, we founded the local gaming group. With these people, I would game for four years, and it was a great time. I fondly recall those Saturday afternoons, sitting at the dining table in some friend's house. Like I said, card games dominated, with Magic leading the field, and Star Wars as the runner up.

One day, one of the other players had purchased a big box with a large red dragon on it. In this description, some of you may recognize the AD&D 2nd edition introductory box. That's right, AD&D was my first step into the world of RPGs - and I know I'm not the only one.

(Next time you criticize AD&D, think about that for a while. AD&D has probably brought more new gamers to the hobby than all other games combined. On that merit alone, it deserves our respect. Of course, for some of us, that's AD&D's only merit. But that's another story altogether.)

We only played one adventure with that box, but it was a memorable one. One of the things I recall most vividly is the flexibility of the rules. "AD&D flexible? But it's got classes and levels and ..." Well yeah, but you see: we grew up on a steady diet of Magic: the Gathering. And if there's any game that has bred a race of ruleslawyers, it's Magic. While running the dungeon crawl described in the box, one of the players asked whether his character could kick the white hot brazier towards the approaching goblins. After some checking, the GM said he could. Wow! What we've got here is a guy doing a clever thing, and there isn't even a rule against it. It wasn't an exploitation of a loophole in the rules, either. This rocked!

The rest of the adventure wasn't very spectacular or innovating, until another player asked if he could throw a heavy oaken table into some evil nasties. Wow! Another moment of coolness! Fortunately, he passed his strength check and didn't break his back...

After this single session we left AD&D to gather dust and returned to our cards. Now, there are some people on this world who get obsessive about the craziest of things. Among our group, there were some people who got obsessed with buying every new Magic expansion. And boy, Wizards of the Coast made a lot of those. They soon got obsessed with buying out-of-print extravaganzas as well. Eventually, this sort of behaviour made the game less fun. In the year before I went to the university, I all but stopped playing.

This wasn't the end of it, though. I went to college to study Computer Science - yes, some might say I am a nerd. So what? I got some new friends and after some time one of us mentioned AD&D. It appeared we all had had some exposure to RPGs and/or other games. AD&D? Let's do it. So we got together and began the campaign that was to last for two-and-a-half years. Our GM, a guy who had been roleplaying for two years, taught us some valuable lessons. For example:

My character Accolon (the name was taken from Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists Of Avalon - I did mention I am into Arthurian legend, didn't I?) was stalking around in a orc fortress. Together with his friend, an archetypical hobbit with the resounding name Sharky, we were infiltrating the premises. While taking a corner, we bumped into a large orc. In our book, an orc was a powerful adversary so I asked: "Do we fight or do we run?" *Bang* I was smacked on the head by the orc. This taught me the difference between in-game and out-of-character speech.

The second major lesson involved the importance of encumbrance. Sharky and Accolon had rescueda certain damsel in distress from another clan of orcs - apparently the world teemed with the green guys. The girl couldn't walk, so I carried her. I also carried some weapons, a bit of armor and a week's worth of supplies. The orcs pursued us, of course, and orcs have great stamina. (I should have known that, I had read The Lord of the Rings about six times...) After failing some constitution checks and some not-so-subtle hints from the GM --"What are you carrying? Do you need everything?"-- I decided to drop everything but the girl. This saved our collective ass and the day. Phew!

Lesson three: communication with other characters. Scene: Accolon and a female companion have to get into a certain part of town. It's guarded by three guards. Accolon's plan is to intimidate the guards: "You'd better let me through, or else... You don't know who I am? Wait till your sergeant hears of this!" Without prior notification towards the female fighter, he walks up to the guards and starts bluffing. The girl thinks: "This is a great diversion!" and sneaks past the guards. Accolon's bluffing doesn't work and he has to resort to fighting. One guard goes down. GM: "Do you continue?" Me: "Yes, that woman is bound to help me sometime soon!" The girl: "I'm already two blocks away..." Me: "But Accolon doesn't know this! Apart from that, he's angry at the guards for not believing him. It's their fault he's got to fight." That's reasoning! The second guard goes down, but Accolon is badly wounded. The next exchange was something like this:

"The last guard is in a frenzy."
"You killed his friends, remember?"
"Yeah, I did, didn't I? He won't accept my surrender if I offer it, will he?"
"Guess not."

At the end of the fight, I managed to kill all three guards - and myself.

Our first campaign lasted for two-and-a-half years, but I was the only player to make more than one character. In fact, I made four or five characters because they all died pretty quickly. The aforementioned Accolon, the bastard son of the King of Todyar and a lady-in-waiting from Avalon, would last the longest of them. My fatality rate didn't bother me much, though. Okay, it did bother me, but not as much as you might think, because of how much I enjoy creating new characters and backgrounds. I can spend hours filling in every little detail on the character sheet. It did bother me though that some characters whose stupid actions killed my characters managed to somehow survive through all the onslaught.

The campaign stopped with a boom. One player, Marc, had this evil wizard as a character. We all knew he was evil, but our character's didn't. Said wizard used a scroll to kill Sharky the hobbit. The hobbit was always getting on his nerves, and had foiled his plans once too often. However, said scroll was beyond the wizard's power and some failed checks later the entire party was dead. "Ehrm. Sorry"

Perhaps you're familiar with the phrase "Le roi est mort, vive le roi!" It applied this time. After smacking the wizard's player on the head, we all straight away made new characters, this time under my supervision. That's right, I was going to be a GM! Of course, I made all the common mistakes. I detailed a whole continent, complete with a map, though we would never get past the immediate surroundings. I developed complex NPC's with detailed backgrounds. As a result of this, the players immediately knew when one NPC was a major mover and shaker or just another average joe. "You're approached by this long guy. He's got blue eyes and brown hair. His clothes are green, under which he wears a delicately worked leather armor. His sword is a masterpiece, it shimmers in the sun. In a warm voice, he declares: 'Well met, travelers. I am Torangil of Todyar. Blah blah, blah...'" Compare this with my description of the mayor of the town:

"Uhm, ..., err, the mayor is stout guy. He's wearing armour."
"What's his name?"
"Ehrm, he doesn't have a name - No, EHRM, he's called...he's called...Billy!"

In the meantime, Marc had introduced me to Vampire: The Masquerade and the other storyteller games. Major breakthrough number four! Like I've said, I've always loved fantasy books, particular books with lots of setting material. Art is another interest of mine. Well, you can guess my reaction. The Storyteller games simply ooze setting and atmosphere. True to the zeitgeist, I never cared much for rules: setting was the thing that attracted me most to books. Since then, I've read many sourcebooks from Vampire, along with Wraith: The Oblivion and others. We even played two sessions worth of Vampire but couldn't find the time to experience more of it, next to our AD&D campaign.

And then our group of gamers met another group of gamers. This other group brought experienced players and heaps of material. The contact expanded our horizon because they were into boardgames, too: Roborally, Settlers of Catan, Lord of the Rings, to name a few. And while RPGs still dominate, they aren't the only kind of games I play anymore.

My road toward gaming-hood has been a long way, but it's been a very pleasent and memorable one. What began with an interest in fantasy literature has evolved into a major hobby. I've discovered many games and met many friendly people along the way. I wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world.

Right now, our GM runs a campaign with people from both our original group and the new one. It is to be the mother of all campaigns. Sunday is our next session - and I can't wait.

Jake de Oude is a student currently living in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. He has the strange habit of talking to computers, which is probably not the best way to communicate with them. His latest gaming experiences include a 9-hour-session of Civilization: the board game.

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