My dad was a wargamer – Panzerblitz, Mechwar ’77, Borodino, Tactics II, and so forth. My earliest, earliest gamer memory was being allowed to play alone in the basement while he and my Uncle Bill played a wargame there. I was probably five or six and the rule was “you can stay provided you are absolutely silent. Any noise at all and you are going upstairs”. It was excruciatingly difficult because I was basically a living noise at that point, but I managed.
A few years later I was introduced to roleplaying games. We were at a party at my Uncle Bill’s house, and he was describing (to my Dad), a weird new game he’d bought. I remember his exact words:
“And the guy told me he had a barbarian who went into a pyramid-shaped room. There was a treasure chest in it, and he opened it, and there was a necklace. He put it on, but it was a necklace of strangulation!”
And they both looked confused and sort of laughed nervously. My brother and I immediately appropriated the game, which was first-edition white box D&D. My Uncle was glad to get rid of it. It was late 1976.
We played for the first time the following summer. My brother Scott, at that point 11 years old, was the Dungeon master and I was the player. My first character ever was a wizard. His name was Bulldrag, and the first monster he ever killed was a Kobold, which my brother mispronounced “Kablob”. I had an Airfix French foreign legion figurine that we used to represent him on the map – he had a sword and a pistol. We were seriously hooked.
Scott and his friends formed a regular D&D group, and I inserted myself into their game, because I was smart and precocious and the DM’s little brother. I played a wizard all the way to ninth level, using AD&D rules before we switched to Traveller. I went to my first convention, using a name badge my Mom quite capably forged because she couldn’t afford to pay for two. We came home with Ogre, Melee, and Wizard, and played some freaky home-brew games like Geriatric Wars and Escape From Westerville State. We playtested The Morrow Project and Fringeworthy. It was a parade of awesomeness.
In fourth grade I ported a computer game called WUMPUS HUNT that I had played for hours on my Uncle’s KayPro to tabletop. I played it with my very confused Grandparents.
In fifth grade I retooled Melee into my first functional game design, a tactical combat game called BABY WARS. In Baby Wars you play actual babies, and fight to the death with blocks, toy cars, and baby bottles. It is unspeakably great and I still have the rules.
I remained the little kid in my brother’s middle school game group, now switched hard-core to The Morrow Project. We eagerly anticipated Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip, but my brother discovered girls and drugs at precisely the wrong time to play it. The same thing happened with Bunnies and Burrows, an “almost ran” I dearly love.
By the time I entered sixth grade I was ready for my own gaming, and “realism” was the watch-word. I got into vicious fights about the quality of D&D, which I had repudiated and dismissed, arguing that it was clownish and unrealistic. I wanted to know the backblast radius of antitank weapons. I was super-smart but did poorly in school. At one point my Mom had a conference with my principal and arrived armed with The Morrow Project. “See,” she said, “He can calculated the rate of blood loss from a 9mm handgun wound. He can plot ICBM vectors impacting metro Detroit. Your math teachers fail to engage him and these games do.” Go, Mom! But I was still a fuckup.
I was a GM now, and didn’t actually play a game again for many years. Middle school was dominated by The Morrow Project and later Bushido, for which I immersed myself in Japanese culture and myth, hunting down old dictionaries at flea markets and generally being an ass. Through conventions I was still in touch with Richard Tucholka, one of the co-authors of The Morrow Project, and eagerly purchased his trio of related games – Fringeworthy, Stalking the Night Fantastic (re-named Bureau 13 later), and FTL-2448. I ran and played all three, with a heavy emphasis on Stalking, throughout high school. I also bought the boxed set of Call of Cthulhu but ran it only a few times, perplexed as to what to do with it at all.
In high school I continued to scratch my game design itch. I developed a light “ghostbusters” like game (pre-Ghostbusters, I believe) in which you played exterminators dealing with unique challenges. Another project involved “Alien Detection and Termination teams” that boarded flying saucers (which were inexplicably crash landing around the world) and killing everything on board. It was fun as hell. Best, perhaps, was the lingering doubt as to why the knobby, pathetic aliens needed to be ruthlessly killed. There was a sinister metaplot and everything. The rules sort of worked, even, and we played it a lot. Another game was called BOV:2601 and was a truly trippy mix of time-traveling hyperintelligent cows, innocent high school students, and scary dudes modeled after the hunters in “Brother from Another Planet” which I renamed Quail-Heads. One project my friends and I discussed but never wrote was to be called “Human Flaws”, and would have been very much like the videogame Postal brought to the tabletop. Despite this obvious urge to fiddle and kit-bash, I played published games (even the tragically broken ones like Stalking) without modification.
In college I had a few really sad experiences on (a small, isolated) campus playing Call of Cthulhu and later Star Wars games that went nowhere. I’d occasionally play with my pals over breaks at home, but they had developed other interests, like alcohol. I had a lot of lonely fun with Man to Man and later GURPS, which I believed was the apotheosis of game design. I bought many supplements in preparation for the day I could actually play.
After college I never found a game group and had very strong opinions about what constituted good role-playing (these two facts are obviously related). At one point I made a concerted effort to abandon my preconceptions and, failing to find local players, joined a Vampire game played over IRC. I spent a lot of time in it (lonely fun time building out the MUD) but it was pretty weak. I don’t even like vampires and my character was some mundane lady in a wheelchair.
Much later I moved to the town where Scott lives, and we were both in a position to pick up gaming. I began a GURPS campaign and recruited a large and happy group of players. GURPS was easily moddable and I plunged into tweaking the system to support my game and the “feel” I wanted. It got more and more bare bones until I encountered FUDGE for the first time and made the switch. About this time I read about Dust Devils and my brother purchased and played it while I was out of the country – our first “indie game” exposure. After a year-long campaign using FUDGE I had read the GNS essays, and we switched again to a home-brew system using some of what I’d learned. I started fooling with game design again and I re-read the essays, starting to get really excited about having common language to describe our play experiences. I was reading about indie games and on the cusp of exploring further when I read about Dogs. I immediately bought a copy and jumped into the Forge with both feet.