Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Top TEN "Dungeons & Dragons" Movies


Whether you're a gamer or a writer, we all need inspiration, and the cinema is a great place to find it. But for me growing up in the eighties, there was a real scarcity of Sci-Fi or fantasy at the theater. Go to the movies today, and there may not be even a single poster about the real world. I can only imagine how depressing it must be for seniors looking for a Casablanca. But if spaceships and aliens were a rarity back then, magic and dragons were almost nonexistent. I remember a time when it was difficult to explain to people the types of stories I wrote, or even what D&D was all about, other than Satan worship. Now I can simply say, "Have you seen Lord of the Rings?" and that clarifies things. But the scarcity of fantasy in the 80's made me cherish those films, even the bad ones, all the more. It wasn't until 2001, the year of the fantasy renaissance, when we got both The Fellowship of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and studios discovered what publishers had long known, the horde of treasure that can be mined from the fantasy genre.

And so, with Dungeons & Dragons specifically in mind, I offer my picks for movies that will make you want to pick up that d20:


10. Mazes and Monsters: While technically not fantasy, the movie deals with the gaming phenomenon, dodging a direct D&D reference by calling it by another, albeit blatantly obvious name. Unfortunately, even Hollywood seems to have been taken by the RPG = Satanism/Suicide/Insanity hysteria, as a young Tom Hanks loses his mind and starts to wander the city "casting spells," something that has never happened to anyone in the history of gaming. Eventually, he ends up in a mental institution, believing he is a wizard. While this may sound laughable today, TSR actually took the criticism seriously enough to tell their readers that the player was not to confuse himself with his character! So while teenagers in the 80's were drinking and snorting cocaine, the real threat to their lives, according to this movie, is using your imagination! Thanks, Hollywood! As for me, the movie had the opposite effect, making me want to play D&D all the more.





9. Krull: Not a good movie by any standard, Krull was an attempt to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon, borrowing many of the same themes from the Sci-Fi epic. You have your evil overlord (Darth Vader) moving around in a teleporting castle (the Death Star) with his army of faceless soldiers (Storm Troopers); there is also a young hero mentored by an old wizard, who bestows upon him a magic weapon (a spinning blade thingy). But it was also considerably D&D inspired, as the party of heroes, including a fighter, wizard, some thieves and a cyclops, attain items, get "scried" upon, seek advice from a giant spider, and capture "fire horses," all in an attempt to reach the dungeon/castle and kill the boss monster. SPOILER ALERT: That spinning blade thing turns out to be useless, rendering the entire movie pointless.  




8. LadyHawke: This is a great movie, actually my mother's favorite movie, and she doesn't even like fantasy. It may have been forgotten because of how unusual it is, in that it is a straight up, old fashioned romantic drama set in a world of magic. Teenage boys could have found it too sappy, and girls may not have thought to look at the genre. The cast is stellar, however, from Mathew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Rutger Hauer (Bladerunner) to a very young, very beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. By day, Hauer is human, while his beloved (Pfeiffer) is a hawk. At night, she is human and he is a wolf. This curse was cast upon them by an evil priest, so that they are "forever together, yet always apart." Since my wife sleeps around 9:00 PM and I go to bed at 2:00, I sometimes feel like the guy in the movie. D&D elements include a knight with a special, jeweled sword (Hauer), a thief who plays the crucial role of breaking in and out of the castle (Broderick), and the evil spell caster (the Priest).




A perfect movie.
7. The Princess Bride: If you have not seen this yet, what is your problem? Stop reading and go watch it now! While not straight up D&D, there are enough great RPG moments to warrant its inclusion, including a "giant," played by Andre the Giant, one of the best sword fights ever put to film, a magic flaming "holocaust" cloak, and a "Fire Swamp" which consists of "lightning sand," shooting fire traps, and my favorite, ROUS's (Rodents Of Unusual Size). Best of all, the whole thing is a book being read to a sick child, a kid who, at first, just wants to play video games.








6. Legend: Conversely, this may be the worst movie on this list, a film in desperate need of CGI and a much bigger budget. Starring a baby faced Tom Cruise and directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Ridley Scott, of Alien and Gladiator fame, Legend was a confusing mess, Scott's fantasy Prometheus, but for 1985 it was extremely ambitious, and is to be commended for what it managed to achieve. It's also one of the more D&D movies on this list, with unicorns, goblins, and of the coolest looking villains of all time, who is, basically, Satan. In fact, he's the reason I remember the film at all. It's a movie that makes Satan look awesome, and that's what D&D is all about. Hail, Satan! Also, did I mention Tom Cruise is in it?







Based on a true story.
5. Clash of the Titans: Never mind that awful remake, the 80's version is the real deal. I watched this incessantly growing up. It is also one of the last great live actions films to utilize claymation, from legendary monster maker Ray Harryhausen. While the Greek mythological setting is a bit of a departure from the traditional Anglo-Germanic-folklore D&D is typically set in, the movie features enough magic items and monsters for any campaign, including a sword that cuts through marble, a mirror shield, and an invisibility helmet. It also boasts more pages from the Monster Manual than any other movie, with a giant vulture, a satyr, a two-headed dog, a Pegasus, a Medusa, an undead skeleton, and the KRAKEN!








4. Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer: No list of D&D films could be complete without these classics, one of the rare fantasy flicks from the 80's to be popular (due to sex and muscles), the first of which also launched the career of one Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Barbarian is by far the superior of the two, with an unbeatable soundtrack by Basil Poledouris, you can't help but feel that the sequel, Destroyer, was some Dungeon Master's campaign turned into a script. All the elements are here, from your obligatory party members: fighter (barbarian), thief, and wizard, to your ice castle of evil illusionist, to door that can only open via magic, to your horn of demonic summoning. It all culminates, finally, with the birth of a monster god, whom the party must work together to slay. Hell, I want to play this right now!






3. Willow: Say what you will about George Lucas, but to me, he is a great filmmaker. Willow was directed by Ron Howard, adapting a story by the flanneled one, and while it failed to do for fantasy what Star Wars did for Sci-Fi, it's still a great flick, with fairies, shape shifting sorcerers, magic wands, love potions, seeds that turn things to stone and a two-headed fire breathing "dragon." Best of all, his dwarves are actually dwarves in real life, which makes one wonder why Peter Jackson couldn't have done the same. Was Peter Dinklage unavailable? He could have made a great Thorin Oakenshield.    









An actual good movie!
2. The Fellowship of the Ring: What should come as no surprise, the book that inspired D&D makes for the ideal D&D movie. But while Return of the King, with its 11 academy awards, makes for a superior film, the first in the series is the most D&Dish, with its gathering party members and a foray into the Mines of Moria, a dungeon crawl complete with orcs, goblins, and a fire demon! Unlike any other flick on this list, Fellowship proved that fantasy can make for serious cinema. It also ushered in a new era, as movies were no longer limited by special effects. Anything imaginable could be put on celluloid, and RPG nerds the world over could finally show people what the heck they've been doing for decades. Once the domain of lonely introverts, fantasy became part of pop culture, and after the superhero became the biggest blockbuster genre, girls started wearing "I Love Nerds" T-shirts.





That's what I'm talking about!
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: You just can't get more D&D than this. Red dragon sitting on a mound of treasure? Check. Dwarves out on a quest? Check. A wizard with a tall hat and staff and a special key? Check. Random encounter with trolls and orcs? Check. Random loot and "+" swords like Glamdring and Goblin Cleaver? Check. Maps with hidden writing that can only be read by the light of a certain moon by a thousand year old elf lord? Check. Escaping an underground lair of raging goblins? Check. A wizard using his newly attained magic sword to make a critical hit against a goblin king? What more could you want? An excellent movie too? Check. Roll a d20!









Don't watch this!
Dishonorable Mention: Dungeons & Dragons: You might think the most Dungeons & Dragons movie should be a movie actually called Dungeons & Dragons, but you'd be wrong. The movie, starring Jeremy Irons, is so horrendous, it momentarily stunted my imagination. I actually watched it with my friend after playing D&D, and it made us question whether our cherished hobby wasn't some silly pastime, something for lonely geeks to grow out of. It's that bad.
  




     

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TOP TEN Reasons Tabletop RPGs are Better than Video Games!


Who needs a PS4 when you've got hoop and stick!?!
Getting my nephews to play Dungeons & Dragons is like asking them to play 'hoop and stick.' You'd think I was some out of touch grandpa trying to relive the good ol' days, when soda pop cost a nickel and you could watch Mickey Mouse at the start of any movie, and all they're thinking about is saving up for the next iteration of Call of Duty. Thing is, I love video games. My first system was an Atari 2600, which was followed by the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, N64, Playstation, Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, Playstaion 2, X-Box, Wii, Wii U, X-Box 360 and Playstation 3, not to mention the ten grand I've put down on gaming computers. I enjoy what people today call "RPGs," from Final Fantasy to Elder Scrolls to Mass Effect. No doubt, you can and should enjoy both, as they offer different forms of entertainment, but stranded on an island with only one thing to do, my game is dice and paper, a real deal tabletop RPG, and here's why:   

10. THEY'RE EDUCATIONAL: I've learned many things from video games, the history of WWII from Call of Duty, the physics of racing automobiles from Gran Turismo and city planning from Sim City, but this kind of education is usually the exception and often limited by play mechanics. Call of Duty does little to teach the player the historical aspects that led to the war. Tabletop games, on the other hand, exercise the mind in every academic, from mathematics to creative writing to graphic design. I owe much to D&D for helping my writing career.

9. THEY'RE TANGIBLE: You can touch, smell, and taste. TRPGs deal with real objects: dice, miniatures, paper, and any number of props. Some people even dress up for their gaming sessions. I like to be able to physically give my players the items featured in an adventure. The magic wand? It's right there, in your hand! Consoles have yet to simulate all 5 senses.

8. THE FUN NEVER ENDS: How many times have you watched the credits roll at the end of a great game and wished there was more? Say you love Halo, and just can't wait until Halo Six comes out. Great. But eventually, you'll get the game, marvel at all the new content, and in a couple of weeks you're back wishing and hoping for another expansion. Some franchises, like Zelda, you might have to wait half a decade for something new. In TRPGs, there is no waiting. Every game is something new.

7. THEY'RE TIMELESS: Let's face it, we live in a disposal culture. The greatest thing today is garbage the next. That is why I love D&D, because it is essentially the same since the 70's. The newer editions are just tweaks. Video games rarely live up to the hype, and even if they do, the excitement quickly passes. Donkey Kong is still fun after 30 years, but my daughter treats it more as a curiosity than anything else. In another 30 years, I doubt the teenagers of that time will care about Halo the way the teens of today do. Consequently, I look forward to sharing TRPGs with my children.

6. YOU CAN ALWAYS IMPROVE IT: Every video game has something that just doesn't work perfectly. The reason for this is simple: everyone's tastes differ, and programmers can never make us all happy equally. We all wish that one impossible level would go away at the end of such and such game; we've all said to ourselves, "Wouldn't it be cool if . . ." Well, in a tabletop game, you can! Don't like the rules to 4th edition D&D? Toss them out. Think the rail gun in Red Faction is too cheap, or the end boss in Metroid Prime too hard, or that Princess Peach should be playable in New Super Mario Bros.? Too bad.

5. SOMETIMES THE HERO FAILS: This might sound like a bad thing, but when victory is assured, it's meaningless. Will Nathan Drake find the lost city of gold and save his girlfriend? There's no doubt, and for this reason, there can be no real tension, no genuine excitement. In a TRPG, you're not always the hero. The universe does not revolve around your character. You are part of a group and must prove your worth, and even then there are never any guarantees. I played Dragon Mountain, a module for D&D, for three months with a friend until my party was obliterated by a red dragon. That was it. The end. More recently, MMORPGs have tried to address this issue, but the problem then becomes the opposite. Your actions are irrelevant. The next big expansion in World of Warcraft isn't directly related to what YOU did and how you played. Failing a quest in WoW won't affect the game for the millions of other subscribers.

4. YOU CAN BE ANYTHING: I tire of playing with other people's ideas, in worlds created in other people's imaginations. Tabletop games allows me to make the rules, the heroes, everything. Nothing can beat the hero that comes from your own mind! And just among friends, copyright infringement means nothing, so you can literally be anyone, from Conan to Indiana Jones to Homer Simpson.

3. THEY'RE SOCIAL: Never mind social networking. I could care less about the guy in China who's kicking my ass in Street Fighter; I mean, it's great that the technology exists to play with people from around the world, but why would I want to do that? I prefer the company of friends and family, face-to-face, across the table. The Internet still can't replace real, genuine, human interaction.

2. ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES: My nephew, who is new to TRPGs, thought it a good idea to drink a bunch of vials he found in a lab, not even bothering to check what the liquids were. Doubtless, he would not drink whatever chemicals he'd find in my closet. But this is the video game mindset, because you can always respawn or reload with a console. You can die a hundred times in an afternoon without the slightest concern. But in a TRPG, you drink acid, you die, and die for good. Maybe the GM will take pity on you and find a way to revive you, but it will never be as easy as a reset button. It reminds me of a friend who ran a game where one of his players died. The player was distraught for days, until his mom called my friend up to ask, "Why did you kill my son!"
 
Death used to mean something . . .

1. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN! Computer and video game gamers never realize the narrow parameters set upon them and their imaginations. It's as if they've lived their whole lives in a prison, so they don't really know they're imprisoned. As much freedom as The Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft give you, it's nothing compared to the infinite possibilities you can have in a tabletop game, and the worst part is, people hooked on video games are trained to limit their thinking, imagination and creativity because of it. Often, I find that people with zero gaming experience have an easier time thinking "outside the box." I remember playing a D&D campaign with a friend who simply could NOT understand what he was "supposed to do." It never occurred to him that he didn't have to fight the monster at all to save the girl. Say you like a sandbox adventure like Zelda . . . instead of fighting and killing every goblin in sight, why not subdue one, tie him to a tree, and force him to tell you where the hidden key is? And if he doesn't listen, maybe you'll break his knuckles? Of course, you can't even think about doing something like that, because it isn't programmed into the game.

There is no wrong way to play a TRPG! 


Saturday, November 22, 2014

D&D: A Memoir: 3rd, 4th and 5th Editions


So the beastmen have taken off with Celine Botissea. They have her on a spit and the fire is roaring. Soon she'll be roasted alive, like a human marshmallow. Her only hope is Juraviel, the wizard, but he is at a loss for what to do. The village is enclosed by tall wooden posts, like Jamestown circa the 16th century, and the poor wizard can think of nothing but to knock. Beastmen are bigger and stronger than humans, so when they answer the gate, it quickly dawns on him that there is no hope of killing them, and killing them is the only option that pops into his head. "I just don't know what I am supposed to do!" he cries in anguish, as the beastmen sharpen their knives and forks inside the camp, preparing to dine on paladin, and the wizard's friend. Of course, the keyword here is: supposed. It never occurs to Juraviel to do something unexpected, like start a fire, or use a simple spell to impersonate a deity, ala C3PO in Return of the Jedi. Fighting is the only thing that comes to mind, because my friend, Steve, is unaccustomed to this kind of gaming. He has been raised on a steady diet of video games, where options are preprogrammed, and therefore, limited. The infinite possibilities of a true, tabletop RPG are beyond his capacity to grasp. Not to worry, though, with enough prodding from the DM (that's me) he eventually burns the village down, and as the beastmen run for their lives, Botissea escapes. 


Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

Just when I was 100% certain I would never game again, TSR is bought by a company called Wizards of the Coast, the makers of a very popular card game, Magic: The Gathering. WoC produces a vastly superior form of D&D with 3rd edition, which offers more possibilities than ever before. Monster and character stats share the same format, so it becomes easy to role play just about any creature, including a genie, a sexy female genie I later make for Steve. Also, Armor Class (the number you need to roll to hit the enemy) is a positive number, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than (-10) being good and (+10) being bad. And the shiny new covers, with their faux spell book designs, is just too enticing to pass up. I even mailed a set to Evan, who ended up feeling frustrated by his inability to play.


Me.
With 3rd edition, I wanted to go back to basics. No more superheroes or demon characters or space travelers. Our adventures took a page out of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, so I was Celine Botissea the paladin (my first female character) while my friend was Juraviel the wizard. I was deep into my second novel at the time, The Dark Age of Enya, which features a race of nudist protagonists, so I also came up with Tezrah, a naked monk. This is when I came to discover that when it comes to RPGs, technology can be a double edged sword. From the Internet, I could steal remarkable, inspiring images of heroes and landscapes to make my childhood self's jaw drop; but at the same time, a greater number of people were dropping dice in exchange for keyboards. For a lot of people, D&D was simply outdated. Why use your imagination when you can watch the action unfold on your computer? Thing is, I am no stranger to electronic RPGs. I bought my first computer, an AMIGA 500, just to play Dungeon Master. But for me, tabletop games will always remain the real deal. After decades of D&D, World of Warcraft and EverQuest is like role playing Thomas the Train Engine; you are just stuck on the tracks, following a predetermined course. There is no more "open world" than a tabletop game. But show a bunch of dice and graph paper to someone raised on computer games, and they'll look at you with pity, like your some clueless grandfather reminiscing about "the good ol' days." Still, I convinced my friend Steve to give it a shot, and we ranked up to 6th level, and defeated Yog Sothoth, a cleric, psionicist mind flayer. Sadly, it was the last hurrah for Celine and crew, due to a random encounter with a girl named Hynde. She was a human student from the land of Morocco, of neutral good alignment, with a high intelligence, wisdom and charisma score. Also, she had a special magic ability, a charm Greek writers spell, which acted in a 10' radius, or within visual or auditory range, even from the phone, and it lowered all of my attributes, especially my constitution. So my days of gaming were cut short, only this time, willingly.  


Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Everyone agrees 4th edition was a disaster. It was so bad, the fans were divided in half, like the great Catholic/Orthodox schism of 1054, and a 3rd edition knock-off was created known as Pathfinder. In an attempt to cater to video gamers, the makers of D&D had attempted to emulate MMORPGs, essentially robbing the game of its most defining quality: infinite possibilities. Now, fighters had a set number of "special" moves they could perform a certain number of times per day, since, just like in real life, once you do something once, the laws of physics prevent you from doing it again until after a short rest. There were many other, technical details I didn't like, but I bought a whole new set of books regardless. My nephews, Arthur and Fonda, were just about old enough to be introduced to the game, so I bought the older one a starter set for his 10th birthday, which he politely thanked me for, before tossing it in with Battleship, Monopoly and the pair of socks from his aunt, while ogling Soul Calibur IV for his X-Box.

My wife.

We played 4th edition for approximately one hour. My wife was Princess Isadora, Arthur was Demacharon, and my younger nephew, Fonda, was a ninja (he really wanted to be a ninja) named Hadoken. Isadora was the ruler of Mythradanaiil, but her jealous step-brother wanted the throne, hiring Hadoken to assassinate her. Spellbound by her beauty and charm, however, the ninja was unable to carry out his mission, and soon he and Demacharon were fighting an army of archers, down a huge flight of stairs, to save the princess' life. They made it out of the castle, but we never played after that. Oddly, this tiny adventure turned out to be the most important game of my life, inspiring my current novel, The Princess of Aenya


D&D 5th Edition

Having a mortgage, a restaurant, two kids and literary aspirations, my biggest problem is time. I am always rushing to do things. The days of 1st edition, when my friends and I had 3 months with absolutely nothing to do, seem like a dream. Now, I watch movies and play games only if they're short, and MMORPGs scare me like doing heroin. But my need to touch a d20 persisted, like an ex-smoker needing a toothpick in place of a cigarette. And yet D&D, I realized, was just too damn complicated to explain and time consuming to play. Then I came home to my seven year old daughter, Jasmine, who was making her own board game. She was inspired my Mario Party, and as I started to help her with it, I realized that by adding a few numbers and dice, I could make a board game for people who love D&D but just don't have the time. That is how QUEST FOR THE TALISMANS was born. I spent years refining the rules, up to a 5th edition of my own, using D&D mini figures and a greatly simplified combat system. Arthur invited dozens of his friends from high school to play it and we all had a great time. Despite his continued obsession with video games, he enjoyed the social aspect of tabletop gaming. But deep down inside of me, I knew, it just wasn't the same. The board game was too limiting, and my real love was for creating things, not playing them.

When 5th edition came out, just last month, I was skeptical. Over the years, D&D has become more complex with each new iteration, with more rules to learn, which only served to put off newcomers. What the game desperately needed was streamlining, simplifying, and that was, to my surprise, exactly what the makers of 5th edition did. Here was a game I could introduce to my now ten year old daughter. And who knows, maybe the seed of a new book will come from it. Our first campaign is this Saturday following Thanksgiving. Jasmine is Lilliea, an elf sorceress.  


D&D Infinite Edition

Maybe I really am an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe in a few decades, nobody will be playing tabletop games anymore, except to be nostalgic, the way people still watch plays but secretly wish they were at a movie. Perhaps, with enough computer power, future MMORPGs will find a way to offer near infinite options. As for me, I sometimes dream of the time when I'll be an aging retiree, somewhere in my seventies, having all the free time in the world. Maybe I'll be living in a nursing home, or hopefully a nudist resort. That's when I'll dig out my fifty year old d20 (I still have it), get a pen and graph paper, and find out what the heck those damn lizard men were doing all those years ago.  

My daughter.




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 2nd Edition: Hell Breaks Loose!


Climb up to the roof! What's the worst that could happen?
By this point, Dr. Van Richten was begging. "Please, please I don't want to; I'm scared of heights!" But Dr. Van Helsing was insisting, and he was holding the shotgun. Somehow, they needed to learn what was going on in the mansion, and Helsing was not about to barge in through the front door, guns blazing. 

They were supernatural investigators, enemies of the undead, and on many occasion the two of them had slain zombies and werewolves, and even thwarted the plans of princely vampires. But this was a threat like never before, a maniacal doctor hell bent on bringing the dead to life, through science! And yet, how could they be certain what was going on, without evidence? So Helsing continued to insist, rather forcefully, "Just climb up to the third floor window and tell me what you see!" Despite his dread fear of heights and lack of dexterity, Richten acquiesced, slowly beginning the climb. He reached the second floor without much difficulty, but the windows were too dark, and he could see nothing. From the safety of the ground, Helsing urged him on, and Richten, trembling and with vertigo, clamored up to the third story window, and that's when it happened . . . He slipped. Clawing desperately at empty space with a blood curdling scream, Richten tumbled from the balcony, falling headfirst into the ground. Helsing rushed to his side, to his friend and comrade in fighting evil, but it was too late. Dr. Van Richten was dead, below zero hit points, at which point my friend and I looked at each other, and burst into tears of laughter. What cruel, hilarious irony! Twenty years have passed since we played that game, and one of us will be like, "Hey, remember when Van Richten fell off the roof and died? And he kept saying, 'Please, please I don't want to go?'" Hilarity.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition


Mike Wilson
After my long ordeal, losing my best friend, George, to Satan and skateboarding, I was certain my RPG days were over. Sure, I tried some less satanic games, like the Batman RPG, but it was stupid. "Hey, who do you want to be? Batman or Robin? Ooh, we get to fight more thugs!" Then, as a senior in High School, I met Mike Wilson and Tommy VanDyke, who were into comic books and D&D. It was a shock finding other human beings interested in the game, and that even a second edition existed! The rules were slightly different, but for me, D&D had always been about playing pretend with math. Tommy had been the DM, but as his campaign was boring everyone, I quickly took over. Thing is, after my 1st edition days, I lived in fear of losing players, so I decided to go nuts and throw tradition out the window, doing the most outrageous things imaginable. After four years without D&D, I let my players be superheroes. Mike was Wolverine and Tommy was Sabertooth. Soon, five or six kids crowded into my parents' kitchen, and I was Dr. Strange, a 9th level wizard, while a very annoying sophomore kept muttering, "I'm the Haaaalk!" because he was the Hulk. My mom grumbled something about satanism, but I just blew her off, because I was seventeen. She eventually chalked the whole 1st edition ordeal to, "Well, I guess your Greek teacher was crazy!" It quickly dawned on us, however, that being superheroes wasn't as fun as we'd thought. We were gods cutting through the toughest monsters with ease.


The Hunt for Demagorgon

There was a baddie in the 1st edition Monster Manual that I always dreamed of killing. This was Demagorgon, Prince of Demons, the ultimate boss monster, with 200 hit points and a -10 armor class (which is, like, a lot, trust me). This guy could rot your arm off just by touching you and make you insane just by looking at you! Also, he had two heads. As a DM, this was to be my magnum opus; I called it the The Hunt for Demagorgon. There was Mike, Tommy, Craig (Hulk kid) and their friends, and with the help of the Greek demi-god, Dynotus; Namor the Submariner (don't ask); a monk named Akira; and a newly resurrected Sir Marek the Brave, we battled a lich king, a red dragon, and crashed a Demon Convention. It was the most satanic game I had ever run, but we weren't worshiping Satan; we were kicking his ass and taking names. The final dungeon drove the players insane (literally). I had them going back to the beginning of the campaign (in an illusion) and fighting their future selves. Eventually, Demagorgon fell, and a new demon prince took over, Chernobog (the Slavic god of evil) from Disney's Fantasia (we watched the film). 


Disney = Satan



Masters of the Universe

We played a few more crazy adventures, including one where we were demons named after heavy metal bands, so I was Metallica and someone else was Megadeth, and another kid insisted on being White Zombie (a demon named zombie?). And we stormed the gates of Heaven, at which point, you could argue, the game was satanic, but again who cares. Then after high school, we went our separate ways, except for Tommy and me. Aside from killing Demogorgon, I'd always wanted to play as my childhood inspiration. I remember asking Mike Von Kreninsky, back when I was 12, whether I could be He-Man, but he scoffed. He-Man was just too powerful. But now? Rules went out the window. I spent a good year recreating the Masters of the Universe universe into D&D, making stats for every character, maps for Eternia, and dungeons for Snake Mountain and the Fright Zone and Castle Grayskull. Tommy played six super powered heroes at the same time! Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, would likely have been spinning in his grave, had he been dead. When Tommy stupidly opened an airlock, and all his characters got sucked into space, I had six more ready to go! He eventually met He-Man to fight Skullgrin, a villain of my own creation, a guy who could give Satan nightmares, who wiped out half the party with the cone of disintegration coming out of his eyes! Of course, Skullgrin was destroyed in the end, because, you know, HE-MAN!


I win!

The Game Grows Up

A serious debate among kids is whether Superman can beat up Batman, or Goku, or any other hero. For whatever reason, boys are obsessed with power, and not the kind involving electric bills. In Marvel's The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos wants to become the most powerful being in the universe, not the most respected or well loved, only the most powerful, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. It makes perfect sense when you're 12. It never really occurred to us to think what, exactly, would someone do with all of that power. This is why, after defeating Skullgrin, there seemed to be nothing left to do, but take on more gods of evil. We didn't exactly give up D&D, but I remember going through room after room of monsters, bored beyond belief. Here I was, doing what I loved most, and hating every minute of it. Imagine being in the middle of sex and thinking, "Gee, I can't wait for this to be over." Eventually, we stopped being friends over something stupid. Maybe it was that Tommy was a horrible DM, and I just couldn't find a nice way to break it to him. I honestly thought, "This is it, Nick, you did everything you wanted."

My brother-in-law works for a small college with many students from abroad. Being Greek, he decided to take a poor aspiring graphic designer from Athens under his wing. His name was Evan Kyrou and we were both in our early twenties. At first, we talked video games, because that's what people do, but the subject turned to RPGs, and he casually mentioned a preference for "the real thing." I couldn't believe it, another D&D nut! And like no other friend I had before, he was a creative genius. His style of play focused on story, and only very little on combat, and it quickly dawned on me that power did not matter. What makes The Lord of the Rings interesting isn't how much of a bad ass Frodo is, but how a simple, unassuming hobbit can find the courage to face overwhelming obstacles at great personal sacrifice. D&D was exciting again, not because we were killing gods, but because we were role playing and not roll playing. My first campaign was based on my novel, The Nomad, in which Evan's character, Dynotus, searched for his kidnapped wife in a Greek/Arabic setting. Dynotus later traveled to Asia (I used my dad's National Geographic Book on China for its amazing photos), where he met a gold dragon monk named Akira; defeated the emperor, a red dragon in disguise; and went on to defend Greece against Mongol invaders. 

For my birthday, Evan introduced me to my favorite author, H.P. Lovecraft, and we started playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG, with some minor tweaks to the D&D system. I had him living with the Albertsons (loosely based on my own family), as one by one, each family member died in horrific ways. Evan's character had to find the murderer, though it turned out to be (spoiler alert!) himself (or was it?). Sanity is a big theme in Lovecraft's writings, so in a followup adventure, he had to escape from an insane asylum after killing dozens of doctors and nurses (or were they demons?), and as fans of metal, we blasted Metallica and White Zombie during the game. 


Satan is my bitch.

My goal to do everything in D&D didn't end with modern day hospitals. But where hadn't we gone? SPACE, that's where, the final frontier! I made a random solar system generator, using a real astronomy map, so that Evan could explore the universe. He played a female warrior with telekinetic and psychic powers named Marina Lucien, and years later, by some amazing coincidence, Evan (in the real world) met and married a girl named Marina. A planet of snake men went on to inspire The Serpent's Eye in Ages of Aenya

The best part about playing with Evan was that I enjoyed being the player as much as DMing. His favorite setting was Ravenloft, based on classic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein, and that's when poor Dr. Van Richten fell to his death, perhaps my most memorable D&D event.    

Sadly, Evan graduated from college, and returned to Greece. I was left alone again, making rules out of boredom for martial arts and for decapitating people (roll a d12 on an 'effect chart'.) But this time, it really did seem my gaming days were over. Of course, 3rd edition was right around the corner.  



   

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 1st Edition


My first D&D book!
Once upon a time . . . there lived an elf named Hektor and a half-orc named Lattice. Hektor and Lattice were strolling through the woods when they came upon a group of lizard men. Lightning streaked the sky, and shortly after it began to rain, but the elf and the half-orc continued to spy on the reptilian gathering. The lizard men were standing over a stone circle set into the ground. One of them came forth holding a staff. He appeared to be a priest of some kind, enacting a ceremony. The circular stone was etched with runes, at the center of which was a hole. Now the wind was gusting and the lightning falling furiously. Hektor, being young and lusting for battle, rushed headlong into the scaly host, as Lattice, rolling his eyes at the predicament he was being drawn into, followed with mace in hand. A few bloody rounds later, all of the lizard men lay dead or dying, and the elf fighter and half-orc cleric victorious. But what was the ceremony all about? Was the staff meant to go into the stone circle, perhaps to open a stairway into some secret dungeon? It was at that point that the Dungeon Master, Michael Von Kreninsky III, got out of the booth, saying that he had to go. "But we only just started!" I complained. "Sorry, I've got a date," he said, leaving my friend and I to wonder what would have happened to Hektor and Lattice had they completed the ritual. It's been almost thirty years now and I am still wondering. 

This was the summer of '87, a primitive time before YouTube, iPhones or DVDs. All we had were Fridays at the movies and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the only thing worth playing was Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson's Punch Out. My friends and I were getting too old for toys and desperately needed something to keep us busy for three months. That's when we met Michael, an eighteen year old college student working for my dad as a pizza cook. He introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, giving me a binder of adventures he had made in the seventies, along with his beat up copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide. I held that book in my hand as if it were magic, because for me at least, it was. Such a book could open pathways to any place and time, allowing us to be anything, do anything. We were bound only by the limits of our imagination. Unfortunately, Michael did not stick around to teach us how to play, so I spent weeks struggling with rules, never realizing how poorly written those seventies books were, or that I was missing some key components like The Player's Handbook.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or 1st Edition

Eventually, my friends and I learned the game. It was me, my friend George Lakiotis, and Mark Carlisimo. We would hang out all day in the back room of my dad's restaurant, drawing maps and rolling dice. I'd always been an imaginative kid, but this was like a powerful hallucinogenic bringing everything in my mind to life, the DMT of games. And I was Sir Marek the Brave, a human fighter, who eventually became the "Nova Knight." 


I drew this in '88, and photoshopped it in 2010.

George was a wizard named Heraldo, who looked a lot like the news pundit, and Mark was the half-orc cleric, Lattice. My first world, I'm ashamed to say, was Nick's Realm. It included wonderfully inventive places like Elf City, Dwarf City and Human City. But we eventually set sail from Nick's Realm to explore other worlds, hacking and slashing our way through countless dungeons and monsters. In Egypt, we suffered the curse of Anubis, after looting his temple. In Greece, we met with Heracles and Bellerophon, from whom Sir Marek earned his magical Spartan-like helmet. In Norway, we helped Thor find a magic jewel that had fallen from his hammer, Mjolnir. There wasn't a mythological setting beyond our reach! Then, as we were preparing to storm the gates of Orcus, Prince of Demons, Sir Marek and Heraldo got into a fight. You see, for the longest time, I had been a jerk to my friend, putting him down for his lack of effort, even though he did manage to DM a lot, including the time Sir Marek killed a red dragon to gain a +4 Sword of Defending. I also tended to insult him when he couldn't find a solution to a puzzle. But the larger problem was that we were growing apart. George only cared for skateboarding and hanging out with his skateboarding buddies. I owned a skateboard, mostly for his sake, and could do a 180 without much difficulty, but George excelled way beyond me, rail sliding down stairwells and ollying small dogs and doing other crazy shit I simply did not have the dexterity for. So, while I wanted to throw dice, he just wanted to gleam the cube.


George had the skills. Me, not so much.

But what really put the nail in Sir Marek's sarcophagus was what would seem today utterly ludicrous, that thing being SATAN. No, I'm not talking about the impossible boss from Ghosts n' Goblins, but the very real Satan, the same guy religious people believe in. 


That's right . . . SATAN!
At the time, my mother was forcing me to take Greek lessons, but when it came to God, my tutor was bat shit crazy. Now it wasn't as if I had no experience with fundamentalism. For eight straight years, I attended a Baptist School, where I was forced to wear ties on Wednesdays and thank God for every damn pencil and eraser I brought to class, and where I was told not to watch He-Man or Transformers because they were satanic. But my Greek teacher took things to Scarlet Letter-levels of insanity. This was a woman who, after the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, told me, in all seriousness, that the astronaut crew were killed for "trying to reach God." 


God's divine punishment. Hey, who's the good god here?

She also refused to attend her own son's wedding when he married outside of the Orthodox Church. So, naturally, when she learned of my gaming habits, she made it her mission to put a stop to it. As far as she was concerned, my friend and I were spending our weekends worshiping Satan. Of course, I could not have cared less what the batty old lady had to say, but my mother took the whole thing seriously. She forbade me from D&D, and what's worse, George's mother caught wind of it and did the same. Despite my attempts to explain RPGs, I could not convince my mother that the game was just a game and nothing to fear. 

Unfortunately, I was still at an impressionable age, and being brainwashed both at school and at home, so that after a while, paranoia started to creep in, and I got to thinking that maybe there was something to this satanic stuff. After all, I'd been taught since kindergarten that demons were real. In retrospect, Dungeons & Dragons posed a threat not to my soul, but to my indoctrination. I mean, the Monster Manual treated demons and devils like any other made up creature. Logic follows that if the unicorn on p. 200 is imaginary, why not Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Plane of Hell, found on p. 10? This was especially challenging to my faith, because I was raised to believe in the Bible, not just the realistic parts, but even the Book of Revelation with its seven headed dragon. If some of it turned out to be fiction, so could all of it . . . and maybe even God was just another deity from Hebrew mythology. But I was far too young, and unprepared, to handle such an existential crisis, and it led me to having nightmares, and to tearing out the pages of demons and devils from my Monster Manual. Sure, it might sound extreme, but this was a different time, when even the media occasionally lost its mind over supernatural nonsense. I remember being in the library with my D&D books, when a strange lady stopped to warn me of the dangers of fantasy. Even journalists, who should have known better, got taken in by the hysteria. According to the article, "The Most Dangerous Game," D&D can lead to suicide! Of course, this cause and effect argument is the oldest in the proverbial book of fallacies. Using the same logic, if you like to eat peanut butter and kill yourself, we can all blame peanuts for suicide. But remember, this was the eighties, long before Doom and Diablo and World of Warcraft, back when parents fretted over everything and anything their kids were doing that they did not understand, so even TSR, the makers of D&D, bowed to the pressure, releasing a 2nd edition without any mention of devils or demons (they went by other names).

Ultimately, I was forced to quit reading and writing and drawing and being creative in so many ways, but religion wasn't entirely to blame; it was also my best friend, who had suddenly grown a conscious. And that was what really infuriated me. This was a guy who never went by the rules, a true rebel without a cause, getting an earring (a big deal at the time), smoking and even stealing his mom's car. But when it came to D&D, he just had to obey. Despite so many happy memories, the game tore our friendship apart. Only later did I realize my role in our falling out, for putting him down all the time. We simply had different ability scores. His was for skateboarding, and mine for writing.

I continued Sir Marek's adventures in my Novel of the Nova Knight series, but my gaming days were over. That was, until, my senior year of high school, and Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.