I had been discussing my history with roleplaying games with an acquaintance today, and out of curiosity, I looked up what edition of Dungeons & Dragons I had first purchased as boy, and found it was the 5th edition of the “Basic Set” published in late 1978/early 1979 (I’m pretty certain it was purchased with a Christmas gift card to Hess’ department store.)
That means that I have been gaming — with a few breaks thanks to life events — 36 years now… It also got me thinking about all the games I’d played over the years. With plenty better to do with my time (like work on prepping a couple of up-coming 400-level classes and working on the new novel), I sat down, busted open Numbers on the MacBook Air, and started filling a spreadsheet with the games that had been played over the years and when. I didn’t get too granular — there were a few years where I might not have gamed for half the year, looking for players, or overtaken by events — but I did keep it to games I had played at least twice, or had some level of a campaign run.
I noticed trends in gaming that wouldn’t have occurred to me — when major life changes are in the offing, I tend to drop down to one particular game, after which there is an explosion of trying new games, before settling (generally) into two to three campaigns running coterminously. In the last few years, the multiple campaigns are more like two, mostly due to only playing one night a week, but for most of my adult life, I’ve been able to sustain two to three regular (weekly) game nights.
Another thing I noticed was what things were interesting me at the time — maybe it was subject matter, maybe it was some new system. My high school years saw the widest array of games played, mostly TSR products, of course, but rapidly dropping Star Frontiers for Traveller, Gangbusters and Top Secret got overrun by the much better James Bond: 007, and after high school, I never again played Dungeons & Dragons.
College (the first go ’round) saw a contraction to James Bond (me running), and Champions (run by another student in the group.) After college, I tried a few things — FASA Star Trek (The Next Generation would have just hit the air), Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) as I had discovered comics during that glorious boom of excellent storytelling in the format. Bond remained the mainstay, however, until I moved to Philadelphia, where DC Heroes became the other campaign to hold through that two year period. Toward the end of 1989, however, GDW — whose Twilight: 2000 I had found so disappointing, brought us Space: 1889 — and more than anything launched the “steampunk” subgenre. I tried running it for a few months with some success, then hd a spectacular collapse of my life, requiring me to slink back to live with my mother for about a year.
I went back to college and excelled. I found new friends, and I started gaming. From 1990 until 2008, with a break during my military days, some manner of Victorian science fiction was on the docket, and so was James Bond. There was a period where Star Wars (d6) was our other big campaign, replaced by The Babylon Project…the d20 Babylon 5 campaign in the aughties did not engender that much interest. For the Space: 1889 game, we played with different systems — Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate), and other small homebrews banging around the not-yet-come-of-age internet.
When I moved back to Albuquerque in 2000, Star Trek (Last Unicorn, then Decipher) joined James Bond and our Space:1889 using Castle Falkenstein rules as our big game, with multiple successful and interlocking campaigns finished by 2005 or so. Grad school and GM fatigue trimmed Trek out of the rotation for Serenity. Then Battlestar Galactica and Hollow Earth Expedition hit. For the first time in almost 18 years, no Victorian game. James Bond as a rules set was still being played, but we were running an alternate Stargate game. Then BSG dropped and since 2008, I’ve had a campaign running — two in all with the first dying along with my marriage and a rather tight-knit gaming group that had been together since 2003.
The aftermath of that event saw about half the group stick together, and new campaigns were booted up — the current, and I think very successful, Battlestar Galactica game, and the excellent Shanghai Hollow Earth Expedition game which did not survive most of the other players having to bow out about a year or so later… BSG, for several years, has been the only real game we’ve played, outside of an abortive Supernatural and Marvel Heroic game. (Partly because it’s been a damned good game, partly due to the responsibilities of new parenthood for two of us…)
Recently, I’d noticed I’m branching out again and trying new things. BSG is on hiatus until we finish this first “volume” of Atomic Robo. We have another GM running Wild Talents for us. I’m starting to look at doing either a dystopian future or post-apocalyptic game…probably using Bond or Cortex as the engine. I’d like to bring back the Victorian sic-fi. It would seem that the ground is stable enough to branch out again.
Looking over the spreadsheet, I’m surprised by the longevity of some of these games, not so much by others. James Bond, by the time Victory Games lost the license in 1987, had been the most popular espionage RPG with about 100,000 copies sold…that’s huge for most roleplaying games. The rules set was innovative, and until Fate and Cortex, was about the best you could find for modern or near future games. I might not have used it for spy games, but I did use it to replace Cyberpunk, to run a game based loosely on John Varley’s Titan series, to run Stargate. The Victorian sci-fi thing was a direct influence on me going into history as a field of study, and it was slightly coincidence that during my doctorate, due partly to the collapse of our European department, partly due to my sudden interest in 1930s America that I switched focus from Victorian-period imperialism to modern American as my focus.
When I was talking to the wife about this piece, I had mentioned it was a bit pathetic that this hobby had taken up so much of my life, and her response was superb: It wasn’t pathetic; it was the thing that helped me evolve while have some sense of firmament. Gaming didn’t just reflect my interests, it helped shape them. My desire for verisimilitude led to my reading widely across fields. It was also the activity that brought me the friends that have lasted the longest, helped me move from being a painful shy youth, to a skilled public speaker, and taught me to think “out of the box” in ways that many do not.
With any luck, I can introduce my daughter to the hobby, and maybe she will be able to use it to help her grow and make friends in the future.