Back in February, at Nina's birthday party at Pacific Standard, Evan and Tom and I got to talking about old-fashioned, pen-and-paper role-playing games, and how one might go explaining their appeal to someone who'd never played. "It's just talking," we said to Nina and Winnie, whose skepticism had motivated our conversation. "Talking and drinking beer." "But how do you win?" asked Nina. So Evan, who'd extolled the dry virtues of the classic Dungeons & Dragons first edition ruleset, located some PDFs of the Player's Handbook, as well as a helpful, "open source" D&D play-alike ruleset called OSRIC, which refines the rules and clarifies some of the more abstruse language in the original materials. He also prepared a first edition campaign for us all to play together, and at the beginning of March, we started rolling our characters. Our initial contingent was me, Nina, Winnie, and Tom. I knew I wanted to try playing a less, you know, physical character, and so I created Camphor Earwig, a forktongue (as Evan described him) and corrupt priest who'd been expelled from his order for his misdeeds and who now worshipped Syrul, goddess of lies and malice. Tom also went the Neutral Evil route, and rolled Florian Aethelred D'Ascoyne IV, a craven, effete "magic user" with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the dark arts. Nina was pretty sure from the outset that she wanted to play a half-orc, and she rolled one and made him dual-classed, a fighter-thief. She named him, to her credit against my urging, Stinkus Pinkus. Winnie created Pinkie Underbrush, a greedy little gnome assassin, small enough to fit in a sack. Not a Lawful one among us, nor a Good. For understandable reasons, then, Evan had us start by being released from the same town jail in the village of Hochen. In the slightly synthetic way common to the outset of most campaigns, we agreed to travel together to the nearby town of Orlane, to investigate some food shortages, disappearances, and other strange goings-on -- and, for Camphor, the possibility of lining his pockets.
The following adventures were experienced over the course of several weeks and with the help of several large bottles of Mountain Dew, Fresca, and fancy Japanese tea; several big bags of Doritos (various powdery flavors) and spicy potato chips; an assortment of theme-appropriate ales (Orkney's Skull Splitter, Rogue's Dead Guy, Wychwood's Hobgoblin); and various and sundry candies and cookies -- the consumption of all of which routinely left us feeling physically ill after a six-plus hour play session.
But it's fun, babies! Like I said, we're using the first edition rules, the design for which I guess was all about modeling the world as formally and as exhaustively as possible while subsidizing the manufacture of oddly-shaped dice. (And I did buy several new four-, eight-, and ten-siders at Blatt Billiards for the occasion.) And there is something comforting about having that layer of abstraction to broker your interactions with the universe. It certainly makes it easier, as a real-life mush-mouth, to play a smooth-talking villain; the dice-roll an effective gloss on my feeble description of my character's attempt to hoodwink an NPC. Evan is an able Dungeon Master, able to improvise when we go beyond the source material, and patient when we're too obtuse to grasp the clues that are in front of our faces. Sometimes he asks us to demonstrate the actions we're attempting: "I'm going to vault the wall and jump down on the guard with my dagger out," says Winnie. "Role-play it for me," he says.
After emerging from a dark and possibly haunted forest, we reached the outskirts of Orlane, and approached a small dairy farm, the proprietor of which directed us to the town center and the Inn of the Slumbering Serpent. (There was an alternative, competing venue, he told us -- The Golden Grain -- but it wasn't as... nice.) He also gave us a few pointers on the lay of the town: Where the local hermit was holed up; where a group of elves that had recently arrived in town was staying; blacksmith; general store; temple of Merikka (the local goddess of the harvest). We thanked him and made our way to the Slumbering Serpent, where we attempted to allay the suspicions of some local workmen dining at the bar by buying them a round. We also bought some meals for ourselves and a few bottles of the inn's renowned, locally-source wine. (Evan asked us to roll a perception check, after which he solemnly informed us, "You believe it is some of the best wine you have ever tasted.")
We negotiated the price of our rooms with the innkeeper -- who also warned us off the Golden Grain, thus further piquing our interest -- and then set out for an evening walk across the river to the temple. It's a big imposing building surrounded by high walls and a moat. By the time we arrived, however, the gates were locked. We managed to rouse a guard, who told us to come back in the morning. A wolf howled ominously somewhere on the grounds. "Fuck it," we said. "Let's go to the Golden Grain." We walked back across town and arrived at the Grain well after dark. Inside, sitting at the bar, we met a hard case with an ugly face who didn't much seem to like us or our questions, so we ordered some ale and found our own table. Unfortunately, it became apparent that the barkeep wasn't on our side either: As soon as we brought the ale to our lips, we started feeling funny. The others were able shake it off, but Camphor's head hit the table; I was out. Which meant I couldn't take part in the ensuing melee, in which our party slew the mysterious patron, the barkeep, and almost the cook, before escaping with my unconscious body slung over Stinkus' back. We avoided a potential rout: The staff could have followed us down the road, but chose not to, strangely.
I was allowed to sleep off the effects of my adulterated booze in our rooms at the Serpent. Florian, rising early, went downstairs to the common area of the inn, where he ran into a well-intentioned (L/G) but deeply unpleasant (CH:7) dwarf-for-hire, Euler Eigenkett, played by a late-to-the-table Ted. (...Who, last time we did this, about ten years ago, played a character named Dirac. What's it going to be next time -- Gauss von Erdős?) Together they made the trek out to the elm grove on the outskirts of town to pay a visit to Ramne the hermit. Old Ramne turned out to be a bit hard of hearing and clearly preferred the company of his pet weasel Whiskers to that of a pair of itinerant fortune-seekers -- especially Florian, who made no secret of his craving for some hands-on access to Ramne's cache of magical artifacts. But he also happened to be the most forthright dude we'd dealt with so far, not only confirming the disappearances, harvest shortages, and a conspiracy at work within the town but suggesting that the temple of Merikka might bear a closer look. He also pointed out that as a bit of an outsider to the affairs of the town, his investigative capabilities were limited. He suggested that we bring any concrete proof of wrongdoing to the mayor.
So Florian and Euler headed back into town an met the mayor, who shared Ramne's suspicions, although he didn't much care for Ramne himself. Also like Ramne, he also tried to pass the buck, claiming that he was too short on resources to get to the bottom of the trouble himself. He said he had agents hard at work on uprooting the conspirators, though. The human and the dwarf pressed him harder -- where could our party best direct our efforts? Reluctantly, he fingered the blacksmith and the storekeep of the general store, who, he said, had been acting strangely of late. The two thanked the Mayor and returned to the Slumbering Serpent.
Euler was introduced to the rest of us, meeting with varying levels of warmth (Camphor was unimpressed; Pinkie Underbrush's pecuniary anxiety bubbled briefly to the surface -- "Is he gonna get an equal share of the treasure?"), and the party resolved to make a return visit to the temple of Merikka. We made the trip, crossed the moat, and found the temple open to worshippers. We asked to meet with the people in charge, and waited, some of us greedily eying an enormous jade slab at the far end of the large antechamber, for our granted audience with the high priestess, Misha Devi. Although easy on the eyes, she wasn't forthcoming when it came to the disappearances in the town -- refusing to acknowledge them at all, really. We left frustrated, but Camphor doubled back. "I'm gonna pledge her cult," I told Evan. "Role-play it out," he said. "Look," I whispered to Evan-as-Misha. "I know about the... thing. I'm down for it. I want in." He had me a roll a d20. Misha acquiesced. If Camphor was serious, she said, he could rendezvous with her agents at the river that night. Naturally, he'd have to give the appropriate sign. "Oh, of course," I said. "Of course I know what that is."
We had the rest of the day to dispose of as we wished, so we decided to take the Mayor up on his suggestion and visit the blacksmith and the general store, splitting into two groups, dropping off Florian and Pinkie at the forge while the rest of us continued down the road. True to the Mayor's description, the blacksmith was in some kind of fugue state, wild-eyed and unresponsive, his forge full of shoddy, half-finished work, the two bellows-boys cringing and wary. Pinkie baited him with a hypothetical order for some chairs she'd like to have built, but it was a flip comment from Florian that put him into a psychotic fury. He grabbed his hammer and drove them running from the the forge, seemingly intent upon bludgeoning them in the road, his assistants trailing behind (perhaps with the idea to restrain him). The mage and the gnome ran to catch up with the other members of the party, who became aware of the commotion and turned to join the ensuing scuffle -- as did the storekeep and his family. Camphor swung his mace (to no effect); Stinkus attacked with his short sword; Pinkie threw daggers (taking out a bellows-boy); but it was Euler who stole the show, cleaving the ravening smith's head from his shoulders with a single (natural 20!) swing of his axe. The other hostiles, taken aback by this bloody display of our martial prowess, were easy to kill or subdue, leaving us panting and victorious in the red chaos of the road.
As the title of this post might suggest to you, I have committed myself to making it through Stephen King's backpack-breaking heptalogy. I'm doing this largely because I got it into my head that pretty much everyone had read them but me. Indeed, several co-workers of mine, even ones that I think of as being more, uh, literate have approached me to discuss, seeing one volume or another on my desk. One of the office's security guards saw me at the elevators in the lobby with Wizard and Glass in my hands.
"The Dark Tower, right?" he said.So I wanted to find out what they were all about, even if, as I'd been warned, what they were about was pretty stupid. And it is -- and they are -- pretty silly. But I do admit to a degree of sincere admiration at the sheer ambition of the project: Imagine taking a half-baked high school daydream of a story (which is basically what he admits it started off as) and putting in the authorial effort to, you know, implement it in its entirety, which he does. And maybe it's the scale of the plot (Dude Saves The Whole Universe) that makes most of the characterization seem a bit flat or insufficiently empathetic. Or maybe it's just that Stephen King doesn't have the chops to write dialogue for a jive-talking double-amputee who's got multiple personalities. That's an awful lot of rope to give yourself for hangin'.
"Yep," I said. "You read 'em?"
"Yep," he said.
"All of them?"