Redbeard's Journal

Seriously. I have red hair and a beard. What did you expect?

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Gaming and Geekdom in the 80s Part 2: Finding my Crowd
ghost of redbeard

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing for adults 12 years and up.  Each player creates a character or characters who may be dwarves, elves, halflings or human fighting men, magic-users, pious clerics or wily thieves.  The characters are then plunged into an adventure in a series of dungeons, tunnels, secret rooms and caverns run by another player:  the referee, often called the Dungeon Master.  The dungeons are filled with fearsome monsters, fabulous treasure and frightful perils.

As the players engage in game after game their characters grow in power and ability: the magic users learn more magic spells, the thieves increase in cunning and ability, the fighting men, halflings, elves and dwarves, fight with more deadly accuracy and are harder to kill.  Soon the adventurers are daring to go deeper and deeper into the dungeons on each game, battling more terrible monsters, and, of course, recovering bigger and more fabulous treasure!  The game is limited only by the inventiveness and imagination of the players, and, if a group is playing together, the characters can move from dungeon to dungeon within the same magical universe if game referees are approximately the same in their handling of play.

The Dungeon Master designs the dungeons and makes careful maps on graph paper.  The players do not know where anything is located in the dungeons until the game begins and they enter the first passage or room.  They create their own map as they explore.  While only paper and pencil need be used, it is possible for the characters of each player to be represented by miniature lead figures which can be purchased inexpensively from hobby stores or directly from TSR Hobbies. The results of combat, magic spells, monster attacks, etc., are resolved by rolling special polyhedral 20-sided dice which come with this game.

--Introduction from Dungeons and Dragons, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Game Campaigns, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Edited by Eric Holmes (1977)

When I read those words at the beginning of the D&D manual, a light bulb went off in my head.

I’d played with plastic army men as a younger kid, and my friends and I had devised our own rules to them.  (Guns of Navarone playset FTW!)  From what I could see, this Dungeons and Dragons game was a lot like that but with a bit more imagination.  And instead of an army you controlled only one player.

“Okay,” I thought, “this makes a little sense.”  I read up on the game manual, rolled up a new character, and began immersing myself into the world of D&D. 

Those early days were punctuated by a lot of dice rolling, a lot of graph paper, and a whole lot of dyin’ to rooms filled with dragons.  When I mentioned D&D to some of my other friends, much to my surprise I found out they were already playing.  (Which also made me wonder why they’d never mentioned the game to me before.)  My circle of gaming friends expanded to a group of about four, but since my friends settled into two distinct cliques, I never played with more than two at a time. 

My parents took note of my interest in the game and gave me a copy of the newly revised Basic Rules for Christmas and my brother a copy of the Monster Manual for the more detailed version of the game, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  I spent much of Christmas break reading, devising characters, building dungeons, and running my brother through a pregenerated dungeon that came with the Basic game, the Keep on the Borderlands.


Throughout the next couple of years, D&D was a constant companion.  I played the Basic Set, the Expert Set, AD&D --we had all four books-- and even branched out into other TSR offerings such as Top Secret and Gamma World.  When a new module came out, my brother or I would bike down to the local discount store to drool over it.  I tried getting my parents into role playing, but I quickly realized the rules were too complex for my mom, and my dad held little interest in the subject.

D&D itself was riding a wave of popularity in those years, which made the game almost mainstream.  And that ‘almost’ was, well, kind of generous.  Sure, you could find D&D in discount stores and toy stores, and there was even an Intellivision cartridge loosely based on the game, but D&D players were stereotyped as nerds back when nerds were NOT cool.  I learned very quickly to not discuss the game too much at school, mainly because I didn’t want to give my harassers more ammo.  I already had it bad enough --smart, wore glasses, read a lot-- that adding anything else would be like tossing gasoline onto a tiki torch.

As a result, I began to hang out with my D&D friends more and more, and D&D became that unifying element that we could all hold onto after a day of dealing with the bullies.

My middle school years dragged on and my game playing tastes changed with them.  I outgrew the classic hack and slash variety of campaign and gravitated toward a more story driven one.  There was one module in particular, the Ghost Tower of Inverness, which introduced me to the concept of a pregenerated character and their backstory, something I’d never thought about before.  The RPGs I played were silent on the “role playing” part of RPGs, and the reward structure for advancing your character was heavily skewed toward the mantra “kill the monsters and take their stuff”.  But as I read more SF&F, the concept of being in a living story became more appealing, especially when you had Robin Hood or Ivanhoe to look at on television.  (I don't consider it an accident that the Ivanhoe mini-series came out at the initial height of D&D's popularity.)

My gaming tastes were maturing, and I looked toward high school as an opportunity to finding other gamers like myself, and exploring the concepts of story more.  Hell, maybe I'd try writing something myself.

Little did I know that my world was about to be turned on its head.

Gaming and Geekdom in the 80s Part 1: On the Origin of the Species
ghost of redbeard
This is the first of a series of posts that has been a long time coming.  I hadn’t been that interested in writing down any of this until my kids began playing RPGs, and through them I relived a bit of my own past.  While I realize that a lot of people aren’t going to be interested in this at all, I still feel the need to post my experiences with RPGs and Geekdom as a kid growing up in the 80s.

One day after school in Sixth Grade, I called a friend to see if he was interested in playing.  “Come on over,” he said.  “We can play Dungeons and Dragons.”

“What’s that?” I asked.  “A new Atari cartridge?”

“No, a game.  Come on over and I’ll show you.”

I ran all the way to his house wondering what the hell he was talking about.  I’d seen the Dark Tower game by Milton Bradley, and I was pretty sure this game was something else.  As soon as I reached his door, it opened and Rob practically yanked me inside.
Leading me through the house to his room, he pulled out a letter sized box with a dragon on the cover and opened it.  Inside were a few booklets, some sheets of graph paper and notepaper, and some strange looking dice.

“Where’s the board?” I asked.

“There isn’t one.”

“Then what do you do?”

“You create a character and then go off and fight monsters.”

“Um…  Okay.”

“First, we’ll need to roll for your stats.”  Rob handed me a six-sided die.  “Here, roll this three times and add up the numbers.”

I rolled.  “Nine.”

He wrote down the number on a sheet of paper.  “That’s your strength.  Now, roll for intelligence.”

We kept going down the line for the basic stats:  Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma.  By some quirk of fate, I rolled three sixes for the Wisdom stat.

“Ooo…  Eighteen.  You’d make a good Cleric.”

“A what?”

“A Cleric.  It’s like a Priest.  You get to heal and stuff.”

The image of one of the Priests at Church came to my mind.  Although I was in the tail end of my “I want to be a Priest” phase, playing a game as a Cleri-whatever didn’t appeal to me.  “What else can I do?”

“You could be like me and be a Fighter.”  He showed me his character sheet, with the name “Sir Robert” in bold letters across the top.

“Yeah, I want to be a Fighter too.  And with Wisdom of 18, I could be like Sir Galahad.”

Rob looked at my Strength score, shrugged, and scrawled Sir Michael across the top.

Over the course of the next few minutes we got Sir Michael fitted with armor, a sword, and a shield.  My friend had me roll an eight-sided die for my Hit Points –a measure of my health—and I was ready to go.

“My character is going to come along too,” my friend announced, pulling out a few sheets of graph paper with a map on it, “Mike, you’re in a dungeon.  You can go forward or back down a passage.”

I stared at the dice a minute.  “Do I roll to move or something?”

“Okay, fine.  Roll to move.”

This was something that at least I could understand.  Every board game I’d played before with pieces, like Clue or Monopoly, required you to roll to move.  As far as all this other stuff –character sheets, no game board, and some booklets—this was completely foreign.  This all seemed to be a game completely inside my head, and I wasn’t sure what would really come of it.

A few rolls later, and we were at a door.  “Do you open it?” Rob asked, leaning forward.


“And inside….  are….  THREE RED DRAGONS!”

In spite of having, well, nothing to look at, my insides flipped anyway.  I had a bad feeling this wasn’t going to end well.  Somehow I won the initiative roll, so I got to go first.  My friend told me to roll to hit one of the dragons, and my roll was too low.  
Next he dragons attacked.  One swipe from a dragon’s claws and I was lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.  Since they (naturally) only attacked me, they left Rob’s character untouched.

Finally, Sir Robert pulled out his Rod of Lordly Might* and proceeded to smash those red dragons into a pulp.

“And now the best part,” Rob chortled as he rubbed his hands with glee, “the treasure!”  He began rolling dice, consulting a chart, and counting out numbers.  I wrote down the amount of gold, electrum, silver, gems, and magic items we looted, and wondered how we were going to carry all this stuff.

“How are we going to split this?” I asked.

“Well, you’re dead—“

“Oh.”  I looked down at Sir Michael’s character sheet, thinking what a waste of an hour that was if I got killed within 5 minutes.
“—but I can get you resurrected back at town, but you’re going to have to give up a lot of your gold to do it.”

Well, at least it wasn’t a complete waste.  “Okay.”

At about that time, my mom called and I had to go back home, so I missed out on how much it cost to resurrect Sir Michael.  At least I got to keep the character sheet, and Rob loaned me the main booklet to read when I got done with my homework.
I suppose that I wasn’t the only person introduced to role playing in this fashion, and given that the whole thing was slanted in Rob’s favor I’m surprised I didn’t drop it after this first attempt.  The concept of role playing is hard enough to explain without reducing the game to “you’re in a hallway” and “Five Frost Giants!”  Still, having heard my kids play, I think that is a lowest common denominator that they can relate to.  The old joke about RPG games being reduced to “kill the monster and get the gold” does have a kernel of truth to it.

As for myself I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of my first D&D experience, so I decided to read the booklet and find out.

* It really is a magic item found in AD&D First Edition.  I’m not making it up.  Alone, it’s a magic mace, but if you press some of the buttons along the side of the Rod, it converts into a battle axe, a sword, a polearm, or extends into a long pole that you can use to climb up if you don’t have any rope nearby.  It’s tailor made for engineers, and everyone who loves double entendres.

Well, How About That
ghost of redbeard
In my adolescent youth I was known as Mr. Clueless.  You know the sort; the guy who was last to figure out what the sexual slang meant.  In the pre-Internet era, you had to rely upon word of mouth for that sort of thing; God forbid you actually went to your parents to ask what an orgy was or what sixty-nine meant.  (Besides, I'm almost certain my parents wouldn't have known anyway.)   Of course, if your friends didn't know --or they claimed they did but didn't tell you-- then you were kind of stuck.  And before you ask, yes, in my naivete I did try looking some of this stuff up in the dictionary.  You can imagine the ribbing I got then.

Well, some thirty years later, I'm older, (hopefully) wiser, and I have the internet at my disposal.  But Mr. Clueless still lives.

I was watching the news tonight when an article came on about an FDA warning about formaldehyde used in some Brazilian Blowouts.  After watching a minute's worth of file footage of women getting the frizz taken out of their hair, I mused aloud "and here I thought a Brazilian Blowout had something to do with some unusual form of oral sex."
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The Thin (Nickel) Gray Line
ghost of redbeard

There you go.  What was a bunch of black shingles with maybe half of the gritty part left has been replaced by a set of nickel gray 25 year shingles.  With the view shown above, you don't get a real perspective on the height of the porch, so this will do:

Would you believe that tree is about 15 feet (~5 m) tall?

Would you believe that the tree is 15 feet (~5m) tall?  Yes, I know all about the illusion of perception, but this is what greeted me when I was up there.  For a guy who was afraid of heights, this wasn't a good feeling.

Who is this guy?  And why isn"t he wearing any...  oh wait, he does have some gray shorts on.  Stupid parallax.

Who is this guy?  And why isn't he wearing any...  oh wait, he does have some gray shorts on.  Stupid parallax.

I did learn a few things from this project.  The first is that yes, I can get up on a roof and none of the bizarre accidents that ran through my head ever did happen.  (Reason 1 - Phobia 0)  The second is that in spite of my best estimates, I still ran short by a pack of shingles.  The third is that the roof wouldn't have lasted another winter, so I'm really glad I got up there when I did.  Fourth, you may realize that black shingles absorb heat, but you don't realize exactly how much heat until you get up there when the sun comes out from behind the clouds.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to investigate a bathtub replacement....
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Say... Aren't you...
ghost of redbeard
Having a common name has its advantages.  If you tried Googling me cold, you'd have difficulty trying to find information about me because of all the other "me's" out there.  Among the other people with my name, there are:
  • A cellist
  • A dentist
  • A gynecologist
  • A Professor of Human Development at Binghamton University (sorry Josh, that other Michael Lawson on your campus isn't me)
  • A photographer
Even at my work there are multiple "me's" in the employment rolls, and I regularly get e-mails meant for one of the other "me's".

However, there is one person with my name that is a source of amusement for my family.

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EtA:  Compressed a bit o' text to reduce wordiness.
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Sew what?
ghost of redbeard

Our youngest has a school play today, entitled Arf!  (Yes, that's the name.  It's a First Grade play, which explains the lack of Shakespeare or Miller in the repretoire.)

She was so excited when she came home over a month ago announcing that she got a speaking part that it somehow slipped my mind that she was going to need a costume.  My wife, however, never forgot that little fact, and she began thinking up ideas for a dalmatian costume for her. 

Buying a costume was out of the question; it would essentially be a one-use outfit, and why buy it when you could make one?

My wife had the idea of taking a white t-shirt and a pair of white sweatpants and attaching dots to them, but she was unsure how to do it.  She got in contact with the kids' art teacher, who offered two suggestions:  using clothing approved spray paint to paint dots on the clothing, or cut out felt dots and sew them on.  Armed with that knowledge, late last week my wife took our daughter and went shopping for an outfit.

About an hour later, the phone rang.

"Dear?  We found a perfect pair of sweats and t-shirt for her, and you'll get to sew some felt dots on them!"

"Um, okay."  I was expecting it to come to this, so it wasn't quite that much of a shock.

Yes, I can sew.

My wife can't.

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One of Those Days...
ghost of redbeard
Ever have one of those days when you wake up -I mean completely wake up- and you're totally inspired?  You swing out of bed, grab your glasses, and you can't wait to get downstairs to start writing/coding/whatever?  And then you look at the clock, and it says 3:30...

Oh, I am so going to need caffeine later in the day...

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Noontime Mood
ghost of redbeard
Sorry to switch gears from being in a humorous mood to being melancholy, but I'm watching the snow fall and I'm realizing that my aching back isn't going to get a good rest anytime soon.  Add to that some conversations I had with people who fell and hurt themselves out in the snow over the weekend, and the day isn't exactly turning out as I'd thought it would.

I've also got the Dar Williams song February from her album Mortal City running through my head.  It's a great piece by Dar, a singer-songwriter my age, and worth a listen.  It starts out melancholy and deals with a relationship gone sour, but in the end there's hope with the coming of new spring.


That was Nice
ghost of redbeard
I don't woof about sports too much on this blog, but after watching Dayton beat Xavier today in Men's Basketball, I have one word to say:


I needed that.  :-)
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Friday Humor
ghost of redbeard
Here's today's Wizard of Id

My wife says that's me before editing.
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