I graduated from high school in 1994 at a young age (I turned 17 that summer), so I took a year to work and save money for college. It was during this year that I discovered my friendly local game store.
I had been going to a store called the Gaming Gauntlet, which was on the far side of town from where I lived, which required some gyrations, as I was riding the bus at this point. There were a couple of occasions where I fumbled my “Use Bus” roll in trying to get to the Gaming Gauntlet, resulting in some challenging situations, like the time I walked East 19th Street by myself in the middle of the winter, trying to catch up with the bus. If you ever lived in Erie, you’d know that East 19th Street is…well…not a great stretch of town.
These frustrations were compounded by the increasingly irregular hours that the store was keeping. Various rumors swirled around what was going on with the owner, but the fact is that I was finding the store closed when it was supposed to be open.
All this came to a head for me somewhere in the autumn of 1994. I planned to leave work, hop a bus to the Gaming Gauntlet, and spend some time hanging out and gaming. By the time I got to the store, it was dark and cold outside, and the store was closed. It was only 5:30! It was supposed to be open until 8:00. That’s it. I was done with Gaming Gauntlet.
But then I remembered that a new game store had opened up in Wesleyville, which was only a mile or so from my house. Perhaps my evening wasn’t totally shot after all. So, I hopped the necessary busses and made my way to Castle Archon. It was a superior experience in every way. Jim Eisert, the proprietor, was an affable guy, and his stock of both Magic cards and WH40K figures was superior to Gaming Gauntlet. And it was much, much closer to home!
I was sold.
Until we moved to Peoria eight years later, Castle Archon was my FLGS of choice and was the center of my gaming world. I was there frequently, playing games or just hanging out.
And, in a weird way, Castle Archon is how I met my wife. About which, more in just a bit.
Around Christmas 1994, I headed up to the mall, Christmas bonus in hand. I knew that this was quite possibly the only year I’d have the liquidity to buy presents for people that I really wanted to buy, so I was determined to make it count. There was a store at the Millcreek Mall called Glass Growers that sold beautiful glass creations: vases, candle holders, and the like. But on my way there, I stopped by Books Galore, a used book store near the mall, and bought Roborally.
For those of you who don’t know, Roborally was Richard Garfield’s first design. Yes, the Richard Garfield who designed Magic: The Gathering. History tells us that Garfield was presenting Roborally to Peter Adkison, the principal at Wizards of the Coast, back when WotC was a nothing of a company. Adkison told Garfield that they couldn’t do Roborally at the time, due to a lack of resources. Did he have anything else that was smaller and easier to produce? Well, Garfield did have another game….
Anyways, in Roborally, you all play robots racing on a course laid out on a dangerous factory floor. There are conveyer belts, lasers, pits, crushers. You know, all the stuff you see in a set piece battle in an action movie. To make it worse, you don’t have complete control of your robot. Instead, you are dealt a hand of cards with movement instructions on them (e.g. Move 3 Spaces, Turn Left, or the life). You program your robot with five cards and then all players simultaneously reveal them and resolve them one at a time. Of course robots can push each other and shoot each other with lasers.
And as you take damage, you get fewer cards….
I’ve probably introduced more people to gaming through Roborally than any other game. it’s easy to grasp what you’re doing, and it’s fun to play, even when you fail. Which you will. A lot.
The night before I left for college, I stayed up entirely too late with my brother, playing Magic. The next day, quite tired, I headed south to Greenville, South Carolina for a year.
My college was very small (10 students) so gaming opportunities did not exactly abound. But, I did discover X-Com, which could possibly be my favorite computer game ever.
There’s a lot going on in X-Com, so I’m just going to summarize. The overarching idea is that you are running a multinational covert alien defense force, protecting Earth from a carefully unfolding alien invasion. So, at one level, you’re managing financs, buying bases and equipment for your soldiers, overseeing research into the alien tech and lifeforms that you’re seeing, and ensuring that the various member nations are kept happy so that they continue to fund your operations. And then, when your radar detects a UFO, you send up an Interceptor to shoot it down and deploy troops to assault the crash site.
And that’s where the second part of the game unfolds: a tense, turn-based squad-level combat game, where even one shot can be deadly to a soldier. You need to think about things like leapfrogging, troop dispersion, proper entry techniques when going house-to-house (and you will!), and the like. If you don’t, the game will punish you hard. One mistake can cost you an entire mission team.
I loved that game. Loved it! Often, my roommates would watch me play and kibitz. It was fun times at the Wenmont Apartments where we lived.
I decided that college wasn’t meeting my goals, so I opted to return home after a year at college. Instead, my goal was to get stable employment so that I could be in a position to get married. That was a particularly frustrating year. I said that I wanted to get a car, a job, and an apartment, and I only ever managed to get two of the three at any given time.
But there was a lot of gaming over the course of that year. For one thing, this was the year that I really got into the Call of Cthulhu RPG.
I should be clear about something. I had been exposed to the works of H.P. Lovecraft long before this. The Mythos was a staple of my teen reading. I had already begun collecting the fantastic Mythos Cycles books edited and compiled by Robert M. Price. But it was during this year that I started running the Call of Cthulhu RPG in earnest.
I ran a weekly CoC game in the basement of Castle Archon. It was already a fairly basementish basement, and when I started fiddling with the lighting, it became a great setting for a horror RPG.
This was the first RPG where I used the “play in your hometown” technique. Default CoC is set in the 1920s, which is contemporaneous with the time that Lovecraft was most active in his writing. However, the game did support playing in the modern time, which was much more interesting to me. So we set our game in Erie. All our characters were gamers who hung out at a thinly fictionalized version of Castle Archon. Then we unleashed cosmic horror on our hometown. It worked really well. Even though the CoC system doesn’t really work for me anymore, this campaign cemented my love of horror roleplaying and setting games in locales known to the players of the game.
Wargaming continued as well. I got into a starfighter game called Silent Death for a while. We even playtested the Sigurd Archdiocese supplement at Castle Archon, which might be my first official game design credit. But most of my attention still went to Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000 universe.
While I was at college, Jonathan had discovered a spin-off game called Necromunda, set in the hive cities of Necromunda, a planet in the 40K universe. Instead of playing military engagements between armies, you played out skirmishes between rival gangs. The cool part of Necromunda is that the characters in your gang changed over time. They gained abilities as they gained experience. They could receive long-term injuries from combat. They started as cookie-cutter units, but they developed individuality over time. Very, very cool.
At the other end of the scale, I got into Epic, Games Workshop’s micro-armor 40K wargame (represented by Space Marine and Titan Legions). In this game, the focus was on large engagements of massed infantry, tanks, and giant walkers called Titans. To get an idea of the scale, a tank was maybe an inch long. You had a lot if them. This game factors significantly in my developing as a game designer, as I’ll discuss later.
But something even more important happened during this time. Something that would change my life forever.
I met Crystal, the woman who became my wife.
A Lovecraftian game that might work well for me now is tremulus, which is an Apocalypse World hack to do Cthulhu stories. As of the date of this post, tremulus is having a crowdfunding drive on Kickstarter. If you like roleplaying games or Cthulhu, please pitch in. Thanks!