Table-top roleplayers get really gung-ho to save Grandpa's dying comic book store.
I’m about to tell you a story that will blow your mind. But not just for the sake of entertaining you. There is an important reason for this story to be told. Its heroes need to be recognized for their heroic deeds and their unceasing courage, for they did many truly great things. I can see this story being passed down through generations as a bedtime story for imaginative children all around the world. It is my great honor to have been allowed to be the one to write down these events for all the world to see. Although, in all honesty, I can’t think of any other person more suited for the task than myself, because I alone was there the whole time, observing the heroes but not interfering with their adventures; watching the game from a safe but exhilirating distance.
You have to understand that the game they played was not Monopoly. Maybe you've never seen dice with twenty sides before. Well there are some. There are some with ten sides and some with eight and some with twelve. Most of them have numbers on the sides, but not all of them. Some of them have different weather conditions, some have body parts, some have words like “evil”, “good”, and “neutral.” They are all very imporant to the game, but I don’t expect you to understand that yet. I only want to familiarize you with some of the equipment that is required to play this game, and to let you know that these heroes had them all, because they took it very seriously. Because the game they were playing didn't revolve around winning $500 landing on “Free Parking”.
Who am I? That is hardly consequential. At the most basic level, I guess you may see me as an apostle of sorts, one of the few who know what really happenned. I can only let you decide who was the Hero, because at times I'm left wondering if their story is tragic or comedic. I looked up to all of them. They were all masters of the game.
This game is so rarely understood and I don't think it's meant to be understood by just anybody. Gary Kasparov was a Chess champion who beat Big Blue. His mechanism was faster than an Intel chip. Gary Kasparov would have never known what hit him. Chess literally is black and white, but in this game, the shades of grey are uncountable and your only real hope is to stay ahead of that famous San Franciscan butterfly before it crashes that unwitting plane into a Houston sidewalk.
Erick was what they called the Game Master and Erick would tell them where they were. That probably doesn't make a lot of sense, but you see, they pretended. Or they thougt they were pretending. Here, let me try it this way, because I want you to understand. You need to understand. Gus, Parker, Hannah and Dwayne were sitting around the folding table at Gus' grandpa's Comic Book Shop. Gus was pretty well the manager of the Shop, but he was so much more than that. And every day they'd gather at 3pm and become their alter-egos.
I was a newcomer then, a misplaced teen in a rural setting looking for a place to fit my identity. I was smart enough to not fit in, and I was looking for people to not fit in with.
I had spent a few days a week milling around the comic book shop. I knew nothing about comics or fantasy settings but was taken in by the sheer vastness of it all. Shelf upon shelf teemed with books and pictures of far away lands. I'd flip through them entranced by descriptions of gnomes who had conquered dragons with song, and of beautiful women who lured men with enchantment. I wanted to be there. Every so often as one of the heroes emerged from the back room to pass me on the way to the single Employee's restroom, I had yearned for them to recognize me. Perhaps one of them would remember me from the day before, and ask me if I wanted to try their game. I was like a screenwriter hanging out outside the parking lot of Twentieth Century Fox watching my mentors come in for the day, on their way out to lunch, and finally again, on their way home.
Grandpa Bunker paid me no mind. I don’t think he knew anything about how these games worked, and he'd sit behind the counter quietly placing his attention from the local classical radio station to the excited chatter in the back room. It was a peaceful enough place to be, and I'd sit immersing myself in the game's rulebooks. There was the “Hero's Tome”, the “Game Master's Composium”, specific rulebooks for each different character type (of which I hoped one day to master at least one), and so many other books. To have read them all, one time each, would have been an incredible feat for me. To memorize them? Impossible. These people blew my mind.
Yet, I got the general point of the game. I would make up a character who I wanted to pretend to be, and I'd sit at a table with others who would pretend to be somebody else too. And the Game Master would tell us all about a world where our pretend people were. He essentially created a Universe, was the Universe, and was allowing us to bring our imaginations into it.
The rules were important but they were secondary to the game, it seemed. Yet, necessary. Everything had a rating and it made so much sense. While the person I made up, I would describe as “strong”, the game had a number for that. Let's say, 67. Out of 100. If the Game Master had us meet a dragon, then the dragon would have its own number, and that might be 90. That's where the dice came in and the formulas. This was the immutable law of physics making its way into the game. And the dice provided the random. Every quality of our pretend characters-- strength, speed, physical attractiveness, dancing skills, superpowers-- Everything had its own number, and every interaction its own formula, to be calculated with a roll of the dice playing the X factor.
The more I heard from the back room, the more I thought I'd understand.
I knew the heroes, although I knew much more about who their pretend people were, then their actual identities. That was the thrilling part. The shop wasn't that big, and the clamor in the back room was so energized that I never had any problem hearing what was going on. On the rare times that someone would emerge up the couple of steps leading to the front, I'd do my best to peek in without appearing too obvious.
Gus was almost three hundred pounds, and at first glance you may have shelved him as a roleplay gaming “Dork” with tell tale mustard on his T-shirt. I would caution you not to make that mistake. Gus didn't care about his unkept curls or acne or even hygiene. Because, when he was there, he wasn't there at all. Gus was gone and in his place was Alabastor, the Warrior Prince. The brave, firm yet loveable, leader of the group, usually. He was the idea guy, the one who always remembered to look for treasure or important artifacts in places where it seemed like that sort of thing might be. I marvelled at how accurately he could guess where things would be hidden. Places I would never have dreamed of looking, and objects I never would have thought to ask for. Yet, time after time, I would hear him ask Erick things like, “Behind any of the statues, is there a dusty old scroll that details the destruction of an ancient civilization that once lived in these ruins?” And many times, he was absolutely right. With a brilliant leader like that, how could the team possibly fail?
Seated beside Gus at the table, as always, would be Hanna, who would be playing “Wilteria the Wise”-- a name she had chosen which represented to her the most beautiful elven maiden in all the lands. For the longest time, I had only heard her voice from the back room, and I pictured her tall with a slim light-skinned face, and long, silky white-blonde hair that rippled in the breeze even when there was no breeze. I believe she pictured exactly the same thing. I admit I was a little disappointed the first time I actually saw Hanna-- but that’s not important, I reminded myself. The game was about becoming someone else, getting away from the boring person you normally have to be.
Parker was new, he was only 15. Just a kid who used to come into the shop all the time after school, because in a town of 8,000 people a 15 year old kid doesn't have a lot of places to hang out. And soon he fell under the spell. He was more boisterous than I was, and his cherub countenance seemed less threatenning to the divulgence of their secret room. While I had flipped through books by the front window when one of the sought after gamers was caught out front, Parker would intercept them asking when he could play.
Gus had growled that he would put him on the waiting list, and despite Gus' apparent arrogance, I almost understood why. In my opinion, one didn't just jump into this world. It was an 'invite only' kind of scene just as someone didn't ask to be put on a PGA tour. It was an unlikely altercation that eventually brought Parker into the game.
It happened one day when Gus had come to grab a cooler of soda from the front, shuffling past Parker in an effort I think to avoid the inevitable begging he'd have to impatiently refuse. Parker was, as always, perseverent, and Gus, during his quick exit past Parker's pleading, had knocked a bag of beef jerky from his hands.
“You can’t have food in the store, kid.”
Gus had marched to the front door in order to point the way out, and Parker after a moment of looking lost had pointed his tossled blonde hair downwards over his glasses, clutched the bag to his chest and made his way out.
I did feel bad for him but I also knew the value of waiting one's turn. I racked it up as a coming of age experience. Yet, the conversation that followed had me watching with nothing less than surprise.
“Are those Buffalo ranch flavour?” Gus suddenly asked.
Parker stopped outside the shop. Gus was holding the door open and the boy was directly in front of the open door.
“Yeah, they're new. I don't really like them.”
It was there that Parker had been welcomed to join the group in the back room. Was that the way into this elusive, cloistered group? It seemed such a simple thing for the reaction I had. I felt like someone had cut their way past a line with a crisp fifty tucked into a bouncer's palm. That wasn't right either. The kid was willing to leave, and before his invitation I was feeling bad for him. Despite Gus' gruff exterior, he had a heart and I couldn't overlook that. I was almost glad Parker had been invited in before me. At least he had had a strategy, and while it wasn't his perseverance that paid off in the end, it would be almost against the Human spirit for his efforts not to be rewarded. The rule books, by the way, would call that “karma points”-- a tally of rewards aimed at good ideas that turned out fruitless. Maybe Parker did understand the game more than I figured.
Perhaps my aloof distance was the wrong plan. Maybe the iron had been hot all along and I had to revisit my own strategy. It was five pm and I had been there for three hours already, thumbing through the magazines and the DVDs, all offsprings to this game that Parker eagerly bounced off towards that dimly lit shrine in the back room to experience. Gus had stayed behind to gather a roll of paper towels from behind the counter and that's when I noticed Grandpa looking at me. The reality of Grandpa's blindness was semantic. He could not see, yet when he looked, he was staring from behind his eyes.
“Yes, grandpa?” It was an absent minded response. Gus was busy jotting something into a notepad on the counter.
“This young man would be good for your game.”
My eyes had met with Grandpa's and for all purposes we were exchanging glances, so much so, that I found myself trying to hide my expression of horror at his announcement. The announcement seemed like an unwelcome intrusion, a seller asking to auction your unfinished painting and the anticipated rejection that one would expect as the outcome.
Gus nodded as he jotted. He hadn't seemed to hear his Grandpa's words, his reaction seeming to be an affirmation of the daily weather. He gathered his notepad into a bundle with his paper towels and looked up, not expecting to meet my attention at the other end across the store.
My reaction to this spontaneous encounter was purely instinctual. I am sure, in retrospect, that I wanted to tell him that his Grandpa was mistaken, that surely he must have meant someone else. That would have insulted his Grandpa, mind you, who had clearly figured out that I had not yet designed a course to help myself, and in his grandfatherly kindness had offered me a hand. I could not refuse that and maybe that was what gave me the courage to respond to Gus' sorely wanted attention with a shrug of the shoulders indicating that I was worth a shot.
And so it was that Gus looked at me, shrugged back and looked defeated.
“Why not? Come on back. Just so you know, new members supply chips. Spend the day watching, you and the kid. If you like us, and we like you, well, let's just see how it goes.”