Origins: The Tyranny of Adolescent Boys

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

My first proper encounter with RPGs came a number of years later. I became friends with a kid from another class who happened to live around the corner from me. This kid had the same computer as I did and also swapped games, but his real love was art and French comics. Before we became friends, this kid had been chummy with another kid in my class who played AD&D with his older brother. Like all gamers at the time, this second kid was a natural missionary and he had spent some time trying to lure my friend into a game only for their friendship to collapse before the point of fruition. At the time, I remember not thinking all that much of the second kid but I was impressed by some of the artwork my friend had created based upon the game books that the second kid had shown him. One day, I found myself sat on a coach next to the second kid and I asked him about the game books. There then followed quite a lengthy discussion in which I would ask ‘…And can you do X in this game of yours?’ The answer was always yes.

By this point, second kid had moved over to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition and he dragooned me into rolling up a Halfling thief because he had played a double-dealing Halfling thief and the experience had clearly left its mark upon him.

My first adventure was a rather unimpressive home-made dungeon crawl which, though supposedly designed with thieves in mind, was basically just a level 1 dungeon with a few locks and an opportunity to sneak. I was lambasted for my decision to play my thief ‘more like a fighter’ and the adventure ended with some elves turning up and giving me some magical armour as a reward. Looking back at it now, the largesse of the elves combined with the absolute insistence that I play a Halfling thief suggests that there may have been some kind of vicarious Mary Sue dynamic at work: Second Kid couldn’t play his double-dealing Halfling thief as nobody wanted to run a game for him and so he decided to run a game for someone else’s almost identical double-dealing Halfling thief… and treat him right!

After the summer, I moved schools but I stayed in touch with Second Kid. The Complete Book of Dwarves had come out and he was very excited about playing an overnight game with me and his older brother. The adventure we wound up playing was The Temple of Elemental Evil and all I can remember of those sessions are the moments of needless humiliation.

I can remember our characters going into a pub and a high-level character randomly picking a fight with Second Kid’s Older Brother, duly handing him his arse, and Older Brother being entirely bent out of shape. I can also remember playing without Older Brother being there, Second Kid browbeating me into helping one elemental faction fight another, having that faction immediately betray us, and the entire party getting wiped out beneath me. I can remember finding all of this entirely unfair… I enjoyed the exploration element, I even enjoyed pushing the miniatures around on a battle map, but I was really not impressed by the amount of leeway that Dungeon Masters seemed to have when it came to the random distribution of punishment beatings.

I was also struck by how weirdly inconsistent and self-defeating the Dungeon Master’s behaviour seemed to be: When we were dealing with passages governed by explicit rules, Second Kid was rigid enough to provide a challenge but supple enough to keep things moving. However, the second we stepped out of combat, we’d enter a world that seemed animated by nothing but perceived slights and the nihilistic desire for social dominance.  This was an arena in which an inelegantly-turned phrase could lead to character death delivered with a contemptuous sneer and where every NPC seemed to scold, lecture, and remind you of your lowly place in the world. Looking back, I am struck by how self-defeating this behaviour was as the TPK in the Temple of Elemental Evil ended not just that session but that entire campaign. Rather than giving an inexperienced player a bit of leeway, or allowing him to immediately roll up another character and conduct a rescue, Second Kid chose to prioritise what he must have felt was the integrity of his game and essentially spend the rest of the weekend watching TV.

As ludicrous as this type of behaviour may seem, it is not the sole preserve of adolescent boys. For example, the British situation comedy Peep Show revolves around a toxic friendship in which two characters struggle to prevent themselves from inflicting misery on the person they consider to be their best and closest friend. The same dynamic pops up again and again: One character has something go right for them resulting in a moment of egoistic happiness that inevitably either annoys the other character or results in a decision that cuts across their current scheme thus inviting an act of retribution that inevitably results in everyone being worse off. Peep Show is a useful comparison as another dimension to the relationship’s toxicity is that neither party is willing to let the other one go. 

This recalls the way that gaming groups don’t just have disappointing evenings, they have sourings that drag on for months and even years as while the members of the group may fall out and develop irreconcilable differences so profound that everything is doomed to failure, nobody is willing to abandon the game resulting in levels of toxicity and unpleasantness that rapidly spiral out of control.

Things did improve when I was convinced to roll up another character a few months down the line. This time, I had complete control over the choice of characters and I went for an Elven ranger because I liked the idea of eventually being able to cast spells. The adventure was a module published by TSR, the first in a series of adventures designed for one-on-one play. I suspect it was designed to help inexperienced characters to level up quickly and join an existing party as my Ranger ploughed through it in a single weekend and went up about seven levels. To this day, I have incredibly fond memories of this character as one of the benefits of completing the adventure was that my character was hired to be the sheriff of the town he had just finished saving. I took this position incredibly seriously and spent all of my money on stuff like hiring guards and digging moats. I even faintly remember running a couple of mini-adventures in which my character headed to other towns and convinced various NPCs to come and live under his protection.

In some ways, I have spent the last thirty years trying to recapture the sense of contentment and accomplishment I felt after digging that moat and inviting that herbalist to set-up shop in town. Whenever I play a game with a fixed location, I want to spend hours talking about the local economy and trying to set up a chamber of commerce. Computer RPGs like Suikoden, Harvest Moon, and Dragon Age: Inquisition reach for the same itch, while table-top games like Pendragon, Ars Magica, and Blades in the Dark all provide mechanics for building institutions but I remain puzzled by the relative marginality of in-game nesting. Especially given how even early editions of D&D had a mechanic whereby player characters got their own stronghold.

Sadly, this municipal idyll was not to last as my character was soon sucked into Scourge of the Slavelords, the sequel to Temple of Elemental Evil. Scourge opened with my character and a friendly NPC mage being attacked by a veritable army of orcs and giants. This time we had not only battlemaps but also cut-out cards for area effect spells. I remember this battle quite clearly as it remains the only time I have experienced true ‘competence’ in a D&D game: By that point, my Ranger had acquired two magic short swords and I’d lucked into the idea of ‘building’ a character who was optimised for speed. Nowadays, most RPGs allow you to choose between fighters who hit fast, hit hard, or take hits but AD&D Second Edition was still relatively new and the rules barely recognised the range of tactical options they themselves allowed. Faced with a giant, my character was an absolute dunce but present him with a load of single hit-dice monsters and he would mow them down before they could even roll to hit. I don’t think I ever played another game with miniatures and battle maps but there is no denying the satisfaction you get from going ‘hit, hit, hit, hit’ and clearing four orcs off the map in a single round. I can also remember quite a nice moment in which the mage cast a wall of ice around the characters allowing them to heal themselves while a giant chipped away at the ice. For me, this battle remains Peak D&D.

I grew up moving between two countries and the kids I had met through RPGs lived in an entirely different country to the ones I knew from playing those weird computer games. However, these two worlds collided when Second Kid came to stay with me during the summer vacation.

Not long after the battle against the orcs and the giants, my Ranger was kidnapped and sold as a slave. It was on the slave ship that my other friends entered the game and things seemed to just fall apart right from the start. I remember one guy’s character was summarily executed in the first five minutes because he’d spoken sarcastically to a powerful NPC. Our characters did eventually escape, but not until they had been stripped of all of their gold and magic.

Having arrived in port without a penny to their name, the group took shitty jobs until they could afford enough gear to go adventuring. Eventually, a character died because of a misunderstood mime and the group dragged his body to the nearest cleric. Despite the deity in question supposedly being Lawful Good and the group dynamic being somewhat tetchy due to the misunderstanding and the summary ‘I’m the boss of this gym’ execution, the clerics bilked the group not only out of their treasure, but also out of what remaining weapons and armour they happened to have on them. Faced with a choice between returning to shitty day jobs, hoping for better luck next time, and abandoning the game, we chose to abandon the game and watch TV.

Given the existence of films like Mean Girls, I feel that contemporary media does a much better job at exploring the emotional savagery of teenaged girls than it does at exploring the emotional lives of teenaged boys. For a long time, the accepted wisdom seemed to be that while girls engaged in these byzantine forms of emotional battery, boys were mostly content with stuffing each other into lockers. I would argue that this stereotype is not only untrue, it is also rooted in weirdly essentialist ideas about emotions being somehow inherently feminine. For every hilarious anecdote about gamers behaving badly there’s a parallel and untold story about unconstrained sadness, emotional incontinence, unhealthy group dynamics, and sexual jealousy channelled through a set of matching polyhedral dice.

Given that my experiences with AD&D were positive enough to not only make me a lifelong gamer but also to overshadow loads of later gaming experiences, it is interesting that I would wind up turning my back on D&D. I’m not sure when D&D went sour on me, but I suspect it may have something to do with either my final encounter with Second Kid, or my decision to start running my own campaign.

As a species, we like to believe that our choices are rational and that our feelings are honest and uncomplicated. When we are not insisting that our subjective preferences are rooted in objective reality, we’re claiming that they are born of direct and inviolate emotional responses. The more I think about my past gaming experiences and the choices I have made about games, the more I realise that much of what I think of as my ‘taste’ is actually just decades of unprocessed emotional residue. We don’t know what we feel, we don’t know who we are, and the world forever escapes us.

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