Of War Games and Tabletop Role-Playing Games (Part II)

Zed, to an impressionable young mind, was sort of like the corrupting influence seen in Chick comics' evil Dungeon Masters. However, I wouldn't say this was a corruption that was necessarily evil or destructive. Instead, Zed was someone who showed an unadulterated view of humanity, the world, and even the universe at large. Zed was a realistic, and he was damned good at telling stories and making you feel part of the story he was weaving together. Little did I know, I was giving up every spare afternoon to commit murder, mayhem, armed robbery, aggravated assault, all the while having fun with it.

You see, there is catharsis in acted-out violence. This catharsis was, for me, something I needed, something I craved. I needed to get away from mom and dad’s divorce battle. I needed to get away from my siblings, who appeared to be far too happy with Dulce. I needed to escape and work on a few things. What most don’t realize is that therapy is violent. Games like tabletop role-playing games are cathartic, yes, but they are also a way to work out aggression, disillusion, and, even, release those dark things from one’s mind and soul.

The first game I played with Zed and his co-worker, Dee, was a homebrew version of Shadowrun. The game was a blank spot in my mind. I’d never heard of it, nor had I heard about things like cyberpunk, corporatocracies, and cybernetic implants that filled the game’s rulebook. I wasn’t used to the game’s mechanics either. I sepnt the between part of two and a half hours creating my first character from scratch, rolling dice, answering questions, and choosing traits, quirks, flaws, etc. This was not due to some overly elaborate character creation system espoused by Shadowrun, but, rather, a creation of Zed’s own bored mind. Zed liked modifying his games, adding bits here and there and stealing from online forums, homebrew Websites, and fanzines. The final character sheet consisted of intricate formulas, lists, and spreadsheets that Zed used in his role as Game Master, a sort of master storyteller with god-like authority over the game world, for those who have no idea what I am talking about.

There are two types of Game Masters.

There are those who take pity on their players, offering a helping hand. Story, all round fun, and leisure gameplay are key to these types of Game Masters.

Then there are those who view their players as mere mortals, playthings, who are bound and beaten in every imaginable way.

Zed belonged to the second Game Master archetype. Zed’s game-mastering technique took a page from the “Monkey’s Paw.” Be careful what you wish for, as something might not go according to plan. He had a way of making fate, gravity, and the dice come crashing down on your head. His thugs were better equipped. The police were always a step ahead of us. Bullets hurt more, and the explosions were just ridiculous. Being capture or arrested meant brutal interrogations, bordering on Geneva Convention violations. Every roll of the dice brought silent prayers and paranoia-induced mutterings. High or even successful rolls were met with hollering—all around jubilation and high-fiving. Low or even unsuccessful rolls brought pale faces and globs of sweat and hopes that our characters hadn’t stumbled into the starry beyond for good.

The first gaming session we had started off simple.

Dee and I were hired to steal some corporate tech for a faceless, nameless client we found in the shadows of some megacity. However, this heist led to an accidental kidnapping and death, which precipitated in a fair number of violent gun battles with corporate goons and police agencies. In turn, this led to a higher body count and more enemies.

As Dee and I moved across the post-apocalyptic United States, the bodies piled up like cordwood. Thousands died. Dee and I were like a two-man meat grinder. People came in one end and bullet-riddled or mutilated flesh out the other.

It gave me a certain high that couldn’t be matched anywhere else. I kept going to JADE to get my fix of mayhem and destruction. One days we couldn’t meet, I felt like I was going through withdrawals. I needed to roll dice and kick ass. I needed to get the demons out. I needed to escape from Dulce, even though it was never that place’s fault for me wanting to escape.

We’d snuffed out a group of homeless with a one-two combination of foam grenade (demobilizing the homeless crowd) and an incendiary chaser (not pretty, folks). After killing off a group of homeless people, who’d been victims of the two-man meat grinder tour, we’d stumbled into a fight with corporate security goons. The incident ended with our arrest and subsequent interrogation. The interrogation lasted half a gaming session and included various methods that makes me wonder about the mental state of Zed, even to this day. I have since concluded that Zed must’ve been ex-Stasi or a KGB agent in a former life. Again, this was his way of bringing down reality and every imaginable force  onto our heads. Our actions had drastic and often horrific consequences.

Another incident involved a brief gun battle at a hospital with hospital security—the poor fuckers didn’t know the two-man meat grinder was coming to town to fuck up their day. (And to this day, I still have no idea why we ended up in a hospital.) My character, who was attempting to subdue the hospital security with a flash bang, missed the waiting room (and with the wrong weapon, too).

Zed made me roll a few six-sided dice, and, before I knew it, Zed was smiling to himself. My roll was low—painfully low. He smiled to himself again and rolled a few dice of his own. He chuckled. Rolled twice more in secret. The whole thing ended with my character tossing an incendiary grenade into a nearby oxygen storage room. The hospital was leveled along with a nearby nursing home. Somehow our characters managed to escape without a scratch on them.

Our tour of death changed settings, as I grew bored of cyberpunk and asked Zed to about moving to something a bit more exciting. This prompted Zed to change the storyline, tweaking it in a way to fit our demented gaming style. Our characters were kidnapped by aliens, who’d (somehow) heard about our earthly exploits. They needed some Terran muscle to move in on their own enemies. They wanted to capitalize on our ability to turn  living beings into pounds of mutilated flesh.

At about the same time, my father was becoming more and more distant. My own mother was already distant. Home life was hallow, and it was just something I had to endure in order to get back to gaming the next day or week.

The new setting was borrowed from a little-known game called Star Frontiers. Star Frontiers was TSR’s (i.e., the creator of Dungeons & Dragons) failed attempt at creating a sort of serious space adventure role-playing game. For us, Star Frontiers offered a number of new killing fields. New aliens worlds became our shooting galleries, our explosive-laden playgrounds. Out intergalactic debauchery resulted in the destruction of a dozen worlds, with each world destroyed in a spectacular fashion—hell we were getting it down to an art.

A planet consumed by supermassive colonies of nanite cells.

Entire species were scratched out of existence.

We stole warships and jettisoned entire crews out of airlocks and into the hard vacuum of space.

Mayhem, murder, and outright plunder became the name of the game. We were the Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because we’d killed off the other two, coming to wreak havoc on mortal souls everywhere.

We were the devourers of worlds, galactic meat grinders, traveling the voids between stars.

To a younger me, nothing seemed more appropriate than mass destruction, mayhem, murder, and violence on a scale that could be barely contained by Zed.

The summer following my high school graduation put a damper on things. I couldn’t commit to daily or even weekly gaming sessions anymore. I knew I was going to start college in August. The college I was going to was some three hundred miles away, making it too far for regular gaming commutes. Something told me that the group needed to end the game with a bang—a campaign to end all gaming campaigns. I wanted a campaign that ended in a total party kill (TPK).

I told Zed about my idea. A TPK was in line with Zed’s sadistic game-mastering sensibilities. Thus, he agreed to ending the campaign with a real blowout of a TPK. He began plotting out the new campaign’s general structure. This led to our characters being brought back to Earth in a stolen warship.

It was the Welcome Home Tour.

Our intergalactic shenanigans followed in tow. A coalition of vengeful aliens began an invasion of Earth, threatening to wipe out all of humanity. This was payback for our intergalactic killing spree.

With our weapons locked and loaded, we stole an alien capital ship that was about ten kilometers in length. This required a bit of finesse that was well beyond our usual method of greasing opponents and taking over enemy ships. We vented the ship’s entire air supply, killing the crew and security and others onboard. This took a bit longer than we’d hoped. The alien invasion was successfully sterilizing entire continents of human beings, and they were turning the Earth’s surface into molten glass. This prompted a last minute decision to go out with a bang. We steered the capital ship toward the Earth’s atmosphere, blowing away alien warships left and right. The ship’s system went into the red, heading into critical. “Core containment breached.” We were leaking radiation like an old Russian submarine. “Core containment breached.” Then boom. Nothing else but a white searing light. A million-gigaton explosion obliterated the Earth’s atmosphere and everything the surface and around in orbit. It was fuckin’ brilliant.

When I started college in August, I couldn’t help but wonder about how I was going to satisfy my gaming fix. I was in a new town, and I was hundreds of miles away from the cramped JADE office in Dulce, New Mexico, where I’d spent countless hours gaming. I was surprised to find others who had the same gaming interests. Some of my fellow students had the same needs for buffoonery and destruction.

I started a gaming group in my dorm hall by setting up shop in an empty commons area. The group was a big hit, and four gamers turned out to the first gaming session. We were traveling across the galaxy, fighting the Wraith in our homebrew Stargate role-playing game. We fought as guerrillas in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The bodies stacked like cordwood. The blood ran in the streets. The dice clattered on top of tables, with silent prayers or mutterings by each player.

I was transported back to that first day when I came to Zed’s office in JADE. It was a euphoria I still didn’t quite understand, nor did I care to. There was something about doing debaucherous things. There was something about destroying Eden, killing off enemies, real or imagined, and dying a good death.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico