Of War Games and Tabletop Role-Playing Games

You might be asking where my story begins. Why I’m here, talking about games, play, and gamers. I guess you could say it all started when I was young, probably too young to remember anything profound. However, that isn’t the whole truth. My identity as a gamer, along with my obsession with games, play, and gaming cultures began when I was in high school.

As many of us know, high school is the testing ground for our adult selves. It’s a time of hormones, acne, masturbation, and going through the bureaucratic channels that make up public school education. For me, high school was all about gaming, fandom, and ignoring the spiralling world outside of the mind. I couldn’t care less about the homework or the sports. I did care about games, gaming, play, and sharpening the mind.

My high school experience was split between two high schools: Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and, of course, Dulce, New Mexico. I started my freshman year out in Pagosa Springs, where I played Mage Knight, MechWarrior, Lord of the Rings, Magic: The Gathering, and even the occasional Warhammer at the local community center or high school. During the spring semester of my freshman year, I started attending school in Dulce, New Mexico. For the first few months, I had little to do to pass the time. To me, Dulce didn’t have much to offer.

Dulce, New Mexico is located on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in north-central New Mexico. It is a place of little consequence for many New Mexicans, where the Archuleta Mesa towers over a semi-arid valley. The town is centered around tribe-owned and operated businesses and tribal government buildings, which hug Highway-64 like plaque might on arterial walls.

What I knew about Dulce, New Mexico, came from two unreliable sources. Our neighbors, Tom and Pam, found their dog, Dulce, in Dulce, New Mexico. They always retold the story of how they were driving through Dulce and found their beloved dog, Dulce. It was a story that matched their personalities and their posh B&B they lived in and operated.

I also remember hearing about Dulce in relation to the cattle mutilations of the late-1970s. The cattle mutilations were somehow linked to either UFOs or government-run black ops looking to see the long-term effects of radioactive fallout in the area. To complicate matters, Dulce also had a reputation for housing a secrete military base under Archuleta Mesa, something locals always talked about. The History Channel even aired a documentary on the mutilations when I was younger, with a British narrator pronouncing the town’s name as “Dulche, New Mexico.”

Locals believed different stories when it came to the cattle mutilations. Some believed, as I said above, it was government agents who surgically sliced and diced the mutilated cattle, looking for something civilians weren’t privy to. These same government agents were said to arrive in silent, black helicopters. In Pagosa Springs, Colorado, some forty-five minutes away, it is rumored that there exists a military base near the Great Sand Dunes, where the silent , black helicopters are stationed and hidden from prying eyes. Others, who, after a bit of coaxing, claimed it was UFOs, experimenting on cattle. Still others, like a family friend mentioned, believed the cattle mutilations were linked to Dulce’s secrete underground base, a sort of Area 51 military based housed deep under Archuleta Mesa.

We moved to Dulce, New Mexico after my parents decided to end their nightmarish take on June and Ward Cleaver and the whole white-picket fence in the suburbs. My father kept the house in Pagosa Springs, and our animals, four cats and a dog, were left to fend for themselves in a housing that was unfinished and dead inside. My mother took the three of us kids down to Dulce, New Mexico, where she worked as an underpaid, overworked math teacher, hoping, praying, to make a difference in the lives of the kids she taught.

The first few months in Dulce were pretty damned boring. We still went to school in Pagosa Springs, some forty-five minutes away. This required that we commute every morning to a little place called Chromo, Colorado, which is located on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, so we could catch a school bus at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. We were back home, in Dulce, around 4:30 or 5:30 p.m., only eat, watch some T.V., and finished whatever homework we had left before heading off to bed and repeat the cycle all over again. This all continued until my mother decided it was time to enroll us in school in Dulce—much to the chagrin of my great grandmother, who didn’t much like the idea of her three (white) great grandchildren going to an indian school.

My brother and sister seemed to loved Dulce. My brother played sports and worked for the school. He later told my mother that playing sports in Dulce kept him from dropping out of high school. My sister played sports, too, hung out with friends, and watched Gilmore Girls every day at 3:00 p.m. She liked Dulce because it allowed her to be independent of my father, who could be a real hard ass when he wanted to be.

For me, Dulce didn’t have the stuff I was used to. My classmates weren’t interested in old-school games. They played Xbox, PlayStation, and on their PCs. I preferred dice and paper to television screens and controllers. I spent the better part of two months goofing around the small apartment my mother rented from the school district. I’d come home from school and watch  T.V., eating copious amounts of frosted Cheerios or Cornflakes with whole milk—mom liked whole milk better, and it tasted a helluva lot better than the two per cent stuff we bought later on.

Anyways, my boredom progressed, pushing me further and further into a sort of social and mental isolation that worried my dear mum. I spent hours looking for something to do, something to occupy my time. Thankfully, my brother’s stolen stash of VHS pornos came in handy. I could fantasize while Rosy and her five friends worked their magic. After a while, though, even the porno stash staled. The same routines. No surprises. Boredom returned.

My taste in extracurricular activities worried mom. She was afraid that I’d off myself or turn into a pudgy blob, who’d stay home all day, mooching off her cereal supplies and satellite television subscription. She wasn’t exactly in a stable state of mind when we’d moved to Dulce.

Her marriage of sixteen years was coming to a fiery end, complete with a major custody battle waged from two different states. She pulled extra hours to pay for the apartment we lived in, the increased appetite of her three children, and a divorce lawyer, who she found in Farmington, New Mexico, nearly two hours west of Dulce proper.

Dulce was not home for my mother, who’d grown up in rural North Dakota. North Dakota was the land of nice neighbors and friendly faces. It also happened to be a place where your dollar just went further—kinda like a colder, wetter version of Arkansas or Mississippi. To my mom, Dulce was the closest place she’d come to living and working in a warzone. Student suicides, crime, poverty, and abuse were common and permanent staples of Dulce, or so she kept telling us. She wanted to keep her kids away from all of that. That was the reason she’d agreed to move to Colorado from Illinois with my father back in the late-90s. She wanted to keep us away from the despair that many locals experience while living in Dulce, or even in New Mexico, for that matter. There’s a reason why the Land of Enchantment has a popular and more cynical motto, the Land of Entrapment. Sometimes you just can’t escape, even if you want to.

My mother’s anxieties led her to find outlets for my energy. These included gong to after school programs or learning and practicing Jujitsu with Mr. B, our family friend and a history teacher at Dulce High School. These activities weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for. Again, boredom ensued. It took a series of fistfights with my little brother, whose knuckles were like steel gloves of fury, and bending the shit out of a metal door (don’t ask) to our apartment before Mr. B told me about some guy named Zed. He knew Zed had something that’d interest me, and I was skeptical, at first.

Zed worked for the Jicarilla Apache Department of Education (JADE), and he wore the clothes that fit the likes of a firebrand Moron missionary rather than a day-in and day-out tech guy. He filmed official tribal events and lectures for the tribal government. Zed occasional worked on the odd bits of computer and film equipment that he’d stashed away in his ten-by-ten-foot JADE office.

Zed’s office in the JADE building was about the same square footage and same state of disrepair as a large broom closet than (say) a dorm room. The office itself was filled, to maximum capacity, with computers, video equipment, listing shelves, and milk crates holding many of Zed’s gaming books. There was no organizing principle behind the clutter of computers, cables, and cameras. It was like a squirrel’s stashed away nut collection, with odd pieces stashed behind cabinets or stacked on top of bloating shelves.

Zed had lived on the Reservation as well. He was married to a Jicarilla Apache woman and had two kids. His son went to school in Dulce as well, about a decade or so behind me.

Zed belong to the first generation of role-playing gamers, who probably started playing socially conservative games like Dungeons & Dragons, escalating their gaming fix to the harder stuff, which was morally ambiguous, violent, and infinitely more complex than D&D. These games included, but were not limited to, Paranoia, Shadowrun, Werewolf, Cthulhu, etc.

When I started high school, I played war games, chess, and was involved in the downward spiral that was CCGs. In high school, Mage Knight was the game to play. For those who didn’t enjoy fantasy, it was MechWarrior. We also played plenty of chess, creating our own variants. Before war games took off, we played Pokemon, Magic, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. For those of us with a little extra cash, Warhammer was another go-to, but it was usually with small squads and homebrew rules rather than with large armies and official rulebooks. My adventure from war games, chess, and card games progressed into an obsession and hobby involving tabletop role-playing games. This is not a hard progression to imagine. In fact, many have follow a similar progression themselves.

What happens is that you start playing chess. You grow bored, because the pieces rarely do anything exciting. There is just skill and not much in the way of luck/fortune and randomness. You start to imagine how you can complicate the game. For me, this led to war games, which are sort of like chess, but they add some rather interesting elements often missing in chess. The boards (i.e., tables) are usually much larger. You often use dice, and you have different units doing unique things on the board/table. I remember one time that a host from Fear the Boot said that once you play war games, you can never go back to chess. This is because there isn’t much in the way of surprise, luck, and/or variation. However, war games grow boring, too, for some. You start putting together armies, which cost a considerable sum of money. Before too long, you are imagining how you can complicate the game a bit. You imagine taking on the role of a commander, grunt, or even the magic user on the table. This is the first step into role-playing games many have.

Role-playing games, at least in my experience, were off limits. My parents knew of Dungeons & Dragons, and they feared what the game could do to a young mind. They were the kinds of games my father warned me about. My father saw Dungeons & Dragons as a portal of evil that could possess impressionable minds. I have no idea where he got this idea. I am sure this opinion was lifted from the pages of some Chick comic, where evil Dungeon Masters corrupt the souls of seemingly innocent, impressionable children. I ignored my old man’s warning and decided to jump into the world of role-playing games. I had nothing else better to do. Little did I know, Zed would offer an unadulterated look at the seedier side of role-playing games.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

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