Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Nostalgia Piece

I'm currently experience a period of bittersweet nostalgia. This time of the year tends to do that to me, as the start of summer rekindles memories of the past. I tried very hard to summarize those emotions and what they are doing to my current state of mind regarding this hobby and my plans for the future, but I was unable to do so to my satisfaction. I did remember that I posted something that touched lightly on this same topic in the very early days of this blog. I've decided to rerun that post while I ponder these thoughts some more.

Every hobbyist, no matter what their particular flavor of recreational activity, possesses a collection of anecdotes, recollections, funny tales, and non-sequiturs related to their preferred form of “non-work.” Without exception, these stories are usually only interesting to other hobbyists of the same pedigree. Individuals who don’t indulge in these activities, when forced to endure retellings of these stories, tend to drift off, roll their eyes, or politely redirect the conversation on to more broad topics (“Shut your pie-hole before I’m forced to clear leather on you, nerd-boy!”). For this reason, such tales are often referred to as “war stories.”

I’m no exception to this. I have my own treasure trove of stories that are usually safely hidden away until my dinner guests, dates, potential employers, or heads of state are in a position where escape is impossible. Only then will I start regaling them about the time Pootak MacDin MacCool managed to snatch an evil squirrel straight out of the air, hurl it back into a cave to be shish-ka-bobbed on an Elven arrow, and STILL catch the edge of the cliff before plummeting to his death below.

I’m going to tell one of those stories now. Since you supposedly reading this of your own free will, you may graciously escape before I start.

Still here? Okay then…

When it comes down to it, I’ve done a lot, and seen a lot, of great things through the eyes of imaginary people that exist solely as a collection of words on a piece of paper. I’ve done the usual heroic tasks of saving the world, defeating the grand beastie, leading armies to victory, breaking eldritch curses, etc. Despite the pleasure that I found in those game events, not one of those is my favorite moment that I ever experienced in a role-playing game. In fact, my favorite moment is most likely unrepeatable, no matter how much time, effort, creativity and planning was attempted to recreate it.

My favorite moment (and moment it was, since it lasted no more than a minute or three in real time) occurred during a campaign I played in during one of my many college years. We had a rather large party (6-7 if I remember correctly) and the players were all friends of various closeness in real life. I was playing Erik of Cullenport, a pretty standard 1st edition Fighter, who due to his high Charisma, was leader of this particular band.

The party had just finished a quest to secure a place of sanctuary for a newborn child. The boy might, or might not have been, the last legitimate heir to a usurped throne. A throne that the party all had reasons to see returned to its rightful bloodline. After experiencing the rigors to obtaining provisions for a newborn without a lactating woman of any sort in the party (“O.K. we’re taking the goat with us. Brother Hank can cast Purify Food and Water on the milk. That’s just like formula, right?”), discovering that babies put a crimp in adventuring opportunities (“Come on! Babies love caves. Let’s go in!”), and losing a party member to a ferocious stump (“It’s just a rabbit.”), we’d finally entrusted the prince to Brother Hank’s religious order and were headed south along the Western Sea to meet with the Elvish Court , for reasons that escape me. We knew peril lay ahead once we reached the forest, and having just barely escaped with our skins in the previous adventure, tensions were running a little high in the group.

Then, we had a beach party.

The DM said nothing more than we camp for the night on the beach. Immediately after saying that, the party (by which I mean the players) decided that a little R&R was needed. Our wizard announced she was looking for sharks, the ranger built a big bonfire with the wood that the thief gathered, I kept watch, and everyone else engaged in light role-playing for a minute before the wandering monster rolls turned up nothing for the night and we moved the game along.

That was my favorite game moment out of some twenty-something years of playing.

In those few minutes, using nothing more than a few casual descriptions, my mind painted the most vivid picture I’ve ever experienced during a role-playing game. I still have bits of it. I still see Gillian standing on the shoreline, eyes scanning the black waves as she holds the bottom of her robe up to avoid the surf. Her dog, Duncan, is splashing at the water’s edge, barking at the low rollers. Mirk the Fodder and Thea are throwing driftwood onto a roaring blaze, their silhouettes black against the fire. Erik is sitting on a low dune, watching the scene below. His armor is stowed safely by the fire, but his sword still lies close at hand. His mind is relaxing for the first time in many days. His friends are safe and can let their guard down, if only for a night. Erik doesn’t quite have that option, for the responsibility of leading this band still weighs on him. A weight that, much like his sword, can be put down for a little while, but never fully abandoned.

Fifteen years later, I swear I can still dimly smell the salt air and hear the waves break. I can feel the strands of beach grass blow against my bare arms as the breeze blows off the sea. I can still feel a little bit of that peace, the one that Erik must have felt that night, in my heart.Something was just right during that moment of that game. I’ll never quite know what it was. That’s why I’m sure it can never be recreated.

But I still try. One day, if everything is just perfect, I might experience something like that in a game again. In the meantime, I’m content to experience the good times that happen around a gaming table, and look forward to tomorrow night’s game.


Vanadorn said...

I have always had a soft spot for paladins/clerics but no one really knows why. Similar reason to what you are talking about Mike - I was playing a half-orc fighter/cleric (1st ed AD&D) named Torok Evilsbane and the DM (Dan Onarato) told me that half orc's couldn't be paladins.

So there we were, my guy getting the short end of the ugly jokes and the townsfolk were talking of riding me (and the party) on a rail when a peasant woman came up all scratched and was screaming, "The dead! The dead are a-waking up!"

We all ran to the cemetary (my being tossed out for being half-orcish forgotten) and beheld various peasants and serfs in different stages of decay standing up and shuffling towards us. The group started to drag wagons over to funnel the walking dead into a narrow area so we could hack them easily.

And at that moment and saw myself there. I saw the park like cemetary, the marble benches, the roses twining up the side and legs, the iron bars of the graveyard, the smell of cut grass, the chirp of birds, and even the low moaning and faintly spam-like scent of the walkiing dead.

I stood on the chair, one foot on the table, brandishing an imaginary warhammer and called out, "By the blood of my forefathers, I call on the light of Apollo! Back in the name of the sun god!"

And by god it felt real. I felt an outpouring and a tingle run through my chest, a quiver in my arms, a lightness in my head. I FELT like I was a conduit of some unknowable divine power and was hurling it at the foes.

It doesn't matter what happened or if we won the battle (we did). What mattered to me at that moment was that for a brief 1-2 minute instant of time, I was there - seeing it, feeling it, living it, being it.

I've had those moments since then - on both sides of the screen (playing and dming). They are rare but they do exist and when the situation is just right and the moment hits - it's just - fantastical.


Conrad R. said...

Nice memories. I was running a campaign for my friends in college and they had a chance encounter with a ghost of prophecy. One player tried to contact it and we improvised a scene that had the rest of the players entranced. Turned the game on a dime as they quested in fulfillment of a prophecy that was the result of a random roll. Sometimes, everything just clicks and the moment flows. I keep playing games for the moments of flow, when creativity blossoms and great things occur. Thanks for the trip.

Skydyr said...
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Unknown said...

Good story. It is indeed times like these that RPGs enchant me. Battles are often memorable, particularly when death draws nigh; but, these odd moments of story outside the charnel of combat usually stay with me longer.

LordVreeg said...

Love the mood in the OP.

I think gaming is often like this; searching for a feeling you touch rarely...but worth it when you do.

I actually get the 'being there' feelings, or the feeling that the group is all in the same mental place, more now than I used to. A lot of it is setting up more spotlight moments for the people, and being more and more descriptive with every roll...

Whatever, it's still getting better.

BlUsKrEEm said...

"When it comes down to it, I’ve done a lot, and seen a lot, of great things through the eyes of imaginary people that exist solely as a collection of words on a piece of paper."

This is one of the most quotable sentences I have read on a gaming blog. bravo good sire.

Jim said...

Great piece. Thanks so much for sharing!

AndreasDavour said...

Yeah, thanks for sharing. Sweet memories.