Reflective Writing, roleplaying games

On gaming in high school

One of the fringe benefits to gaming with a lot of my same friends from college is that there are a number of like-minded people who are also interested in the group, its future, and its past. A few months ago I worked with one of the other group members to update our infamous “quote log” to include some historical information about the group and our games. After a few hours of writing all the games out and discussing discrepancies between our collective memories, we had a 98-99% complete list of campaigns, one-shots and events that our group had done from 2005 to 2016. We even had a pretty comprehensive list of character deaths, made easier by the fact that our group is not one where character death is common in campaigns.

I will not ever have this level of collective memory for my gaming in high school. There are two main reasons: first, my gaming experiences in a good chunk of high school were very ad hoc. Though a lot of the same players appeared, I had no “group”, per se. Second, when I did have a group in the second half of high school, it was composed of people who, at this point in my life, I do not have contact with in any way, shape or form. Reasons aside, that makes it very difficult to check your memories against those of someone who shared them. Despite these difficulties, I still want to try and catalogue these formative experiences.

In my freshman year, I met a couple seniors who were avid gamers. While this did not actually evolve into any gaming, I still remember talking to one of them outside of a choir audition when he gleefully revealed to me that his messenger bag was filled with World of Darkness sourcebooks. This was very early in the year, and it’s hard to overstate the impact this had on me. Later in the year it was revealed to me that there was a standing ban on school clubs playing Dungeons and Dragons, which stemmed not from any sort of Satanic panic but rather from an unfortunate incident involving someone being chased down the hallway with a boffer sword (or so I was told). Given that the ban was on D&D, I convinced the club’s advisor that it clearly didn’t mean all roleplaying games. Of course, he knew as well as I did that this was violating the spirit of the rule…but the club advisor (and my English teacher at the time) was also a gamer, so he went along with my idea. He did attach a condition to it: we should write the game, so that the whole club could have input. We wrote a pretty simple heartbreaker and had one of the club members (Dave, I think his name was?) GM us for about a month and a half through a weird, mildly apocalyptic fantasy scenario. Dave disappeared from the club at some point, and another member, Pete, took the basic idea and rewrote it into the Hero System. It got weird and anime-like, and before we knew it we were playing Battleship Yamato with the serial numbers filed off, and a load of weird magical powers. Bizarre and unfocused though it was, I remember having an absolute ball playing that game. Pete continued to be a fixture in the club until he graduated two years before me, and I also played a bit of Vampire:the Masquerade with him GMing in my sophomore year. What I clearly remember was that Pete was much more enthusiastic about the characters and what they did than about either railroading into a plot or ruthless mechanical optimization…he was probably my favorite high school GM. I gave him a copy of Demon:the Fallen as a graduation present.

Pete’s game was what started coalescing the people who would later become my gaming group, but the format of the science fiction club was pretty limiting for gaming. I did start bringing Cyberpunk 2020 manuals to club meetings and writing up characters for anyone who was interested, but in all the times I did this it turned into one gaming session, an admittedly pretty neat PvP shootout in a multi-level parking garage. Still, I knew plot was lacking.

Around this time, my brother, who was in the 7th grade at the time, had started hanging out with a few kids who were into roleplaying games. My brother himself had played, mostly because when I was 14 I had bought a set of D&D books and hounded him into playing with me (mostly unsuccessfully). Still, I hadn’t gotten him entirely turned off the hobby, and both he and his friends were at least partially into the idea of me running a game for them.

Let me summarize that experience concisely: don’t GM for 13 and 14 year olds. Don’t do it. Especially if you’re a high schooler with limited experience who naively believes that your players are going to be just as excited as you are with no additional motivation. The worst was that it was a mix: two kids who were excited to be there and play, at least one who clearly wasn’t, and two who would just go along with whatever was interesting at the moment. Also, one kid who wanted to play Drizz’t in a D&D game, no matter how many times I explained this wasn’t the Forgotten Realms and there were no drow. For years after (even now) I have GMing habits that came directly from how difficult that series of games was to even attempt to run.

So in the second half of my junior year of high school, I decided that I wanted a gaming group, I still wanted to GM (for some ungodly reason), and that it would be better if my players were close to my own age. I introduced this notion at one of the science fiction club meetings, got interest from a few people, and ended up with a meeting spot in one of the guys’ basement.

I ran two games for this group, though I don’t remember whether I stopped running the first, a D&D game, because we reached a conclusion or because I got bored. Either is possible. I do remember having a brief moment in the middle of the second game, a Cyberpunk game, where we put it aside for a bit and tried a few things. One of the guys ran Rifts, which in spite of the ruleset was actually quite fun, and another tried running Ironclaw, which in spite of the anthro/furry setting was actually quite fun. There was another guy, Jay, who tried running D&D himself…it didn’t go so well. We’ll get back to Jay in a little bit.

Anyways, we eventually returned to Cyberpunk, and also introduced a new player as one of our players was no longer able to make it on weekends. Ironically, both the incoming and the outgoing player had dated the same girl, though not at the same time. Almost at the same time. The two of them just missing each other was…not coincidental, given things that had happened a few months before. It also colored my opinion of this guy who, though he had just joined the gaming group, was someone I had known before. It may have also allowed me some mental gymnastics with one of my future dating choices that may or may not have torpedoed the group later.

In case you’re getting lost, I’m about to tell the story about how petty high school drama broke up my gaming group. To be fair, the last session we played involved an ambushed and an almost-TPK because the group wouldn’t cut and run. Well, what made them really angry was that when the battle turned, the big bad they were fighting did retreat, which I thought was sensible. Then the resident rules lawyer complained that a person couldn’t jump 20 feet straight up…I opened the 2020 rulebook to the passage under cyberware which specifically stated that individuals with two cyberlegs can jump 20-25 vertical feet. The moral here is that when it comes to player behaviors you disagree with, don’t fight fire with fire. One of the players making the argument stormed out of the room.

Now, I don’t know if the group would have been willing to go back to that game. At least two of the players thought the session was pretty dramatic, so there may have been a chance. Nonetheless, I went on a choir trip, made some potentially risky choices about my dating life, and the group was no more. I would not play a tabletop RPG again until I got to college.

While it was certainly a formative stage in my gaming life, it was one I’m glad I left. This is where we get back to Jay. Jay  was pretty disruptive as a player but he was excited about the game, which was the thing that seemed to cause my previous group with my brother’s friends to implode when it was missing. As a result, I tolerated some of the other behaviors, notably scene-stealing and anti-social characters (you, know, mysterious loners with 25 pages of backstory that the GM *must read*). Well. After my freshman year of college, I decided to run a play-by-post (PbP) game for my college friends who were all back at home. I got enough interest that I wanted to go through with it, but not enough that I was confident I had enough players. So, I invited people from outside my gaming group to join and invited the other players to do the same. We got one friend of one of the other group members, who only posted a couple times. We got my brother, who made a character but didn’t have enough familiarity with the system to get into it. And then we had Jay.

Jay played his character like he did when we were in high school. In high school we were all willing to tolerate it. In college, the reaction was a lot more…negative. The scene-stealing nonsense was so bad that my group has since named that game “The Dreaded PbP”. A couple of my players wrote an in-character revenge fantasy about killing Jay’s character from the game after it was over. It is undoubtedly the most infamous game in the group’s history. One of my players continues to occasionally joke about it to this day, ten years later…and he wasn’t even in the game in the first place.

This was what taught me that I was no longer gaming like I was in high school. To be perfectly honest, my last high school group were all-around decent guys, though with some bad habits at the table. We did have some problems with the geek social fallacies, but the ultimate issue was that by the time the group was in the home stretch, my senior year, we were kind of the only game in town (pun intended). I don’t know if there were freshmen gaming on weekends, but did I really want to find out? Instead I took the hand I was dealt, and none of us felt we could fairly exclude someone, even if we complained about them behind their backs. So when I get to college, that kind of fear of exclusion was gone. Not only were there almost certainly other gaming groups, we were at a school where the nerd flag was flown proudly by 75+% of the student body. So when someone joins our game and clearly isn’t following the social conventions…no mercy.

I did have a good time gaming and learning about gaming in high school. I wouldn’t want to repeat any of it.

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