Sunday, November 22, 2009

RPG Memories

Ah, the RPG.

I've meandered off into the realms of sports (yes, actual physical sports... scary, I know), board and card games, various other genres of video games, but for some reason, I've always come back to some form of role-playing game. I've always been drawn to the idea of jumping into the role of some fictional character and embarking on an epic adventure. And since it's the shared topic over on Blog Azeroth, I figured I'd share my own experience with you all.

My affair with RPGs is one that reaches back over two decades. In that time,  One my earliest fascinations was with those endless series of "Choose your own adventure" books. With any number of different themes, the reader was cast as the central character in a novelization of what was, essentially, a role-playing game. The choices you made affected the outcome of the book, in turn (pun intended) altering the very plot of the story by skimming to another page. (Do you want to know more about my RPG nostalgia? If yes, turn to page 34. If no, what the hell are you reading this for?)

When I became a bit older, this fascination grew a bit more sophisticated. I began to read the Lone Wolf series of "choose-your-own-adventure" books, but this time a round, they came with a sophisticated twist: statistics, combat and items! It had expanded on the classic style of book that I had grown to love and several borrowed D&D elements. I collected several copies within the series (scrolling through the covers sure took me back) and can clearly remember sitting with my pencil and flipping through the pages, anxiously apprehensive to find out if my choices had led to my doom. Of course, you had to make sure not to sneak a peek at the other pages while turning to the designated page, because that was 'cheating.'

Eventually, the charm of these books wore off. For one, it was too tempting to skip some of the pages (some of which contained artwork) and often ended up spoiling the plot for me. In addition, the tedious realities that come with this type of role-playing game became apparent. There was a combat system, which required you to perform manual calculations in pencil, because doing so in ink was a lesson in futility. This meant lots of scribbling and jotting and erasing. You also used a crude sort of RNG by closing your eyes and slamming the eraser end of your pencil onto a grid of random numbers, which became quite easy to cheat at with a little practice. With all of the various items you had to keep track of, along with writing them down, then erasing, then writing them down again... by the ninth or tenth book, this became rather tiresome. I began to pass these by in the book store and reach for them out of curiosity and familiarity, only to place them back on the shelves. Sad, really. (You can read the entire series for free, online, here.)

Even after these books, I still longed for the classic adventure of swords and sorcery, and even remember spending hours in the public library poring over the various D&D books the kept in their shelves. I never had the courage to find someone as dorky as I was to actually play the game, so instead I would sit there and stare at the spells and monster descriptions and imagine what sorts of adventures I would go on, or what class I would play, or how I would make a dungeon. My fascination with role-playing games continued.

Along came King's Quest. I remember playing this game in 16 colors. Count them: 16. When I first popped this 5.25" floppy into my hard drive, and listened to the crude machinery of the disk drive read the binary code, and finally display the rich hues on my screen, I was in Tandy EX heaven.

After that, there was Space Quest, and Hero's Quest, and, ahem, Leisure Suit Larry. (Do you guys happen to remember having to get past the guy watching TV in the basement to sneak up the stairs to... oh, never mind.)

Now, technically these were not RPGs in the classic D&D sense. They are now categorized in the "Adventure" category, but all told a story in which you interacted with the environment, made decisions, and used problem solving skills and abilities in order to progress the plot, but you still played a role. Hero's Quest was more RPG-ish of the series, in which you could choose to play one of three classes (Fighter, Magic User, and Thief.) Nevertheless, I consider these games to be RPGs, or at the very least credit them with sparking more of my interest in RPG-type games.

Enter my teenage years: the advent of the NES, SNES, Genesis, Nintendo 64, the 386 processor, and Playstation. I have played at least one RPG on each system, including the Final Fantasy, Ultima and Might and Magic series. Eventually I went off to college, got a job and continued gaming through my twenties. I dabbled in shooters and Madden and Star Wars Pod Racing, but I always found myself pausing to check out the back of the latest RPG.

Somewhere in the last 5 or 6 years, I yearned for the nostalgia of my floppy disk days (actually, I remember playing games off a cassette tape hooked up to an Apple IIe, but I digress.) I began to dabble in the world of MUDs, but found them too stale. I soon discovered the MUSH, which was much more customizable and had more of the RPG elements I was looking for, such as emotes, etc. (Not so much "You hit the rat for 12 damage!") When I dug deeper, there seemed to be a MUSH themed for pretty much everything. I stayed with what I knew at the time, which was primarily Star Wars based. And so it was that I dove headfirst into these telnet based phenomena for about a year or so before interest in the genre faded. However, the yearning for more text-based adventures was not over.

In one of my many subsequent searches for obscure freeware, I came across this wonderful gem: Dwarf Fortress. In it, you can play in a single player RPG campaign or a very complex dwarf fortress building simulation. And the best part is, it's in ASCII. You read it. ASCII. And I loved it. I played it night and day, managing my little dwarfs and digging into the mountains, carving out an existence for the little imaginary @'s on my screen. I highly recommend it for those of you who like both old school ASCII graphics (there are downloadable graphics sets to make the game a bit easier on the eyes, but it's still an ASCII game at the core) and simulation games like SimCity and the like. It's been in active development for quite some time, but still has yet to get out of alpha stages. (Best part, however, is that it's free and completely playable for an alpha.)

And finally, about two and a half years ago, I felt the itch again. Everywhere I turned, everyone was ranting and raving about the World of Warcraft. I had played the RTS games a couple times previous, so I was familiar with the basic premise; orcs vs. humans, sure, easy enough, right? So, I picked myself up the free trial and never looked back. My intital concerns were that I wouldn't be able to play the game on my computer at the time, but the graphics card and our meager CPU put forth a decent effort and I managed to squeeze out 20 fps on average. I went out and bought vanilla WoW and Burning Crusade, signed up for my monthly subscription, and never looked back.

And so it was that I went from a scrawny little kid huddled between stacks of books (and flipping to page 34) to raiding Naxxramas, Ulduar and perhaps challenging the Lich King himself to a /duel. It's been a long journey, a quest of its own, if you will. In case you were wondering, it's taken me nearly three days to write this post. Strolling down memory lane and trying to narrow down which games influenced me the most has not been an easy task. I mean, there have to be at least two or three dozen games in the console category alone that I was forced to omit for brevity. To be honest, though, I had a lot of fun writing this one. I hope you had as much fun reading.

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