Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity Changed My Life

When I was in 3rd grade I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons by my cousins, Mike and Phil. They had gotten the Basic Set for Christmas and at the yearly family holiday gathering one of them ran my brother and I through an encounter from Keep on the Borderlands. My brother enjoyed it, but I quickly became obsessed. I was 8 years old and I had found my 2nd love (my first love was music, which I had already fallen for thanks to the band KISS).

I remember borrowing the Basic Set from my cousins and trying to DM my Mom through Keep on the Borderlands, mercilessly killing all her characters with kobolds. (Sorry mom, thanks for your patience!) I have so many memories from ages 8 and up that relate to gaming. My mom taking me to Walden Books for my first set of polyhedral dice. My mom taking me to the Greenhaven Library where I'd take out their Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, Monster Manual, and Deities and Demigods over and over again until my mom bought me my own. But one of my early moments of independence was riding my bike to 7-11 and buying my first Advanced D and D module, A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity. (Yes, at 7-11. It was a different time back then!)

Everyone from that era only seems to talk of the father of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax. But I had my own hero - David 'Zeb' Cook. A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity left an indelible mark with its orc guardians, aspis drones, and giant sundew that I think you had to kill with casks of wine? All I know is that David 'Zeb' Cook's name has been forever burned into my brain. X4 Master of the Desert Nomads, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the Escape from New York board game were all in my collection. When all of my friends wanted to be astronauts or firemen when they grew up, I said I wanted to be a game designer for TSR when I grew up, like David 'Zeb' Cook.

Over the years I thought about things I would like to add to games like Crossbows and Catapults or even Monopoly (before there were 100 versions of Monopoly) and of course, I created all sorts of my own dungeon adventures for ADandD. By the end of my teens I owned a huge collection of ADandD books, modules and Dragon Magazines, and had finally started collecting games like Battletech and Car Wars. But I wasn't strictly an indoor kid. In high school, gaming was interspersed with laser tag, hacky sack, skateboarding, and eventually, playing music.

In 1994 I was singing in a straight edge hardcore punk band called Halfmast, playing ADandD when I wasn't practicing or playing shows, and had just opened a gaming store with my gaming group called Adventures Unleashed. In 1992 or 1993 I had started submitting articles to Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine because I still had it in my mind that I was going to be a game designer. In 1994, I made my first real accomplishment towards those ends, I had an article I had written published in Dragon Magazine #210 as part of their Arcane Lore series.

Somewhere around then, my focus changed slightly in terms of gaming. We started carrying Warhammer at Adventures Unleashed and my interest in role-playing quickly vanished. I played Warhammer Fantasy Battle first, and then Warhammer 40K, but they weren't the real game changers. In 1995 GW released Necromunda and it turned my gaming interests upside down. Like with ADandD I was obsessed. I spent hours painting, converting, building terrain, and writing my own scenarios. Now though, I was submitting them to Citadel Journal. I even got an acceptance letter for an article that never made it into print, but Citadel Journal was going through a lot of format changes then so I could see how I'd fall through the cracks. Regardless, now, instead of working for TSR, I wanted to work for GW.

In the summer of 1996 Halfmast broke up and I immersed myself more in Adventures Unleashed, doing lots of painting, gaming, and running gaming events. In 1997 we were having trouble keeping ourselves on the payroll and one of us was going to have to find a "real" job. It was around then that I saw an ad in White Dwarf that GW was hiring Trade Sales people. I sent a resume, scored an interview, and drove all the way from Buffalo, NY to Baltimore, MD to interview. I was so nervous I was shaking as John Matthews and another guy asked me completely reasonable questions and I stammered my way through answering them. It was bad. Really bad. But I had brought a bunch of my painted models and even some scratch built work. I didn't get that job, but they forwarded my name to the guy hiring new retail staff members, a guy by the name of Sean Forbes.

I received a series of calls from Sean because it just so happened they were expanding into Buffalo, NY. He eventually scheduled an interview for me with a guy named Brenden Terrill. I still remember sitting in the Walden Galleria food court in Cheektowaga, NY that afternoon, with this smug, sometimes serious, sometimes grinning guy sitting across from me asking me why I wanted to work for GW. I confessed, "I really just want to get my foot in the door so that I can eventually get involved in game design." He chuckled to himself and said, "You remind me a lot of me when I came to Games Workshop. You're hired."

Brenden had a lot of faith in me and reassured me that it was okay to buy my first (and only) new car, that my job was secure. In 8 months he had moved on to another new GW store and left me to manage GW108. Things were exciting and fun for a while. Then working for GW started to grind us both down. In late 1999 I started a new band called No Time Left. It felt great to be playing music again, it was such a different world than running demo games for a company that expected us to live and breath gaming 24/7 whether we wanted to or not. I remember reaching the point where I wanted to leave GW but I had those new car payments to deal with. Brenden and I left GW within a few weeks of each other in 2001, and I only had 1 car payment left. I was free. A few months later I went on my first coast to coast tour of the US with my band No Time Left.

Over the years I dodged back and forth between music and gaming as my focus, but they've always been right here with me. The desire to design games has never left me. Two years ago I fell in love with a project my friends were working on called Wreck-Age, the post-apocalyptic RPG and miniature skirmish game. I helped a lot with play testing, helped iron out some kinks in the rules, and introduced some small concepts. I left a very small mark on the game but that experience filled me with excitement, even if I felt compelled to step away from Hyacinth Games. I wanted to strike out on my own. Here was something I loved, that fulfilled my urge to create, but that I could continue doing when I was old and grey, because no one wants to see a washed up punk rocker play in front of a bunch of kids after a certain point. Those years aren't here yet, but they're coming, and I know that.

Gaming has done so much for me as a person. Its the one social outlet I have that doesn't make me feel awkward and weird as soon as the game is set up. When I was young it helped shape my education and kept me reading and learning. The education system here in the US doesn't work well for a young anti-social, anti-establishment kid. Even today, when I gather with my punk friends, what do we do? Crack out a game. Table top games bring people together while they challenge our minds. I want to contribute to that. I want to turn some kid's world upside down. I want to design some kid's Slave Pits of the Undercity.