What You Really Are

Remembering Tom

gm gaming rpg dnd

I was first introduced to role-playing games in Spring of 1978. At the time, I was spending most of my free hours at a local comic shop, hanging out with friends. One of these was a guy named Crash. That was the only name anyone knew him by for a long time. It turned out, he had some gangster/Mafioso ties in real life, and was trying to keep a low profile. When he wasn't breaking legs, Crash worked at the comic book shop (his day job, I guess). This place had become something of a mecca for those of us into genre stuff like science fiction, fantasy, super-heroes, and all such.

One of the regular customers was this fellow named Tom. He was in his mid-to-upper thirties, was recently divorced, and had moved back home with his elderly parents, having apparently lost everything in the settlement. Tom was big into table-top gaming, so one day he invited Crash, and any friends he might choose, to come by and check out this game called Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D was only a few years old at this point. Much later, I would meet someone who'd learned the game directly from one of its original playtesters. But right then, for us, Tom was The Man. He'd bought the original box set when it came out, and had been playing for a while. I believe he had a regular group that got disrupted by the divorce, the way such things disrupt every aspect of people's lives. Whatever the case, he'd just picked up the then-new 1st edition hardcover of what they dubbed "Advance Dungeons & Dragons", and he was looking for players with which he could try it out. This one was supposedly a big improvement over plain-ol' run-of-the-mill D&D, though it was all the same to us, of course.

One night, after the comic shop closed, Crash, my buddy Bruno, this other guy John, and I, cruised over to Tom's house across town. He (or I should say, his parents) lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and had an older multi-story home. The basement was for storage, as per usual, but about half of it was decked out as Tom's game room. There were stacks of boxed board games and war games, boxes of comics, paperback and hardcover books, and lead figurines by the dozens. In modern parlance, this would be called his Man Cave. Later, he even had an early personal computer down there as well.

The centerpiece of this environment was, of course, his gaming table. It was a large, sturdy folding table, upon which he'd soon do the classic hex-paper-under-clear-plastic thing, allowing him to draw out dungeon floor plans and terrain, as needed, with dry-erase markers. This was alien and wonderful!

Tom's figurines were on open display, and he allowed us to claim certain ones for our characters. He still owned them, and they still lived in his basement, but once claimed, no one else could use them. This small fellow with the big nose was for my gnome illusionist; that sinister-looking guy with the mace was for Crash's cleric. That sort of thing. Tom painted all his figures, since he had all this free time on his hands, but he enjoyed the process, and got quite good at it over the years. Claiming certain figures gave us a delightful sense of investment right out of the gate, when no one yet owned anything; not the rules, not the fancy character sheets, not even the dice. And what funny dice they were!

This was a brand new world. I'd only heard about D&D up until that point, mostly in rumor. "What is this game? "What's it all about?" Understand, it was years before any of the negative backlash against RPGs in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, began to arise. That nonsense all came about later, when easily-alarmed parents, and fundamentalist religious types started making noise. No, at this point, it was all new, all mysterious, and all exciting.

Tom showed us the rule books, which were impressive enough. He showed us the figurines and the dice. He explained the fundamentals of the game, but said immediately that the best way to learn was just to play. He also said one more thing, before we got started.

"This game will bring out the real you."

He told us that whatever kind of person you were inside, whatever your values, strengths, and weaknesses, they would all be out there for the other players to see. There'd be no hiding it.

Okay. Interesting, but whatever. I'm a teenager. Who cares? Let's play!

So, we did, and it was amazing! Incredible! I'd never played anything like it before; none of us had. It was funny and thrilling. It was dynamic. You could see what was happening, right in your head. We laughed and laughed and laughed. Without hyperbole, I can honestly say it was one of the best nights of my life. And there were many more to come.

That changed everything, and it was entirely due to Tom. He was our Dungeon Master for many years. One of the things he failed to mention that night -- and perhaps he didn't know it himself at the time -- was that, while playing the game reveals who you really are, so does running the game.

Tom had what you'd call a Killer Campaign. Body counts were super-high, and it was essentially a challenge just to survive; not to progress, not to gain levels or treasure, and certainly not to help tell a compelling collaborative story. No, getting through a game session with your favorite character still active was the real reward, and it was not common, at that.

You have to understand, we'd never played before. This was our only exposure to role-playing games, so we thought this was the only way to play. We were still laughing and enjoying ourselves, but the player characters wiped out by by dragons, demons, undead, and hoards of orcs could have been stacked like cord-wood. In the first two years of play, I stopped counting my own dead when they got up to sixty, and I played for many years after that. While people understood the rules back then, most didn't know how to play, not really. We certainly didn't.

My own conception of RPGs has evolved, of course, but back then, this is how it was. We didn't always like it, but that was the game. And, as with any game, even this one, and even way back then, there were good ways to play and bad. Good players and bad. There were people who preferred to cooperate, and others who preferred to compete. There were players who could dominate the game with under powered characters devoid of any great advantages (on paper, at least); while there were others who, armed with the best stats, the finest magic items, and the most detailed backgrounds, couldn't seem to get anything done...or even survive, most of the time. It was a metaphor for life. Tom helped illustrate that. For good or ill, his campaign taught me about role-playing and about people in general.

D&D revealed Crash to be a bully. This wasn't any great surprise: the guy was a gangster! We loved him, he was great friend. He could make you laugh, and had incredible stories. He'd do us favors all the time. But at his core, that's what he was. He expected to be in charge, and for you to toe the line. And if you ever actually crossed him, he'd rip out your heart.

Bruno showed himself to be earnest and clever, as well as daringly ambitious. Not all of his crazy schemes worked out as expected, but he was never short on ideas.

That guy, John, proved to be cool and calculating. He never made a rash move, and rarely found himself in an inferior position. His body count was low, but so was the number of his victories, since he was often thinking when he should have been fighting. His characters prospered, though, which was more than the rest of us could say.

I'm not sure what sort of person the game divulged about me, except for one who stood mostly on the fringes. I rarely took the lead, watching and waiting for opportunities. Sometimes they came, and I ran with them. Mostly they didn't.

Tom revealed himself to be a somewhat vindictive DM. If you worked with him, and laughed at his jokes, he would bend over backwards to make sure you enjoyed yourself. But if you fought him, and pushed him, and tried to disrupt things, or if he just thought you were, he found a way to punish you. He always did.

But we had great times. Truly we did. The biggest laughs I can remember, happened around that table, in Tom's basement. There were other players too, who came and went: Mark, Brian, this other fellow who brought his ten-year old kid once. It was fun. It was horrible. It was challenging. It was easy.

As the years passed, we mostly drifted apart, not just as gamers, but as friends. Tom eventually met someone and got remarried. I didn't see Crash for a long time. Bruno up and joined the Army. Nothing, not even the best night of your life, lasts forever.

I got into other endeavors, other hobbies. I even joined another gaming group; great people, who showed me a very different, far more supportive way to play. I helped publish games and game supplements. I explored new campaigns, new ways to play, and had made some fine friends.

One day Bruno called me. He was back from the Army by now, was married and working in a video store. I saw him and his wife fairly regularly. But this day, Crash had come in to the store with some news. We had to go see Tom. He was sick.

It seems he had Lou Gehrig's disease -- what is now generally referred to as ALS. It had come on suddenly: a year before, he just thought he was getting clumsy; by the time we caught up with him, he could barely walk. Slow moving, he couldn't even put his coat on without help, and his energy was way, way down.

Bruno and his wife, Tom, and myself had a couple of game sessions after that. Heck, it was the least we could do. Bruno ran it. Tom couldn't anymore. Crash didn't come. He just couldn't bear to see his old friend like that. We all tried to laugh and joke and have some fun, but it wasn't like the old days. How could it be? After a while, Tom couldn't play anymore. His disease was progressing.

A few months went by, and we ran into Crash again. He was very angry. Tom had died. For various reasons, his long-time gaming buddies hadn't been informed; Crash had read his name in the obits. We'd missed his death, and we'd missed his funeral. A man who quite literally changed my life was gone without a trace, like he'd never been there at all.

So, I think about Tom when I play, or create games and game materials. Yes, it was mostly AD&D with him, but there were many other things, too. RPGs, war games, card games, dice games. We tried them all, in his basement and elsewhere.

He was smart, very witty, and enthusiastic about gaming. He made me laugh until I cried, and I learned much from him about this pastime we call role-playing. Tom could be petty and grumpy, and often took out his bad day on his players. He wasn't always such a good guy, in other words, but in the end, he was a great guy. Recognizing the difference was the last thing he ever taught me.

As predicted, the game had brought out what he really was: a collector, a man-child. A Game Master who ran campaigns endlessly, providing many thousands of hours of entertainment for others, some of whom he barely knew. It revealed his deep need for companionship among the like-minded, and his simultaneous need to challenge them. It showed off his penchant for revenge, and his compulsion for balancing the books. It brought out the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly in the man.

But most of all, it brought out the friend.

All artwork by LadyOfHats Public Domain Modified by David in Inkscape.

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