True steel – part one

I want to tell a story about Argothald. It’s a geek story. It spans 35 years and two worlds, one real and one fictional. There’s no moral, no point, no great insight to be had. It’s merely a story I wish to share.

It’s also long enough that I want to split it into three parts.

I started my fantasy role-playing game, Argothald, in 1978 or early 1979 [*]. The first sessions took place in a Manhattan game store, The Compleat Strategist. It was there that I first met Dan Holzman-Tweed, who in later years would be one of the people to introduce me to Wicca.

My game became popular enough, and space at The Complete Strategist grew scarce enough, that I had to move Argothald to my home in Brooklyn. I was still living in my father’s house at the time. (The stereotypical uber-gamer lives in his mother’s basement. I lived in my father’s attic. So there! [***])

One of the early Argothald gamers was Sam. He was a brilliant gamer. He had an excellent grasp of rule mechanics, and helped to design the ranged-weapon rules in the first editions of the Argothald rules. At that time, the tabletop RPG hobby was only four years old, but Sam already had an understanding of what would become the standard tropes and tactics of the game.

One of those tactics was self-publicity. Sam’s character in Argothald, Damien Deimos, made sure that everywhere he went, everyone knew who he was and what he did. “All I need is my true steel sword, and there’s nothing I can’t defeat!” He slew great creatures, defeated armies, destroyed at least one castle, and he grew experienced in sharing the tales of his exploits.

This feats were not exaggerations. Though Sam (or his alter-ego Damien Deimos) would not have hesitated to embellish his deeds, he didn’t need to.

It wasn’t because his character was special compared to the other players’ characters at the time. It was because there were many problems with the first version of the Argothald rules. I’d designed the system in reaction to Dungeons & Dragons, and I assumed I knew as much about game mechanics as an experienced designer. Ah, the follies of youth! (I’m still foolish; perhaps this lets me pretend I’m still young.)

The first Argothald rules suffered a problem that the first edition of D&D also had: the characters would grow in power so quickly that it became difficult to create challenges for them. In fact, Argothald was worse than D&D in this respect. Damien Deimos could slay gods not so much because Sam was a good player, but because I was a lousy games designer.

I decided that I had to re-write the Argothald system; I think Sam’s ranged-weapon rules were the only part I could retain. I presented the players with the second edition of the Argothald rules, and explained that the characters would have to be rebuilt using the new rules.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have handled it differently. Given the way I presented the situation, it appeared to the players that I was punishing them for being good at the game; in retrospect I see that this was justified on their part. Most of the players, including Sam, reacted by leaving the game.

This was hard, but I recovered. The story of the Argothald campaign was still compelling enough to attract new players, and the revised system fixed the problem of character advancement. There were other problems with the Argothald rules that I would address over time, but none of them had such a drastic impact on the characters nor provoked any player reaction beyond a mild annoyance.

That’s the end of Sam’s involvement in the Argothald campaign, but it was not the end of the story of Damien Deimos. We’ll learn more in part 2.

[*] At least, I think I did. That’s when I started going to The Compleat Strategist on a regular basis. Except that I have an old Argothald character sheet with the name Joanne Factor. I could have sworn that the last time I saw Joanne was in 1976 or 1977. We went to the same high school (John Dewey) and we played in some tabletop RPG sessions of a brand-new game, Dungeons & Dragons. We both went on to the same college (Cornell), but I don’t remember seeing her there (at least not often). I certainly didn’t start Argothald until after I flunked out of Cornell in 1978. [**]

[**] Many of my friends think I’m intelligent. That’s kind of them. But back in high school, Joanne was considered to be smarter than I was. If you didn’t click on her biographical link in the previous footnote, you should; reading about Strategic Living may be a better use of your time than indulging my nostalgia.

[***] This is an exaggeration. The “attic” was actually the third floor of the house. At 14, I moved to a room on the second floor, which had been the bedroom of my now-ex-stepsister. I was a comics and board-game collector before that move, so my “attic geek” cred is firmly established.

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