Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Players' the Thing: Why Gamers Matter More Than Games

Everyone's got a "worst game ever" story, and this one is mine. It's got love and loss, reckless battle, and narrow escapes. No, wait - I'm not going to sugar coat this with some pulp window dressing. This story is pretty damned dark, so you've been warned.

Somewhere around thirteen years ago I was dating a lovely young lady gamer named Clarissa. We were both in our early twenties and our relationship was built on the idle fancies and dreams of young love. But there were cracks in the ivory pedestals upon which we'd set one another. She was beautiful, yes. But she didn't engage my intellect or challenge me. I was noble, yes. But I was immature, proud and angry. We had love, though - and that was all we needed, right?

Well, not quite. You see, Clarissa had seen me destroying myself with anger. I was never physically or emotionally abusive, but I was self-destructive. I was physically injuring myself and unable to hold a job due to my own anger and pride. She asked me to seek help - professional help. And I did. I did it for the wrong reasons. I didn't do it for me. I did it for her.

During this time, we were playing in a Rifts campaign. The vast majority of these players were friends she'd known from before the time we had gotten together - which was fine. They all seemed like stand-up folks. Except for one. His name was Eric. He was smart and witty, with a quick sense of humor. He was also mean spirited and enjoyed making others the butt of his jokes. He liked reminding folks of how little they are compared to him. I did not get on well with Eric.

Now, given my own anger issues and Eric's gleeful desire to inflict petty insults on those around him, I realized that gaming with him was a Bad Idea (tm). But he was Clarissa's friend and in spite of three weeks of telling her  I didn't want to game with him, I followed her request for me to endure his slights. Whether it was, as she said, "my own over-reactions," or the ultimate trump card of "do it for her," I continued going to games with this player who only brought out all my anger and insecurities. I did it for her. I did not do it for me.

Well, the inevitable came to pass. My character (a cyber-knight named Patrick Stavenger), was rendered mentally incompitent by a critical hit to the back of the head. I believe all his mental attributes (IQ, ME, and MA) were reduced by half. So, Eric looks across table at me and a wry smile slithers across his face.

"Finally," he says with a hiss, "a character you can play on your own level."

Wow. I was cut. That was cold, brutal and downright embrassing. In front of my friends and my lady he had just blatantly insulted me and it has hurt. But I took a deep breath and sighed, letting it go. Sure, he had gotten to me - but I promised her not to get angry. To be in control. So, with that sigh I tossed my pencil on the table.

That's when Eric leaned in, his smile sharpening. "I'm sorry." He looked me straight in the eye, unblinking. "That's giving you too much credit."

Well that was it. My face twisted in anger and I just snapped at him, "Fuck you!"

That's when the shit hit the fan. With a bellow of anger, he grabbed a chest pole from a nearby set of free weights and swung it across the gaming table at me. I scrambled backwards and narrowly avoided the blow. I thought only of getting away and not getting angry. I couldn't get angry. I had promised.

So I turned my back on him and moved to leave the trailer. I heard the clatter of the gaming table tossed or broken, but I didn't look back. Get out, I told myself. Get out. That's when his arm whipped about my neck and he pulled me into a choke-hold. As he strangled the life out of me and pulled up over and over again in an attempt to break my neck, I scrambled for what to do. How was I going to get out of this without fighting back? Without being angry?

As my vision began to tunnel into darkness I did the only thing I could think of. I dropped my weight. Well, it worked. In surprise, Eric let me go. I stumbled towards the door, thinking only of escape. I didn't look back. I didn't dare waste a second.

Then I heard it: SHINK

I turned back as my hand touched the door knob to exit the trailer to see Eric being held back by three other people, his arm raised high to deliver a wicked stab at my back with a butcher knife he'd managed to grab. He was literally going to kill me.

I got out of the house. The rest of that night is still a blur. But the next morning Clarissa and all the other gamers at the table blamed me. I should know "that's just Eric's sense of humor," or "not be so sensitive." His attempt to kill me was my fault.. Well, you can imagine my sense of betrayal. All of a sudden, I was abandoned by my friends and the woman I loved.

This would lead to a rather dark period in my life. For several months I lingered in a genuine depression. But time heals most wounds, and this one is counted among them. A decade later a very dear friend of mine who I'd met some time after the Butcher Knife Incident (as I came to call it), asked me to play Rifts. Well, you can imagine my reluctance. I told him I prefered not to and told him why. I said he totally understood. Our friendship continued for many years (and still does to this day), when he asked me if I'd reconsider playing Rifts. He aid he really enjoyed gaming with me and loved to run Rifts, and asked me to have a little bit of faith in him.

So, I did. I set aside my dark memories and played Rifts. And you know what? I had a helluva good time. I still don't like Rifts. I think it's an over-blown kitchen sink setting with badly writen, inconsisent rules that are in terrible need of a re-write. The game has no internal tone or sense of purpose. It's just a hot mess. But those players I gamed with in that new Rifts game were men whom  I trusted as friends and brothers - and to this day I count each of them as friends.

I guess this long rambling story is just an example of what really matters. It's not the games we play that make the difference. Its the gamers we play with. A great group of players can make a terrible game into an absolutely magnificent experience. A great game cannot make a terrible group into a magnificent group of friends. Games are simply a vehicle for he human experience, a glue to help create a bond between people. Whether its Rifts, Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, Yahtzee, or countless other games doesn't mean a damn thing without friends to share the joy. If we can remember that, damn near any game is worth playing.


  1. Glad you enjoyed it. The whole incident made me nearly give up on the hobby. I'm glad I didn't. In the years that followed I would eventually meet my wife and several life-long friends at the gaming table and even achieve the life long dream of writing professionally for the hobby for my beloved world of Middle-earth.


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