Friends as Player Characters
Fall 1978, my sophomore year at the Hammonasset School in Madison. Private school was beyond the means of my family, but scholarships and work-study brought it nearly within what my father could manage. But the work-study hours interfered with soccer practice, so I was off the team. I loved soccer, but I saw no choice.
For a new pastime, I took up theater in the fall. We mostly did skits and outtakes, a lot of Neil Simon, and I teamed up with a senior to do spoofs of TV commercials, the memes of the day.
Another fun thing that I found was watching a small group of geeky kids rolling dice and moving little painted figures around. They were playing Melee, a fantasy battle game created by Steve Jackson while he was at Metagaming Concepts. Jackson later started his own company and had a string of successful games, including Car Wars.
Watching the awkward nerds pretending to be warriors and monsters was amusing for a while, and soon it drew me in. I played a few rounds. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. Then they added a companion game named Wizard which introduced magic into the combat. I got hooked and bought a few figures of my own.
A full schedule of classes didn’t leave a lot of time to play that fall, but my schedule in the spring was more open. It was at about that time one of the group purchased a game named Traveller by Game Designers’ Workshop. I had read a lot more science fiction than fantasy growing up, so I wasn’t excited about playing Dungeon & Dragons. Traveller was a science fiction role-playing game, and I could not resist.
Still, I did not get into any of the games the group was playing. In fact, I didn’t want to be in the group. Their “status” in the school wasn’t cool and their nickname was the Rug Rats. And that was decades before the cartoon of the same name. I wasn’t friends with anyone in the group and I didn’t have time free when they did, but I got to look at the books and roll some dice. Traveller had an elaborate system for character creation that was a mini game itself. Your character could die in the process!
Rug Rats. They meant the name to be derisive, but the gamer geeks took it up as a badge of honor, like Yankee Doodle Dandy. They literally sat or sprawled on the carpet in the common area. It gave them more room than was available on the tabletops, so more people could play at a time. The common area had a sunken section that we called The Pit with huge canvas beanbags scattered about.
By the third trimester of that year I turned sixteen and could get a job with more hours and better pay than working at the school. By summer I could make payments on my school bill and have money left over for gaming supplies. I bought the boxed set of little black books that made up the core rules of Traveller.
When my junior year began there was a new crop of Rug Rats and I joined the group regularly. My class load was lighter, and I threw most of the spare time at the games. Melee faded in popularity as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) became popular and the Traveller game exploded in the number of products available.
Soon multiple games were going with whoever could make it to the time slots that the referees had open. I developed my own “universe” for Traveller and became a referee for a small group. But I also belonged to a bigger group run by a more experienced referee named Sam.
One day in the week we played AD&D. The game was mostly clearing dungeons and learning new spells. I didn’t enjoy it as much as playing out a science-fiction scenario like Stainless Steel Rat or Ringworld, but the group was large and the books were well illustrated, so I began collecting some of those, too.
After a while the group resolved into regulars at the core with occasional players at the periphery. Relationships formed inside the group as some girls joined the traditionally male rat pack. Sam began dating Dahlia, a relationship that lasted up to the end of high school (almost). Ulysses and Samantha dated on and off, but that didn’t hold together. And a girl who was interested in me joined the group for a little while. Some people were better friends than others and every member had friends and activities outside of the group.
I made friends with a freshman named Justin who was a juggler and clown. A few of the guys were on the soccer team. I played fullback in my junior and senior years and encouraged more Rug Rats to join. Sam’s brother was on the team too, and he sometimes joined games. Stuart was in my class and didn’t seem to want to be labeled a Rug Rat. I can understand. His little brother was the closest thing to a leader the Rats had, so it was probably awkward.
The group grew in my senior year. Tim, Greg, Lars, David, Damon… A few more girls hung out with us sometimes. Even my girlfriend, Jody, who was never a student at our school, came to visit. She was very interested in gaming, especially AD&D, so she played when she visited. She was a brilliant artist and painted 25mm figures for us, so she was very popular with the Rug Rats. She had graduated high school in the spring but she enjoyed our antics and became a gamer girl for a season.
It was a sheltered life we led there on our rug, in our pit, in our game worlds. It was an infinite world of imagination to us, but it was also a tiny world in a nutshell. For me, the illusion of safety fell away when I was told not to return to school after Thanksgiving break.
I tried to hold on to that world by visiting the school to continue our games while I worked nights to catch up on my school bills. My father had stopped paying on the bill and the scholarship money had decreased year-by-year. I’d spent too much money on myself and not enough on my school bill. I tried to stay involved with the Rug Rats through the winter and into the spring.
The Rug Rats continued and grew. I went off to Navy boot camp in the fall of 1981. When I visited the school in March 1982 they were still gaming and I was still welcome while I was on leave. The last time I saw the Rats was just before most of the “new wave” who were freshmen in my junior year graduated.
We were all outside of the gamer bubble by then. I was stationed on a ship out of Norfolk and they were headed off to about six different colleges. Faced with heading to separate colleges, Sam had broken up with Dahlia. It was very sad to me. The first shovel of dirt on the Rug Rat casket. We all have to grow up sometime. At least in some ways. But we can keep our dreams. And our memories.