Wade Clarke's memoir of growing up writing games for the Apple II


In 1989 I was in year eight, my second year of high school. My memories of this year are pretty vivid with school life, which I was enjoying, but perhaps above all they are vivid with the experience of the tabletop role-playing games I was playing with my friends — though my use of the word "tabletop" here is both a misnomer and anachronistic. It is anachronistic because nobody ever bothered to distinguish a game like Dungeons & Dragons from an RPG played on a computer with the word "tabletop" at the time, at least not in any circles I moved in, and it is a misnomer because we never played on a table. Me and my RPG friends Mark, James and Eugene did the vast majority of our gaming on the bus to and from school, sitting in one of those four-seater arrangements where two pairs of people can face each other, rolling polyhedral dice on backpacks or pencil cases when it was necessary.

That we did this in unadulterated view and earshot of everyone else on the bus, which consisted mostly of other kids from our school, but also of some kids going to schools nearby, and that we did it without overt anxiety or self-consciousness, is somehow striking to me today. In a way it shouldn't be. When out on the streets or travelling on public transport, it is the commonest thing in the world to see or hear young people indulging in their own worlds for fun as if nobody else existed. But I still harp on this free quality I remember my friends and I having because of the way we stopped roleplaying. Which was unspectacularly, and without speaking about it. It petered out and one day we just weren’t doing it anymore. Nobody said, "Hey, let’s start up again."

Each year lived brings an enormous gain in oldness during the high school years, and after maybe a few years of roleplaying (I really don't remember when we stopped — was it 1990? 1991?) we were older and had new concerns, and we were splitting up into different classes at school, too. It was probably just that combination of getting older and becoming more or less involved with different circles of friends that ended our run.

The main game we played was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), the principal manuals for which I think I received for my birthday in 1988. We also dabbled in Heroes Unlimited, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) and Judge Dredd. I was the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) 80% of the time, which, without false humility, was because I rarely ran out of creative steam, was well organised and was reasonable to my players. I was the kind of DM who would tweak things so that a player wouldn't die if it was going to be too annoying or inconvenient for the story at the time.

My friend Mark, who introduced me to all of AD&D, Car Wars and TMNT, was our other occasional GM. He was aggressive as a player, as a GM and in real life. He liked to kill or blow up the players, which made for some hilarious but frustrating sessions which people tended to grow weary of pretty quickly. For instance during one game of MERP, I remember having my eye shot out (the game's critical hit table is very funny), being on fire and then falling over a cliff. And in one game of TMNT, all the players were caught in a building which blew up. Our characters went to hospital and literally just sat there recovering during our play sessions, fighting with drips, trying to get up or being forced to eat disgusting food. (I think Mark got the food idea from an episode of The Young Ones.) When my friends had had enough of each of Mark’s assaults, they, or even Mark himself — as he had a sense of humour about these things — would ask me to take the reins again.

Away from school, I was also running AD&D and Heroes Unlimited games for a friend of mine from primary school, Craig, who’d gone to a different high school than me, and his little brother Angus. On many a weekend I'd go and stay the night at Craig’s house, variously playing Commodore 64 games or non-computer RPGs. Craig’s older sister got heavily into Christianity at some point and when her Christian friends would drop around, they’d go through my AD&D manuals and pronounce them to be satanic. They particularly disliked the lists of magic spells. I don't remember having much of a reaction to this; it just seemed dumb. So long as they didn’t steal or damage my manuals, I didn’t mind.

I recall the hot ticket computer RPGs of this year, at least at my school, being the Bard's Tale games and the AD&D game Pool of Radiance. I still haven't played the latter but was massively into all the Bard's Tales. It's unsurprising that during this year I made a big RPG of my own for the Apple II, the awesomely named Questor 2: Terror of Vonrak.