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There Will Be Games

My First Warhammer Tournament, And Autobiography, Part 4


So, right, why? Why play these rules? The short answer is that, in signing up for the tournament, I had committed myself to a few weeks of active study and play of the rules I had spent so many hours painting miniatures for. That, otherwise, Age of Sigmar would not be worth playing under ordinary circumstances.

The long answer has to do with loneliness, and lets no committed hobby player of games off the hook.

There’s an apocryphal, colonialist and a-linguisitic report that the Inuit people have several words for snow. Nevertheless,I feel comfortable analogizing the claim for American culture, for which a myriad of lonelinesses apply, and a million words. Here, I’ll trace the origins of my own.

1) My mom, having read Dr. Spock on the subject of childcare, came out firmly against the then-common practice of spanking. So, whenever I’d rip a curtain down, or dig through the refrigerator for forbidden delights and leave it open, or pinch a friend so hard their face would burst into tears, my punishment was to be set on a chair and turned with my face to a corner. This was insufficient punishment, my mom claims, “because no matter where I set you, no matter how boring the corner, there you would be entertaining yourself, la de dah, just humming along.” I only remember one instance in which my dad, yelling “fuck this,” yanked me from the corner and started spanking me. The truly upsetting part of this, vague now in my memory, was my mom yelling at him to stop.

2a) The first game I really started obsessing over was the Champions RPG, a superhero game that went on to influence GURPS. I was 13, the year was 1986 or 87, and I regularly Made Mine Marvel (I’m pretty sure this was during the Chris Claremont/John Romita Jr run of the X-Men, deep within the pathos of Rogue’s character arc). The fascinating thing about Champions was the underlying Hero system, which let you take certain Disadvantages during character creation, spilling the points over into your Advantages. I did not have a word for min-maxing back then, I just knew it was fun to create a character with Dyslexia, a Club Foot and Severe Paranoia who could shoot a 25d6 Bolt of Energy. Subtler still, I recreated the entire X-Men roster with mimetic clarity—Wolverine’s Rage, Nightcrawler’s Shocking Appearance, etc. I started creating townspeople. Firemen, students, housekeepers, little 10 and 20 point citizens in a world of 250 point titans. I became the John Cheever of Champions.

2b) When it came time to play Champions, I’d have mom drop me off at Robbie’s house, where I met another 13-year-old friend. Robbie was an adult with muscular dystrophy. I never knew his exact diagnosis, and did not feel encouraged to ask. He sported Jesus hair, a Jesus beard, long fingernails, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of a dozen different games. His apartment, indistinguishable from the apartments of the neighbors in his complex, held host to a different RPG every night. Only now do I see the ingenuity of his plan; out in the world, in the years before the ADA passed, he was subject to an often slippery and wintery Michigan landscape filled with stairs and ice ramps and the furtive kindness of strangers. In his home, he was the acknowledged master of a thousand worlds. More practically, he was surrounded by friends who could help him if he needed it. Nevertheless, he had a Black male nurse appointed to him during evening hours who participated in Wednesday-night Champions. (He was one of two Black people participating in Champions night. After all, the Black Panther, Misty Knight and Luke Cage had already been around for decades by that time, while one could search the cold depths of dungeon fantasy for eons and never see anything other than white heroes). The only other dude I remember always showed up straight from work, red-headed and silent, wearing a Wendy’s uniform and smelling like a hamburger.

The game was tedious to play. Our leader was a benevolent philosopher-King, vetoing egregious examples of min-maxing with the declaration, “fix your character or you don’t play.” (Would that Warhammer have a similar regent). Nevertheless, dice were counted for their total value in Champions, and 12d6 attacks were common enough that an abacus might have helped for all the addition and subtraction that happened throughout the game. I lost my taste for showing up to Robbies and playing Champions after a season, but continued to make characters in privacy, storing them in a swelling manila envelope no one would ever see, which would later be thrown into the trash by an unseen hand.

3) Around this same time, my parents went into debt so we could move from a poor neighborhood to a middle-class neighborhood, thus min-maxing my opportunities to go to a Good School. We lived a few doors down from the high school football coach, who watched me walk through the neighborhood like a member of ZZ Top watched women walk by in one of their videos. This was not a sexual thing. I just happened to be a thirteen year old who weighed 200 pounds and had a bristly moustache (for years, from middle-school to early high-school, as I walked through the institution’s halls, especially through the freak and stoner warrens, I’d hear the whisper of “narc” carrying from one mouth to the next, carried down the halls like a babbling brook). I was a behemoth, primo meat for linebacking. My Dad, who blew his knee out playing for Western Michigan University in the fifties and thus lost his scholarship, agreed. I was still in middle school, but they wanted me to get used to getting hit by strangers in a big field, so I was signed up for a Middle School league. Let me be clear. I didn’t watch football. I barely knew how the game was played. I still don’t. What I know about football is that adults start screaming into the side of your head, sometimes in the rain, always calling you a pussy, encouraging all of your teammates to call you a pussy, which transforms into your very name into “Puss-cell” permanently, replacing “narc.” Football means your dad, who was already inclined to call you a pussy, starts jacking you up against the wall and calling you a pussy. My dad really liked pouring rum into Diet Coke, starting in the morning and on through the day, and I will tell you from experience that there is nothing quite like the experience of your father getting into your face and screaming at you to “get up” so he can “knock you down” with that particular smell, mixed with a recent puke, pouring over your olfactory sensorium. I quit football. My parents were divorced soon after. These, all of these, are also games.

4) People who are not writers often think of writers as solitary people. This is not true. Writers you don’t know about or care about are solitary people, solitary in the way that I am solitary. If you are able to do social work, or sell toilet-seat lids, or speak publicly and earn a modicum of trust, then you can be a writer. It’s called empathy, and it’s not a bad thing to have (though neither is empathy good by necessity, its outward form being the currency-in-trade of the hidden sociopath). In either case, writers have become the mostly-unpaid totems of empathy in a world that seems stripped of empathy. One could say that where writing was once a game—note emphasis--about combining aesthetics and some complex of social philosophy, as it was when I started writing, now it can be said to be a—repeat emphasis--game of demonstrative empathy and overlaying affect divorced from traditional aesthetics. I admit to being competent at the former, total shit at the latter, but must admit that any game is worth playing, inasmuch as it allows for improvisation, cross-promotion of ideas, creative collaboration, and the creation of Johan Huizinga’s “magic circle” the ur-social compact that must be formed before we can competently be called human anythings. I appreciate, in other words, that very good writers can play the scale of empathy with a deft touch and significant humanity. But, just as play is a sum-total good, even if one is not much good at its form, so, too, do I recognize ritual as mostly evil thing. And I see a plague of ritualized empathy, devoid of play, overtaking my former calling. The denial of love through the force-feeding of love. The secret gestures and hand signals that separate collegiate forms of love from the mere form of necessary love which helps a person get off the street. Everywhere in the practice of writing, there is a “Hon” contemplating suicide. And in a parallel universe, one gets “health Insurance” instead of a doctors care. In another, mass movements of “activists” call for empathy but not the repeal of laws, or the writing of new laws. And in still another, some mouthbreather “plays the meta” instead of playing with their toys. Those who forgive ritual as a necessary bridge from thought to action, as some do, are to be questioned with rigor. Those who merely enact ritual without even this justification are to be shunned, and their laws erased.

So, yeah, there are good rules and bad rules. Sometimes there are never good rules. The point is to pick a game and try to play. The point is not to die in ritual before your heart stops.

5) When I was 19, a townie in a college town, working as a short-order cook on the midnight to 8 shift. The place I worked at was founded by a guy in Narcotics Anonymous, and hosted NA and AA members all night long, a twitchy bunch. I moved into an apartment around the corner, near a big lot with a small house. By the first weekend, I realized I had moved in next to a motorcycle gang, The Windjammers, well known as the city of Kalamazoo's only all-Black motorcycle gang. Their leader owned or rented the house. They ran a hybrid of American and souped up Japanese models, revving them every Sunday afternoon and into the evening, after a long bike ride through the surrounding country. Smaller groups would hang out during the week. I don't know what guts it took to be all-Black motorcycle gang among the other motorcycle gangs of my southwest Michigan city, but I would often see their members patched up and bruised on their Sunday hangouts. They were loud, and as intimidating as any motorcycle gang would be, but did not cause me any friction, and after a few weeks, I got used to them.

One weekday on my day off. I was reading on the porch, listing the sounds of motorcycles revving, when I noticed the leader of the Windjammers approaching my house. Up close, I immediately recognized him as Robbie's male nurse. "Holy shit," he said. "Wow, hi," I said. He had come over because he saw me reading a copy of Heavy Metal. He sat down next to me, and we talked about Moebius and Milo Manara for a short while. "You let me know if you need anything," he said, walking back.

The next Sunday, I caught his eye across the lot and nodded to him. He didn't nod back. We never really talked again.

6) This month, I just realized, marks the 10-year anniversary of my father’s death. He spent years couch-crashing with his alcoholic friends, living in the gospel mission, later living in assisted living facilities. He switched to drinking brandy right out of the bottle. I mostly avoided him, even after he started getting visited by ghosts in the middle of the night, calling me and slurring through nonsensical clichés about “bread” being “the staff of life” and “getting past the finish line.” It did occur to me, however, that he was alone. When he did have his assisted living place, I would visit him. He had become very fat, and had a hard time sitting up. His face was permanently red. What I remember most was that there was no art on the walls, no way to listen to music. Just a transistor radio and a small box television with rabbit ears. There would be brandy bottles stuffed in the bottom of his trash, freshly and unconvincingly covered. I sometimes imagined him alone, just staring at one of his blank walls, taking pulls from the brandy. I mean, why not do some sort of goddamn thing with your hands, like whittling, or woodwork, or painting miniatures?

No one discovered his body for six days. There would be no open-casket funeral, and the next time I saw him, it was as a Lot-like accumulation of grey ash and finely-hammered bone. When I went to clean out his apartment I found a few unprocessed disposable cameras. When we got the photos back from the CVS, we found them filled with pictures of him taking a train somewhere, holding the camera out at arm’s length, and taking a blurry picture of himself. There was 900 dollars in a shoebox under his bed, a life’s savings. They said he died at his kitchen table, and the table was still there. Beneath it, the cleaners had taken a carpet knife and cut out a six foot section to hide the spot where he’d lain and steeped for a week with no one asking after him. Little in my literature or culture prepared me for anything but a stately death in bed, the murmuring of last words, the censure and bells and incense of a ritualized and meaningful literary death. These days, I do, finally, have a language for my father’s death. He was a Putrid Blightking. I am a Chaos Spawn.

Part 5

There Will Be Games
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