In 1992 I was working for an engineering company. It was my scheduled summer work for the company that were sponsoring me through university. One day a colleague called me over and showed me this amazing thing on his computer.

It was Wolfenstein. It was 3D. And he’d got it for free. And he used company time to play it. All of those things were completely new ideas to me.

OK. It’s not funny to waste company time playing games, but 3D… and free… in 1992. Just wow!

That feeling of being to romp around Castle Wolfenstein with your minigun looking for Adolf Hitler, who, when you met him, had 2 miniguns was just awesome. And this idea of ‘shareware’ I had never come across before – basically you pay what you want. Of course, as a poor student, I payed nothing.

#28daysofwriting Day 24

The Joy of Maps

A map for a game, based on my secondary school

In reflecting on my gaming habits, I have found lots of materials that I created, mainly throughout my teenage years. Most of them are maps.

You can tell a fantasy fiction book in the book shop, not just because of the section it is in, but because of the map in the front. They all have them: The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Sword of Truth Series, The Belgariad. All of them full of maps.

As the Dungeon Master for many games of Dungeons and Dragons, it was my job to create maps and then fill them with monsters, traps and challenges for the players to encounter. As a consequence, my books are full of maps.

Looking back at my maps, I’m struck by how many times I used my school as a map for games. I have it drawn (see picture) in a book for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. I have it drawn out to scale for 15mm figures for a tabletop game called ‘Bounty Hunter’ (a game that I invented – I’m coming to that in some future post). I also used some software to create my school in Doom, one of the original first person shooter games. You could walk around my school and experience all sorts of nasty creatures and enemies… Hmm.

#28daysofwriting Day 22

Play by Mail

Before MMOs and MMORPGs and the rest, there was Play by Mail. I didn’t do much Play by Mail, but what I did, I loved.

Mainly it was Serim Ral.

Serim Ral was a fantasy Play by Mail game for 100 players. Not exactly MMO, but on its way to it…! You started out with 5 leaders, a castle and a small army and your mission was to expand and conquer. It was created by Incubus Designs and run by both them and another PBM company, Mindless Games. Neither operate anymore – in fact if you google ‘Incubus Designs’ you’ll only find a tattoo parlour.

Each turn, you could post orders that your leaders would carry out. You would write these on the order sheet and send it by actual mail (yes – remember that? – the thing that uses stamps and post boxes). The people who ran the game would then type the orders into their computer, run the turn and post you back a turn sheet with details of what had happened to your leaders.

A couple of memories stand out.

Firstly the anticipation was incredible. Unbearable sometimes. You were playing a game with a ten day turn around and depending on both the post and the efficiency with which the company who ran the game executed their turns. When a turn was expected but came a day or so late, it was terribly frustrating, but when it arrived – oh! what sweet satisfaction – especially if everything you had planned had worked out.

Secondly, the more you paid, the more power you gained. The pricing structure of the game was £3.50 per turn plus 4p per order beyond, I think, 70 orders. Every order earned your leaders more experience, so of course, if you paid for extra orders, your leaders would gain more experience and swiftly gain more power than their rivals. This again became frustrating – thinking that you were being beaten by rivals who had put more money into the game than you. It’s funny looking back at this, because the same thing happens today – some gamers still pay extra for ‘gems’ or ‘loot boxes’, or whatever internal currency their particular game uses, and gain more power as a consequence.

You can’t see much evidence of these games around anymore. The internet killed them. Although, I see that VGA planets, another game that I played a little of and enjoyed is still going. You can play this by email or a web interface though, so it’s a little less limited by snail mail.

#28daysofwriting Day 21

Make my own adventure

A page from my attempt at a gamebook

Another chapter* in my gaming obsession was ‘Choose your adventure books’. These swiftly led on to the idea that I could create my own versions of them.

The limitation of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons that I so enthusiastically played, was that you needed a whole lot of other people to play with to make the game work. Organising such people was often hard, so here’s where ‘choose your own adventure books‘ came in – a story with choices, so you could interact, have an adventure, without any other people. Marvellous.

I soon moved on to the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone ones – Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the like – but my very favourites were the Lone Wolf Gamebooks. I loved these because the story continued from book to book and, even more importantly, there was an element of character generation. You could choose certain traits and abilities and these would grow in power as you went through the books. This character development was something I loved in Dungeons and Dragons and the same idea of gaining experience, or leveling up, are often used today in the most successful computer games.

The corollary of this obsession with gamebooks was that I would attempt to make my own version. I found an old exercise book in the attic recently with just such an attempt recently.

A character sheet from my abortive game

I must have borrowed the book from school. In it, I have attempted to define two character classes – fighter and monk – including creating a load of special abilities and spells. It looks like I worked very hard on that part. But nowhere can I find any actual story. It’s like I ran out of steam before getting on to the main event. Maybe homework got the better of me. Or maybe I realised that other people were doing a better job

#28daysofwriting Day 20

*I use this phrase with heavy irony, given the lack of chapters I actually wrote.

07 Commander!

Computer gaming really started for me with Elite. This game held me spellbound for the entire Christmas holiday in which I had received it as my main gift.

Now I know that my mum had a bit of a miserable time that holiday. Myself and my Dad, who played the game when I wasn’t playing it, spent every waking hour flying our spaceships and so did not spend much time as family. This is the inherent problem with gaming.

I used to play the game with my friend – we took turns in the cockpit flying from one space system to another – while the other watched. Collaborative computer gaming did not really exist in 1986. We used to imagine that the rest of the house was just a hologram designed to make our spaceship more homely, although I’m not sure my parents, nor my sisters, ever knew that we were pretending they weren’t real.

One of my over-riding memories of this phase was the fact that my Dad beat me. Whilst I got through to Deadly – the second top rank, he made it all the way through to Elite.

Thirty years later, you may well know that Elite is back. Elite Dangerous is a lovely space game, in which you can spend hours doing the same things you did in 1986, but with better pictures. If you’ve played Elite Dangerous at all, you know that commanders greet each other with an 07 salute, hence the title of this post… Yes! I do play the new Elite. I’ve got myself a decent ship and a small amount of capital which I’m using to buy a better ship. My wife thinks it’s really boring – flying and docking she calls it. She can’t believe I like to spend my time playing it.

But as in 1986 it has happened again – my Dad has beaten me. He has a much better ship than me and hods of money and what’s more he is even Elite in one category. So at 75 years old, I still can’t beat him.

#28daysofwriting Day 19

The thirty by thirty foot room

My friend Dave introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was twelve. We played it at school, during lunchtimes, and I loved it.

My parents consented to buy it for me for my birthday. It was a lovely red box with lovely shiny red books inside. I soon got my parents and my sister, Ali, to join my in a game. I was Dungeon Master, of course. My Dad made a wizard called Gandalf. That was predictable too.

I used the starter adventure – the one that was already in the book. What I didn’t realise was how many times I would be saying the words: “you enter a thirty by thirty foot room.” I guess I didn’t care – I was just so excited at showing my family this new game. My mum still remembers that vividly and I remember her rolling her eyes and saying “not another thirty by thirty foot room!

Ever after that, whenever I played Dungeons and Dragons she would ask me how the thirty by thirty foot rooms were.

I’m sure I learnt to describe things with a little more detail as I continued my ‘dungeon master career’.

#28daysofwriting Day 18

Picture from Brian Hall. To read about a real gamer, check his blog.



My Gaming Obsession

Look! A shiny blue archer lead figure…

A friend recently told me that his boys had got into painting Warhammer figures. Seeing the figures, the paint, he had picked one up and given it a go. What seemed like moments later, he finished his figure and realised that he had spent two hours at it.

It took me back to Saturdays spent in the kitchen annex at my parents house, where I would sit with my sisters painting lead figures. I still have many of those figures, although now they sit in my attic gathering dust.

And I still have many of the books that I used the figures for – Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Bounty Hunter – and I still have loads of paperwork of games or characters that I’ve created. It sits in files or notebooks, again gathering dust. From paper-based gaming to computer and tablet, I’ve played a lot of different games. Some of them I have even used, with some success, in the classroom.

As it is half term, I thought I would spend my time moving away from the general theme of Education and begin reflecting on something that has been at the centre of much of my leisure time for the last thirty years: gaming.

#28daysofwriting Day 17

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