Clobberin' Time

It was 1984.

In nerd-culture terms, I was a Merry Marvelite. Most of my passion, most of my friendships, orbited Marvel comics in some way.

Sometime in the previous year or so, John Embrey had introduced me to the secret powers inherent in my polyhedra. John and I had met through comics (I mean, we were in the same home-room at school, but he saw me carrying New Mutants #1 into class, and we went from there).

So I was a sitting duck for volleys like this:

Ad for the Marvel Superheroes RPG

Marvel comics were running ads for the Marvel game in every issue of every comic, or it seemed that way. And while the TSR logo meant nothing to me, the ads specified that the makers of Dungeons & Dragons were involved, so I could make a mental connection to that game my oil genius had left twitching by the roadside some months prior.

I had also seen my first actual D&D rulebooks by now. Tina, the lady next door (I lived on Quantico at this point), knew me as a constant presence, because she liked talking about cooking and so did I, and she had a niece my age who sounded like someone I'd get along with (we never met), and because she left HBO on in the background without thinking about it, even if the movie was Rated R. I was at Tina's a lot.

She also had a copy of the 1983 red-box Basic Set, which she'd borrowed from her niece, and which she loaned to me. I couldn't quite grok it. I didn't have any frame of reference for fantasy. None of the stuff I read or watched had Elves or Dwarves or monsters (that Asgardian adventure with the magic sword was still a couple years off), so I didn't really try. I just flipped through and looked at the pictures, and they were okay but I had comics to read and they had more.

But a Marvel D&D ... that could be interesting! I could definitely get John Embrey to play, and our friend Chris, too, maybe Chris' brother ... and maybe Tina's niece, if she ever showed up to get her D&D box back. Hm.

So as soon as I could, I badgered my father into getting me one, and unlike with D&D, I sat down and read every single page of each booklet in that box.

Much of the credit for this magical feat belongs to Steve Winter and Jeff Grubb, who made the whole thing easy and fun. The rest belongs to the context: I already knew Doctor Strange and his Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth; I already knew Spider-Man and She-Hulk and Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom and Wolverine. I could connect the idea of the game to my brief D&D experience with John. If solving monster-problems with burning oil was fun, imagine the stuff I could do with a web-shooter or Sue Storm's invisible force-fields!

John explained to me, soberly, that this was not to be. I had purchased and studied the game, and so I had to be the GM. Those were the rules. I flipped furiously through the booklets; I hadn't seen that one. Clearly, I was on the threshold of a larger world.

In an act of narrative compression right out of a lazy biopic, I swear to God this was the first night I ever made a pot of coffee. But as a kid I always kind of thought I was in a movie, so this was no accident. The house was asleep and dark. I was at the kitchen table in a pool of lamplight, staring down my first night of GMing prep, and movies had taught me that burning the midnight oil (there it is again) required bleary eyes and coffee, both of which would worsen as the montage wore on.

This attitude – that I had to live up to the kind of "scene" I was in – is what got me into comics in the first place. Another tale for another time. For now, just picture S. John's first-ever midnight-oil creative montage. First of thousands.

Where Everything Went Down. Poster-Map From the Game

Then, skip to the end of the game session that followed, because it's too awful to look it right in the eye.

There I am in that same chair, at that same kitchen table, looking miserable. John and Chris (my players) are telling me it was okay for my first time. But you can see it in their eyes: it was dreary, it was discouraging, it was slow, it was crud.

Besides, Wolverine was dead now. A prospect no more cheerful then than today. Especially when Doctor Fucking Octopus did the deed. He's a Spider-Man villain; who the hell does he think he is killing Logan and the Thing? That's right: Ben Grimm's corpse was cooling right alongside. People are hanging their laundry at half-staff on Yancy Street, and John and Chris and I have just witnessed the death of two good, fictional friends.

The "adventure" I'd failed to run was a madhouse variant of the Doc Ock module that shipped with the game. And I should rush to the game's defense at this point, on the record. The module is just fine. Fighty and simple, but fine. There's a giant robot, as there should be. There's plenty of newbie-friendly GMing advice throughout the game to prevent this kind of depressing session, and I just failed to digest it. I had consumed every page of the game with eagerness, and I consumed it badly ... hopped up on how much fun I'd have with invisible force-fields.

And the truth is, when John Embrey told me it was on me to be the GM? I was quietly celebrating inside, because I had studied the game, and according to my read on it, the GM had a much better chance of winning.

And that's exactly what happened. I won.

It was not okay for my first time. It was miserable, for any time. But it was 1984. I was 13. Coffee and I had a lot of nights ahead of us.