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The new Netflix series Stranger Things has been blowing up my social media feed for a couple of weeks now. I started watching it myself, at first with a little skepticism. From what I’d seen, the show was a little too artfully pandering to my demographic. Turns out, I really like it. I’m not quite through it, but I’ve enjoyed every episode thus far.  

In common with most Gen-X men, I do indeed feel a lot of nostalgia for the world presented in the show. Of course, I also remember nuclear war paranoia, Satanic cult panics and morning prayers in my public school… but let’s ignore that for now.  The boys in particular are familiar archetypes from young adult media of the period. These are the smart outsiders. It’s basically the cast of E.T. or The Explorers  or even The Goonies, except facing an interdimensional horror. The archetypes ring true because they are not inaccurate. 

Stranger Things

Stranger Things (2016):  The joy of slaughter!

I am nearly the same age as the boys in the show. I’m just a bit younger, but their fashion sense, their bikes, their jokes, and the moral code would have been entirely familiar to me in 1983. In fact, in November of 1983, I was a part of a secret club with a few other boys. Really, it was just a group of friends who lived fairly close and went to the same school. But we took it seriously. We even had codenames.  I am ashamed to admit I asked to be called “The Professor.” We considered ourselves the only people to properly understand the world, the only kids at our school with a really good handle on what was fun and what was right and honourable.

(In another eerie similarity, because of my evangelical background I strongly believed in the physical existence of demons and even believed I had encountered one in a period of sleep paralysis. I honestly feared paranormal attacks from another dimension and spent a period of my childhood terrified of being outside at night, or alone in a dark house….because there might be actual Monsters. That’s probably a post for a different time.)


E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1983): Same game table, but Stranger Things forgot that everyone smoked in the early 1980s.

We played tabletop RPGs for the bulk of each summer. We also rode bikes everywhere. We roamed the neighbourhood in a loose pack.  We played “Capture the Flag” in the park. We played on an abandoned steam locomotive near a brick factory and explored junk yards.  We ran from bullies, or occasionally screamed insults at them from a safe distance. They called us fags and we called them morons. Fist fights happened, but usually ended after some scuffling and wrestling.   We played video games and argued about Star Wars.  We had discussions about whether or not it is possible to have more than one best friend.

While I am still in touch with some of those boys (now all in their 40s) we inevitably started to grow apart. The commonality we had was built (in most cases) on proximity, rather than temperament. As we became individuals the differences became more important. But while it lasted, they were friends as true as any I’ve had. It was Us against The World.

Later in life, I realized how much of that dynamic was built on a sort of tribalism and elitism, one that explicitly excluded actual outsiders. We thought we were the outcasts, but we weren’t. We were middle-class white boys with a popular hobby. Heck, there were stores dedicated to selling roleplaying games and a Saturday morning cartoon based on Dungeons & Dragons.  The real outsiders were the kids who were born male but didn’t properly present as a nerd or a jock, who had a trace of “queer” or just didn’t have the right hobbies. There were the kids in a lower social class, kids who didn’t have a TV, even kids who didn’t have the same vocabulary. There were children who had no friends at all and we avoided them as rigorously as any of the “popular” kids were disdained.

explorers girl

The Explorers (1985): Every prepubescent boy knows that girls are best observed without their knowledge and from the safety of a force field bubble.

And of course, there were girls.  

Girls (especially before puberty hit us over the head) were a mystery, The Other. We were socialized to disdain them, or consider them valuable only insofar as their ability to act agreeable to boys. They must appreciate the right things in the right ways, and even then they were not necessarily welcome. We could make fun of boys outside our cabal, we could fear them, or fight them, or even befriend them if they passed tests of loyalty and knowledge. Girls were complete enigmas. Even after puberty, after dating,  we mostly kept our significant others away from the gaming table, as late as university. They wouldn’t get RPGs in the same way, you know? They wouldn’t get the inside jokes. The off-colour banter would suddenly seem in bad taste. We’d have to act different around them.

Stranger Things totally nailed that, too.


Stranger Things (2016): See? Girls just don’t GET it.

In Stranger Things, Eleven is not just frightening because she’s got strange powers. She threatens the cohesion of the gaming group because she’s a girl. This is explicitly stated in the show. She’s full of mystery. She shakes things up. The boys don’t know how to talk to her, they don’t know how to include her, and the group splits (for a time) because of her presence. She turns their reliable, cohesive world of secret handshakes and specialized knowledge upside down. She’s the outside world, forcing them to change. I don’t know what happens in the show, how or even if that conflict is resolved. 

When I look around gaming culture (and larger nerd culture) in the 21st century, I am still seeing that conflict, and the desire to hold on to the all-boy club. Now, they are clubs of men in their 30’s and 40’s trying to reclaim the “swell chums” or secret tribe of their youth. I can understand that impulse, totally. As I get older it is very obvious that the world is moving around me. I can’t keep up with developments, even in my favorite hobby. I understand the desire to hold things in place and try to recapture a feeling or experience that I felt to be empowering, even if it was empowering because it was exclusive.

There is not anything really wrong with that. We all want to belong and to feel our hobbies and habits are unique and special. Socially, we are free to limit our gaming table or groups of friends only to those people who polish our echo chamber. If you want to run a crunchy OSR game only for heteronormative men, by all means. Even if your play involves elements that are offensive or retrograde to some outsiders… that is also your right.

There are two things to remember about that right.

First, it only extends as far as your gaming table. When you go to a convention, you have to accept that the ground rules are different. Every player at your table is going to come from a different culture of role-playing. What they regard as normal will not be the same as what you regard as normal, even if you are both 45-year-old men who cut your teeth on Basic D&D in 1978. Accept that the ground rules are different. You may not need an X-Card at your table. You may have a house rule against people playing genders other than the one they present as. You need to put those aside and play according to the rules of the table and in such a way that you do not alienate the other players. You may think they are too sensitive, too weird, too restrictive. That’s fine. But when you sit down at a public table, the rules of the house apply.

Second… consider that your prepubescent tribe of friends may not be best model for a game group in your adult years. Consider that you cannot put the lightning back in the bottle. Remember that those boyhood cabals drifted apart because they made contact with the outside world. Your private world, your gaming table, your inside jokes…. there is nothing wrong with them if that is all you want from your hobby. But if you want to engage with the world outside your gaming table, you have to be prepared to welcome the existence of those whose enjoyment of the hobby was cut from an entirely different cloth.

Game cons and forums are full of grouchy guys talking about how the world of RPGs is just not what it was. I’m not talking about OSR gamers or grognards. I hear it from Vampire players, from Warhammer Fantasy RPG players, from boffer LARPers and even diceless Amber players. Fifteen years ago this sort of thing was mostly ironic posturing and guys in their late 20s waving imaginary canes in good humour.

I know I was guilty of it.

At some point this irony went septic and turned into real resentment. We hated the change. We did’t like the things that threatened our “way of life” and the grumbling turned to actual bile. Actual death threats have been leveled against game designers whose vision did not match that of the old boy’s view of the hobby.

And that’s weird, because it’s not like nostalgia is going anywhere.  There are still plenty of people willing to repackage and write and sell us the same experiences we had when we were 12 – talented game writers who are ready to keep bottling the lightning from our youth.  That segment of the hobby is still lively and growing and contains a lot of worthwhile product and ongoing innovation. But nostalgia only takes us so far as a collective of hobbyists. There is always going to be a new wave of gamers discovering the joy of the RPGs and they are going to engage with it in ways we could never expect.

They are creating new game experiences that reflect their world view. They play differently, because their world is different. Encompassing and accepting that difference is a way to make your world bigger and make your gaming table a more welcoming place. Why not check out their games, and not just the old standards? Check out games written by women, by people of colour, by people of widely different backgrounds than your own. It’s like seeing the hobby through a new set of eyes.

At the very least, you’ll be helping to keep your beloved hobby growing.

And remember, in the end, there is nothing particularly helpful about not wanting to play well with others.



You have probably never played Dragonraid. You probably never will. It’s an especially odd duck in a hobby full of odd ducks. It’s a role playing game for Christians, published in 1984 as a safe alternative to Dungeons and Dragons.

I first encountered Dragonraid while attending a Christian school in spring, 1987. I’d just started playing the FASA Doctor Who RPG during lunch hour with a small group of friends. A player’s father expressed concern our games lacked a clear moral compass. And, he was entirely right. The game was full of random death, greed, misanthropy and the usual sorts of stupid stuff that 13-year-old boys come up with when left to their own devices.

Dragonraid was presented to us as an alternative. Not one of those shady “roleplaying games”, but an “Adventure Learning System” that would instil important moral lessons and scriptural familiarity. I was the GM, so the player handed the rulebook over to me for review. I was both fascinated and appalled. I was intrigued by the setting, a weird mix of SF and fantasy, where “monsters,” like Goblins are actually the descendants of criminal aliens.


The PTL Club Renn Faire

The game takes place on a planet called EdenAgain. During the creation of this world by “The Overlord of Many Names,” an evil dragon released an egg onto the planet, which split into nine and became the seed of all unrest and wickedness. Over time, the descendants of dragons born from that first egg gained the upper hand, and the Overlord of Many Names had to sacrifice himself to save the world. Sort of. He came back to life a while later. Let me know if this sounds  familiar…

Humanity is divided into two factions. The TwiceBorn, the servants of the Overlord, live in a magical enclave known as the “Liberated Lands.” The Liberated Lands are a small peninsula protected from the dragon dominated lands by a magical mountain chain to the north and a turbulent, misty seas in all other directions. The Liberated Lands are essentially a Renn Faire designed by Jim and Tammy Bakker. TwiceBorn humans are taught that outsiders, the OnceBorn, or Dragonslaves, are miserable slaves. The OnceBorn may have fine stone houses and plentiful food and leisure time, but as they don’t have the saving grace of the Overlord, they are not really happy. They may think they are happy, but they aren’t!

"Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!"

“Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!”

The Dragonlands are ruled by nine different breeds of dragon, each race embodying a moral failing or representative of one of the snares of Satan. They once brutalized the humans under their control, but realized that it’s easier to dominate humans when they’re happy. So, they turned to other planets to supply their victims, inviting them to send their wretched, their depraved, their poor addled masses, their revolutionaries, lunatics and criminals. So arrived Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Ogres, Flusterbeasts and other weird creatures. These races were tortured and further abused by the dragons, and thoroughly Stockholm Syndromed into liking it. They now serve specific roles in the dragon kingdoms. Goblins are sadists, torturers and the like. Orcs are the warriors. Other monsters serve as greedy merchants, spies, and so on.

Too Pagan? And Too Violent?

Two things unsettled me, at age 13.  First, the game explicitly states that humans are off limits. If you kill a OnceBorn human, no matter how evil, you’ve failed. However, evil creatures – humanoid monsters – are fair game. Not only are they fair game, God expects you to slaughter some monsters out of hand, regardless of age or infirmity. Killing orcs and goblins in their sleep is specifically condoned and encouraged.

Now, I realize that killing sleeping goblins is an essential part of every 13-year-old boy’s gaming experience. But very few games encourage the behaviour. In D&D, the secular game that lacked the supposed moral compass of Dragonraid, killing sleeping or helpless sentients is an evil act, even if they are goblins. And, the combat system is actually more explicitly violent than D&D, with critical charts that contain, for example, two “groin hit” locations.

The second thing that bothered me was the requirement to memorize scripture passages (“Wordrunes”) to achieve in-game effects. You cannot proceed in any of the modules, as written, without memorizing and parroting verses from the New International Version of the Bible. While the memorization didn’t bother me (at the time), I was bothered by the use of scripture verse as “magic spells.” You want to open the mysterious cave? You need to repeat a verse. All of you.

We decided the game was too violent and too pagan.

Think about that.

We were a quartet of 13-year-old boys at a private Christian school, which one would think was the ideal market for the game. But we thought it was theologically inferior to the Doctor Who game and went back to fighting Daleks. In other words, the game that was given to us as a holy alternative to the violence and magical thinking of Dungeons & Dragons… was full of violence and magical thinking.

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One of the odd little things that makes me happy is staring at starship deckplans. I think I know the internal layout of a Broadsword-class mercenarcy cruiser from Traveller better than I know my own house, thanks to long hours of daydreaming that I was aboard one. In high school, I wished for a Scout Type S, and I missed a significant number of class hours in university designing starships for FASA’s Star Trek and WEG’s Shatterzone.

Something I especially enjoyed was creating clunkers and pink elephants, under-powered absurdities with more character than utility. These are the ships that end up sitting forever on the aftermarket, waiting for someone gullible or desperate enough to snap them up. They have checkered histories. My players once acquired a 120-year-old Lupus class scout in Shatterzone, and discovered another player character, long-forgotten in the frozen sleep chamber.

I know ships of this kind are popular with certain game groups, though published books and supplements generally gloss over the concept.  It seems strange, especially in games like Traveller, where a starship is a sort of millstone around the party neck, a money pit that requires constant feeding just to cover the mortgage. The cheapest ships capable of interstellar travel are variants on the Scout Type S, and even those run for over 20 million credits. The game gives good explanations for why this is so. In the Traveller universe, starships aren’t like cars or even private [planes . They’re like ocean-going ships. Even the smallest of ships capable of crossing an ocean are a significant investment.

But you know, you can find ship hulks going for the price of a used Kia. You can find functional ships for the cost of a new Mercedes.  Right now, there is a rusty “as is” 100-foot, 100-ton self-propelled barge for sale in Louisiana for $75,000.  A new one can cost millions. Why isn’t there something similar in Traveller…?


“Sure, it’s cramped, but it’s great on mileage and was only flown once, by a little old man from Ohio!”

In that spirit, I have worked hard to produce some of the cheapest functional spaceships possible for my Traveller, Star Wars, and Shatterzone games. Step on in to Honest Piet’s Used Spaceship Emporium and Scrapyard for the finest in previously enjoyed hardware! It’s not pretty, it’s not ready for combat, but it’ll get you from Point A to Point B… usually.

One of my more recent creations is the Tarkine-class Interstellar Barge for the Mongoose edition of Traveller. The specific example described below costs about half the price of a used Scout Type S, and you’re not beholden to the service. Of course, the ship will likely end up bankrupting you, but that’s what Traveller is all about, right?

Tarkine-class Interstellar Barge – The Albatross

The Albatross can be found for sale or rent in any frontier system. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a Jump-capable ship that costs about as much as an orbital shuttle. It’s name is painted crudely in spray-paint over the rear cargo doors. Though the players might not know it, the Albatross is one of a class of ships that played a significant role in relations between two systems.

District 268 in the Spinward Marches is not formally a part of the Imperium, though the worlds enjoy regular trade and Imperial naval protection. The most densely populated world in the subsector, Forine, is heavily industrialized and advanced. Nearby Tarkine is an agricultural system. It is also well populated, but quite primitive by the standards of the Third Imperium (TL 7).

About a century ago, Forine has trouble feeding its own population. To this day, most inhabitants make do with a very plain diet designed to meet their minimum needs. About a century ago, localized famines were common. In an effort to take advantage of this situation and increase their own presence on the galactic stage, the government Tarkine entered into a ship-building deal with Forine. Forine provided Tarkine with Jump capable ships using technology that Tarkine facilities were able to maintain. In exchange, Tarkine shipped food to Forine at no cost for a period of 40 years. The result was the Tarkine class Interstellar Barge, or, as it is become known, “The Tarkine Folly.”

The gravitic drives usually seen in the Imperium were replaced with reaction drives – old-fashioned rocket engines. These required a lot of internal space to be devoted to fuel, so to maximize cargo space the two-person crew crams into a double-occupancy stateroom and a cockpit-sized “bridge.”

About 100 Tarkine barges were constructed. At 30.5 tons of cargo space for each, there was no way these ships could assuage a famine of any size. In practice they carried high-end spices and costly confections for Forine’s leisured class while the general population went hungry. Still, they did wonders for Tarkine’s politicians. “Look at this fleet of spaceships! We are now a galactic power!” was the line.

That rosy view soon took a hit. The barges did not carry enough fuel for a round trip, and had to be refueled at great cost at Fornine. The Tarkine government paid for the barges several times over in free cargoes and the cost of fuel, and they soon became a symbol of government shortsightedness and waste.  About 60 years ago, Tarkine released most of the aging vessels to public sale. Tarkine barges now show up in odd places throughout the Spinward Marches, sometimes forced into unexpected roles, like traffic control or even customs inspection. They tend to be used by in-system traders, impoverished planetary governments…. or desperate adventurers,

Tarkine-class Barge
Hull: 100 tons, distributed, TL 7 Titanium (Hull: 2, Structure: 2)
Armour: None
Jump Drive A: Jump 1 (TL 9)
Maneuver Drive A: Thrust 1 (TL 7 Reaction Drive, 10 hours thrust at full fuel)
Power Plant A: (TL 8 Fusion)
Compact Bridge
Computer: Model 1, Rating 5
Electronics: Standard Sensors (-4 DM)
Fuel: 41 tons
(25 tons dedicated to Reaction Drive, 10 to Jump Drive, 6 to Power Plant)
Sufficient for 10 hours of 1G Thrust, one Jump 1, and six weeks of operation.
Up to three jump 1s are possible if reaction mass is consumed. Two Jump 1s reduces reaction mass to 6 hours of 1G Thrust, three Jumps reduces reaction mass to 2 hours of 1G Thrust.
Cargo: 30.5 tons
1 Double Stateroom
Software: Jump Control/1, Maneuver/0, Library/0
Construction Cost: 16.407 MCr (Includes 10% discount for standardized plan. Price also takes into account significant discounts for building lower tech components on a higher tech world)
Used Sale Price: 11.978 MCr for specific ship detailed below.

The Tarkine-class was built with thrift in mind. Contractors on Fornine used the most basic technologies possible to create a Jump capable ship. The barges have a primitive Jump-1 drive and rely on rocket thrusters for movement in-system. With only ten hours of reaction fuel, they must Jump as close to their destination world as possible. With careful budgeting and use of reaction fuel, a barge pilot can manage two or three Jump-1s without refueling, but suffer a serious reduction in maneuverability upon arrival.

The barges, as built, have sufficient life support for six weeks of operation. This is a precaution against misjumps that leave the ship at the edge of the system. The crew can wait for rescue. (Given the cramped quarters, tiny bridge, and lack of common space, six weeks aboard a barge would be a hellish ordeal.)

The stock barge is totally unarmed and unarmored. A few owners have fitted them with lasers or missile racks as a deterrent against piracy. However, as combat maneuvers quickly burn through the fuel (only enough for 10 rounds of combat with full tanks) most owners prefer to surrender or attempt to fight off a boarding action.

As noted, even the newest barges are 60 years old. This means players purchasing one can roll six times on the “Old Ships” table in the corebook, and receive a 6D6 reduction percentage reduction in the cost of the ship. I did this, and rolled a 27, and received the negatives effects “Library Data is erroneous” and “Increase maintenance costs by 50%”. I interpreted these as follows:

  1. To save costs, the barge computer was constructed with read-only memory. As such the library data in the computer is, at best, 60 years old. This does not effect navigation, but it means world data and political information is sometimes wildly inaccurate. Most owners simply use a portable computer for library data.
  2. The oddball mix of technology used to create the ships means that monthly maintenance costs are increased by 50%, or a total of 5050 cr

Monthly Costs
Fuel: 18500 (assuming 1 complete refill and power plant top up per month)
Maintenance: 5050
Life Support: 3000
Mortgage: 49900
Total: 78450 cr

Unless the players are very good at speculative trade or mercenary work, owning a Tarkine barge will always be a net loss. However, the ships are sometimes assigned to mercenaries or hired adventurers by patrons who simply need them to get to another system. The ships may also be a good investment for players with the money to invest in replacing the reaction drives with a gravitic drive. This substantially reduces monthly fuel costs and increases the utility of the ship. The addition of low passage berths and staterooms allows for a larger crew or paid passengers.


It’s Christmas, 1979.

I’m five years old, Pierre Trudeau is prime minister (again).  Tim Hortons doughnuts are 50 per cent bigger than nowadays, but 500 per cent more likely to taste like an ash tray.  Wayne and Shuster are on TV, and my teenage cousin is playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

I spent that Christmas in Brockville, visiting my grandparents and aunts and uncles on my dad’s side. I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and cats, but I don’t know it yet. The house has both smokes and cats in ample supply, leading to a frantic late night E.R. visit when my left eye swelled up and turned bright red. That’s pretty much all I remember about that trip, that, and the fact that my cousin was playing a strange game. Hours before bedtime (when my eye was still “just a little itchy”), there was a break in the game. I snuck into the side room where my cousin played, to investigate his strange game of toy soldiers with swords.

The room where they played was littered with miniatures and hand-built terrain, which did double duty as landscape for my cousin’s collection of 1:35 military models. I couldn’t read yet, but I was fascinated with one of the books. It depicted strange and wonderful creatures locked in combat, both above and below ground.

I was in high school before I saw that book again, and realized it was the first edition of the AD&D Monster Manual.


 It’s summer, 1983.

I’m nine years old. I know how to read and I’m reading voraciously. Fantasy, science-fiction and science-fact, military history, the Bible, trashy creation science books, equally lurid parapsychology paperbacks –  anything with blood and death or magic and mystery in it. I am devoutly religious to the point of paranoia, convinced of the physical existence of demons who imperil my immortal soul.

The Cold War is in its last hysterical spasm. Nuclear war by 1990, say all the grown-ups, right up to the U.S. president. Nuclear war, or the Anti-Christ, or both. It’s one of the hottest summers on record. We don’t have air conditioning, or a television, or a car. I spend a lot of time reading in a blazing hot living room.

A few times a month, I navigate to the library on my bike through a scar of undeveloped land that cuts through several neighbourhoods. We call it the Pipeline. In 1983 it’s a muddy dumping ground, haunted by angry dogs and bullies from the wrong side of the tracks. It takes the better part of an hour to get to the library, and I imagine it as a passage through the Mutara Nebula, my BMX a scout ship sent to bring back information from the distant repository of antiquity.

One day, I found a copy of an unusual book. It looked like a sword and sorcery novel, but it was also a game. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but better. It was called Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a Fighting Fantasy novel. These were solo roleplaying games. Using a basic system and six-sided dice you’d navigate a dungeon or city or haunted house or a space ship, and I was hooked. I built up a collection of them over the next few years. They were an escape from the anxiety and paranoia of the real world.


It’s January, 2013.

I’m 38 years old. I have two daughters. I’m acting as game master, running their characters through Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It takes hours, but their attention doesn’t waver. They managed to sneak past the sleeping orcs, reason with the raving prisoner, puzzle their way through the Maze of Zagog, slay a dragon and claim the Warlock’s treasure. They’re hooked, just like I was, 30 years before.

I generally count my formal start in this hobby sometime in April, 1987, when I received a copy of the FASA Doctor Who RPG for my 13th birthday. It was the first “real” role-playing game I owned, and within weeks I was playing with my friends in the library of our private Christian school. That means this year will mark 26 years of being a “real” gamer. In that time I’ve been a player, a game master, a play tester, and a paid game writer. I’ve earned more money writing roleplaying games than I’ve spent buying them, though not much more.

But although 1987 was the year I started playing, it seems clear that the seeds of the gamer personality had sprouted a long time before. There’s the escapism, the attraction to the fantastic, the macabre and wonderful. I’ve never grown tired of the hobby because it is a perfect outlet for my personality.

The author George R.R. Martin once wrote:
“Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy is habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. We read fantasy to find the colours again, I think. To taste strong spices, and hear the songs the sirens sang.”

I think we play games for the same reason.