Last week I attended the funeral for my friend Densel’s wife, Sheryl. As these things tend to, it spawned a reunion of friends who don’t see each other anymore. Densel was a major hub of roleplaying on Staten Island, and our love for our friend, and each other, grew from our meeting together to play Dungeons and Dragons. Only in recent years have I learned that while he was gaming with me and my group, he was moonlighting with other groups all across the Island. He is single-handedly responsible for more people playing D&D on Staten Island than any other person I know.
The first time I met Densel was when his friend, Desmond, brought him to Boy Scouts to play violin for us and join our troop. He was a six-foot-four, sixteen-year-old black kid and I was a five-foot-four, eleven-year-old white kid. Though five years older than I, we hit it off. What really connected us were the three wildly illustrated pamphlets he brought on a camping trip: Dungeons & Dragons, Greyhawk, and Blackmoor. One of his older brothers had gone to school in Wisconsin and brought the game back to Staten Island with him. When we saw Densel reading them, a couple of us younger guys asked him what they were. When he asked if we had read Moorcock or Tolkien and we said yes, he then asked if we would like to play a game where we could be knights and rangers. Without hesitation, we said yes.
We didn’t play the game properly. Mostly, it was just us talking about the characters we wanted to play and then Densel talking us through adventures. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t really learning the game; I was hooked by the idea of roleplaying. The illustrations from those original books are a major part of what I believe fantasy should look like. The thought of getting caught up in playing someone like Elric or Aragorn blew my eleven-year-old mind.
Densel aged out of scouts and I didn’t see him again for a couple of years. I was still finishing grade school and he was getting ready to enter college. It was then that I started playing D&D for real with my immediate circle of friends. Both my neighbor and I got the boxed Basic Set for Christmas. For two years we played relentlessly; and I mean relentlessly. For anyone who played the game in that first flush of its popularity in the late 1970s, you know what I mean. Every free weekend was spent playing, and the days between designing dungeons and drawing maps. Soon I was building up a shelf of hardcover Advanced D&D manuals. Almost any money I earned or got as a gift was plowed into the game.
Densel reappeared when one of my friends started going to the old College of Staten Island in Sunnyside. Densel was presiding over huge D&D campaigns at the school’s Middle Earth Lounge. Almost at once, Densel became embedded in my circle of gamers, bringing his own circle along with him. During my freshman year of high school in 1980, it wasn’t uncommon to find fifteen to twenty of us seated around a series of card tables playing D&D; or Villains and Vigilantes; or Boot Hill; or Traveller; or Top Secret.
For the next few years, I probably saw Densel every weekend. A lot of the early players sloughed off due to the demands of the real world, but we kept going. To get to my house to play, Densel would walk a mile and half, no matter what the weather. He’d come strolling up my block with a book in his hand, having read the entire length of his hike. I look back with increasing fondness on those early days.
Eventually, we stopped playing with Densel. By 1983, it was obvious his style of playing and mine no longer meshed. He was the epitome of the power gamer and I wanted to do more roleplaying. The same was true of several other players, some from my original circle, and several from his.
For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Powergaming (or power gaming) is a style of interacting with games or game-like systems, particularly video games, boardgames, and role-playing games, with the aim of maximising progress towards a specific goal, to the exclusion of other considerations such as storytelling, atmosphere and camaraderie. Due to its focus on the letter of the rules over the spirit of the rules, it is often seen as unsporting, un-fun, or unsociable.
That pretty much sums up how we felt Densel played games, and his preference for playing wizards with tremendous cowls and booming voices only made it worse.
We went our way and left him to go his. It was a terrible severing, even if necessary. Densel was, and remains, one of the sweetest people I have ever met. Not only did all us gamers love him, all our moms did too. He’s the sort of man whose arrival dissipates tensions and cools tempers. With a deep laugh, a slightly goofy grin, and maybe a terrible joke, he could disarm anyone, and make agitated people forget why they weren’t having fun. Yet from that time and into the early ’90s, when my circle fell apart (jobs, wives, moving, etc.), I played only one more time with Densel, this time with his future wife joining in on the adventure.
I’ve hung out with him many times over the years, if not much lately, and it’s always been a good time. He can talk endlessly about everything. He’s someone you really look forward to spending time with. Every time, at some point he’ll ask,”Do you play anymore?” I’ve always had to answer no. There’s always been a slightly sad look in his eyes at my answer. He never stopped roleplaying. Even if it’s more on a computer against digital enemies than around a table with pen and paper, he’s kept the faith all these years. I admit, I’ve felt more than wistful, even a bit sad.
After the funeral, several of us, some who hadn’t been together in years, came over to my house. Much of the conversation that day involved rehashing old campaigns, remembering long forgotten events, and recalling people no one’s seen in decades. It was a mournful, melancholy day, but it also sparked memories of an almost glorious past.
I don’t know what gaming is like these days, but back then, it was the province of hippies, metalheads, stoners, nerdy kids, and anyone who might have read The Hobbit more than once. Age, education, class — none of these things were barriers. The youngest player, Jesse, was only twelve in 1980, and the oldest, Jimmy, a Viet Nam vet, was thirty-three. Some were economically comfortable, others definitely not. In those early days, our big gatherings were a mix of races and ethnicities (occasionally even a girl!) united by an insane desire to play D&D. Half the friends I have now, I made in those days. And I made them because one man, Densel, traveled the avenues of Staten Island with a satchel full of TSR manuals and a sack full of dice. God bless him in this time of deep grief, and God bless him for all the friends and memories I have due solely to him.
For the first several years, from about 1978 to 1981, I played AD&D. It was the big gorilla and had lots of awesomely illustrated supplements and manuals. Over time, we became increasingly unhappy with the game’s quirks. It didn’t make sense that armor should make you harder to hit instead of easier, yet not able to withstand more damage. No matter how mighty a warrior was, history was proof enough that everyone’s equally vulnerable to a well-placed arrow- shot. Finally, and most significantly, experience in D&D was based on killing things and getting treasure. We wanted to play games where cleverness and ingenuity were rewarded.
That led us to SPI‘s DragonQuest. We played that exclusively for a couple of years. It’s a complicated system and SPI provided almost no support for it beyond a few modules and articles in Ares. When ICE published Rolemaster for its amazingly detailed Middle-earth campaign, we played that until we decided the system wasn’t just complex, but needlessly, annoyingly so.
Finally, we discovered the Hero System from Hero Games. We first encountered it in their superhero game, Champions. The combat system is a little complicated, but with its emphasis on movement, defense, and skills, it had everything we wanted from an RPG combat system. More importantly, experience was rewarded based on the completion of an adventure, not for high body counts. It was also infinitely flexible. When we learned how to convert other games’ stats to the Hero System, we did. One of the longest campaigns we ever played was a Call of Cthulhu game using nothing but the Hero System.
And that was it. By 1992, even though we were deep in a several-years-long Champions campaign, my group stopped roleplaying. It had been a great fourteen years, but real life took the wind out of our sails, and that was that.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now.