The 40th Anniversary of My First RPG Character
I remember my first ttRPG character, who was also my first D&D character, quite well. I made him in the summer of 1982, when my sister and I were staying with our aunt, uncle, and cousins while our parents took a trip to Europe. My uncle had a copy of the 1st edition AD&D DMG in his Den of Geeky Stuff (along with an Apple computer with a flight simulator, Go and Shogi sets along with books on rules and variations on those and Chess and other classic games, model train books, model trains, a vast collection of Oz and Asterisk and Obelisk books, and I am sure some things that someone did not make a permanent impression on me). I was drawn to it, he saw me reading it, and he told me if I could figure out how the game worked, we’d play.
Since we only had the DMG, “figuring out how the game worked” turned out to be my first foray into RPG design, which thus precedes me ever actually playing an RPG. But that’s a story for a different time.
I named my first player character VanBuskirk. Now, a specific, small subset of classic scifi fans will immediately know where I got that name – it’s a secondary character from the Lensman series, which I was obsessed with at the time… and oblivious to the failings of. I still love those books, but not only do I embrace others’ criticism of them, but I also have my own critiques as well. The first Lensman story, “Galactic Patrol,” will hit the public domain in a decade or so and I may… okay, that’s also a story for a different time.
In Lensman, vanBuskirk is a Space Marine, and a heavy worlder, and a big guy, and a wielder of Space Axes, and if you happen to have played games I had a PC in, a lot of those elements may well strike you as familiar. So, you might think I’d make my PC a dwarf, or half-or, or at least a human. But, no, I decided to play an elf, I suspect largely due to the influence of the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings movie. Of course if I’m making a character based on an axe-wielding Space Marine, I must have made him a fighter, right?
See, as best as my young self could figure it from just the 1st ed AD&D DMG, an elf could take three classes at the same time, and why wouldn’t you do that? Being a fighter meant I could have a Space Axe (yes, I wrote up special rules for space axes.) Being a magic-user meant I could “put on my screen” (a personal defensive barrier, you know, the shield spell). And being a thief meant… well, it meant my character wasn’t stuck in a dead-end career. See, elves had a level cap as fighters and magic-users (yes, I mean they literally couldn’t gain above a given level in those classes, which at the time didn’t feel weirder than Strength going from 3 to 25 but potentially having a percentile score if you had an 18, even though no other ability score than went from 3 to 25 had a set of percentile sub-scores if you had an 18). So, if I wanted my fighter/magic-user Space Marine to keep growing in power as well, he had to be a thief as well.
Is that Power Gaming? Maybe. I’ve been guilty of that from time to time, over the decades. I honestly feel a chunk of it isn’t my fault – if your character concept is Lancelot or Superman or Jedi Master Luke Skywalker or a Highlander, or even a Space Marine, you are going to want to be able to pull off the kind of badass stuff those characters do. And, especially in the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot of discussion in the game-playing space of considerations beyond following the rules, not cheating, and everyone working together. I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then, and often have fun playing someone with one or more major flaws, but that didn’t come naturally to me.
My first game with VanBuskirk was run by my uncle, and the other player was my sister. She thought the whole thing was pretty dumb, and while I rushed to go explore the “dark opening in the rocky ground, with uneven stairs descending into a lightless pit,” she could not imagine why her character (who had food, and money, and camping equipment) would think that was a good idea. My uncle was GMing for the first time and tried having her see glints of gold at the bottom (which did not impress her, she *had* gold), making it rain (her character just pitched a tent), the area begin to flood (in which case she DEFINITELY wasn’t going underground), and then, in desperation, having her hear a cat crying in distress from the bottom of the stairs.
She rushed right in.
We had a single fight (to save a golden-furred kitten), and that was the end of the game. We never picked it up again. I was hooked forever. My sister was… not.
But VanBuskirk kept popping up for several years. Since I had no one at home to play with, my mother got advised to get me Tunnels & Trolls, which had solo adventures, and I made a new version of VanBuskirk (who had a wild career, from Buffalo Castle to a dungeon run through Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon, Naked Doom, Dargon’s Dungeon, and Beyond the Silvered Pane, to eventually tromp for months through City of Terrors, the associated Arena of Khazan, and down into the Sewer of Oblivion).
He became one of my main supporting NPCs in early AD&D games I ran (along with Frost the Gadget Girl, Father Mathew Cuthwulf – Bishop of Cuthbert, Sasha the Seeress, and the Archmage of Twelve Towers – all of whom have their own stories, for another time), and was my main playing-at-conventions characters throughout my teens. Conventions were one of the main places I played ttRPGs for a while, and everyone would just pull out a pile of coke-stained paper character sheets and find something the DM would allow. To accommodate this, VanBuskirk existed at different character levels, loot totals (from “scant” to “Monty Haul” to “Mounting ion cannons on the mechanical spider he claimed after taking it from Lolth, who now works for him”), and even multiple rule systems. For a while, if I was playing a fantasy game, I was probably playing some version of VanBuskirk.
And then, sometime in late middle school or early high school, I… stopped. I don’t remember the last time I played some version of VanBuskirk. But as I had more friends, and played in more regular campaigns with continuity, and used conventions more as places to play something new, VanBuskirk stopped meeting my needs. I kept all his character skeets for a long time. Then just a few key ones. Then just his original T&T sheet and one yellow parchment-patterned D&D-compatible sheet with a vaguely demigod version of him.
And then, one day while moving, I realized I hadn’t used him for anything for more than a decade. And I let him go.
There are characters I get the itch to replay or recreate, from time to time. Father Cuthwulf and Frost, to name two. More recently Solnira, Temple, Kilroy, Celestial, and Lord Brevic Falkavian. I don’t do it, because like ice sculpture, or performance art, part of the appeal of the memories of those characters are the time and place in which they existed. If I tried to remake them, in a new time, a new game system, or with new players, it wouldn’t feel the same. And, besides, I have hundreds of ideas for characters I have never gotten to play, so why take up rare game slots with things I have done before?
But I never have any urge to recreate VanBuskirk. He met my needs when I was first gaming, and I appreciate all he did for me and went through in the name of my entertainment, even as a fictional character, but I don’t need an elven Space Marine fighter/magic-user/thief with a giant spider mecha anymore. Even if I was in a game where that was a reasonable character concept (and, yeah, I’d play in that game in a hot second), it’s not VanBuskirk I’d be going for.
But he came into existence 40 years ago this summer, and while I don’t think of him much anymore, I thought he deserved this one memorial. And, I hope, people might enjoy hearing how insane my first few ttRPG character concepts were.
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