Justice Playthrough #181: The Bookshelf

Less “game,” more “organization/meditation exercise.” I gave it a good-faith effort, and came away feeling like what it asked of me was far from the most interesting thing I could be exploring.

However, I finally organized my RPG shelves. So that’s nice.

Page 17, Game 16: The Bookshelf by linda c

This is an ultra-short little game about organizing your bookshelf. Do you have a bookshelf? That shit is probably messy as fuck, isn’t it. Why don’t you go ahead and organize it. Organize it how? However you like, really. Alphabetically, by color, by size, it’s up to you.

My wife and I actually organized our main bookshelves in the past year, so if I’d been feeling lazy, I could have just skipped that step and started there. However, I’ve been meaning to organize my role-playing games for forever.

CHAOS, motherfuckers

So, I organized it alphabetically by game system. For games with multiple books, it was sub-organized by edition, and then by character creation supplements, worldbuilding supplements, and finally pre-gen adventures.

I’ve been playing RPGs since I was twelve. I’m in my late forties now. I own a lot of RPG books. There are also, sprinkled here and there, little indie guys that my wife bought on our various convention outings. But the vast majority of the paper on these shelves is mine.

The thing that’s always scary for me about this kind of deep-dive reorganizing is how easy it is for me to get lost in thoughts of the past. I am, at the end of the day, one sentimental motherfucker. I am also cursed with a brain that prefers to fixate on the bad, on failures and mistakes, on moments when I was an asshole or let somebody down. (Thanks, clinical depression.) That can make wallowing in memories more than a little dangerous.

Here’s the D&D Red Book — from way back in the day. Just the second of the two books that came in the box, though — no idea what happened to the first. Probably destroyed, though there’s a slim chance it could be stashed somewhere in my brother’s or sister’s belongings. Wanted to play D&D SO bad when I was a kid, but I had a hell of a time finding anybody to play it with me. It looked so cool. I remember running games for my stepbrother Brandon. Of course, I wanted to be a player, not a DM, so my character was in there as an “NPC.” I may not have both books, but I still have the box — and a whole shitload of notes from way back when.

I have a lot of D&D in general, really. A whole bunch of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, enough that I could absolutely run a campaign if I wanted to. And OMFG, I have so much material for D&D 3 and 3.5. Half of an entire shelf is taken up just by materials for the Scarred Lands, a setting from White Wolf (the Vampire: The Masquerade people) that I simply loved. It was grim, but not over the top. I’ve heard it referred to as “Grimbright;” the world is fucked, but it can get better. I like that.

I only ever ran two campaigns in it. For all the source material I have, you’d think I ran dozens. Naw, just the two. I remember having a bunch of ideas for both that I never wound up following through on. Funny thing about me as a GM is the fact that I think I’m the only one who doesn’t enjoy the games. I feel like I’m perpetually underprepared and half-assing everything, but people always seem to have a good time. I’m harder on myself than is good for me, always have been.

In the pre-plague times, I was running a Starfinder game that was actually going quite well. I went into it conscious of my tendency to be overly critical of myself, and just chill the fuck out. It felt like it was working, honestly. People seemed to be having a lot of fun. But then Covid hit, and the campaign went on hiatus. I’m still working full-time, and moving the game on-line would just have been too much.

Ironically, none of my Starfinder books live on the RPG shelf — nor do my 5th-ed D&D books, or my Pathfinder books. I didn’t realize it, but the RPG shelf has basically become a kind of museum for games that I no longer play — or never played at all. I should probably rehome it entirely onto shelves with a little more room for growth.

Or I could get rid of some of the games there, but … it’d hurt. I could prune a smattering of books that I picked up here and there that never really mattered, but trimming down the collections actually taking up the bulk of the space would feel like I was throwing away some piece of myself. Like all those Shadowrun books. Most of them will probably never be opened again, but I played the absolute tits off that game back in college. Even a little after college, too. Damn, did those books ooze personality. Every sourcebook, regardless of whether it was adding sexy new gear to buy or spells to learn or just fleshing out the corners of the world, came sprinkled with tons of in-universe commentary from the various low-lifes inhabiting it. They gave insights into the whatsits being described, sure, but those fake people joked and bickered and sometimes even died in those pages. What a marvelous way to bring a universe to life.

I sorted the shelves, according to a system that might be a bit impenetrable in places. “Champions” is filed under “H” for “Hero System”, for instance. Of course, the “Champions” book that’s there is just a hollow shell filled with campaign notes. The binding on that book was shit, so I just gave in to the inevitable and tore out each page, one by one, and tucked it into a three-ring binder. One that’s unmarked and setting on a different shelf entirely, because there’s no damn room for it with the other books.

Yeah, I definitely need to rehome everything.

Once the books were sorted, time to get on to the next stage of the game. Remember? The Bookshelf? The “game” I’m playing? It tells me to open the first book and:

Read through the first few pages, pick out a sentence, phrase, or string of words that speaks to you now. What turn of phrase catches you? What idea do you love. What declaration in these first crucial phrases made the entire book worth reading.

WRITE IT DOWN.

Put the book back, and open the second book.

Repeat the process, taking time to read the first few pages, and writing down another phrase.

Okay. Cool. I’ll do that.

First book: ÆON. Man. There’s a game I haven’t thought of in forever. Back in the late 90’s, White Wolf — the Vampire folks — were branching out into an entirely new sci-fi setting. I remember buying the game when I was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just after graduating college. I found some folks on ISCA, a BBS I used to hang out on, looking to start a game. They were in Iowa City, but it was only a half-hour drive. The campaign only met a half-dozen times, but we had fun. I wish I could remember their names — or even what they looked like, really. I remember it was two dudes and a lady who was married to one of them. God, I was so desperate to make connections back then. I was in so much pain. Those were the depths of my untreated depression years, and I very seriously didn’t make it. Playing in that game was a bright spot.

I wondered what happened to that game system, so I Googled to see what I could see. They got sued by the copyright holders for the Aeon Flux cartoon and had to change the name of the game to “Trinity.” My rulebook, which comes in a kind of built-in plastic folder, apparently predated that mess. The game only lasted five years or so before it kinda just vanished. It was followed by two prequel games — “Aberrant,” which was a kind of superhero game, and “Adventure!,” which was all about Nazi-punching pulp shenanigans. For some reason, I thought “Aberrant” was the one that actually kinda caught on, but no, looks like that sank with the rest of the ship; I must be thinking of a different game entirely.

Anyway. Open it, read. Damn, this game had some serious production values behind it. The game starts with a twenty page short story — that’s one hell of an indulgence, but come on, it’s White Wolf, everything they touch turns to gold, it’s all good. Out of curiosity, I Google the name of the short story’s author, thinking it’s probably some in-house writer. It’s actually a dude named George Alec Effinger, who died in 2002 at the age of 55. I’d never heard of him, but it looks like he had a very interesting career. Dozen or so novels to his credit, and won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1988 for a Novelette called “Schrödinger’s Kitten.” Damn, that must have been exciting for him. Must have felt like he was on the verge of making it big. I wonder if he had any inkling he’d be gone less than 15 years later.

I find a passage in the short story, I copy it, I move on to the next two books. They’re both ÆON/Trinity supplements, one a crunchy gear book, one a little guy updating some of the “current events” in the world. I think I got both of them used, picked them up for the hell of it because they were cheap. I pluck some text out of those.

The next one is Apocalypse World. Discovered that ten years ago. Got to play it with some very cool people at Origins, one of whom I’m even still in sporadic contact with. Man, I was in such a better place at that moment in my life. Still awkward — I guess I always will be, really — but a lot more at peace with it. Apocalypse World is one of those games you pretty much have to know if you’re fiddling around with RPGs these days, it’s so damn influential. Even ran a game of it myself. It went … fine. I’m sure most of the players involved would tell you it was good. Except for the guy whose character I killed. That was a really weird experience. I presented a threat, and he ignored it. I kept escalating the threat, and he kept doubling-down on ignoring it. Finally, the goons storming his compound just kinda had to annihilate him, because if they didn’t, everyone at the table would have known that any “threats” I presented were pure bluffs and they all had full script immunity, and that’s just not how you run a game called “Apocalypse World.” I still sometimes wonder what the fuck was up with that.

Next game, Ars Magica. This is one I played a bit in college — the latter half of my college years, which were unsettled and weird. I was splitting semesters between going to college and working full-time (to save money to go back to college), and … God, that was such a toxic way to do it. It was so bad for me. I struggled so much to make connections with people — still do, really. Being half-in half-out of two worlds was probably one of the most mentally destabilizing things I could have done to myself.

Anyway. College buddies who were cooler than me played Ars Magica a bit, and I got to play NPCs in a few sessions. By that time, White Wolf had acquired the game and integrated it as a kind of medieval wizard prequel to its flagship World of Darkness line. Really cool game. What I remembered most about it was how they played an entire collective of wizards and their non-magical retainers. Each session followed multiple plotlines. Each player had their own wizard, but only half or a third of the evening would be spent following what that guy was up to. The rest of the time would be spent on some other wizard(s), and if your wizards weren’t involved in that plotline, you’d play a knight or a fairy or somesuch associated with the group. Really fascinating; I still don’t know if that was the recommended way to play the game, or if it was some sort of alt playstyle suggestion plucked from Usenet.

My copy of the game was an early edition pre-White-Wolf copy that I found cheap at a game con. Funny. I’ve never properly read the book, certainly never used it in a game, and yet it’s still somehow a part of me. I opened it, and copied some words.

Next game, The Authority, a d20 version of a comic book some friends had shared with me. I found it ultra-cheap at GenCon one year, and bought it as a gift for those friends, but fell-out with them before giving it. One of them laid-down one of the most brutal emotional betrayals I’ve ever experienced. I’d discovered that a mutual friend — someone I actually considered my best friend — had been manipulating the absolute shit out of all of us for years, had been lying to everybody’s faces. I was reeling, and sent comic-book-friend an email describing what I’d learned and how fucking wrecked I was trying to process it. She responded by gathering up every piece of media I’d loaned her, and returning it to me in person so that she could tell me what an absolute piece of shit I was to my face. Apparently, feeling hurt and betrayed by my ex-best-friend was unacceptable. She told me that, on behalf of every abuse victim who’d ever been disbelieved because their abuser was so charming, to go fuck myself.

The irony of her siding so emphatically with someone I now realize was (and almost certainly still is) an emotional abuser was quite lost on her. A better man than me would recognize that her own traumas had almost certainly been triggered by what had happened, and that I’d simply gotten caught up in the blast. As it is, I’ve never truly found it in myself to forgive her, and the handful of times I’ve interacted with her in the ten years since then, I felt like I was doing it through a glued-on smiley-face.

It can’t be healthy to carry around grudges like this. At least I don’t think of them often. If I’m being honest with myself, there are likely people out there who I’ve hurt just as badly through my own selfishness or short-sightedness. Old wounds, half-healed.

Open the book, copy down a sentence.

According to the game I’m playing — hey, this is a game review! — I’m instructed:

You may try to create a narrative story, and I encourage you to create a narrative, however surreal. If you can’t, or don’t want to, you are instead writing a poem. Enjoy the words taken from things you love. Remake what you have read, create a new story, with a new hero, and a new author.

At the rate I’m going, I do not think I’m going to be able to get through enough material to actually create any sort of story. But what the hell, I made it all the way through the A’s. I can at least come back with this:

I dreamed once when I was born, God gave me a second calendar page — for the last day of my life. I’ve spent years trying to forget that image. You will have a last day too, John. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a friend as good as the one I have in you. Please let me ask this one last time: Remember me,  John.

A computer can be the size of a thumb. We can do it, but the question is, should we? Do you really need a computer the size of your thumb?

The planet is a grim place, worse than the old holos suggested. Lichen is the national flower, and the gravity really gets to you after a while. The main town was renamed New Hope and looks more like a shanty town than a military base. The locals seem to have kept things in good repair, but the prefab buildings definitely show wear.

Now the world is not what it was. Look around you; evidently, certainly, not what it was. But also close your eyes, open your brain: something is wrong. At the limits of perception, something howling, everpresent, full of hate and terror. From this, the world’s psychic maelstrom, we none of us have shelter.

While nobles wage their petty wars, friars preach to their forlorn flocks, and rogues scrounge for ill-gotten wealth; a mystical order of wizards dwells on the outskirts of civilization, dedicated to their arcane and esoteric pursuits.

A pantheon of new gods stands revealed at the close of the millennium. Its message: “Game over.”

There’s … almost something there. But it seems trite, maybe even petty, compared to the journey sorting these books actually took me on.

These books are all a part of me, to some degree or another. They open doorways back to pieces of my life that are, more often than not, long gone. They are joy and failure, love and betrayal, fellowship and loneliness. They are reminders of both worlds I once eagerly explored and paths I never took.

What’s actually written on their pages feels almost inconsequential compared to all of that.

If The Bookshelf is a success, it is because it brought all that history to the surface, for me to understand it and myself just a little bit better. If The Bookshelf is a failure, it is because it did so as a side effect of its actual goal, which was kind of a silly party trick in the first place.

Still. I got an organized bookshelf out of the deal. I even pulled-out tiny little books to put on display so we’d be reminded they exist instead of letting them get swallowed up by all the rest. So that’s pretty cool.

Alphabeticaled! Also, with one half of a pair of authentic Spamalot coconut shells dangling from the top.

Will this next game be fun and not a wrenching self-therapy session?

Page 40, Game 22: Rakete by Playables

“Each player controls one thruster of a rocket with the goal to land it safely.”

Ah, so more of a group therapy session. Likely with failure and explosions. I’m in.