RPGaDay 2019: 8 Obscure

As a first generation gamer, I didn’t know how good I had it. Especially since I didn’t have ready access to Lake Geneva, WI, or GenCon, or even the means to do that if I were so inclined. Later, in my late teens, I finally went to a convention by just, you know, going. But in the early 1980s, there wasn’t a map for me to follow. There were two areas of the gaming world; over there, where all of the good stuff was happening; and right here, in Abilene, Texas, which was the middle of By God Nowhere.


There was something weird about Abilene. I don’t know what it was; there were three colleges and an air force base, so some things make sense, like having several hobby shops in a town of 100k (more on this later). But in a cow town in West Texas, hours away from Austin and the Metroplex, I got a hell of a pop cultural education, the likes of which I didn’t grasp until I was an adult.

A quick example: back in the 1970s, there were three channels on your TV: ABC, CBS, and NBC, all broadcast from local TV station (sometimes paired with a radio station, thanks to Ladybird Johnson). If you lived in a large metropolitan area like Houston or Dallas, you got access to a PBS station, as well. There was also some broadcasting found on the UHF channel, but only if your local stations had a transformer.

Abilene didn’t have a transformer. What it DID have was this: we got the three stations in town, ABC, CBS, and NBC, but we ALSO got WFAA, an ABC affiliate out of Dallas. We also got KTVT, channel 11, out of DFW and channel 13, KERA from the metroplex as well.  I had seven channels to choose from as a kid—and while the two ABC channels had the same prime time content, the afternoon and weekend fare on WFAA was ten times better. They played Going Ape week in the summer; All five Planet of the Apes movies, in order. And channel 11 showed all of the Universal monster movies, and the Harryhausen films, and late night horror and SF movies on the weekends. On Sunday night, I could watch Star Trek in syndication and then change over to Dr. Who late night on KERA.

Better than average artwork!
Pinch me, I'm dreaming!
I told you that to tell you this: I had three full-fledged sources for my D&D materials and an underground fourth that still has me shaking my head to this day. We had a Waldonbooks and a B.Daltons in the Mall of Abilene, located at opposite ends of the mall. I got a lot of exercise going between the two. There was also a hobby shop in the other, old people mall, called The Hobby Shop. It was one of three, the other two being a train and a plane store, respectively. This shop was a catch-all, and its wares included plastic models (which I was into, of course), like the Star Wars space ships, and the reason I mention this at all: A whole magazine rack dedicated to all things D&D.

And back then, that meant a bunch—as in, a cornucopia—of small press offerings. This hobby shop is long gone now, but they got a lot of my money back in the day; I bought my first set of dice from that place, and I bought nearly all of my Dragon magazines there. The store stocked TSR products, of course, but they also carried modules and accessories by other publishers; Judges Guild, Gamelords, Flying Buffalo, and the like. There was also a trio of books from Bard Games: The Compleat Spell Caster, The Compleat Adventurer, and The Compleat Alchemist.

Yeah, I never heard of them, either. They DID advertise in Dragon, but I’d already committed by the time I saw their ads. There was something about The Compleat Alchemist that spoke to me. Not sure why. But I had to have it when I saw it, so home it went with me. This was my first time off the reservation, if you catch my drift. I’d never bought a Non-TSR product before.  It felt kinda like I was cheating, but at the same time, there was a real sense of freedom in knowing I wasn’t bound to just one company’s creative output.

This book was one of the first things that really opened my mind up to the possibilities inherent in the game; using some of the things in The Compleat Alchemist made my game a little more unique, a little different. And it made me sort of say, “What else can I do to make my game more interesting?”

I also bought The Compleat Adventurer, but it wasn’t as interesting to me. It was a slew of new character classes, many of whom I’d seen a version of here or there in Dragon or elsewhere. But The Compleat Alchemist was gonzo. It used every single element of historical alchemy and then some. If I’d implemented this as a character class, it would have been the most powerful thing in the game. Seriously. Player character alchemists could make golems and clockwork monsters, as well as craft potions, poisons, powders, and other compounds that did all kinds of wacky things.

Despite my lack of use, the Bard Games books were pretty inspirational to me. They were eventually reworked into a D&D clone set in Atlantis. But those original books were game-changers for me. However, there was another influence on my D&D game that was even closer to home: Dragon Tree Press.

If you know them at all, you probably know them through their association with David Hargrave and his infamous Arduin campaign setting. But when they weren’t publishing those every versions of Arduin, they had their own modest line of system neutral spells, traps and tricks, artifacts, etc. These little thought experiments were statted out in general terms and they were lethal, interesting, dangerous, and strange, in that order. The publishers of Dragon Tree Press, Ben and Mary Ezzell, published their home-grown chapbooks and sold them at the used bookstore they also ran—in Abilene, Texas.

Their bookstore, Kingston Paperback Exchange, was one of my favorite haunts as a young man. It’s where I bought the first Thieves’ World anthology, where I bought my first Tarzan paperback, and where I bought my first silver age collector’s comic. They also had a spinner rack at the front counter that was their entire game line.

I remember Ben; he was an engineer of some kind, or at least, he dressed like one, with short button down shirts, pocket protector, you get the idea. He also had shoulder-length black hair and a full beard and mustache, neatly unkempt under black horn-rimmed glasses. He knew stuff; he had a computer at the book store that he played Starfleet Battle simulations on, along with Sargon Chess, of course. He also had good book recommendations. But I never quite put it together that he was the guy who published and wrote all of that other cool stuff.


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