No going back

I want to tell you about this one time. I was sitting on the roof of my parents’ house and it was late summer, at the beginning of nineteen ninety-seven. I grew up in quite a beautiful town in the mountains in New South Wales. Most of my friends hated the place and couldn’t wait to escape to a big city and start their lives. I made vague noises of agreement, and I was very excited to go away to university, but I also liked our town and was sad to leave. I had many fond memories of wandering the streets; skateboarding in the chilly evenings; eating chips and gravy and holding hands in the underground carpark with grungy girls in fingerless gloves and long skirts. Planning whose house we were going to drink at that night.

Of course all of that came later. When I was a boy there were no girls but people’s sisters, and instead of skateboarding in the carparks and running from security guards we splashed in creeks and flitted through the trees in backyards, fighting with wooden swords and grimacing when the wood smashed our cold hands. We tirelessly played Sega and SNES games, jumping the same bricks and falling in the same lava for hours until we saved the blocky little princess.

And we played Warhammer. And Dungeons and Dragons. D&D games in the beginning were a bunch of shrill little boys joyfully cheating, slashing and looting through a child’s intricate and pointless dungeon, crammed with secret doors and moving statues and existing only for the characters to pillage. Our characters grew up before we did, buying land and ruling it, and that was boring so we started again. Then we grew up a bit, and our characters never did – some of the grungy girls sometimes played in our game, and we drank whisky while we played and our characters had personalities. And we tired of them quickly and started over and over again.

It was Warhammer I was thinking about on the roof though. Like I said, the town was quite beautiful and late summer in the afternoon was cold. There was smoke coming from many of the houses with old wood fires and I could see almost the whole town. I liked climbing on to the roof because the corrugated iron was pleasantly warm, and if you’ve never been to country Australia you don’t know how big the sky looks.

When I sat on the roof I didn’t see my town. I saw Marienburg, or one of the other regional cities of the Empire in the Warhammer Old World. I liked to pretend that I was a watchman, eyes peeled for the black smoke and howling insanity of a horde of beastmen and grim chaos warriors. This time I felt especially gritty and soldierly as I had started smoking and had a roll-your-own in my hand. Despite the smoke and trace of a hangover I felt completely connected to myself as a boy, even though I knew that at nineteen I was probably too old to be sitting on a roof pretending to be a doomed town guard. It was a guilty pleasure.

I had always loved the Warhammer Old World: the crooked anatomy of Blanche; the rictus grins and demented cross-hatching of Ian Miller’s Empire cityscapes. The figures were like that too – unbalanced, looming and creepy. The fiction was even darker. On the train to Sydney once I had read Jack Yeovil’s Genevieve books, and Ian Watson’s Inquisitor. I was old enough by then to notice the bent sexuality and blood-slicked murderous quality of the violence. People were wary of D&D but Warhammer was the real deal. Demons possessed helpless folk and burst from their bodies rotting or bedecked in parodies of S&M gear. The Old World and the Imperium of Man were small places full of small minds, and everyone was doomed. The nihilism was palpable and as a kid you could just tell that this was forbidden stuff. It clearly wasn’t written by normal, healthy adults.

And I was never exactly a normal kid, so I sat on the roof and smoked my cigarette and looked out at my town. I knew I’d be leaving in a few weeks for good but I couldn’t stop thinking about Warhammer. I played it with the younger kids. My brother’s friends. Only one of my own friends wanted to play with us. The others were even fading from our D&D group by now. Making their excuses and giving me this look, like they knew how much I loved it and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me they felt like fools. I had this feeling myself: that these games were something secret and golden for kids, and so I was leaving them behind. I wasn’t sad exactly… I mean I knew that there’d be parties and serious discussions in the pub and probably beards and maybe even placards at the university in Canberra. Definitely cigarettes. And hopefully some girls who were as pretty as they were smart.

When I thought about Warhammer I did just that. I thought about it. I didn’t talk to anyone. At that time I had been gaming for about half of my life. I had never met a single person that played the games I loved who hadn’t come to them through me or one of my friends. That seems so strange now. But the world was small.

I sat there and imagined scenes in my head, and recalled gruesome passages from the stories and shivered. The actual games we played were slipshod ridiculous affairs. We used an old ping-pong table in my garage and there was no prior agreement, no rules arguments, and no one really tried to win. We just rolled up with as much as we had on two giant teams, and then tweaked it so the forces were well matched before the game began. And then it was hours and hours of yelling and creating scenes and dramatic fights and admiring each other’s painted figures.

I once went with my dad to play a real, adult wargame with my friend’s father. I was sixteen. My friend’s dad invited my dad because he was an army officer, and he thought he would like the game. My friend’s dad was a librarian. When we got there he had loads of Napoleonic models, and he explained the rules and he and dad started playing while I watched. Dad frowned, and leaned over the table, and then cheerfully beat the guy. The guy suggested another scenario and dad beat him again. Then they switched games and dad beat him again. My dad, as well as being an army officer, is one of the smartest people I have ever met and he never loses anything. I could sense that my friend’s dad was irritated and a bit frustrated, but he was a grown-up so he tried not to show it. They shook hands at the end and he showed us out, looking a bit sullen but acting friendly enough. I wondered if this was how adults played wargames. There was no magic and they frowned and tried to beat each other.

When I sat on that rooftop I wondered if I would ever play Warhammer again. I couldn’t see how I would. I’d given my army to one of my brother’s friends for safekeeping but I knew it was more than that. And I couldn’t imagine scraping another army together. It had taken me years of effort to collect and paint the one I had. I was fine with the idea of never playing again that day. I felt as though my friends must be right, and that these games were a fragile childhood experience; one that was too fragile to bring with me into the future.

I didn’t know that the future would hold the internet, and smart phones, and the eternal exchange of information and opinion, and that the small worlds of the Old World and the Imperium would be too small for future people, and they’d inflate them and explain them and cast light into every shadow. I didn’t know that I’d be lonely and sad and I’d try and play again five years later, and find that there were no more kids gleefully immersing themselves in forbidden lore. Or at least, it didn’t feel like it. Even the kids were frowning and trying to beat each other, and adults complained about how it wasn’t how it used to be. Of course it wasn’t; the whole world was different. The Games Workshop didn’t seem to be a bunch of vaguely creepy weirdoes handing down dark, carnivalesque concoctions anymore. They now seemed a little out of their depth, catering to a huge industry of people who, unlike me, had never let go for a second. People who had grown with the game from childhood and dragged it into adulthood, and they – and the game with them – had become cleaner. Straighter. Squarer.

Well, Games Workshop were still odd.  But not in the same way. I went for a job with them and was embarrassed when they asked me to name a Hollywood actress whose bathwater I would drink. I told them I hadn’t expected that question, and that I had a girlfriend. Then they insisted. I had to pretend I had no girlfriend, and answer the question. I said Jessica Alba and left wondering what the hell had happened. I didn’t get the job. I suppose I’d grown up too, in some ways. Soon afterwards I met a guy at the pub who used to work for them and he said I had “dodged a bullet” and was lucky I hadn’t “drunk the Kool-Aid.”

The world got bigger and the people got smarter and better at everything. Everyone worked out by consensus the correct way to play games. You tried to be good at them, of course. You tried to break them and win them, as a friendly battle of wits. Obviously. And I remember the crazed lawless Warhammer we used to play, where we knew the rules and followed them but no one was really fighting each other. It just genuinely never occurred to any of us that being the best in our group at winning was important. And I wonder if a kid who is obsessed with strange worlds today can ever sit on his roof and pretend his town is Marienburg. Or will he just go online and gossip to a bunch of experts about strategy instead?

It’s really true; you can’t go back. Even a million of us, a billion of us, can’t hold back time. Because we change, and so everything changes with us, and nothing can ever be the same. The games I used to play are as gone as the world I lived in when I sat on my parents’ roof, because they were in that world.

I don’t want to stop my ears and pretend I’m still a child in a world long passed. I’m glad that I can remember being that kid on the roof though. I think remembering is enough and anyway, it’s all we get.

19 thoughts on “No going back

  1. kaptainvon says:

    I have no words.

    I think I’m just going to sit here and hum the Last Post instead, and I might pretend I’m a Guardsman while I do it.

  2. thuloid says:

    Usually I try not to think about all the worlds I’ve left behind. I encountered D&D young, because I had a much older brother who played. There’s still a romance for me in the old books and modules, but half of that is my brother, whom I don’t have anymore.

    My first steps in that direction were as a little boy on an American air base in northern Japan. No way to get back there–even if I visit, literally every person I knew is gone. Same applies for bases in Arizona and North Dakota. I don’t know anybody in those places–they are where I once lived, but just shells.

    Can’t go back to college, where I took up Warhammer. It was always fluff and rules together for me–I was introduced to the game by an unrepentant powergamer (who still is)–but a powergamer who loved models and fluff. Now he’s a banker who rarely has time to game, but dearly wishes he did.

    Most everyone I knew in Germany is gone from there; I have a few left in Los Angeles. No one there in Virginia, either. Some family in northern Minnesota, in a place I’ve never lived, and more than a few friends in Minneapolis–but that’s recent vintage.

    It’s hard for me to enjoy a place now like I once did. I don’t even really know my own neighborhood. In gaming, too, it’s hard to feel the same connection. Of late I feel drawn toward historicals–they feel right for where I am now, but also connected to the land. This is the oldest inland city in the United States. Now that my imagination has dried up and blown away, maybe I need that help.

    • beat ronin says:

      I am the same Adam. I try to live in the now generally. I have found myself with a lot of time on my hands lately though, and some old feelings have risen to the surface. I thought that it was time I faced them and tried to make something emotive and pretty out of them.

      As you know I’ve been moving more towards historical games too, and I find myself enjoying historical novels a lot more than the fantasy that has always been such a part of my life. I’m not sure what to make of that yet, besides observing that life moves on and we all change inevitably, sometimes despite ourselves.

  3. Dragons_Claw says:

    Nostalgia is a double edged sword to be sure remembering the good times is always going to bring inevitable comparisons to your current situation and even the most pessimistic people edit the past with rose tinted spectacles

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey Joe, yeah I enjoyed looking back and putting some of my fond memories in order, and working out where things changed. Like you said it can hurt too, and the reason I even wrote this is probably something to do with my current employment situation.

      I feel positive though. Writing this has definitely made me feel better, not worse. I think because I came at it as a piece of (semi) fiction rather than trying to make a point.

  4. The Warlock says:

    Nostalgia is just that- it tugs our heartstrings something fierce as we look back and wish we could relive, but we can’t.

    Kids of the future will still look up at the sky and stare wistfully at it- it’s too big to ignore 😛 They’ll stare up and wonder about aliens, planets “what’s out there” and maybe some will dream about starfighters. Equally though, kids these days are even more tech-savvy then us so I’m not sure. I hope some will look up at the sky and dream about saving a princess onboard a ginormous space station from the clutches of an evil space wizard with asthma or something to that effect. Some will definitely sit on roofs and pretend to be someone else, others will run about with wooden sticks and towel-capes pretending to fight baddies.

    On the warhammer side of your post, I think fantasy still has some of its charm- Nothing else like throwing down everything and adjusting for equality. 40k, well, 40k seems more about CRUSHING YOUR OPPONENT INTO THE DUST AND SUPPING THEIR TEARS OF DESPAIR AS YOU REEL IN ALL THE GIRLS than about the fun it used to be. I have both the 3rd and 6th rulebooks, and the 3rd is more emotive. The style of the book, the narrative is present and master-forged unlike the staid and tm’d 6th. With this, it feels like everything is catering to the lowest common denominator and the people who truly care lose out on the quality. For example, well, shooter games (’nuff said).

    I want to say more on this, but as per usual cannot explain the emotive response.

    Ha, I’m gonna go look through some old rulebooks now 😛

    • beat ronin says:

      You’re probably right Pete. You can’t stop a kid from being a kid, I know that from looking at my son. I just hope that all the amazing social tech we have now (and into the future) doesn’t make it too hard to keep being a kid.

      It’s almost like we can be kids forever in one way – it’s socially OK for grown-ups to openly play games like this these days – but in another way we grow up really fast. With all the adults playing kids games, the kids have to adapt and I think with wargames for example, there isn’t much place for kids to muck about like kids. My brother-in-law is twelve, and I saw he and his mates start playing 40k the way I used to, and quit within a year because a couple of them went online and researched strategies and army lists so they could stomp the others and they all got quickly bored.

      I’m not saying that when I was a kid we wouldn’t have done that. But we didn’t because we couldn’t.

  5. Knight of Infinite Resignation says:

    I lament the end of the weirdness of early 40K and Fantasy. D100 mutation tables, Sensei etc… It all got a bit sensible, more ‘normal’ and formulaic. Shame really, but I have the old editions to read.

    • beat ronin says:

      Yeah. To me it seems as though when Games Workshop really took off and exploded into the empire we have today, I began to feel that they stopped being subversive, deviant oddballs and became just plain old fantasy dorks.

      I mentioned in the story that I went for a job at a GW store in about 2001. I couldn’t believe that Rick Priestley and Andy Chambers and Jon Blanche had spawned these stores manned by guys in uniforms, with short hair, who snickered about drinking girls’ bathwater. It didn’t seem to fit to me. I was probably totally wrong about the tone of the company all along: I was a kid in another country after all. But it fazed me a bit to find someone else where I expected kindred spirits to be.

  6. beat ronin says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for reading, everyone. To be honest I didn’t really have a point to make when I decided to tell this story. I suppose I just wanted to express my feelings. I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, and I wanted to write something to get my emotions out a bit. Because games were such a huge part of my childhood and adolescence, this is what came out.

    I do think it’s interesting though that so many people write so much every day about the games in our lives, but it’s nearly always humorous, or straight talking editorial. I have strong emotions about these things, and I wanted to express them truthfully. So I decided to write a story because that’s the best way I know to get across facts, points of view, memories and emotions all in one go.

    It wasn’t really meant to be a comment on Games Workshop, or the old versus the new, or even nostalgia. It just is what it is. But I am sincerely happy that you all were able to take those things from it.

  7. sinsynn says:

    What an amazing, bittersweet post.
    It’s kind of weird for me cuz I didn’t grow up gaming- I only got into this crazy thing not so many years ago, so I tend to look more forwards than back. I’ve never harbored a desire to win. I kinda just wanna make laser sounds and have a laugh.
    I’m excited for the new edition of Infinity. I can’t wait for my Raging Heroes figs to arrive. I just started building my superheavy tank for 40k, and it’s ridiculously cool.
    There are things I regret the effects of time on, like the NYHC (New York Hard Core) scene- I miss CBGB’s and the old Ritz. I miss demo tapes and hyper violent mosh pits…
    Nah, you can’t go back.
    That just means I’ll hafta go forward.
    Great post, man.

    • beat ronin says:

      Thanks, sinsynn. That means a lot. And sorry for the slow reply.

      I think you know exactly the picture I was trying to paint, from what you said about the NYHC scene. I’m guessing that was in the 90s? It’s sort of unsettling when you see a community or something that you were a part of evolve so that the name and the basic idea is the same, but everything else is different. You feel loyalty, but also like you are an unwanted piece of the past world, and it reminds you of how long ago you started out in that scene and all the energy and promise.

      Man, I am really excited for new Infinity 🙂 I can’t wait for a clean new edition where I can try and start again with my painted models, because actually playing never came off much for me in the current edition. As soon as I heard, I went to the second hand bookshop and sold my old books; got a good price for them too. So now I have a head start on the cost of the new edition.

      Here’s to going forward then!

  8. Bush Craft says:

    Hmmmm. Haven’t been nostalgic about gaming, but have had it hard lately for my younger years. Potential retirement in ten years (if I stay in the service) and the resulting pension has had my mind wandering to moving back to the small seaside town I grew up in and just watching the years go by. But it’s changed, I’m sure of it. The house I grew up in was bulldozed but still shows up in Google Maps. Dunno for how much longer, but it makes me…not sad, something else. But whatever the feeling is, you put it on paper here.

    • beat ronin says:

      The house I grew up in is still there, but it’s totally different. All the stuff my mum did has been repainted. They’ve made an extension over our backyard where this huge oak used to be.

      It’s kind of spooky how much the world changes, even when it doesn’t seem like it while you’re in it. Lot’s of little changes add up. I feel amazed when I think of how much my grandma saw. Born into a world with horses and carts; served in WWII; died in a world with satellite mobile phones and Skype.

  9. kaptainvon says:

    Actually… after reading through all these comments, I think I do have something, after all.

    You’re right. The world changes, and people change, and things develop. The games developers have long hair and wear their DMs to shareholders’ meetings, but the staff wear polo shirts and talk seriously of target-driven environments (or drinking girls’ bathwater – for real? Fortunately most of my GW branches have had female staff and regulars – one or two, but enough to keep the mouth-breathers in line).

    We slide gracefully from the modern to the postmodern. It’s fashionable, these days, to sneer at ‘Tom Kirby’s short-sighted, misogynistic Eighties vision of the grimdark apocalypse’ – I think that’s what was said in commentary to a post of mine, words to that effect at least – and while it’s true that each of those things in its own right is something which warrants at least a questioning eyebrow, it’s also true that there’s a sense of vision and craft there, a sense that the worlds were put together by people who knew the shape and texture of real history and literature and art, filtered that through a barking-mad outsider sensibility and – and this is the IMPORTANT part, so pay attention at the back there and wipe your tentacles while you’re at it – were doing it for an audience that could be relied upon to catch it.

    As late as the mid-Nineties, when I came in, Citadel scenery was crap and White Dwarf regularly ran articles on how to build crashed spaceships out of toilet parts and cityscapes out of that polystyrene stuff that the metal kit boxes came with. I never built the spaceship, but I did build the cityscape. It was ugly, but it looked chunkier than the cardboard terrain you got in the starter kits.

    That’s another thing. Decent terrain in the starter kits. The idea that a starter kit would actually START YOU OFF. I’ll get back to that.

    The point is… I don’t know what the point is. It’s something about Termite Art, which as Lawrence Miles and I have both noted, is the art of Found Things – interesting things that you pick up in the world outside and put on your gaming table and go “right, how do I make you fit in here”. My first terrain was made out of florists’ wire and masking tape and rocks I found on the beach. These days, your first terrain is likely to be an injection-moulded hunk of plastic with a GW (c) logo on the underside. It’ll look STONKING, admittedly, but it’s evidence of something; a corporate brand that’s closed its gates, and is saying “don’t go out there, it’s dangerous, we’ve got everything you need right here.” It’s the same with the background. Mat Ward isn’t a crap writer because he has no sense of how to string a sentence together for pleasing effect (that’s why Nick Kyme’s crap, or at least why his editor is), he’s a crap writer because his sense of story and world is so overwhelmingly rooted in a previous generation of GW output.

    We’re starting to see it with D&D now – a generation who didn’t grow up reading around the genre and even OUTSIDE the genre from time to time, but a generation who grew up reading within the tie-ins, a generation to whom R. A. Salvatore is a great writer and not a fucking hack, a generation which celebrates Doug “look, you can see the game mechanics!” Seacat (who is at least an extraordinarily dedicated and creative world-smith, as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke, so the tepidity of his writing can for the most part be overlooked as long as people don’t try to tell me he’s brilliant).

    Now… now we’re seeing that generation producing material for kids who don’t even read, who can’t reliably find Russia and Germany on a world map, never mind catch on to how the Battle for Armageddon is the Second World War refought in the forty-first millennium, who haven’t been TAUGHT to catch on to things like that (and don’t think I blame GW for that – my thoughts on the foul education system in the UK, to which I’ve been a prisoner for all but twelve ghastly months of my life, could fill a lifetime) – but then, the writers wouldn’t think to do something like that in the first place, since Armageddon is cool to them because it’s the Battle for Armageddon and not because you can see the stitches.

    Miles again: something has taught us to see slickness as quality and evidence of craftsmanship as anathema to it, hence the rise of that painting style that erases all evidence of a human hand having been involved in producing this small representative object, hence the downfall of Termite Art and rewriting every story you’ve ever read into your game setting and doing things intelligently for an audience who are – you hope – going to read you intelligently and not wait, like the shit-eating glass-eyed vacuous continuity-fiends who take your every word as gospel and wouldn’t know an unreliable narrator or an unresolved situation if it bit them on the ass.

    The worst – or perhaps the best – part is that we’re not quite there yet. We live in a world where China Mieville and Steven Moffat can both win awards. What worries me is that the worlds I love are in the hands of people who don’t read Mieville, because he hasn’t done anything for the Black Library yet.

    “Post-modernism is born of culture which is at best a mere representation of another, which has lost ambition for itself and the world. It has no sense of the future and cannot make sense of the past. It’s born of an ignorance of the past which prevents it from having any sense of the future, so it looks (blindly) backwards and ends up in that permanent now-ness which is so gratefully embraced by those in need of an excuse. They will sneer at any consumer who gets fed up with the joke, and they have nothing but contempt for those too benighted to get the joke in the first place.”

    — Andrew Eldritch

    I’m not even drunk.

    • beat ronin says:

      Not drunk – just got the fire in the head?

      I think you said that very well. So did Andrew Eldritch; that whole quote is almost too apt with regard to Games Workshop’s settings as they are today.

      To me the settings now are basically worthless. I haven’t “felt it” for a long time, and that’s no-one’s fault, it’s just a thing. They’ve been post-modernised, in the sense of the Eldritch quote, and you can’t go back to when they were alive because… you just can’t.

      Even though I was born after modernity had already begun to die, I am temperamentally attracted to creative works that are intense, and bold and alive. The replacements we have for a sense of authenticity and value in our narratives (cleverness, awareness of fashions and references) lack humanity and viscera to me, and after a while make me feel bitter over how small we have become as people. I feel like Elric in Stormbringer when he travels across time and the further in the future he goes, the paler and less vital the colours are. That’s not to say a feeling of cultural authenticity is better morally or something. Just simpler. More powerful and more human.

      • kaptainvon says:

        Yeah. Exactly. I’ll catch her one day.

        I don’t feel that the settings are worthless; I feel that I have to drive farther into them to find worth, perhaps go farther than it’s worth going. I’m not kidding when I say I could – circumstances permitting – sit down and write a 40K novel this November. What I suspect I couldn’t do is write a 40K novel that anyone born this century would want to read – assuming that we’re even trying to sell this shit to the kids any more. I haven’t seen a wargamer under the age of consent in years.

        The City of the Autumn Stars is out there, but I think you have to go mad to get there. Once you’ve broken through there’s no talking back, not directly. If we’re going to compare ourselves to Moorcock characters, I feel like Libussa; everything makes SENSE now, but everyone else who’s driven enough to see it sees something different, and the rest of the world looks at me like I’ve gone mad.

        It’s not fashionable to care, these days.

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