Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Claim the Crown of Command!

Every eighteen months or so the old fever comes back into simmer, triggered by a book rediscovered in clutter-clearing, a casually nostalgic conversation, a heavy-metal album cover. This time, it’s sixty-odd-dollar lunch-hour impulse purchase that’s relit the fire under my affection for tabletop fantasy role-playing in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular; the gently-used hardback Monster Manual sitting casually on the toilet tank, the Player’s Handbook seductively arranged on the coffee table, the mysterious Dungeon Master’s Guide perched on the lectern of my bedside box.

Mind filled with the old familiar magic words and names of power--saving throw; displacer beast; prismatic wall; gelatinous cube--I spend my days in a state of wild fantasy, of dreams beyond possibility. Not dreaming of stalking bloody-bladed through corridors of death, or of charming a Duchess of the Realm with a preternaturally glib tongue, but of something more fantastic: of sitting around a table in the late afternoon, prepared and confident, with a group of relatively sober and attentive friends and colleagues, getting down to playing some rewarding D&D. It’s a vision almost too lovely to bear.

Word’s got out that I’ve been thinking subterranean thoughts again and the usual suspects have expressed their usual interest, most of them knowing not to get their hopes up. The old student days of spacious days and bachelor nights are gone, and the leisure-time-consuming work of building a campaign–just say ‘No’ to boxed adventures and off-the shelf settings!–and then reconciling the nine-dimensional schedule of a five-player group seems daunting to the point of tears. I do feel sorry for my oilpatch engineer buddy, the one bright-eyed hopeful; he’s gone both-feet with this one, spending his endless hours of Haliburton-hotel downtime swimming in the numbers and charts and modifiers of D&D’s internal kabbalah. I doubt his meticulously spreadsheeted custom Ranger class will ever see the roll of a die.

Of course, even back in the carefree college years of skipped/dropped classes and not much better to do there were times when we needed a relatively quick fantasy fix and the commitment of a full game was out of the question. It’s in these occasions that the fantasy board-game genre found its market, and might just find it again. From the simplistic plodding of the old TSR-produced Dungeon!–an elementary-school favorite–through a massive modern abominations like the World of Warcraft tabletop game, these boxed wonders supplythe animal pleasures of a role-playing game–constant combat dice-rolling, avaricious gathering of imaginary riches–without the argument-resolving hours of leafing through Bible-thick rulebooks and the frustrating cat-herding inherent in collaborative storytelling with a bunch of narcissistic nerds. And of these games, the undisputed champ is Games Workshop’s Talisman.

The Talisman high concept for the non-nerd layman: Dungeons & Dragons meets Monopoly. As in Monopoly, players roll dice to circle a board, facing fickle fate as random cards are drawn, until one player has become heavy enough to crush the rest… except instead of a boot or a flatiron or whatever, you’re a Barbarian or Wizard or one of countless other fantasy weirdoes, each with their own especially fantastic way of bending the rules. It can’t be said that Talisman was a really good game–it was too random, too unbalanced and usually too long–but it was fun. We played it for hours upon hours, bloated it up with countless expansion sets, took it up to the barroom of RATT and played a liver-wrecking drinking-game version until we couldn’t see the board. The last edition of Talisman was released 13 years ago; quality copies of this geek touchstone auction for hundreds of dollars, a price I could never justify.

This week, though, just as my D&D despair was at its darkest, Talisman reappeared to me in all its shining, pointless glory. First, it was announced that videogame developer Capcom was preparing a multiplayer, online version of the game for release on XBox Live Arcade later this year, and via that announcement I heard that a new tabletop edition was being readied for October. The importance of this news to a certain type of gamer of a certain age can’t be overstated–imagine, I don’t know… a Fleetwood Mac reunion? A new Dallas series? A Beastmaster sequel? It’s going to be awesome.

I ought to feel bad about feeling sort of OK about the possibility of once again setting aside my plans for a politically charged northern-wilderness indigenous-elves-versus-human-developers Dungeons & Dragons campaign, for once again faking out my sphere of fantasy-friendly hosers. But now that Talisman’s coming back, I know that just around the corner of the year lies an afternoon or two of tabletop fantasy. It won’t be the full role-playing experience I crave and will never stop craving, but it’ll be what Talisman always was: an evocative facsimile that dulls the pangs, magical methadone.

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