September 27, 2008

Mad Mazing

I’ve been a computer geek from the beginning. By 5th grade I was screwing around with BASIC on computers that displayed eye-blinding green type (or sometimes orange) on tiny screens. I remember getting a TRS-80 color computer one Christmas and being thrilled—this baby ran programs off cassettes—yeah, audio cassettes!—and I upgraded it from 8k to 32k. That’s RAM. Not megabytes, but 32k!

Back in the early 1980s (probably 1983 or 1984) my family was selected as a test family for a service called Videotext. We were a perfect test family, I suppose: two boys and a girl, two parents, two grandparents, all in one house. For about 6 months we got the service free and we answered some questions and did survey interviews about it. We were told that about 200 families in New Jersey had the system.

Videotext was like a primitive Internet, for its day. We could send simple notes (pre- e-mail) to other users, get weather and news, and submit letters to online advice columns. Aside from checking the weather and news, which I did every day, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the system … until Madmaze came along.

Madmaze was a 3-D style maze game. You navigated a graphic maze, and every so often you came to a drawn location, such as a castle, that had an associated riddle. If you answered the riddle, you continued. The only riddle I remember is: “Name a Rodgers and Hammerstein play named after a state” (Oklahoma). My brother and I became addicted. Before long, we—via our screennames—were listed in the Top 10 players. We soon we moving through the maze so fast that we began running into unfinished sections, and we were invited via “e-mail” to help debug the game by provided reports of bugs and unfinished areas. Every evening at 7-o-clock I sat down and ran the gauntlet for about an hour. This was way before Wolfenstein 3D and the Atari system had only been out a few years; this was new, exciting stuff.

Eventually the test period of Videotext was growing to a close. My brother and I, enjoying the personal competition, strove to finish the maze before each other … and anyone else. The last week was a mad dash to the finish, as the hallways of the maze grew steadily weirder (they had begun as brick or clay and now had glowing electrodes in them). Then it was over. My brother finished first, another player called ElBandito finished second, and I finished third—mere points apart. Curse you ElBandito!

As his prize for coming in first, my brother won a poster-sized print of the screen location of his choice, signed by the digital artist. My brother, knowing I knew the locations better and wanting to share his prize, let me choose. It was easy; after briefly considering the Haunted House I chose the Castle (big surprise, eh?). We indeed received our print (which sadly is now long gone) and it adorned our bedroom wall for a time. Soon thereafter the system was removed from our house and we heard little more about it, though it seems the test helped lay the groundwork for the Prodigy online system.

Historical notes: Internet searches lead me to believe that Videotex (no t) was the name of our service, but I remember it being Videotext, dammit! Greg Costikyan (designer of the West End Games’ Paranoid RPG, among other things) developed a Madmaze game for Prodigy in 1989, but this is not the game we played. Some screenshots of this latter game are labeled Madmaze II, so I have to assume that we played an earlier or prototype version (call it Madmaze I or perhaps Zero).

So what’s the moral here? Not much, except to share memories of my first online dungeon. Later adventures in the computer realm would follow: Ultima III and IV, Wolfenstein, etc., but few captured that excitement of exploring Madmaze.

September 09, 2008

Back from the Con

I wanted to post this earlier, but alas, life has been busy! This month has found me happily writing the hours away, and both my personal and professional lives have gotten busier with various things—including a baby on the way!

A week before the Con, the same day I launched a new 4e campaign (more of an experiment I hope to expand with more players later), I took a bad fall and ended up badly tearing the ligaments in my foot (and possibly breaking bones as well, possible MRI to come). My foot promptly changed all shades of blue, and my orthopedic surgeon happily pronounced it the worst sprain he had seen in recent memory. I ditched the crutches a day before flying out, but still needed a cane for support (oh the humanity).

Our flight to Indy was Turbulence City and twice the plane dropped and shook -- after the second drop I turned to face my now dead-awake seat-mate who stared at me plate-eyed and said, "That was disconcerting!" So much for good beginnings! (They say bad things come in threes, and last week a neighbor backed out of her driveway right into my car. Crash. The car of course wouldn't have been there except I can't currently drive because of my foot ... sigh. So I figure foot–flight–crash makes three!)

The Con was hectic but fun. The Goodman Games/Troll Lords party was a hoot, replete with old RPG war stories told by veterans. I finally had the pleasure to meet the unique energy avatar that is Harley Stroh, and I totally failed my Fortitude save versus his infamous bear hug. The Slippery Noodle was my kind of place, replete with blues music (I jocked my own blues show for 5 years on public radio).

Friday night we stormed the ENnies, our toasting glasses filled with Whiterock soda at the ready. I was disappointed (to put it mildly) that we didn't get the gold, as I feel our entries were all incredibly deserving. Such is life. Castle Whiterock did take Silver for cartography (congrats Jeremy!) and that's no mean feat. Next year is ours, just wait...

Highlights of this trip included working the Goodman Games booth, which is one of the few times I actually have the pleasure of interacting with our customers. The Con also puts me into contact with some folks I don't get to see all that often, as well as my GG East regulars Ken Hart and Adrian Pommier. (Top marks to Blackdirge for still managing to stoke my interest in swordfighting mere minutes after hearing my broken thumb story. And no, I'm not dueling you next year, dude!) Amy & I spent part of an afternoon over at the Indiana Museum and got to see the Jack Kerouac scroll, which was very cool.

Friday I also got some shopping in, of course. My acquisitions included:

  • All the Goodman Games 4e modules

  • Dice I really don’t need

  • D&D figures I really don’t need

  • Some neat mini terrain pieces and crates made from used tires

  • Delta Green: Eyes Only (Chaosium)

  • Dragon magazines # 296, 297, & 298

  • FR2: Moonshae by Douglas Niles (TSR)

  • X8: Drums on Fire Mountain (TSR)

  • The latest issue of Kobold Quarterly

  • A dice bag decorated with a bow-wielding nymph

  • F3: Crystal Skull (Necromancer)

  • Some Cthulhu car stickers

Saturday night was the GG seminar "How to Write Adventures That Don't Suck" and it was a blast. Our esteemed panel included Joseph Goodman, Harley Stroh, Ken Hart, Jeff LaSala, Brendan LaSalle, Adrian Pommier, and Luke Johnson, talented folks all. We had a friendly, intelligent crowd and there were some good questions. As usual, I was shy until I opened my mouth, but the front row stayed awake and I got the sense the seminar was well received.

Sunday I walked a couple blocks down to catch the GG tournament-in-progress, to see if my Round Three creations were proving suitably deadly. Later I got to the GG booth just as the last of the trophies were being handed out (at this point my foot was pretty much shot, and my Speed was down to a 2-square rating). Congrats to the victors, the Blood Kings!

It was a good time. I talked with good people, was reminded that I work with an incredible group of guys and gals, and I held to my promise of getting my hands on some Indiana BBQ ribs (at both the Ram and Rock Bottom). Here's to next year!

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