In this moving excerpt from her new book, Lizzie Stark brings us the story of two boys growing up in the world of role-playing games.
The following is an excerpt from Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live-Action Role Playing Games, by Lizzie Stark.
Once upon a time, there was a tall, broad man named Dave Stern, who loved his two boys, Gene and Renny, very much. Each night, Dave would tuck his boys into their bunk beds, sit in their darkened room, and tell them a bedtime story. He rarely read the stories out of a book; rather, he spun tales that his sons were part of. Gene, who was around five, became Garth the Strong, a fighter in armor that gleamed, while Renny, who was three years older, became the great wizard Ralphard. Garth and Ralphard went on many adventures together. They battled orcs and goblins, sought treasure, and saved a princess. Dave described the surroundings in which Ralphard and Garth found themselves and allowed them to describe back to him what they were doing. Mythology, medieval fantasy, and fairy tales inspired Dave. Garth and Ralphard had Lord of the Rings moments, when they fought alongside the Riders of Rohan, and Hansel and Gretel moments, although unlike the titular children, the two boys had a chance to attack the evil witch with swords. Sometimes the boys helped Hercules, who starred in their favorite show, defeat Ares’s most evil monster.
Dave Stern was a practiced storyteller who routinely GMed Dungeons & Dragons for his friends, and he used his storytelling ability to teach his sons morals and problem-solving skills. Gene and Renny vividly remember the time that Ralphard and Garth encountered a man holding a scroll in the middle of the road. The man declared that with this scroll, he’d control Garth and Ralphard’s hometown. As was their custom, Ralphard and Garth attacked the man, destroying him and his scroll. When they returned home, they saw it had been pillaged and burnt. Evidently, the scroll had contained the man’s master plans for taking over the village, and if Garth and Ralphard had talked to the man, instead of killing him, they might have been able to acquire the scroll and prevent this destruction. The lesson that unthinking violence is not the solution to all problems stuck with both of them.
As Renny and Gene grew older, the bedtime stories became bedtime adventures. Dave would arrive in their bedroom with papers, dice, and figurines and would run them through short scenarios. The boys knew what to do with each of these items, since they’d watched their father play Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. The papers, emblazoned with a form, served as their character sheets and contained lists of numerical attributes called statistics, which had been randomly generated with dice and controlled what a character was able to do. Their special skills and equipment were also written down on the sheet, along with any items they found during adventures. The various dice were used in conjunction with the character sheet to determine whether their characters overcame a challenge, such as climbing a cliff or swinging a sword at a monster. The inch-high figurines were used during combat to visualize logistics, with a tiny Garth and Ralphard standing against one or more tiny monsters.
These latter-day bedtime games were not quite as complex as fullblown Dungeons & Dragons but were a step up from the bedtime stories, and they taught the boys the basics of how to role-play. Of course, their father said, if they wanted to play the real Dungeons & Dragons, they would have to read the rule book. Both boys couldn’t wait to play D&D, thanks to their bedtime games and because they idolized their father as the greatest man alive. They wanted to be like him. Since Renny was older, he was able to read the rule books for himself first. Soon, Dave and Renny began to play together at various sci-fi and gaming conventions.
Conventions were a fixture of life in the Stern household. They frequented many conventions in the tri-state area, but chief among these was Lunacon, a large annual New York convention celebrating the science fiction genre. Lunacon had many attractions, including panels with authors and artists on them, an art gallery, a room for watching anime, and a large dealers’ room where conventioneers could purchase costuming, books, toys, and many other items. On the fringes of the convention there was a small area for playing games: role-playing games, board games, and card games, which Dave and his wife, a card and board gaming enthusiast, ran. As the joke went, Renny started attending Lunacon as a toddler, while Gene attended his first convention in utero.
Aside from Lunacon, the family attended the yearly series of gaming conventions run in their home state of New Jersey by Double Exposure, as well as several other local conventions. Most of these conventions had one thing in common: RPGA games. The RPGA, the Role-Playing Gamers Association, is a group backed by the publisher of the Dungeons & Dragons books, and it allowed players to take their characters from game to game at numerous conventions. The RPGA track offered a couple four-hour slots, with breaks during each day of a convention. During each slot, several short adventures, called modules or mods, would run, and players could pick among them. Only the official rules, as written in the Dungeons & Dragons rule books, were allowed. “Homebrew” rules, rules that a GM might bend, say, when he was running a game at home, were not permitted. To Renny’s delight, most of the players were adults, and as a kid, he thought it was cool to play this grown-up pretend. At conventions, Renny and his father often adventured on the RPGA track in all three slots, gaming for up to twelve hours. It was their alternative to playing catch in the backyard.
When Gene became old enough to understand the rules, around age ten, he joined Dave and Renny, and they all played D&D together at conventions while their mother was off board gaming. At one point, the three created and played a distinguished family of elves, called the Silverhairs, which served as an in-game proxy for their familial relationship.
As the boys grew older, gaming became an incentive. In the evenings, Dave would ask his sons whether they wanted to play later, and when they inevitably said yes, he’d say, “Finish your homework and we’ll see what happens.” If they were done early enough, they’d get a game before bed.
When Gene was in middle school and Renny in high school, they embarked on an era of exploration via the local hobby shop in Sayreville, New Jersey. Every Wednesday, they went to the shop and tried out different games, set in a whole variety of worlds—fantasy worlds, space worlds, dystopian future worlds. The games they tried also had different types of rules systems, systems that relied on different types of dice rolls and different sets of statistics. Not only did they find a favorite—a game set in the gothic Wild West called Deadlands—they also made friends, and Dave sometimes ran games for his sons and their buddies at the shop.
Gene and Renny spent a great deal of time observing how their father worked as a GM and learning from him. Dave could keep the rules in his head, and he thought well in the heat of the moment. If players decided to depart from the plot he’d planned, he never railroaded them back on course but created something wonderful and interesting on the spur of the moment. Whether he was in-game or at a party, Dave told stories that people wanted to listen to—he had a quick wit and a confidence in himself that shone through when he was in the GM seat. At poker, he mastered the slow game, staying quietly in the background, watching his opponents until the last minute, when he often took the hand. He worked as an administrator for a paper company, but he captivated that hobby shop all by himself. He was definitely the cool dad.
In 1998 a puffy-haired, chubby Renny entered high school. He didn’t have many friends. One day in the cafeteria, a goofy-looking kid with a ponytail, shaved sideburns, and a spindly adolescent beard walked up and introduced himself to Renny. His name was Francis Martinez, and he’d noticed Renny building a deck for the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Soon Renny was asking Francis, whom everyone called Frank, if he’d ever played Dungeons & Dragons. They spent lunchtime the rest of that week rolling up a character for Frank, and after school he played Dungeons & Dragons in a campaign with Renny and a couple of his friends, including Jason Michaeli, who also frequented the hobby shop and who would become a regular with them on the gaming circuit.
Frank didn’t have a father in his life, since his parents had had a falling out when he was an infant. A rotating cast of uncles lived with him and his mother, some on a permanent basis and some temporarily. Dave ended up filling the dad-shaped hole in Frank’s life. They first met during a Deadlands game Dave ran at the hobby shop, a perfect four-hour adventure about a runaway train, but soon their relationship deepened. Frank and Renny rode the same bus home from school and became inseparable, with Frank spending many afternoons at the Stern household. He began to look up to Dave and talked to him about girl trouble, schoolwork, and issues at home. Dave’s advice, Frank says, was matter-of-fact wisdom delivered from a sage or yogi. He trusted Dave’s word absolutely. Dave handled problems coolly and logically, Frank noticed, unlike his own family, which seemed quick to make decisions and fly off the handle. From Frank’s perspective, Dave also radiated happiness. He talked to Frank about how much he enjoyed being a father and the pleasure he took in gaming, how if he had these two things, his sons and his freedom to game, he didn’t need much more. Frank began to model his own way of thinking on Dave, and Dave treated him as a son.
Dave took Frank to conventions along with his sons. Money was tight around Frank’s house—his family scraped together money to pay for his convention tickets, with a little left over for a souvenir. If Frank couldn’t afford admission to a convention, Dave would pay for it. If the family went out to eat, Frank came, too, and Dave paid. Dave made a steady, if modest, salary, and he managed his money well enough to afford these outings.
One year at Lunacon, Gene, Frank, and Dave were cruising the dealers’ room when they found a man making belts. He’d cut a strip of leather to order right there, punch holes in it, and attach the buckle of your choice. Gene and Frank really wanted belts. Gene had his eye on a tan one stamped with dragons, while Frank wanted a plain, sturdy black one but couldn’t afford the twenty-odd dollars it cost. Dave bought a belt for Gene and then turned to Frank and said, “I’m buying you that belt.” Frank followed Dave down the hall, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” That kind of thing never happened to Frank, people buying him things just to be nice. For Frank, it was a big deal. He wore the belt for six or seven years until it stretched out. He still uses it to bind up his larping equipment.
Dave may have been a wonderful father, but he wasn’t a great husband. After Renny graduated from high school, he and the boys’ mother divorced. In the boys’ eyes, their father had been the understanding, fun parent, while their mother had been the disciplinarian, the one to make sure they got to appointments on time and did their homework. Gene and Renny had a closer relationship with their father, and the young Gene blamed his mother, unjustly, he says, for the divorce. He and Renny elected to live with their father and rarely saw their mother for years afterward.
The Stern men were not yet larpers, although they’d been around larp for some time at Lunacon and the Double Exposure conventions. Gene first tried the Avatar System when he was ten. At that age, he says, he didn’t understand the rules and probably cheated a lot. His game play consisted of getting Nexus Credits from his family, who earned them playing other convention games, and then spending those credits at the in-game bazaar on fabulous magic items. Years later, at age fourteen, Gene returned to the game as Vegeta, a character from the anime cartoon Dragon Ball Z, a sort of bratty teenage boy who thought he was the best at everything. Gene says the character reflected who he was at the time—a jerky teenager in and out of game. He developed an in-game rivalry with George Pereira, a man in his mid-thirties who played the head of House Ares, the war-like house, and the two quickly became friends out-of-game. The Avatar System also reinforced Gene’s relationship with Jason Michaeli, who frequented the hobby shop and went to high school with Renny. Jason, a tall, thin man with long blond hair and an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of any game, played a character named Cappy Zoom, and forever after his nickname has been Cappy. Soon Frank joined the Avatar System, and after much persuasion, Renny joined as well. Even Dave Stern dipped in his toe. And they were hooked.
Cappy persuaded Gene, George, and the rest of the hobby shop crew to try out a new space-cowboy larp called Svaha. The group decided to enter the game together as the crew of a spaceship called the Tiger Shark. Cappy played the captain, with Dave Stern as first mate, Renny as the pilot, Gene as the doctor, and George as the security officer. Frank joined as the ship’s “cook,” in reality, an undercover melee combat expert. Other friends from school, the hobby shop, and the Avatar System joined the crew, for a couple sessions or longer. Over time, the positions got rejiggered as some characters died or were retired from the game, but the players—Renny, Cappy, Gene, Dave, Frank, George, and a few others—remained the same.
The crew of the Tiger Shark stood in awe of their GMs’ efforts. They spun stories and plot points out on Post-It notes that covered entire walls in their hotel rooms.
Playing a larp in a group was a different experience from the adhoc way the Tiger Shark crew had been playing the Avatar System. At the end of each session, instead of talking about what each of their characters had done, they talked about the goals of the ship as a whole. The after-game discussion was far more interesting because everyone was invested in whether a source had been successfully worked for information, for example. They weren’t a gang, but they had a gang mentality. And so, when Svaha ended after a few years, the crew of the Tiger Shark felt devastated. The depth of their love for Svaha inspired them and made the crew of the Tiger Shark want to give that experience, that love of the game, to their friends. They decided to run their own larp, a game based on their favorite tabletop, the gothic Wild West of Deadlands. The crew of the Tiger Shark transformed itself into a gaming organization they dubbed FishDevil as Renny and Frank were graduating high school.
Dave served as the group’s front man, ensuring that FishDevil had space to run at the Double Exposure conventions and good time slots, but left the details in the hands of his boys. Renny provided the group’s creative direction and served as head GM. Frank ran character creation for the first couple of years, because he wasn’t yet confident as a storyteller, while Cappy, a power gamer known for his mastery of rules systems, served as their walking rule book and could play NPCs (nonplayer characters) or point out system imbalances in a pinch. Gene and several other members of the GM team helped adapt the tabletop Deadlands rules into a larp system, replacing the dice with card pulls. Other friends filled in as support GMs and NPCs.
Their first game was choppy but went well enough to run a second time. George joined the GM team, and Deadlands slowly earned a small following.
Two years into FishDevil’s existence, disaster struck. Dave Stern had never been very good at taking care of himself; he hated going to the doctor, so when he got sick, he simply soldiered through. In late 2005, Dave was hospitalized with renal failure, a shot liver, and lungs that were filling with fluid. A few years before, he’d been hospitalized with a staph infection in his spine, which was still affecting him, and on top of everything, he had diabetes. The boys had been living with their father since the divorce, but since the seventeen-year-old Gene was still a minor, he went to live with his mother, while Renny, who was twenty at the time, continued living at their father’s place. Dave was in and out of the hospital—but mostly in—for several months, the worst months of Gene’s and Renny’s lives. Dave’s illness thrust Renny into adulthood. Suddenly, he had to cook all his meals and pay the bills and do the laundry all the time and all by himself. It wasn’t that he hadn’t done these things before, but something about the routine, knowing that he was the ultimate responsible party in the house, wore on him. He spent days and nights at the hospital, eating hospital food, sitting in the hospital parking lot, and talking to his father’s doctors. Gene felt heartsick about his father’s illness.
Dave’s illness also devastated Frank, who joined Gene and Renny at the hospital frequently during those months. On January 31, 2006, Dave called Frank into his hospital room alone. Dave had been a big, strong guy, tall and rotund, with a bushy moustache, glasses, and eyes that had a smile behind them. Now he was weak. His lungs were filled with fluid, and he constantly coughed up clear mucus. His chest rumbled every time he breathed, and he was hooked up to machines by his wrists, which were bruised from the many IVs he had endured. Dave looked at Frank, and in that look, Frank felt Dave’s strength and sincerity. In a weak voice he said, “If anything happens to me, take care of my boys and make sure they’re OK.” The next day, he died.
Gene, Renny, and Frank don’t remember much of the days that followed. A funeral was held, and perhaps a hundred people attended, people who had known Dave from work or cons. Molly Mandlin was present and stood up twice to talk about Dave. She felt oddly like she was mourning doubly that day, for Dave as a person and for his Avatar character, whom she would never meet again. Dave had always been kind to Molly. Although he lived a short distance from Double Exposure’s conventions in New Jersey, he often drove into Manhattan to pick her up so she could attend. It had made her feel that the community wanted her. For Dave, such trips were a way of paying forward the kindness of others—before he’d had a car, others gave him rides to conventions.
The community that Dave helped foster held after his death. After the funeral, Frank’s family helped Gene and Renny out with groceries for a bit. Vinny renamed Double Exposure’s annual poker tournament in honor of Dave. And one day, in a Dunkin’ Donuts, FishDevil decided that although they’d lost their heart, they would continue running games because that’s what Dave would have wanted.
The next few years were difficult. Renny and Gene briefly moved in together, and it didn’t go well, in part because a bad run of disappointments plagued Renny. He hadn’t taken college very seriously before his father’s death, and afterward he didn’t have the money to continue, so he dropped out. He bounced from job to job, unable to make rent sometimes. Gene, in contrast, found steady work out of high school working for Lowe’s pushing carts and stocking the shelves. Their employment situations seemed to reverse their roles; the responsible Gene began to seem more like the older brother. According to Frank, this tension contributed to the drag-out fights the two had. As in any living situation, both Gene and Renny had issues they felt stubborn about, and that didn’t help, either. At the same time Renny and Frank’s girlfriend didn’t get along, so for a while the two men weren’t on speaking terms. As Gene’s and Frank’s relationships with Renny weakened, the bond between the two of them grew stronger, with Frank serving as a surrogate older brother to Gene. Renny felt angry about being displaced for a time.
Eventually, the tense situation resolved itself. Renny started living with his girlfriend, and later, the two of them moved to Albany. Gene moved in with George and Cappy, as well as Cappy’s on-and-off girlfriend, also a gamer. As for Frank, he and his girlfriend broke up. The physical distance eased the tension between all three parties, who reconciled. Frank even gained a dad—at age twenty-one, he contacted his biological father, and the two have since built a relationship together.
Despite the upheaval, FishDevil continued to run games, although some of the GM team faded and new friends stepped up to take their place. Gene, Renny, Frank, Cappy, and George remained the constants in the equation, although at times each of them has grown tired of the responsibilities of running larps twice a year at conventions. They’d expanded their line of larps to include two other games, a dystopian future game called Concrete Jungle and a pan-Asian game called Legend of the Five Rings in addition to Deadlands.
In 2009, the FishDevil clan rolled up a rambunctious band of Celts and started attending a long-running outdoor larp called Knight Realms, a game that used boffers—foam weapons—to settle combat instead of dice or cards. The following year, they also began playing a new zombie apocalypse boffer larp called Dystopia Rising.
Renny, Gene, and Frank still go to conventions together, run games, and crack wise. Renny has their father’s humor and charisma, his ability to improvise a scene when the players run wild, and his knack for creating strange and wonderful plots. He is still figuring out who he is and where he is going, but Albany, where he lives with his girlfriend, seems to be a good place for that. Gene has inherited Dave’s ability at poker, his charisma, and his ability to think deeply about things from different angles. Three or four nights a week, people gather at his house for tabletop campaigns, grabbing dice by the fistfuls from an ice bucket filled to the brim. Frank still carries within him Dave’s calm view of the world, and he’s followed Dave’s advice, finishing college. He’s a Renaissance man now, a pottery hobbyist and Revolutionary War reenactor who hunts, fishes, and knows how to put up drywall. At conventions Renny and Gene still run into people who remember what they were like as babies, people they don’t remember meeting but who knew their parents. Gene, Renny, and Frank are still brothers, and FishDevil lives, for what the game master brings together, let no man put asunder.