Three schoolboys sit around a table. David, the friend to my left, has been genetically mutated by a radiation leak. He now has the ability to shoot beams of energy from his eyes, and teleport short distances via wormholes into alternate dimensions. Greg was stung by an irradiated wasp, his body morphing into something only nominally human. He can fly, spit venom, and hear conversations at distances up to a mile. He has also developed an uncontrollable craving for soda. And jam.
As for me, I’m a young millionaire who inherited a fortune when his parents died in a plane crash. The FBI are treating the deaths as accidental, but I’ve received anonymous notes warning me of a cover-up. Luckily my Swiss bank account has afforded me the luxury of a secret lair in the basement of an abandoned school, stocked with experimental weaponry, armor, and a gadget-modified motorbike that would fill even James Bond with vehicular envy. On the streets they call me The Caretaker.
Greg gathers two dice from the tabletop, one ten-sided, one a regular six-sided cube. Their clatter as he tosses them across the wood is like music to our adolescent ears.
“I hit,” he says with a noticeable swagger, “maximum damage. This bad guy’s history.”
They both look to me, and I flick through the rulebook on my lap. Somewhere in here is a formula that makes sense of everything around us, a codex to our imaginary world of superheroes and equally super villains, a dictionary to translate the numbers and dice rolls into something transcendent. Their eyes are on me, waiting for arbitration. I just can’t seem to find the page.
“Screw this,” says Greg. “Anyone want a Coke?”
Like many geeks before me, I first wandered into the twilight realm of role-playing games via Dungeons & Dragons, the ultimate gaming gateway drug. Its world of orcs and magic felt similar to the literary inventions of Tolkien, but it was open enough to encourage personalization, and I reveled in the opportunity to play in the sandbox of my imagination. I was just one of many fledgling writers who took their first baby steps holding the hands of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two men who have a lot to answer for when it comes to the late sexual blooming of the common nerd. Not everyone will admit it, but the percentage of ex-D&D addicts among published writers is shockingly high.
By the late Eighties, however, some of D&D’s imaginative sheen was beginning to tarnish, and the market for other role-playing games expanded into the breach. My friends and I wanted to throw our dice at something gnarlier than stinking trolls and evil mages. When I uncovered the Golden Heroes box at our local game store – little more than a hole in the wall, an Aladdin’s cave of geekery stacked to the ceiling with figurines, rulebooks and leather dice pouches – I knew that I’d struck nerd’s gold. The illustration on the box said it all: six muscled, Spandex-clad superpeople exploding out at me, a cross between the Fantastic Four and an amateur fetish club dedicated to thongs and spray-on pants. The tectonic musculature of their leader was clearly meant to be the biggest draw, along with the infeasible bustiness of his female companions. But I gravitated to the shadowy figure behind them, a mysterious conjurer who might be savior or villain, the kind of enigmatic antihero that I habitually idolized. In the eyes of a thirteen-year old boy the bad guys always got the girls.
When I returned home with my swag I was pleased to find this adolescent wish fulfillment a recurring theme in the game. The Supervisor’s Book looked more like a comic than a rulebook, another infeasibly musclebound hero standing in a deluge of flame, two ghostly giant blue hands hovering over his shoulders. What did those hands mean? And why was our hero’s stance so uncomfortably wide? There were no answers forthcoming, but I felt safe in the assurance that Golden Heroes’ twin rulebooks would explain everything. This box was a portal to another dimension. With dice.
Press-ganging friends into playing in a new game was never easy, but my close circle was sufficiently steeped in comic book lore to find all that Spandex irresistible. It was as I passed the rulebook around, encouraging my comrades-in-arms to start rolling up new characters for a thrilling Marvel-inspired adventure, that we stumbled over the great inequality of comic book mythology.
Patterns begin to emerge whenever you study something too closely, but in the case of our caped crusaders the division was immediately clear. There were the heroes who started out as impoverished Everymen, until an insect bite/scientific anomaly/industrial accident/alien intervention turned them into something more; then there were those with deeper pockets, who bought their way into superdom as quickly and easily as if they were purchasing a luxury yacht. Superman (a farmer’s adopted son) and Spider-Man (a struggling photographer in the big city) flexed their muscles on one side of the line; Iron Man (millionaire playboy) and Batman (millionaire playboy with deep-seated psychoses) on the other. Forget the 99% versus the 1% – in the universes of Marvel and DC the split was closer to 50/50.
Thankfully our initiation into the world of Golden Heroes relied on the roll of a ten-sided die. If you leave three teenage boys to choose between insect bites and inherited millions, they’ll always follow the dollar signs. I was the only one of us to luck out on my dice rolls, a deft flick of the wrist bequeathing me the fortune that I’d never see in real life. David and Greg had to make do with wasp stings and radiation leaks. I landed in a huge pile of virtual cash, and my imaginary life as a brattish vigilante began.
Looking back, that short-lived victory presaged the trend of my adult years. No, I didn’t inherit a fortune and tackle crime on the streets of Gotham. But the division of wealth that we’d noted in Golden Heroes began to seem more and more normal as the Eighties slid into the Nineties, and the culture of greed dangled its golden carrot in front of us all. Nobody wanted to be the plucky, penniless hero. Everyone aspired to that pot of gold, no matter the cost. Consider the most successful superhero franchises of the last ten years: Iron Man and the Dark Knight, straddling the box office like conquering titans. Never mind that the real millionaires of Wall Street turned out to be supervillians in disguise – we all still want our own private Batcave.
As for The Caretaker, his crime-fighting days were brief. We rapidly bored of Spandex and super-strength, evil villains plotting world domination from secret island lairs. The Caretaker hung up his studded leather boots. In our never-ending search for new worlds we soon turned to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and its tales of blunderbuss-wielding academics grappling tentacled aberrations from the dark beyond, humanity’s last defense against the ancient, nameless horrors of the cosmos.
But that, as they say, is a whole new role-playing game.