Interview with Rich Marflak, Winner of the First RPGA Open Tournament in 1981

I joined the RPGA in the mid-1980s, while I was in high school. I joined in order to get access to Polyhedron magazine, and I never was able to attend any conventions or play any of the RPGA adventures back then. My first experience with an RPGA convention came in the fall of 2001, when some friends and I decided to give the RPGA’s Living Greyhawk campaign a try. We had never been to an RPGA convention or played in a Living campaign before, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect.

In a nutshell, we were blown away. The convention was well run, the DMs were so much fun, the games were interesting, and even the other players were great. Of course, since then I have come to learn that conventions are only as good as the people running them. That convention, and so many awesome conventions since then, was run by Rich Marflak. You couldn’t ask for a better and more dedicated organizer, DM, player, and adventure writer. In the years since that convention, I have come to know Rich very well.  We have worked on countless projects and conventions together.

On a trip to some convention or another—not sure it if was GenCon, Origins, DDXP, Winter Fantasy, or some other smaller convention—Rich told a story about one of the first RPGA-sponsored events that he played in. I had always dreamed as a kid of being able to go to GenCon or other large convention and play in one of those RPGA tournaments, where the best roleplayer at the table advanced to the next round. I wasn’t so much focused on the competition as much as just wanting to take part in a shared experience of gaming with a bunch of players as passionate about the game as I was. So I was entranced to hear Rich talk about the experience of not just playing in, but winning, one of the first RPGA Open tournaments!

Shawn Merwin: Rich, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. First of all, tell me a little about your introduction to roleplaying games.

Rich Marflak: From childhood I found games that demanded strategy and tactics the most enjoyable. Whenever I could find someone to sit and play Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, BroadsideBlitzkrieg or in particular Chess, my day was made! Second to playing these types of games for entertainment, I loved books and movies about or based upon mythology and heroic fantasy. Music became a very important part of my life in seventh grade, as it does for many of us at that age. But the music I became fascinated with was a little out of sync with most. It was the wonderful heroic images the works of composers like Beethoven and Wagner that was capturing my imagination. Special movie effects, being what they were at the time, came nowhere near my imaginings of monstrous beasts and the performance of heroic deeds while reading books, and plugging in my own heroes, villains and plots while listening to late classical and romantic period music was the ultimate creative experience—far surpassing watching movies or reading books. However, having this total control over all of the elements of my imagined stories lacked a key component – the element of surprise.

After moving to Wayland, NY in 1977, a new friend, Gilbert Farr, and I started getting together one evening a week to play games. This started out with the old standard games we’d played most of my lives, but we would look for new games to try. Starship Troopers was one of the most memorable that I found and the interplanetary war seemed to be escalating nicely between Gil and me. Then in November of 1978, Gil came with the “Blue Box Dungeons & Dragons Game Set” and everything changed.

Gil called and asked if I’d be willing to try a new game. “Sure,” I said. “Well,” said Gil, “we need at least three people to play this game, and it is a cooperative game that takes some preparation before you actually start playing. Can you find another player?” So I roped in a girlfriend, Kerry (who married me anyhow) into coming that week. We met at Gil’s home that Thursday and read through the “guidelines” (not rules) for playing the game and started rolling up characters. Kerry created an elf (fighter/wizard) named Presto and I made a thief named Eshack. That took up the whole evening, but we decided play Saturday morning instead of waiting for the following Thursday.

Gilbert took us into the included scenario “Into the Unknown” as our first Dungeon Master. Gil described what we were coming up to and I sketched a rough map so our characters would be able to find their way back out of the dungeon and have a record of where they had explored. We talked our way through traps and around hazards using logic to resolve the problems. Friendly non-player characters traded information about suspected dangers and rumored treasure and magical effects. Then the dice came out as a band of goblins attacked. The dice took away some of the control from both the DM and the players and added an element of chance, but we quickly realized that by using good tactics you could move the odds. The “guidelines” didn’t cover things like higher ground, cover, or surprise, but in that first game session they all came into play on both sides.

My favorite encounter on that day was our greatest victory and our greatest defeat. Presto and Eshack learned from a group of gnomes the location of some orc marauders. We planned out a fighting retreat that would lead the orcs to a room where we could trip them and knock them out before they could reclaim their feet. Presto was the bait and Eshack waited with a trip line until she ran past. Well, it worked great on the first two orcs, but the third saw what was happening and avoided it. Presto was only able to knock out one of the two tripped orcs before the remaining orc came into combat and another orc entered the encounter though a secret door behind us. Wow, how was that for the element of surprise! Presto’s chainmail and shield served her well, however Eshack’s leather fared less well as the sneaky orc’s sword plunged through it into his back. We were hooked and all those other games were left to gather dust on the shelves. I got to work on my next character!

SM: What were your impressions of the early years of GenCon and the RPGA tournaments?

RM: In 1981 I attended my first GenCon. It was held in Geneva, Wisconsin. Like today’s cons most people were dressed in comfortable normal clothes, but there were a fair number of people wearing costumes or armor. Gary Gygax was a real presence, and I had several opportunities to talk with him. The pub was my favorite non-gaming areas because of the Guinness Draft and (believe it or not) moreso for the costumed musicians performing Celtic and medieval music on period instruments. It really added to my enjoyment of the con. I found gamers then, as I do now, very interesting and friendly people.

The AD&D Open and the RPGA Open were definitely different events. The AD&D Open was about beating the tournament scenario as fast and efficiently as possible. The RPGA Open was all about character development and role-playing. Both supplied the players with pre-generated player characters and backgrounds. Most of the AD&D Open players would come to the con as an existing team who played together on a regular basis. Although I found the AD&D Opens to be great fun, they were nowhere as enjoyable, stimulating, and entertaining as the RPGA Opens.

SM: Tell me about that first RPGA tournament that you won.

RM: 1981 was a long time ago, but I’ll give it my best shot. The tournament was call “The Eye of a Needle.” It sent the PCs to the moon, where they became involved in a conflict between two nations of sentient arachnids. My character was a neutral wizard named Slim. He was an intellectual, interested in acquiring knowledge and rare artifacts. He was also extremely health and weight conscious—hence the nickname Slim. The background that was provided for Slim gave me excellent material on which to base my roleplaying.

In the first round we were contacted by human agents for one of the arachnid nations and agreed to help them with a delicate recovery endeavor. The terms of our employment were negotiated—quite generously in what we felt was our favor, thanks to our charismatic thief. We were given directions to meet with our actual employers and taken to a mechanical device that teleported us to the moon. On the way from the destination teleporter to the strong hold of our employer, we came across the ruins of a human-looking house lying on its side with a pair of metal legs sticking out from underneath. We pulled the tin man from under the house to find that it would not function. The rest of the party wanted to just leave it behind, but Slim made a deal with the dwarven fighter to carry the tin man along, believing it to be a valuable artifact. The PCs eventually got to speak with their arachnid employers and were told that their mission was to rescue the infant crown prince, who they believe was abducted by their rival nation, but they had no real proof and did not want to start a war. The PCs were to infiltrate the capital of the rival nation under some false pretext, then locate and rescue the prince. We were also told that the prince would most likely be held in the royal nursery and how he could be identified.

In round two, Slim came up with a plan to use the tin man as an excuse for entering the rival’s capital. We had several encounters during the journey between the nations that involved some combat and puzzle-solving. Upon arriving at the other capital, the party was pleasantly surprised when the rival arachnids answered their request, by informing them that they believe their priest of technology may be able to assist them. The priest offered to repair the tin man for a price. Slim almost leap back to earth with excitement, promising anything he had. To Slim’s further joy, all the priest wanted was Slim’s soul—something Slim didn’t believe even existed and even if it did it had never done a thing for him that he could remember.

The final round was run by Frank Mentzer, the editor of the original Fiend Folio and an excellent roleplaying game master. All three rounds were great fun, but the quality of the roleplaying in the final round was truly amazing! While the technology priest worked on the tin man, the PCs were able to locate the royal nursery and lay out plans for the rescue and escape. Slim insisted on waiting for the tin man to be repaired before the PCs executed the plan. Only two small glitches cropped up during the rescue and escape. Once we were in the nursery we saw that all the infant arachnids looked pretty much alike, and no one could recall how to identify the prince. Slim suggested taking them all, when the thief noticed that all but one of the infants had a strange pungent odor. The one that didn’t was the prince. We had been told how to do that way back in round one. After we nabbed the prince, we beat a hasty retreat until we came to the exit in the city wall. At that point, alarms started sounding and the guard, armed with an energy ray Gatling gun on the wall at the exit, turned in our direction. We were not noticed but were held up behind a building across the street from the exit. We had seen that device in action earlier in the scenario and needed a distraction so we could slip out past that single guard without several deaths of party members. It was suggested that the tin man should be sacrificed for the good of the party. Slim was appalled by the suggestion. Other party members even offered him portions of their share of the treasure, but he was adamant until the cleric used his own beliefs against him. He asked Slim what he had paid for the tin man. Slim answered, “My very soul!” “And,” asked the cleric, “what was your soul worth to you? Did you ever use it or even believe it existed?” “No,” admitted Slim. He reluctantly ordered the tin man to draw off the guard while the party made their escape.

Everyone said they had had a great time as we waited for the results. I thought the cleric or the thief was going to take first place, but that didn’t matter much. I was just happy to have had the chance to experience all three rounds of intensely enjoyable roleplaying.

SM: What was the prize for winning the tournament?

RM: The experience was the real prize, but I also received a Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual signed by Gary Gygax and a Fiend Folio signed by Frank. I also got some minis, paints and a Dungeon Master’s Screen.

SM: Thanks again for taking the time out to answer our questions.

Events like this one are the reason behind the DDXP’s Most Interesting Roleplayer in the World tournament.  We want players who love to take on the roles of characters that are fully integrated into the story of the adventure.  More information about this event will be released in the weeks leading up to DDXP, and you can now purchase tickets for this event and many others at the Baldman Games website.

Comments

  1. I knew Rich was an irascible, confounding role-player but I always thought it was just his old age. Good to know that it’s been a life-long problem.