Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Creative Magic of Office Supplies

 Before all masters, necessity is the one most listened to, and who teaches the best.”

Jules Verne

The world was quite different when I first discovered the adventure gaming hobby in 1982 with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. We were emerging from the 1970’s energy crisis into an economy was plunging into recession and high inflation. Iran had recently released American embassy hostages imprisoned for more than a year. Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands. Ronald Reagan was president and we were still in the Cold War with nuclear annihilation hanging over everyone’s heads. My life, too, was quite different all those years ago. I grew up in a stable yet frugal household where money was often an issue. We didn’t live extravagantly, certainly not in the financially comfortable way I enjoy at the moment. My parents scrimped and saved so we could enjoy some choice presents for our birthdays or Christmas. We took a modest summer vacation every year. We kept busy with after-school activities, but nothing requiring too much additional spending. We didn’t have a video game console or VCR. But we managed decently enough, especially having a few friends from school and some neighborhood kids who also liked games. During high school the adventure gaming hobby dominated my leisure activities.

I spent what money I saved – mostly allowance and cash gifts – on games; but being a creative hobby I also spent time making my own games and accessories. Most mundane board and card games, and specialty games like board wargames or today’s Euro-style games, come complete with everything you need to play. I had a few of these in my collection in the 1980s: mostly titles from Avalon Hill like Wizard’s Quest, Samurai, Hundred Days Battles, Mystic Wood, B-17, Queen of the Skies, The Legend of Robin Hood, Naval War, War at Sea, and, of course, the one that started it all, Kingmaker (which I’ve discussed recently).

But roleplaying games seemed to require a bit more material than what games provided in their rulebooks or even their boxed sets: paper, pencils, graph paper, and other means for drafting maps, expanding character notes, tracking non-player characters, and creating one’s own adventures. So, as was normal in our household, we scrimped, saved, and salvaged. Office supplies had a particular allure once my adventure gaming activities took hold. I salvaged paper from old school notebooks and binders on which I drafted Dungeons & Dragons adventures, Top Secret equipment notes, and Star Frontiers missions. Used file folders became module covers. Graph paper was the holy grail: normally used for charting out household expenses, laying out garden plans, and outlining possible vacation plans, I carefully used every sheet I could coax from my mother, the chief financial officer of the household and guardian of office supplies. My brother and I were raised to ask permission for nearly everything: watch television, look at some of the family’s treasured reference books, leave the dinner table, and use office supplies. Glue, tape, and other consumable office supplies remained rationed; to use them we had to make a good case and demonstrate our careful use if we were to have justification to access them in the future.

The cardstock game inserts within some issues of Dragon Magazine inspired me. To preserve them for frequent and future use, I borrowed white glue, asked to use the really nice office scissors, and horded thin cardboard so I could mount sheets of chits and crisply snip them apart. I stored such classics as File 13 and King of the Tabletop in salvaged zip bags – also a rarity in our household – as I’d read (but not yet seen) some wargames used this storage method.

My hunger for our household’s meager stash of office supplies grew as I soon expanded my activities into rudimentary game design and miniatures games. Those treasured sheets of thin cardboard found uses as medieval villages for my miniatures to fight around and homemade boxes for my various game designs besides serving to mount game pieces of my own design. Bits of corrugated cardboard served as boards and even a small, construction-paper-covered terrain board and hills for my simple tank game.

Index cards were perhaps the most coveted office supplies. Trimmed in half they served as cards in the numerous board games I created. We didn’t have many around the house; what I had remained from school research papers back when students in junior high school began learning how to document their research projects in books, magazines, and other print media.

These stringent office supply measure gradually fell by the wayside as I matured and proved my ability to use office supplies without wasting them. Access to the family typewriter was a turning point. I’m from a generation that learned to touch type on manual typewriters in junior high school – that generation before junior high somehow turned into “middle school” – and I even took high school business courses in typing. (It also explains why I still bang away at the keyboard.) My typing ability granted me access to the family’s trusty Smith-Corona manual typewriter and a small stock of typing paper. Although I primarily used these for school papers, they also served my gaming activities. I typed my later D&D modules on the Smith-Corona (though they still sat in salvaged folder “covers” with graph paper maps taped to the inside). I even used it to publish my embarrassingly amateurish gaming fanzine in high school.

Today such frugality seems laughably quaint in an age of disposable extravagance. Dollar stores now sell cheap office supplies beyond my young self’s widest dreams: rulers, oak tag sheets (would have been great for game boards), foam core, stickers, glue, binders, index cards, paper, notebooks, assortments of pens, pencils, markers, and colored pencils, even, occasionally, dice and game pieces. Entire stores like OfficeMax and Staples seem like toy stores to those seeking supplies to feed their adventure gaming hobby. One can even buy board game design kits or generic game components from Amazon or specialists like The Game Crafter. We have become a society awash in our own cheap diversions, however engaging and creative they might seem.

I still have many of those things I made out of office supplies for my adventure gaming hobby. Games scrawled on loose-leaf paper with colored-pencil covers, folded graph-paper boards, and piles of halved index cards, each sealed in a conveniently sized zip bag. My 25mm medieval cardboard village. That box with my cardboard contour-line hills, teeny miniature buildings, and 6mm micro-scale tanks. They’re artifacts from an age before desktop publishing, before internet sites selling PDFs, before jobs and family relegated anything but career game design positions to seemingly wasteful pastimes.

The creative mind plays with objects it loves.”

Carl Jung

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