She almost exactly matched the picture that pops into your head when a porn actor/painter with a tattoo on his head says "my ex-girlfriend".
So: she was a bit of a mess. High Int, Low Wis, Chaotic chaotic.
And she had trouble sleeping.
So she would listen to books on tape to help her sleep. And she didn't have that many--so, after a few months, I knew all these books back to front and sunny side up.
Her collection included a very very long work by an author some of you may be familiar with named JRR Tolkien, called The Lord of the Rings. If you have not read this story--as I had not before I met this particular girlfriend--I will now summarize it: "On and on they walked, silently through the glade, moving as men who, silently, walk on and on through a glade."
God there's a lot of walking in those goddamn books. Anyway: point is I know the books well.
This was also the era of the Peter Jackson Rings films coming out, which I liked much better, since Jackson seemed--with gratifyingly few exceptions--to choose the most metal and least hippie possible interpretation of any given scene. And Pippin was funny.
And also let me say I was not 100% immune to the vastness and misty epicness of Tolkien's story, and once in a while he even had good lines. I liked the Ent's poem:
...Bear bee-hunter, boar the fighter;
Hound is hungry, hare is fearful,
Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,
Hart horn-crownéd; hawk is swiftest,
Swan the whitest, serpent coldest...
Point being that during this era my brain was totally--if unwillingly--steeped in the fucking Ring story.
I liked "The Hobbit" best. It was the most linguistically playful and the least ponderous. For me, it had that light-hearted-without-being-light-weight thing that Fritz Leiber went for and achieved more often.
To come to the point here--or closer anyway--my favorite part was the riddle game.
"Riddles In The Dark" the book-on-tape-guy would say to me (in the dark)(Tolkien does sound better in the dark), announcing the chapter. And by this point maybe The Ex was already passed out. And I would listen and be strangely fascinated.
I say "strangely" because somehow, for a long time, the fascination went beyond anything I could immediately figure out. Much more than when I'd seen the Gollum scene in Bakshi as a kid or in a school play or whenever.
Long story short, I did eventually figure out what the fascination was, and it was this:
In this little fairy-tale scene in this little fairy tale, Bilbo falls ass-backwards into getting The Ring from Gollum. And you might know the ring later turns out to be kind of a big deal.
And somewhere in my brain I was unconsciously aware that this quiet little game in the dark resulted in all the chaos and lunacy and walking and slaying and people "going off into the west" and sturm und drang to follow. And Bilbo didn't know it. That was somehow terribly affecting. Innocently starting all that just by playing a game in a cave.
It's also possible to argue--or at least to think--that Tolkien didn't know it either. He wrote The Hobbit first. I'm no Silmarillion expert (I've seen the book jacket, basically) but I don't know if Tolkien knew where the daisy chain started by the riddle game would end.
Anyway now my real and definitely RPG-related point:
That "Riddles In The Dark" effect is why I like the Old School approach to plot and character and epicness and awesomeness.
Which is: you start with none of those things. You start by sucking. You start by sneaking. You start with one hit point. You start with no plot. You start anonymous and meaningless and arbitrary. You have three torches and a short sword and whatever armor you can afford and no feats or skills in a dot on a hexmap hitting another dot on a hexmap.
Nearly every thematic innovation in RPGs has sought to remedy this situation. You start with a plot or a purpose or superpowers or a personality or a faction or an internal struggle or a moral dilemma or something to tell you who you are and where this story's going.
Bilbo didn't, really. A wizard knocked on his door and said "Listen schmuck, you're going to go on an adventure" it made no sense, he did it anyway, and slowly, by degrees, he discovered--and we discovered--what his adventure was. And what it meant. And then, when it's all over and the Witch Kings and mad wizards are dead and the minor characters are married you look back at the early bits and go "All this--who knew? If only he'd known what was in his pocketses..."
In Old School D&D, plot, personality, differentiation, superawesomeness, cinematicness, meaning, destiny, epic adventure, and players having Narrative Control are all possibilities, but you have to earn them. And you have to start in the 3-hit-point-2 spells-no-items mail room. You have to earn power, but you also have to earn meaning and plot. These things are rewards you get for surviving and solving problems.
You have to kill a million gnolls if you want more than one attack per round or if you want your own castle or if you want to be able to shoot fireballs or if you want your character to be powerful enough to be in charge of the Thieves' guild or you want to be a Master of Disguise.
And some people like that. They like not knowing whether they'll fall in love or what magic items they'll get or what prestige class they'll be when they grow up or whether it was all for naught or whether they'll get bitten by a werewolf or whether it'll all end in a 29th-level battle on a mountaintop or in a ditch under the blade of some 2nd-level crap out of the Fiend Folio they can't even spell. (Addendum For Barking Alien: or knowing how they got there or who they are in the first place or why they're being killed. These things extend like a novel--from ignorance to knowledge in any direction, not just forward in time.) They like going out their front door and not knowing where they might be swept off to--to use a cliche.
And they like the fact that if it turned out to be anywhere in particular with any kind of distinction or rhyme or reason then that's sort of amazing, because they earned it, in the face of brutally unfair experience tables, the indifference of dice, and the malevolence of easily-bored DMs.*
-This may be why people famously can't shut up about their characters no matter how boring it is to whoever's listening. In Old School play, a character with any coherent story to tell at all is an achievement.
-The difference between the old and the new approach makes me think of the difference between painting and photography. In photography--like in newer games--you see a picture and it could be of anything--a cheeseburger, a hooker--and the trick is to make it a special and poignant iteration of that thing. In a drawing, the real miracle isn't the address to the subject, the drama is watching how all the dribs and splotches and drabs and swirls--which by themselves are just colored goo on paper--end up even managing to look like anything.