Sunday, April 30, 2017

My Life As A Squirtgun Assassin Pt. 1 - Hitman High

For the most part, we tend to eschew censorship and book burning these days. The idea of arcane, heretical or forbidden lore is by and large regarded as superstitious folly in modern times. In my youth, however, I came across a book that had a pronounced effect upon my life for years to come. Its unconventional perspective and arcane aspect affected the way I thought, and let me live out a carefully constructed and dangerous-feeling fantasy life in full view of the mundanes around me. I willingly participated in activities designed to both heighten and justify my sense of paranoia, and viewed my playmates as both predator and prey.

This would have been in grade 11 or 12, and I wish I could remember where I had come across the book in question; it may have been at a local comic and games shop, like Starbase 12 on 101st street, or maybe even The Hobbit Shoppe. Presumably I was looking for some supplementary material for one of the many tabletop role-playing games that had been a primary focus of my leisure time in junior high and high school, common ones like Dungeons & Dragons, but lesser known examples like Villains & Vigilantes or Merc as well.

This rulebook offered something different -  a live role-playing experience. Years before live-action role-play (or LARPing) became a thing, this book offered a gaming experience away from the tabletop, played in the environs of the real world, and promised entertaining sessions that could last for days. I was intrigued and bought the book; Killer, by Steve Jackson. And while it may sound melodramatic, my life was never really the same afterwards.

Killer: The Game of Assassination, was built on the premise of a group of players taking on the roles of ruthless assassins trying to do each other in. Using harmless analogues of lethal weaponry and acts, including but not limited to guns, knives, poison and bombs, players would attempt to eliminate each other from the game.

For instance, a player who takes sip of water and notices too late that a sticker on the bottom of the glass has a skull and crossbones on it or even the word "POISON", would be encouraged to grasp their throat and mime out a dramatic death so that other players in the vicinity would be aware of their demise.  Water pistols and dart guns become the firearms of choice, a balloon rigged to pop when a car starts or a door opens becomes a bomb, et cetera.

The covert nature of the game meant you could make a kill in front of a certain number of witnesses, unless you were wearing a mask. Wearing a mask made you a potential threat to all other players, however, and meant they were all free to target you, regardless of the number of witnesses! Some scenarios had players operating in teams, but most often, it was everyone for themselves.

I explained the premise of the game to my friends, and pretty much everyone agreed, this was something we needed to bring into our lives, and right away. Somehow word got it, but interested parties on the periphery of our circle of friends asked to be brought in, mingling a number of cliques and normally independent social structures.

We set up a simple "Circle of Death" scenario, wherein everyone is given another random player as their personal target, but is structured in such a way that Player A chases Player B, who is after Player C, all the way down to Player Z, who chases A. Everyone knows who is playing, and who their target is, but can't be sure who might be gunning for them.

The designated start-time for the game was the final bell on Friday afternoon on a warm, sunny day in May. A number of safe zones and out-of-bounds areas had been established such as workplaces, classrooms while class was in session or a teacher present, churches ("Holy ground, Highlander!"), police and fire stations, and so on, but once that bell rang, it was open season.

Some players made a casual, early escape from the school grounds, taking cover in crowds full of oblivious would-be witnesses. Others hung back, hiding in washroom stalls and clutching a dart gun in their sweaty hands. and hoping the coast was clear when they made their exfiltration. At least one person had preemptively opened a window next to their seat in class, and as soon as the bell sounded, they swiftly and surreptitiously made their exit a la fenestra and beelined off of school property to the safety of the suburbs.

In the parking lot, drivers tried to subtly check their vehicles for traps while simultaneously keeping their eyes peeled for the possibility of an ambush. Once they were in gear they knew they were safe, as attacks in and from moving vehicles were also forbidden.

To the best of my knowledge, no one was terminated on school grounds, as all the players began with a largely defensive profile, retreating to a place of safety to concoct their plans of attack. The carnage did not take long to begin after that, however.

Kevin F. got careless and accepted an offer of a ride to work that evening, and was shot point-blank through the window as he reached for the door handle. His killer was kind enough to follow through on his promised lift, however.

Dave G. exited his house slowly and with an abundance of caution the next morning, thinking he'd seen his friend Brent G. skulking around the neighbourhood the evening before. With a tight grip on the water pistol in his pocket, he made his way to where his '72 Vega stood by the curb in front. Dave glanced quickly at his wheels to make sure a large balloon wasn't wedged under one of his tires (simulating an anti-vehicular mine) before moving cautiously to the driver's door. He pulled up his windshield wiper to ensure there was no "KABOOM" flag attached to it and reached to the door handle before suddenly jerking his hand back like the handle was hot.

Taking a paper napkin from his pocket, he gingerly wiped under the handle in case Brent's self-admitted predilection for UKD (unusual killing devices) had led him to coat it with contact poison.

The napkin came away without any trace of petroleum jelly, so Dave opened the door. He began to step into the car, thought better of it, and reached his hand under the driver's seat, since Brent was exactly the kind of player to have wedged a balloon under his seat springs and attached a thumbtack somewhere to serve as a pressure sensitive trigger. But the underside of his seat was clear.

Finally Dave dropped into the driver's seat of his warm automobile. He rolled the window down and inserted the key into the ignition, but before turning it, he checked his stereo in case someone had wound his volume up, perhaps inserting a cassette tape of an explosion to complete the effect.

While he was doing that, however, Brent rolled out from underneath Dave's Vega where he had been lurking for who-knows-how long, drew himself up to his full height of 6'2", and casually shot a shocked and sputtering Dave through the open window with his dart gun.

By the time school resumed on Monday, more than half the players had been eliminated. I was still alive, and I believe I had ambushed another player, but had been unable to get a line on the elusive Dave W., my next target. By way of a mutual acquaintance, I discovered that he had not only left town that weekend to visit his grandmother, but was bragging about it as well. Such a tactic was well within the letter of the rules, but far removed from its spirit, as it meant his target was effectively out of the game until he returned. Worse still, since Dave had no job at this time and no real reason to show his face on the streets, he had announced his intentions to bottle up in his house until the ranks thinned out considerably. Because of this unsportsmanlike conduct, I resolved to remove Dave at the earliest opportunity and by admittedly unsavoury means.

After midnight the following night, I parked half a block away from Dave's bungalow, and walked casually but not without purpose into his back lane. Moments later, I was in his backyard, removing a roll of toilet paper and a Sharpie from my pocket. I began to encircle his house with tissue, stopping periodically to write the word "FIRE" on it, and still more times to knot the flimsy paper where it broke. Had I the foresight to buy orange or yellow crepe paper, I could have foregone the labeling and done things far more efficiently, but I derived a runic satisfaction from scribing the inflammatory word.

Three quarters of the way around the house, I carefully made my way past a basement window, noting with interest that Dave was indeed at home, watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS. I recoiled when his head snapped up, losing my balance and falling onto my backside from the crouch I had been in. I retreated behind the corner of the house and gingerly craned my neck for a look from a different window, expecting to see Dave racing up the stairs and ready to make a hasty and undignified retreat.

Instead I saw Dave at the foot of the stairs, talking (I assumed) with his mother on the next floor. After he returned to his belly in front of the television, I carried on with my deadly work, knotted the deadly ring of t.p., then exited the yard and hustled back to my car.

The next day at school, I confirmed with Dave that he had found the 'Ring of Fire' in the morning, and explained to his mum that they hadn't been randomly vandalized. We tallied the results of my arsonistic assassination: 75 points for killing my assigned targets gave me 150, but I lost 50 points apiece for Dave's mother and sister, the innocent bystanders who had perished in my callous attack. Effective but inefficient, however, it had effects that resonated for many games to come.

I don't recall who won the overall game, but from that day on, whenever anyone talked about bottling up or going to the mattresses to wait out the storm, someone else would laugh and say, "It's your barbecue, tough guy."

Leduc Composite High and its surrounding environs saw a few more games of Killer take place over the next couple of years, unbeknownst to most of those residing there. People who would never have dreamed about playing D&D reveled in pretending they were hardened button men or bounty hunters. Calcified social circles overlapped and intermeshed, a lot of fun was had, and despite the many deaths, no one got hurt. And to think, all the stories that came out of these imaginary vendettas were due to a random encounter with an unassuming book in a forgotten shop for nerds.

I was glad I came across Steve Jackson's imaginative rulebook when I did, because high school can be a chore, and it gave a lot of is a much needed opportunity to direct our more nihilistic tendencies in a more creative and potentially constructive fashion.

The book would continue to make an even greater impact on my life and the lives of those around me when this Assassination Game when it came with me to college...

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