For those who haven't heard, actor Jeff Conaway has died at the age of 60. Most folks remember him for his roles in Grease, Taxi, and Babylon 5. However, it was another role -- one that many folks may have forgotten -- that actually shaped my early gaming life.
Let's jump in The Way Back Machine to 1983. I was a junior in high school and I had discovered AD&D the year before. I had a regular group that I was playing with every weekend. Most of the time, we played the way most youths did -- we looted, pillaged, and generally ran amok in every town we rode into. Our alignments were inevitably Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, or Neutral with Evil Tendencies. Our player characters were, in a word, "dicks." But that was the wonderfully chaotic nature of our games. It was about how much discord we could sow (and how pissed we could make the DM).
Anyway, there wasn't much entertainment at the time that reflected a medieval fantasy bent. Oh, I read a lot of fantasy novels and caught The Beastmaster, Deathstalker, and Arnie's Conan film at the theater, but it was all a lot of shiny swords wielded by pec-baring behemoths. The kind of trope we were emulating in our games. But in February 1983, a new TV show aired that kinda put a new spin on the genre for me. The show was Wizards and Warriors. It starred Jeff Conaway as Prince Erik Greystone, an earnest, honest, white knight paladin of a character who saw things in absolutes. The show itself was to the fantasy genre as Get Smart was to the spy genre. Every one seemed to be "in" on the joke -- except for Prince Erik. Conaway played him as the absolute straight man, shouting platitudes and cliches as he entered battle with the likes of the villainous Dirk Blackpool and the corrupt Wizard Vector.
I loved the show. It was a weekly AD&D mini-movie to me.
Wizards and Warriors ran only 8 one-hour-long episodes before being canceled, but I was glued to the set each week. And Conaway's role as Prince Greystone struck a chord in me. At the next game, I said I wanted to play a paladin. "Lawful Good," I said. All eyes turned to me as if I was breaking some unwritten code of the table. "OK, I'll play a Neutral Good cleric," one of the other players said. So, when we started, we had all Good (or "Mostly Good") characters. We spent that day helping the oppressed, defending the downtrodden, vanquishing evil, and we were lauded as heroes. And we loved it. We played Good characters since that day.
So, it may seem a bit cheesy, but -- in a way -- Jeff Conaway's role in this obscure piece of television helped shape us as gamers. Rather than continuing to bask in lawlessness and chaos, our party became the heroes we aspire to be in these games. We rose to fight the good fight rather than sinking to muddy depths. In a way, I think we became better people in real life through the actions of our characters as well.
I have a full set of this TV show on DVD that I bring out on occasion and watch, remembering those heroic days of youth when we, as a group, decided to become heroes. And Jeff Conaway's role on this little-remembered TV show was the catalyst for that transformation. Thanks Jeff.
Here's the opening sequence from the show:
And for more information on Wizards and Warriors, visit Wizards and Warriors.org and read up on this great, forgotten, and oh-so-RPG-friendly TV show.