I first met Chris at Phoenix Games on West Lake Street in Minneapolis. The shop was the descendant of the fabled Little Tin Soldier that Dave Arneson and so many of the original Blackmoor frequented. It's not there anymore, it being only a storefront now in Minnetonka or some other 'burb to the west, after the owner, a fellow named Neil who owned the original Phoenix Games out in Burnsville and told me that when he first gamed with Arneson, he didn't get what the hell was going on, chose to move rather than pay for the upcoming street repairs in 2008.
Anyways, back to the summer of 2002. My wife worked second shift from Tuesday to Saturday in those days, and we had no kids. I hadn't yet tried to go back to college, though I knew my bachelor's wasn't getting me jobs. I had loads of free time in the evenings, and I kept trying to get into new gaming groups. So one Saturday, I wandered down to Phoenix where, like so many American gaming stores, folks showed up to game. It was in the middle of the D20 boom, so D&D was the name of the game, which I had picked back up again a year before after ditching it for GURPS all the time. Being a purist didn't help get into groups.
That afternoon, I saw there was a game getting ready, and one of the players was a guy named Tommy whom I knew casually. Thus, I asked Dan, the bespectacled GM about my age (I was in my late twenties), if I could get in. Sure, second level, starts in about an hour or so. I told him I had a human monk I had played the year before and was second level back at my apartment, and I'd go get it. (In those days, I lived on West Franklin Avenue, eight blocks north. It was a short bike ride home and back, or maybe I walked. I don't remember and don't care.) And so I did, bringing along Ichanko, my monk.
When I got there, I played D&D. I remember Tommy getting pissed and storming off after failing a saving throw to dodge a spear that came out of the ground, even after it was established that going over the middle of the cavern meant you had to make a DC 15 Reflex save or take a spear to your balls. I remember a guy who was playing the halfling boatman who liked "shinies." I remember Lea, a woman about ten years older than I playing a ranger, and Mike, a mustachioed man about the same age as Lea and was often befuddled about whatever character he was playing. There was a big guy, Travis, and one other fellow whose name I no longer remember who left when Tommy left; the two were friends IIRC. Shawn, I think that's his name. And there was a pudgy middle-aged fellow with glasses, a wispy mustache and thin hair who brought the minis. He played Lars, a fighter/cleric of Kord.
The next week, the pudgy middle-aged fellow with the minis ran a game, and I played a necromancer. He ran one of the Slave Lords adventures. A few weeks later, we ran down a hallway and some hands grabbed at my necromancer's pouches and got his spell component pouch, which brought an in-character tirade that brought the store to the floor laughing. I got 50 XP for roleplaying, and have been gaming with that DM, Chris Lutgen, ever since. I'll keep from all the tales for this post, but there was chatting, gaming, a Roger Waters concert, eating out, all the things friends do.
About mid-February of this year, we had a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game in Chris's apartment. Chris was playing Caleb and Mayhem; Caleb he took over for a player who decided he didn't like the game, and Mayhem was a long-standing character idea Chris had made for GURPS 3e. The game was bi-weekly on Sundays, but when John, who plays Kim and Ash, called up (John's always first to show up at a game), Chris told him he wasn't feeling well. John relayed this information to me, and I shrugged and went about my day, which was likely laundry or schoolwork. Chris wasn't in the greatest of health, and frankly there were times I was glad that we were now gaming at his apartment rather than at the gaming store since that meant Chris couldn't wuss out because of the cold. (And there were times it was really wussy, too. Thirty degrees and no wind and a half inch of snow? That's nothing to us up here.) So I knew it was best to let him recover.
Two weeks later, however, John got no response when he called up. Which also brought a phone call to me. I reached out to Chris's brother on Facebook, and found that no, his brother had no idea where Chris was either. And so that day his brother Paul, Roman (the other player in our group, and the only one with a car), and I were calling various nursing homes and hospitals and, well, morgues. Chris had diabetes and heart conditions. It was either Monday or Tuesday that Roman (I think; it might have been John) had the good sense to call his apartment complex again and found out from the super (who was now present) that Chris was in Walker Methodist.
Roman and I went to go see Chris one evening that week, and found him on the second floor in a wheelchair. Well, we found most of Chris; we didn't see his right leg below mid-thigh. Apparently, Chris had an infection there for years and it got worse. In one of the few times I'd ever seen Chris near mad, he blamed the doctor, thinking his leg could have been saved. (The man never got mad. I'm serious. This was the third of four times I'd seen or heard him a little flustered at anything. And his voice never went up and he never yelled and after about two sentences it was over.)
The place was pretty bleak, and what made it worse was that Chris was still himself with his wits about him, as opposed to most of the rest of the folks there, who were zombies. At 60, he was younger than most of them. He shouldn't have been there, he should have stopped drinking Mountain Dew once he had found out he was a diabetic, but there he was.
So we started gaming at Walker Methodist, mostly Dungeon Fantasy, but sometimes Roman ran D&D Midnight 3.5 since, now being in grad school, I sometimes had loads of coursework. It's weird playing in such a place, though it did have a good commissary for snacks.
A commissary that let somebody still drink a can of Mountain Dew a week, however.
Our last game there was on the 24th of September. Chris started going in and out of the hospital starting around late August. Roman and I went there once, and saw he looked awful. We could now see the sores on his left leg, which looked worse than his missing right leg. Chris had Betty Grable's legs, which meant he had the legs of a woman who had been dead for 44 years. It wasn't good. I think we last saw him in Walker when we came to visit on October 6th, when he had just come back from the hospital, to which we went first. He was actually pretty together, and Roman thought he could last six months or six years, depending on how much work Chris put into it.
Chris's social worker called me last week, and told me the hospital was trying to reach his brother. She didn't give me any specifics, but said what was obvious, which was that Chris was unlikely to make it. Roman, John, and I went to go see him on the 27th of October, and I knew that was likely to be the last time.
He seemed a little gone for once, tired, not paying attention to whatever Doris Day movie was on the television. (I had tried calling down there on the 24th, and the nurse told me he was too tired. That wasn't a good sign; his activities consisted of eating, sleeping, and watching "Gunsmoke" reruns. Hardly tiring.) He had pneumonia and was on a BIPAP machine, or on oxygen when he wasn't on the BIPAP. If you've ever had a conversation with someone on a BIPAP machine, you'd know it's a conversation with Charlie Brown's teacher, and I told him as much, which amused him. At least he still had his sense of humor. He actually got a little mad when he starting talking about the Medicaid spenddown for making too much money cutting down his living conditions, and he's right that it is silly since the guy was on Social Security. Fourth time getting mad.
There was a fatalism about this visit, however. Chris throughout all his last months kept talking about the future, how his wheelchair was going to fit into his apartment (it would have had a problem turning the corner going in), or to where he was going to move for assisted living when it became clear that he needed more help. He wasn't talking about that now. Also, Roman had to take a phone call wherein he had to tell his brother who called that he was visiting a dying friend. After a few uncomfortable looks away, Roman got off the phone, and explained that if he didn't put it that way, his brother would ramble on and not let him off the phone. Whether this is true or not, I don't know, but we knew Roman wasn't exaggerating to his brother, either.
Chris knew, too, which was a first. I sometimes thought of Professor Binns from the Harry Potter books, who died and rose up as a ghost and went about his day. Chris always seemed to take each event as a one-time event, after which he'd get back to his day-to-day grind of reading comic books and painting minis. I always thought he felt that death wouldn't take him, too, and that he could do whatever he wanted to his body without it mattering.
At 11:45 this morning, his social worker called me, confirming that getting back to the everyday grind was not to happen, and that Chris was on his last hours. John had the day off and made it to the hospital, and he let me know that Chris was unconscious. Then at 2:30, he let me know that Chris had failed his last save.
The things I'll miss … his friendly demeanor most of all. His, "Hey, dude," greeting when he called you up. That he seldom took anything too seriously. Granted, he took this to the point of killing him, but he was good natured and pleasant and always willing to hang out and chat. We sometimes chatted away in the basement of the old Tower Games location when we didn't really have a gaming group besides ourselves. He gently let me know that the big D&D advert for the 4e red box was something I should be able to read across the table; I really did need glasses after 37 years.
All the minis and his need to want just the right mini. I'm sure I'll wind up with many of them, but it's not the same. I'm usually perfectly satisfied with Cardboard Heroes or the Pathfinder Bestiary Box; Chris often had the perfect one painted for the situation. He painted one for Ichanko, my monk. Even the plastic ones were great; my wife's friend Josh played an elven pyromancer in a D&D game I ran. Chris had the plastic mini from Wizards of the Coast. He'd gamed since the woodgrain box in 1974 and had some genuine artistic skill, and his minis were his output, as well as a few character portraits.
And oh, the good times. Basayant the Necromancer's rant against the boggarts. How Lars, his fighter/cleric, always pulled out his bow to make a pathetic shot at the start of combat, which led to a fight in which Ichanko, who had initiative, said that he's going to move to the front and in the middle of some nasty monsters, and if Lars took out the bow, he was going to go back and beat the shit out of Lars. How the dimetrodon on the Isle of Dread snuck up on Basayant, which nobody bought. ("He rolled really well!") Eventually, that game descended into Chris running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and Josh and Lea, fed up with some questionable GMing (Basayant fought the Monster the GM Made Up Himself at one point, a nondescript mass of hit points and damage dice), made the two most irritating characters they could make to irritate Chris into dropping the game. The two-man Toon game in which we played munchkins from Oz who could turn into Munchkins from Too Many Hit Points Land; Toon was the one game he GMed well, much better than I did. He ran Call of Cthulhu too; my Latin professor fought both elder things and the football team. Professor Torres flunked them with vigor. They all looked funny; they should have stayed back at Innsmouth High. Another memory of the Isle of Dread, when Johnny (not John) played a dragon-loving cleric of Anubis who told a dragon he worshipped him, and said dragon told him, "I'm gonna go over there and eat your horse. And, if you're still here when I get back, I'm gonna eat you!" Then in commune with Anubis, Anubis asked him what he was doing with those dragons. Dan ran True20 for a bit in Hyperborea, and I played the Hyperborean L. Ron Hubbard, with Chris as my bodyguard. I ran a D&D 3e campaign that ended in a total party kill from a vrock, and I sang the Prudential jingle with an extra letter as I wiped out Chris's and Dan's PCs (and my own GMPC). His intelligence officer in the GURPS Interstellar Space Marines A-Team game who took video of their fights and sent them to "Friday Night Fights." Pity D's character saved the video of Chris's intelligence officer getting his ass handed to him by multiple clones of 20th century Earth actress Angelina Jolie. And when the intelligence officer, and Johnny and Tristan's characters broke into that Walker Corp. base and got a good reaction with a Cooking roll ("Mmmm! That is a tasty sandwich!") In that universe, that base is still resupplying the fictitious base Chris made up, and will never catch its error.
In the end, I think that's what it's all about. Friends and imagination and having good times. I hope to have more good times gaming, though now without Chris, they just won't be the same.
Requiesce in pace, amice.