Cow Vase

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[The auction for this Significant Object, with story by Ed Park, has closed. Original price: $2. Final price: $62.]

If you came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, you probably have some sense of what the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons was like. Players became characters — dwarf or knight or wizard — and wandered labyrinths looking for treasure, battling monsters along the way. Dice were rolled, charts consulted. Even if you never played, you probably knew someone who had, a brother of a friend or a nose-breathing cousin who himself resembled a minotaur.

Serious gamers will also recall other so-called roleplaying games that cropped up during this era, such as Traveler, a militaristic science-fiction title with a map of the galaxy; or Gamma World, set in a post-apocalyptic America, in which your character had weird but potentially useful mutations — infrared vision, extra leg. But I don’t know anyone, aside from me and my next-door neighbor, Darren, who’d even heard of Mountains of Moralia, the sole offering of Radon Claw Game Labs.

The cover of the utilitarian rulebook featured what looked like a large gray triangle, which upon closer inspection revealed itself to be the titular land formation, spidered with trails, along which motley caravans of adventurers clashed with trolls, rocs, slavering wolf packs, and sentient malevolent vegetation.

Glimpsed a certain way, one could discern two dark watery eyes and a ragged mouth incised in the mountain itself — the first clue that all was not as it appeared on Moralia. The first section of the rulebook was a 10-page description of some fabled road that all travelers must take to approach Moralia — a text seemingly designed to make potential players chuck the thing in the trash. Darren read it aloud, as fast as he could, and then we turned to the pages concerning Character Generation.

Curiously, one did not play a single adventurer (dwarf, wizard, etc.), but instead took on the character of a huge chunk of land — that is, a Mountain of Moralia. What I’m saying is, you basically pretended you were a mountain. As if hypnotized, we followed the rules to the letter, rolling dice in the strange permutations typical for fantasy games. But this time the results were applied to things like Forest Coverage, Erosion Quotient, and Mammal Population.

Soon we had generated our two mountains. I named mine Epak’s Peak; Darren dubbed his This Totally Sucks. Part Two was a sample scenario in which the mountains… fought each other. Using Land Magik, you flung your rocks, animals, trees, grass, dirt, and so forth at the other mountain, trying to reduce it to rubble. However, as you lost these items, you were reduced, and there was a chance that, say, a boulder flung at your opponent became embedded in its side, thus giving it more mass.

This went on for round after round, hour after hour, and should have been the most boring thing in the world. Yet Darren and I soon found ourselves playing Mountains of Moralia to the exclusion of all our other games.

When Darren finally emerged triumphant, we jumped to Chapter 8, where we learned that we had just finished waging the Battle of Lavache, and that we could send in a certificate, signed by all players, for a free limited-edition trophy.

We sent it in, waited for six weeks. This is what we got. We never played Mountains of Moralia again. When I found this cow figure last week, stored with the fine china, I e-mailed Darren and asked if he still had the game. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.

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About

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer, and author of the novel Personal Days.

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