Under the Influence: Roleplaying Games (RPGs)



     1977 was the most transformational year ever in my life, with the possible exception of 1995 (the year I married Kathleen). 1977 saw the release of Star Wars, of the first Shannara book and the first Thomas Covenant novel. In 1977, I first began going by the name of "Sea Wasp" online.


     And in 1977, I first encountered a game called "Dungeons and Dragons".


     In a very real sense, I had been doing roleplaying games long before that, just as had children from the dawn of time: making up characters and pretending to be them. Unlike some, perhaps, my few friends and I had some unwritten rules, including determining the pecking order/capabilities of the various creatures/characters so that we had a minimum of "No, you couldn't have done that, because I woulda…" arguments.


     But Dungeons and Dragons, or "D&D", was something very different: a real, official product that gave codified rules to exactly HOW to describe your characters, to carry out their interactions in reasonably fair manners, how to construct a world that you could place these characters IN, and so on. Moreover, it was not something targeted at 6 or 8 year olds, but at adults and teenagers – something that took the idea of entertainment via imagination and accepted it as something that was appropriate for "grown-ups", not just little kids.


     D&D was a revelation in several ways, none more so than that there was a COMMUNITY of people out there who felt it was worth a significant amount of their time and effort to pretend to be heroes, to act out adventures that previously were only seen – books or movies or shows that we could watch or read but wouldn't actually ever be a part of. The fact that such a community existed – and ACCEPTED me – was tremendously important.


     One should understand that I was severely constrained in my activities as a child. I had moderate-to-severe asthma from the time I was 21 months old, severe enough to put me in the hospital at least once a year or so, triggered both by various environmental influences, other respiratory illnesses (e.g., strep), and most importantly by effort. Physical effort above a brisk walk risked triggering a severe attack, and the medicines available in the 1960s for asthma were… inadequate.


     Because of this, I had virtually no friends, nor any idea of how to FIND any.


     D&D, along with computer interaction, changed that. I am the first to admit it was far from all positive – the power of the RPGing interaction and becoming a part of a group that appreciated what I could do made that much more important to me than, say, doing any schoolwork – but it was in fact the first face-to-face interaction that I chose to have with strangers, and that I felt comfortable enough to continue going, week after week, to a place that wasn't my own house.


     For the first several years, most of my gaming was done at a local club called The Studio of Bridge and Games, or The Studio for short. For two and a half (later three) dollars you got to play all night, often with the proprietors setting out a few snacks for the players – and "all night" generally meant to 2AM and sometimes all around the clock.


     And in those nights you were no longer on earth; you were a mighty warrior, a wizard subtle and dangerous, a thief of unmatched talent, or a servant of the gods wielding their powers in their name. Other games came out after D&D, and expanded the possibilities; you might spend the night hurtling through the galaxy as the pilot and crew of a great starship (Traveller, Space Opera) or find yourself suddenly with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, powers you must wield for the defense of mankind (Superhero 2044, Villains and Vigilantes), or infiltrating the secret base of some Soviet-backed lunatic to save the free world (Top Secret).


     For many people the attraction of RPGs was hard to truly fathom. It wasn't always easy to describe, either, but one of the main points for me was that in THOSE worlds, you could matter. One person, one small group of heroes, could literally change the tide of good versus evil; enemies could be clear-cut and the way in which they had to be conquered was equally direct. There were no more shades of gray than you wanted.


     After the first few months of playing, however, I knew I wanted more. I wanted to create a game world, I wanted to be the person giving other people adventures. I wanted to be a "Dungeon Master" (shortened to "DM", later more generally called "Game Master", or GM).


     It was toward the end of 1977, then, that I first put pen to paper and started drawing a map of my own fantasy world, a distant world that I imagined orbiting the star Polaris: a world named Zarathan. Inspired by Tolkien and Howard and Brooks and Donaldson and others, I started trying to build a universe, one whose roots actually went back to the days when I played "let's pretend". The map I drew that day was cruder, but anyone who was to look at it would be able to recognize that it was the same world that can now be seen in Randy Asplund's map, drawn for Phoenix Rising.


     As with any creative endeavor, my first attempts were… clumsy, derivative, and not very good in most senses. Their saving graces were twofold: first, that early in the hobby there weren't all that many people doing much better, and I did have (and still do) a talent for doing voices and impressions that allowed me to evoke some sense of reality for my players; years later, Jeffrey Getzin commented that one of the things that he enjoyed about my game was that I could convince him that I was a towering, steel-armored, Russian-accented warrior, and then switch to some diminuitive female priestess without breaking stride and be just as convincing in that role.


     It was natural that I combine the geeky pursuit of RPGing with my other geeky love – computer interaction. I did this in two ways: first, I started encoding the rules into a gigantic (for that time) program and clumsy database which was intended to be able to run most of the gruntwork for me. I made a lot of progress, even getting to the point that it was able to do the basics of running a preprogrammed adventure sequence (clumsily), but the program was eventually deleted in 1979 (no storage space available, and no disk/other save media).


     But I also started running games online. As far as I know, I was the first person to ever run an online D&D game when I started my first campaign online in 1978. This led to my meeting many new people, including a younger kid, a freshman when I was getting near to graduating, who would eventually become my best friend: Eric Palmer.


     The greatest effect of RPGing, however, was that it gave me a structured, useful tool for developing stories – testing events, concepts, characters, and playing with them. As a writer, I found this utterly invaluable – and that is still true to this day. Most of my stories have, in one way or another, derived from some game-related activity, even if they aren't taken directly from some game I've played or run.


     Some are taken fairly directly; Phoenix Rising is set in the world of Zarathan, my main fantasy world for pretty much my entire gaming life. Some aspects of Zarathan have changed drastically in the last 30+ years – others have barely changed at all. The main characters, too, are from games; Kyri Vantage (originally called Kyrie Ross) was a Paladin I played in a game ran by Jeff Getzin while I was in Pittsburgh; I devised the general outline of her background and origins for that game, although most of the specific events have been changed. Tobimar Silverun is derived from a character of the same name played by Robert Rudolph, also in Pittsburgh. And Poplock Duckweed was one of my PCs, one played in several different worlds over the years.


     Gaming's structure allowed me to test things, see how people would react, how various plans would work – or not work – and in some ways most importantly taught me to think about the implications of things like magic. For me, it's crucial that I understand the how and why of the universe. I've gotten more relaxed about that over the years, but in the early years I was literally writing up what amounted to a physics-style description of the universe (complete with equations describing how magic worked, and why – something called "The Unreality Effect") that eventually took up three separate notebooks and hundreds of pages.


     Using the principles of RPGs – having a clear, unambiguous description of the capabilities of the characters and other aspects of the world, having knowledge of how the world worked and interacted with the character's powers, and so on – I was able to feel comfortable constructing a world and testing scenarios in it. And the fact that there were other players – other people – involved meant that I could see reactions and ideas that weren't just mine, and could learn how both heroes and villains might deal with each other in ways that I might not have thought of myself.


     The effect of these techniques and games on my writing has been widespread and profound. The universe of Digital Knight is the same universe as that of Phoenix Rising – and even in Digital Knight there are directly gaming related components (for example, Project Pantheon and its people are RPG characters played in the spy game Top Secret). It was during a Saint Seiya game that I finally came to understand who and what Virigar was, which refined and clarified the entirety of my universe. Grand Central Arena took many things from my gaming history, and was inspired in great part by several RPG activities in my past.


     And there were the people. I already mentioned Eric Palmer, who remains my best (male) friend to this day. Many other important friends and acquaintances entered my life because of my gaming hobby: Carl Edlund (the original from which the GCA character came), Rob Rudolph, Rob Lantz (both RPG and anime fandom), Chad Baird, Jeff Getzin, Dana LaJeunesse, and many others.


     One of the others was a man named Peter Adkison. To this day, I have never met Peter in person, but one day Peter contacted me, under his online name of "Mavra", and asked if I'd take a look at a new RPG product that would be the first and flagship product of a brand new RPG company. I did, found the product very interesting, and sent back my feedback.


     The product was The Primal Order. The new company was Wizards of the Coast. I was privileged to watch the ascent of the company from the inside, and outside at the same time – from a struggling one-man operation to a titan of the industry, eventually buying TSR, Inc – the creators of the original D&D, the game that started It all – before themselves being purchased by Hasbro for a truly impressive sum.


     More important to me was the fact that I got my first professional writing credits and experience through Wizards of the Coast; I worked on conversion approaches for the Primal Order line, and was credited in those. I was contracted to write – and completed the first draft of – a Primal Order supplement targeted on using gods in non-fantasy campaigns (and I was paid for it, though it was never published). And I wrote the initial draft of Fall of Saints, the book that became Phoenix Rising, for Wizards in the early 1990s.


     The most important result of my gaming life, however was this: one day I volunteered to run a game for Dana and one of her friends; we went over to her friend's house, and I began running the module Rahasia. The game went relatively well, and we often gamed together with that friend of Dana's in the years to come.


     That friend of Dana's was Kathleen Moffre – now my wife. Without gaming, I would never have met Kathy, never have married her, and not have the family I do.


     So I salute the game and the gamers, their creators and players. "Dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers.", as Elric of the Technomages said. So are we all.




Your comments or questions welcomed!