Inspirations: Role-playing Games

With the Origins Game Faire set to kickoff here in Columbus this weekend, I thought this would be a good time to check in with my occasional series, “Inspirations,” in which I discuss the influences that made me the writer I am today. So here’s a look at how certain tabletop role-playing games helped put me on the road to becoming a fantasy author.

In the beginning . . .

DnD BasicThe vast majority of who find their way into RPG’s do so through Dungeons & Dragons. I was no exception. I began playing the seminal game about invading the lairs of monsters, killing them, and taking their gold in 1982. My brother David got the red-boxed Basic Set for his birthday that year. Before long we were rolling up characters and getting started.

If you’re not familiar with RPG’s, they’re a kind of cooperative storytelling exercise, where each player controls a character in some form of fantasy environment, and an extra player — the dungeon master or game master — plays all the adversaries, sets up the adventures, and acts as a rules arbiter.

Fancying myself something of a storyteller from an early age, I quickly became enraptured with the idea of being the dungeon master (“DM” in the parlance of the game). Our first campaigns were little more than excursions to kills monsters and gain power.

But within a year, I was running a (slightly) more sophisticated narrative that emulated the fantasy novels I was reading at the time. This campaign was wholly derivative of The Lord of the Rings, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, and pretty much every bad fantasy flick made between 1981 and 1986. The stories were not original.

But they were undeniably stories, and this was my first real experimentation with archetypes and epic. I didn’t even know what those words meant in a literary sense at the time, but I was tapping into them as I plotted imaginary high adventure for my friends and I.

As much as I adored fantasy literature, it was another game and genre that would push me forward another step in my development as a writer: superheroes, specifically, Marvel Comics superheroes.

Emulating Comics

MSHI played a lot of different RPG’s in the early to mid-80’s in addition to D&D. But the one that stuck with me the most was the original Marvel Superheroes from TSR. Published by the same company that made D&D, the game had an incredibly simple action resolution system that made playing in the four-color world of Marvel Comics.

Best of all, you didn’t have to play the Marvel characters. You could make up your own.

So Dave, my friends, and I set to creating our own unique and famous superheroes and setting their adventures smack in the Marvel Universe. So not only did we struggle against home-brew villains like Heatwave and Alkaline, we also took on Galactus and Dr. Doom.

Naturally, the game inspired us to look at the source material, and for the first time since I’d been a little kid, I started buying comic books. By the time I graduated from college, I was reading 30 titles a month.

The more I read, the more I wanted to write comics, and I accomplished that by two means. First, I played a lot of Marvel Superheroes with my friends.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I would “write” comic books in my mind, and then tell them to my friends. Each month, a new issue of the comics I was writing would come out, and my friends would gather to listen to what Captain Cosmos and his friends were up to now.

We had several Marvel Superheroes campaigns going at once, with each of us running a different one, and each of these was a comic book too. Throughout my college years, my friends and I created an entire universe of imaginary comic-book heroes, and the lore of these are still related when we get together some 25 years later.

For a short time, I dreamed of becoming a comic writer, but I went to graduate school instead. There, I played two games that would have a profound impact on my ultimate development as a writer: James Bond: Role-playing on Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Vampire: The Masquerade.

Graduate Work

VampireI moved to Kansas for grad school and acquired a new group of friends. They were into this new game called Vampire from a small company in Stone Mountain, Georgia, named White Wolf Games Studios. In the game, you played a creature of the night, but instead of being a neck-biter in a B-movie, you were a tragic creature along the lines of Frankenstein’s Monster or the Phantom of the Opera, wishing for a life of peace and love but doomed to a wretched existence of eternal torment.

There were two very important emphases in the game. The first was personal horror. Players were supposed to create a backstory for the character that was full of anguish and personal loss. The game made it clear the titular vampires were monsters and almost certainly unworthy or incapable of redemption.

The second was on story. Indeed, the game master was called the storyteller. Vampire: The Masquerade very specifically encouraged the introduction of literary themes, plot, conflict — all the elements of a novel or film.

Consequently, I applied story structure to my games. When I ran my own Vampire campaign, we met weekly, and so it became natural to think of if as a TV series, with the players as the star actors. I constructed an epic storyline that arced through three “seasons,” and there was a huge payoff at the end. I wrote an introduction for each session, which I read the players as a setup before beginning play. The oral tradition I began with my college friends morphed into a fully collaborative story with beginning, middle, and end.

Bond RPGAt the same time, I was introduced to the James Bond game. This under-appreciated masterpiece was the first RPG I’d encountered where the rules of the game were designed to emulate the genre. The Bond game played like a Bond movie, where it was easier for the hero to pull off the impossible than for the nameless thugs to do the average.

Each adventure was supposed to be a single Bond film, and after the first one, I was instantly hooked. But I felt something was missing, and the genre-emulation I learned from Marvel Superheroes and Vampire: The Masquerade led me to start recording music. I’d get the name of the adventure from the GM, and then write a theme song along with an action-chase piece and a sneaking-around piece that riffed on the main melody from the theme.

Amazingly, I churned out Bond-style music for our role-playing sessions on a weekly basis throughout the summer of 1992. And again, my sensibilities were totally focused on making sure our games were properly reflecting the genre in which they were set.

Into the future . . .

I gamed well into my 30’s and designed RPG’s for a living for eight years, applying the principles I’d learned playing them in my youth.

Eventually, I figured out that I was spending my creative energy writing stories for five or six people instead of writing them down and publishing them for the whole world. I quit playing RPG’s and spent my time learning to write novels.

But I learned to work with archetypes from D&D, emulate genre from Vampire and James Bond, and the elements of an exciting story from Marvel Superheroes. I may not play the games anymore, but they taught me a lot about crafting adventures for my readers.

The clatter of a 20-sided die still makes me smile, and sometimes I put in the tapes of those old James bond themes I recorded and lose myself down Memory Lane.

Games were good to me. They provided hundreds of hours of entertainment, and they helped make me the writer I am.

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