On Gaming, ca. 2005

Gaming: My Thoughts Today

(Updated 9 Feb 2007)

I haven’t done any gaming in a few years now, partly because of lack of opportunity, but also partly because I simply don’t have time for it anymore. I rather amusedly imagine the world I’ll be retiring into, and can see tons of senior citizens gathering — both online, and in person around tables — to spend some portion of their Golden Years RPG gaming. After all, my generation is one that grew up in the heyday of the RPG, and I’ve found that, outside of high school, more than just geeks were interested in this kind of entertainment. Mark my words, the nursing homes will be home to some of the funniest, weirdest RPG campaigns ever, in about forty to fifty years.

But these days, between work, writing, and relationships — the few that I actively maintain — I simply have no time for anything like a sustained RPG gaming group, and moreover, I simply lack the will to make the time. I think a part of me always gravitated towards the game-master position because I have that kind of personality that wants to run the show. The thing I discovered was that I wasn’t running the show, not to the level I wanted. You see, I actually kind of bought into that rhetoric in the front of the White Wolf gamebooks… that gaming could be more than just fun geekery, but could approach, or even be, an artform, a return to a kind of primal, powerful storytelling.

What I discovered is that, while I’m addicted to story, the stories often turn out better when I take command of them and all the characters within them, from start to finish. So, I left gaming behind and moved on to fiction-writing.

For a large part of my life, gaming filled a different space than this, of course: it was a way of unwinding after being all defensive and critical and defiant all day (or all week) long at school, and afforded me a chance to experiment imaginatively, as a player, with moralities and self-images that I never would play with in real life. When I was running games, also got to send characters up against monsters, riddles, paradoxes, and traps of all kinds, and to mess with plot structures and motivation and see what players did in reaction to all of that. While the stereotype of the Dungeons & Dragons kid is something that I can relate to, I think the stereotype is a false one. Ask a D&D kid what “constitution” means, or “dexterity”, and he’ll know. Ask a D&D kid what a “hengeyokai” is, or a “looking glass”, and she’ll know. (I say she’ll, but most of the people I gamed with were boys around my age. I was the most energetic in inviting new female players, and the most successful over many years, but to this day, most gamers I’ve ever known have been male.) So far, the benefits of AD&D seem to be the same as the benefits of reading fantasy books, but I believe there’s more to it than that. Ask a D&D kid to make up an imaginary person on the spot, and he’ll generally be able to do so. The character might be wholly conventional and uninteresting–a half-orc warrior from a savage northern tribe, or an elven archmage from the depths of a mysterious forest–but these kids do seem to have an imaginative capacity with these things which, believe it or not, can springboard into something else altogether later on. Perhaps, if you want to pick out who will be the fiction writers, you should get people to play AD&D. The people who make bards who have been pregnant for three years and who suspect the father of the child was a god in disguise, or goblins who believe that they are being given magical archmage status from the holy power of the radishes in their back gardens, maybe those are the kids to place your bets on.

At least, I think it was an indicator with me. When I think about my writing-life, I think that it began in the grid maps of dungeons I designed for my friends to navigate their characters through, the thorny plots I inflicted on my players, the dramatic turnarounds, insane twists of fate, vicious moral punishments and just desserts delivered onto traitors and thieves (at least, those who hurt the other players… stealing from local lords’ and dragons’ hoards was rather more encouraged). Learning to be a writer requires moving beyond all of that, but I think it began, for me, at the RPG table.


My first real regular gaming group was made up of a few guys from my school. I’d been playing for a year or two other guys, especially this guy named Devin and his scary older brothers, but things went sour between us, and I sought out new players. I decided I was going to run the show, to be the Dungeon Master. So I went down to Grey Owl Stationery in downtown Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where there was a display of first-edition (implicitly: nobody ever imagined a second-edition on the way at that time) TSR books, and bought everything I could afford. It was just a Player’s Handbook and a Dungeon Master’s Guide. (Which I supplemented a week later with a Monster Manual, using my paper route money.)

Mike, Aaron and Damon (the Sklar brothers, sons of a local country musician of some repute, the former of which seems to have gotten into politics), and Ryan became my gaming group, and by all the gods chained down in the depths of Acheron, I ran that game horribly. Magic items were handed out left, right, and center. Magic rings, magic capes, magic swords, magic wands. You’d think they’d had the magic equivalent of the Industrial Revolution or something in the world I was running. And eventually, I made a big mistake; instead of going along with that, I believed there was some kind of problem with that kind of game. “Monty Haul campaign” was a phrase I’d read in Dragon Magazine to describe such a caricatured, magic-rich game setting, and all the professionals (who were really just amateur gamers writing articles with a convincingly professional tone) advised against it. And what was my solution?

This is why I consider it to have been a mistake; I turned to the solution most obvious within my society… I became a game products consumer. Month by month I spent all of my spare money on gaming books. I became a Forgotten Realms-aholic. Forgotten Realms was what was known as a “canned” gameworld that was for sale, and it had recently become the “canonical” setting for all AD&D 2nd edition gamebooks, except, well for books detailing other settings, of which there were tons. Even as a kid, I understood the dynamic of canned settings: they were for sale, but only in exceedingly small pieces. A sourcebook for each small nation was fast becoming available, and somehow, at the tender age of 13, I had decided I would become a scholar of this game world. (I’ve always had a compleatist tendency, and with gaming, that is an extremely expensive bent of mind.) It was, really, a quasi-scholarly pursuit. I bought every book I could. I read them all several times, memorizing sections and committing to memory salient facts about the Forgotten Realms that had only been published in rare, tattered issues of Dragon Magazine. My poor father was even given the job of photocopying articles out of those damned magazines. And my piles of Forgotten Realms products grew higher and higher.

Month by month it became harder and harder to bring all my gaming stuff to the places we’d play, which were inevitably at my friends’ houses because we were all cycling and because I lived far away and they lived close to each other. Finally, I had too much gaming stuff to have it all on hand at every game session, and I tried to whittle my pile down to things I would actually refer to during the upcoming game session. I remember being angry at my friends for having set a date for gaming, at one house, and then not showing up. They only had to cycle over. I had to cycle over with twenty or thirty pounds of books on my back, and that particular day, I’d gone over the handlebars and gotten a nasty scrape on my shoulder. But even that didn’t quite stop me.

And if I’d had any sense—or an older gamer mentor to advise me—I would have set aside all of my books except the Players’ Guide, DM’s Guide, and a book of Monsters. (Monstrous Compendium, it would have been by then, as the game had progressed contentiously to its Second Edition.) I wish someone had taken me aside and reminded me that I didn’t need TSR’s imagination, TSR’s prefab fantasy world. I didn’t need to collect all those horrible gameworld-set novels, or adventure modules. I could have invented my own world, from just a piece of paper, a pencil, and a little free time.

I know I could have, because I’d been doing it since I was ten. I started by rewriting movies—Ghostbusters and The Neverending Story feature prominently in my memories—and moved on to inventing weird races of fae folk living in the woods and chatting with passersby. I even have some of these things on hand, in my flat here in Jeonju. I had the imagination to creature such strange, exciting worlds and adventures, but because I was caught up in a Compleatist phase of my life,—something I am actually quite prone to—I did not pursue it.

Still, even so, there were characters that I wove into our adventure games that were of my own creation. There were victims and nemeses for the characters to encounter and save or overcome, respectively. There were places that were wholly my own invention in those worlds, and world-shattering events that had nothing to do with the official game world chronology and story arc. I think if I’d kept gaming, I would have returned to the Forgotten Realms consuming, full force — well, almost, except that one of my players basically stole most of my books, and I finally had to go to his house years later to get the collection, by then sadly incomplete, back —  but as I drifted away from it, a sudden, abrupt change took me out of the circle of gamers and into a new world.

Back to Writing

My family moved cities, leaving my gaming friends behind in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and settling in Saskatoon, a few hours away. Given the attachment I had to my gaming group, I would have dearly loved to travel by train once or twice a month to have a game, but such was impossible… no trains ran that way, and buses would have cost far too much. Furthermore, the gamers I met in Saskatoon were not really my style, and I was also making an effort to rebuild my image in a less susceptible mode; being a gamer brought the mockery and attacks of jocks much quicker than being a music geek; and finally, I was getting very busy with music, pratcicing more and hanging out with musicians as well as spending lunch every second day in extracurricular jazz band practice. Whatever free time I had went into writing poems, mostly about rejection by girls I liked, about hidden affection for other girls I liked, but also sometimes about interesting, non-worthless subjects.

And so gaming went onto the backburner until sometime after the middle of my undergrad degree. Then, I fell in with a new group of gamers, this time all college students. I was only a player, and never a GM in this group, and they wouldn’t touch AD&D with a ten foot pole axe, or at least that was the sense I got from them. They were pretty seriously into White Wolf Games. (Which, now, has attained the same kind of reputation that AD&D had in that day.) Stories of the mystic creatures of myth and legend set in a darker and dirtier version of our own modern world, with the magical creatures on center stage instead of in the periphery as monsters: it was all new to me. I leapt into it full strength—another mistake, consider my own growing interest in SF—and before long I was fascinated with the game Wraith: The Oblivion.

Now, you can tell a lot about a person by the RPG he chooses to specialize in. Me, I chose to run a game where characters were the walking dead; not the cool, funky, dangerous walking dead of The Crow, but the sad, gloomy, pissed-off, and deeply frightened walking dead of, say, Sixth Sense or Dragonfly. I was at the time—and for a long time had been—depressed, for a variety of reasons I won’t get into, but the net effect was that I ran spooky, powerful sessions in a game setting where “Regret” was a space on the character sheet and “Angst” was a character trait with a numbered rating.

Anyway, I ran Wraith mostly with total novices, didn’t use combat much, and made it much more atmospheric, much more about ghost-hunters and people in bereavement support groups who happened in fact to be haunted by real ghosts. We played not often enough, but I began to build up little mythologies. I also was back into consuming the game books like mad, spending hundreds of dollars (dollars I couldn’t really spare) every few months just to keep up with all of White Wolf‘s major lines.

And once again, this chain was broken for good; I moved to Montreal to go to graduate school, and never gamed again. Sometimes I bought game books, just to read through them, and sometimes I wanted to run a game, but there was nobody interested in playing, and my interest in other things—and my determination to really get my writing on the go—gradually eroded my interest in gaming until it was a memory of an interest.

The return to those old game books I accumulated over the years, by the way, is now impossible. When I moved to Korea, I had a friend ship my belongings back to Saskatoon. Among the things lost in the shipment were my whole collection of White Wolf Games books, my Complete Oxford English dictionary (the two-volume set with magnifying glass), and my videotapes and all the covers for the CDs I brought with me to Korea.

I’m not sure I miss the gaming books. More than I regret their loss, I regret the loss of the Oxford dictionary, and of the one cassette tape that had a recording of an early concert I put on at the Saskatoon Jazz Society club The Bassment just after I graduated from high school. Happily, not all was lost: I recovered the manuscripts for all the compositions I wrote in University, which had been thought lost. But the gaming books, at least the White Wolf books, they were lost forever.

Current Gaming Interests

Now, I have a very few gaming books here: there’s a copy of Werewolf: The Wild West which I bought for something like $3CDN, a couple of funky Vampire: Kindred of the East RPG books, a copy of the original limited edition Aeon Trinity main game book, a few GURPS books and a set of Illuminati CCG cards that my friend Adam sent me, some Vampire: Kindred of the East books, one or two Wraith supplements, and the full set of Orpheus books from White Wolf. (I couldn’t resist the urge to get the whole series, since, after all, it is the reincarnation of my favorite RPG of all time, Wraith.)

I’m not saying, either, that I wouldn’t run a game with some players, if I got a chance, someday. I may well come back to gaming, in some other context… especially, for example, with a small group of very advanced ESL students. I’d love to use an RPG game as a learning tool, actually, to experiment with it and see how students cope with playing a totally verbal game. However, I get the feeling that, at least outside of Seoul, I’m very unlikely to find anyone to play such a game with. There are, I am completely certain, many RPG gamers (both foreign and Korean) in Seoul.

But in all honesty, the world has changed, and I have changed. Most of the hits I get when I google RPG seem to pertain to MMORPGs online, I have flirted with this kind of gaming myself, in the form of the  MMORPG  EVE Online. It was a very sophisticated game, of course, with a complex player-versus-player economy and social system, a fairly textured and visually fascinating world in which real role-play is indeed possible. But it took too much of my time, and the semi-realistic (read: very time-consuming) interstellar travel system while admirable, was just impractical for the gaming needs of someone like myself.

I do still sometimes pick up gaming books, thumb through them, and sometimes even buy them. Some of them having amazing art, and neat systems which I enjoy without ever playing them. Others have fascinating settings, all the moreso because of the skill that RPG book authors have developed in presenting their imagined worlds in gamebook form. In some ways, the RPG book is a kind of highly specialized genre of fiction, a fantasy completely made of worldbuilding and system design. It’s a small market, and one I now have no interest in writing for, but I can read the books, and enjoy them.

But for me, now, the pleasures I used to get from playing RPGs with my friends, I get in a much more distilled form from writing, editing, redrafting, and thinking through the stories I am almost always working on.  So while I think gaming was very important in my past, I think it’s unlikely to be somewhere to which I will return in the future. Still, as the roots of my writing, it’s an important part of my past.

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