If you’re reading this post, chances are you know what an RPG is. No, I’m not talking about Rocket Propelled Grenades; I’m talking about Role-Playing Games, wherein a group of (often grown) people gather around a table and tell a cooperative imaginative story. One person takes the part of Dungeon/Game Master (DM, or GM), the person who sets up the story’s framework and presents it to the rest of the group, each of who takes on one or more characters to play. Different types of dice are used to resolve things like combat, skill challenges, and the like, and often the game table is riddled with Dorito bags, Mountain Dew, and gobs upon gobs of cookies. Depending on the game and the setting, an RPG could take place in a magical Tolkien-esque setting, in a dangerous post-apocalyptic future, on a far-off space ship on a 5-year-mission, or in a carrot patch where cartoon rabbits wage war against one another. If you can imagine it, chances are someone has made a game for it.
Though I’ve been out of the loop for a year or two now, there was a time when I was a fanatical role-player, usually taking the role of the DM. I played occasionally, but more often than not I was the one throwing the story together, setting up lengthy treks through lost cities and into alternate vampire-infested realities, through orc-infested dungeons or into alien-controlled warzones.
Working at Wizards of the Coast has given me a huge respect for the people who design these games. A tremendous amount of time and energy goes into the process, and in the end game designers are almost guaranteed to discover something they missed or need to fix for the next go around. RPGs shaped a lot of the way that I approach writing (especially my descriptive prose and understanding of the many facets of world building), and while I don’t play as much as I used to, I’m glad for the many campaigns I was a part of, and I’m certainly not ruling out returning to gaming in the future.
(For the record, I wrote a handful of Dungeons & Dragons adventures under the Open Gaming License for 3rd Edition, the same license that makes games like Pathfinder possible. And while I don’t think they’re icons of literary greatness, or anything, “Bloodhollow”, “Black Ice Well”, “Hellstone Deep”, “The Black Egg” and “Fane of the Witch King” were a heck of a lot of fun to write, and I’m very proud of them to this very day.)
I tried my hand at many a game over the years, but that which I’ll always remember most fondly is Dungeons & Dragons.
Yes, the Big, the Bad, the Original. Epic fantasy role-playing with all of the trimmings. I started playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons what feels like a billion years ago. I had all of the boxed sets (Basic Red, Expert Blue, etc.), and using those very simple rules and the Fighting Fantasy game books as inspiration, my friends and I played a 7-year-long campaign that took their characters from lowly merchant guards to the brink of Godhood. (We also played quite a few classic modules, including Quest for the Heartstone, Red Arrow, Black Shield, and Skarda’s Mirror.)
I skipped AD&D altogether and didn’t play a new edition of the game until 3rd Edition, which was, in my opinion, a wonderful modernization of the game. It had plenty of flavor and detail, but not so much that you got buried in the rubble of excessive rules. (3.5 was a much-needed upgrade, by the way. A lot of people balked at having to pick the books up again – and I don’t blame them, given the price – but the update did a great job of correcting what was wrong with 3rd Edition, and it was a heck of a lot more fun to play.)
Then came 4th Edition, which…well, I’m a bit ambivalent about 4E. You see, it seemed to me that with each passing edition of D&D, the game itself migrated from a “role-playing game” into more of a “tactical battle game…with role-playing elements”. With 4E, my own style shifted away from writing more story and character-driven adventures to using all of the fun mechanics to make crazy encounters; instead of a story with fights thrown in (we didn’t even use maps in that seven year Basic rules campaign!), the game became a series of encounters strung together by a story. This was also true with 3rd Edition, but it became even more the case with 4th.
Now, all of this being said, I think 3.5 was my favorite edition of the game, large and in part because I feel like I was really hitting my stride as a writer when I was running my city-based campaign. (Which reminds me, I need to resurrect the city of Kaldrak Iyres…will do.) No matter which edition you play, D&D is the original role-playing game, and it’s the one that all others are inevitably compared to. D&D games marked both my introduction and my (hopefully temporary) exit from role-playing games. I have fond memories of The Riders Seven, the dark God Nazarathos, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the original version of Black Scar prison, the re-vamped Dark Sun campaign setting, and the mega-adventures like the Banewarrens and City of the Spider Queen. I’ll always remember killing PCs in Nightfang Spire, the lost city of Vatos, the ruins of Skullheim, and in an alternate version of their own world that was controlled by vampires. And I remember dying myself at the hands of that damned blue dragon in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.
D&D was an important part of my life. It kept a group of friends together and helped me make new friends later on. It helped me develop as a writer and break into the world of publication. Whether I check out D&D Next or not (I will…I work here, for criminy’s sake), I’ll always appreciate what the game has done for me. I may have to break out that +2 icy burst bastard sword and roll initiative again, just for old time’s sake…