Thursday, April 19, 2012

Role Playing Games

"R" is for Role Playing in the A to Z Challenge

Role playing gamges (RPGs) are a virtually lifelong hobby of mine.

OK, I didn't come out of the womb rolling dice, but from early on I developed skills that made RPGs a natural fit for me. My dad (now retired) was an engineer by trade, and in 1975 when I was 11 (yes, eleven years old) I drew my first set of house plans. We were living in Brooklyn, and Mom and Dad went to Charlotte, NC to house hunt. They found a house, Dad had a tape measure with him, and he drew a sketch of the house and took measurements of all the rooms. When they came back, he taught me how to make an architectural floor plan of the house.

We had a complete set of cardboard furniture cuts outs he had made (scale of 1/4" = 1'-0"), and each time they moved, Dad created a 1/4" scale floor plan of the new house so they could decide where all the furniture was going to go. That way, when it was taken off the moving truck, everything went straight to the correct location... no moving things twice!

I was also very much into science fiction and fantasy literature. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Tolkien were among my favorites. On top of that, I always seemed to have a natural flair for storytelling and theatrics. Combine all that with above average math and logic skills, and world building and "Dungeon Mastering" seemed to be the perfect fit for me.

I already had a group of high school friends who lived nearby that I gamed with. We played Avalon Hill war games, Risk, Diplomacy, and any game that seemed like it would be fun and wasn't a run-of-the-mill board game. (These days, Settlers of Catan ranks among my favorite board games). In 1979 when we first heard about Dungeons and Dragons in the news, it portrayed a game that was somehow dangerous in a real world sense. THIS is the article that introduced us to D&D:

Seriously... read that first paragraph... "the victim of an elaborate intellectual fantasy game". WTF???

Well screw whatever fears or ignorance the parents or writers of the piece were trying to spread. This article became for us (as I believe with the rest of American teens) an open invitation to find out what the heck this game was all about. It sounded damned interesting. We ordered a copy immediately.

And it was interesting. It was beyond interesting. We simply loved it. We played nearly every day after school, and the first few summers we played all day, every day. And some people grew worried.

Now, if we had been playing Monopoly, or basketball, or football, or anything people could relate to on a daily basis, no one would have given it a second thought. But this was a sort of byzantine set of rules. There was no game board, there were no pieces. There was just paper, dice, pencils and books.
One of the most humorous moments was when our friend Keith's dad walked into the room, shook his head at the piles of books and paper, and good-naturedly groaned "Whatever happened to Parchesi?"

Our parents actually loved the game. They always knew where we were (we rotated playing at each other's houses). It kept us out of their hair and (contrary to some public opinion) safe at the same time.

But there was a huge movement against such games. That first news article created an impression that permeated the American consciousness. There were Jack Chick tracts like this one:

And then there was the atrocious Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters:

And Harry Potter fans thought they had it bad!

In any case, I've been playing for many years, and taught my kids how to play. Somehow, we all survived. I credit my background in RPGs with developing my professional storytelling skills and haunted house design and directing skills.

In 1997, I was looking for a career change after working for several years in the film business. I asked myself (as I often do), "If I could do anything in the world, what would I want to do?"

I thought it would be neat to work for an RPG company. I was already living in Virginia, and I recalled that one of the game companies I had purchased products from was located in Virginia. I looked through some of my old stuff, and found my copy of Arms Law, by Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.)
I called them up, and a couple of months later I had a job as their marketing graphics designer. Here's some of my work:

1998 I.C.E Catalog Cover, Art Direction, Styling, Graphic Design

Art direction and styling of photograph of hand made (by me) prototype
of the re-designed Settlers of Catan Game

Art Direction and Styling of Photograph for Run out the GunsPirate themed RPG

Graphic design for Warlords TCG advertisment

Unfortunately, the 90's were a turbulent time for table top games. Collectible card games (CCGs) along the lines of Magic: The Gathering and ICE's Middle-earth Collectible Card Game (MECCG) were losing popularity to the new wave of video games. In 1998, Sony's Dreamcast paved the way for high end graphic consoles like  Playstation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.

(Does anyone see a pattern here? Puppets replaced by CGI, and dice and paper replaced by game consoles? Some days it feels like I'm fighting a losing uphill battle! Long Live Analog!)

The good news is that the very same electronic games that were the death knell for table top games also made playing RPGs socially acceptable. The economic might of video games is bewildering. As an example, when The Incredibles came out in theaters in 2004, it was one of the blockbusters of the year. It grossed some $70 million in the first three days , and was the fifth highest grossing move that year. The same year, the video game Halo 2 came out. It grossed $125 million in the first 24 hours of its release. Some of the great computer RPGs out there are Morrowind, Fable, and this year's Skyrim.

And to see the level of coolness in which Halo is held, check out this awesome performance of the Halo theme song at a high school talent show!


Back to the tabletop

A couple of years ago, I began re-working my fantasy campaign setting. (This is the make believe world where all your stories take place... like Oz or Middle-earth or Narnia). It is called Shatterworld.
In October, I created my very first blog, and began piece by piece building Shatterworld online. It is far from complete (technically, it can never be completed), but I have enough to have been able to launch my first table top game session in a number of years. Last Saturday we began playing at our local pizza shop. I also have plans to work on a novel set in Shatterworld. Here's a link to a short story I wrote, The Wolf's Ascent.

Here's a log of the first game session, The Amulet of Skuld: Chapter 1

Here's a map of Calabria, the central country where all the action takes place in the Shatterworld setting:

Not to be confused with a place in Italy!

I have joined a group on, the Richmond Roleplaying Games Meetup Group. There, I was able to create a "suggested meetup" in the town of Ashland, which is about 15 minutes from my home. It took a few months, but some other Ashlanders found the Meetup group and my suggested meetup, and we had 6 people besides me show up last Saturday. Sunday's group should be 8 total. is a great place to find people with unusual hobbies an interests. Anyone can create a meetup group. There is a small monthly registration fee for Meetup, but the number of specialized groups out there are amazing. Among the groups I belong to:

A group on rapid prototyping out of Maryland
A film makers group in Richmond
A German language group in Richmond
A Reason and Naturalism Association

And I just started The Ashland Arts Alliance Meetup Group

Groups can meet anywhere. I asked the new pizza shop in town if we could reserve their party room for our games. I've also held games in a local coffee shop.

As usual, I don't get to the real point of my post until the end. And that is, no matter what your interest (arts and culture fall under a VERY broad umbrella), there are ways to use social networking to find others who share your interests. There are also venues for meeting that you might never think of.

Start looking for people who share your interests, and be open minded about where you might be able to meet. If we devil worshipping victims of elaborate intellectual fantasy games can do it, anybody can!

"R" is for Role Playing Games, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month.


  1. Interesting info. Thanks for reminding me about A while back somebody suggested that I go to this for something I was doing (now I forget what it was). I'll have to check the site out.

    It was interesting to get more of your background. When my friends in Tennessee started getting into D & D and other RPGs, I was already on the the road in my own World of Fantasy. I never got into the games, but became more aware of them in last year's A to Z Challenge when a number of gamers joined up and I started reading their blogs.

    Enjoyed this post.

    Places I Remember
    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  2. Did they ever find the teen? Monopoly is beyond boring. I have a Stitch 'N' Bitch group I belong to. I love it.

    I really like your blog and am so happy I found you!

    1. Unfortunately, James Egbert III committed suicide. This furthered the mythology of D&D as a game that caused people to kill themselves.

      There's a Wikipedia article on him.

  3. Great post - interesting! I didn't know about Meet-up. You're on R, so I guess somehow I am day behind, that's weird. Nice blog!

    Texas Playwright Chick

  4. I just jumped the gun. I dont think I'll have time to put a Friday post up.

  5. Replies
    1. The sad story of James Egbert III? The Fact that we gamers have been portrayed as suicidal devil worshippers? Or just us gamers?

  6. That was an excellent post. It reminded me of the old summer days that had my buddies and me locked away in my room rolling dice, beating monsters, and exploring dungeons to loot gold and rescue prisoners.

    I thought the ad design for ICE was brilliant. I always wanted to get into Rolemaster but never did. The Arms Law inspired combat system that you mentioned on my blog - is it for D&D or do you use it for another game or a complete homebrew system? Do you happen to share the combat system with interested parties or are you planning on publishing?

    I'm glad I am on your blogs, Arthur, because they are always a great read.

    1. Hi Charlie,

      I have my combat system and charts posted on my Shatterworld: Behind the Scenes Blog

    2. Cool. I follow that but I have not taken the opportunity to digest all of the information but I will now! Thanks.

  7. Ahh so maybe we will see you at a game tournament with your game??? or on Catan
    good luck with Shatterworld

    1. Are you involved with tournaments?

      I've been to Origins as an employee of ICE, but I've never participated outside of that.

    2. Apparently one has to register at Wordpress to leave a comment on your blog? Frustrating.

  8. Wow. Just wow. I'm thoroughly impressed. Although a big fantasy fan, I've never been interested in the games but your details are awesome. I'm outlining a fantasy novel right now but have yet to create a map (I'm not an artist).

    A to Z of Immortals, Myths & Legends

    1. I think it is a good idea to at least have a rough sketch for your own references. That way, you can visualize the landscape as you write. Where is one thing in relation to another? How many days does it take to travel from the town of Carrnach to the city of Pitkin? What are the landmarks you pass along the way? What territories do you pass through, and who are you likely to meet? What creatures might you encounter, and what are their eco-systems?

      Like I said... it will never technically be "complete"... but any answers to those questions are better than none!

  9. And another gamer emerges. Found you via A-Z and happy to have done so. Looking forward to reading your links about Shatterworld when the blog-hopping dies down a little.


  10. Thanks for stopping by Amanda. I left a comment on your Romance post!

  11. i enjoy RPG games but I never have the time to play!
    Happy A-Zing!

  12. Fantastic post. I have always found pen and paper RPG's interesting, but I've never played. Most of my friends did, but I was convinced (in the 80's) I would hell would come find me if I dared play... I did read the chick tracks that were available at the time. I'm not sure when the one you put up came out, but I did read it way back then.

    Anyway, I may give it another go one day... If I can ever find anyone locally that wants to give it a go.

    1. If you click on the link just above the illustrated panel, it takes you to the actual Jack Chick website, with the full tract. That one came out in 1984. Dark Dungeons!

  13. Love the map. Just checked out the Shatterworld blogs too, and added to my ever-growing blog list :)

  14. What a great post! I played D&D too. Had to do it on the sly as my mom had heard about the 'dangers' of Mazes and and Monsters :-) There was nothing like hanging out with some very smart friends, drinking too much soda and rolling dice late into the night. Funny thing was--less chance of getting into ANY trouble that way than what many other kids were doing at that age. Bet you were/are an excellent DM!

    1. So many of us have the same story, don't we? Although my parents always supported my oddities.

      Interesting that this post has more replies than any other!

  15. I wish I had time for table top games these days; it was my favorite part of my early to mid-20s.

    D&D does get a chapter in my book, though, because of it.

  16. When I was a kid, a lot of people used to play Dungeons and Dragons. I never did but always wanted to try it out.

    Catch My Words

  17. This post made me smile, and reminded me how fun and cool RPGs are. Thanks, Arthur!

  18. I haven't ever seriously gotten into them, though I have the starter kit for DnD. I was always more into the video game campaigns like Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege. But I have noticed that the world is more open to this stuff now. Video games, board games, fantasy & sci-fi have always had a niche appeal, but I'm always happy to see them gain more acceptance--around here, I don't know anyone who doesn't know what Lawful Good means. :)