Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Tome of Inspiration +5

I blogged recently (on my random mescaline-addled blogspot) about inspirations that have guided my writing--and within that is not just my published fantasy work, but my YA sci-fi story currently lurking in a slush-pile somewhere nowhere near you. The blog noted the key influence of comics in my style, focusing particularly on the work of John Byrne.

But if I had to cite one key formative step in my writing there is no doubt that it would be role playing games, and of them all (and believe me I played almost all of them in the Eighties) it has to be Dungeons and Dragons.

This will come as no surprise to those who read Skulldust Circle, and indeed I know that at least one (if not most) of my six buddies owe allegiance to the frothing offspring of E Gary Gygax. This is the "I'm Spartacus" moment when they all concur....

[Echoes of fervent agreement as I level my Crossbow of Author Castrating +2]

I first observed the DnD phenomenon via my mate Nick Earnshaw's brothers' piles of DnD stuff. They were placed around his house, in little piles, under tables and cabinets- enticing mounds of graph paper, funny dice, rule books and modules. This was in c1981 and thus we are talking old school first edition AD&D here. I properly got into it when (a) I started on the Fighting Fantasy books and (b) got intrigued by The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Ralph Bakshi had released a cartoon of LOTR and i recall seeing a recovered LOTR book at my mate's house (and indeed, we later played Middle Earth RPG). I started, as many did, on Basic D&D, moving onto Expert and from that, Advanced. I spent my life savings (about £30) on the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Players Handbook, doing without the Monster Manual for  year or so (creating many odd interpretations of the monsters found in that big table in the appendix of the DMG).

And the creativity began. We played a lot of the modules at first: The giant and the Drow ones (G1-3, D1-3, Q1) I ran with my younger brother. We played White Plume Mountain about ten times over (how cool was Black Razor? Like bloody StormBringer), Tomb of Horrors, one of the A ones (I forget which) and... as time went on, and the adventures got cooler, the UK modules and Dragonlance (and of course, Ravenloft).

But the real fun in the game was the real creativity--the writing of my own adventures, the generation of a campaign. Although through the Eighties we played dozens of other RPGs (Runequest, Traveller, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, Dr Who, Star Trek, MERPG, Toon, Judge Dredd, Bushido, Marvel Superheroes, Villians and Vigilantes, the time travel one, a gangster one too....) DnD was always my favourite. What we created changed with our tastes, or maturity and our outside influences. In the beginning it was daft, far-fetched, almost cartoonish--i recall a repeat-action crossbow that we loved in Hawk The Slayer, that half the characters had. Later we would weave together intricate campaigns, with fully realised histories.
I was never one for using TSRs campaign worlds (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) although when I ran a campaign in 1988-1991 i used the Fighting Fantasy sourcebook Titan as the basis for the adventures. But the story became personal, almost like a soap opera, with marriages, kids, relationships. old family feuds, arch-enemies and recurrent villains. Like a story, like a RPG should be.

Then I hit medical school, and we all moved apart in the country. Bar one or two sessions we all accepted that we'd not play again and, when wives and kids arrived, it seemed even less likely.
Around 5 years ago, bored one evening, i began to write a quick story about the characters we used to play with. I e-mailed it out to the guys and they loved it, and so I began to write a story as if we were playing the adventures again, with all the references to the characters histories.

It felt great, creating once more, breathing life into dialogue and action. The 300 pages the story ran to taught me a huge amount about writing, about structure. As it was concluding one of my mates, Ant, commented that I should tackle something brand new... something not related to our prior campaign.

So it began with a map... and now its a six book saga.

It took a while to escape the complete DnD influence. The first draft was very DnD style, with the magic derivative, and the characters almost having classes and levels! It took a bit of discipline and merciless use of the Red Pen of Sorrow +1 to tame the bias in the text.

But despite the modifications and moderations, it is unashamedly a book written by a DnD player (and Dungeon Master). I'm proud of that fact, and proud that I'm now starting a campaign with my kids (aged 10 and 8)... and White Plume Mountain awaits....

Over my next few posts I thought I'd bring it full circle. When I began playing DnD it inspired my reading of fantasy. The books I read then had a huge impact on me and I've continued my love of the fantasy classics that shaped the DnD games recently with a few books that I always meant to read. For fun I'm going to talk about them as i read them over the next six or so SkullDust posts I'm writing. Hope it'll be interesting fro gamers and fantasy buffs alike.


  1. D&D is what my children were raised on. And with the sole exception of 'Vin the Conquerer' they are all solid citizens. (With creative conversations and rather interesting hobbies)

    1. Thanks, Connie. As long as you keep 'Vin' away from sharp objects he shouldn't go all Mazes and Monsters on you....

  2. The eighties were the best. It was when I began playing D&D, too. It is my favourite game of all time. I started with the basics like you, and we moved to the advanced. That's where we stayed though the DM attempted to bring the mind-magic (Cyonics?) into the picture, we--the players--didn't want that. We loved the rawness of the basic structure. We went on campaigns that lasted years (we played every Friday night without fail for about five years). Our group numbered between 12 and 20. I was always player. D&D introduced me to the fantasy world and inspired me to write and read that genre. I love it and will always look fondly on that time in my life. My stories are epic fantasy and hold true to some of the values in basic D&D. That is the world I love.

    I was the map-maker of the our group. It was a great way to learn the basics of map-drawing.

    PS: I still have my references books and occasionally look to them if I need a list of herbs/monsters/spells, but I haven't played since about 1988.

    Thanks for bringing the past forward.

    1. Thanks Diane. I pretty much got stuck as DM from word 'go', although in non-DnD games i often played. My work is proudly influenced by DnD, which in turn is heavily influenced by some key fantasy works, which I'm going to read through. Ironically I have a kind of psionics in my book, and played it a little in the game (so I could use mind flayers, intellect devourers and so forth!).

  3. Ross, I must say I'm a bit frightened. I feel like I could have written that post! So many similarities, we were destined to find each other, lol.

    1. Dude, you'll get the other members of the Circle jealous with out Bromance. I think theres a certain style of fantasy writing (Hickman and Weis most obvious examples) that pays homage to DnD and I'm pleased both of us follwo in that vein. The trick's to avoid the stereotypes and cliches, but thats the same with all fantasy I think.

  4. I started with RPGs in 1980 or so. Some older friends from school were running a Tunnels & Trolls game and needed a Wizard.... Like you, many systems followed as I grew into the idea. I never played the basic D&D - we started that on AD&D. Although I loved that system, in those years two others held my attention - Runequest & Traveller - both of which had wonderful backgrounds and histories. Although the friends in the group changed, the times and days of meetings too, I never really grew out of it all. In university years I started doing Live Roleplay and have MANY happy memories of the time.

    Although not (yet) a writer, as you say there are many works of reference from various systems that I'd call on - the source books for Chivalry & Sorcery being some of the best for herbalism, alchemy and magic that I know.

    As you say, being a parent and husband I do not currently have the time to indulge my whims, and the online RPG games just don't do it for me. I look forward to my daughter growing slightly older, then to introduce her to some of the games Daddy used to play (with the figure painting, etc that goes hand in hand with it... *grin*)

    In closing, thanks for reminding me of things that I am glad not to have forgotten in my 'old age'....

  5. Andrew, that was an awesome comment, thank you. Tunnels and Trolls! Oh, man, there were some sinister traps in that game. I'll concur on on-line RPG: if I had the time to do those then I'd have the time to play with friends and start a new campaign!
    For me the beauty of DnD was the fact it felt limitless and that the rule system was simple enough to allow such flexibility. On-line RPG can't do that for me, although I can see their general appeal.
    Count down the days until your daughter is old enough to corrupt!!
    Thnaks for commenting.

  6. Thank Odin I made my saving throw versus castration. It was either that or dig into my Bag of Holding to retrieve my Athletic Supporter of Reflection +3. Great Post, Ross.