RPG Wasteland

This post wound up being a lot of text (over 2200 words including this bit), and it’s about personal stuff rather than some RPG I’m working on and/or drooling over.

A book you should read.
Patton Oswalt‘s book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is well on its way to becoming one of those rare books that I periodically reread to refresh its influence. I’ve liked standup comedy for as long as I’ve been aware that there was such a thing, and Oswalt is easily my favorite. Not only is he a fellow geek, but he has a really profound passion for what he’s doing that’s always showing through. You get glimpses of it in stuff like his magician bit, which is a story from early in his comedic career, but his book is angry and sad and beautiful and puts his passions on display. It’s got humor mixed in, but more than anything it’s a series of self-portraits, snapshots of different moments in his life.

My own life has never been very good at furnishing events that would make good stories. In middle school and high school I came to dread autobiographical writing assignments because I never seemed to have anything to say. My most successful such essay turned the assignment into a lament about how boring my life was. Things have gotten more interesting with time–in my early 30s I have just enough personal history to be able to tell stories about myself now and then–but certainly nothing on the level of what you’ll read in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. One place where life resembles role-playing games is that events just kind of happen, and without adrenaline burning them into your brain, memories of events can slip away. There are moments that stand out, but it takes effort and craft to form an enduring narrative.

Whether because of some facet of my upbringing, some genetic factor, or an overreaction to how I was treated at school, I’m a powerfully introverted person at times. Not socially inept per se (not these days anyway), but less interested in socializing than normal people. I still don’t really get why RPGs appeal so much to the socially challenged. There’s something there that’s kept me coming back for something like two decades so far, but there have also been gaming nights that have ended with me wanting to say, “Thanks for coming. Now get the fuck out of my house until next week.” I get emotionally drained, but I still enjoy what goes on before the meter runs out. Maybe it’s worth it to me to give my imagination such a playground.

I got into role-playing games in middle school when a friend introduced us to Palladium’s Robotech RPG. Our adventures were incoherent ramblings loosely based on an RPG that miserably failed to convey the essence of a hack-job anime dub that I’d never actually seen[1], but I was endlessly fascinated by the whole thing. It’s only in hindsight, nearly 20 years later, that that kind of negativity could entere into things. My second RPG was Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, basically because I was obsessed with cartoons at the time. Middle school was also where I first learned that people stuff mattered for RPGs, because our group split in half because of a personality conflict between two of my friends. I hadn’t picked sides per se, but I ended up on one side and not the other anyway. In hindsight I don’t think one side was particularly better than the other, but at the time I was mostly just baffled by the whole thing and going along for the ride. A lot of stuff was like that.

In high school, our gaming was about two thirds assorted Palladium RPGs (especially Rifts) and one third White Wolf stuff. I was nowhere near a good GM myself at the time, and in hindsight the Palladium rules were pretty terrible, but we had fun all the same. The high school I went to was made up of a bunch of cliques that kind of interacted and intersected, but didn’t have a hierarchy per se. Too many of the cliques were ethnic and didn’t care about what other people were doing, and the whole school was just apathetic enough about sports and school spirit (the cheerleaders once got booed at a rally) that the jocks had no special privileges, no clout that they could use as a cudgel against us nerds. We were the gaming geeks who hung out in the cafeteria, playing our weird RPGs (plus Magic: The Gathering) at lunch, and wherever we could get away with it after school. We would play at Frankie’s, the greasy Chinese restaurant across the street (the one with the King of Fighters ’95 machine), or we’d talk a teacher into letting us use a meeting room, or just find a spot in a hallway.

One of my high school teachers–I don’t actually remember her name now–caught me scribbling some ideas for D&D stuff during class and flipped out. I wasn’t doing this while she was lecturing, or instead of the in-class work she’d assigned. I was doing it during the last few minutes of class that were left over, and she’d seemed to be upset that I had failed to assume I should start on my homework (the stuff other teachers had drilled into us had to be done at home) with the scant remaining time. My parents later told me that in a parent-teacher conference she’d confided to them that she was worried because she’d watched her own son flounder around in life seemingly because of an obsession with RPGs.

In retrospect I think she had the chain of cause and effect exactly backwards. Although I have a day job, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was born to be a freelance novelist or some such. The personality trait that makes me want to be hunched over a word processor at home all the time is the same one that has made RPGs such a huge part of my life. I’m one of those “creative types,” and I’m always at my happiest when I’m free to create. Unfortunately the society we live in isn’t terribly kind to those kinds of people on the whole, and however much I might try to rationalize how I live my life, by a lot of important measures I’m not a success. On the other hand, I’m certain that merely removing role-playing games from the equation wouldn’t have changed that for the better. I never have and probably never will have any shortage of interests to distract me from conventional notions of success, and if I wasn’t putting all this spare time towards RPGs I’d probably be putting it towards video games, editing Wookiepedia, translating manga, or any number of other things. The whole concept of working a 9-5 job with hardly any vacations until you retire always seemed wrong to me. I’ve worked jobs like that, and even now that I’m working in the video game industry I still don’t get how anyone could work a day job and actually make such a job the center of their lives. I’ve always wanted more, something that belongs only to me.

On a similar note, in high school I had a friend (who was also the group’s main GM)[2] who wrote “You think you’ll be roleplaying with your grandchildren” in my yearbook. To be honest the thought had occurred to me, probably around the age of 16 or so, but the idea of stuff like games and cartoons being something you give up when you grow older always made even less sense to me than the whole 9-5 thing. There’s apparently a generational thing at work there, because my generation–the children of baby boomers–has supposedly continued seeking recreation well into adulthood much more than prior generations. I know people like Andy K, who works incredibly hard at a job he loves and also manages to get in plenty of gaming, or Steven Savage, who practically lives and breathes geekery. Next to that, when I think about my grandparents and their generation I can’t fathom what they even did in their spare time. My parents aren’t hippies anymore, but they’re definitely still science fiction nerds. These days that’s reflected more in DVD purchases and Netflix usage than the house’s former library of science fiction novels, but my mom’s read more fanfiction than I ever will[3].

In reality I highly doubt I’ll ever have children. It’s another one of those things that, on some intuitive level, I never quite accepted, and something where I was happier when I stopped pretending I should want what everyone else wants. Other people, people more motivated and less likely to screw things up, can raise the next generation. If my sisters ever get around to having kids I can be the wacky uncle once in a while, and maybe then children will seem less alien to me. Of course, that also means that if I’m going to have any kind of legacy I have to get off my butt and create things.

RPGs are a part of who I am, and of all the things that I’ve pursued, none has been quite so persistent as role-playing games. I gave up playing electric bass relatively quickly, my novel-writing tends to stall at times, and I really should brush up on Japanese, but I’ve basically never stopped playing and designing RPGs. My early attempts are mostly things I wouldn’t really want to show off even if I did still have the files, but RPGs are one of the things in my life where I can very clearly and confidently say I’ve been steadily improving. Magical Burst and Slime Story are light years ahead of the likes of Return of the Dragon, and they’re on their way to being far better than Thrash or Mascot-tan.

This morning I reread the title essay of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (you can listen to him read it here) and realized that in his scheme for categorizing creative outcasts I’m definitely a Wasteland. In real life I would be totally useless and lost without the comforts of this postindustrial civilization I live in, but part of me wouldn’t mind tearing it all down and building something new. I don’t mean apocalypse per se–that’s one of the few religious beliefs I find outright offensive–but something simpler I can wrap my head around. I’ve realized that I prefer my RPGs (and stories and so forth) to be about more personal matters, because I have a hard time wrapping my head around what will change the fate of a civilization. But a ship’s crew, a handful of magical girls, or a party of teenage monster hunters (or god help me a master and his maids) are things I can dig into and properly care about. Maybe it’s a Monkeysphere thing.

The idea that there’s an end is a really powerful one, and it underlies most of the really big anime titles[4]. Yamato, Gundam, Macross, and Evangelion all have the end of the world as a prologue. Rather than a static kingdom of God, the aftermath of the end of the world is the start of something new, an era when a lot of the bullshit was cleaved away, but lots of challenges remain.

None of this has an actual endpoint. That’s how creative stuff works. I think it’s how life works. There’s always something after the “end.” If I got a novel published and it became a bestseller, there would still be the matter of writing the next book, and then the one after that. When my little sister Debbie gets married, that’ll be the start of something, not a finish line. The other day I realized that life could be so much easier if I wasn’t always struggling to create stuff, struggling both with the craft itself and finding the time and motivation to make it happen (stupid Resistance). I could just concern myself with finding ways to pass the time. Except, it’s in my blood, it’s who I am, and it’s not going away. The past couple years I’ve been feeling like I’m just on the edge of getting where I need to be in life, and then I’ll be able to finally get started.

[1]Among Kevin Siembieda’s many flawed ideas that went into his Robotech game was the notion that there was no need to really explain the setting because Robotech was in reruns everywhere. That he used the word “Japanimation” with a straight face I’ll chalk up to what year these books came out.

[2]This was also the friend who once told me with a straight face, “The Palladium system is, like, perfect. You’re the only one who has to be a deviant and try to make up new systems.” I doubt he remembers that, because he had a knack for saying memorable things, forgetting that he said them, and then acting like I was crazy when I brought them up later.

[3]Albeit mostly based on obscure cop shows and westerns she likes (The Sentinel, Magnificent Seven, etc.). Of course, it shows how amazing the internet is that those kinds of things exist in the first place.

[4]I could probably write a whole other essay about anime (“Are you a Magical Girl, a Mecha, or a Shinigami?”), but I’ve been putting my RPG peanut butter into my anime chocolate for ages now, and my understanding of “anime” has grown immensely in sophistication along with my understanding of RPGs.

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3 thoughts on “RPG Wasteland

  1. Heeee. :D
    Reading this, somehow, you’ve Respect lvl up in my head. ^__^;; Not that I know anything about RPG’s (especially compared to you and the guys, but still). You’re awesome. :) And please don’t stop being you.

    Ok?

  2. Interesting, because I find myself split.
    1) I like an end, so we can look back on things, so we have a sense of completion, and to move on in a game.
    2) I love little fine life details that don’t have ends.

    If I were to ask what kind of RPG I’d enjoy, it’d probably be short-self contained, or a serial epic where every year or two we advance to “after” wit a different crew/cast a few years later.

    Thought-provoking.

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