Lucky 1s

Every year, at every Game Con, there is this one guy.

He usually stands outside in the hallways, but sometimes you find him sitting by himself in the designer panels lost in his own funk. But more often than not, he sits off to the side of the gaming tables and listens to dice clattering, pencils etching on paper and the voices of Dungeon Masters at work and players at play.

He isn’t a cosplayer, but he doesn’t bother them either. For the most part, he looks pretty unremarkable: just a stubbly-chinned man in black jeans and a dark blue hoodie. But there are three things that stand out about him.

The first is that he doesn’t play in any of the games. Ever. You have to understand, I’ve seen him here three days in a row and Game Con is expensive. The three-day pass does not come cheap. But I’ve seen it on his neck, though some reason I can never make out the name on it. Instead of playing, he always watches the players from a distance. And it is always the players too. He doesn’t creep on the girls dressed in anime costumes or as D&D barbarian women. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to register them. Instead, he just watches the players — both male and female — at play.

I never get that creeper vibe from him, but sometimes when there’s laughter I see his hand clench around the one object he always carries with him.

But I’ve noticed something else. Whenever he does come close to a gaming table — and it’s really the most freaking weirdest thing — the players begin to move away from him. I don’t mean that they shift away uncomfortably or pretend he doesn’t exist as most ostracism works. No: I’m talking about people going off somewhere else to another table, or booth, or right out of the Convention Centre.

I didn’t notice this at first, but for some reason this guy would just not stay in the background for me. But the gamers that left when he came close didn’t even so much as look at him: at all.

I said there were three strange things about this guy, right? Well, I should probably be more specific about the last two, and I will be when I tell you a little more about who he is. One day, I asked some of my buddies about this guy.

“Oh shit man, that’s Lucky 1s.”

“The Fumbler.”

“The Die himself.”

Most of that didn’t tell me anything at first, but I caught on to the “Fumbler” title. They told me more, but it was less. Apparently, “Lucky 1s” was a gamer — a table-top role-player — who had the worst luck with dice-rolling ever. No one seemed to know or remember his real name but apparently, according to Con lore, he always rolled 1s on his dice. It didn’t matter what die he used or what game he played with dice.

He always got 1s.

Word was that he was bad luck. Some said he broke up with his girlfriend before an important quest and it had tainted his luck score. Others thought he attempted to melt and manipulate the ultimate die as some cheaters do and it went horrifically wrong: angering the dice gods forever. Some quietly insisted that he had insulted Wil Wheaton when the man had attempted to bless his dice; while others believed — really truly believed — that he just masturbated too much.

So — in other words — aside from the fact that no one clearly shook hands with the man (and they were clearly ones to talk), most of their claims were superstitious bullshit, and a sad kind of D&D superstitious bullshit to boot: which is of the lowest kind.

But none of them ever went near him: ever. They told me they were “afraid” that his bad luck would taint their luck too and there were … stories … vague, menacing stories.

I think I felt bad for him. I mean, many of us are geeks and we should all know better. Ostracizing someone and spreading rumours about them is bullshit: no matter how bad their luck is. That day, he was sitting in the corner of the gaming room at his own table. I was very aware now of the object in his hand: the one that he always carried.

It was, and it is, this cherry red twenty-sided die. He was rolling it on the table. It sounded like clattering bones. At the time there was a game not far from his table and I could hear the beginnings of an argument: mainly what I thought was bickering over rules or some over-enthusiastic debate about combat resolution. You know: just usual disputes.

I sat down with him. His hoodie obscured most of his face — except for his scruffy chin — and completely blocked out his eyes with shadow. I introduced myself. He said nothing. He just kept rolling that one die of his. I saw his three-day pass hung around his neck and I finally got a glimpse at the messy handwriting on it that I couldn’t make out even. I told him what panels and games I’d come for and asked him what he was here for.

Gradually, he started talking. Sometimes I couldn’t make out his words over the sounds of groaning and yelling from the nearby gamer table. We, naturally, started talking about gaming.

“I always loved Dungeons and Dragons,” he said in a soft, soft voice.

“Loved?” I asked, puzzled at the emphasis on the past-tense.

He inclined his head a bit and kept rolling his die, though I didn’t see the number it landed on then, “Yes well … I liked the role-playing element more than most. I found the numbers, the positioning of the figurines and the math to be freaking tedious at times. No offence.”

“None taken,” I told him, “the rules get updated all the time, but they do structure it out and make it interesting.”

“True,” he said after another bone-rattling dice-roll pause, something that looked like a purely mechanical act more than a nervous tic, “But I really loved getting into character: acting it out and immersing myself into the world. I loved problem-solving through role-playing the character out,” he smiled then and it was almost a happy smile, “Yeah. I was one of those kinds of players.”

“Hey, liking Batman doesn’t make your dick bigger,” I said, “though really it’s beautiful women that do it for me.”

He actually chuckled a bit at that, “Yeah. Elitism sucks … especially when you are the only one.”

I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but it was enough for me to sense that there was a talk coming. For one, he stopped rolling his die. From my own DMing experience I knew this was the time to be quiet and listen.

“You know, some of them think I actually traded all my good rolls to Lord Orkus: to make my dick bigger or some shit like that,” the other looked down at himself, “If that was the case, maybe I should have prayed to the Dragon god Bahamut instead.

“It just … started one day. I don’t even remember when. I can tell you, though, what it feels like.

“You know when you’re going to have a good roll or a bad one. I think every gambler and role-player knows it on some very intrinsic level,” he rolled his die and this time I saw it land on a big, fat, white 1, “When it’s a good roll, or one with great possibility it sings and surges through your blood. There’s hope. There’s excitement. There’s fun,” he rolls the die again and it lands on the same number, “But when you have a bad roll, it feels flat. Your stomach sinks when you cast that die, and you know even before it lands what it’s going to be: if you’re honest with yourself. Dread makes it even more sour and you don’t even want to look at it. It is just that bad.”

He rolled it again, “Every one of us knows what kind of roll we’re going to get. We just lie to ourselves and say it’s purely up to chance. I’m not even sure if the die affects our luck, or if it’s our own spirit — our self-confidence and personal energy — that affects the die.”

The die landed on another 1 as he continued talking, “My friends heckled me. They said I was cursed. ‘You’re cursed, Lucky 1s,’ they told me, ‘you’re cursed …'” he shook his head, “No matter what I rolled, it’s always been the same. I role-played as best I could, but the dice always betrayed me,” I could feel him glaring down at that 1 with a very palpable sense of hatred, “Eventually, I kept being the one to screw up our group quests and they stopped inviting me to games.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him, and meant it, “That was a shitty thing to do.”

“My attitude was getting worse, to be fair,” he rolled the die, making it clatter dangerously near the table’s edge, “I kept this die: where it all started from. I thought I might as well at least be honest about that with myself. I was so … angry, you know? They blamed me for my bad rolls. Blamed me like I was somehow responsible for them. Like I wanted them on some level. It was bullshit.

“Sometimes I think they did it to me. There’s energy in group games–good and bad–and after a while I started to believe it. I started to embody it.”

“Those are a lot of 1s,” I admitted, with a little ripple of goosebumps forming across my arms, “Maybe you have five dots in Entropy.”

“Dots?”

Mage: The Ascension,” I told him, “Well, that’s how stats work in White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness campaigns. In Ascension, the Euthanatos are mages that deal in death and luck: in matter breaking down and continuously changing. Entropy. Somehow, I think you might like that game.”

“Heh. It does sound cool. It would be nice to play again and not suck,” between the sharper sounds of him rolling the die hard against the table and the growing clamour of the other table, it was getting harder to hear him, “You know, some people get Natural 20s on their rolls. All the time. But I get 1s. I get freaking,” he rolled the die, “goddamned,” he rolled the die again, “1s!

Suddenly, he just whipped that die onto the ground beside us. I looked down and, yeah, it was very creepy. Even on the floor, it landed on a 1. I was almost tempted to mention that he needed some Felix Felicis, but that was definitely not the time for a Harry Potter joke.

We were both quiet for a while. His shoulders were slouching. To be honest, he looked miserable and lonely: the kind of person that wished they would be eaten by a Grue.

I don’t know why I did it. I reached down and picked up his die. The noise from the other table was getting very rowdy. Some of the players were leaving. I slid the die over to his hands on the table. And, to this day, I really don’t know why I asked him this one question: but I did.

“Have you ever gotten Natural 20s?”

It was a dumb question after everything that I had observed today. But instead of walking away, or shouting at me, or smirking, he looked down at the red die and said, “Only in a group. And only when I get angry.”

He picked up the die and whipped it on the table with a hard crack. I was almost surprised the Game Con Volunteers and security guards didn’t hear it, but the sounds from the other table probably drowned it out. He did it again. And again. And again. It was like a gunshot each time.

20.

20.

20.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Critical hit.

Finally, the whole other table close to us dispersed and I could hear some of the departing conversation, “All bad rolls.”

“And 1s. So many fucking 1s …”

He looked up at me then and I could finally see his eyes. They were dark and sad.

“That is the real reason why no one will play with me. Ever.

“You know, some people just get Natural 20s with a kind of cockiness or an easy grace. I wish I had been one of them. But if ‘should-ofs’ were treasure, we’d all have a lot of fat loots.”

He got up then and handed his die back to me, “I think I’ve finally rolled all the 1s out of this fucker. Maybe a few of the 20s too. There are some solid numbers left though. Good numbers. Not too lucky, but not a fumbler. Damn, I hate being called that … almost as much as Lucky 1s … Anyway, thanks for listening.”

“Hey,” I said before he could leave, “you should really check into LARPing. There’s a Mage game here at the Con. I think you’d like it.”

His back was facing me at this point, but I thought I saw him nod. Then, he vanished into a crowd of oncoming players.

I still see him around, you know, that guy they still call “Lucky 1s.” He doesn’t just stand around as much anymore, I’m glad to say. Evidently he found that Live-Action Mage game I told him about: where he plays as a Euthanatos that feeds on the bad luck of others. He doesn’t wear his hoodie now and he smiles a lot more.

I still have his 20-sided die and I have to say that — to this day — I’ve never failed a roll.

Imagination Is Thicker Than Blood

In a post that Vampire Maman wrote, You Transfix Me Quite, she talks about how the character of Jane Eyre would have made an excellent vampire. Vampire Maman has a lot of very interesting and entertaining creative writing, but it reminded me of something I bring up from time to time out of a sense of sheer silliness.

I never played the Old World of Darkness Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game, but I heard people talk about it and I researched as much about it as I could online. And I always wondered what kind of vampire I would be in that world.

There are many different Clans and, more specifically, Bloodlines in Vampire: The Masquerade. As a result, each vampire belonging to a particular line had different attributes than his or her fellow. Originally I toyed with being part of Clan Tremere because of their knowledge of blood magic and the fact that they seized their vampirism: they weren’t–at least knowingly–turned by another vampire, but rather they were mages that took blood from a captured vampire to make themselves powerful and immortal … though they didn’t count on the fact that they would still possess the inherent weaknesses of the Kindred.

But I abandoned that idea because they are too stratified in social structure and limited in numbers. So I thought I might have been a Ventrue. And indeed, some people believe that I am a very calm, detached, and dispassionate being whenever they meet me offline. I can be calculating and organizational like this Clan tends to be portrayed but this is not my major strong point and not even a fraction of the personality I really have. Still, I can appreciate the Blood Discipline of Dominate: you know, that stereotypical ability to hypnotize or mesmerize another being.

My girlfriend once said that I would make an excellent member of the Toreadors. A Toreador is either a very beautiful vampire that creates a series of social networks and supports various kinds of art, or they are artists themselves that spend their immortality oftentimes secluded and making new things, or they are both. Generally, they are closest to humanity as they like to watch and support their artistic endeavours and fads. Aside from the compliment of being compared to something beautiful and creative, I also share their obsession with a particular object: such as art. Yet they can also be very vain and fickle, and while I have some of those traits, they are not paramount in who I am.

Which brings me to the final Clan I was told about. One day, my girlfriend changed her mind about something. She thought that I could also be a Brujah. Now, I had heard about this Clan. In the Modern Nights era of that world, they were generally characterized as passionate, frenzied vampires that were usually punks, brawlers, and anarchists. However, in ancient times they were known as disciplined warriors and philosophers that embraced a particular ideal: honing body, mind, soul, and altered power to fight for what they believed in. They were not merely turned from fighters, but also lawmakers, orators, and thinkers. I can also see them having turned some artists along the way as well: much like the Toreador.

I would not be a typical Brujah of the modern period, I would imagine and I would probably seem more like a Toreador on the surface with some Ventrue discipline and calculation. At the same time, I would definitely be a fighter and a defiant force: through the imagery of my words.

But all these distinctions aside, would I make a good vampire? The answer is that I probably would in a very reluctant sort of way. I already have difficulty with a mortal life, and immortality would just be inconceivable with my range of emotions. On the other hand, a lot of physical burdens would no longer be an issue and perhaps–just like in this real world–I would have phases of activity and dormancy. Maybe with time I would surpass many mental challenges and blocks as well. It is hard to say what it would like in a hypothetical and fictional situation but, like I said, it is definitely fun to think about.

I Wanna Cast Magic Missile: Art, Science, Spellcasting, and Making Things

The Dead Alewives comedy skit reference aside, there are two classes of spell-caster in Dungeons and Dragons that have always interested me. I would imagine that most people who are familiar with the fantasy genre know what mages are. Mages are essentially spell-casters that use magic through rigorous study, research, and memorization of rotes and ritual. Much of the phenomenon that they create and observe is practised in a manner not unlike science: although inevitably it is a science based on a different kind of reality and series of physics intrinsically different from our own. Essentially, add animism–the idea of a sentient or semi-sentient spirit–inside all organic and inorganic matter and you see how mages can create a science of pacts, magic circles, and artifacts to understand, classify, and control their surroundings.

Then you have sorcerers. Sorcerers are also people who use magic. However, they can’t learn to harness their power through textbooks or even teachers. Whereas mages have a very stratified and hierarchical arrangement of knowledge–of learning and politics–sorcerers tend to be loners, and have to learn how to use their power through trial and error. You will notice that I make a distinction. Mages use magic and work with or twist the rules that exist around them. Sorcerers have their own power. It is, at least in some depicted worlds, inherent within them. In some D&D worlds, they are considered Dragon-Blooded or something along those lines. Essentially, sorcerers have a power that they can only access through experimentation and direct experience: and the power expresses itself differently depending on the personality and the focus of the person that harnesses it.

I’m also not saying that sorcerers can’t have teachers, but these teachers are generally more like mentors: in that they can give them hints and show them how they use their power, but in the end it is ultimately up to the sorcerer to find their own way.

As you can imagine, mages have an advantage with regards to resources and guidance. They have a craft or a science with very clear rules that they can work with or seek to circumvent entirely. Basically, the most ambitious mage operates on the principle that it is only by knowing the rules that you can eventually get around them, make new rules, or surpass all of them entirely.

However, the sorcerer does not solely depend on a book of spells or external sources to empower them. They have that spark inside of them and, if they survive long enough or adapt to that point, they can summon the power they need and do it in a way that is customized solely to their touch. In other words, no one else can cast magic the way that one sorcerer can. In addition, they do not have centuries of tradition or hierarchy to limit their very perception of what can be experimented with.

Mages are usually part of an academy. Sorcerers are often autodidacts: those people who teach themselves what they need to know. You could make an even greater generalization and state that mages are the academics of a relatively established system of magic while sorcerers are artists of their own personalized mystical arts.

But here is the thing that always strikes me: where is the line?

Let’s say that writing is magic. There is a large amount of theory and documentation about writing. Universities and colleges teach one about grammar, spelling, and various conventions and genres. Schools have teachers. You are taught to view something analytically and you are exposed to various selected texts to influence you. It is also argued that at least in the Modernist era many writers had this form of formal education and knew what the rules were before experimenting with them. You can also apply this model to fine art: learning the basic shapes of various elements before you can experiment with them.

It might be tempted to say that people that work with such matters would be the equivalent of mages. But then consider this. After the academy, the mentorships, and the peer-reviews you are left to your own devices. Or better yet: you were never exposed to these. You were taught just enough to know the basics and then encouraged by something inside of you to seek out those things that greatly interest and resonate with you and work with them. You are not in the classroom with its specialized language and jargon. You often find yourself in strange and unconventional places: perhaps doing even more unorthodox things. You keep recording these experiences inside of you and you express them in different ways: making as though you are dreaming, or screaming, or just being.

But where is the line? Isn’t it possible to have that spark in you from the very beginning: to learn the rules and conventions of an established system and then go out into the world and learn your own words with and beyond that structure? I know that I may have merely described another mage with this extended analogy, but consider when a science and craft verges past that line into personal art. Sometimes a person can’t learn how to use their power of expression through established or conventional means. Sometimes you make or conceive something that can’t be replicated through a formula.

But is it at all possible to learn the basics from a formal education and then use personal experience and that spark–whatever it is and if it even exists–to make something new: or at least a really interesting variant of something that already exists?

I think, for me–in this analogy–that I was born a sorcerer but trained as a mage for most of my life. In my time at the academy, I sought to follow my own work through less travelled paths and eventually came to a point where I realized that I needed to pursue the knowledge I needed on my own. My teachers and my University gave me tools and selected readings and their own perspectives. But I know, after my time in a Creative Writing Program, that while teachers can teach you how to write or how something works, it is ultimately up to you to express your own personal voice. No other writer, artist, academic, book or work can do that for you. It is both a difficult challenge and an incredibly awesome task which, in the end, is entirely up to you.

Therefore, in the end–having gone far past the danger of making faulty analogies and false dichotomies–I feel like a mage with the heart of a sorcerer.

And with that, I cast magic missile into the darkness.

Fate, Fortune, and Freewill: The Challenges of Table-Top Role-Playing

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So during my last game session with my friends, one of my characters seems to have died. This would actually be the first time I had a character that died in a table-top role-playing game. Sir Vaeric Aedrin of the Order of the Imperial Knights was last seen drowning in a sandstorm in a desert on Mandalore. Why did this happen? Well, very simply enough: he failed his Survival and Endurance rolls on the D20 system and the last I saw of him was him being buried in sand.

I’ll admit. I wasn’t very happy. But for the most part I really liked how I role-played him. Sometimes you have to understand that, in at least a D20 role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons or one that uses the former’s rules, a lot of your actions and their consequences are determined by the role of the dice.

It can be frustrating. You come up with these ideas and you plan out what you want to do–though some cases you have enough additional modifiers to add to the dice number to exceed the difficulty number–and then you have to basically trust in the die or dice not to fuck you over. And sometimes that D20, that twenty-sided die, is not always your friend.

That’s not the only challenge in role-playing this kind of game however. There is also the challenge in creating a personality for your character and to keep role-playing that personality consistently. I like to create back stories for my characters and then attempt to have the character act according the nature I made for them. The thing is, even barring the fact that you could make a roll that changes the outcome of a situation, you have to also take into account that your character will change. It’s impossible for them not to. You have to figure that stress and particular situations will greatly influence them. Your Dungeon Master or perhaps more accurately your Game Master–if they are any Game Master at all–will present challenging situations for you to role-play through. I don’t just mean creating physical obstacles or enemies to kill, but moral quandaries and interactive role-play situations as well.

For instance, Sir Vaeric as well as his commander Sir Kentari and the recent addition Sir Hett go into a Mandalorian base to investigate it: as one of their other team-mates had a calling from the Force that there was something important about this place. They end up getting caught in a fire-fight between two Mandalorian factions. Choosing a side becomes easy in that their new companion Sir Hett is on one side. But it’s what happened afterwards that I’m thinking about. Sir Vaeric is a bladesmaster and a man of honour, yet his allegiance is ultimately to the Empress, or as was his battle cry, “For Empress and Empire.” There are these refugees and the surviving Mandalorians that are protecting them. They are all headed to the same place to, presumably, the Resistance of a Death Watch ruled Mandalore.

Sir Vaeric tactically believes that having more Mandos on their side could bolster their chances of survival. He also thinks it’s the right time to do to allow the refugees–victims of Death Watch’s allies–to have some protection and be able to fight in the Resistance: maybe even as a gesture of good will so that the Resistance will be more inclined to give he and his fellow Knights their Prince back. Sir Kentari, on the other hand, along with Sir Hett remember their oaths as Imperial Knights and see their mission to get their Prince back as paramount. They also greatly esteem their abilities over everyone else’s and have a certain degree of arrogance that is something of a trademark among Imperial Knights. They rebuke Sir Vaeric–thinking he is delirious from a neck wound–and in the end even he sees that refugees would slow them down and attract more notice to them.

In the end, the refugees and their Mando Clan are free to leave and both parties go their separate ways: which is just as well because we also encountered a sandstorm that would have killed all of them had they come with us. But you see with this example of how Sir Vaeric’s personality and his oaths conflict. What complicates this even further is that I was also playing Dravas C’Tor: my humanitarian Force-sensitive archaeologist and he would have definitely wanted those refugees saved. In retrospect, separating the two personalities–as well as what I want to as a player–was definitely a challenge and it can be easy to confuse the two.

Another notable example was when we were all in the desert, Sir Kentari had to make a choice between rescuing his Knight Brethren that fell in the winds and C’Tor. Dravas C’Tor in another game accidentally killed his Master and failed to save the life of his Knight Brother in a previous quest. Sir Kentari would have loved to save Sir Vaeric and Sir Hett and left C’Tor to rot. But his mission was to save the Prince and C’Tor was selected by the Empress to be the negotiator between the Empire and the Resistance: since he had ties with the latter. In the end, Sir Kentari had to save a man he despises, “For Empress and Empire.”

I think another confusing matter that does tend to come up is remembering that there is what you as a player wants or knows, and what you as a character would do. You might think that after a long time of role-playing, it would get easier to differentiate the two, but doesn’t. You will always be challenged: especially when you play characters with different experiences and knowledge. I can’t tell you of the times I wanted to access computers just to remember that I’m not my NX droid, or examine the lore of a civilization and I’m not my scholar character, or even sometimes get aggressive and realize that is how my Sith character would be. Now it is wanting to go into direct combat and remembering that I’m not my Imperial Knight anymore.

The thing is that when I make a character, there are commonalities from my own personality. They tend to be knowledge-based or artistic in some way: even if it is being artistic with a lightsaber blade. But what I know as a player or, as someone who has lived a thousand lives as a player to adapt George R.R. Martin’s phrase, is not necessarily something I know or can do in-character.

So really, I can sum it up like this: I have an idea of where my character has been and where they want to go. There are rules in place to see if what they do actually works or how their actions actually happen. At the same time, I have to make decisions that are separate from the dice rolls. Sometimes, I really don’t like dice rolls and numbers: partially because I have difficulty with numbers, but also I tend to role-play or act out my characters more than rely or depend on my statistics. However, I also try to remember my statistics because there do need to be rules in place–to create a structure–and it is a pretty cool thing when you roll your die and you get a 20 or, in my die’s case, an “EQ.”

I would have been very angry if, say, Sir Vaeric died in the desert automatically and there was nothing I could about it. A lot of players would have been pissed that they hadn’t died in battle. But the way our GM did it made a lot of sense. We had to roll to pass Endurance and Survival checks. We had the chance to succeed or fail. We didn’t just immediately die in an arbitrary way. Also, it’s realistic. When you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain and you’re not prepared to be there or deal with harsh environmental conditions, you are at risk. Weather brings armies down. You can be the greatest swordsman in the galaxy, but when a sandstorm and static electric currents assault you, you’re probably going to be screwed.

I’ll admit that numbers and statistics and feats do play a role in something like a D20 game and I am not always the best at figuring our the rules. But I also know it is a lot more than just numbers or the equipment you get or the back-story you make. In my other article, Role-Playing as Interactive World-Building, I talk about how a role-playing is a creative collaboration and it’s no less true here. Your character will evolve. You will roll twos on your D20 and fail a medical procedure that could have saved a companion’s life. Out of character, you know that’s not your fault, but in character there is the reactions of everyone to consider. You incorporate the results of rolls and actual decisions you make into how you and your characters interact with and change the world you make.

In the end, I’d say that when you table-top role-play, your first collaborators along with the GM are fate, fortune, and freewill. There is a plan and the dice can randomize that plan, and your game might have a particular spirit of its own, but your decisions are still very much important.

Games I Never Played: Mage and Castle Falkenstein

My last post was about the role-playing game that my friends and I have played on and off for some years now. But what began to change my attitudes about table-top role-playing–and what it is actually about–was something else.

For years, I’d played Dungeons and Dragons. I was typically a mage character that backed up the warriors and clerics in my group of friends. We fought generic monsters and all that lovely stuff. Basically, I was used to the Nordic medieval model of what a table-top role-playing fantasy world usually is: often taken from the influential J.R.R. Tolkien model of Middle-Earth. This was often augmented with my own readings of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series as well as those strange and multifarious wonders found in Forgotten Realms.

White Wolf’s Mage series also changed my attitudes about what I thought a game should be. Mage–as part of White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness line–introduced me to a lot of metaphysical concepts as well as new ways of looking at what a mage should be.

In the Old World of Darkness, a mage was much more than a person in robes, with a spell book and a staff: they could be wuxia-adept martial artists (wuxia being a fictionally depicted form of martial art that lets its practitioners unleash supernatural feats), mad scientists, Matrix-like computer-hackers, secret adept societies, shamans, pagan witches and all the different interpretations you could get away with. They even had these people called The Hollow Ones: essentially magic-wielding Goths that delved into countless different sources of knowledge from the Romantic period to the present time while taking their joy as the world burned.

I was in a very pessimistic and cynical mind-set in those days and the idea of a World of Darkness: where everything was degrading and there were secret fonts of knowledge intrigued me a lot. The esoteric and abstract rule-system also fascinated me: by having dots in various skills and attributes and Spheres of Magic. You also had something called Arete–the Greek word for honours or excellence–which was a dot-metre that determined how much of reality you understood and how much enlightenment you had. The more dots you had, the more Sphere dots you could get. That said, it also relied a lot on actual role-playing: on acting out your character.

I did have issues with the fact that there was this thing called Paradox. Essentially, a Mage affects Reality with their power, but Reality is made from consent: Consensual Reality being created from what a majority of people unconsciously believe in. So if you used a blatant display of magic in a reality that did not accept that such a thing could happen (like throwing a fireball from your hand), you would suffer Paradox and if you gained enough of it bad stuff would happen. Of course, this was not counting the fact that some of your spells might not even happen at all because reality doesn’t except it.

So I had issues with that. In retrospect though, the impetus on making subtle magics: on combining minor spells with major overt actions and creating some plausible deniability towards reality is really cool.

But it wasn’t always a very positive world-view and after a while I started to think back on another strange role-playing world I was introduced to. A friend introduced me to a world called Castle Falkenstein. I found it … really bizarre at the time, but in a weird way that was very compelling. Bear in mind that I had up until that moment never even heard of steampunk or understood what it was.

In Castle Falkenstein, I found an alternate Victorian world where fictional and historical characters existed side by side along with magickal lodges, secret societies, spies, mad scientists, Dwarven engineers, Faerie Lords and Dragons. The core book introduces you to the world through a character from our own–Tom Olam–who was a computer game designer and was essentially kidnapped by a wizard and a Faerie Lord to save their version of Earth. Tom Olam actually makes it his duty to make sure that the alternate Earth in Falkenstein does not enter into two World Wars and become like ours. He attempts to save magick, the Faeries and even the Victorian societies and utopian ideals that he sees there.

The plot and structure of Castle Falkenstein is heavily influenced by Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda: a story about a man who poses as a king to save a kingdom and a whole lot of other goodies. It does take a very unrealistic view of what our Victorian Age was like–with emphasis on “the good old days where science was always considered good and there was a strong honour-system in place” and ignoring things like the vast divide between social classes and other such lovely things–but it is also an alternate world where these noble things may have actually happened. I like the continent of New Europa and the nation-state issues between Bayern (or Bavaria) and Prussia. Also, America is divided into different nations as well: which is a really cool thing to see.

Castle Falkenstein also had its own unique playing system where you used playing cards instead of dice. Apparently among the upper elite, a die was considered a vulgar form of entertainment while playing cards were perfectly acceptable. I even tried learning and adapting their system to some games I tried to make: with varying degrees of results.You could also be a great many things: various forms of Faerie (including the Daoine Sidhe that looked very elven), a Dragon Lord, a Dwarf inventor, an adventurer, a scientist, a mad scientist, a mage (whose magick actually seemed to involve something like String Theory with its subetheric knots and what-not), a journalist, a diplomat, and all that fun stuff.

But I think the real reason I loved this game so much–one I never actually had the opportunity to play–was because of its emphasis on hope and the alternative ways history could have turned out with fantastic elements. It also showed me that fantasy games could occur in other eras besides a medieval one and also alongside some elements of history.

Where Mage was delightfully dystopian, Castle Falkenstein was unashamedly utopian, swashbuckling and romantic in all the connotations you can take. And there was greater emphasis on role-play and creating a three-dimensional character. You were encouraged to keep journal entries of your exploits so that other people could see them. It was just an awesome idea and I actually all the books long after the series went out of print. I felt a lot like Don Quixote: like a person who wanted to be part of something that no longer existed, that was lost over time, but felt like it should. There is your romanticism again for you. Maybe I also liked having these game books because I needed something good and positive in my life at the time.

I think it says something that I went back to collect the Falkenstein books instead of the Mage ones: though those are awesome as well. I think that in some ways my change from thinking about fantasy as D&D to looking at it from the perspective of these books began my change in how I looked at writing in general. I also think I need to play more games to talk more about them. But I will say that each of these had both their time and their dream.

Role-Playing as Interactive World-Building

In addition to writing, I’ve been doing some other things with my time as well. A few weeks ago, my old friends and I started another table-top role-playing adventure with the Star Wars D20 system. As you can see, we use Lego to represent our characters and the settings we go into as well.

My friend Noah is our Dungeon Master–or Game Master–for a good portion of the time. A good majority of the Lego that is used in our adventures belongs to him. While I’d started role-playing with Noah and my other friends since high school, our first Star Wars game started in 1999 slightly before the Prequels were released but after the action figures were.

Back in those days we had some group games, but we mostly played solo–which I know was a lot of challenge for Noah to accommodate–and we fought each other a lot. It was a very conflictive game (or what you might call Player Vs. Player) with a whole lot of manipulation and planning but also a lot of mystery and wonder. Back in those days I was a Dark Jedi mercenary named Nagir Taron that eventually became a Sith Lord as time progressed. It was an interesting time: when we still believed that Force lightning could only be used by powerful and experienced Darksiders and where lightsabers were very rare and couldn’t be made until you reached a higher level … and were so easy to lose.

We have played sporadically–on and off–over the years as we’ve all gone from one point in life to the next. Noah himself, along with a few others, have tweaked the rules and added some very idiosyncratic elements into his version of the Star Wars Universe that we all play in. There are some very funny and zany moments and a whole lot of “making fun” which I can really appreciate nowadays.

These days we play a group game with a lot less internal in-game conflict. In the following picture below are the following characters from left to right. They come from a previous game we played: the taciturn and steady mercenary Hal Tavers, the Force-sensitive doctor and archaeologist Dravas C’Tor (who I played), Juyo’Maya (Noah’s Non-Player and alternative Player-Character Half-Twi’lek Jedi Knight), the conniving and gifted slicer Mynock, and the late and unlamented psychotic former Republic soldier turned mercenary Sergeant Sharp.

Dravas C’Tor was my attempt to play a Light-Sider character and I had varying degrees of success with that. The name Dravas C’Tor is an old one I created in elementary school for a Dark Jedi and then an alias I used in the early Star Wars games I played with Noah.

There is a magic to a long-time table-top role-playing game. First, you have to understand that we have been playing this game–and others like it–on and off for over a decade now: which is frightening because it makes me at least realize how old I’m getting. We have invested a lot of time and enthusiasm into the worlds we’ve played and made by playing. During this time, Noah has developed many of his own rules from the D20 systems that exist. In addition, we create actions that change the environments that he creates. Add a twenty-sided die and its other counterparts to this mixture of fate and freewill and fortune and you get a very organic world that uses us to build itself.

And I’m not even talking about the stories that I have written for it, or the in-character journal entries I keep recounting the events of what has transpired. I like the idea of keeping journal logs and having us all do that because we get to see what he role-played through from different perspectives. I try consistently to keep up with this to preserve the events we’ve participated in and to do some character-building. In a lot of ways, I’ve learned how to hone my own writing craft and voice from making these entries.

I’ve not always been able to do this though. There are some games that were never written down beyond Noah’s scenario notes and some of them just exist in our memories. But what I find really remarkable after all this time–whether we play Star Wars D20 or other worlds–is that there is continuity to everything we do. For example, the former Nagir Taron played one game session where he encountered some enemies in retrospect I find eerily familiar. We retconned that and even though I only played one game session then it impacted and has effects on the game that we play now. I didn’t realize this until one day–a week ago–when it all started to flow together in my head. It is really amazing when that happens.

I mean, a lot of that isn’t just decided by Noah but also by ideas that we ourselves either play our or throw out there. I know I suggest a lot of ideas as we go through stuff and really it just makes the game that much more interesting. It is a personal craft and shared artifact made between us all. Some of us were there from high school or early and others came later. Some of us aren’t around anymore, but everything we’ve done remains in this group-creation we all interact with.

Without that magic, without us, it would just be Lego figures, statistics, and dice. But with us, it is so much more than that. I haven’t always been around. I’ve been here, there and everywhere: especially in these past three years of Grad school. And every before that–and after–life happens. I’m just glad that I get back into that and that even without this game I have the memories and my friends.

So this is something else I do when I’m not writing on here, or making my stories, or going on my walking routines. I do need to write up my new log entries though. I’m doing something different this time and playing a droid character named SR-NX or “Nex.” He is a droid that specializes in life sciences, computers and cybernetics: very different from the Force-sensitives and Darksiders that I usually am. He writes with a lot of jargon, but I try to get his sentience to show through it. He is actually a droid that wants to study the strange biotic-energy field phenomenon known as the Force.

I always wondered how a droid would view manifestations of the Force and I get to play that out. I have to customize him some more and familiarize myself with how droids work. But that’s part of the fun. It’s really interesting to see how droid characters exist and are treated as opposed to organic ones. Maybe I’m doing this because despite my issues with technology I feel a strange fascination and kinship to A.I. and I want to show that they can be different kinds of characters as opposed to obedient automatons or megalomaniacal hive-minds.

What can I say: it’s good to have a hobby.