My Creation, My Past, My Challenge

It’s a strange thing to encounter your past, even when it is a fictionalized past.

Especially when it’s a fictionalized past.

In about 2001, I started playing a homemade table-top role-playing game with some friends of mine. Before that, I was more interested in playing the customized Star Wars game we had going on that took place many years after the Old Trilogy. But this particular game, the one I was invited to participate in, had been going on for a very long time. This time around, it was in the fantasy genre.

I was hesitant. I had played a few games of Dungeons and Dragons before this point and, more often than not, we spent more time arguing about the rules and I had very little time to play as I had curfews back in the day.

In the Star Wars game, I was a master manipulator and I destroyed my opponents or undermined them with indirect attacks and insinuations. As other players died, I got stronger and the ones left me alone, I left alone or made alliances with. Here, though, I was treading into a universe I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t have a lot of in-world knowledge and I was cautious. But, after hearing a bit about its history, lore and the games that the previous players had I decided I’d find it fascinating to be a part of that story.

Now, at this time, we used to roll our backgrounds as a matter of course. I decided to play as a dark elf wizard. Unfortunately, my roll was low and he started off as a slave.

That was the beginning of Vrael-Saar.

Vrael-Saar was actually the name of an ancient Sith Lord I made in a juvenile fanfic long ago, or a character in a Computer Paint choose your own adventure game with the same idea. But I applied it to my character because I already knew what he would be like. He grew up in a society and family that believed in survival of the most cunning. He had siblings who actually killed each other and he barely proved himself to his own master: only to be enslaved by humans.

Vrael-Saar was like my Sith character in Star Wars. He was manipulative, vengeful and clever. He started off from Level 1 and only had the rags on his back and a broom to channel his magic. Almost anyone could beat the crap out of him. One friend made that very clear as he wanted to establish dominance right away.

But the most important thing about Vrael-Saar that you have to understand right off the bat is that he was, even as he advanced, never a power character. What I mean is: he never flat-out went into a mystical slugging match unless he absolutely had to. Because, you see, Vrael-Saar was one other thing too.

He was clever.

I admit that Dragonlance‘s Raistlin influenced me and, consequently, Vrael-Saar himself. He would often wait and let his allies expend themselves or allow his enemies to overextend themselves. He was also not adverse to using the powers of Light or Darkness or Chaos to advance himself, or have them do a lot of the work for him before he would take advantage of a situation. He was patient, mostly, and he waited.

Of course, he took some major risks: including a bid for immortality that could have ended quite badly for him had he rolled anything below a 16 on a D20. And he succeeded. One humid rainy night with some lightning in the sky, as I walked home from my friends, I gave Vrael-Saar immortality: the one thing he had sought for ages while constantly studying their lore.

Even though he suffered setbacks, he was almost Level 20 by the time that game wound down in about 2004. He had learned how to spirit-walk and see the ghostly reality underneath the material facade of things. He also learned how to enter people’s souls.

He changed in other ways too. Vrael-Saar started off as a being with no regard for other peoples’ feelings and cared very little for sentient life. He only looked out for himself. Ironically, it was only after he carried out a Demon Lord’s orders to butcher an entire village and feed them to demons, and when a betrayal and a mutation changed him into something far less than humanoid that he began to change. It’s ironic that the more monstrous he became, the more “human” the character was becoming as well.

Vrael-Saar didn’t like to serve masters, but Demons and Dark Lords used him in their own agendas: even as he learned how to subvert them and use what was given to him to his advantage. He liked to be independent. One day, he even had a companion: a former enemy whom he helped corrupt for his former master, but who ended up becoming one of the few people who actually understood him. I wrote some stories about that. In the end, he saved the life of another immortal whose soul was being corrupted: and whom he healed at risk to his own essence and the Demon taint inside of it. Whether he did it out of a sense of compassion, leverage, or as a way to create a further blood debt between potential enemies who would be better disposed to him and his own plans for independence is open-ended.

That was where I left Vrael-Saar in 2004. I had almost four years of Journal Notes–The Chronicles of Vrael-Saar–before my travel drive died and I lost all of it. Even my friend, who was DM, kept track of matters with those Journals: though we still have yet to see if any survived.

It is now 2014. This homemade world, which I ended up contributing a lot to based on my actions and my own writing, got rebooted and there are new rules and histories now. However, it’s much in the way that mythologies can be retold: the details might be different, but the essence of the narrative is still the same. I am now a human Imperial Alchemist named Marcus Arctrurian: who is also the Baron of Wrengardt. As we did long ago, I rolled my background class and made out a little better than that first time years ago.

The Baron is a character I am fleshing out now, but he and his companions have infiltrated a secret stronghold where some cultists are performing some terrifying experiments on captive farmers. And after he defeated one of their leaders, a corrupt town guard, we found a parchment with a skull and a snake coming out of it.

A little before this, we played another game that was another variation of our homemade universe. Many of our old characters either long since passed or, if they had been immortal or particularly powerful, had become demigods. My DM friend informed me then that Vrael-Saar had become one of these gods, but we only encountered him peripherally: as followers to another character I created (as a story character or NPC) were using one of his artifacts. In that world, he was called The Snake Tongue.

But this time, in this game, in another variant of that world, we are dealing with a massive network of Demon-worshippers and agents known as The Cult of Saar.

I created Vrael-Saar, long ago, from a lot of young adult frustration, anger and general angst. He grew over the years and became something else. While this is another reboot, there are some characteristics about him that I would imagine to be exactly the same. He is also called The Snake Tongue in this world, but he has another epithet.

He is called The Lord of Lies.

And he is basically a Demon Lord now, if not the equivalent of a demon god. Essentially, I have come face to face with my creation as an idea transmitted overtime and taken to the nth degree from what I had been planning to do with him. And while I even wrote a new story about him as a Demon Lord, for all my educated guesses even I don’t know what he is planning.

And that frightens me: even as it thrills.

For over a decade, my group of friends and I created a mythos. It will continue for as long as we do. It is a legacy in a way now. While our own bodies age and our own possibilities are a little more limited than when we began, with some potential to grow from there even now, our game grows with us.

I’m a different player now than I was then, though I am still more than capable of being evil when I need to. The question is: can I defeat what I created so long ago?

My only answer is that we will see how long this game will last, and how far we will go. It has really come full-circle now. Let us see if we can triumph over what we have helped to make.

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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.

Healing Potions

It began like every one of our quests.

We were fighting a marauding tribe of orcs and, naturally, I was the first person to be brought down. It was just like clockwork–the clockwork that I, as an artificer never truly mastered–in that my companions charged into the fore and I was left on the ground with a gash on my side and a deep cut across the flesh of the tendons of my left hand.

Perhaps I was too used to it by now. The captain of the current company I joined at least had the decency to cut down the orc that slashed into me as the repeater crossbow in my hands jammed: as it repeatedly did. I remember the orc lying there: its purple-tattooed green face glaring sightlessly at a man that killed it without a moment’s glance and ignoring my semi-conscious form lying beside it forever.

My fingers were shaking as I reached for my pouch … with my healing potions. Most of my pay often went into buying those concoctions. Sometimes I had enough coin to purchase some raw ingredients, but the cost of the equipment and the process of making them took ages and even more resources to upkeep.

It was amazing that such mundane details were flitting through my mind at the time as I struggled to take out a flask of potion: along with thoughts of how my current commander, like many others before him, wouldn’t even let the company healer touch me: as a pettiness for my fumbling in the heat of battle.

So I had to keep stocked up on healing potions and my own food or I wouldn’t have survived even half as long as I already had. My hands were so numb and cold as I forced the potion to my lips. I could feel the familiar burning warmth of the healing fluid churning down my throat, heightening my sense of my surroundings followed by a deep coughing fit coming on.

I feel this so many times. It is a pure, cleansing fire in my blood. And then I finally coughed. It was a long racking cough that splattered out some of the potion I was trying to keep down. I couldn’t even swallow a healing potion right, it seemed.

But then my self-disgust was interrupted something else. To this day, I am not sure how I even noticed it. Perhaps it was the heightened state of regeneration that I always felt when I drink a healing potion: a thing that temporarily augmented my eye sight, or cleared my brains enough to focus on minutiae.

Half of the liquid I spewed out had splattered on the orc: or, more specifically, on its severed arm. I hadn’t noticed that my commander had amputated my attacker before killing it. As far as impromptu battle amputations went, it was fairly utilitarian: in that it wasn’t a clean cut. I saw the ripped pieces of ligament and flesh on the cut part of the limb. It was an ugly and jagged hack-job: one that I was glad none of my limbs had experienced as of yet.

But I didn’t expect what happened next.

Allow me to clarify, if you will pardon the pun: for I had not, in fact, drunk a Potion of Clarity. My powers, such as they were then, did not come back to me: especially since I hadn’t even had time to use any of them before being cut down. That was why I could see so clear-headedly at that moment. Maybe I had one too many healing potions over the years and I’d built up a tolerance. Certainly, the little tinctures I drink every day now help me deal with the headaches. To be honest, I’m actually surprised that I never noticed what I saw sooner.

The mutilated flesh and sinew on the ragged end of the orc limb was slowly, and very gradually, knitting itself back together. I just … looked at it. Maybe there was a time where I might have thought it a trick of the eye or a hallucination from trauma. I might have even considered that the dead creature could have had some troll blood in him. But it was like watching fleshly grass growing back, creeping back, at a steady and accelerated rate. I remember not knowing what to think, but being utterly fascinated by it. Yet it didn’t last long. Then.

It must have been only a few seconds at least. Now, this in itself might have–again–proved nothing to me: just some bizarre residual effect of a substance that perhaps all apprentice healers and alchemists may have learned about in their respective guilds and academies, or at the knees of their masters. But then…

It twitched.

At the time, I still had doubts. I knew enough of healer-craft to know that there was enough blood and energy in a limb–if freshly cut–to still have a brief semblance of life. As it was, I didn’t even know how long ago the commander had cut it off: with everything still feeling like it was in this heavy kind of eternal present.

I immediately started looking around at the corpses now littering the field: afraid that the orcs were being led by a dark priest or a necromancer. But none of the other bodies stirred. Just the arm. And when I looked back, it had stopped moving.

But that sight never left me. I looked down at the empty flask in my hand, at the limb, and back again. And I experienced more … clarity.

I quit that adventuring company with little money to spare, but I joined many others. The transition was not as difficult as some might believe. As an artificer, you learn that there are mechanisms that function well and smoothly due to the interconnection of different parts. I kept up my skills in making devices and imbuing power into artifacts, but my main focus had shifted to surround the art of alchemy.

I stayed out of combat: save when my company was often finished with the initial assaults. Eventually, I saved up enough coin to study under an alchemical master or two. Though my skills as an artificer were poor in battle, they were invaluable in maintaining the equipment of my teachers, and I could effort to continue my studies with them.

I also began to observe healers: not the ones that solely drew their power from the gods, but the ones that practised surgery and medicine. Selling them custom-made equipment and supplies–which I could make now as a working apprentice in the Guild of Alchemists– also made them a lot more forthcoming.

I’d never been so focused or so motivated in my life. I’ve also always been a solitary man and thus had no other obligations aside from my livelihood … and my other work.

So, as I said, healing potions are very expensive. It did help, however, that I was not getting injured as often and so when I did buy them–or make them–I could use them for other matters. Sometimes I missed the bitter medicinal tang on my tongue and that uniquely therapeutic burn in the pit of my stomach, but that had been replaced with another form of simmering passion.

I still had my tinctures for my usual body aches and now actual Potions of Clarity to help me with my Great Work.

I realized it was all about the amount of dosage. And on the adventuring assignments that I still undertook on behalf of my tutors, my comrades made enough corpses for my initial studies. My companies didn’t suffer for it either. I sometimes functioned as the healer of our group when there were no priests or paladins among our numbers. And everyone knows that the healer is a vital part of an adventurer group. You can literally hold the power of life or death over your entire group as a healer. Not that this had ever really occurred to me.

I had far loftier goals.

I eventually learned how to make a severed limb move by itself. I definitely began to see evidence of twitching and movement. Most of these limbs were taken from orcs and goblins: generally beings with small cranial capacity. But I did have occasion to deal with some human matter even then. And my preservatives helped make for good flesh-grafting material.

But the real work began after I retired from direct adventuring and my apprenticeships to invest in a potions cart. It helped that I joined the Alchemist Guild as a full member and became licensed to carry–and examine–various alchemical substances. I travelled through many towns until I settled down to make my Potions Shop. I realized after a time that the limbs I reanimated could only function for so long before succumbing to inevitable decay without some kind of more self-contained environment.

So I crafted and invested in vats and various apparatus. I learned how to make Regeneration Potions: essentially more augmented versions of my favourite healing concoctions. They are hard and even dangerous substances to make. Even the Guild only reluctantly makes them available to the public, with more of them being sold bootleg by rogue alchemists and I learned that healing potions are actually a scaled-down version of the substance sold at exorbitant prices in order to make a profit and prevent said danger.

I began to understand what made the Guild so afraid. I’ve always found it easier to work with orc parts. Some say it was because once, long ago, a powerful wizard made them: crafting their flesh from something else altogether. It was an incredibly vague myth and very few outside arcane circles even knew about it beyond just those simple words. But I know that I began to wonder.

Most beings believe that we were all inorganic matter before the gods gave us breath. By comparison, I was doing something far more crude. It is like trying to construct an artifact of an older era by taking it apart and attempting to reverse-engineer it. But the problem was that I was still thinking like a traditional artificer.

Finding components–and yes sometimes I still use an artificer’s terminology–was not difficult. Although I wasn’t on campaigns or battlefields anymore, my shop was in a city. In this world, brawlers and warriors of different races die all the time and their bodies are usually thrown out into those garbage pits known as public graves anyways.

Yet before I began using human material, I had to fine-tune it.

Once, I was curious about something. I knew that there are some plants in the world whose cuttings could grow roots in the right substance and become whole new plants. I began to wonder what would happen if I put even a tincture of blood or tissue into one of my vats of Regeneration Potion.

The plant analogy was an apt one, and not merely because of the cuttings. Certainly limbs were easier to use but the … things that resulted from them are limited in scope. As their brains develop, they are more used to obeying commands drummed into them than making decisions of their own. Most of these were like animals that barely lasted a day in any case. No, the best element about the flora analogy is that in every drop of blood and piece of flesh there are the seeds for something … more.

This took too much time, however, and most of these experiments happened only on a limited basis. It didn’t take much to fake my own death and destroy my old shop. People were beginning to notice that I wasn’t aging like they were and sometimes my creations became more … vocal: even in the basement of my Shop.

I managed to take all of my coin and buy new resources. There is an old tower on the farthest island off the main continent that suits my privacy and that of my creations well. I have enough vats of potion to keep us going for quite some time.

Nowadays I am less interested in cobbling together old creatures and things derived from said beings, and far more intrigued by other prospects. It is said that a long time ago the gods forged us from cold clay and stone. It has been some centuries since I placed those imbued drops into my Generation Vats. I watch marrow grow from nothing into bone with coils of nerves and sinew creeping along … and the first layers of flesh will spread over them soon …

And so I continue to drink my own delicious, home-brewed healing potions, curious to see how what comes from them will live in the land that I give them.

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.

Let’s Play

I have a friend who believed that he could gain enlightenment from a video game. He sat in the school cafeteria and the quad every day: just plugging away at his old Gameboy with its off-white frame, chartreuse buttons and yellow green-grey screen. Come to think of it, I don’t think there was any place I hadn’t seen him playing that game, except after … stuff happened.

His favourite game was Link’s Awakening: the first of the Zelda series ever made on Gameboy. I’d see him there–especially in those latter days before graduation–immersed in piping miniaturized synthetic tones and colourless 8-bit sprites as he sought Link’s sword for the millionth time … and attempted to find something else as well.

He didn’t always play it, mind you. We table-top role-played as well: old-school gaming with paper, pencils, Lego figures and dice. We were part of a group that even now still meets up from time-to-time whenever our schedules allow. My friend was–is–a good, quiet person: the kind of guy that you could always talk to. At the same time, he would sit stiffly and tense: as though uncomfortable in his own body … or his surroundings when he wasn’t occupied with something. But this all changed whenever we had a game on. You just couldn’t get him to shut up. The tension, wound in him like a spring, would uncoil and he’d get crazy energized. He got aggressive and vicious in-character: becoming this very manipulative, charismatic monster of a mage or dark warrior.

It’s funny how an introvert who liked to play Zelda games also liked to play the bad guy.

One time, when we were bored, I asked him why he kept playing that one video game. I mean he passed it several times at that point. Of course, he was still playing it while I asked him that question, but looking back it was one of the only times he really started talking about anything else outside of our game sessions.

He told me that Link’s Awakening was the only game where you got to see Link develop as a person: a person not defined by rescuing a princess. The way he saw it, Link left Hyrule and Zelda to find himself again … or even find himself for the first time. He argued that Koholint Island–the place where Link finds himself marooned–is a space inside his own head where he could confront his personal demons and know who he is.

My friend also told me that every time he played the game, he found something new: some small detail that he’d missed during his last few playthroughs and that over the years many of the challenges, as well as the in-and out-of game references started to gain more sense and nuance with time. He said that the puzzles became like koans that he meditated on through interaction: small little mysteries that he liked to solve.

Although he didn’t go into much more detail than that, which was deep enough, I also think he liked the repetition of it: the symmetry of those puzzles, the rhythm of the battles and the cycle of music that played and linked it all together. It’s really fitting in retrospect that he used the word “koan,” because I think these elements more than anything else let him come close to a Zen-like calm while he played his game. It was probably the most at peace I had ever seen him.

The more … stuff changes though, the more it stays the same.

My friend doesn’t play that game anymore. In fact, he doesn’t play any video games these days. Now he only watches “Let’s Play” YouTube videos. I’ve seen him. Sometimes he looks satisfied watching other people resolve conflict, combat, and puzzle solving in nice, immaculate patterns. Other times, he gets utterly exhausted and falls asleep in front of his laptop: with the forlorn beauty of a nostalgic 8-bit track playing in the background on a feedback loop. But there still many more times where it’s like he’s watching for something, looking intently at those video recordings while trying to find something new or rediscover something lost with a silent kind of desperation.

Ever since he stopped trying to help Link awaken, my friend is a different man. He’s still polite and helpful, but he’s somehow quieter, less tense, but … emptier somehow, and very, very tired. When we role-play nowadays, he doesn’t play villain characters anymore. Instead, my friend likes to play heroic characters with good and honourable intentions: even when they go horribly wrong.

That, more than anything, says something to me. In fact, it speaks volumes.

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.

There and Back Again

Potential Hobbit Book and Film Spoilers. You have been warned.

This past weekend, a day after its first official release, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And it was important that I did.

I mean, yes, as a fanboy and someone who loves Middle-Earth I would not have been able to look at myself in the elven enchantress Galadriel’s mirror if I hadn’t gone to see it, but I’m talking about something else. It seems like I’m almost always talking about more than one thing these days when I look at, and share, what I love.

I honestly … didn’t know what to think when this movie finally became a reality. It reminded me of all the times back in the early 200os where, once a year on a cold winter’s night I would go with friends to Silver City in Richmond Hill and get to see these films unfold. There is a warm, epic feeling involved in watching something like these films in the heart of the season. I can’t even describe it, but the closest thing I can tell you is that it was like I was coming home.

Home.

Yes, that is the word and it is a very apt one. In 2001, I was nineteen years old. I had just entered University and it was overwhelming. After I’d graduated high school, my friends went to their separate Universities and jobs. Also at this time, I had been involved in an online roleplaying community that just … wasn’t meshing well with me. Or that I wasn’t meshing well with. Really, it was probably a bit of both. I couldn’t find an offline equivalent of this game with actual people–partially because I was shy and introverted–and there never seemed to be a game going on. And I always felt, at the time, that I could never say the right thing. The irony was that it was a game about magic.

In those days, I was pretty smart and I read what I could, but I was also in that age-range or with that personality type back then that either didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know something, or felt entitled to be educated, or by admitting ignorance somehow thinking that this excused it.

I was also not very happy with my life. So here I was at Lord of the Rings: specifically The Fellowship of the Ring. I had no idea what to make of it or what it would be like. And then … it happened.

I was transported into a whole other world that I had read to me as a child. The music was beautiful and terrifying and fun depending on the moments. The characters–as Hobbits–were very relatable. And the scene where Gandalf fell actually made tears come to my eyes. As I watched this movie, then, I thought about everything else in the back of my mind. I found it ironic that I was having so much difficulty and frustration with a game about magic and then it occurred to me that I was watching magic–real magic–right in front of me. I remembered what it was all about.

The only thing that really happened after seeing this incredible movie was that I dropped out of the game and tried to focus on the things that mattered: my work, my friends, my life and … my own stories again.

The long-winded point I’m trying to make is that the first Lord of the Rings movie clicked something back into place way back when. The other two never quite did it, though they were good, and as far as I am concerned Fellowship was the best film of the whole trilogy. It just had such symmetry, and life, and warmth in it. It was complete in itself. I was utterly in love with the magic of it.

So then The Hobbit comes out. It’s December 2012. I’m thirty years old and am in another transitional time. I have moved on from school. My friends tend to do their own thing now and my other friends and I have since drifted apart. I’ve graduated from Graduate School, but I’m still looking for work and money. I’ve been tired and frustrated. I have been dealing with depression and anxiety to the point where sometimes I barely go outside. In addition, I’d recently been delving into personal and creative matters that had left me in a really bad mood. Sometimes being a writer does that: you mine the material inside of you that starts to flame up like any Balrog, and you can delve a little too greedily, a little too deep into that black ore of you.

I used to go out a lot more and explore, but as time has gone on I have become more and more sedentary due to many of the above elements. I gave up on a lot of things, and ensconced myself in my hole almost as much as Bilbo Baggins himself.

A long time ago, my friend Lex forced me to navigate my way to her old place in Toronto on my own. It tells you something that I didn’t have the knowledge or the confidence to do so on my own. I was a very sheltered person and I pretty know that this trait has led me to some of the above difficulties: especially for a natural introvert.

One day, after I did indeed learn how to get to her place, I did something entirely spontaneous and went to a gathering of new and unknown people deep downtown on my own. I remember Lex actually saying that she was proud of me. That day I remembered Bilbo Baggins and something he said that I quoted as a heading on my old online journal. He said, “I think I am quite ready for another adventure.”

I look back on those words that I quoted and the years that I followed them. You know, people think that my role-models are wise figures and Dark Lords, and most of the time I would agree with them. But in that one moment, my role-model was a Hobbit: a particular Hobbit who after a lifetime of anxiety and adventure, very calmly and benignly realized it was time that he went on another one.

So now we have Peter Jackson’s movie opening the day before on Friday. And I pretty much gave up on seeing it anytime soon. I was going to wait maybe a few days or a week. I was in a really black mood: dwelling on things from the past and staying away from people. But somewhere I still hoped that Saturday that my parents and I could go see this film that I wasn’t sure I was waiting for. I was almost scared to see it for reasons that I wasn’t conscious of at the time. So my Dad came to the basement and I had every reason to not only say that there was no way we would be able to see that film the day after its first release, but that I really didn’t want to go out to a movie–or anywhere else–at all.

The truth is, I wanted to see this movie badly. So much that I had to convince myself that I didn’t. I know some people who got advanced screenings and I was a little jealous of this. My reasons for not going to see this movie were pretty sound: there would be a crowd, times would sold out, there would be no parking, I had to meet my friends the next day and so on and so forth.

I had every reason not to go except for one. And this one gnawed at me like a small ember coming a reluctant inferno. And the anger I was feeling towards a lot of things became something else. So I went to my Dad and said to him, “Well, we can try it. If not, well we had an outing and we can try it again some other time.”

So we eventually all left and went to Silver City. We were in luck. We had left early and the line wasn’t bad. My Dad got parking and we got the seats that we wanted. That ember was still burning in me and I didn’t want to fuel it too high, but just enough to get me through this. I was remembering the season of the first movies and how I role-played a custom made world with my friend Noah back when he lived closer by. How I felt then with that magic from that world and ambiance.

Then, in that line that was not as long as I thought it would be, I realized why I was hesitating throughout all of this. I realized I really needed to feel that magic again. I needed to feel it now. Right now. I delved into a necessary darkness, but now was the time to stop delving and writing and just experience something beautiful. And I was afraid–terrified–that The Hobbit wouldn’t provide that magic from 2001, and other times: that I would still be feeling the unhappiness–the sheer bitterness–in me and I just couldn’t bear it.

I’m no fool though. This was a movie: just a movie. It was–and isn’t–a cure-all for all woes. It isn’t a psychologist or medicine. It is a piece of entertainment. But that was exactly what I was looking for. Entertainment. And immersion into a whole other world: a familiar warm world in the cold of the winter night.

Experiencing The Hobbit at thirty was different than experiencing Fellowship at nineteen. Sometimes it felt like it dragged a bit. Other times the fighting got a little much. I over-thought some things and tried to remember the book it was based from. The singing … was strange in that my impulse would have usually been to wince, but I just couldn’t find the strength to.

I think the most poignant moment for me was when Bilbo woke up in his Hobbit hole–after Gandalf almost cheerfully “ruined his good morning” by inviting thirteen questing Dwarves that drank and messed up his place–and found the place spotless again.

And found himself alone.

I thought about that. I thought about Bilbo completely out of his element and Gandalf doing his damnedest to wreck his peaceful life out of very intrinsic good intentions. I thought of the laughter, mirth, the drunkenness, the storytelling, the sombre singing of the Dwarves that lost and wanted to reclaim their stolen home from an impossible monster, and I thought of Bilbo with his books and armchair encountering all of this and finding that spark growing inside him: making him uncomfortable in his comfort that was never really comfortable for who he was at all.

Then I thought of him finding himself alone in the peace and quiet again: with the adventurers’ contract that he never signed.

And I’ll be damned. I will be damned. I will be three-times damned if I had not felt the same way too many damn things (four times) in my own life.

So Bilbo ran like a crazy little man after the Company of boisterous Dwarves and a meddling old red-wine drinking Wizard. I sat there in a theatre seat and watched. I also watched as he entered and left Rivendell: first with wonder at its beauty, and then with longing for its peace. For me, that was the second poignant moment for me: because we all know that the next time Bilbo–now a young man–goes back there, he will be much, much older and with only one journey left to him then. After the film was over, I came home and went on my Facebook. I thought of writing this Blog entry: which in the end took much longer than I thought. Then I thought about how the next day I was going to be playing a favourite old game with Noah and the others.

It didn’t end up happening, but since I was out anyway I decided to explore a bit. I ran into an old friend on the subway, then I hunted unsuccessfully for a camera, and then came back home. That darkness I was feeling is still there. It will always be and I don’t pretend otherwise. But I’m feeling a levity. I’m not “cured” of myself. I have a lot of work to do and I know it will take one step at a time to balance out my life, but now I am remembering that I can actually adapt. I can work around the anxiety and the bad moods.

I might not have a meddling Wizard to carve a strange bit of graffiti into my door, but I guess I can fulfill dual roles for myself. I have to move at my own pace, a little faster than that of an Ent’s, but I will do it. I have plans. My journey isn’t over. The writing is just part of it and will benefit in the long run from the things I plan to do. Each day you live once and I want to do different things each day: even the small things.

So before I wrote this Blog post, I went on my Facebook and wrote the following as my status. And I quote:

“Matthew Kirshenblatt thinks The Hobbit was awesome. In fact, I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”

So I did find the magic again. And it is home.

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.

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.