I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set pictured here, actually, complete with crappy plastic dice that turned to powder in the sun. I don’t remember where I got it, whether it was a gift from my high school-aged sister (who was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] at the time) in order to get me to stop watching her game all the time or if I saved up my allowance or what. At this point it hardly matters, because that basic set that I only barely played was a gateway to worlds ranging from classic Tolkien-based fantasy to cyberpunk to space opera.
There was never a large enough group of people in junior high and high school to actually get a game established, and I knew that adding RPGs to the mix would have made me even more of an outcast than I already was. So I didn’t play much from the time I got that basic set until I got to college. Penn State main campus is so large that there is a critical mass of people for just about any hobby you can imagine, including tabletop gaming. And so it came to pass that I started playing RPGs in my freshman year of college. I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since, through grad school, dating, marriage, a career, and two kids (who are starting to show some interest in tabletop gaming themselves). And at this point most of my closest friends are guys whom I met when I advertised in a Boulder, Colorado game store in 1996 that I was starting a ShadowRun campaign.
Over the course of the last 21 years of gaming I’ve done it all – player, game master, built my own fantasy and cyberpunk worlds, and even homebrewed up a semi-custom system based on the 2nd Edition ShadowRun rules for one of my worlds. I initially created those homebrew rules as way to define some rules for an alternate cyberpunk Earth in which I was (and still am) planning to write SF short stories and novels.
If you asked me whether I liked playing or running the game (game mastering, or GMing for short) more, I’d have to say GMing. There’s something addictive about matching my wits against five to eight very smart people, and it’s an amazing feeling when I can craft some adventure that they enjoy and yet still find challenging. It’s fun to watch a player’s jaw drop when something totally unexpected happens (for my gaming friends who I know are reading this, “He got up”). But I’ve come to really appreciate those moments when my gamers outthink me and throw me such a curveball that I have to toss all my planning out the window as a result. In my group we call that “filing a flight plan” for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.
I GMed a multi-year long campaign in the magic-meets-cyberpunk game ShadowRun. The game was largely set in Seattle after the United States had broken up and Seattle had essentially become a city-state. The party (group of player characters, or PCs) had been hired as bodyguards for a woman who needed to make it to Denver safely several days later. The party got attacked several times by my bad guys and had successfully kept the woman safe, but I had planned a major ambush at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for when the party delivered the woman to her scheduled flight to Denver.
One of the PCs owned a small jet that he kept at a small area airport and I had previously established that he could fly the plane around Seattle without filing a flight plan so long as he wasn’t planning on flying outside the borders of city. I had guessed that they might try to fly the woman from the area airport to Sea-Tac airport and had prepared for that, but after privately discussing how best to get the woman to Denver, they called me back into the room and informed me that they needed to file a flight plan. I reminded them that they didn’t need to file one to fly inside the city of Seattle, and they said “We know – we need to file a flight plan.” And that’s when it hit me that they were going to fly her directly to Denver, bypassing entirely my carefully planned ambush.
I remember looking down at my pile of maps and NPCs and saying something along the lines of “Well, I guess I don’t need these anymore.”
Moments like that are why I love GMing so much. Sure, GMing can be frustrating sometimes. The way I run my games is a major time commitment for me. And given I run multi-year campaigns, decisions I make during character creation have been known to come back and bite me in the ass months or even years later. But those inevitable frustrations are worth it every time the party files a flight plan or they tell me “you suck” because of the green slime I hid in the mine tunnels (underwater where they can’t see it or burn it off, of course).
While GMing games is the most fun for me, even I get burned out and need a break from time to time. When that happens one of the players steps up and offers to run a game and I get to play. At this point I’ve mostly played D&D, but I’ve also played some ShadowRun in college, In Nominae, Champions, Rifts, and a little GURPS cyberpunk. I’ve been a Star Wars cyborg (pre-Episode 1, thankyouverymuch), an angel, a hacker, a Macross Valkyrie pilot, and more wizards, clerics, and monks of different D&D races than I can even count. I’ve also had my character’s gender changed via reincarnation or other magic so many times that it’s become a running gag.
Playing is a lot less time consuming than GMing and it’s easier to do while raising kids. But it also gives me an opportunity to create characters in one world that I can then re-purpose for my own world. For example, I took a female monk I played in one of my friends’ games and imported her into my own D&D world. And sometimes I’ve taken major NPCs I created for a game I was GMing and played a version of them in another. It’s fun to be able to pretend to be something I’m not, or to take some part of my own personality and build a character around it to see just what happens.
Over the years I’ve had lots of hobbies. But only a few have been important enough for me to stick with them through hell and high water. Science fiction is one, collecting and building LEGO (especially Star Wars LEGO) is another. Blogging is a third. But the one that I’ve stuck with the longest, and quite possibly enjoyed the most, is role-playing games.