Remember the 1980s? When thermonuclear war and Webster filled the TV, heavy metal was turning kids into Satanist, and GI Joe waged the first war on terror without one casualty on either side? Yo Joe!
But from that lost era of Valley Girls, New Coke, and Manimal’s mammoth eight-episode run on the idiot box, there was another pop culture phenomenon poised to take over the nation: Role Playing Games, aka the non-lethal variety of “RPGs.” Games of high adventure set in the imagination and at the kitchen table, where funny shaped dice and human agency decided the fate of magical kingdoms, intergalactic empires, and desolate post Armageddon landscapes. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the God Emperor of RPGs, took off like gangbusters and has influenced the pop culture sphere forever (there’s a new documentary on it, too!)
But RPGs were no mere fun and games. This greasy kid stuff was feared to be more lethal than rock and roll, comic books, and peanut allergies COMBINED!
D&D was soon spoken of in shadowy whispers alongside suicides, witchcraft and Satanism. There was the Dallas Egbert, Jr. “Steam Tunnel” incident of 1980, that led to a police investigation and a book called The Dungeon Master, all of which resulted in the mind blowing film Mazes and Monsters, where a young Tom Hanks plays a kid who suffers a psychotic break while playing a fantasy RPG, never to return.
Playing D&D, parents feared, was “dangerous.”
But the only real danger was that RPGs, for many of us, were “girl poison” (though I have heard tales and legends of many women who loved to play RPGs, none were within an H-bomb’s blast radius of my teenage years). None of us lost their marbles after our characters were chased by a gelatinous cube. We didn’t kill ourselves or each other when we failed our saving throw, dragon’s breath turned our mighty warrior into a dog’s breakfast. And, sadly, though I played these games with a near religious fervor, I never got cool magic powers like Harry Potter, or became seduced by a pagan vixen Dungeon Mistress like in the hysterical piece of 1980s Christian fear-mongering “Dark Dungeons.”
Whenever I had cooler friends ask me why I played this junk, I told them it was like making a movie, but a better movie than the crap we got at the local video store, because we could throw anything into it. You like robots? Vampires? Kung fu amphibians? Imagine a movie where it’s all there, crashing into each other, and it’s awesome! That was the goal of any session where I was the GM (game master, the one who acts as the chief narrator, with everyone else playing a single character). I got a thrill out of making characters with epic backgrounds, and complex stories and plot twists. While I might have planned out some of this stuff ahead of time, mostly I was “flying by the seat of my pants”, reacting and responding in part to what the players were doing, making the adventure fit the mood, building it around reactions, so it had maximum impact. I drew from a deep knowledge of trivia and trope from comic books, sci fi flicks, and direct to video fantasy movies as well as pro wrestling and cartoons, and blended them into adventures that would make The Odyssey seem as exciting as Howard’s End!
While at the Odyssey Writer’s Workshop, I told my pal Justin Howe about this when we were sipping beers and sharing tales of RPGs of yesteryear, and I got a chair-shot of the obvious to my melon. “I guess I was trying to be a writer . . . without knowing how to be a writer.”
Now, I come full circle. I’ve written articles on RPGs and fantasy fiction with the incorrigible Mr. Howe, and more than a few short stories about my love of D&D and its kin, but this week, I released DICE ROLL, the third Spar Battersea thriller. Where DEATH MATCH was an homage to pro wrestling, and CON JOB both a love letter and hate mail to comic books and genre fiction, DICE ROLL is rooted in my love of RPGs, the joy of madcap creation, and the value of fantasy when reality blows donkey balls. It’s also a story of choosing your own identity, of taking command of life instead of letting it blow you to pieces. And jujitsu. Lots of freaking jujitsu in this one.
If you’ve ever enjoyed the fun of being a “knight of the card table”, rolling dice, spilling cola, and saying things like “I stab the kobold in the back!” I hope you enjoy my noirish tribute to the house that Gary Gygax built, and try DICE ROLL! This novel is a +5 weapon against boredom! Monk/Bard: Nil!