After playing Dungeons and Dragons and other games for a couple of years, I found myself firmly on the ‘storytelling’ side, not the ‘point-scoring’ side, of the gaming divide. I also had precious few people to play with and – equally discouraging – no stories to tell.
This resulted in an odd interval in my gaming life, where I put a lot of effort into using the roleplaying game medium to recreate other people’s stories – books I had enjoyed. At the time I was 13, perhaps just 14, and reading a huge amount of science fiction and fantasy, so this is what I draw inspiration from. At school, the group of mostly novice gamers I’d assembled was subjected to a campaign based on Julian May’s time-travel science-fantasy Saga Of The Exiles. Back home, my friend Sam was treated to what amounted to a walkthrough of Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun.
The ‘games’ kept quite strictly to the plots of the books, and so they were reliant on the players not ever having read them. I can’t remember how deep into each game I got – certainly the Exiles one went on for a few weeks. In fact Julian May’s books are unusual for having a premise that is absurdly well-tailored for RPGs – even as a solo game, the Gene Wolfe stories were a bigger ask. I feel slightly embarassed now at my own lack of imagination, but as I remember all the players quite enjoyed things and nobody ever took me to task for it. And I always acknowledged my sources. As much as the gaming experience, what I got out of it was a way to immerse myself – and maybe others – in stories that had meant a lot to me, and a way to somehow acknowledge publically that they had meant a lot.
As it turns out, I was far from alone: a large chunk of the role-playing hobby was based around fan-fiction or even fan-retellings. As I’ve already described, going back to the Tolkien source was pretty difficult – Lord Of The Rings is not RPG-friendly. But there was a successful game set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and one set in Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. There was the Marvel Superheroes game, and the Doctor Who game, and the Ghostbusters game, and a game system which suffered from the name of GURPS issued vast numbers of supplements, mostly based on fantasy or sci-fi series, including Riverworld by Philip Jose Farmer and, I learned while writing this, the same Gene Wolfe novels I’d ripped off.
So there were plenty of games designed as door-openers into specific fictional realities. But this was a different, and more respectable, thing to actually re-telling stories. Cross the line and a game would be viewed with suspicion. UK gaming monthly White Dwarf was particularly hostile, for instance, to the Indiana Jones role-playing game. Whereas in a game like Dr Who your character could be A.N. Time Lord and not strictly speaking the Doctor (even though all the adventures would end up quite Doctor-ish), in the Jones game one of the players was always Indy. And, true to the films, Indy could do better feats than anyone else, and Indy couldn’t die. In the eyes of White Dwarf, the Indiana Jones game had betrayed the noble precept of gaming, its disciplined application of the imagination, and descended to the level of a child’s “let’s pretend” game.
Of course nobody was going to buy a sourcebook for a fictional setting unless they were very into the original stories, so these objections were disingenuous. But the correct gaming approach was to give respect to an author’s feats of ‘worldbuilding’, not to the stories he or she had happened to tell in that world. The greatness of Tolkein’s middle-earth lay squarely in its complex background mythology (gamers stayed well away from the philology end of things) rather than in the foreground events.
Worldbuilding was hardly mentioned as an aim for gamers in the early years of the hobby, but it gradually gained prominence and by the mid-80s, when I was heavily into gaming, it was an ambition of every self-conscious referee who wanted to move his games away from dice and level-gaining. The next two posts in I Was A Goblin – which may be somewhat delayed – will look at worldbuilding in role-playing games, and in the fantasy genre more generally.