Creative Storytelling: The Gamer’s Life

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

While I don’t think a love of gaming is that unusual for fantasy authors, I’m pretty sure my history with it is a little different than most. I grew up in a very small, very evangelical town in North Carolina. Somehow I got my hands on a set of gaming dice, and had heard stories of these roleplaying games that would let me be the characters in my favorite books. This seemed like a marvelous thing, but when I finally asked for the red box D&D for Christmas one year, I did not get it. I got a lecture about the devil, and the tools he uses to corrupt young minds.

But I still had my dice.

I spent a couple years making up my own games, and leading my reluctant friends on adventures in worlds of my own creation. This was an important stage for me, simply because these were the first stories I told on my own. I did a lot of retreading Tolkien and Alexander, but I was taking the first steps toward world-building. My philosophy of narrative structure is grounded solidly in the principles of good gaming, and starting my gaming life without any kind of guidance from a printed adventure let me develop those senses organically.

My parents finally relented and got me the starter set for Middle-earth Role Playing, or MERP, which led to the creation of a regular gaming group in my junior high. Everyone rolled an elf. Everyone read the adventure in the back of the book before we started. One guy shot his precious elf finger off with a longbow. Everyone had fun.

This led to a second lecture, this time from a teacher at my school. Her concerns were a little more far-reaching, touching on the dangers of dice, and gambling, and the sorts of things good Christians do not do. Oh, and a little bit about the devil and his persistent corruption of the minds of youth. And the next week when we got together, all of the parents came as well, and sat around the table with us as I led quite possibly the most awkward gaming session of my life.

At the end of the session, no one had invoked the name of Satan, or summoned a demon, or rolled 1dBabyhead, so we were allowed to keep our little group. I played MERP (for fantasy) exclusively for years, all the way through high school and into college. I stopped using the setting, moving the lives of hobbits and elves and dwarves into my own worlds. There was a lot of Cyberpunk 2020 in there as well, and Shadowrun, but MERP was the default until well after college. I met my wife at a session of Shadowrun (leading to us honeymooning in Seattle) and got my first writing paycheck from White Wolf. Yes, I went from not being allowed to play D&D to writing for Wraith: The Oblivion. Obviously.

My gaming life is more than roleplaying games. My first dice came from Avalon Hill, and my first gaming group was a handful of us who played Axis and Allies at lunch, under the supervision of one of our teachers. Not the same teacher who lectured me about MERP, of course. I found Battletech in high school, and swore allegiance to House Davion, insisting that my first car would be GHR-5H Grasshopper. In high school I was able to get class credit for replaying the battle of Austerlitz in 15mm Napoleanics. I learned to paint miniatures. Badly. Thirty years of practice have made me almost good, but not quite, not honestly.

But roleplaying will always be the core. I honestly believe that the give and take of the game is the pinnacle of creative storytelling. The interaction between DM and player, the story that you create together through the filter of these characters and this world, these are the best expression of the imagination. As a player, I always chafe under the bit of a DM who railroads the story, following a scripted path with an end already in mind. As a DM, I try to create an environment of narrative tension, offering the players opportunities to make mistakes and choices that are more than forks in the road. If the players aren’t willing to engage with the story, the session will fail. If the DM isn’t able to adjust their expectations to the interesting mistakes of their players, the session will fail. At some point it becomes a mutual performance, with a little recreational math thrown in for crunch.

Curiously, in spite of the fact that this all started with a set of polyhedrals, my best gaming sessions don’t involve dice. I like when the players spend their time talking about the story, trying to figure out what’s going on or who to trust. Not that the fight scenes aren’t important. They’re really the most important sessions in the campaign, but they serve as set-pieces, moments of reversal, the ultimate confrontation at the end of the story. I have other systems I play to satisfy my tactical wargaming needs. Roleplaying is for story. And I’m in the business of stories.

In a lot of ways, I think of the books I write as the studio albums of my career. They’re carefully crafted, well paced, endlessly revised to optimize the reader’s experience. I’m proud of my books. But like a musician, I’m at my best on the stage. Books are the well-crafted songs. Gaming is the live show.

Top image from Community, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”

Tim Akers was born in deeply rural North Carolina, the only son of a theologian. He is the author of the Burn Cycle from Solaris Books, as well as The Horns of Ruin, featuring Eva Forge, published by Pyr Books. The Pagan Night, out now from Titan Books, is his inaugural entry into epic fantasy.


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