So an interesting thing happened to me the other day. Well, probably not THAT interesting, of itself, but it got me thinking. Some of our new neighbours came round for a drink, brought their son with them, who I’d guess is about 10 or 11 years old. I forget exactly how it came up, but he was talking about what he was in to (guitar playing and xbox, mainly) and I said something like, oh, you know, all I did at your age was play dungeons and dragons. I was prepared for various responses, such as, “dungeons and dragons sucks ass, man, what I like is getting girls PREGNANT”, or, “dungeons and dragons, that’s WEAK! I’m into KNIFE CRIME.” I was not, however, prepared for what he actually did, which was to give me this baffled look and say:
“What’s Dungeons and Dragons?”
Oh, the horror. I was massively into role-playing games as a kid, in fact it was probably my main leisure activity between the ages of about 10 and 14. Alright, 9 and 16. Alright, 8 and 18. Some D&D;, early on, then later a lot of MERP (Middle Earth Role Play, noobs) and some Runequest, along with sundry others, and, as a GM (gamesmaster, noobs), Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. All this stuff was a big influence on me, in fact it might be fair to say that fantasy filtered through the lens of roleplaying in the form of endless rather cheesy supplements and adventures was as big an influence as actual written fantasy fiction. Gamesmastering, in particular, has an awful lot in common with storytelling of the fictional sort. It certainly did in my games, where characters were barely presented with the illusion of choice, let alone actual choice.
It’s probably not much of a revelation to observe that many of today’s leading writers of fantasy share my deep roots in RPGs. Off the top of my head I believe (and forgive my ignorance if I’m wrong) that the worlds in which Ray Feist and Steven Erikson write were both originally gaming worlds. Scott Lynch wrote roleplaying supplements before selling a novel. I do not doubt that many more, if not most, of today’s fantasy writers have more than a passing acquaintance with a d20.
Now I guess I’d always assumed that dice and paper roleplaying would gradually wither as computer-based roleplaying games became more and more immersive and effective. But on my recent trip to Scandinavia, where I visited a good few very impressive F&SF; bookshops, I was assured that some areas of the old RPG scene are still in rude commercial health. I’m now wondering, though, whether a lot of that stuff gets bought by old soldiers like me, and Scott Lynch, and Ray Feist, wanting to read them while having a poo to see where the games have gone, rather than actually to run them in a proper session with, like, actual players (they always were the most irritating part of RPGs anyway, weren’t they, though?).
My neighbours question of “what’s D&D;?” certainly implies RPGs have nothing like the wide cultural purchase they used to. In my day, there were plenty of kids who wouldn’t have touched them with a shitty stick. Who’d have played sports, or played in the garden, or gone out on their bikes or some other Chaotic Evil activity instead. Who’d have thrown stones at kids who played D&D;, stole their glasses and laughed when blood came out of their heads. But even if they hated, scorned, and secretly feared it, they knew what it was.
I guess my train of thought creakily goes in this direction – if dice and paper roleplaying dies out, what will be the equivalent influences on the next generation of fantasy writers? Video game equivalents seem the obvious thing. World of Warcraft and the like. Now far be it from me to bemoan the influence of computer games, as I’ve been a keen fan my whole life, though not necessarily of the online variety. But there’s a world of difference between the imaginative effort of summoning up a world and characters out of one’s own head (not to mention the social effort of dealing with other players) and a computer-based world where the detail is already coded and can be viewed from every angle (not to mention that the social involvement rarely goes further than OMG YOU ******* NOOB PUSH THE ******* BUTTON YOU ******* NOOB **** **** NOOB **** DO YOU WANT TO BUY A SWORD?). Undoubtedly, playing computer based RPGs is just an awful lot more passive than having to gamesmaster yourself.
I find that idea oddly worrying. Well, not in a – OH MY GOD WITHIN SIX MONTHS WE’LL ALL BE LIVING LIKE IN CORMACK MCCARTHY’S THE ROAD IF WE’RE ALIVE AT ALL – sort of a way, but a bit worrying nonetheless. The creativity you need to gamesmaster is a useful step on the way to the creativity you need to write. Without GMing myself, I’m not sure I’d ever have thought about the possibility of taking the next step and trying to write fiction. I daresay there’s nothing one can do about it – except to hope that the computer generated fantasy worlds that replace RPGs are as clever and innovative as they can be, rather than the rather ill-conceived smorgasbord of cliches we often get served up (I’m looking at you, Oblivion). And hey, there are an awful lot of other ways for writers to find their creativity (like reading other people’s books, for instance).
But still. Can I shed just a little tear for The Keep on the Borderlands? Can YOU?