Comedian George Burns once gave an interview on The Arsenio Hall Show whereby he outlined what he called being “at the table”. Apparently, in the old days of vaudeville and later with radio and television (back when that was done live), the performers would hang out after a show, eat dinner, talk shop, tell jokes, and just generally relax. Being at the table, he said, guys could be different than what you saw in public. Some who were notoriously funny in front of an audience were serious, even morose, in private, while somebody you would never expect to be funny could be a laugh riot. No subject was taboo, for to set limitations would destroy the spontaneity and force everyone to walk on eggshells lest they offend. Inevitably, personalities would clash, and there were some (I’m looking at you, Groucho Marx) who had a pathological need to exhibit alpha male dominance over the others. The friction of strong personalities butting up against one another was a small price to pay, however, for the exuberance shown by friends while at the table, and you could tell as Burns recounted his stories that he had a strong affection for those with whom he’d once shared company.
I know the feeling. I’ve been at the table for thirty years, now, only my people aren’t shobiz types. They’re computer programmers, college professors, retail wage slaves, military personnel, and the like. We tell jokes, just like the old guys did, and no subject is off limits once we’re seated and the words start to fly. Our table is a little different, though. It’s filled with rule books, miniatures, and dice. Junk food was once piled so high on my table that you could barely see another face, but as we start that free fall toward forty, Funyuns and Mountain Dew are being replaced by rice cakes, bran muffins, and bottled water. One night a week we gather to engage in cooperative storytelling. As perennial game master I tell outlandish stories, and my friends play heroes (or sometimes villains) in my dramas. I’ve been doing this so long now, I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t surrounded by the trappings of the imagination.
And we have our frictions, too. Friendships have dissolved at the table. A once-close friend and I spent the better part of seven years not talking to one another, only to make amends at the wedding of a mutual friend and fellow gamer. We have our rulesmongers and our rules lawyers (what table doesn’t?), and we have people who want to roleplay constantly at odds with the dice-hungry hack ‘n slashers. But that doesn’t stop us from getting together, week after week, rain or shine,
You can also learn a lot about yourself at the table. For instance, I learned that I wanted to be a professional storyteller from running campaigns. I’ve played a little bit of everything, from Dungeons & Dragons (where I got my start) to Warhammer Fantasy, Rolemaster, Star Frontiers, Star Wars d6, Boot Hill, Top Secret, GURPS, Shadowrun, and Call of Cthulu, which probably accounts for my eclectic tastes as a writer. As a person who came to storytelling through an unconventional route, I didn’t learn my craft by reading the works of others and stealing from them. I came to reading a little later than playing RPGs, believe it or not. It was in stocking a dungeon that I learned how to plot. In the same way, I learned the importance of pacing, of balancing risk versus reward, action, tone, symbols, world-building, and character. It also taught me a great deal about thinking on my feet. My group is known for trying to derail my narratives, and so I have to stay sharp. And as long as we’re talking about my friends, dealing with them also taught me about having fans and learning to take their feedback in a constructive manner. There’s no one in this world quite like your friends for telling you when a story sucks, but the important thing is to not take it personally. Long before I ever received my first rejection letter as a writer, I was hearing all sorts of criticism from my usual gang of idiots.
It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I realized I wanted to tell fantastic lies for a living. From age six to twelve I wanted to be a game designer, the nuts and bolts guy. I still do, to a certain degree, but in my teens I discovered TSR’s Forgotten Realms series and Lord of the Rings. Everything changed after that. Stuff got real, son, as kids say these days. I stopped wanting to be Mr. Nuts and Bolts and wanted to be Mr. J. R. R. Tolkien or, more to the point, Mr. R. A. Salvatore. I wanted to write tie-ins for Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, or for anyone else who wanted to throw ridiculous amounts of cash at me to transform my campaigns into epic sword-and-sorcery trilogies. My junk food dreams of writing for large sums of money eventually came to an end, replaced by the rice cakes of reality. TSR, Inc. was sold to Wizards of the Coast, and, a little defeated, I decided to go out and become a “real” writer instead.
So, when the chance to do a tie-in for Frank Chadwick’s Space: 1889 fell into my lap a little under a year ago, you can believe this was a dream come true. I’d read about Space: 1889 as a teenager. I’d even seen the core rules at a second-hand shop. I picked it up, scanned it, and put it back. Something about it was just beyond my reach of understanding. I’ve heard it said recently that Space: 1889 was more for grownups, and I think that’s right. It’s hard for a kid who was brought up on slaughtering orcs and making deals with dragons to get his head around Victorians discovering interplanetary travel roughly eighty years before we put a man on the Moon. I’d always been intrigued by the concept, however, and I never forgot it.
Later, in college, I developed a love of Victorian fiction, specifically the scientific romances. For some reason, I never made the connection between the game and the stories I was reading, but when the opportunity to write in the Space: 1889 universe came about, I realized I was suited to the task. I’m a little older now, and slaughtering orcs is no longer my forte. The story is the thing, now, not so much the bloodshed and violence. Space: 1889 is more story-oriented than most RPGs, and it better suited my sensibilities. Yet, when I started to outline the story, all of my instincts as a game master and player came rushing back.
I built my story much like I would build a campaign. I drew a map of the heliograph station on graph paper, put numbers in each of the rooms, and I stocked it just like a dungeon. I wrote descriptions of each room, its contents, and what encounters might occur there. Using the core rules, I created a cast of characters with stats and skills to use as a reference for how they would interact and deal with their problems. I even rolled dice in some situations. Chance has always been a big part of how my narratives turn out, a holdover from the days when dice ruled everything, and I was surprised at the directions my story took as a result. The outline I sent to Andy Frankham changed dramatically once I began telling my story. The result was Abattoir in the Aether, which I hope those of you reading this will purchase, once it’s released.
I’ve been sitting here for several days now, trying to figure out how to end this love letter to good friends and gaming. My editors are champing at the bit for this piece, but I’m not ready for them to see, just yet. I’ve never been good at talking about myself, and every word of this has been difficult to commit to paper. I suppose if there’s anything I hope you, the readers (and, hopefully, gamers) take from this, it’s that there’s one of us out there, one of those guys who grew up at the table with bad jokes and Crown Royal sacks full of dice, trying his best to take some of that magic we make every week and transform it into something others can appreciate. In a perfect world, every game master would be a professional writer as well, getting paid for his hard work that usually goes unnoticed or unappreciated, except by those who sit at his table. That’s not the case, however, and I’m careful to appreciate the chance I’ve been given. I hope I make you proud. Furthermore, I hope people buy my book, so I’m given the opportunity to come back and do it again. I’ll do it for as long as I have an audience, but if it comes to pass that I never get to do another tie-in again, I’m cool with that, too. It’s been a hell of a ride.
Good gaming to all of you.
-- L. Joseph Shosty.