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Thinking Virtually

#1: Twenty-First Century Roleplaying: An Introduction

by Shannon Appelcline
February 26, 2001

I'm not sure anymore when exactly I got my first roleplaying game. I was in grade school or Jr. High--I'm pretty sure about that--and I know that it was a gift from my father. It probably won't surprise you much that the game was Dungeons & Dragons. My dad had given me the basic book--the old one, with the three holes drilled down the left side, and the really cheesy full-cover art.

My father really didn't know what he was in for. I'd been asking him for the game since Christmas, and so he finally gave in. On my birthday it appeared in a neat package. I'm sure I said "I bet it's a record" when I shook the flimsy, wrapped book. An old joke.

(I don't think my father ever bought me a record.)

The book was wonderful, full of neat drawings and exciting ideas. But, I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't have anyone to play Dungeons & Dragons with. The rules were over my head. And so my father--my wonderful father--took the rules he'd bought me in hand and began to carefully read through them.

Did I mention that my father doesn't enjoy games? That he isn't a big fan of fantasy? Both true statements. Nonetheless, he learned the rules for D&D--most of them anyway. He pulled out some of the graph paper that he usually used to draw circuit diagrams and mapped out a simple dungeon and populated it. And then he ran my first D&D game--my first roleplaying game.

The only thing I remember vividly was entering a room full of jagged rocks and stained bones. I stepped into the chamber, and the bones began to move together, forming into skeletons that menaced me with sharp and deadly swords. I tried to stab them with my own sword, but to no avail. (My dad had never quite made it through the combat system.) Things seemed bleak.

But then I was struck with ten-year-old inspiration. (Or eight-year-old or twelve.) I picked one up of the stones that littered the room and threw it at a skeleton. The creature shattered, no combat system needed. A few stones' throw more, and the ground was once more carpeted with bones, and silence descended on the dungeon.

I wish I had the graph paper that my father drew that first dungeon map on. It was one of the coolest things that he's ever done. I should tell him that some time.

The Other Shoe Drops

My father never ran another D&D adventure for me, but that was fine because he'd given me the spark that I needed to get my own creative engine going. In the next couple of years I found a handful of friends who enjoyed playing roleplaying game too. Dungeons & Dragons, Champions, Stormbringer, Traveller, and RuneQuest stand out as a few of the games I played during those formative times.

But, much to my surprise, my dad's involvement with gaming didn't totally end--this was still one more first to come. My dad bought a computer while I was still young--shortly after that first D&D game I think, but I can't say for sure. It was an h89, an ancient monstrosity that came with a 100k floppy drive, 48k of RAM, and a green CRT monitor.

It was wonderful.

And not long after he bought the computer he bought a game. Adventure. The earliest of the puzzle-solving prose games. My first computer game. A few years later, at my specific request, he upgraded his computer to 64k of RAM so that it would run a new game that I was asking for. The first computer version of Dungeons & Dragons.

It was a primitive game. You explored a largely random dungeon that was displayed in text characters. You fought monsters, cleverly represented as letters of the alphabet, and won treasures.

The computer Dungeons & Dragons and Adventure were both a lot of fun. They were experiences that were wholly satisfactory in and of themselves ... but they were also very different from their close kin, the tabletop roleplaying game that my father had purchased just a year or two before. And that is where I plan to start next week, when I really get this column rolling. I want to discuss the differences between tabletop roleplaying games and online roleplaying games and how each may offer very different and unique experiences.

Consider this week's article a teaser or a prelude, with the column proper beginning in seven days' time.

The Best of the Best: An Aside

Before I finish up this week, let me take a moment to talk about this column: its purpose, its hopes, its aspirations, all that good stuff. As you've no doubt noted, it's called "Thinking Virtually", and that's because I want to talk about the design of interactive virtual worlds. Which is to say online games.

Hold on! Don't click that back button!

I want to talk about online game design, but it's a discussion that I hope will interest many of the readers of Much of my focus is going to be on telling stories, and that has application to each and every game master out there. Some articles will be oriented toward online-specific game design issues, but I hope that those will interest many of you as well. Because, this column won't discuss just any online games. It'll talk about the design of online roleplaying games.

It's not quite the same thing as tabletop roleplaying games, as I've already noted, but I think there's a lot of common ground. And, I hope you'll enjoy seeing the discussion of roleplaying in a slightly different medium. As the future relentlessly washes over us, as we plunge blindly into the twenty-first century, roleplaying will change. We might all slowly, some of us begrudgingly, move on to online roleplaying games of the type I'm describing. Or, we might take the lessons learned in the online medium and apply them to our own tabletop games. I'm not sure what will happen. The future is a notoriously difficult thing to predict, but I hope some of it will be embedded somewhere in this column.

I should note: this column will not be entirely made up of new material. I plan to pen an entirely new column every month or so, like this one. But I'll be sending out issues of "Thinking Virtually" on a weekly basis. The other three or four weeks out of the month I'll be reprinting the best columns from Skotos Tech, a publisher of online games that I just happen to work for.

Trust me, there's some good material out there that you haven't seen yet. Over at Skotos we publish five columns, most of them on a weekly basis, and we occasionally commission other articles as well. Some of the articles are very specific to our games or our systems, but there are others which offer interesting insights into writing stories or plotting adventures or running games or designing them. It's these latter articles that I'll be sharing here.

Next week I plan to write one more original column, talking about the differences between live and computer roleplaying games, and what I see as the advantages of each medium. After that I plan to start reprinting a set of articles penned by a creative writing student, discussing the various elements needed to tell a good story: setting, character, plot, backstory, and detail. And after that, we shall see ....

So, Who The Heck is That Appelcline Guy?: A Postscript

For some obscure reason I feel obliged to offer up my credentials, to let you know that I'm not just some computer guy. I've been involved in the RPG industry for about a decade. My first RPG sale was, of all things, an index of Dragon Magazine, made to TSR back at the beginning of time (which is to say, 10 years ago or so). I've done work for Ars Magica, most notably Tribunals of Hermes: Rome, but for the most part I'm a Chaosium guy. Besides editing and doing graphic design for the Call of Cthulhu game for a couple of years, I also created The Chaosium Digest and ran it for half a decade. You could find my credits in scattered books, from Taint of Madness and The Nephilim Gamemaster's Companion to Hero Wars, and Tales of Chivalry & Romance--though most of that work appeared under my unmarried name, Appel.

My wife is the very same creative writing student whose work will appear in this column in two weeks' time. I hope you'll still be here when we delve into "The Elements of Good StoryTelling". In the meantime, I'll see you here in 7.

Shannon Appelcline regularly writes the column Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company.

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