by Melinda M. Snodgrass
So you might have heard that role playing games had a little something to do with how Wild Cards was born. That is true, and I won’t go into it all again. Instead I’m going to tell you how I got into this wonderful and wacky world, and why I miss it to this day.
It all started the summer before I entered law school. I was working at this second hand book store for some extra money, and one day this young, tall, blond man walked in and we fell to talking. Turned out he was a budding science fiction writer named Victor Milán and he was just back from hitchhiking around Europe for the summer. We started talking about science fiction, which had been my love from the moment I could read, and we instantly became the best of friends.
I started law school, but Vic and I stayed in contact. I kept my sanity over those three years by singing in musical comedies with the Albuquerque Civil Light Opera (over the strong objections of my law profs, I might add), and I lured Vic into my musical world. He had done some acting, and he had a beautiful lyric baritone voice. He was one of the knights in our production of Camelot when I was signing Guinevere and he was also in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Three years later I graduated, passed the bar and went to work first for the government at Sandia Labs and then in a corporate law firm as a young associate.
And I hated it.
Then Vic invited me to a mass autographing at the mall, which resulted in my getting invited to the Saberhagens for the barbecue afterward, and that afternoon and evening ended up changing my life. As I wandered from room to room at Joan and Fred’s home, I eavesdropped on Susie Charnas discussing the effect of linguistics on culture, and Fred reading a letter from a lunatic in Rumania who began by complimenting Fred on his Holmes/Dracula File novel, but by the end of the letter it was clear the gentleman thought he was actually Dracula. And of course there was Vic and Bob who were just hilarious and kept everyone laughing. That was when I decided I had to be part of these amazing, fascinating, and amusing people, and find some way to join this community. Vic said he would help me, and I began to write in secret with Vic as my mentor.
So how does this have anything to do with role playing, you might ask? I’m getting to that. So Vic and I are meeting up at midnight at the Vip’s Big Boy on Fourth Street to go over my chapters, and I ultimately end up quitting the law firm after going to see The Empire Strikes Back — with Vic. That is also a story for another day. How “Do or do not, there is no try” got me to walk away from a steady paycheck.
But it was at one of these midnight critique sessions that Vic said, “I bet you’d enjoy role playing. You’re an actress and you love to make up stories. I’m playing in a game right now. I’ll see if I can bring you in.”
Turns out that game was Call of Cthulhu and the game master was…. wait for it…. Walter Jon Williams. The guys agreed it would be interesting to have a girl join in, so I went over to Walter’s place on that first night and met Chip Wideman, another of our Wild Cards alum.
I was loaned a set of dice, and walked through the intricate process of generating a character. I will never forget him, even though I can’t remember the character’s name. Chip and I were twin brothers, British, on holiday in Normandy when we discover we were actually werewolves, and then we had to make a choice — choose humanity or choose to serve the Great Old Ones. I regret to report that my brother chose the Old Ones, and it cost him his life — at the hands of George R.R. Martin’s journalist character Ned Cullen, I might add. But George joined the game a number of years later, so I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was one night, I think we played for five or six hours, and I was hooked. Seriously, a game in which you can go nuts if you fail your sanity role is the best thing ever. We laughed, we ate junk food and drank soda, had a character get carried off the top of the carriage by a Night-Gaunt. It was so much fun, and both Walter and Vic were also amateur actors so it soon became improv theater rather than just rolling dice to see if we got hit or dodged or made our sanity role.
Dice. Oh god I love them so. I have a large velvet bag that holds all my dice and I just keep adding to them. They are so pretty, like little jewels and you can even buy dice caved out of precious stones now. I haven’t quite gotten to that point, but I love dice. The colors, the feel of them, the sound of them as they hit the table as you hold your breath to see what you rolled. Will it be a critical hit or a fumble? And speaking of fumbles….
It was that night of game play that I discovered that Vic was The King of the Fumble. See in role playing with the GURPS system that we used if you rolled a eighteen or double zero it was a critical fumble, and bad things were about to happen. Like, fall down, hit or shoot friend, or shoot self. In one infamous Privateers and Gentlemen game we had a player fumble three times in a row and manage to cut his head off with his own sword. Fumbles can be dangerous to your character’s health… or hilarious depending on the situation.
Our group began to grow. Vic brought in John Miller and his wife Gail (more Wild Cards alum), and eventually we brought in this reprobate named George R.R. Martin into our merry band. We played a lot of Morrow Project back in the day… a post apocalyptic game where you are awakened after the crises and tasked with rebuilding civilization. (Yes, Alyosha/Walter I know you think septic tanks are the wave of the future, but my darling I’m telling you sheep are a better bet.) Sorry, momentary meander down memory lane.
We brought George into a Morrow Project game and he promptly tried to poison a guy we met in a bar… except George was new to this so he had given his character a miserable amount of dexterity so he failed, got caught, beat up and we all got thrown out of the bar. But then we had George hooked.
At that point the part of the story you all know occurred. Vic gave George a copy of Superworld for Christmas and the rest is history and madness and soon to be 28 books.
So I’m not going to tell that story again. Instead I’m going to talk about how role playing isn’t really a waste of time. I took to cooking for our Privateers group so I learned how to make chicken cordon blu (my character’s mother was a chef so I figured Tracy could probably cook too), and discovered that I cannot bake a successful cake at high altitude. Next time you see Walter ask him about the Hockey Puck of Doom. It got turned into a trifle, alcohol can fix almost any cooking disaster.
Now on a more serious note. For creators role playing can be very inspirational and educational. When you are in a group with people like Vic and Walter and Roger and Daniel and Ty and George it doesn’t take long before the adventures in the commercially available games become boring, and these crazy geniuses start to create their own games.
Walter was probably the most prolific at that, and in Walter’s case a number of those games went on to be published. He created Privateers and Gentlemen which grew out of his heroic age of sail books, and Hard Wiredwhich was born from the novel of the same name. I got to play test that one and it was so much fun.
In addition to making money off this obsession, Walter ran games just for fun. Like the one where we all played Dortmunder type criminals with about as much success as the Dortmunder characters. (If you haven’t read Donald Westlake’s brilliant books go and immediately buy some. You won’t regret it. Two of my favorites are The Hot Rock and Drowned Hopes.) After we dabbled at being crooks, Walter then ran a police game where we all played cops, which sent me off to read all of the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain.
The final big game we were playing before our lives became far too complicated and busy for us to continue was our long running Roman Republic campaign where we were up and coming young nobles and soldiers looking to gain wealth, glory and political power. (George died a lot in that game.) And here is where it wasn’t a waste of time. All of us playing in that game began to read every book we could lay our hands on about the Roman Republic. See, parents, role playing can be very educational.
And then there are the characters that we create, inhabit and imbue with life. Two of my characters ended up in my books apart from Wild Cards. Richard was a cop in our Scum game and went into my Edge series. Tracy Belmanor was created for Privateers and Gentlemen, and got updated from the 18th century into my space opera series, Imperials.
It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play in any serious way, and I truly miss it. It’s fun inhabiting a different person, trying to out-think and out-plan a very bright game master. Sometimes the characters we play fall in love with each other, and sometimes the real people playing those characters fall in love too. While I can remember lots of wonderful moments in these games the things I remember most are the friendships, the laughter and the sense of community that I will cherish forever.