Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I'm going to go back there someday

(NOTE: This is my extraordinarily belated contribution to Speak Out With Your Geek Out, weeklong celebration of our geeky hobbies and/or obsessions that I learned about from fellow library blogger Jessica Olin. I had meant to have this post finished in time, but sometimes my words take on a life of their own... which I suppose is the theme of this post!)

It all began with a dot and four letters on a hand-drawn map: VARO.

The year was 1989, and I was in between my junior and senior years at high school. Back then summers meant one thing: unlimited time to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I took advantage of this opportunity to run my most ambitious campaign to date. Unlike previous games I had Dungeon Mastered, which were all set in fantasy worlds that had been created by the role-playing game's designers, this would be a universe entirely of my own creation. The players' home base would be a port town on the edge of the world's arctic circle, and I had already scrawled a map of the adjacent coastline roughly the size of New England hinting at all of the exciting places the adventurers could go to seek their fortune: the haunted dwarven ruins of Ironhold to the east, the bustling river city Cherindal to the south, and of course the frozen wastes surrounding the Northern Citadel, which guarded ominously against an unnamed threat (shades of George R.R. Martin two years before his Game of Thrones).

Surely this would be enough to keep my players busy, but no sooner had they reached these far-flung locales than they demanded to know what lay beyond. For example, this "Great Sea" they had been sailing on-- how far did it stretch? Hastily I drew a larger-scale map depicting the body of water's westernmost shore. The blank coastline looked lonely, however, so I placed a city where one might expect one, and named it "Varo" without giving it much additional thought. After all, it was three thousand miles away...

"Varo?" one of my players asked dubiously as he inspected the new map. "What's that?"

I stammered as I thought on my feet: "Umm, it's a city of merchant princes. Yeah. Their trade galleys can be found all over the Great Sea."

This seemed enough to mollify him. "Cool!"

I'd like to say there was something more to it, as might befit the founding legend of a great city- but alas, Varo was born without the divine fanfare or inexplicable fratricide that seems to accompany the establishment of cities in Graeco-Roman antiquity. And yet a seed had been planted nevertheless, although it wasn't for a year and a half later that it would germinate and sprout into something real. It was the Fall of my freshman year at MIT and I had just discovered that my new housemate and soon-to-be best friend was also a big-time D&D geek. As often occurs when this sort of thing happens, we immediately began swapping old campaign stories (your local VFW Post hasn't got anything on a veteran Dungeon Master!).

In an attempt to impress my new friend, for some reason I started talking about Varo. Never mind that I hadn't run so much as a session in that city situated on the far-flung shore of my own imagination-- I had recently been doing some undergraduate research for an archaeology professor studying early Renaissance Venice, and as I spoke about this city of merchant princes I found myself drawing heavily on my recent background readings to invest this fantasy locale with life.

Varo was like Venice, of course, but there had to be a twist. I can still remember that moment, standing in the kitchen of German House, when my ability to produce extemporaneous creative bullshit went into hyperdrive. It was like Venice, but it was bigger. Much bigger. A million souls living in decrepit high-rise insulae like in Ancient Rome along fetid canals suddenly sprang into existence, but why were they there? Because Varo, like Venice, was the center of commerce for the civilized world, but unlike Venice it had never lost its position of preeminence. Yes. But how had they maintained their dominance? Drawing upon Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, I imagined that the Varonians had found a way to use mathematics to predict the future and rig the world's markets in their favor, with the result that history itself had ground to a halt.

In just moments Varo had gone from just a name on a map to a dreary postmodern fantasy metropolis that was basically cyberpunk with crossbows (I'd later settle on "crossbow noir"). Great Houses vied with one another for supremacy over the information economy while the City itself bled the world dry. The more I padded out this dystopia, the more I fell in love with it... and so did my friend.

"So when do I get a chance to play in this world?" he asked.

Over the next two years my friend and I explored the City of Varo. I'd never DM'ed a solo campaign before, but this was a game world that seemed to beg for a unique first-person perspective. My friend had rolled up a bounty hunter character who was equal parts Blade Runner and Philip Marlowe, and I responded by crafting mystery after mystery for the fantasy gumshoe to solve, all the while fleshing out more and more of the setting. This was Varo's formative period, and even though we didn't run more than a couple of dozen sessions the City had burned itself indelibly into our imaginations, so much so that we were able to run one adventure while driving cross-country from Pittsburgh to Washington State, sans books, dice, or notes, guided only by our shared memory of a place which didn't exist.

Somewhere along the way my friend and I got it into our heads to publish Varo as its own fantasy roleplaying game. If either of us hadn't been so preoccupied with washing out of MIT and figuring out what that meant in the Grand Scheme of Things, we might very well have pulled something off. As it stood we did manage to flesh out both the mores and mechanics of this parallel universe, so that even as it defied any attempts to be published it continued to gain life nevertheless. Like that game Katamari Damacy, where a little ball sticks to everything it touches until it rolls itself into a giant agglomeration of everything, so too did Varo absorb every piece of culture I encountered- every book I read, fiction or nonfiction, every T.V. show or movie I watched. It eventually reached a point where I no longer had to consciously add to this world- it added to itself constantly, relentlessly, shamelessly.

Varo was alive.

My best friend decided to find his fortune on the other side of the continent, during which time we managed to continue via email the solo adventures of his bounty hunter, who had left the City and gone traveling himself. At the time I don't think I had appreciated the irony, but there it was. Not only was our hero travelling the wilderness in true Joseph Campbell fashion but the entire world was following him. In what sort of cosmos had we situated our fantasy dystopia? Through a couple of novella's worth of email correspondence my friend and I attempted to figure this out.

It may have continued this way indefinitely if not for my wife, who enters the story at this point. To say that I had misgivings about sharing this fantasy world with others would be something of an understatement. Playing D&D was one thing, even running it as a Dungeon Master was another, but this particular brand of world-building had become an all-consuming endeavor. How would I even begin to explain this to someone with absolutely no frame of reference? But I was in love, so I did my best to try, telling the creation story of Varo to her on our first long-distance drive from Boston to New Jersey. Instead of driving her away screaming, not only was she absolutely fascinated despite being neither a gamer nor a fantasy or sci-fi geek (I managed to change the latter in the fullness of time, although I don't think she'll ever be a gamer ((fortunately our daughter is more after my own heart in this regard!)), but she challenged me to try again to publish.

This time I wrote. Okay, my friend and I did make another college try at publishing which actually resulted in a (albeit rough) first draft of a sourcebook, but at the same time I set my mind to exploring the world of Varo through my fiction. I had just started writing again in earnest after about ten years of writer's block, and once I'd gotten half a dozen short stories under my belt I felt it was finally time to attempt a novel. The protagonist of this tale would be a young chef, as the idea would be to describe my fantasy setting primarily through its food. "Confessions of a Gourmand," I'd call it, and over the next three years I would struggle to bring this novel out of my imagination and onto paper, all the while investing Varo with yet another dimension.

After Confessions was complete I promised myself I would give genre fiction a break, but with the challenge of NaNoWriMo 2006 just around the corner I left my then work-in-progress- a novel about my time at MIT that I was tentatively titling "Sex, Drugs, and Acapella"- and returned to Varo to write The Librarian's Tale, which viewed my fantasy setting through the eyes of the City's chief rival, Iskandalon, the City of Letters to Varo's Republic of Numbers. I was astonished at how easily the words came over the space of a month, such that I had a fully-formed novel by the end of that November. Surely I had written Varo out of my system by now, or so I had reasoned, but the truth was that I was only getting started.

Varonian Nights came into existence in the Winter of 2008, breaking another writing dry spell that had coincided with my first year as a professional librarian, when all thought of creative output had been squelched by simply trying not to get fired. When at last the chaos of my new job had settled into something a little more manageable, I decided the best way to jump back into my writing would be a new short story- this time one that was set in Varo. I think I was inspired by my friend Jason, who was currently getting his MFA in Creative Writing and had a class project for which he was writing a fantasy novel that consisted of several interrelated short stories. Whatever the impetus, "Red Legion," aka Varonian Nights #1, was short, action-packed, and exactly what I'd needed to recharge my imagination. No sooner had I finished it than I'd immediately launched into the next tale, envisioning an anthology of eleven short stories when all was said and done which I finished earlier this year.

However, in the middle of this collection I decided to give NaNoWriMo yet another go (in November 2009), in part to see whether I still had it in me, but also because I had a story idea that I just couldn't resist telling- i.e., a new mystery for my co-conspirator's bounty hunter protagonist to solve. The result was a novella I called "Eight," which is still quite raw and is still in need of a third act, but it was fascinating to return to the perspective of the character which had quite literally started it all. Not only had this individual grown up, but so had the City and the entire world around him, such that returning to his point of view felt like I had almost come full circle.

Almost, but not quite...

The summer before last my best friend and I decided to attend GenCon in grand fashion- instead of flying out, we would drive to Indianapolis and back, making a proper road trip of it. Along the way we talked of little else than Varo, as I brought him up to speed with Varonian Nights and Eight and he filled me in on various mechanics problems that he'd been working on in his spare time. For just as I would default to imagining another corner of this fantasy world whenever my brain had a spare cycle, he would open up his notebook and start hacking his own set of homebrewed rules which accurately captured how to adventure in a place like the City. We could both sense that a new creative critical mass had been achieved, so I suppose it was only inevitable when roaring past the soybean fields of the Midwest, my friend asked me:

"So when do I get to play in this world again?"

I've been running a successful D&D campaign ever since, which is now in its 2nd year. This is not a solo adventure, however, but a game that we opened to an entire table of old friends and new. Now we are sharing this world we have built with some of the best gamers I know, and it only becomes a richer and more dynamic place with every session. My friend and I joke that the City has become so real to us that we fully expect to end up there when old age finally takes its toll and we lose our marbles, hence the title of this post (bonus points if you got the Muppet Movie reference). Personally, I could think of no better afterlife than this alternate reality I have labored over for pretty much my entire adult life. I wonder if this is how Tolkien or Asimov felt?

1 comment:

jtfburgess said...

Tom, that was really touching. It reminds me of my own summer of 1989, solo GMing with my best friend. Our world wasn't as sophisticated as Varo, but it certainly was as organic. It was a magnet for all the pop culture and scifi we read, and was the sandbox for our philosophical and engineering notions. Reading your post reminded me of the pure, simple joy of speculation. Thanks for that.