In no particular order:
- Chess. So, my dad is amateurly good at go, having apparently developed this ability by cutting class to play go, but he never actually taught me to play the game. I really should have hit him up for lessons growing up, but alas. Anyway, the board game I glommed onto, because the pieces are picturesque (shut up, I'm shallow, okay?), was chess. For years I would do things like read snippets out of those chess strategy books. At one point I owned a chess glossary for story inspiration, and two of my earlier military sf stories ("Echoes Down an Endless Hall" and "The Black Abacus"--both printed in F&SF
, the latter reprinted in Conservation of Shadows
if you're morbidly curious) used chess imagery.
I never became good at chess. I find it hard to track how all the pieces move, and I do that tunnel-visioned thing where you plan this clever thing four moves ahead (Inorite?) and then the opponent does something you didn't account for the very next move
and everything combusts. But for years and years it was sort of my paradigmatic game.
- Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (tabletop RPG). So, various early things informed my understanding of fantasy writing/worldbuilding, but when it comes to direct
influence, I was much more influenced by AD&D (2nd ed. specifically) than by, say, Tolkien. I did read The Hobbit
and The Lord of the Rings
in middle school, but they didn't speak to me. I really enjoyed the hell out of the AD&D community, though, where by "the AD&D community" I mean its instantiation on FidoNet
back when I was in high school. I got into ridiculous debates about "roleplaying vs. rollplaying" (for serious) and whether AC represented damage reduction or avoidance of damage (I swear this was even a recurring thing). This is, incidentally, the source of my hatred of elves. Every month it seemed like someone would troll on by and post their character sheet with their 99th level supermulticlassed half-elven (it was always part-elf something
) Sue/Stu character. To say nothing of the perennial popularity of the antipaladin mod.
AD&D was also the first tabletop RPG I really imprinted on, although I was also exposed to others around that time period (GURPS something ed., James Bond RPG, the FASA Star Trek RPG, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Earthdawn, etc.). And it was the rules basis for most of the early CRPGs that I played--the Gold Box games, especially Eye of the Beholder II (I don't particularly recommend it, it's not very good, and don't get me started on Khelben's coin, but it was a fun diversion), Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, and Azure Bonds. (We never did finish Azure Bonds. Zhentil Keep, man, Zhentil Keep. That beholder fight is brutal
, and I hate random encounters like burning.)
And after a lot of waffling around, 2nd ed. AD&D's alignment system, as much as I maligned it back on FidoNet discussions, is actually what I use now for prototyping character personalities. It's just blunt and hacky enough to be useful--I have found that for my purposes, getting into really nuanced personality descriptions is actively unhelpful. It's like when you're doing a sketch and you want to rough out the overall thing before you start drawing earfolds.
- Fighting Fantasy, in the sense that it spawned all those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Gamebooks were sort of how I eventually got into IF (interactive fiction). While I'd played some Choose Your Own Adventures, they're less game-y on the spectrum. Somehow it's more fun when you add a randomized element. The first gamebook I clearly remember playing is The Seven Serpents
, which is #3 in Steve Jackson's Sorcery! (yes, the bang is part of the series title) quartet. It took us years to track down the rest, but it was totally worth it. I understand some kind of app version of these books is in development but haven't been keeping track.
This led to my sister and I tracking down even more gamebooks. My sister collects them. I have a much smaller collection, although I don't play them nearly as often as I'd like to. There's a surprising number out there (albeit usually out of print--they seem to have been a Thing at one point and then died out). For example, the Lone Wolf gamebooks
(freely available internet editions, read the terms), the Quest books, Sagard the Barbarian, a bunch of AD&D 2nd ed. ones (including the Dragonlance one The Soulforge
, which would supposedly be about Raistlin's trial of sorcery thing if I could get past the damn first encounter without cheating), and I've even seen one based on Zelazny's Amber (although I have not played it).
I would love to write a gamebook someday; I made partial attempts in childhood but didn't finish anything substantive. Winterstrike was based on the seeds of a gamebook-attempt that I had shelved (working title was Gamebook or Bust!) but it changed a lot in the making.
- Wolfenstein 3D (FPS). I remember when Wolf3D hit my school, although I can't remember how exactly we obtained the game. It might even have been through the practice that I didn't question at the time of Korean computer repair people blithely dumping a whole bunch of (almost certainly illegally cracked) games onto your HD if you called them in to fix your machine. (I'm not kidding. I think we even got a 2D animation program called Ani once, that way. I animated a volcano erupting. It was fab, but now that I know a little more about animation I shudder to think what the program probably cost legitimately.)
Anyway! I was braver about first-person shooters than I am now. My sister and I generally played together. She took mouse and I took keyboard. I know now that's not how it was intended to be played, but it's nice to have moral support when the GIANT HITLER CLONE sneaks around to ambush you from behind. (Sheesh, all those years ago and I still remember that moment vividly.) Also, I really hated shooting up the attack German shepherds, but there is no "make friends" command that I am aware of.
I haven't kept up with shooters much, although Mechwarrior: Living Legends is sort of technically broadly in the genre and I do play the occasional spot of PlanetSide 2. But during high school I was really into them--first this one, and then later Doom (Doom! OMG the EXPLODING BARRELS) and Heretic.
BTW, if you feel any nostalgia for Doom and probably also for roguelikes, you should check out Doom: The Roguelike
, which startlingly captures the feel of the original in, guess, roguelike format. (I also adore its shameless, shameless soundtrack.) I suck at it, but who cares! Shooty shooty shooty!
- Legend of the Five Rings (L5R for short). I've talked about L5R before: it started as a CCG (collectible card game, of which the best-known is probably the first one, Magic: The Gathering) and grew an RPG, which I believe is now in the 4th ed.
L5R was partly important to me because it introduced me, more or less, to CCGs. (I'd had a cursory encounter with M:TG in high school but I didn't really pursue the game much. The Shandalar computer game adaptation is hilarious, though.) M:TG would honestly have been a better introduction in the sense that L5R has a pretty complicated set of rules and a steep learning curve; I believe the rules are more streamlined now, but I learned back during Scorpion Clan Coup. Luckily people were very friendly and patient with me!
The other reason L5R was important to me was social. Although I'd initially met some of my college friends through AD&D, eventually a lot of our mutual gamish socialization happened via L5R CCG/RPG interactions. This includes Joe (although I first saw Joe on the first day of classes when we were in the same freshman writing seminar, which was when I fell for him, ha). I also made L5R friends online, partly through daidoji_gisei
's L5R fanfic critique group, the RicePaper Society. (Aside: L5R fanfic is notable in that typically people write fic about their RPG characters/personas--mine was Moto Maratai, which is why, when variations of "yhlee"/"yoonhalee"/whatever are taken as usernames, I default to motomaratai or maratai, which is rarely taken because "maratai" is a made-up name. It's highly unusual for people to write about existing canon characters except as background characters to the fic--you know, a daimyo giving a quest sort of thing. This made adjusting to something like Buffy
fic kind of a shock, where mostly people seem to write about the canon characters rather than OCs.) I'm no longer actively playing L5R--CCGs are bloody expensive to keep up with and we basically gave up when the lizard came along--but it was totally worth it for the friends I made and still have. That's not to say that the L5R player community didn't have its jackasses, the way every community seems to, but, hey. I'll take it and run.
L5R gave me a sort of vocabulary of tropes that I use very often in my conversations with Joe and with some of my friends who also know L5R. I mean, I mock sometimes! But I mock with affection. Like, I can be watching a TV show and say that a certain character is totally a Doji courtier and Joe will know exactly what I mean. It's super.
In a real sense, L5R also gave me the Space Opera Novel. At one point a bunch of friends and I collaboratively worldbuilt a Rokugan 3000 setting (this was a riff off Rich Wulf et al.'s Rokugan 2000
, which was a terrifically fun near-future sf/AU long-form fanfic; I have to warn you it was never completed, but then again they did tap Wulf to be the lead Story Writer so hey). Space opera Rokugan was not an original idea, people had talked about it before, but the idea was to put together a framework and then do a play-by-email campaign around it. The PBEM didn't work out mainly because people had, you know, jobs and families and stuff (I say, as the first one in that circle to spawn...), but I did decide to write it up as a long-form fanfic.
And then the L5R Story Team position opened up. I knew that if I applied and was accepted I would have to trunk the R3K fanfic forever. And this was in fact what happened. But I still really, really, deep in my heart wanted to try writing a space opera novel. So this was what led to my writing Ninefox Gambit
--that desire, even if the plot has nothing in common with the dead R3K fic's plot. So in a sense I got something out of that after all.
And, as I probably mentioned glancingly, I tried out for the Story Team a few years back when there was an opening, and was accepted along with Robert Denton. It was really neat to write for the official storyline, and I also did a few spots of freelancing. Regrettably I was not able to stay as long as I would have liked, but hey, now I can say that I know exactly what it feels like to write flavor text for cards that get printed
. (Writing the flavor text is a task that gets divvied up among Story Team members and possibly a few others, I lose track.)
- Diablo II (CRPG). My roommates and I played this obsessively senior year of college. I'm surprised it didn't wreck my grades. I did play Diablo III when it came out and Joe and I agreed that for all its fun, it just lacked the addictiveness of II. I'm not even sure what it was--I mean, I snickered at the Butcher and I can't stand Deckard Cain's "Stay awhile, and listen!" and female characters' armor is terrible
. But it was intensely, hallucinatorily addictive. It's been a while since I had a hack-slash fantasy RPG experience like that.
Also, for the curious, I consistently played Amazons with a minorly modified Vehementazon build (for those of you who remember that). And the Horadric Cube was ridiculously entertaining. I could sit there and transmute gems up the ladder for hours
. I think it was the pretty "ting!" sound they made. I am so weird.
- Planescape: Torment (CRPG). I played PS:T with my sister when I was at Stanford (I was a grad student, she was an undergrad; I spent way more time at her dorm than mine!). This was our introduction to the Planescape setting. We'd heard about it years earlier, but the whole Lady of Pain art and so on just put us off. We had no idea! The odd, bleak, lush worldbuilding entranced us, as did the plot and unusual characters. To say nothing of having an immortal PC for whom dying and coming back to life is a game mechanic
that you can (sometimes) use to advantage. maga
has talked much more intelligently about PS:T's virtues and flaws elsewhere, but I imprinted hard on this game, and it led to my starting to collect the deadtree campaign setting materials (I only have a few, but man, The Blood War boxed set is superb, and the base campaign box set is pretty damn fantastic too). It really affected how I started to handle setting imagery in my fiction.
- Over the Edge (tabletop RPG). I picked this up during undergrad, I believe; I like to collect RPGs, although I am much slower about it now (and also, my God, there are so many, and many of them are not very good, and we won't speak of the backlog of the ones I own but haven't read). This is one of the games that offered a sort of alternative to the AD&D-esque class-based paradigm and the GURPS-esque skill-based paradigm. OtE is a rules-light system. I have described it as being a step removed from freeform. As such, it's not suitable for all applications or playgroups. If your playgroup really wants a crunchy hex-map combat experience, do not use OtE. But if you have a playgroup that wants a lot of flexibility and is willing to do the work to make it work, it's worth a look. When I "stat" up my novel characters to keep track of what they do and who they are, I use a heavily modded version of the OtE sheet. (Granted, you could get something similar from some other game; but this is where I got it.)
The other thing I love about OtE is the sheer gonzo paranoid bizarro setting. In fact, although it's set on a skiffy-weird island "republic" called Al Amarja, the basic tone is really similar to that of Welcome to Night Vale
(except, you know, not in radio podcast format). I am still convinced you could get super crossovers out of the two settings.
I have found bankuei's blog
terrifically clarifying when thinking about RPGs and game design (including social justice type issues) because in a lot of ways I'm still stuck in Old School RPG-land, although I'm typically flaky about checking for updates. (There's probably some way to RSS it but I am also bad at remembering to open my RSS reader. It's embarrassing.)
- Mechwarrior: Living Legends (computer mecha FPS). This is a Crysis Wars mod I played approximately 50 hours of
(tag of my play reports). My vague understanding is that...something like this, the mod was developed by volunteers, and the devs discontinued updates because some of them were also
devs on the official Battletech computer game (I can't remember its name, I've never played the beta or whatever it was) and after years (I mean years
) they decided they didn't want to deal with the conflict of interest. It sounded complicated. But I'm grateful for the experience I did get in.
I cried a lot learning to play this game, because the learning curve was hard for me (and, allegedly, for others, so it wasn't just me). The playerbase was not remotely what I would call a safe space (in stark contrast to, say, an environment like that of City of Heroes). I decided I would deal because it was the only game that did the kind of game-ish combat that it did. The idea was to see how good I could get after 100 hours--if there would be any improvement.
Because, let's face it; the last FPS I had played was Doom/Heretic in high school
, some 15 years ago. I have terrible reflexes, pretty lousy situational awareness both in real life and staring at a computer screen, I have issues reading maps (no really), and I flail at the slightest provocation. I was pretty sure I could never learn to do this.
Actually, after 50-some hours, I learned middle-range competency. Obvs. I was not in competition with the top-tier players, of whom Joe was sometimes listed as one. But dude, there really were people who could pretty consistently headshot you with an ERPPC from 1500m out or whatever. It was unreal. I was often bad with a laser
, which is point-and-shoot, no accounting for dropping over distance! (Of course, laser is damage over a [short] duration of time and you have to keep it on target when you and the target is moving, so this does take a little skill. But still.) Weapons-wise I ended up specializing in the UAC20 for three reasons: (a) it was one of the highest damage weapons in the game per shot, (b) it was Joe's weapon of choice so I could learn from his employment of it, and (c) its maximum effective range is 350m (technically it'll splash out to a little beyond, but you shouldn't count on much beyond). Now, (c) is normally a dis
advantage, as you might imagine. You want to hit the enemy from far away so they hopefully have trouble hitting you back! But in my case, it wasn't as much of a disadvantage as you'd think because I have serious pattern recognition difficulties with these maps, especially when things are moving. I consistently tended to dash closer
so I could see the target better. If I was going to do that anyway, well. At 350m even I can see the damn Osiris. (And of course it's funny when you're zigzagging around behind a Fafnir and putting shots into its back because damn, talk about broad side of a barn. Of course, if I'm that close to a Fafnir and it's not seriously wounded, I'm dead anyway. For reference, a Fafnir is an assault, the heaviest class of mech. The few occasions I tried this I was in a Shadowcat A, a medium. A very good medium, but still.)
I learned useful things playing that game, not limited to:
+ I am sure that god reflexes help when playing an FPS! But amazingly, they are not the most important thing. The most important thing is a mental skill, which is staying calm and implementing a plan of action. Even a bad plan of action is, 9 times out of 10, better than standing there doing nothing. I speak from vast experience. In the bloody early attempts to play this game, I would do this thing where I would react, then STOP DEAD trying to suss out the situation and figure out what to do, then react--well, except for the part where I'd often already have been killed while STOPPING DEAD. If nothing else, even if you aren't firing (and, y'know, weapons cooldown etc. etc.), KEEP MOVING. At minimum, a moving target is harder to hit! (If you choose to play an Osiris, for instance. Osirises were known as deathtraps for inexperienced players--they're less expensive, making them attractive to beginners, plus they tend to have more powerful weapons for their class, but they also have PAPER ARMOR. I never mastered this, but basically the key to successful Osirising is to take advantage of the fast max speed--hampered somewhat by the fact that the overwhelmingly most popular Light, the Owens, was even faster
--and the 360 degree torso twist to sniper the hell out of slower mechs. If you are in an Osiris and you are not making regular use of Parthian shots while galloping around, you're probably doing it wrong.)
+ Until you are one of the high-level players who can typically take a three-on-one fight (yeah, I watched Joe pull this kind of stunt a lot--until he ran into other players of equivalent skill, of course), for pity's sake stick with your buddies. And if you are a newbie, do NOT be the first over the hill. Let the experienced player in the Thor or Demolisher or whatever tank for you and take pot shots while you're learning tactics.
+ I learned a lot of little things very rapidly from simulated experience that hadn't really seemed real reading them in military history books/accounts. One I remember pretty vividly is Do Not Silhouette Yourself for the Enemy. There's a MWLL map, Sandblasted, which has a ton of hills. The moment you poke your head out over the top of a hill, EVERYONE on the enemy team focuses fire on you. This made the relevant lesson in The Defense of Duffer's Drift
really obvious when I finally got around to reading it!
+ It is in fact possible to learn with practice! I cannot emphasize this enough. Journaling my experiences so I could see my progress helped. Also, the only way to learn to do a thing is to do a thing. SJ Wolf, who generously gave me a tutorial session, gave advice that I found helpful: seek out high-level players and duel them for the practice, and to learn from the, uh, ways that they dismember you with ease. Then, to keep your morale up, go beat on some easier targets from time to time. :-)
+ Watching the illustration of the differences between fighting (mech vs. mech) vs. tactics (groups vs. groups) vs. strategy (in this context, base-flipping and ticket strategy) was tremendously illuminating and I'm under no illusion that I did more than glimpse how this worked, because I was still at the point of learning the first level (fighting). Teamwork really is a force multiplier, however. On some occasions Joe and I would go out together, he'd make the decisions and I'd be his backup, or we'd do something like spotter/missile mech combos (uh, it was hilarious when I was still learning how to use the ArrowIV Catapult...friendly fire isn't
). Because we were playing in pub (public, not prearranged teams) matches, teamwork was sort of scattershot--occasionally it spontaneously happened, especially among players who recognized each other from past encounters or whatever, and if you played for a while on particular servers you started to get to know who knew what they were doing.
I don't fully understand the ticket system for team fights (I decided it was an Advanced Topic and to concentrate on learning, e.g., the nuances of radar, whose mechanics as implemented in the game were slightly complicated, to say nothing of things like AECM that sounded great but were bugged for the longest time), but basically, it went something like: Each team started with a certain # of tickets. An assault would cost (say) 4 tickets, a medium 2, a light or BA 1, etc. (Technically MWLL was combined arms. You also had aerospace units and tanks and stuff. Demolishers were scary
.) You didn't lose tickets when you died IIRC, but you did spend them to respawn. I think
# of bases may have interacted with this somehow as well, plus bases were spawning points so you wanted to hold on to them for geostrategic type reasons. Assaults were bigger and had much better armor and firepower, but they also tended to be slow; there really were situations where a light or medium is the better choice. Example: Big Hairy Battle is taking up everyone's attention in the middle of the map. The enemy has a rear base undefended. The base doesn't care what kind of unit is used to flip it. (Yes, a BA can flip a base, although unless they're hitching a ride on an APC or something they're so slow covering distance they're not necessarily ideal here.) You get into a nice zippy Owens, sprint over there, flip the base. Even if you don't completely flip the base, the enemy team usually has to divert one (possibly more) units to retake the base. Who knows, maybe they sent two big slow Heavies and all you've lost is a little jaunt in a Light. I'm sure there were plenty of more elaborate scenarios like this one.
+ I found it really fascinating to watch the debates play out on what were the best tactics, game balance, etc. It's not the first context in which I've seen such discussions, of course, but it had been a while since I had made the concentrated effort to pay attention.
I miss this game a lot. It had its problems. But I don't regret a minute I spent on it.
- Zangband. This was the first roguelike I played, although it wasn't the one I came to love the most (that was OAngband, which I think ceased development ages ago and probably doesn't run on Win7 besides). At first I was skeptical that an ASCII dungeon could be addictive. THEN I WAS ADDICTED. During grad school. (When I wasn't playing Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, ahahahaha.) Zangband is nuts, esp. if you play with Lovecraftian monsters on; in fact I only finally quit because the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu destroyed my character's Sanity and there was no practical way to recover. I like OAngband's ruleset much better and miss it lots, though. I did play a little Tales of Maj'Eyal
a little, although it's...considerably evolved from the genre, but it doesn't entertain me nearly as much as it does Joe.