Friday, 10 April 2009

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#1 - Max Davenport]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

An accomplished actor, musician, martial artist, and philanthropist - there are the many facets to Max Davenport. For over 25 years, Max has brought an unparalleled passion for the arts that few can match. His deep spiritual roots are an integral part of his movies, his music, his martial arts expertise and his genuine love and care for others. From humble beginnings in Detroit, Michigan to finding his cultural center in Japan, to an acting career launched in 1988, to a flourishing music career and his involvement with numerous charities - this is Max Davenport.

Let's hear what he has to say about RPGs...

1 - Let's begin at the beginning. Can you remember your first gaming session? What happened, and why did it suck you into the hobby?

You know, I honestly don't remember a first session. I was probably 7 or 8? We lived out in the country and the kid across the street only wanted to play baseball and occasionally beat me up. I remember going to the local recreation center for Friday evening games a few times, but as a shy kid on the younger end of the age range I never felt comfortable.

Eventually I got into a semi-regular group with the son and nephew of one my teachers. They lived one town over, but we got together for overnight D&D marathons when we could.

What drew me into the hobby the most was the creative aspect of making up characters and monsters, drawing dungeons, dreaming up adventures -- the solitary side of the hobby. My most vivid memory of actual play in the first few years I gamed was a tantrum I threw when I couldn't get my players to stop cracking jokes. Tears were shed, threats to take my toys and go home were made.

Let's just move on.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

Oh pssh, who knows? I never got a chance to play in an ongoing campaign in those days, so most of my characters were scarcely differentiated mooks who changed from game to game. I do remember two high level characters I made up but never played. One was a lawful good halfling fighter, Peregrine something-somesuch -- straight off the hobbit family tree in a Tolkien appendix. The other was a half-orc assassin who used an "arrow sling," a weapon of my own imagining -- a giant rubber band for shooting arrows with. I've rolled Retro-Stupid since retro was new, kid.

3 - Have you been playing regularly ever since, or have their been long gaps in your gaming?

I gave away all of my gaming stuff the summer before I went to college, including Gamma World 2e, a bunch of modules and Dragons and my only two minis, a beholder and a Jabberwocky. I didn't think about gaming for a decade except for buying a nostalgic copy of Tomb of Horrors at a comic shop. When I heard about 3e I collected the core books and various supplements but played it only once with an old friend.

Last January I found out about the impending Fourth Edition of D&D, and that piqued my interest again. But the more I read about 4e the less it floated my personal boat. I found myself drawn to the old school and the retro-clones -- and got a huge crush on the retro-mutant Encounter Critical.

Then of course the death of Gary Gygax was a memento mori -- for me and many others I'm sure. I asked myself, "If not now, when? You like gaming -- go find some gamers and roll the dice!

4 - What do you think attracts you to the hobby? Why this and not, say, cross-stitch or ice hockey?

I'm a fairly solitary person who also enjoys playing the fool, so gaming is a perfect hobby! I can spend an afternoon all to my lonesome poring over a dungeon map or scratching out monsters. But I also get a chance to extrovert myself playing face to face. Even online around the blogs and in play by post games there's a camaraderie.

And let me add that while I never took to sports or needlecraft, gaming isn't my only hobby. I do a fair bit of cycling in the warmer months (which gives me lots of time to brainstorm gaming ideas).

5 - Is there anything about the hobby you strongly dislike?

Monty Python references. The tedious "You are!" "No, you are!" neeener-neener bickering that keeps me from reading most online forums. People who mistake arrogance for wisdom. All of which, of course, are really blemishes on geekdom in general rather gamers alone.

6 - How would you introduce a newcomer to rpgs? Have you ever done so?

Never had the opportunity to introduce a new player to the hobby. Given the chance I guess I'd keep it as simple as possible, adding in rules along the way. Depending on the interest of the new player I'd go with Labyrinth Lord for fantasy, Mutant Future with the setting filed off for science fiction, Risus for other genres. These three because I know them reasonably well and they can all be pared down to a few simple rules. And they are all free, so the truly interested could dive in!

7 - Do you hide the fact that you game, or do you live an "I am who I am" geek dream?

I'm open about my interests -- currently my coworkers are enjoying the lurid series of vintage horror posters I'm using for desktop backgrounds, which changes every couple days when Netflix mails me a new Hammer film. I guess they know I play D&D too -- I've mentioned it in passing.

8 - What would your 'desert island game' be? (That is, if you were marooned on a desert island with four other rpg players and you only had one set of rulebooks, which books would you choose?)

I'd go with some iteration of OD&D. It has already proven itself adaptable and inspirational enough to spawn the entire hobby, and its cod-medieval sword & sorcery milieu is defined sketchily enough that it can be (and, indeed has been and continues to be) jerry-rigged to fit many other genres. It's the Swiss Family Robinson/Army Knife of games.

I'd also smuggle in Risus, nestled safely between my ears.

9 - Have you ever toyed with the idea of writing rpg material for money? Ever tried to get anything published? Ever self-published?

I have been published in the fanzine Fight On! and hope to be again. I hope to put together .pdfs of some adventures and such to share online, but I haven't any aspirations to publish on demand or freelance.

10 - What would be your ideal soundtrack to a session of your favourite game? Pick three songs.

Aw hell. Where to start?

Rather than playing the Conan soundtrack or Dead Can Dance in the background, I like the idea of matching atmospheric music to specific encounters. Cue up some barrel-chested Georgian choral music for a meeting with dwarven elders, or wild Romanian fiddle tunes when they party goes astray in the haunted forest. My wife and I are big fans of
he brilliant viol player Jordi Savall, so we have hours of amazing early music in our collection as well. And every dead D&D PC could be honored with Motorhead's "Deaf Forever."

Beyond D&D I feel like skronky modern jazz and Gamma World / Mutant Future go together like flies and candy. Might just be me though. If I were running something spooky I'd put the 12" version of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" on repeat. I could listen to that bass line for hours.

But this isn't what you asked. You asked for three songs for a favorite game. I'll do you better and direct you my Encounter Critical playlist on Youtube: It's got Billy Ocean on it so you know I ain't foolin' around.

11. So Encounter Critical. What on earth is the attraction?

Oh, now you've uncorked the bottle.

As Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to ask, you'll never know." But I'll give it a shot. To quote another legendary jazz trumpeter, Jeff Rients recently said "EC was like a pulling a blindfold from my eyes and being able to really see the impossibilities of roleplaying for the very first."

I actually fell for the EC hoax myself -- a year after the big reveal, because I read one of Jeff's early reviews, thought "Man, what a crazy world," and moved on. But it wormed its way into my brain, and when I found out the full history I had to read the whole thing. Have you? It is not only a genuinely hilarious piece of writing but a brilliant bit of in-character roleplaying too. It's like this: Have you ever watched one of those generally wretched movies that tries to be deliberately awful in emulation of old B-movies? It's not easy to do, and most of the movies just feel hammy and forced. EC pulls this trick off. It works because it is *totally sincere.* All of its satire comes from a deep love of this oddball hobby and its equally odd devotees, and an unreserved joy in playing games.

Add in an adventuresome setting that allows me free reign to indulge my love of bad puns and pop-culture and BOOM! the whole thing went of in my head like a Warlock Bomb. I never *knew* that I wanted a game where Edgar Winter is the last scion of a decadent island empire, wandering the world on an endless rock'n'roll tour, wielding a soul-eating demon synthesizer. But as it turns out, I do, and EC is that game.

12. You're into horror then. But it's interesting that you don't mention much horror roleplaying. You've never dabbled in World of Darkness or the like?

Is WoD a horror game, really? I'm not being snarky -- I have very little experience of it. But if your character is a monster, a supernatural creature, doesn't that make horror normative? What is there to dread?

Lest anyone think I trying to knock WoD, I freely admit I don't know what I'm talking about. I've never read a WoD rulebook. What little I've gleaned of the milieu, Vampire in particular, just doesn't interest me enough to pursue. I have no doubt that there are GMs out there running campaigns that would prove me wrong. But I'll just say this: It's Peter Cushing I root for. I like my vampires stalked, staked, and sun-baked. Stuff their mouths with garlic, beat them with a crucifix and chop their heads off.

As for other horror games Call of Cthulhu interests me, but I don't currently own it. I'd play it gladly though!

13. You wanted to move on, but I'm going to ask anyway: You threw a tantrum because you couldn't get your players to stop cracking jokes, but you like Encounter Critical, Risus and 'playing the fool'. Seems like a bit of tension there between the serious and comedy Maxes. Would that be a fair comment?

It might be if I were still ten years old! Nowadays I'm more laid back, I think. Certainly as a player I can tolerate a table that goes in and out of focus over the course of an evening. But I'm judging a face-to-face game for the first time in 20 years in a couple of weeks. If I lose my shit and end up shouting and sobbing perhaps you can resume this prying and distasteful line of questioning.

Hell, if you're lucky somebody will film it and it will go viral on Youtube.

Hopefully Max will let us know how that face-to-face game goes... He blogs semi-regularly at Malevolent & Benign, so watch that space.


  1. "I never *knew* that I wanted a game where Edgar Winter is the last scion of a decadent island empire, wandering the world on an endless rock'n'roll tour, wielding a soul-eating demon synthesizer. But as it turns out, I do, and EC is that game."

    Wow! Just...WOW!
    Mike (Moorcock) is gunna' love that quote! :D

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Nice first interview. I am glad you decided to go through with this project and look foward to read further interviews that provide insights into our fellow bloggers.

  4. Very cool. Though if I didn't know you were kidding, I'd almost be willing to believe that intro was real. I mean, this is Max we're talkin' 'bout. :)