Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Monsters and Manuals Interview [#3 - David Larkins]

An occasional series of interviews with other RPG bloggers.

David is a reknowned expert on Lone Wolf Adventure Gamebooks. After studying his B. A. at Harvard, he took his M. A. in Magnamund Studies at the Sorbonne and then finished his Ph.D (in two years) under Eli Rochemback, the reknowned Lone Wolf scholar. His thesis was a psycoanalytic reading of The Fall of Blood Mountain; he now teaches Rifts Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he is also Dean of the School of Gamebooks and Miniatures Painting.

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?

I barely remember my first session. I was about 8 or 9, and I was hanging out with this kid who was a son of my mom's friend, so we had sort of been forced to spend some afternoons together in the manner of parents thinking that just because they're friends, their kids will be friends too. One afternoon he offered to run D&D for me. I had been a huge fan of the cartoon series, and had heard some cool playground stories about friends' older brothers' games (things involving statues coming to life and flaying characters alive, that sort of thing), so I readily agreed. The adventure consisted of the kid reading the solo adventure from the Mentzer Red Box out loud and letting me make the decisions. As for what happened, I have a dim memory of the rust monster, but that's about all I remember. The thing that intrigued me the most at the time was actually the accoutrements like the polyhedral dice. The d4 in particular. "A pyramid-shaped dice? No way!" The character sheet too, with its weird shield-shaped box for AC. It all seemed so arcane, occult even! Big draw for a kid back in the 80s, you know.

2 - Tell us about your first ever character.

First character...gosh. I mean, apart from the "Generic Fighter" character sheet I was handed for my first game, I honestly don't know. The problem was that a couple years later, when I bought a Red Box of my own, I found I had no one to play with. So I made a lot of characters to "test the system" but they never saw the light of day. When I finally did start gaming properly a couple years after that, I was always running things. So I have plenty of stories of other people's first characters, but nothing really substantive for myself. The earliest character I remember playing is probably an elf mage-thief in the Forgotten Realms who turned into a moderately successful pirate.

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

Aside from that initial two year period, when I was beginning to despair of ever finding people to game with, there was another gap, nearly three years, that began shortly after I finished college. It was due to a bunch of small reasons combining into one big block, but I never really "gave up" on gaming or thought that I'd truly left it behind. But it was weird to go from weekly game sessions to essentially nothing, and for such a long period. I started gaming regularly again back in 2003, and I haven't let up since.

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

I think it's the creativity aspect. The sheer open nature of the hobby, and the collaborative nature of it. Other hobbies--computer gaming, fiction writing, comic books--share certain of the elements in their own ways, but for me gaming collates it all into one big heaping pile of goodness.

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

What I dislike about gaming is also what attracts me to it: the fact that it's so collaborative and so individualized. There's very little that's objective about gaming. You could argue that there are certain books, movies, graphic novels, even video games that are as close to being objectively "good" as it's possible to get with mass entertainment. At the very least, they present a consistent message, regardless of who interacts with them. Board games are similar; house rules aside, if I play a single game of Monopoly and loathe it, chances are I'll loathe all future games of Monopoly I might play. But with RPGs, there is no consistent, objective element. I mean, it's sort of common wisdom that with an awesome GM and players you could take nearly any set of rules, nearly any campaign concept and make it awesome. And, crucially, vice versa: the most amazing module/campaign in the world won't survive a terrible GM or disinterested players. I can't tell you the number of people I've met who've written off RPGs because they at one time wanted to play badly, but then had one or more really awful experiences. And you can't just hand someone a copy of a game and say, "You want to see RPGs at their best? Check this out!" in the same way you could with, say, Watchmen or what have you. You sort of have to grandfather people in. The fact that all gamers, no matter how creepy, smelly, or socially inept, are effectively ambassadors for the hobby kind of irks me.

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

I've practically done nothing but introduce new players to the hobby! As I said, I had a hard time finding existing groups when I was first starting out, so I built my own group one person at a time over a period of a few years. That pattern's persisted ever since, for one reason or another. I just recently sat down with a former co-worker and his friend and introduced them to RPGs, actually. And that was the first time I had two newcomers sitting at the table simultaneously. My approach is usually to start macro and zero in. So first you do the whole song and dance explanation of what the hell an RPG is and is not, how it's played, why dice are rolled, etc. I usually pepper my mini-lecture with examples from my own past experiences, and I continue to interject old war stories when appropriate during the course of game. I've found that that's really helpful, actually, to provide specific examples from past games. I've tried both approaches of handing out pre-gens or letting players make their own characters. I think with simpler systems, the latter approach works fine, although even then it's a good idea to keep options simple. The main thing is just to try and remember how bewildering RPGs can seem to the outsider, but to balance that with allowing the new player(s) to do what they want, make their own mistakes, and so forth.

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

It sort of depends. If I do hide it, it's not because of shame, but simply because I might not want to get into an explanation of gaming with the people in question. For something that's been around for 35 years, RPGs are still seriously misunderstood. I guess that just gets back to what I was talking about earlier. Anyway, I don't wear my hobby on my sleeve, but I browse gaming-related websites at work and such, and there have been times in the past when a co-worker has seen what I'm looking at and asked me about it or shown an interest. Then I'm happy to discuss things. Strangely enough, the most guff I've gotten in the past is from other uber-geeks who think their interest of choice (::cough::comic books::cough::) is somehow inherently superior to mine.

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?)

Hmm. Well, if it was just one book, I'd probably take Basic Roleplaying, since that's sort of my universal system of choice these days and it has the necessary tools for pretty much any genre I'd care to dip into. If it was a set of books...I'd still make it BRP, but I'd bring Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon along with me!

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

When I started doing freelance writing a few years back, I sent out some query letters to various publishers. I received a couple responses, and even talked about doing an adventure for HARP, but the most that came of it was some bits I wrote for a book on adventuring in deserts that, as far as I know, never got published. Or if it did, I never got a check! At any rate, my disastrous experience with painting miniatures for hire has taught me to keep my hobby and my career separate. Now, self-publishing for fun via my blog (and maybe future submissions to mags like Fight On! and Knockspell) is something that I'm quite interested in. As far as I know, my Carcosa character sheet is going to be included in an upcoming collection of setting-related fan material, and I'm pretty happy about that. Getting hooked into the world of gaming blogs has really kindled my DIY spirits; I used to be pretty pedantic when it came to settings and rules, but I've very quickly morphed into this inveterate tinkerer, although not nearly to the degree of some of the blogs I read.

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

Yikes, just three? I've developed a habit over the last few years of making a mix/playlist for each campaign I run, but I don't really make those for use during play. An ideal gaming soundtrack to be used during an actual session is, for me, instrumental music. Vocals just tend to get in the way and call attention to the music. Soundtracks are an old favorite, so I'll name my top three favorite soundtracks that I've either used or seen used in the past: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Conan the Barbarian, and North by Northwest.

11. Interesting what you say about RPGs lacking objectivity. I think that's very perceptive. In fact it makes them almost like a sport in some respects - nothing beats a good game of football, but a terrible one is....terrible. I remember introducing an American friend to cricket a few years ago, and being incredibly nervous that the game would be a bad one and he'd get a bad impression of it. So have you ever had an awful experience with bad players/terrible GMs?

Good call on the sports analogy. Of course, what hampers RPGs in this regard is that they really don't make for very compelling spectator events. Even moreso than sports, they're really something that has to be experienced first-hand to really "get".

As for myself, thankfully I haven't had any personally awful experiences. My gaming history has by and large been confined to people who I was friends with first, then gamed with. So that helped. But even then, I had to learn that with certain folks, trying to run Game X was a recipe for disaster. Not all games/campaigns are created equal, and trying to run a taut, modern day mystery-suspense-espionage game with a bunch of dedicated DnDers is like trying to climb up a down escalator. You get there eventually, but...

12. Regarding superiority-complex comic book geeks and RPGs, I absolutely agree and it's a trend I've noticed too. What's also noticeable is "nerdish" activities like comic book reading and computer-game playing becoming more mainstream. Do you think we'll ever see a day in which RPGs follow suit? Do you even want to see that day?

I'm fascinated by the increasing acceptance of comics and computer games--particularly the latter, since, as all those Gary Gygax obits pointed out, computer gaming owes much of its existence to tabletop RPGs. I suppose it's conceivable that RPGs might some day achieve similar acceptance, but really don't see how. Again, it goes back to the fact that one could argue that certain comics and video games are very close to being objectivally good in and of themselves. Or at the very least more immediately engaging than RPGs. These days I'm more apt to agree with Jeff Rients's assessment that RPGs are destined for the same niche occupied by barbershop quartets and model railroads.

13. Painting miniatures for hire? It reminds me of some people on rpg.net who were discussing GMing for hire. I'm amazed that such activities exist. How did you get involved in that?

Oh, it exists all right. And unlike GMing for hire, it's actually its own little fully-realized industry. There are companies like Blue Table Painting that actually employ full-time painters. There's even been outsourcing, with companies in Sri Lanka and Thailand undercutting the American/European market! I guess there are enough folks who don't want to fiddle about with taking the time to paint the things to justify the market. (My experience is that a lot of people who do this are older, and simply don't have the eyesight or steady hands necessary to do justice to their figures.)

I got involved in it from selling some figures I'd painted "on spec" via eBay. I made a decent profit, and thought I might try doing some actual commissioned work. Big mistake, as I ended up getting saddled with hundreds of figures at a time!

Thanks for the interview, David.

Anyone interested in being interviewed should contact me at jean.delumeau AT gmail.


  1. I gotta tell ya, I never thought I'd be teaching Rifts studies. And at Cambridge no less! Livin' the dream, man. Livin' the dream.

  2. Great, fun interview!

    Rifts studies! Lesson 1: Everything is better with Plasma.