At first, there was Dungeons & Dragons. My initial exposure to it was a short game at church camp, played in the cabin one rainy day with a small group of kids. The concept of playing a “role” and creating a “character” to act out was immediately recognizable. It fit in my brain like a key in a lock. This was something I could do, but I didn’t want to play the characters – I wanted to run the game. More than that, I wanted to create the environment.
At its heart, a role playing game is collaborative storytelling. One person creates the environment and all the other people living in it. They create the culture. They create the technology. They create the society. Everyone else (the players) are actors within that story, playing a part that they want to play by creating a “character” to act out. Before online computer games, desktop pencil and paper RPGs were the only type of outlet for this type of collaborative storytelling. The only thing close would be impromptu theatre. RPGs were an evolution in storytelling. They still exist in the likes of computer games like SkyRim, Fallout, and many others.
As a creative writer, my goal wasn’t so much to play a character in someone else’s world. The true fun for me was creating the world itself. And while I enjoy fantasy of the medieval type with lots of magic and wizards and such, the concepts of science fiction are nearer and dearer to my heart. In particular, the post-holocaust environments of the type written about by Andre Norton, Pat Frank, David Brin and many other authors. Movies like Logan’s Run inspired me to create worlds similar to that – a society in the ashes. After all, I grew up in a time when nuclear annihilation was a daily concern and the cold war was still quit chilly.
This brings me to the first RPG (and the last) that really influenced my writing. It was called Gamma World, and it was about as weird and hokey as you can get. But, by the standards of the time, it was fascinating and new. I mean, the idea that radiation could result in bizarre and extreme genetic mutations within one generation isn’t something we’d buy nowadays. We know better. Yes, radiation causes an increase in mutation rate, but it’s not likely to result in X-ray vision, or the ability to move objects telekinetically. But that’s what Gamma World did. It took the capabilities of magic users in Dungeons and Dragons and converted them into mental abilities or mutations. I ran with it.
Extrapolating from the original game set, I redesigned Gamma World and reconfigured it to suit what I wanted in a post-holocaust environment. I did away with most of the mental mutations. I created alternative origins for specific species – genetic experiments performed by the government or by rogue biologists acting on their own or in small groups. I designed societies based around survival in extreme environments and gave them cultures that enabled their survival. I created pockets of civilization living underground. It was a lot more like Fallout than true Gamma World.
Eventually, I went further, and created post-holocaust colony worlds, an entire collection of colonized planets left to their own devices after the corporate empires that spawned them fell to interstellar war. At this point, I redesigned the system entirely to be much faster and not to rely on charts and tables – they only slowed the game down. I created dozens of worlds, new technology based on research into the fantastical concepts of the day. I’d read Scientific American and extrapolate, taking everything to the next level. It became a major project of its own. Eventually I even published it online as a free RPG. It was a hobby. And one that I abandoned in favor of writing. But the influence is still there, and it started with Gamma World. So I salute Gamma World for the influence it had on me, and probably still has on some level. Its artwork was beautiful for its time. Its crazy story lines and weird concepts have a place in science fiction history as much as any good novel.
Worldbuilding is a common task for writers now. There is a massive amount of material written about it, and a massive amount of it that takes place in fantasy and SF. It’s not required, of course, but it’s such an enjoyable task that it’s a hobby of its own. My greatest experience with it comes from table-top RPGs and Play-By-Post forums. Others, perhaps, cut their teeth on the process via exposure to it from other writers and creative writing classes. But once upon a time, it was RPGs – pencil and paper. For me that started with Gamma World. And so I remember the game, a forgotten relic. Now you will remember it too – unless you didn’t read this far. In which case you can just read about it on wikipedia: Gamma World. Have fun!