Writing Series

Writing Atlas: How it Got Here

So I know I said I’d go over the crafting and travel pillars in their own articles, and I will, but I had an idea to talk about where the Atlas came from and all the weird places that I’ve found the time to write about this game.

It started nine fucking years ago.

D&D 3.5 was (still is) awesome. I played it online regularly, there was a (now derelict) site I used to frequent and the chat was almost always populated by someone who wanted to play some tabletop RPG (chat had a die roller which made it really simple to just play pick-up games with whoever was around.) Life was alright. Dare I say, it was even good. This was what I did after school back when I was like 14-16 and how I spent a lot of my time until around late 2007 to early ’08.

Around January in 2008 I started to get my first whiff of a stink that would be called D&D 4e. I was about to turn 17 and it hadn’t hit markets yet, and I didn’t know any better, so I got excited for the game. It released in June and it was just…bad. I mean, if you’re reading this, you know what it was, you have your own opinion of it probably, but for me, it wasn’t good enough. It should have been an improvement, I should have enjoyed it, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t.

March 2008 (before 4e released) Pathfinder was a thing, but it really didn’t feel like a thing until after D&D 4e was already being complained about. I cannot remember hearing about edition flame wars ever before 4e and PF were released and everyone had drawn lines in the sand and picked their game of choice. Everyone used to be just happy to enjoy games, everyone just assumed you had played 3.5E at some point in your life and that it was a good place to start a conversation with anyone. But it was all so different now and there was honestly a really weird tension whenever the subject of PF or 4e was brought up.

I was no part of any of that. I refused to accept Pathfinder as the future of 3.5 and I definitely wasn’t about to support no damn dirty 4e games. So I stuck with 3.5, and in doing so, inherited just so many splatbooks from people who now felt free to share them. When I say “inherited” I mean PDF copies because my presence and RPG connections at the time were almost exclusively internet based. They weren’t hard to find online before 2008 by any means, but the site I frequented frowned upon the illegal file sharing. But after support dropped for 3.5 it was less of a “thing” and people were kind of doing it more openly. So within like a month I had been exposed to all kinds of really cool stuff, even 3.0 books that were really cool, if a little dated. I remember Ghostwalk felt like the best thing I had ever read at the time. And then I discovered the Sandstorm, Stormwrack, and Frostburn series of books which highlighted environmental danger in a way I had never experienced in a game before, and they added these amazing and interesting races and prestige classes and equipment. Asherati could swim through sand like desert mermaids and Frostburn introduced Razor Ice Powder that felt like such a cool utility and Stormwrack had the Leviathan Hunter prestige class who gained benefits for wearing the trophies of fallen enemies. I even liked the Darfellan in Stormwrack so much I modeled the Vercullo race in Atlas after them. 3.5 just had all this amazing material and I absorbed all of it just in time for no one to be playing it anymore. It was soul crushing that I had missed all the support and all the releases. I missed the wave of excitement. I missed out.

I think it’s safe to say that most everyone who runs or plays a tabletop RPG fancies themselves capable of making their own. I was am one of these people, and so I made my own. I used a free website creator (back then I think it was called “freewebs” and it still exists, but now it’s just “webs” and isn’t very good compared to direct competition like WordPress.) I wrote a game that was relatively simple with just some generic D20 mechanics that were fun, and fast, and decently balanced. It was kind of like a d20 GURPS, I had a flat rule base and a couple of pages on the site for different settings like Fantasy, Modern, Zombies, Sci-Fi and so on. I shared this creation with the other chat site urchins who were just kind of always around and always looking for stuff to play. We played it, we enjoyed it, and people would spectate and ask for links to the site hosting the rules and would ask to join in… for a while I kind of took over the chat with my game, it had several people playing it in splinter groups that I wasn’t even a part of or had even initiated. Someone even played it with their regular gaming group in person and said they had enjoyed the break from whatever it was they were normally playing. One time I had someone who was unaware that I wrote the game telling me about how fun it was, trying to get me to play it with them. It felt amazing to have created something that people were enjoying the same way that I enjoyed D&D and Traveller and Shadowrun. I know I wasn’t in that league, the game wasn’t that caliber, but people liked it and it meant the world to me.

Quick note here because the above section feels like I’m just bragging. But the game was called Eons of Conflict (EoC for short because acronyms are cool to 17yr olds.) It really wasn’t great or innovative, I have no idea why people liked it so much. The zombies in the zombie gametype were almost just copied directly from Left 4 Dead 2… I THINK I found the old URL for the site I used and I sent a message to webs.com to try and recover it. If I get a response I’ll post it here and try to preserve it somehow.

I know the story sounds kind of fantastical like I was super popular and successful or whatever. That’s not the case, not even a little bit. This was the site where I spent a LOT of time and met like all of my tabletop playing friends. To be the center of attention, even if it was just like 15 or 20 people, at the time that was like my own little domain so it felt big to me. It wasn’t like today where I have almost 300 twitter followers who can see me tweet about a man punching a kangaroo at any given moment. It was personal, and it felt close and real. Anyway, story continues below.

I always wondered what a game would be like with every one of those splatbooks from 3.5 in play. What it would be like to have a couple players and be like “Every book is in play. I’m going to use everything and anything, and you should too.” I tried to run a game like this and ended up with a group of psionics who managed to show me what a true min/max build looks like. They made quick and frankly, embarrassing, work of just about everything I threw at them. I’m sure people have been able to do it better than I did, but it’s hard to imagine that people would do anything other than just commit to one book the way my psionics group did. There wasn’t much synergy with the releases (oddly enough, with the exception of Psionics which were included in a lot of stuff after their release), so if anyone did play a game with no limitations and all published splatbooks on the table, I’m sure players simply gravitated to one book since that’s where they’d find the most support for their character concept.

To me, this felt like a waste. I felt like the guy in that Twilight Zone bit who had all the time in the world to read finally, but then he broke his glasses. (Wouldn’t he have just been able to go to a glasses shop or something and find an almost good enough pair to use to either fix his first pair or just read stuff anyway? Feel like he was being really dramatic…) Anyway, it felt like I would never have enough time to sit and familiarize myself with all the content available to me. At least not enough to run it and be confident that I knew as much, or more, about every book and setting than my players did. Because at the time it felt like the most experienced person MUST be the one running the game, and if I didn’t know every splatbook better than my players, how could I run them correctly? I know this isn’t necessarily true today and that every DM/GM has to start somewhere, but at the time this was my mentality.

All of these little events kind of aligned one day and it became crystal clear to me. I had a dream to play an ultimate game of D&D with every splatbook, but it’d be too much reading, too much page flipping and the book I’d need would always be on the bottom of the stack somehow. I wanted to play a D20 game, I know the bell curve of 3d6 is better but I don’t care. 3.5 was done and I couldn’t embrace Pathfinder or the abomination of 4e, but dammit my dice come in sets of 7 and I didn’t buy this copper 20-sided NOT to roll it. I had the taste of success from writing my own game and I felt what it was like to put something out there that people genuinely enjoyed, why couldn’t I just do it again?… It was the best epiphany.

“I should write my own game…”

Part 2 tomorrow.

You read the whole thing? You champion. Your prize? Go read some more on the Patreon page. It’s undergoing some changes later this month, but you can see all about that and what’s going down there on the link. ♥


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