It was a dark and stormy night in September of 1995.
After years spent in basements and at dining room tables playing too many RPGs and war games to count, I set out to create a world., As it turned out, it became an RPG of my own.
There was no publisher waiting in the wings, no plans for submissions, not even an idea of how to make it a reality beyond banging away on my old word processor, printing revision after revision on what must have been world’s first and worst inkjet printer. That and burning through pads of graph paper drawing intricate maps of locations with too many 90 and 45 degree angles. Back then there were no ebooks or PDF sales and the only print-on-demand service was the local copy shop, which was neither on demand nor even a service, now that I think about it. But that, like so many other games, was where it started for me.
In truth, I hadn’t set out to create a game. At the time, I was more interested in the craft of creating a fictional world.
Campaign setting books were always my favorite and the boxed sets with their fold-out maps drew me in more than the most exciting novel or choose-your-own-adventure book. I was enthralled with the ideas of ancient aliens and genetic technology and used both to form the foundation for what would become Alpha Omega (AO). The project was originally called 2090 for no other reasons than it being the year I thought I’d set it in and that I thought it sounded good.
The world, the mythology it was built on, and many of the central characters had been rolling around in my head for awhile before I ever set pen to paper. In retrospect, the project could just as easily have ended up as a novel or as a series of short stories or as a comic, or who knows what. But at the time, tabletop RPGs were a big part of the lives of my friends and I so that’s the direction it took.
I was never really one for designing rules, so basically paid them little mind beyond laying out some rough ideas involving dice pools and layered attributes. Both of those I always thought were clever building blocks for rules systems and would, most importantly, satisfy my need to roll handfuls of dice while gaming.
I spent the next few years doodling away on the setting in my spare time. I grew up loving dark sci-fi, monster movies and apocalyptic stuff like Mad Max, and all of those things were important influences. I hadn’t even thought of myself as a writer until I began studying English and realized my highest marks in university were in creative writing.
That was about the time I first began to think seriously about writing as a profession and began to delve more deeply into developing the AO universe and the narrative that would bring it to life.
The world and the characters that would populate it took shape quickly. The most important setting element, and the thing I spent the most time developing, was the sharp divide between the cities and the wilds of the AO world. The idea of high-tech cities surrounded by wild primal wilderness had always intrigued me. I’ve often thought that such a divide might occur organically even without the apocalyptic unraveling that brings it about in AO.
Arcology as a subject amazed me, and, in my mind, seemed like a natural evolution in the move toward urbanization. I think it had something to do with the idea of reducing the human footprint and the fantasy of living in the sort of space-age quarters that only seem to exist on starships or space stations that really cemented the role of the arcologies in the AO world for me.
City states seemed like another natural evolution of the move to the cities and, in the context of the shattered world of AO, seemed like the only form of government manageable.
Add to the fray meteor strikes, warring ancient aliens, apocalyptic cults, artificial intelligence, secret societies, and catastrophic natural disasters, then I had the makings of my ideal fantasy world.
All of these ideas coalesced in the form of hundreds of pages of notes scattered across loose leaf pages, notebooks, word processor files, scribbles on bits of paper and hand- drawn maps on graph paper and poster boards.
Eventually I ended up living in Ottawa and brought all the material with me. I distinctly remember my computer and the box with my notes in it being the only thing I was worried about when our movers went rogue and disappeared to Toronto with all our stuff.
In Ottawa I had the fortune of meeting an outstanding gaming group—the kind of guys who grew up on RPGs. At about the same time I met Dave Carter at a Halloween party, which is where we first talked about the game I had been working on and decided we had a chance to make something more than just a homebrew setting and system out of it. In fact we thought there was a company to be built and a whole series of products to be created. Dave introduced me to Tom McLaughlin and three of us jelled.
Not long after we met, Mind Storm Labs was taking shape and we were making plans to bring the world to life in entirely new ways.
Dave and I ended up locking ourselves in an office for nine or so months, working ungodly hours on a whole new system of game mechanics, fleshing out the setting, running testing sessions into the wee hours of the morning, and consuming (what I’m sure we’ll learn in a few years was a dangerous number of) energy drinks.
We also had the good fortunate of knowing and playing RPGs with a handful of truly outstanding reviewers and editors who weren’t afraid of humiliating us into improving. We assembled a small and gifted team of artists and designers. Then we began the work of creating the first core rulebook. In less than a year, we assembled over 400 pages of material, developed online content, built a company and traveled around North America to conventions and meetings in order to bring AO to life.
Since those crazy days, we’ve released a creature manual, a handful of smaller supplements and begun the extremely exciting work of taking the AO world beyond the tabletop. Doing it all — writing, art direction, play testing, and even sitting at the printer viewing test pages as they came off the machine, was an amazing, albeit exhausting, experience.
I don’t imagine one could have a more thorough entry into game design and production.
These days most of my work in gaming is done with other creative professionals interested in moving AO forward in entirely new mediums. RPGs served as a fantastic gateway for me professionally, enticing and encouraging me to bring more of the work I’ve often kept to myself to life in new and interesting ways. I’ve recently begun work with a small group adapting several of my stories into iPad apps and a handful of other mediums, and we’ll be kicking those projects off under the Sinister Dark name down the road.
Well, there you have it: The story of how I got into the gaming industry. Hopefully it’s a story that leads others through the same door.