I Break Down The Door (Paula Dempsey)

How did I get started in the games industry? I could give you a tale of youthful enthusiasm, knocking on the doors of publishers with my great idea, only to face rejection after rejection, before finally having an idea accepted. But the truth is simpler. I fell into it.

When I was thinking about how I got started, I remembered one of my favorite books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Getting into the gaming industry was a lot like falling down the rabbit-hole, heading somewhere weird at great speed and with no idea where it was going to end, although I haven’t yet discovered a jar of orange marmalade.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy writing. Like many people, I’d had the occasional stab at stories but I had a lot of problems motivating myself to finish projects; I usually gave up after a few pages. I became interested in roleplaying in the 1980s through the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks solo adventure series. At around the same time I started reading fantasy fiction. A little later I developed an interest in British folklore, which has stayed with me. There are a lot of legends that lend themselves well to horror games in particular. The black dog is a recurring motif in English folklore. The story comes from Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, but by the sixteenth century a version was associated with the notorious Newgate prison in London. It was relatively easy to link the black dog with hounds of Tindalos and so draw it in to the Mythos. Tales of demonic possession and witchcraft are common and widely distributed and again fit well with Cthulhu. For example, I used the story of Lady Hatton, an Elizabethan aristocrat who sold her soul to the devil for fame and fortune. One day he came to collect…

There is a decline in the academic study of folklore in the U.K., so anything that gets the stories out to people and gets them exploring the myths and legends of their own culture has to be positive, and as a writer I get a rich seam of source material to explore and adapt. When I started gaming my favourite game was Call of Cthulhu, especially the traditional 1920s and ’30s settings, so the brief for The Book of the Smoke was perfect for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I get started in the industry?

Other than the occasional scenario for my gaming group, I hadn’t written anything games related until about 10 years ago. At that time I was involved in playtesting the Dying Earth RPG for Pelgrane Press. There was an online zine, See Page XX, to support Dying Earth, and I joked with Simon Rogers of Pelgrane: it couldn’t be a proper magazine because it didn’t have an astrology column. He said, “Go and write one and I’ll put it in there.” That’s when I started my rapid descent down the rabbit-hole.

I made up twelve archetypes, poking gentle fun at gamer stereotypes and New Agers. I assigned each invented star sign dates from the calendar and made up some predictions and there was the first column. There was a reason it didn’t go out with my name on it – possibly because of the day job, maybe because fortune-tellers often have peculiar names. Simon felt inspired to call the column Roleplaying Astrology by Mystic Moo, as I have a bit of a thing about cows—I think they’re cute and funny and I don’t eat them.

There was some positive feedback, including a nice comment from Dork Tower’s John Kovalic, so I carried on. The Moo grew. I found coming up with twelve predictions on a semi-regular basis rather dull, and started to do different things with the character of Moo. She acquired friends – the die-hard gamer Buttercup, flaky New Ager Marigold and long-suffering cookie manufacturer Hamish the Highland Cow—and I kept on gently poking fun. The cows went to a roleplaying convention, went ghost-hunting and advised on readers’ problems. It was and still is fun to write.

And that was as far as I thought it would go; just some dabbling. Then came Trail of Cthulhu and the Bookhounds of London supplement. I already liked Call of Cthulhu and Trail sounded extremely promising (as it proved to be!). I was aware that Kenneth Hite was going to write a supplement for Trail about book dealers seeking grimoires in the most magical city on Earth and selling them on for profit. In addition to the main Bookhounds book, Pelgrane planned a game aid—a guide to London for gamers who’d never visited the city with extra information on magical places, events and people.

I swear, to this day I only agreed to do some background research. I’ve got a pretty big library of books on folklore and the occult and Simon knew that I could write because of Mystic Moo, so it was suggested that I put together material for the London guide book. London’s myths and legends are well documented. It was easy to write the initial twenty thousand words. I thought that my research would go to Ken, who would then use it to write the guide. I didn’t realise that this would become the first draft of The Book of the Smoke. The draft went off to Simon and things went quiet for a bit. Then the message came back, “This is exactly what I want. Can you write more?” I doubled the amount of words, added some fictional and Cthulhu-esque touches, additional material was supplied by Ken and my husband, Steve, and we had a book. Seeing your name on the cover is quite a thrill, although in this case I had to wait for the paperback (as the supposed real author, murdered Edwardian occultist Augustus Darcy, got the credit on the hardback).

And people have liked the book. It has sold well for a small supplement and the “who killed Darcy” subplot has generated a following on the internet. For something I got into by accident, things are going very well. I’m continuing to write for Pelgrane and still draw my ideas from British folklore and occult history. I love the England of the 1920s and 1930s. I adore Jeeves and Wooster and collect Charles Hamilton’s Edwardian school stories starring Billy Bunter and Arthur Augustus D’Arcy. The country house elegance, all croquet on the lawn, elderly aunts, and impeccable manners evokes an era I would have loved to have lived in. Writing about that period and using the language of popular stories of the time is a wonderfully escapist thing to do.

Whatever I do in the future, I want to produce material that people will have a good time playing with and will continue to draw on British folklore for source material. The next project has the working title of The Book of the New Jerusalem and will be another book by a fictional author, this time on a field trip around England discovering mysterious creatures and strange energies as they manifest themselves in the landscape.

This may not be the most useful guide to how to get into the industry. I know so many people love their gaming and very much want to write games and get them published. If I was to offer any advice from my experience it would be to write about something you know and which other people might be interested in. Consider whether you could tie in to an existing product in some way – anything related to Cthulhu is going to get some attention. Make the most of any opportunities that come along, keep projects within manageable limits and set deadlines—even if you don’t hit them it’s good to have something to aim for. We gamers are good at adventuring, so treat your work as an adventure. There will be challenges and rewards, times you get stuck, writer’s block, all sorts of frustrations. It would be irresponsible of me to say just listen to as much heavy metal and drink as much Jack Daniels as you need to get through it. That would be very irresponsible. So I didn’t say it.

I want more!

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