Category Archives: Anniversary

The 40th Anniversary of My First RPG Character

I remember my first ttRPG character, who was also my first D&D character, quite well. I made him in the summer of 1982, when my sister and I were staying with our aunt, uncle, and cousins while our parents took a trip to Europe. My uncle had a copy of the 1st edition AD&D DMG in his Den of Geeky Stuff (along with an Apple computer with a flight simulator, Go and Shogi sets along with books on rules and variations on those and Chess and other classic games, model train books, model trains, a vast collection of Oz and Asterisk and Obelisk books, and I am sure some things that someone did not make a permanent impression on me). I was drawn to it, he saw me reading it, and he told me if I could figure out how the game worked, we’d play.

Since we only had the DMG, “figuring out how the game worked” turned out to be my first foray into RPG design, which thus precedes me ever actually playing an RPG. But that’s a story for a different time.

I named my first player character VanBuskirk. Now, a specific, small subset of classic scifi fans will immediately know where I got that name – it’s a secondary character from the Lensman series, which I was obsessed with at the time… and oblivious to the failings of. I still love those books, but not only do I embrace others’ criticism of them, but I also have my own critiques as well. The first Lensman story, “Galactic Patrol,” will hit the public domain in a decade or so and I may… okay, that’s also a story for a different time.

In Lensman, vanBuskirk is a Space Marine, and a heavy worlder, and a big guy, and a wielder of Space Axes, and if you happen to have played games I had a PC in, a lot of those elements may well strike you as familiar. So, you might think I’d make my PC a dwarf, or half-or, or at least a human. But, no, I decided to play an elf, I suspect largely due to the influence of the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings movie. Of course if I’m making a character based on an axe-wielding Space Marine, I must have made him a fighter, right?

Well… fighter/magic-user/thief.

See, as best as my young self could figure it from just the 1st ed AD&D DMG, an elf could take three classes at the same time, and why wouldn’t you do that? Being a fighter meant I could have a Space Axe (yes, I wrote up special rules for space axes.) Being a magic-user meant I could “put on my screen” (a personal defensive barrier, you know, the shield spell). And being a thief meant… well, it meant my character wasn’t stuck in a dead-end career. See, elves had a level cap as fighters and magic-users (yes, I mean they literally couldn’t gain above a given level in those classes, which at the time didn’t feel weirder than Strength going from 3 to 25 but potentially having a percentile score if you had an 18, even though no other ability score than went from 3 to 25 had a set of percentile sub-scores if you had an 18). So, if I wanted my fighter/magic-user Space Marine to keep growing in power as well, he had to be a thief as well.

Is that Power Gaming? Maybe. I’ve been guilty of that from time to time, over the decades. I honestly feel a chunk of it isn’t my fault – if your character concept is Lancelot or Superman or Jedi Master Luke Skywalker or a Highlander, or even a Space Marine, you are going to want to be able to pull off the kind of badass stuff those characters do. And, especially in the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot of discussion in the game-playing space of considerations beyond following the rules, not cheating, and everyone working together. I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then, and often have fun playing someone with one or more major flaws, but that didn’t come naturally to me.

My first game with VanBuskirk was run by my uncle, and the other player was my sister. She thought the whole thing was pretty dumb, and while I rushed to go explore the “dark opening in the rocky ground, with uneven stairs descending into a lightless pit,” she could not imagine why her character (who had food, and money, and camping equipment) would think that was a good idea. My uncle was GMing for the first time and tried having her see glints of gold at the bottom (which did not impress her, she *had* gold), making it rain (her character just pitched a tent), the area begin to flood (in which case she DEFINITELY wasn’t going underground), and then, in desperation, having her hear a cat crying in distress from the bottom of the stairs.

She rushed right in.

We had a single fight (to save a golden-furred kitten), and that was the end of the game. We never picked it up again. I was hooked forever. My sister was… not.

But VanBuskirk kept popping up for several years. Since I had no one at home to play with, my mother got advised to get me Tunnels & Trolls, which had solo adventures, and I made a new version of VanBuskirk (who had a wild career, from Buffalo Castle to a dungeon run through Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon, Naked Doom, Dargon’s Dungeon, and Beyond the Silvered Pane, to eventually tromp for months through City of Terrors, the associated Arena of Khazan, and down into the Sewer of Oblivion).

He became one of my main supporting NPCs in early AD&D games I ran (along with Frost the Gadget Girl, Father Mathew Cuthwulf – Bishop of Cuthbert, Sasha the Seeress, and the Archmage of Twelve Towers – all of whom have their own stories, for another time), and was my main playing-at-conventions characters throughout my teens. Conventions were one of the main places I played ttRPGs for a while, and everyone would just pull out a pile of coke-stained paper character sheets and find something the DM would allow. To accommodate this, VanBuskirk existed at different character levels, loot totals (from “scant” to “Monty Haul” to “Mounting ion cannons on the mechanical spider he claimed after taking it from Lolth, who now works for him”), and even multiple rule systems. For a while, if I was playing a fantasy game, I was probably playing some version of VanBuskirk.

And then, sometime in late middle school or early high school, I… stopped. I don’t remember the last time I played some version of VanBuskirk. But as I had more friends, and played in more regular campaigns with continuity, and used conventions more as places to play something new, VanBuskirk stopped meeting my needs. I kept all his character skeets for a long time. Then just a few key ones. Then just his original T&T sheet and one yellow parchment-patterned D&D-compatible sheet with a vaguely demigod version of him.  

And then, one day while moving, I realized I hadn’t used him for anything for more than a decade. And I let him go.

There are characters I get the itch to replay or recreate, from time to time. Father Cuthwulf and Frost, to name two. More recently Solnira, Temple, Kilroy, Celestial, and Lord Brevic Falkavian. I don’t do it, because like ice sculpture, or performance art, part of the appeal of the memories of those characters are the time and place in which they existed. If I tried to remake them, in a new time, a new game system, or with new players, it wouldn’t feel the same. And, besides, I have hundreds of ideas for characters I have never gotten to play, so why take up rare game slots with things I have done before?

But I never have any urge to recreate VanBuskirk. He met my needs when I was first gaming, and I appreciate all he did for me and went through in the name of my entertainment, even as a fictional character, but I don’t need an elven Space Marine fighter/magic-user/thief with a giant spider mecha anymore. Even if I was in a game where that was a reasonable character concept (and, yeah, I’d play in that game in a hot second), it’s not VanBuskirk I’d be going for.

But he came into existence 40 years ago this summer, and while I don’t think of him much anymore, I thought he deserved this one memorial. And, I hope, people might enjoy hearing how insane my first few ttRPG character concepts were.

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Another Trip Around the Sun

Today is the four-year anniversary of Lj’s and my arriving in Seattle, and here I am again in a new apartment, surrounded by boxes. That makes it feel like I haven’t made much progress in four years, but that’s objectively not true.

In that time I have developed more words than in the ten years before, written about half as much as the two years leading up to it but finally gotten an Adventure Path adventure done, moved two more times, fallen in love with a restaurant that closed but took the friendships I made there with me, been to seven different conventions (a few of them many times), helped shepherd a brand new RPG into the world in Starfinder, been taken to the ER, visited friends in the ER, and acquired a cat.

I’ve learned a lot since my arrival, about myself, and Seattle, and game design, and challenges other professionals face that I don’t, and challenges I face that some other professionals don’t. I have created, and helped others create, and talked to a lot of colleagues and fans and friends about things that never would have come up in my original hometown. Of course I have also missed a lot of things from my old social group, who collectively still manage to play games with a frequency I can’t come close to matching.

It’s been a huge change and, four years later, I’m still adjusting to it. But I am also still looking forward to what happens next, with opportunities I knew I couldn’t guess at but that would come only with this huge risk continuing to pop up.

I can’t say I have no regrets. I am too introverted, and too trepidatious, and miss too many lifelong friends not to have regrets. But I can say that knowing what I know now, I’d still make the same decision. There’s no question this was a smart move for my career, but it’s up to me to make sure it’s a smart move for the rest of my life.

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Groundhog’s Day, 1990.

I was 19 when I first began to wonder if I should marry Lj. We were living together, we did nearly everything together… but I knew I was young. Neither of us had a job. We had no way to even pay for a wedding. And I took the idea of a sacred vow to put someone else before and above myself, forever, very seriously.
I thought about it for months. Lj knew I was thinking about it. We’d looked at rings. I knew what she liked. She waited. I wrestled with what I saw as the most important decision of my life.
It was.
In the end, this one thing decided me. When I fantasized about a perfect future for myself, when I let myself dream about the best world I could think of…
Lj was always in it. Always.
I was just a few days into being 20 when I proposed…. on Halloween.
We got married on Groundhog’s Day.
One-quarter century ago.
Smartest decision I ever made.
I love you, Lj. Happy Anniversary.

More Than Two Decades

Twenty-four years ago today, I married Lj Hamilton, who opted to stick my last name onto the end of hers and become Lj Stephens.

Lj was already my best friend. She was also already a bad-ass gamer chick, an artist, a writer in her own right, she had a lot more going on than I did. I knew it was a big step and it scared me, but since we’d been living together for more than a year, and dating on-and-off for a while before that, I thought I knew what being married to her would be like. In many ways I was right. In the crucial ones, I was wrong. Being married is different than living together, in the same way camping is different than sleeping in a tent in your backyard.

I’ve been married to my wife for more than half my life. We have had ups and down, both together and in regards to one another, but I have never regretted getting down on one knee and asking her to be a permanent part of my life. But make no mistake, marriage is work. Having someone be part of your life means they are there for your good and bad, and for their own, and you promised to never leave, which can make you feel stuck. We did the work a marriage takes, and we love each other enough to keep doing the work. The results are worth it.

Everything good I have done in 24 years she suggested, helped with, or encouraged me to do. Every bad habit I have gotten rid of she helped me fight. Every sorrow has been comforted by her, and every victory celebrated. I have no doubt she has helped me be a better man, and that’s just a small part of why I love her.

Twenty-four years ago today, I made the best decision I have ever made. Later this week (Wednesday, at 6pm) she and I invite you all to come join us in celebrating this accomplishment (along with her birthday). The moment deserves commemorating, and our circle of friends and acquaintances is part of the environment that has made our marriage so great for more than two decades.

Then the next day, we’ll wake up to an alarm again, groan and moan as we get up and get to work again, and smile when we hold hands in the car again. That’s what marriage is. A joining, but a joining that has to move forward with real life.

I plan for many more milestones with my wife, and many more celebrations of that one really good decision.

Twenty Three Years and Counting

Twenty three years ago Lj Hamilton did me the honor of marrying me and taking my last name. It was a decision I had taken more than a year to make, because I took it very seriously. It was also, bar none, the best decision I ever made.

Lj and I are a partnership, so we both get at least partial credit for anything either of us have ever accomplished. My writing career is a spectacular example of this, as without Lj’s encouragement, support, and help (especially in the first few years, when she took the time to edit my every magazine submission before it went in to the staff). It was her idea to submit  articles to Dragon and Pyramid, go to the TSR RPG Writer’s Work in Seattle, and apply for the job I got at WotC in 2000.

Together we’ve faced the deaths of family and friends, moved across the country and back, put in hundreds of hours of road trips (generally playing solo rpgs for half the time as we ground through the miles), screamed a few times, laughed a lot, cried an few times, and learned that while we cannot always guarantee our partner’s success, we can create an environment where it’s safe to try and fail.

Once we’d been married about a decade, we started being asked from time to time, what our secret for success was. Lj encapsulated it once, and it’s a great bit of wisdom I will never forget.

“If you love someone, act like it.”

Love you, sweetie. Happy anniversary.

Anniversary of a Great Decision

Twenty-two years ago today, I married Lj Hamilton, who opted to stick my last name onto the end of hers and become Lj Stephens.

Lj was already my best friend. She was also already a bad-ass gamer chick, an artist, a writer in her own right, she had a lot more going on than I did. I knew it was a big step and it scared me, but since we’d been living together for more than a year, and dating on-and-off for a while before that, I thought I knew what being married to her would be like. In many ways I was right. In the crucial ones, I was wrong. Being married is different than living together, in the same way camping is different than sleeping in a tent in your backyard.

I’ve now been married to my wife for more than half my life. We have had ups and down, both together and in regards to one another, but I have never regretted getting down on one knee and asking her to be a permanent part of my life. But make no mistake, marriage is work. Having someone be part of your life means they are there for your good and bad, and for their own, and you promised to never elave, which can make you feel stuck. We did the work a marriage takes, and we love each other enough to keep doing the work. The results are worth it.

Everything good I have done in 22 years she suggested, helped with, or encouraged me to do. Every bad habit I have gotten rid of she helped me fight. Every sorrow has been comforted by her, and every victory celebrated. I have no doubt she has helped me be a better man, and that’s just a small part of why I love her.

Twenty-two years ago today, I made the best decision I have ever made. Once Lj gets done with work, she and I are going to spend the day together, celebrating this milestone. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up to an alarm again, groan and moan as we get up and get to work again, and smile when we hold hands in the car again. That’s what marriage is. A joining, but a joining that has to move forward with real life.

I plan for many more milestones with my wife, and many more celebrations of that one really good decision.