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Link, the RPG (1988-1994)

January 24, 2012

The Very Big Idea Farm

I don’t know what you were doing when you were in high school, but if you were anything like me, you were trying to make special friends with one (or perhaps two; I was a bit different even back then) very special friends you knew, and at the same time plot your idiosyncratic career path without the help of anyone who actuall had money or connections and could actually get doors opened for you. I’d never had any of that in my life, so I had no idea people even did that in real life; I thought it was just a joke John Cleese muttered in a Monty Python sketch. No one was waiting to give me a leg up, so I figured it was because I was just going to ‘go out there and kick ass’. I didn’t have a clue what I was in for, but I was brilliant and cocky and determined to do things on my own terms. Didn’t work out quite as I’d hoped, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about; I’m here to discuss the origins of the LINK RPG.

When I was in grade eight at Glen Brae, I made friends with a new student named Rob Janosevic, who introduced me to DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, STAR FRONTIERS and DRAGON LANCE, the first three roleplaying games I ever played. I thought they were really interesting, and it was nice to sit in Rob’s family’s lovely middle class home with central air and a big dining room table beside an open kitchen with modern cooking equipment, but it’s possible that Rob’s mother was a bit uncomfortable with me around all of the time, so I started making appearances less and less. It was a vibe thing.

Fortunately, when I got to grade nine at Glendale Secondary, I met one of my lifelong friends, Derrick Rose, and he in turn introduced me to his old school mates, who were all into roleplaying games as well. They played lots of new RPGs, they lived in similar low-to-lower-middle income apartments and homes, and their parents, though sometimes a bit iffy about me, at least didn’t think their kids were slumming. Well, maybe Fred’s mom did, but then, she had issues of her own, and that family was like something out of a John Hughes comedy.

So I was playing AD&D, Robotech, Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, Marvel Super Heroes, Heroes Unlimited, DC Heroes, Champions, Rifts, Paranoia, and pretty much anything else we could get our hands on. But I wasn’t content. I was one of the kids who had ideas of his own, and I was starting to think I could run one of these games, if I could just create my own world, my own rules, and run the games the way I saw fit.

I started by making extensive use of one very special piece of supplementary material provided for a Dragonlance game I’d gotten from Rob; he’d been ordered to give away his RPG materials because he’d blown up the science lab at school, and he ‘gave’ them to me because he figured I’d be willing to give them back when he got ungrounded. He chose well, because I wasn’t the kind of kid who welched on his mates. My reward for giving his collection back, which he offered me rather graciously, was his copy of the cutaway map of the Tower of the High Clerist, which I had been using for damned near everything. I LOVED that map, and I still have it to this day. It was the source of many jokes amongst my friends at the time, but I didn’t care. That freaking map was HUGE and I could stage ANYTHING in there.

I actually did some extensive testing of that map with my buddy Rod Brazeau, who later convinced me to start a new series of games under the LINK banner… but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

So, I started devising new games, featuring slightly souped-up medieval warriors in what I didn’t realise was basically the forerunner to a game Rod and I were talking about making a few years ago, called LINK: Longsword. I’d pretty nearly forgotten about that stage, because I did end up abandoning that campaign due to a growing lack of interest. I just figures they were tired of medieval adventures, so I moved on to space stuff, with a series of adventures I called TAB Tales, featuring the humongous, spherical, ark-like spaceship from Heavy Metal: the Movie, which I had dubbed the Trans-Atmospheric Biosphere, from whence cometh TAB Tales. Looking back, I now realise that this was in fact the genesis of what almost became called LINK: Constellation, a game which will make its debut soon, in fiction form if nothing else, as I have the novel ASHES coming up in a while. Anyway, I loved those adventures, and really looked forward to carrying them on for some time, but again, my friends started losing interest.

Up to this point, I’d figured that it had something to do with the fact that I wasn’t the most popular member of our group. Derrick and Scott Hickman had pretty much divided up the empire, but the silent majority had congregated around Dawn McKechnie, However, a new thought had occurred to me after playing Scott’s invented game series, which also died the death, but was terribly popular for a few weeks (well, that and a couple of alcohol-fueled co-ed sleepover gaming sessions we had at Scott’s place); people just weren’t enjoying my games as much because I wasn’t as much fun.

I wasn’t ALL business; I loved cartoon absurdity and surrealism and pop culture themes and dream sequences and lots of things I’d read in sci-fi and fantasy books, but these all needed a lot of careful consideration before being applied to a roleplaying game, because most of the crew had no idea what to expect when I sprang stuff like that on them. I also had an infuriating Napoleon Complex back then, deliberately shifting the goalposts every time someone tried to push the adventure in a direction I hadn’t plotted for. I wasn’t as interested in being challenged back then, and as a consequence, I was starting to be dismissed as a game master.

In college, almost heedless of my previous failures, I decided to give it one last go, and roughly patched together the sum thesis of all my work on the previous games in something I eventually entitled LINK: the Roleplaying Game. It was wilder and woolier than even TAB Tales had been, with supernaturally-powerful agents of the forces of reality being faced with the most outlandishly-dastardly scenarios, which, to the best of my recollection, lacked for nothing, including the kitchen sink… save for one special ingredient I still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of: I hadn’t written any resolutions. This probably seemed like the only solution to making it all interactive and such, but really, the truth was, I just hadn’t been able to dream up enough endings to appease everyone who wanted to go it differently.

See, despite my Napoleon Complex, the one thing I didn’t want to do was disappoint anyone looking for a satisfying ending. I didn’t know much about writing back in those days, but I knew that satisfying endings were important. I knew that dark, ironic endings were possible, but weren’t as much fun, and if there was one thing I was determined to be, it was FUN! Original, but fun.

At any rate, the group who started playing LINK didn’t stick with it, but I had two or three people playing by mail for another year or two, until it all finally faded away, sometime in 1994 or 95. The game got referred to in the first part of the LINKBeing Trilogy, a series of novels I planned and never quite figured out how to write satisfactorily. By that point, I’d finally gotten an ending I was satisfied with, but I’d had to invent it all myself, even though it used a few of the characters from the gaming sessions. The sub-plots I’d been weaving in the games quietly disappeared, and I’d replaced much of the stuff that didn’t work with a story big enough to encompass it all… but it was unplayable as a collaborative piece, so I just shelved it.

In the end, I came away from the entire experience with the notion that I’d almost gotten what I was looking for, but that I was probably best leaving RPGs alone, and moved on to other things.

That is, until I got a phone call from Rodney in 2002…

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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