Emulate and Play: A Look at Role-Playing Games and Inspiration

By Charles Maynard, Spalding School of Writing, Profession of Writing Faculty

Satan worshippers will steal your kids, shave their heads, and use them in ritual sacrifices. That was one of the many stories I remember as a kid growing up in Appalachia during the 1980s.

There was a fear of the devil that permeated our town and our church, and that fear trickled down and filled several years of my childhood. According to the narrative, a few of the many paths that led to Satanism were hard rock music, drugs, and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). In retrospect (and it seems comical now), the Satanic Panic, as it has come to be called, was mass hysteria based on, among other things, supposed subliminal messages in music, a terrible Tom Hanks fantasy movie loosely based on a real-life event, and nonsensical media reports of kidnapping and sacrifice. But amidst that hysteria, there was formed in my young brain a nugget of inspiration and wonder that would become a part of my life all the way up to the writing of this post. Not about Satanism or Tom Hanks (well, a little about Tom Hanks), but D&D, a game that would influence me on every level of creativity over the next decades.

Growing up, my family had little money. We lived in an old farmhouse that we rented for fifty dollars a month. In the summer our well dried up and we went to the local pool to take showers. We filled milk jugs with water from a local spring. In the winter my brother and I spent a lot of mornings next to a wood-burning stove to stay warm. My parents both worked and we all got by fine, but there wasn’t a lot extra. It was this lack of money that initially led to my fascination with making things. I was reliant on my imagination and the things around me, a limited set of influences and tools. When my friend Jason introduced to me to D&D, probably when I was around eight, there was a spark released. I saw something in writing I had never seen before. There were images and maps and monsters and knights and wizards, all things I could pretend to be. There were stories I could interact with. But I had no money to buy any of the books as $25 was a lot for eight-year-old me, so I made my own version of D&D. I have no idea what that game was as it has been lost to time but I am sure it was unplayable. However, the stage was set and I became obsessed with making and playing games. By the time I had saved enough money to buy the D&D Basic Red Box Edition, I had already been making and playing my own games for a while.

Role-playing games allowed me to make sense of my world through stories, art, mechanics, and rules. It allowed me to combine all of these things into a single cohesive expression of my imagination. These were worlds I could connect to because they allowed me to interact in them. I wasn’t just looking at a picture or reading a story, I was creating a character in that world, I was creating the world and exploring it alongside others. And through these adventures I was left with vivid images and real, emotional memories. I used to think these games, the stories and art in the games, were meant just for me. They seemed to be written directly for me and I wanted to emulate all of it. I wanted to write like Tolkien, Gygax, Mentzer, and Holmes. I wanted to make art like Otus, Frazetta, Elmore, and Easley. So, I did. I wrote emulative prose and described trees and swords for pages and pages. I wrote about uber-macho warriors with long, Metallica-like hair who fought dragons and saved villages. I traced Otus and Elmore’s works. I copied. What I couldn’t copy I tried to imagine. I ripped off every idea I came across. I synthesized it all through my young, Appalachian boy filter. From all of that, somewhere and somehow, I came up with my own style in both writing and art. All of this stemmed from a singular curiosity to explore the next thing, to draw the next picture, to write the next story, to make the next map, to fight the next kobold. All of this bled into everything I touched.

The childhood fascination and curiosity of what was just around the corner in my brain remained up through high school and college and eventually adulthood. I still keep thinking there is something to discover, some meaningful exploration of art or writing to uncover. And there always is. Over the last decades I have continued to write and draw and make games. Somehow, in the last few years, I have managed to build a successful business around the games and worlds I have created. I learned typography and image editing programs. I learned how to lay out books, how to crowdfund and publish projects, how to make videos for my projects, how to edit music and record voice for my videos. I learned to be part of a community, to interact with others in a meaningful, positive way online. And through all of this, writing has been the core. It is the binding thread that allows me to attach thoughts and idea to images, to take images and create stories around them, to make maps and monsters and create context and meaning.  

Many of us, including myself, learn through observation. We read works that we gravitate toward. We stare at art that moves us. Many of us also learn through emulating those who came before us. We feel drawn to works that move us and we often pull inspiration and insight from those pieces, especially if we are entering into the work with a creative mind, with our own work in mind. This emulation, especially early on in our process of discovery, seems poignant and directional as it provides both an emotional and practical foundation from which we can build. We also often create out of necessity. I couldn’t afford the games that I loved to play, so I tried to make them. We have emotions and feelings and desires that we cannot express or that we don’t feel comfortable expressing with words, so we do it through art or writing or games. We often make sense of ourselves and the world through our own creative movements. These are all things that are transcendent of every art form, including role-playing games.

The amazing and inspirational thing I find about playing role-playing games is that unlike a book or a painting or a film, in a role-playing game, I am a direct participant in a shared world that is being created simultaneously in the imaginations of the people I am playing with. There is a continual feeling of discovery and novelty in this experience as the feel of play changes each time. As someone who creates these games, I have found a medium that combines my love of worldbuilding, my love of art, my love of design, my love of writing, history, science, popular culture, nearly everything I consume. In role-playing game design, I can mash together all of these things I am passionate about and merge them into an entity greater and more interactive than the parts alone. Then, I can invite others to participate, play, and create alongside me.

Charles Maynard leads a workshop in Tabletop Game Design during the Spalding School of Writing’s Spring 2020 residency, May 22-31. The workshop may be taken alone or as part of a 15-credit Graduate Certificate in Writing with a focus in tabletop games. Applications to participate in either the workshop or the entire Certificate program are open now, with an early placement deadline of February 1. Email the School of Writing to inquire about special application requirements.


Charles Maynard (a.k.a. Dirk Stanley, a.k.a. Charles David) is the author and illustrator of the Far Away Land Role-Playing Game and the pre-apocalyptic/magical realism novel The Way Things End. He is director of the Writing Center at Spalding University, where he also teaches writing in the School of Liberal Studies. He has no problem killing his darlings.