As a fantasy author who grew up in the 90’s and 00’s, I come to you with all the classic touchstones you’d expect: Harry Potter, obviously. Scott Pilgrim. Animorphs. Buffy, Angel… hell, the whole Whedon canon. I watched VHS copies of the original cut of Star Wars until the tapes wore out, because that was a thing that could happen to screen media back then. I stayed up late on Saturdays to sneak episodes of Cowboy Bebop and Trigun on our spare TV upstairs. Was I anyone’s first choice for Homecoming king? Not so much. But who cared, when I’d gotten my hands on a new Gotrek & Felix paperback?
I could probably fill a whole book with a tour of my pop cultural influences — after all, Stephen King did it, and the result was one of the best texts on the craft of writing in the past twenty years. But today, dear Civilian Readers, I’d like to talk to you about another corner of my history where I cut my teeth as a writer: in the lost world of message board-based online roleplay.
In the early days of the internet before social media took us one step closer to the Singularity, online forums were the easiest way to engage with other people. The service I used most was ezboard, though there were plenty of others to choose from. I’m not entirely sure how I found my way into it, but I know that by the age of nine, I was an active member on a Transformers message board, playing a Maximal that could transform into a raven.
His name was Shadowflight, because shut up I was nine, okay?
I hopped from fandom to fandom over the years: Gundam Wing. Dragonball Z. Harry Potter, Firefly, the Marvel universe. If I liked it, I wanted to make myself a part of it, usually with a character that was basically me, except as an alien/robot/space cowboy. But I really came into my own as a roleplayer when I stumbled upon Pulp Academy.
Pulp Academy (not its real name — a guy’s gotta have some secrets) was a high school RPG where everyone played students at a special institute for gifted youngsters. The concept was very X-Men, but it wasn’t devoted to any one fandom. The universe operated on a very simple principle: anything goes. Government assassins, fallen angels, androids, Jedi, wizards, and more all attended class side-by-side in relative harmony. When the school was periodically attacked by outside forces, they’d band together to beat the bad guys, and then celebrate by taking weekend trips into Tokyo to go shopping in Akihabara.
Overnight, Pulp Academy became my biggest fandom. Eager to impress my fellow players, I began to add flourishes to my writing, developing catchphrases and quirks that could only have been mine. Other players and I had long, involved discussions about where we wanted to take our characters, and how we could complement each others’ arcs. I learned that I didn’t have to be the main hero of every adventure, and that sometimes it was more satisfying to be the essential lynchpin to someone else’s success. And I learned that sometimes the solution to a story problem could be rooted in character and collaboration, and not just in a heavy volume of magic missiles.
I eventually outgrew my hobby around the time I went away to college. But to this day, I can see echoes of my time at Pulp Academy in all my work. Perhaps my greatest coup, though, was the satisfaction of sneaking my longtime Pulp Academy student’s name into the manuscript of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, where it’s endured from my first draft to the version you can find on shelves today. And it’s my sincere hope that someday, one of my fellow “classmates” might get to that page in my book, and let their eyes fall on that name with a knowing smile. And who knows? Even if you didn’t roleplay with me, maybe you’ll find it, too.
Just don’t expect it to be “Shadowflight.”
Paul Krueger is the debut author of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, published by Quirk Books, and is available from all good books stores in paperback, priced $14.99 (US) and £11.99 (UK). For more information, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.