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1:46pm on Sunday, 25th January, 2009:

Dr Toddystone


In my early teens, back in the days when children had spare time, I invented role-playing games.

They'd already been invented by other people, of course — I'm not saying I got the jump on Gygax and Arneson — but the point is that I didn't know about those at the time. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn of their existence, though — I didn't think I was doing anything unusual. As far as I was concerned, I was simply using games to tell myself stories.

I had three major (what we'd now call) campaigns. Two of them were pencil-and-paper, and the third was a little more practical (I'll doubtless tell you about it some time). I eventually integrated the first two into the same "universe", but their content didn't overlap: one was a football management game and the other was Dr Toddystone.

Of the three, Dr Toddystone was the purest in terms of role-playing because I didn't have to pretend to be multiple characters — only Dr Toddystone. I'd maybe be about 12 or 13 when I first played it, hence the embarrassing name; however, I wasn't expecting ever to tell anyone else about it, except my brother (with whom I discussed game ideas), because it was written for one person and one person only: me.

So, I'll explain it.

Back in the early 1970s, ISO 216 for paper sizes hadn't officially been adopted in the UK (it had been introduced in 1959, but hadn't yet achieved critical mass), so I used to do my games using sheets from pads of writing paper that I bought at the local newsagent's. These measured something like 4½ inches by 6 inches, and there were anything between 80 and 140 in a pad, depending on how much profit the manufacturers wanted to make. The pads cost 11p in 1971, immediately after decimalisation, but were 14p by the time they stopped selling them in about 1977. I must have bought 50 or more in that time.

Anyway, for Dr Toddystone I took one of the pads and removed all the sheets. I stuck these together using sticky tape (on what was to be the back — you can't use felt tips or pencils on sticky tape) to make an enormous continent. Sometimes this was long and snaking; sometimes it was bulgy with bits coming off it. The biggest ones (I this 5 or 6 times in all) were maybe 10 or 12 feet long.

The conceit was that this was an unknown continent, and that Dr Toddystone was a Victorian-era explorer who was going to explore it.

In laying out the paper, I gave myself ideas of how the geography would go. For example, if I left a sheet out of the middle, that would obviously be a place where I was going to put an inland sea. The paper was only a crude topographical constraint, though: the next step involved actually creating the continent — drawing a map on the paper. This would take hours — days — as I built coastlines, incorporated bays and small islands, river deltas, mangrove swamps... I put in mountain ranges, and ran rivers from them to the coast, adding in lakes and waterfalls and mosquito-infested marshes. As I did this, my imagination was extrapolating from them (even today, writing this, I couldn't help but add "mosquito-infested" just there). In the process of building up the continent, I got a real feel for the place — its jungles, its plains, its tundra in the south, its mist-shrouded hills and strange-calling birds.

I populated it with various native villages, and a few coastal "European" colonies to use as a base. Again, the more I added, the more I knew the place: I knew which tribes were friendly and which weren't; which were at war and which weren't; what resources they needed; what strange cultures they had. Some of these were quite exciting, and I hoped Dr Toddystone would get to encounter them, but I could never be sure if he would.

I won't pretend that the continents I built were realistic. They made sense to me, but I was only 12 or 13 so I didn't have all that detailed a knowledge of how geographical features fit together. In later worlds made for my personal amusement, I'd run some tectonics to get the basic set-up, and play a game to create a history, but I didn't do that here. I knew about volcanoes and where they went, so I had those; I didn't know about volcanic calderas, though, so didn't have those.

I should mention that the first time I did this, that's all I was intending to do: build a continent. It's fun creating worlds, and so that was my aim. It's just that, having constructed the world, I was brimming with ideas. It was full of potential; all it took was for someone to go in and release that narrative energy. This person was Dr Toddystone.

Dr Toddystone was, of course, based on Dr Livingstone. I'd played no games that involved the exploration of an unknown (to the explorer — obviously the natives knew about their part of it) continent, but I'd read about Dr Livingstone and the exploration of Africa. I wasn't especially a fan of Livingstone's, but having just built something that was a bit like Africa, and looking for a way to explore it, well, it was the obvious way in. I'd spent so long making such a huge map, and had created so many possibilities for exciting things, and given so many ways they could unfold, well, I wanted to see what would happen! Dr Toddystone, as an outsider exploring the continent, was my way to visit the world I had created.

I made myself a compass. No, not that kind of compass, this kind of compass. I took two pins, separated the points by 30mm, and used sticky tape to hold the ends together. This compass represented how far Dr Toddystone could travel in a single day, with 1mm representing 1 mile (how's that for mixing units?). Given that Dr Toddystone travelled on foot with bearers and pack mules, 30 miles per day is probably a bit too optimistic, but, as I said, I was 12 or 13: I knew how long it took me to walk a mile (15-20 minutes) and worked out Dr Toddystone's range from that, factoring in some time for sleeping. Also, it was the absolute maximum distance (unless I had something special, such as going down river in canoes), so if the terrain was rough he wouldn't actually go that far. Sometimes, if he was in a friendly native village or a cave, he wouldn't move at all.

Finally, I could play. Here's what I did...

I wrote a diary. Dr Toddystone began in some outpost of empire, and headed off inland. Maybe he was heading for that mountain in the distance, or perhaps he was following the river, or he could just have been attempting to find where those elephants that occasionally wandered nearby were coming from (he was a scientist, after all). Whatever, he wrote his thoughts down in his diary, and then he moved. At the end of the day, he recounted his adventures, and so it continued. I recorded his route on the map, wiggling it around if he got lost, making it straight if it were plain sailing or he was attempting to escape from pursuers. He recorded his discoveries, noted his concerns and suspicions, made plans, sought out supplies, followed legends — it was truly adventurous stuff! All of it, I was experiencing using Dr Toddystone as my conduit. He wasn't me — he did things I would never have done — but he was me, in that I was experiencing my own world through being him. It was straight down the line role-playing.

The way the story emerged was not always how I planned or hoped; this is why I thought of first and foremost it as a game, rather than anything else. There may have been some particular area where ancient forests grew and where natives spoke in hushed tones of strange, primitive life forms, which I desperately wanted Dr Toddystone to visit, but he couldn't because some of his bearers had gone down with a fever and he had to head off in a different direction to get the berries he needed to cure them. Or perhaps he'd inadvertantly offended members of the tribe that lived nearby, and couldn't risk their wrath? There were so many things that could happen, yes, but they interacted. That made it so exciting: I knew what could happen, but not what would happen. The world had a life of its own. I could have cheated, yes, of course, but who cheats at patience?

As soon as I finished the first game, which took me several days (he went from one side of the continent to the other), I started another one on the same map. I did perhaps three or four on that, until it was exhausted. I could probably have continued with it for another few journeys, but by then I was itching to create a new continent, so I did. I think I had fewer discrete journeys on that —two or threes — but they were longer.

Did I re-read the diaries, once I'd written them down? Actually, I don't believe I did. I used them as reference material, but I didn't read them as a novel. The purpose of the diary was to realise (ie. make real) what otherwise was only a mass of interacting possibilities. It constituted a story, but I wasn't doing it so I'd have a story to read: I was doing it so I could live the story.

From playing Dr Toddystone, I learned a great deal. I discovered the power of role-playing — how, by pretending to be someone else, you can be yourself; I understood how games turn a space of potential narratives into actual, personal stories (or "histories", to be strictly accurate); I picked up some knowledge of geography and cultures, and how they interact, from reading library books for research; I gained some insight into the nature of imperialism.

Above all, though, I learned what game design is about. It's about building potentials for players to turn into actualities, and it's about saying something you can't say any other way.

I could have written a story instead of drawing a map. I wrote stories all the time, it wouldn't have been out of character. However, I drew a map. I drew a map, because what I wanted to say — "there are so many wonderful things that can happen" — I couldn't say any other way. I could build the world and write a story set in it, or I could build it and play it.

Following Dr Toddystone, my future creative direction was never in doubt. I was always, always going to create worlds that people could visit.

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).