Forgive us for sounding trite, but some things are just meant to be. Think how much poorer certain Colombian drug barons would be had Sarah Doukas not discovered Kate Moss in JFK Airport in 1988. Or recall the countless hotel televisions that might still be operational today had The Who stuck with Doug Sandom. Similarly, had Chris Avellone’s schoolmates shown just a little more flair and tenacity in their weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, he might not be on the phone with us now, waxing retrospective in between furious bouts with his keyboard.
“I’m sorry about this,” he interjects. “I’m writing at the same time.” This isn’t entirely unexpected; Chris is always writing: he’s been writing since his freshman year at high school in Alexandria, Virginia, when he realised his friends just weren’t much cop when it came to interactive storytelling. “I remember starting as a game master,” he says, “and I did it because all their campaigns were so short-lived. They went for about two sessions and then… bang. I’d get frustrated, of course, because I’d invested so much energy into a particular character, and then it wouldn’t go anywhere – much like dating.”
Initially, the campaigns he wrote were played exclusively by Avellone and his friends but, shortly after, the gears started turning in his head. “I realised that, once my campaigns had ended, I’d have all this used and tested material to draw upon, which I could then tweak and submit to various publications and see if they wanted to pick it up.” His first port of call, Dungeon Magazine, rejected all ten of Avellone’s submissions. Unfazed, he moved on to Hero Games, a San Mateo, California-based pen-and-paper RPG publisher famous for having created the Hero ruleset. After four of Avellone’s proposals were met with indifference, the company sent him one of their own ideas, asking whether he might be interested in working on it. Avellone immediately accepted.
For the next two years Avellone did freelance work for Hero Games, after which he was offered a job as a game designer. While working on a book in Steve Long’s Dark Champions series – incidentally, the genesis of Avellone’s career-long ‘Stick Theater’, a comic strip in which Avellone vents out his job frustrations on stick-figures – he was offered a place in the company’s videogames division. “They were doing a computer game supplement,” he recalls, “which I believe was called Hudson City; it was a Dark Champions random-encounter generator for the pen-and-paper campaign. And they asked me, since I was working on Dark Champions, whether I’d be willing to write up, like, 100 encounters for the generator. So I did.”
It was a fortuitous project, opening Avellone’s eyes to the potential of computer role-playing game engines. As if on cue, Hero Games, like most pen-and-paper companies in the early Nineties, began to founder financially. “I asked the editor at the time whether there was any steady work available in computer games, and he recommended me to Interplay.”
At that time, Interplay was based in Irvine, California, and had recently acquired the Dungeons & Dragons licence from TSR – a risky bet, as fantasy-themed RPGs were in commercial decline at the time. However, Avellone jumped at the opportunity, and was set to work on a Dungeons & Dragons RPG. “It was set in the Forgotten Realms, like Baldur’s Gate was. My first job was to design cities for that game, submit them to the design staff, and then see about incorporating them into the larger product. The project didn’t bear out, though, so they transferred me over to the role of a level designer on Descent To Undermountain.”