I'm an American freelance writer and game designer, currently living in my longtime home of Austin, Texas. My published work includes the current edition of the classic 1980s roleplaying game PARANOIA, six books, three boardgames, nearly two dozen roleplaying game supplements, contributions to several computer games, the fantasy novel Cast of Fate (TSR, 1996), and over 300 articles, reviews, columns, and stories.
For a couple of years I was the most prolific non-staff contributor to The Escapist. After this weekly online gaming magazine launched in July 2005, I appeared in about half the first hundred issues. See below for a list of my Escapist articles.
In response to numerous inquiries from students working on class projects, I have posted a list of answers to common questions about becoming a game designer.
I've written regular columns for four national magazines (Collect!, Dragon, The Duelist, InQuest) and over 200 articles and reviews in two dozen more magazines.
- "The New Improved Beast": Werewolves in history, literature, and the movies.
- "Turkey's Underground Cities": Based on my visit to Turkey in 1992, this 1994 article outlines the history of the vast subterranean cities carved by fugitive Christians beneath the Cappadocian plains starting in the 3rd Century CE. Real-world dungeons! (Published in Dragon magazine #201.)
- "Cthulhu Lives!": A 1995 InQuest article on horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.
- "Space Opera": This unpublished 1997 article chronicles the history of the slam-bang planet-smashing subgenre that culminated in Star Wars.
- "Movie Munchies": A short humor piece from Video magazine about "food films" (Babette's Feast, Like Water For Chocolate, Tampopo) -- the ones that make you hungry.
- The Acme Novelty Library: A 1995 assessment of the work of brilliant cartoonist Chris Ware.
- "Silicon Hollywood": A rundown of the rather rundown computer gaming industry as of Spring 1998, written for non-gamers. From the first issue (Summer 1998) of the umpteenth doomed relaunch of Amazing Science Fiction, then published by Wizards of the Coast.
I've published almost two million words as a freelance adventure-gaming designer (1986-present). I'm not precisely proud of that, but here's a sampling anyway.
- Noteworthy: A roleplaying game played through Weblog (blog) entries.
- "Anopheles" (aka "Horror World"): A 1990 adventure for the Champions superhero roleplaying game, published in the alternate-worlds supplement Champions in 3-D under the lame title "Horror World." The superheroes visit a modern-day parallel world where Lovecraftian Cthulhoid monsters took over decades ago. Graphic horror in a superheroic mode.
- Earthdawn Legends by Allen Varney and Don Webb: A large 1994 adventure collection for FASA's Earthdawn roleplaying game, offering many legends of the name-giver races of Barsaive with accompanying adventure ideas. Here is a menu of Legends chapters, or you can get the entire 146K Legends document. The Earthdawn line editor commissioned this supplement from me and my good friend Don Webb, another Austin writer. After reading the first draft, he changed his mind about what he wanted and ordered a stem-to-stern revision, quite the most extensive I've ever endured. From our second draft he took a few small sections, threw them into another product (Legends of Earthdawn Vol. 1), and tossed the rest, incidentally refusing payment for the work he didn't use. Life in the gaming business.
- "Desire Box": A comedic one-session Earthdawn adventure set in Haven, outside the ruins of Parlainth. Published in the 1995 Earthdawn scenario collection Parlainth Adventures; posted here by kind permission of the now-defunct FASA Corporation. I like this piece more than most of my gaming work, because it incorporates the Buddhist ideas I was exploring at the time. (47K)
- "Shaolin Heartbreak": A rapid-fire Hong Kong action adventure for the Feng Shui roleplaying game. This modern-day scenario, published in the 1996 supplement Marked for Death, concerns a Cambodian sorcerer, an 18th-Century Chinese warrior woman (or is she a Hong Kong movie star?), and the lovestruck monk who crosses time to save her. It ends in a typhoon!
- "Adventure of the Knight Sinister": A 1995 Pyramid mini-adventure for Chaosium's superb Pendragon Arthurian RPG
- "Cook's Tour": A brief unpublished adventure (actually a sort of campaign running gag) for the AD&D AL-QADIM Arabian Adventures setting
- Two Nephandi and a Marauder created for White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension second edition, but left on the cutting-room floor
- Varuna Ltd.: An organization for Champions and other superhero RPGs. This agency investigates super-villains, but carries a super-villainous secret.
Gaming magazine articles
[Alphabetized by title/subject:]
- "Characters Into Cards": Adapting RPGs as CCGs (Gamer, 1996)
- Cosmic Encounter: A 1992 review of my favorite game. One of the original Cosmic Encounter designers, Peter Olotka, has joined with his son Adam to launch a fine online version of CE that I recommend highly.
- "Five Golden Rings": The Legend of the Five Rings trading card game (Gamer, 1997)
- "Greyhawk Reborn": On TSR's 1998 Greyhawk revival (Gamer, 1998)
- "Gamer's Library": The classic card, board, and roleplaying games that belong on every new gamer's shelf (1998, unpublished)
- Licensing card games (Gamer, 1997)
- "Mana in the Real World": The fascinating origin of Magic's term "mana" (1995, unpublished)
- Shadowrun card game: A preview with a short introduction to the SR background (Gamer, 1997)
- "Spooking Them": Creating horror in roleplaying games. From issue #31 (November 1997) of the gaming magazine InQuest.
- "Words of Magic": Origins of the names of many early Magic: The Gathering cards (1997, unpublished)
Essays and humor
- "Do the Right Thing": An Inter*Action essay on morality in RPGs
- "Origins 1997: Darwin Bromley Dodges a Bullet": At the awards ceremony
- "All I Need To Know I Learned From Roleplaying Games"
- "Bored With Slime": The bland terrors of many horror roleplaying games (1995, unpublished)
- Perklets: How many tenths of a character point does it cost your Champions superhero to wiggle his ears or fix a parking ticket?
"Roleplaying Reviews" columns from Dragon magazine
- Champions Fourth Edition (#162, October 1990)
- DC Heroes second edition (#165, January 1991)
- Marvel Super Heroes and superhero RPG supplements (#172, August 1991)
- Dark Conspiracy, Vampire, Blood Brothers (#175, November 1991)
- Amber Diceless Roleplaying, published as a sidebar to Lester Smith's review (#182, June 1992)
- Cyberpunk 2020, Night City Sourcebook, Hacker (#185, September 1992)
"Blast From the Past" columns from Collect!
For three years (1996-99) I wrote a trading-card column for Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine. These 600-word pieces used some 1960s or '70s trading card set as a jump-point into pop-culture history. (Copyright ©1997,1998,1999 Tuff Stuff Publications. Posted here by permission.)
- The murder of Superman (a good first choice)
- The 1976 CB radio fad
- The Monkees
- The original Mercury astronauts
- King Kong
- Universal Studios monsters
- Kustom Kulture, the California car-customizing movement
- Disneyland in its earliest days
- Dark Shadows, the 1960s Gothic horror soap opera
- The fading glories of NASA's space program
- "Famous People": a meditation on celebrity and fame
- Charles Addams and his Family
- The 1970s disco craze
- "Gross Makes a Comeback": Not a column, but a 1998 Collect article on Comic Images' Meanie Babies trading card set, parodying the faddishly popular Beanie Babies. Meet "Garbage Pail Kids" artist John Pound and learn just how -- involved -- he gets when painting characters like Upchuck the Duck and Snotty the Bull.
My Escapist articles
Some of my 75 Escapist magazine articles, by issue number:
- 3: "Gamer Nation": An entire country that makes your Counter-Strike clan look like wimps: South Korea.
- 4: "Player-Prompted PARANOIA": Crowdsourcing helped me make this roleplaying game lots better.
- 5: "Lifegame 2020": If life is just a game, in 2020 we'll be playing 24/7.
- 6: "Licensing: Live With It": Warren Spector says we can thrive through adaptation.
- 7: ">READ GAME": Heirs of Infocom, fans of interactive fiction still choose their own adventures.
- 8: "Casual Fortunes": Getting rich slowly with casual games.
- 9: "Our Games Are Built on Paper": It all started with pencils and dice.
- 13: "The Buzz is Gone": Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space went to the Moon -- and then to oblivion.
- 14: "The Conquest of Origin": Origin created worlds. EA shipped games. EA won.
- 16: "Serious Cro": Shooter genre blown open by Croteam (who?) in Croatia (where?).
- 18: "The Asian Weird": Actual (no! yes!) unspeakably strange games Americans never saw.
- 19: "Real World Grief": Historical antecedents of the guy who ganked you in WoW.
- 20: "When Gamers Breed": Gaming is an extraordinarily effective parenting tool.
- 21: "Game Design in the Transfigured World": In the next two centuries, roleplaying ideas will transform society. Game designers can help.
- 22: "Les Grognards": "Gameboxes" let them e-mail moves, but wargamers remain joyously low-tech.
- 34: "Attack of the Parasites": Casual portals all look alike -- and soon, so will their games.
- 36: "My Eyes Glaze Over": Roleplaying theory for short attention spans.
- 39: "Metroid Primed": Nintendo's second-string franchise is poised to jump higher. ("[Miyamoto] would rant at us in Japanese for a minute and a half, and then the translator would just say, 'He's upset.'" -- Former Retro Studios employee)
- 40: "Wal-Mart Rules": One giant company controls your games -- but for how much longer?
- 49: "Red Blindness": China will soon be the 1 gaming market, and the US has no clue how or why.
- 52: "Speed Thrills": Speedrunners test the limits of games and game design.
- 53: "Lifegame 2.0" (11 July 2006): The ubiquitous always-on game of the future -- a social network?
- 54: "Wing Leader": Fans of Origin's Wing Commander keep the ships flying.
- 55: "Raph Koster on Fire": Ultima Online/Star Wars Galaxies designer immolates himself for your pleasure.
- 57: "Immersion Unexplained": Why do we lose ourselves in games? Don't ask a humanities professor.
- 58: "Ubisourcing": Ubisoft pushes game production into a larger world.
- 62: "Feelies": Those trinkets, gimcracks, and doodads that used to be included with games -- whatever happened to them?
- 65: "Trading Web Cards": Since the earliest Magic: The Gathering days, trading card games have been moving online.
- 66: "My Hindu Shooter": Making a non-violent first-person shooter turned out to be a bad idea.
- 68: "Red vs. Blue Makes Green": Rooster Teeth's machinima hit draws imitators -- including (eventually) Hollywood.
- 72: "StarForce Must Die": The gaming community is deleting the world's most hated copy protection -- but what about the attitude behind it?
- 75: "Boutique MMOGs": Under the radar, but bigger than EverQuest. (See also this blog post, "Your own MMOG?")
- 78: "Offbeat Sports Games": Don't toss that dwarf, hand me the box kite.
- 79: "In 3-D": Will computer games ever truly breach the third dimension?
- 80: "Fat Music": Computer gaming virtuoso The Fat Man promotes brave and beautiful sound.
- 81: "Uwe Boll and the German Tax Code": Why people keep giving him money to make movies.
- 82: "Buzz Games": In prediction markets, you're not just the player, you're the product.
- 84: "Dunbar's Number": The number of players you hang out with is all in your mind.
- 87: "The Indie Guru": Steve Pavlina helps indie game developers wake up.
- 88: "The French Democracy": A machinima smash raises questions about art -- and copyright.
- 90: "The PlayStation 3 Deadpool": Death toll from console release unlikely to rise, writer says.
- 94: "Video Vegas": Slot machine or videogame? It's getting hard to tell.
- 96: "Street Fighting USA": After 19 years, Capcom's classic fighter demands a warrior's discipline.
- 97: "LEGO Games": More ways to stack bricks than you can easily imagine.
- 99: "Biz Sims": When companies play games with themselves, it's all business.
- 101: "Blowing Up Galaxies": For Star Wars Galaxies players, Sony Online's SWG NGE was DOA. (See also this Escapist blog post, "Crying Freeman," about how blame for the entire "New Game Enhancements" fiasco fell on one hapless underling.)
- 102: "Cthulhu: Why so difficult?": Why Lovecraftian computer games fare so poorly.
- 103: "The Korean Invasion": Asian MMOGs find the West is hard to win.
- 105: "Richard Garfield: The Magic man today": The creator of Magic: The Gathering has become a role model.
- 107: "Murder Parties": Down these mean streets a dinner guest must go.
- 108: "Pinball Revived": The web helps an old favorite ricochet back.
- 109: "London in Oblivion": Game engines for architects? Architecture for gamers? Why not?
- 112: "World of New Darkness": White Wolf's antagonists grow up.
- 163: "Jonathan Blow's Shifting Intention": The Braid designer's philosophy continues to evolve.
- 174: "Private Buffoons": Humor websites and webcomics spread like germs, too fast to track.
- 176: "Postcards from the Road": Games don't really get at the experience of travel. Can they?
- 193: "Internet Killed the Tabletop Star": If the net had never existed, tabletop RPGs would still reign. But that would be bad.
- 200: "Wanted: Ganked or Alive": Can online games turn griefers against one another to benefit their community?
- 213: "Dominion Over All": A love letter to the fine 2008 card game by Donald X. Vaccarino.
- 228: "An Offer You Can't Refuse": Mafia Wars addiction and Zynga's sleazy actions.
- 239: "Batmanalyzed" (Feb 2, 2010): The things Batman fans can't afford to think about.
- 251: "The Tower of Gygax : Honoring the man who started everything" (April 27,2010): The Gary Gygax memorial.
- 252: "Jane McGonigal Lives the Game" (May 4, 2010): A game helped the noted ARG designer recover from a concussion.
- "An Innocent at Essen" (October 10, 2011): The 2010 Essen Game Fair overwhelmed me.
"Days of High Adventure" Escapist columns
This short-lived column (2009-10) covered Old School tabletop roleplaying. I wrote several profiles of the landmark designers of the early RPG field.
- Aug 27 2009: "Retro-clones": The new wave of games that recast the rules of old and recaptured their spirit.
- Sept 24 2009: "Age of Hero": About Hero Games and the launch of the Champions MMO.
- Oct 29 2009: "Greg Stafford, Mythmaker": Founder of Chaosium, designer of Pendragon, discoverer of Glorantha.
- Dec 3 2009: "Gaming's Renaissance Man, Paul Jaquays" (The title wasn't intended to be ironic, but in 2011 Paul Jaquays became Jennell Jaquays.)
- Jan 14 2010: "A Perpetual Traveller - Marc Miller"
- Feb 18 2010: "Behind the Masks of Nyarlathotep - Larry DiTillio"
- Mar 25 2010: "Rolemaster, Puppetmaster, Catan Master: Pete Fenlon"
- Apr 29 2010: "The Satanic Panic: A Timeline"
Published in 1997 in the weekly culture/arts newspaper The Austin Chronicle:
- Good Games for Adventurous Imaginations, a gift-buying guide.
- 1997: The Year in Gaming.
- Reviews of Dilbert Corporate Shuffle and Lunch Money.
- Gaming at Worldcon: Not Just for Geeks, describing the gaming track I programmed at the 1997 World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio.
- Technomancers, 1997 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Media Festival preview.
In addition to my new PARANOIA novel T1 Stay Alert (Book 1 of The Troubleshooter Rules trilogy) and the sharecropped gaming novel Cast of Fate (TSR, 1996), I've published a few stories in Dragon magazine and various gaming products. Here is some older work:
- "In the Swift Workshop": Science hero Todd Speed reopens his long-abandoned laboratory. At the May 2001 Turkey City writers' workshop in Austin, SF writer and host Bruce Sterling said this story is "trembling on the edge of a major breakthrough in the field."
- "Following the Elephant": This comedic fantasy novelette, set in 14th-Century Thailand, derives from a historical incident. To find a suitable site for a Buddhist temple, the king of Lan Na Thai sets a sacred white elephant loose, hoping it will give him a sign from the gods. But an ambitious young monk has other ideas.
- Piercing A Veil: A complete sharecropped fantasy novel set in the Earthdawn universe. Purchased by (now defunct) FASA Corporation in 1994 for a line of novels based on its (now deceased) Earthdawn roleplaying game, but never published in English, Piercing a Veil tells of a magical plague on the city of Merron, the contentious magical guilds behind it, and the enigmatic creature they obey. The retired warrior Alban Peyl, who lost his arm ten years ago, is drawn into the conflict when his lost arm suddenly returns.
- Ultra-Violet (Chapters 1-7): An unfinished novel, a scramjet-paced fantasy about a boy who journeys up the colors of the rainbow, and each color is a different techno-magical land. Think Wizard of Oz for the 21st Century, times seven. I still like this idea and hope to return to it -- in retirement, if not before.
- "Craverlane Bend": Not only an otherworldly fantasy of the trans-dimensional city of Agon, but also an allegory of my many years in the adventure gaming hobby.
- "Bollix at the Hamster Race": First in what was to be an extended series of Wodehousean SF comedies about socially inept freelance uber-hacker Jeremy Kidwell and his virtual actor, Bollix. Find out how a major software company decides to test a new Internet protocol by racing hamsters.
- "Chance Music": A comic historical fantasy of the chance-derived aleatoric music experiments undertaken in the 1950s and '60s by modern music composers like John Cage. Written for the November 2003 Turkey City writers' workshop in Austin, Texas.
- "Rational": A short parody of the work of a well-known Australian writer of hard science fiction. This story appeared in the fanzine Nova Express, Vol. 5/2 (#18), Fall/Winter 1999.
- "Goblin Tax": A 1980 half-hour radio comedy script about four fantasy roleplaying gamers who discover a parallel world that is more, and much less, than they imagined. In 1987 the long-running Minneapolis science-fiction radio show Shockwave did an excellent production of "Goblin Tax." The same producer, Jerry Stearns, staged a live performance of the play at MarsCon in Bloomington, MN, May 11-13, 2001.
- "A Christmas Phone Call": A short-short modern fantasy that I sent out to friends as my 1991 Christmas card.
allenvarney [at] gmail [dot] com; Twitter: @AllenVarney
I've written for science fiction fanzines, convention programs, and occasionally to satisfy my own inner drives.
- "Our 21st Century Writers": Join our intrepid reporter in the year 2026 as he visits the leading science fiction writers of the day: first Heinlein Colony (note that I wrote this before Heinlein's death in 1988), then Varley Studios, and finally the greatest of them all. Satire for SF fans.
- Live Shots from The Austin Chronicle: Thirty-seven micro-essays about Cadbury World (the chocolatier's theme park), taking part in the Nielsen ratings, the death of an arrowana, the Ringling Brothers Clown College, designing AD&D adventures, Rice Krispies Squares, and many other vital matters.
- Thruput: A hoax review of a non-existent book, a cyberpunk shared-world anthology (!), written in the earliest days of fandom's cyberpunk craze (1986)
- A tribute to novelist and game designer Aaron Allston, written for the Coastcon 1990 program book
- "Rasputin": An unpublished 1994 love song about the Russian monk (not inspired by Boney M's 1970s "Ra Ra Rasputine")
I traveled around the world on a seven-month solo backpacking trip in 1992-93, writing several letters back home that I hope to post here someday. I have posted the five letters I sent back from my lengthy trip to Africa with Beth Fischi, as well as two dozen shorter notes from Seattle. But first, an amazing episode that happened right here in my home town of Austin, Texas....
One of the most fabulous experiences I've ever had.
I visited Africa so you wouldn't have to. Letters from my seven-month 1998-99 trip:
- Kenya: Pushing the Envelope, but not Hard (July 1998)
- Tanzania and Zanzibar: Standing on Zanzibar (August 1998)
- Malawi: ...But We Wouldn't Want to Live Here (October 1998)
- Zimbabwe and Namibia: Back in the Bubble Again (November 1998)
- South Africa: Postscript (March 1999)
Greetings From Seattle
Written to Austin friends during a ten-month business pilgrimage to Wizards of the Coast in Seattle (1995).
- January-February: Moving in; absolutely not infatuated with editor; anti-tax crank; ugly Sound of Music incident; uglier wetlands; John McPhee reading
- March-May: Afterlife vision in a cherry tree; Robie House; high-efficiency kite flying; bonsai growers with bad teeth; screwed by a glad-handing weasel; Barbershop Quartet Hell
- June-July: Yen to travel again; going psycho in India; twins; Dorothy Gale is a Las Vegas ho
- August-September: Highland Games; Magic World Championships; woolly worms forecast winter; Woodstock for flies; life lessons; aftermath