Washington City Paper

Arts feature
From the February 27, 2004 issue.

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth
In the world created by role-playing gamer Chad Underkoffler, nice guys finish first.
By Huan Hsu


Chad Underkoffler is a perfect specimen of the North American gamer. There are the glasses, the goatee, and the Peter Jackson build; the blue flannel shirt, the black jeans, and the black high-tops. There are the Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and the Steven Brust books. There’s the fact that Underkoffler sometimes calls himself “the Monkey King” and likes to pontificate on such things as the Lovecraftian notion of “things man was not meant to know.”

So it’s something of a surprise when the 32-year-old Alexandria resident makes an announcement: “The gaming convention of kill-things-and-take-their-stuff pisses me off.”

It’s even more of one when Underkoffler starts to talk about the kind of character he might create for a game of his own design, Dead Inside: The Roleplaying Game of Loss and Redemption. “If I did play, there’d be a big temptation to go for the ‘soul-broke’ scenario,” he says. “Or I’d have sold my soul and found out that it wasn’t worth it. You could do a really cool redemption storyline with that.”

He pauses to take a breath. “Or I’d have put my soul into some object and lost it, like a scientist who came up with some really cool invention and sells it to a company that, instead of taking it public, suppresses it. I win the lawsuit, but then I come back to my lab and find that it’s completely destroyed. That would be interesting.”

Yes, Underkoffler freely admits that he’s “a big, honking geek”—but he’s probably the most metaphysical geek you’ve never met. Dead Inside, written in the free time carved out between his day job as an editor for a telecommunications-standards body and his freelance work for role-playing-game publications, is a response to his hobby’s penchant for wallowing in darkness and violence.

Like most RPGs, Dead Inside includes mystical powers and occult lore, but instead of slaying monsters or finding treasure, the game encourages players to achieve self-understanding by creating characters who have somehow lost their souls. Then the game master takes them on a freewheeling journey to such places as the Bridge of Souls, Spectral Point, and Wyld Park, where they encounter magi, ghosts, and zombies. The game ends when characters, who began as empty “Dead Insides,” regain their souls and become “Sensitives.” Points are gained by successful introspection, as well as by acts of kindness, generosity, and curiosity. To win, you not only have to be nice; you have to explain why you’re being nice.

“Murder and burglary aren’t heroic,” says Underkoffler, “and while war games can be OK, they’re not fulfilling. They aren’t what RPGs are all about—something fun and exciting and full of magic but meaningful at the same time.”

Underkoffler’s eyebrows creep together. “I take my entertainment very seriously,” he says.

Naturally, Underkoffler wrote and gamed through his high-school and college years. Before that, though, he wanted to be a writer. As a first-grader growing up outside Pittsburgh, he scribbled stories that brought his Legos and Star Wars toys to life. He didn’t get into gaming until a few years later, after reading about Dungeons & Dragons in the middle-school mag Dynamite! To his parents’ dismay, Underkoffler was hooked, and soon his two passions began to feed each other.

When Underkoffler turned in an RPG-inspired short story for an advanced-fiction workshop during his senior year at Penn State, he hoped it would redeem him for the rest of his undergraduate career, which until then had been decidedly unspectacular. He calls what happened next “the Big College-Writing Awakening.”

Instead of getting the praise he expected, Underkoffler’s story about a weary, magic-wielding sort who takes refuge in a church was pilloried. “The other students tore it apart in a way that I’ve rarely seen,” he says. “They were vicious. Some actually said flat out, ‘This story sucks.’ Even the professor said that it was ‘ungradable.’” Among the professor’s written comments: “Certainly you must see that fiction is not a vessel that one fills up with ill-thought-out philosophy and language that gushes forth without much discernible purpose.”

Underkoffler staggered out of college doubting whatever talent he thought he had for writing. “I knew it wasn’t a perfect story,” he says, “but it was some of the strongest writing I have ever done, and the class just shrugged it off. I’m sure a lot of it was the opportunity to put the sci-fi fan in his place.” He moved back home to Pittsburgh, worked a series of “pointless jobs,” and moved to Washington in 1994, after he got a call from a high-school friend in the area.

When a friend mentioned that he had had an article published in an online RPG magazine called Pyramid, Underkoffler realized that he might be able to get paid for the sort of writing he’d been doing since leaving Penn State—pieces about games and gaming that he had been posting on his Web page for free. He sold his first article to Pyramid in 1998, quickly becoming a regular contributor. In 2001, he started writing a bimonthly column for the magazine. Since then, he has also contributed to RPGs such as Unknown Armies and Gamma Wars.

Around the time his first Pyramid column was published, Underkoffler was approached by Phil Reed, an austin, Texas–based RPG publisher. Reed had always been fascinated by the phrase “dead inside,” and he talked about building a game around it. Reed was thinking of soulless monsters, but the phrase struck Underkoffler in a very different way. For one thing, it made him think about how shattered he had felt after that college-writing workshop.

“It took me five years to recover,” says Underkoffler. “It was a long, slow process, trying to understand what happened and why.”

Soon enough, Underkoffler also began to think about using the opportunity to push his philosophies about gaming. He became determined, he says, to write “something as opposite of convention as possible. I wanted to see how I could make ethics and theology into an amusing game, to let players be able to fight back against depression and the feelings of uselessness and hopelessness.”

Bruce Baugh, an accomplished game designer and writer with more than 30 books to his name, thinks that was a natural development for Underkoffler. “I’ve seen this desire—to get away from the killing-and-stealing stereotype and closer to characters who do good for the world and improve themselves—in Chad’s other work,” Baugh says. “He’s been poking at it for a while.”

After an unpromising first draft, Underkoffler took a six-month hiatus and returned to the project with a new focus: presenting players with choices. “I wanted to have a nice balance between what the character thinks and what the player thinks,” he says. “Something isn’t right, you’re presented with moral decisions, you roll dice to add some randomness, and how you explain why you made your decision determines how far you get.”

Underkoffler spent most of 2002 and 2003 rewriting and play-testing Dead Inside. In the meantime, his original agreement with Reed fell through, so he founded his own company, Atomic Sock Monkey Press, which self-published the game this past January.

So far, the game has done well. The 50 copies that Underkoffler has sold are plenty for an independent RPG publisher, landing Dead Inside in the hands of gamers in states from Oregon to Massachusetts, and even as far as away as Spain. Rachel Goldsmith, a 32-year-old massage therapist from Arlington, Va., with lots of gaming experience, says Dead Inside helped her gain insight into the nature of envy, one of her character’s vices.

“I had never thought of myself as an envious person,” she says, “but the game gave me a new understanding—that it wasn’t just a material thing. I could see where in my life I tended to be envious. Playing Dead Inside was like interactive, imaginative self-discovery.”

Goldsmith’s husband, Eric Rowe, also a gamer, calls Dead Inside “the psychological equivalent of a dentist’s mirror. It lets you examine things in hard-to-see places.”

Despite such praise, Baugh says that Underkoffler has his work cut out for him if he wants Dead Inside to reach a large number of players. “Games fighting convention face the distinct challenges of not only finding an audience,” he says, “but creating one as well. If a game isn’t fun to play, it’s failed.”

Underkoffler, for his part, believes that Dead Inside’s real-life scale makes it fun for even casual RPG-ers. “I wanted to let everyday people have the chance to be heroic,” he says. “See, Superman saving Lois Lane isn’t really heroic. He can fly; he’s practically invincible—what is he really risking by trying? In Dead Inside, the little heroisms count just as much as the big ones. In fact, a kind word will get you farther in my game than blowing something up. Explosions are fine, but I want a motivated explosion.”

Underkoffler has yet to play Dead Inside himself—mostly, he says, because no one has asked him to. But while he waits for his own chance to look for a soul, he’s keeping busy. He still has the column in Pyramid, and he’s working on a supplement to Dead Inside called Cold, Hard World, which will complete his work on the game. He’s just begun developing another RPG, a flamboyant departure from Dead Inside’s rather low-key premise, and he continues to noodle with ideas for short stories.

“I still want to do fiction,” he says. “It’s probably some fractal interface of lingering arrogance and lack of self-confidence.”

No matter what happens with the fiction writing, though, Underkoffler is content to have done his small part in filling the emptiness that many don’t even realize they carry with them. He’s especially proud of an e-mail he got from a recreational gamer who confessed that when he read a preview for Dead Inside, he wept.

“I experienced exactly what you’ve described there,” the man wrote. “While earning my graduate degree, I found myself in a nasty social situation...and when I turned away to focus on my dissertation again, something happened which ruined it anyway....After two years I’m still recovering...and my degree still has the taste of ashes to me sometimes. I still haven’t decided whether to purchase your game or not because it sounds wonderful but it may be too close for me right now.”

“The point of Dead Inside is to find meaning in life,” Underkoffler says. “I want to get to people realize that if they’re unhappy and they just sit on their asses, nothing will change. Take risks. That’s why we’re here.

“But in the end,” he adds, eyebrows twitching, “it is just a game.” CP

 

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