Jason Thompson is one half of the creative duo behind the hit graphic novels King of RPGs and King of RPGs 2. Thompson, along with artist Victor Hao, has created a series that both celebrates and lampoons the high drama, dysfunction and camaraderie that permeates gaming fandom. Read on to learn how a self-described “shy, socially awkward nerd” grew up to be one of the hottest names in geek literature today, and look for our interview with Victor Hao next week.
The King of RPGs books hit a lot of geek sweet spots, at least for me: manga, MMORPGS and tabletop roleplaying. How much of this reflects your own interests, and how much of it is purely fictional? A follow-up question: is it hard to fictionalize your interests in a manner that’s doesn’t either aggrandize or denigrate your own life?
All the fighting and property damage is fictional, although the trying to convince complete strangers to play RPGs with you is based on reality. I’ve been lucky enough to work in manga and comics most of my adult life, but I was a fan of tabletop and computer RPGs going back to when I was about 8 years old, so it’s my original fan obsession; I think every kid likes pretending to be other people and make-believing imaginary worlds, but there was something about discovering RPGs at that age that was a mind-blasting revelation: “OMG, it’s possible for grown-ups to do this stuff and take it seriously!”
I don’t think of it as personally aggrandizing or denigrating since no single character is directly based on me, but I guess King of RPGs tends towards an exaggerated glorification of fandom, like the classic anime “Otaku no Video” that ends with the characters who met at their college anime club flying off into space to create the Otaku Kingdom on a distant planet. I wanted to depict gamers who are so passionate about what they’re into that they’re a little (or a lot) crazy, so you could say it’s both aggrandizing and denigrating. Basically, I didn’t want to do a story where the gamers are meek and loveable and just like everybody else deep down; I wanted to do an anarchistic story where everyone’s a little broken and weird, like in Flight of the Conchords, Black Books, the Marx Brothers and some other comedies I like.
Have you ever had a moment in your own life where your own hobbies almost took over your career or personal life?
Playing roleplaying games, for me, is like eating dessert. I’ve had periods where I’ve gorged on dessert to the point that I neglected my other creative outlets, like for a time in school at UC San Diego, when I was playing a couple of different campaigns a week, plus online gaming. But on the other hand, a lot of my comics and story ideas are based on roleplaying campaigns, so it usually comes full-circle and re-inspires me to tell those stories to more people beyond to five or six people who are sitting around the gaming table.
Which do you prefer: MMORPGs or tabletop games? Also, it seems like they’re starting to merge together in some ways, especially with the release of the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Where do you see these pastimes going in the future?
Tabletop games! I love D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Maid, Kult, Ars Magica, Warhammer FRP, etc. I play MMOs too but I like to be the Dungeon Master and make up stories with people on the fly, rather than following a set story or quest chain, and that’s something you can’t really do online, except in a few construction-kit games like the old Neverwinter Nights. I think people will continue to develop online gaming tools, though, so it’ll be easier to have a tabletop-esque experience online and to build games online for your friends. But I think people also enjoy getting together in person for a board game or tabletop RPG and that face-to-face party aspect is something that will always be popular. There’s this new place called Cafe Mox in Seattle that recently opened, a gaming cafe/bar, where people sit drinking coffee and playing Magic: The Gathering and D&D till late in the night.
How did you first get interested in Manga, and why do you think it clicked with you in such a significant and obvious way?
I discovered manga and anime in high school, and although I liked the usual science fiction manga like Akira and Nausicaa, one of the other things I liked most about it was the passion and emotion of the stories. There’s no other way to put it, manga is very earnest compared to most American comics. It’s much better at melodrama and characters laughing and crying and freaking out. As a shy, socially awkward nerd it was a form of escapism to feel the heavy emotion in love stories like Maison Ikkoku or violent vengeance/battle stories like Iron Wok Jan. King of RPGs is more inspired by the latter.
What drove you to combine such the melodrama of Manga and the crunchy obsessiveness of gaming? Did people ever tell you that they wouldn’t work together? Did you ever think that?
I was inspired by sports/hobby manga like Hikaru no Go and Iron Wok Jan and Yu-Gi-Oh!, that take a hobby or job — say, the boardgame Go, or cooking, or collectible cards — and go into the hobby and turn it into this big competitive dramatic thing. Some people thought this was a weird mix, because of course, tabletop roleplaying games and most MMOs aren’t competitive, they’re cooperative. But even though roleplaying games might be just a passive hobby for some people, it’s the most exciting when you really get into it. It’s fun to get into character and take the story seriously and blow off steam! It’s a skill to be a DM, it’s fun when you can create a story together with your friends! And there might be personality conflicts between the players, so that even a cooperative game is actually a jostling for power! And the whole industry of gaming and MMOs is this massive business with all these millions of dollars riding on it and people suing companies because they claim Grand Theft Auto made them crazy, and people being forced to play WoW in “virtual sweatshops” in prisons in China! So I just choose to embrace the paradoxes and emphasize the more dramatic elements of gaming.
How did you and Victor come to meet? What’s the collaborative process like between you two?
We met through a comic artist friend, Elena Diaz, who was a classmate of Victor’s at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I live in Seattle now, so sadly we don’t get to hang out as much, but basically I draw the storyboards and write the script and then Victor gives his input and draws the actual pages and makes it all look good! And our editors, Kaitlin and Mike, keep an eye on the process.
The King of RPG series – can I call it a series now? – seems to have connected with people on the basis of how it both satirizes and celebrates gaming culture. That must be a hard thing to balance. How do you do it, and have you had fans tell you that they connected with a particular character or plot point in a personal way?
I think of it as a series. Honestly, I basically write for myself and hope that other people are entertained by the same things I do. I think there’s two ways to approach the story: some people are like all the in-jokes about MMOs and RPGs and old board games, and some people are more into the characters and their struggles. And some people like both. I’m glad when people get the in-jokes, but I think It’s really gratifying when people tell me they like the characters: saying they empathize with Shesh’s nerd rage, or that Theo is cute, or that they like Jen or Mike or Callie or whoever. It’s a story about the characters, after all.
Briefly, would you run through the plot of King of RPGs 2? Will I need to have read the first book to enjoy the second? A more general question: if I haven’t read any Manga before or haven’t played an RPG, will I still be able to enjoy the books?
King of RPGs 2 is the story of Shesh, a college freshman recovering from split personality disorder due to too much time playing World of Warfare (WoW). Through a series of tragic events, he backslides and goes on a WoW rampage, trapped in the personality of his character, Moggrathka, while his friends try desperately to get him back to normal. Plus there’s plenty of tabletop roleplaying, Chinese gold farmers, MaelCon (the world’s biggest WoW convention), and Shesh’s friend Theodore, who really just wants Shesh back to reality so he can play in Theodore’s Mages & Monsters campaign.
King of RPGs 2 picks up after the end of volume one, but it’s a standalone story. Compared to volume one, it’s got more action, more craziness, it’s 40 pages longer, and it’s got more of a focus on MMOs as opposed to the first book’s subplot about collectible card games. It’s for anyone who likes role-playing, whether pen-and-paper games, Japanese console RPGs, MMOs, cosplaying or being the baddest mafioso on Facebook. Comics– or manga, or whatever you want to call it– are my favorite way of telling stories, and King of RPGs is a story about escapism and make-believe and the clash between fantasy and reality in people’s lives.