Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler

Aaron Allston

A profile by Allen Varney for the CoastCon 1990 program book (Biloxi, MS)

His hit singles, his paintings and photographs in a dozen galleries, his distinguished career as Seattle police commissioner, his world-class architecture, his groundbreaking theories in many branches of science, economics, and criticism -- how does Aaron Allston do it all?

No other celebrity of our time shows such versatility, such range and depth. He was not content with his achievements as researcher, firefighter in our national parks, movie producer, and, I need hardly add, trophy-winning goalie for the Montreal Expos. No, Allston went further. After long years of effort, he finally broke into the so-called "uncrackable" field of adventure gaming.

It's well known that game companies prize quality above all and offer work only to the most highly trained professionals. Every project is a painstaking labor of love; simple mercenary motives have no place in gaming. Yet here, as in so many professions, Aaron Allston has distinguished himself, achieving one of the highest honors in the industry, in the nation, and, indeed, throughout the Solar System: Aaron Allston is CoastCon's Gaming Guest of Honor.

How has Allston achieved this ultimate success? Not by his much-publicized breakthroughs in liver transplant surgery. Not thorugh his stint as guest host on NBC's Tonight Show. No, not even by his historic partnership with Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on that great day in July, 1969, when the three successfully took Apollo 11's Lunar Landing Module to the powdery regolith of the Moon.

No, historians of future generations will point to Allston's achievements as a game designer. He triumphed early as editor of Space Gamer magazine at Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, 1982-84. During this time he co-wrote the first Car Wars supplement, Sunday Drivers (later retitled Crash City). This was the first of Allston's many car-combat products in years to come, both for SJG (GURPS Autoduel, written with Scott Haring) and for the independent "AutoVentures" line.

Allston left SJG to go freelance in 1983, triggering a three-year boom on the New York Stock Exchange. I need not discuss his subsequent design of the Macintosh II computer, his basic patents in magnetic resonance imaging, nor his endlessly popular Violin Concerto in E-flat. Allston's next gaming success was his long (and long-distance) relationship with TSR, Inc., ofLake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Since 1986, Allston has been writing major supplements and adventures for TSR's Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced D&D. Bruce Heard, Acquisitions Editor at TSR, says Allston is "a great pleasure to work with, not only for his talent, but he's extremely reliable as well. Aaron has been one of the main driving forces behind the development of the D&D product line. We'll be working with him a great deal more in the future." (Allston has just finished editing the landmark D&D Cyclopedia, a massive compendium of all the published rules for D&D.)

TSR also commissioned Allston's first novel, Web of Danger (1988), a fine adventure thriller in the short-lived "Double Agent" book series. Allston is now working on his second novel, a modern fantasy with the working title Galatea in 2-D.

But as popular as Allston's TSR work has been, experienced gamers may associate his name most closely with Hero Games' Hero System, especially Champions, The Super Role-Playing Game. Ninja Hero, Super-Agents, the Organization Books, adventures, editorship of Adventurers Club magazine -- it all started with Champions' first edition in 1982, when Allston's early "Strike Force" campaign became the only game ever thrown out of Steve Jackson Games' weekly playtest sessions because it was too popular. Allston's skill as a gamemaster is unmatched. Steve Jackson says, "He's the best gamemaster I've ever known."

Nine years later, Strike Force remains one of the longest-running and best known Champions campaigns; Allston described it in a 1988 supplement. He rotates it regularly with two other Hero System campaigns of similar vintage: "Age of Heroes," the mythological epic that spawned his Mythic Greece supplement (ICE, 1988) and "Empire Club," a pulp-era crimefighting series based on Justice Inc., a game Allston helped design.

In his noteworthy JI supplement Lands of Mystery (1985) Allston described in gaming terms the "lost worlds romance" a la Burroughs, Haggard, and A. Merritt. The author returned to the theme in his recent Hollow World boxed campaign set for D&D and in The Savage Empire, a new (and bestselling) computer game from Origin (the first in the "Worlds of Ultima" series). In all of these Allston displays the love of exploration that typifies this man, who has made solo ascents of nineteen Himalayan mountains ... in four days!

All right, perhaps I exaggerate. Aaron's real accomplishments are impressive enough, as is his large following in the hobby. Really, he's one of the best in the business. I've known him seven or eight years; he's brainstormed plots with me, lent me money in a crisis, and bailed me out of more than one tight jam. Still, I'd admire his great gifts and productivity even had I never met him. If you do too, at CoastCon you'll enjoy meeting the man behind the work.

And you can learn about his recent spectacular performance at the Met, as Siegfried in Wagner's Gotterdammerung.

Allen Varney is a game designer in Austin, TX, who says, ``I've done almost everything in gaming that Aaron has, only later, smaller, and with less success.''

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Copyright (C) 1990 Allen Varney.