The Spawn of Fashan, part 2
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to the story behind The Spawn of Fashan roleplaying game, my cultish phenomenon published 40 years ago this September! Let's finish this exciting tale of academic hijinks and entrepreneurial adventures!
I managed to type that rulebook into my newspaper word processor by early June, only to reach a disturbing conclusion: its text revealed far too much of my unpublished novels. That forced me to spend my next month rewriting large sections of the rules and associated tables, all on the fly – and that opened the door not only to errors not caught by my missing spellchecker, but for my often-absurd sense of humor to creep into the process. I should have anticipated that, for my mind often gets looney when weary or having fun.
With little to no time for further editing, I dove into my layout chores: printing out yards and yards of narrow photo paper, which I then trimmed and waxed onto 8.5x11 template pages secured to a light table for exact alignment. That’s when the enormity of the project set in, watching the rulebook’s page count stretch beyond 50, 60, 70, 80….
All that text would have blended into a gray morass had a close friend and supporter not put me in contact with his brother, fantasy artist Bruce Anderson. Bruce provided several imaginative drawings to enlighten my rules, which proved a wonderful blessing. Some people found his art the best part of my book!
My publisher almost suffered a heart attack when he learned how much of his expensive photo paper I used, but to his credit, he never complained (to me at least). I ended up printing out still more, for by the time I finished waxing down Spawn of Fashan’s seemingly endless sample tables, I decided to add a fun example of gameplay to pull it all together. I should have conjured up still more, like a table of contents, but I ran out of time. My wedding beckoned!
I did manage to squeeze in one last laugh for my investors. I closed the rulebook with a list of planned “products.” This was nothing more than an inside joke, for while the list outlined games I had indeed created, we had no plans to produce them unless Spawn sold out at Denvention II. That never happened, which proved a blessing of sorts. For while it's relatively simple to produce a book, a board game is an entirely different animal.
As my honeymoon ended and my last University of Oklahoma fall semester beckoned, I obtained a quality printing offer at a lower cost than anticipated. The result pleased all my friends, which pleased me. I then:
• Had the first 12 (or so) copies numbered and stamped to heighten their perceived value (and price).
• Reminded my professors (and new employer, the Satellite Twin Theater in Norman) of my planned absence.
• Gave an interview to our OU student paper about my entrepreneurial trip.
• Drove to Colorado!
Two friends came along to enjoy Denvention II and help staff our booth while I did my interviews and convention tasks.
It’s always thrilling to see your hard work come together – and Denvention II was a blast! SF conventions in those days focused on fan activities, with 24-hour film rooms, industry seminars, author presentations and lectures, late night or even early morning genre discussions over food and drink, costume strutting, singalongs and “filk song” performances, gaming rooms, re-enactments of favorite film/show scenes, silly skits, and all sorts of other shenanigans. Denvention II provided all that and more. The convention occupied several downtown Denver locations, which required some navigation and traffic skills. The vendor room filled the main hall at the city’s convention center.
Our table must have looked like amateur night compared to the dramatic and expensive exhibits we countered. There we were, with my hand-drawn signs and low-budget Spawn of Fashan displays, sitting just across the aisle from the official Lucasfilm exhibit: multiple tables showcasing actual props and models used in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, among other cool things. As popular as they proved, that was not the biggest hit at Denvention II… no, that title would go to the world’s first double feature of Star Wars (before the “Episode 4” title got stuck on) and The Empire Strikes Back at a classic, restored downtown movie palace. That debut (which we closed our booth to attend) came with live introductions by Gary Kurtz, producer of those blockbusters, and Richard Marquand, the director of Return of the Jedi. Kurtz also attended Denvention II as co-producer of The Dark Crystal, which like Return of the Jedi would come out the following year. The vendor room displayed actual sets and puppets used in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic, filling one end of that grand hall.
As all this unrolled, I pulled off interviews with Donaldson, Moore, and a few other writers (I would later add a talk with C.J. Cherryh). All proved quite friendly and forgiving of my impetuous nature. The game development talk came off well – apparently I didn’t appear as nervous as I felt – and the Spawn demo flowed without a major hitch. Although the latter took place during the convention-ending Hugo Awards presentation, we drew a handful of vocal participants who said they enjoyed the experience.
We ended our convention run selling 17 copies of The Spawn of Fashan – not bad for a new product by a startup “company” with no advance marketing of any kind. Other vendors reported lackluster sales, which bolstered our spirits. Tickled by it all, I continued my naïve bluster by giving Spawn review copies to a pair of gaming magazine editors attending the convention. We then stopped by City Hall to pay our sales tax collections (before Denvention II started, city representatives vowed to hammer vendors who did not gather sales taxes… a threat experienced sellers laughed at) and went home.
Over the next two months, I turned my author interviews into two papers that drew praise from my journalism advisor. And since we had a small amount of money leftover from the convention, I purchased a post office box for game inquiries and placed a few small Spawn advertisements in national gaming and hobby distribution magazines. Only when the Christmas season came and went, with no interest expressed in our product, did I close up the shop, distributing our last rulebooks to our investors... who remained quite pleased by the whole endeavor.
But that didn’t end things. As my final spring semester kicked into gear and graduation loomed, I faced two unexpected hiccups from my OU course manipulations.
The first came from the honors program. In approving my one-time class for writing that rulebook, the university bureaucracy had designated it pass/fail. This posed a problem with the honors program brass, who would consider only graded work. Those decisions surprised me and my sponsoring professor, both of us wondering why no one had bothered to tell us about this the year before. But when my prof noted he had awarded me an A for my efforts, the honors program staff decided to accept our work.
My second hurdle threatened my graduation.
As my final tests approached, I received an inquiry from a journalism school administrator about my industry term paper. I pointed him to the paper I had written about fantasy book publishing, all in a class approved by my J-school advisor and the school itself. The administrator disavowed any knowledge of this and questioned whether it was even possible, for that particular paper fell under a required newspaper history course I never took. I scoffed at this, for I did not intend to work in the newspaper industry and thus saw no need to chronicle its past. This may have shocked him, for the school had awarded me a prime newspaper scholarship four years running. I reminded this adinistrator I had focused on the J-school’s creative writing program and degree all four years, and thus asked for and was awarded a class for writing a term paper on that sector – receiving an A for my work. I then explained the whole scope of my entrepreneurial efforts, which impressed the administrator just enough for him to give in. My advisor’s backing helped, of course.
One of the ironies in all that is how my professional efforts eventually led me into a 32-year newspaper career, but that's another subject for another day. We still haven't talked about the two review copies I gave to industry magazines attending Denvention II. They resulted in our biggest surprises.
The Space Gamer, a general-interest monthly for game enthusiasts, printed a formal review of Spawn in its post-Denvention II issue. That foot-long article offered general praise for the game system and its innovative combat and character generation concepts, but criticized the rulebook’s frequent typos and editing.
The Dragon, the monthly publication of Dungeons and Dragons, did not mention our rulebook for six months. But just when I had given up hope of any coverage, the magazine came out with what was called its “April Fool’s” issue. That devoted two pages to ripping my rulebook. The reviewer attacked Spawn in multiple ways, trashing it as the worst RPG ever released, only to trumpet it as the best RPG parody of all time.
Neither review troubled me too much. Though no one relishes such attacks, both reviews raised legitimate complaints I’d foreseen from my last-minute production changes and editing deficiencies. And since I had cited my problems with Dungeons and Dragons in Spawn's forward, I had expected The Dragon’s cold reply. But I was surprised at how that magazine slapped our book for not actually providing a ready-to-play game. As noted early and often, Spawn outlined how readers could create their own fantasy worlds and game systems, as I had done. Spawn was never intended to be a pre-packaged game anyone could simply open and play – which was somewhat common for RPGs at that time.
That “April Fool’s” review spurred all sorts of fan curiosity and interest over the coming years. Since our home-grown game could not be found in any store, some enthusiasts questioned whether Spawn actually existed. Chatter rose from those who claimed to either own the rulebook or to have played the game at Denvention II. Some people reported seeing or reading its pages in The Dragon’s library archives. Others told of joining in Spawn events at local conventions, witnessing game experiences, and seeing copies for sale in vendor rooms. Some questioned their honesty.
This snowballed over time into a global phenomenon, though I knew nothing about it. Upon graduation and a year running the Satellite Twin, I settled into my newspaper career and family. My writing dreams flowed from Fashan and RPGs to biblical fiction – a turn you may read about in other blogs.
It took a pair of out-of-the-blue phone calls to revive my Fashan memories. As the ‘90s closed, two determined RPG fans tracked down my phone number through internet searches, all to ask if they could get copies of that rulebook. Indeed, their conversations opened with almost the exact same questions: “Are you Kirby Lee Davis? The Kirby Lee Davis? The one who wrote The Spawn of Fashan?”
One caller wanted to reprint the rulebook, which I scoffed at until my newspaper’s webmaster (a new position at that time) uncovered multiple websites poking fun at Spawn. Others focused on the mystery and interest behind my game. Intrigued and tickled, I had our webmaster post a one-time offer for 20 signed, numbered Spawn reprints. When those sold out in two weeks and other email inquiries kept arriving, I extended the offer at a higher price. That started a sometimes busy, sometimes sporadic sales run that kept me going well into this millennium. Buyers rose from every continent.
When my newspaper job disappeared in 2015, spurring me to start down my self-publishing road, I pondered whether putting the game back on the market might introduce my novels to new audiences. This idea gained emphasis last year when a Japanese writer tracked me down for an e-interview. His questions reminded me of this 40th anniversary, which spurred my current project: a reprint of the original game and its 1998 update, along with some new features to smooth over a few longstanding complaints. The target release date: Sept. 3, 2021. If successful, this could lead to a broad update of the Spawn system by a professional gamer… and possibly a new, innovative roleplaying game.
Now, for those of you following my novels, rest assured book two in The Jonah Cycle is coming… unless I jump to book four. Probably book two. But I have a bit of editing yet to do there, and since Spawn’s anniversary date approaches, I felt I had to change gears and get this done. I hope to have my next novel out before Christmas! I may also release a new version of The Prophet and the Dove that includes its study guide.
Thank you for reading this! Have a wonderful day!