(All photos credit Meagen Crawford. All artwork credit Lauren Rogers.)
I divorced young, after marrying even younger, at twenty-five. That’s something I don’t often reveal, but unflinching honesty has been good to me, despite my father’s best intentions, so there it is. The next few years were spent wondering how to reveal my previous life to strangers without sounding like a jerk or an idiot.
I think people who make art tend to make other things, too. The greatest of all makings is life itself, and besides having children, I think artists tend to focus on making their own life seem a certain way, even to themselves. They like to dress a certain way, to force a perspective about their appearance or act a certain way to make it seem like they might be interesting.
I was bad at all of these things. My father, watching my schoolyard struggles, once told me to just straight-up be more mysterious. In my case, still learning to dress myself, unsure of how to withhold information, and without a baby, I decided to marry a stranger.
Darkness descended. Imagine a lonely pier in a stormy sea, and Poseidon himself, screaming over his shellfish dinner, that war has been decreed upon every splinter.
I lost myself for years. I lost all hope and purpose. I lost my friends (all of them) and, worst of all, I lost my family (not for the first time, but the harshest–we’re planning another separation again in 2017).
Eventually, the marriage, or whatever it was that occurred in that trendy triplex, ended. I don’t talk about it. I don’t write about. I find the whole ordeal highly embarrassing. But I always knew the story of how it ended, and how Spell Saga came to be, is too good not to share, and since the game is now being played and championed around the world, I’m here to share that story with you. Ready? Here we go:
Most people are not inherently bad, or selfish. But two wrong people together are no damn good. I’m not here to talk shit about anyone but myself–I find that sort of behavior shallow and pointless without a book deal.
After I got over the sadness of my life and the constellation of mistakes that had led me there, I began to realize that nothing could hurt me anymore. I was floating in darkness, and everything I had held dear was just phantoms. In that pitch-black nothingness, when my feet touched the rock bottom of self, I reveled in it and walked toward not a light but somewhere deeper into the loneliness. I began to make things. All of it for my friends I missed, all of it for me. I wrote a 700-page novel, and after that, in the depths of my loneliness, during the Christmas of 2009, I created a card game I could play by myself, and I called it Spell Saga.
It was the story of a post-apocalyptic Western, with a lonely artist and a haunted revolver. As he searched The Highlands for answers of why the world had ended, he would encounter magic that made him stronger and brought him closer to himself. It’s all horribly telling, looking back. But I put everything I felt into the game. Every bad feeling, every hopeful wish I had left. It was all there.
Two years later, the game had grown past a hobby, and my life had grown worse. I might have been alone and walking through the darkness of my own soul, but people can be more than one thing, and I tried desperately to be what I thought I should be–a good husband, an apologetic son. If it wasn’t love, then it was duty.
When I wasn’t making art, my life was a dump truck trying to win a race with no finish line. Now imagine that shit just keeps getting dumped on it from above. Now imagine the driver smiling, waiting for the end of an endless road and hoping the truck will be seen as a beautiful float as it passes the watching pageantry. This is barely a metaphor.
In the spring of 2011, I picked up Spell Saga, thought long and hard about how to do something with it, and guessed the email address of my favorite publisher. I told him I had the next great thing, and I would go anywhere in the world to show it to him. I was more than surprised when he took me seriously and told me to meet him at the world’s largest gaming convention, which he owned. This was rife with problems. The first was that it was three months away, and the second problem was that I only had a stack of index cards that barely worked as a game.
I decided this meeting was going to determine my new fate and fix everything in my life. I was going to present a game so polished it would even have its own packaging. At one point, I even had a circuit board that would play a song whenever the lid was opened, but I broke it almost as soon as I thought of it.
Two months later, just before the convention, after ninety days of feverish work, I watched my friend Sakroka take a five-hour energy shot and begin playing the game on his mother’s pool table.
Eventually, Sakroka made it to the The Caverns, which is the end of the game. There, he visited the church of death before turning into a ghost to visit the upside-down ghost city. All the while, he was running around the tunnels with friends he had met during the story. The game had gone from representing my shitty life to what I wanted my life to become. We played for the full five hours of his energy drink, texting our friend Paxson of Ashgarden that our childhood plans of making games together were about to come true. That night, I drove home, with one week left until my fateful meeting. Everything was working. We had done it.
Two days before the meeting, my wife told me she wanted a divorce. I listened to her tell me that I deserved better and that, paradoxically, I was not good enough, and I stared around the room wondering which objects were truly mine.
I felt a rush of pain and relief that did not belong together. I made plans to save the marriage and save the day and pitch a game so well that the future would seem an endless world of confetti, but they don’t make all-black funeral confetti, and most of these dreams were about to die. I spent the night sleeping alone across from my finished game and awoke bawling my eyes out. It was the worst night of my life, until the rest of the week hit.
The next morning, Sakroka and I drove to Indianapolis. At the hotel, I kept checking my bag to make sure the game was safe and not somehow ripped, sinking, or on fire. The meeting was the very next morning. Sakroka and I decided to go ahead and check out the con. We wanted to get a lay of the land and turn in early. At least, that was the plan.
Imagine the biggest thing ever, and then imagine something bigger. Now fill it with lots of people who seem familiar. That is what a con is. The best part of the day was when Sakroka tore his pants in half sword fighting with a bunch of other dudes.
That night, he made me drive to the nearest (and I use the term loosely) Walmart just so he could buy what I think he thought were a decent pair of jeans. On the way back, we talked about what I was going through and got lost in the dark of foreign highways, the divorce now at the center of my thoughts. When we finally found our hotel again, it was two in the morning. I turned over and closed my eyes for the most important morning of my life.
And then it happened.
Sakroka couldn’t stop snoring. And that was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as his sleep coughing. Did I mention he was sick? He looked (for the most part) like he was about to die at any given moment. I had told him he was going to be Patient Zero at the con. And we would laugh–oh, how we would laugh! No one was laughing anymore.
When the alarm hit, I had three hours of sleep. At one point, I had tried to sleep in the bathtub, but to no avail. Sakroka said good morning, and I told him I was going to kill him. We drove to the convention, where I tried not to shit myself or throw up.
It wasn’t the meeting, or the lack of sleep, or my life falling apart just two night before. It was everything. My life had culminated in this sick and singular moment. And there I was, a nervous train wreck of a life, a shut-in game designer clicking an elevator button to have a meeting with the guy who published everything I had loved growing up.
But I found that fucking door, the penthouse entrance, tucked away in the corner of the top floor. And I knocked on it, and I did not throw up or shit myself or explode in a cloud of nervous bats.
The publisher was nice. I showed him my game right away and pretended I hadn’t forgotten the rules. He thanked me and said some other nice stuff I would only tell you in person. We played the game for a few minutes, and he took his time looking at all the details I put into it.
The entire event capsized when he told me he would be interested in publishing the game if his company had not just closed its doors, perhaps only days earlier.
Sakroka and I drove back home. When I arrived, the person I had called my wife was gone, and I cried harder than I ever had in my life. When she returned, she told me to leave our home, that I didn’t belong there anymore. I drove to my Aunt Cindy’s and cried again before starting my entire life over from scratch. I was happy to be free of the life that had nearly destroyed me and heartbroken about how many poor choices I had made.
I put the game on a shelf. And then I moved it to another shelf. And then finally, another. Far away from me.
Before the year would end, I had all my friends back, including Joshua, who would eventually help get Spell Saga seen around the world. And I met a friend of his family’s named Meagen, who I tried desperately not to fall in love with and ended up marrying.
Eventually, I shared the game online, failed to fund a Kickstarter for it, and found it had a new life as a Print & Play game that has been translated by people around the world.
It is now three years since the divorce, the convention, and everything else. Last week, Spell Saga was funded on Kickstarter and is, as of this writing, now rising above its goal. The game will be professionally printed and shipped out next March to a very loyal fanbase who, amazingly, care about it as much as I do.
This Thursday, my wife and I will celebrate our anniversary during a week my friends and I are celebrating a fully funded game.
There are still dark and horrible things all around me, nightmarish moments I blink and pretend are just phantoms, but I don’t like feeling lost or hurt, so I try to make things instead.
Todd Michael Rogers
Todd Michael Rogers lives in one of the many cities named Nashville. He is married to a poet. He writes stories and makes games. You can find him very easily on the internet.