I think it’s been ten or more years since I played in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I used to do it all the time. Nearly every Saturday night throughout high school, my friends and I would pack our dice, doritos, and dew (what a cliche, but in our case it’s true), and we would wile the hours away at the local comic shop, whose owner trusted us enough to lock up. (He also rightly knew the game books and snacks would sell themselves in his absence.) My friends cooked up some really fantastic stories I remember how sometimes - not always, only sometimes - the real world would melt away for an instant, and I really would be lost in the world, in the game, in my character’s body.
It was for those brief moments of pure and true immersion that I loved D&D, yet I hated D&D because we could never see any tale through to its end. Some of us might lose interest. Some of us got girlfriends (traitors!). Some of us just couldn’t make it any more and the party count dipped so what was the point, right? I really hated that. The real life part that always found just the right angles at which to sink its +4 poisoned dagger into our games, leaving them to wither and perish over the ensuing rounds. So one day, I decided I would tell my own story, and I swore I would see it through to the end no matter what.
“The Animal in Man” was born from that ambition. I meticulously crafted the unique world of Herbridia, mapping all its mountains, charting all its seas, drawing all its boundaries, and inventing all its politics and cultures. I established all five of its kingdoms and their unique races of animal-human hybrid creatures: Mammals, Reptiles, Birds, Fish, and Insects. My friends selected which species they wanted to play and I thought of creative gameplay rules to coincide with their characters. The fox could sneak. The rhino could ram. What the old turtle lacked in speed he more than made up for in wisdom. And the hyena could go berserk at a moment’s notice, but suffered a -2 penalty to stealth because, you know, he was always chuckling a little. My players wrote elaborate stories which I then wove into the immense and intricate tapestry of the plot.
I remember especially being overly proud of the villain my friends would face. Since I wouldn’t technically be playing in my own game, I planned on making Salastragore, a lizard alchemist and artificer, the ultimate antagonist, a character with a vast network of spies and unlimited resources, who would always be seemingly one step ahead of the players. Someone they could hate. After all, who do you hate more than the villain who constantly robs you of control over your own life, who makes the choices for you that you didn’t even know you had.
Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (Republic, Book VII) had changed the way I thought about life, so the story of “The Animal in Man” was to center on the theme of manipulation and deceit, and Salastragore was its ultimate architect. There was to be a grand reveal at the end when players ultimately discovered this lizard man’s intentions were not so misguided, that he had in fact been enslaving whole Herbridian populations because - locked as they were in an unknown war with a powerful unseen entity - he had only been trying set them free. Of course, what he had done throughout the game (so it had been planned) would be so despicable that I was certain the players would never forgive him. In short, this D&D campaign had a damn good story, so everything was set to go.
And I never ran a single session.
What happened? Real life. Jobs. School. Responsibilities. Girlfriends, including mine at the time. So I put “The Animal in Man” on a shelf, in a cabinet, and locked it all within my brain. And I thought about it for years. But just like playing in a D&D game, I would experience brief and bright flashes of being in Herbridia, living as a character who would have struggled to fight against the villain, who would have traveled to all the settings, spoken with all the kings and councils, and battled all the hordes of Thraxian monsters I’d designed. (Thraxians are the insect race, so they made pretty good fodder it turns out.) And of course, when I came face to face with Salastragore in my daydreams, I knew exactly what he’d say and what I’d say back. Like him, I too wanted to know if it was possible for us to overcome our seemingly unquenchable thirst for violence. He alone knew that Herbridia was just a grand experiment, that their world had been created to determine the answer to that very question, locked in a neverending violent nightmare. But he had lost himself in that violence, until he had become what he had tried to end. These daydreams continued for a while, until I decided to unlock the brain cabinet and add to the sheaf of papers on that shelf inside. I started to write.
A little here and there. Over the course of years. I got married. And I wrote a little. We had our first daughter and I wrote a little more. We had our second and I slowed down. Then I got busy and I wrote nearly nothing.
I remember one night, after a particularly long period of time in which nothing more had been put on paper - when my memories of Herbridia had started to slightly fade - I was on the roof of my apartment building, looking up at the moon, thinking of the similarities between that distant, incomplete world and the one I’d made, and I promised myself that before I turn 35, and unlike every D&D campaign I’d ever played, I would finish what I’d started. I would write “The Animal in Man.”
As I write this, I’m 33. I’m proud to say that I’ve never failed to meet a deadline, and I don’t intend to fail now. I assure you the story is solid, the chapters are airtight, the adventure moves at an exciting pace from scene to scene. You won’t find any uncolored or unexplored corners of the novel’s world, nor will you fall through any holes in its plot. Everything makes sense, everything is described in incredible detail, and every character has their time in the light. I have reached that point of inspiration every writer seeks where the book quite literally “writes itself.” I think it’s because I know more than anyone else how engaging is its subject matter. The story asks an essential, human question I’ve struggled to answer all my life: Why do we do such horrible things to each other? I don’t have the answer, but writing this book is my way of searching for it.
I sincerely hope you will follow “The Animal in Man” on its inkshares.com page, help me fund its publication, and ultimately enjoy living in its world as much as I have. -Joseph Asphahani, author of The Animal in Man.