In the table-top gaming world, a paladin — sort of a holy knight — is typically a righteous, religious zealot. But not the one game designer John Arcadian prefers to use. His character, Bashir the Paladin, is "the Willie Nelson of paladins," Arcadian said.
"He's got a flask. He's the 'let's be cool and be friends and hang out' guy."
The jovial character is sort of reflection of its designer, a kilt-wearing Clintonville resident who has been working on fantasy titles in the tabletop role-playing game industry for 17 years. Willie Nelson and fantasy games aren't typically associated with one another, but it suits Arcadian and his "choose your own adventure" philosophy of gaming just fine.
His purpose, as he sees it, is to provide the foundation — the history, characters and plot hooks of various worlds — to help bring games alive as players construct their own adventures. Arcadian calls it "the island theory," and what it means is this: a role-playing tabletop game is most enjoyable when players can — metaphorically speaking — sail their own ship from island to island on their own terms.
Narrative control versus a fixed story.
“You’re detailing out a small little sliver of the world as a sandbox that they can go play in on their own,” said Arcadian, 39, who lives with his wife, Paula Miller. "Two different groups may run a story in entirely different ways."
Like most who work in the industry, it's a part-time gig for Arcadian, who works full time as a web developer at Ohio State University. Still, he dedicates 20 to 30 hours a week as a writer, art director and consultant for various titles and publications.
That's because he's passionate about role-playing games, both for the creative outlet they provide and the community they foster among their practitioners. Arcadian even gave a Tedx Talk last year at Ohio State about the social benefits of such games.
“It’s unlike anything else that’s out there. Most other mediums, you kind of sit around and consume it,” Arcadian said. “Role-playing games involve sitting there with four or five of your friends and actually interacting with each other.”
His zeal has earned him a respected reputation in the industry, both from his peers and those who play his games.
“He’s very ingrained in the community, the RPG community," said Matt Morrow, 47, a frequent collaborator of Arcadian's who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. "He's highly respected."
Arcadian's love for fantasy stems back to his childhood in Massillon, Ohio, about two hours northeast of Columbus. There he grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy writers. Though he didn't play Dungeons & Dragons — it was difficult finding kids his age to play with during the "satanic panic" the swept parents in the 1970s, Arcadian said — he did still read the supplemental books.
"I was always a very imaginative kid," he said.
It wasn't until he was in college that he played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time, but he immediately fell in love.
After he graduated from Kent State University in 2003 with a degree in video journalism, he came across a computer file of a game someone had designed based on the popular "Final Fantasy" video game series. That confirmed to him that his ambitions as a tabletop game designer were achievable.
“This was another avenue to express that love and joy for those kind of worlds,” Arcadian said.
Among his 30-plus projects and 15-plus book publications since the early 2000s are supplement materials that guide players actions in various titles as well as books with advice for game masters, those tasked with overseeing any given game.
He's created these game supplements on a freelance basis for companies that include Cubicle 7, Kobold Press and Monte Cook Games, and published his work through Engine Publishing, Encoded Designs, Third Eye Games and Baldman Games. He's also created supplements for Dungeons & Dragons and Fiasco.
Most recently, he wrote adventures for "The One Ring — Laughter of Dragons," a official Lord of the Rings series published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment. In that game, players can visit the Kingdom of Bard the Dragonslayer and side with dwarf Balin in an attempt to foil an oncoming war.
The office where he does this, by the way, is a monument to his geeky passion.
There's his first published product, a rule book for Silvervine Games — a small press role-playing game company — still sitting on a shelf in his home office among the dozens of projects he's worked on since. Art he's purchased from game artists at various conventions — he attends more than a half-dozen a year — adorns his walls. And miniature models of characters, including the tarrasque, a dragon-like title monster from a supplement he authored in 2017, are displayed throughout the room.
Chris Sniezak designed the adventures in that particular tome — "The Book of the Tarrasque" — and was impressed by the amount of research Arcadian did into past iterations of the title creature to enhance the world.
"He's hyper-creative," said Sniezak, 39, who lives in Buffalo, New York.
In addition to game design, Arcadian helms Gnome Stew, an award winning industry blog written by a team of veteran gamers. Angela Murray, who joined Gnome Stew as a writer in 2014, credits Arcadian for bringing a diverse array of voices to the blog when he took it over.
Outside of that blog, she said he's been supportive of her and other game designers.
“He is just as excited about your gaming as he is about his own gaming,” said Murray, 50, who lives in Rochester, New York. “He’s super enthusiastic about people getting their own voices out there.”
As for the kilt, Arcadian assures it has nothing to do with heritage.
“I have no traceable Scottish in me,"Arcadian said with a laugh. But now, “People are like, ‘John, I've never seen you in pants.”
Quiet and reserved by nature, he said he wears the kilt to help him come out of his shell and appear more approachable to fans and colleagues.
It's those fans and players who are closest to his heart as he gets down to business, Murray said.
“His whole mantra is: If you can imagine it, we can make it happen.”