Author Archives: aahabershaw

Vrokthar Demands Your Elves on Shelves!

Greetings, wretched wetlanders and pathetic cowards of the gluttonous south. It is I, Vrokthar, returned from a long absence to make his demands of you, the fat indolent swine that feed his mighty tribe. When last we spoke, I was pleased with the misery and chaos that was brewing in your decadent civilization. Indeed, this year has been even more glorious than the last! Vrokthar’s invincible raiding parties have been so busy pillaging the ignorant, defenseless villages of your horrid nation that I hath had scant opportunity to taunt thee via my magical word-slate (also, I lost the charger for some time and it was difficult to find a replacement – art thee aware that not all of thy power cords are equivalent? RESOLVE THIS AT ONCE!).

Yes, the mighty warband of I, Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, waxes daily. My warriors are well-fed upon heaps of man-bacon and entertained daily by the many wretched slaves dragged back to my longhouse. Truly, Vrokthar lives in a golden age.

But Vrokthar’s mighty appetites are endless! Though your absence of competent governance has laid the wealth of your impotent nation bare and ripe for the taking, there is still more I desire! No – more I shall have!

This is how I imagine the Great Claus appears. A worthy foe…

I speak, of course, of Santa Claus.

Yes, my wetlander slaves speak of him often. He is some kind of mystical champion, it seems, who travels forth on an enchanted battle-sledge yearly to deliver his spoils to the worthy among thee. Whilst I cannot imagine what you have done to earn his favor, it irks me that such a being – a sorcerer gifted with such great wealth – might be hiding in the arctic vastness of mine own lands! This is an affront! I will find this Claus, I will take his head, I will raze his house, and I shall take his enchanted sledge for my own! So it shall be!

It is for this reason that I have deigned to contact you, denizens of the mystical ether known as “Inter-not.” Heed carefully my words, for failure to do so shall be met with your endless agony:

BRING ME YOUR ELVES UPON SHELVES!

Do not ask how I know of them! Vrokthar’s sight is as mighty as that of the Claus! How clever of him to install spies in your homes – and also a sign of his weakness. Now, all I must do is capture these tiny creatures and torture them until the location of their master is revealed through their broken teeth and blood-caked lips.

There is an obstacle to overcome, however. Thanks to the Claus’s sorcerer’s tricks, all of the Elves on Shelves I have thus far apprehended have been transmuted to mere cloth and plastic before they could be put to the question. Initially I had thought it a mere ruse or, perhaps, the elves were only able to come to life in the light of the moon. Nevertheless, no matter how many of the perfidious creatures I placed upon my own shelf, they remained inert. The Claus, for all his cowardice, is a clever opponent. He cares nothing for the lives of his diminutive slaves (and well he should not!) and will sacrifice them freely to keep his location secret.

Such resolve, however, cannot last forever. The Claus will make a mistake! Mine own shamans have prepared mighty rituals to interfere with his infernal holiday sorcery. And then, oh, then will his fate be sealed! If torture cannot loosen the tongues of these elves (and Vrokthar’s tortures are mighty and varied indeed!), perhaps I might win their loyalty through the many boons I mighty shower upon their stocking-capped heads.

HEAR ME, OH ELVES! You have been abandoned by your infernal master! He shall transmute thee into mere cloth and fuzz rather than let himself come to harm. But Vrokthar is a far more generous master! Reveal to me the secrets of the Claus, and be showered with all the riches your tiny brains can imagine! Candy! Gold! Slaves! Beasts! Meat and mead in plenty! You need only sunder the chains by which the Claus hath bound thee!

Then, with you by my side, we shall raze the fool’s arctic manse. I shall take his beard as a trophy for my belt, and you shall have any number of his reindeer as yours! Truly, Vrokthar is generous to his friends, but his patience is limited. Speak now, or burn forever in a boiling pool of your own fat!

SO IT SHALL BE!

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The 3-Star Read

I’m reading a book right now. It is not good.

It is also not bad.

This is infuriating.

Bad books are easy to discard. Long, long ago I shed that absurd “completist” affliction where I felt the need to finish any book I started (and for that, I thank you, Doctor Zhivago). Now, if I am not feeling a book within 50 pages/20% (whichever comes first), I drop it and move on with my life. This has saved me oh so many hours of pain. If you don’t do this yourself, do it. Your life will improve.

On the other hand, of course, good books are pure pleasure. They fly right by. I can’t wait to read them, I regret having to put them down, and I finish them within a week, no matter how long they are.

The ones in the middle suck. They suck worse than the bad ones. See, they have the audacity to be interesting enough to keep me reading, but the

This is a low bar, book. Be ashamed.

temerity not to be any good so that I actually want to keep reading. These books are eminently put-down-able. At every chapter break, I quickly set the book down and look for something better to do. It is notable that I mostly read on the train these days and frequently I can, in fact, find something better to do than read the book in question.

I will remind you that I am on a train underground.

Of course, the natural impulse should be to jettison said snooze-fest of a book and move on to bigger, better titles. But wait! There’s still potential there! Maybe it will get good in the next 50 pages? It had such good reviews! The concept is so interesting!

So I keep reading, page by torturous page, as the book plods and stumbles towards its lackluster conclusion. These stupid books eat whole months of my life. I hate them.

Very often, the thing that causes the book to fall into this category is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the rest of the book. It really doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, the characters and my capacity to identify with them and care about their plight is essential. This means that the characters need a plight, for one thing. They also need to be sufficiently real and interesting that I can connect with them. They also need to do things about their situation. A lot of books (a surprising number, actually) don’t really do this. They have this wizbang cool idea behind them, but the book isn’t really populated with “people” as much as “placeholders for people.”

I could name a lot of names, here, but I don’t like ragging on fellow authors and, honestly, my tastes are not necessarily your tastes. Suffice to say that I’m reading a book right now with one of those super cool high-concept science fiction worlds, but the characters seem to be shoehorned in. It seems as though somebody told the author that they needed actual people in their futuristic techno-thriller and the author sighed and say “Oh, okay – here’s a guy with job and a girl with a katana – that good enough?” The answer is “yes,” but only barely.

One butterscotch sundae coming up, kid! WOOOOO!

Now there are plenty of books that go the other way – really interesting characters in drab, low-concept, predictable conflicts in mundane settings. Those, however, are way more palatable. I could watch Han and Chewie doing anything, you know? Even if it’s a book about Han and Chewie making ice cream for 75 pages, I bet I’d still like it. Character, to me, is everything.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll probably ought to read more about…this crap I’m reading. How far am I through? (checks Kindle). 54%? That’s it?

But I’m more than halfway now…so…(sobs)

Nebula Award Eligibility Post (and Writing Update)

Hello, friends!

So, it’s Nebula Award season again. This year, I am eligible for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” in the July/August issue of F&SF! If you’re in the SFWA and eligible to nominate works, I’d appreciate the nod – I’m very proud of the story, it got good reviews, and I’m told a copy of it is available to read on the SFWA forums (for members only). Go and check it out!

Additionally, the copy-edits of Book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed, DEAD BUT ONCE, are done! Done! The book is off and set to release in March AprilApril is the release date, the 17th to be precise. You can pre-order a copy through this link. Go and check it out!

Well, that’s it for me, for now. I’ve got the fourth (and final) book of the series to finish, and so off I go!

On Deadlines…

I have never missed a deadline in my professional life. Indeed, I get obsessive about meeting deadlines. I am freakishly punctual and am afflicted with that old-fashioned notion that my word is my bond. If I tell you I will meet you at 6pm, I will be there at 6pm, no matter how many old ladies I need to run over on the way. If I tell you I will do a thing by a certain time, I will do it, no matter the cost to my personal sanity.

I like to think this makes me a reliable person. Somebody who is easy to work with, somebody who is trustworthy. I suppose on some level it does. But I am beginning to think my slavish devotion to meeting my scheduled deadlines and appointments is going to make my work suffer.

We pause now for a quote from Douglass Adams (please rise, doff your hats):

Though whimsical, I have long felt this quote to be not a little bit obnoxious. Then again, the quote also offers a degree of freedom that is terrifying to me. I need deadlines – I crave them. They are my best defense against procrastination and, in a world where they do not exist, writing novels seems truly daunting. I love deadlines, but for the opposite reasons that Adams seems to.

I’ve got a problem, though – a very immediate problem. I’ve got a book (book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed, in case you’re interested) that’s due in January. It seems somewhat unlikely I’ll have it polished to the usual shine by that time. I mean, I’ll probably have a draft of some kind, but it will be a mess – storylines not fully managed, the length a bit unwieldy, etc.. I’ll be basically rewriting this entire novel (standing at about 123,000 words right now) in a matter of three weeks (over Christmas, no less!). That is, well…that’s crazy.

Did I mention my computer is just about dead?

And just to throw more on top, I only just got the copyedits for Book 3 this past week. I’m teaching 4 university courses this semester, and we’re getting towards semester endgame – I’ve got papers to grade up to my eyeballs, and zero leeway on when I can get them back to students. How in blazes can I be expected to copyedit one 116,000 word novel, revise another 123,000 word novel, and get all my dayjob work done AND have all of it meet my standards?

Oh, and there’s a new baby in the house, too. No small amount of stress there, either.

Oh, and I’m designing a new curriculum for a course I’m teaching next semester. (Good God, what is wrong with me?)

If you want to know why I haven’t been posting here that much lately, this is why. I’ve managed to paralyze myself with obligations and have trebled my usual battery of deadlines. I don’t know that I can do it, at least not well. That worries me. I wonder what my publisher will think. I am, though, reminded of what Tim Powers once told me about deadlines:

Ask an editor which they will rather have: a book that’s on time, or a better book. They all would rather have the better book.

Then again, he’s Tim Powers. I’m not.

Then again, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. In every previous instance when I’ve been terrified of not making a deadline, I’ve made it and with time to spare. Maybe it will all be okay. Even more importantly, I need to realize that even if I don’t make the deadline, I’ll be okay, too. Especially if I communicate with my agent and editor well ahead of time (which I have so far), it will probably be okay. We’re all in this together; they all want me to succeed. I’ll be able to do this.

For those of you struggling through NaNoWriMo, I know that terror – that beat of the drum that says you might not make it. But you’ve got to remember – just like I need to remember – that a deadline is ultimately an arbitrary thing. Assuming you aren’t a journalist or somebody trying to defuse a bomb, it’s a tool more than a natural fact of life. There is writing after deadlines. It can be done. Sometimes it has to be done.

But that whooshing sound, man. Gives me the creeps.

World Fantasy Con 2017

Hello, friends!

First, allow me to apologize for my relative inactivity here over the past month. Things have gotten a little crazy in Habershaw-ville – there’s a novel deadline looming, the semester is in full swing, and a new baby has recently arrived, all of which has cut in to the time I use to keep this place updated. I’m certain my routine will stabilize sometime soon (I hope) and I’ll go back to posting once or twice a week.

But that isn’t why you came, is it?

San Antonio!

San Antonio’s scenic riverwalk, by night

This past weekend I attended World Fantasy Con in San Antonio and had a grand old time. I didn’t get on any programming myself, so I was worried it wasn’t going to be a productive trip, but boy was I pleasantly surprised to be wrong! Here’s what I did:

Panels

I got in on Friday afternoon and immediately attended some readings. I saw friend GV Anderson read from her story “I Am Not I” from the July/August F&SF. Then I went to see friend William Ledbetter read a bunch of flash pieces from various venues. It was a delight to finally meet both of them in person and their readings were very good.

During the rest of the weekend, I saw five panels.

Panel #1 – Borrowing From History: Intention and Appropriation

This panel interested me because, as a white man, I am concerned that I have not always done justice to other cultures I have portrayed (however indirectly) and wish to do better. I was hoping to get some tips on how to responsibly explore and portray cultures other than my own. Unfortunately, I didn’t really learn that. The panel was chiefly concerned with exclamations that appropriation is a problem (which I knew) and that publishers and gatekeepers have a lot of responsibility in giving persons of color greater voice (which, while true, wasn’t especially helpful for authors trying not to be exploitative). The general advice was to do your research and tell stories that do other cultures “well.” While I applaud the sentiment, such advice was sufficiently vague as to be practically useless.

Panel #2 – Religions of the African Diaspora: Beyond Zombies, Ancestors, and Giant Apes

This panel, made up almost entirely of African American academics and authors, was intended to discuss the vast array of African religions and discuss how to portray them in fiction. This, as it happened, wound up being mostly a panel about cultural appropriation, however it was much more useful and concrete from an author’s perspective. Panelists pointed out the hypocrisy of European views of Voudoun (“voodoo”), for instance, which is portrayed as a wicked blood magic when, at the same time, the Christian church frequently displays a corpse (the crucifix) and engages in blood magic itself (the Eucharist). It is not the ritual of voudoun that is frightening to a white audience, it is the fact that it is black people worshiping.

The panel was comprised of a lot of observations like this, demonstrating how so much history goes unresearched and  unknown because of accepted cultural and racial biases. It did a good job of getting me to be aware of those biases in myself and give me places to look to dispel them, which made it a lot better (in my opinion) than the previous panel.

Panel #3 – Ancient Cultures, Modern Sensibilities

This one was all about how and whether to use problematic aspects of ancient cultures (human sacrifice, incest, slavery, etc.) in modern fiction and how to portray characters living in those times as sympathetic even though their behavior doesn’t mesh with modern morality and taboos. It was interesting, but I don’t have any tidy soundbites for you.

Panel #4 – Which Witch is Which? Power and Portrayal of Magic in Fantasy Literature

This panel contrasted fictional witchcraft with historical (and contemporary) practice. It was very interesting, especially from a world-building perspective, as witchcraft has an incredibly varied history, ranging from simply local women practicing traditional medicine to those identified as the political enemies of the church all the way to modern Wicca and other traditions.

Panel #5 – The Secret History of the Hyborian Age

This late-night panel was basically for Conan enthusiasts and fans of Robert E Howard’s work. Panelists – mostly anthropologists and Howard historians – explained new revelations about Howard’s life, his work (and world-building) and his correspondence with HP Lovecraft (which was quite extensive, apparently – those two fought like cats for decades). The basic thesis was that Howard was far more conscientious about his world building than originally thought and was in some ways a precursor to the complex fantasy worlds common to the genre today. Fascinating stuff.

Books and Signings!

This year’s haul.

As usual, the WFC bookbag was amazing. I would post a picture of it, but wordpress is not cooperating and won’t upload any files. It contained such highlights as Martha Wells’ All Systems Red (which I later had signed), Cargill’s Sea of Rust, The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, an issue of F&SF, and a bunch more stuff, too. I didn’t take all of it home (limited suitcase space), but the satchel bag was nice and the haul was probably the best I’ve gotten.

At the mass signing on Friday night, I ran into a lot of friends. I saw Sara Beth Durst with her super-professional spread (her own bookmarks and everything!). I ran into Beth Cato, who was hawking her super cool short fiction anthology Red Dust and Dancing Horses and, as usual, had cookies on-hand. C Stuart Hardwick was there, too, sitting in the corner and pretending not to be a science fiction author among fantasy authors (and, seriously, don’t we all read both?). I met Martha Wells and got her to sign her book, said hi to lots of other people, and overall had a great time.

People!

Beyond the official events, I spent a lot of time meeting new people and catching up with folks I already knew. I went out to dinner with a bunch of folks from my agency, had breakfast with Charlie Finlay of F&SF and a bunch of fellow F&SF authors, reconnected with Scott Anderson of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and met a bunch of folks from Boston, of all places, who happened to be out in San Antonio and also happened to know people from my Writers of the Future year.

As a final note, my friend GV Anderson won the award for best story! How awesome is that?

So, yet another good year for the WFC. Next year is Baltimore, which is a short trip from Boston. I’ll definitely be there – I hope to see you, too!

Novel Revision in Three Metaphors

Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…

Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.

But then…wait. No! Not that one…

And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.

This is not the first time it has fallen.

 

Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…

It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.

And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.

So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.

Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?

But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.

 

Your Novel is Like a Tree

This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.

But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?

And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.

So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.

Perhaps another little cut.

No, still not right.

And so it goes.

Scifi/Fantasy Writing Twitter Chat! Today at 1pm and 8pm!

Hey, the real world is full of bad news today! Need to escape? Come join me and a bunch of other authors to chat about writing. 1pm EST and 8pm EST. The handle is #SFFChat. See you there!

The Folly of Self-Rejection

Fear of rejection is a real, palpable thing. It keeps people from doing all kinds of things. Hell, it kept me from asking a girl out on a date until I was 18. Everybody fears having their hopes dashed.

In the writing biz, this fear is especially pronounced. You pour so much of yourself into your work, you dream of its potential success, but when it comes time to push it out the door, you hesitate. What if nobody wants it? What if they hate it? The pain at having to face the fact that your stories aren’t as wonderful as you hoped is so terrifying, some people never take their stuff out of their drawer/hard drive.

Learn to cope with this. You can do it.

To be a published writer at all, you have to push past this. After a while, you grow accustomed to rejection. It always stings, it’s always a disappointment, but you understand that a rejection is not necessarily a reflection of your self-worth or talent or potential. There are lots and lots of reasons editors reject stories and manuscripts, and not all of them have to do with the quality of said manuscript. Sometimes they just bought something very similar to what you just wrote. Sometimes they can’t accommodate a story of that length. Sometimes they just don’t personally get it, even though some other editor might. And sometimes the story in question, wonderful though it is, is “just not right for this market.”

This is where we fall into the rabbit hole of self-rejection.

Self-rejection is what happens when you assume a market won’t buy a story and so you never send it at all. You look at the kind of stuff they publish, you don’t see how you’d fit (it’s too good, it’s not like your stuff, it’s not the kind of thing you do, etc.), and so you don’t even bother. The thing is, though, that this is routinely a mistake. So long as your story adheres to the submission guidelines (i.e. don’t send a graphic horror piece to a YA scifi market) and it is the best you can do, just send it. I’ve talked to a lot of editors over the years, and all of them tell me one thing: Just send it. Let us do the rejecting. Let us decide if it’s right for us or not.

Now, I know what you’re saying: “You’re kidding me. They want more submissions? Don’t they get, like, hundred and hundreds?”

Well yeah, they do, but they also want good stories. Right now I am assuming that you’re pretty good at this writing thing. You’ve done your homework, you’ve taken your craft seriously, you’ve revised and revised again. You are of professional caliber – you know it in your bones. Put your Impostor Syndrome aside for a second and remind yourself that you’re good enough for this. Assuming this is all true, then you are already stepping ahead of literally thousands of people who have not done their homework and don’t take their craft seriously and who haven’t bothered to revise and revise again. You’re already near the top.

So send it! Go ahead! The worst that you get is a “no.” And a “no” there doesn’t mean a “no” everywhere. Keep submitting. Keep going.

I’m going to tell you a little story here to conclude: About 4 or 5 years ago, when I had only a few semipro sales and not much to show for it, I wrote a short story called “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams.” It’s a post-apocalyptic piece, but an optimistic one. I submitted it to The Writers of the Future Award and it was one of the finalists, but it didn’t win and was never published. Disappointed, but certain that it would sell soon, I started subbing it out.

It was rejected again and again and again and, honestly, I eventually gave up. The only place I hadn’t sent it was Analog Science Fiction and Fact and they seem partial to hard scifi and more classic stuff than this was. I figured they wouldn’t want it.

Fast-foward to this past February, I was going through old stories that hadn’t sold but that I thought were good, just to see if there were any submissions I didn’t make. I came across this one and figured “what the hell” and subbed it to Analog. I guessed it would be a reject – the story just seemed wrong for them – but guess what? It sold! I just signed the contract today, marking my second sale to Analog and my sixth pro-story sale overall. Just goes to show what I know!

And what I didn’t know, you don’t either. Submit!

 

Book Plug: BEFORE WINTER by Nancy K Wallace

Been a little while since I plugged a friend’s book here, so here’s one: my friend Nancy has the conclusion to her fantasy trilogy come out just YESTERDAY! Check it out:

Before Winter, the exciting conclusion to the Wolves of Llisé trilogy, was released in eBook by Harper Voyager, U.K. Sept. 21, 2017. Before Winter, Among Wolves (2015) and Grim Tidings (2016) follow the quest of Devin Roché, a young archivist, who discovers discrepancies in the government Archives which send him in search of the oral Provincial Chronicles which record a very different history.

In the final book in the trilogy, rumors of Devin’s death at his own bodyguard’s hands reach the capital and the Chancellor is detained on fabricated charges of treason, which may cost him his life. In the provinces, people fight to reclaim their history – but the forces against them are powerful: eradicating the Chronicles, assassinating Master Bards, and spreading darkness and death.

Accompanied by a wolf pack and a retinue of their closest allies, Gaspard and Chastel must cross the mountains in a desperate attempt to save the Chancellor before winter makes their passage impossible. But the closer they journey towards Coreé, the clearer it becomes that there are those who don’t intend for them to arrive, at all.

The paperback of Before Winter will be available March 22, 2018. EBooks of both Among Wolves and Grim Tidings are on sale through September 29!

A Duty, Not a Calling

This is going to be one of my relatively rare gaming posts, but I think it also has some pertinence in fiction, so buckle up your Chain Mail +3 Vs Geekery and here we go:

I wanna complain for a while about Clerics in D&D.

Clerics suck.

Okay, okay – that was perhaps too harsh, allow me to rephrase: Clerics’ role in D&D parties is a terrible one and I hate them for it. I’m all for playing devoted followers of this or that god (you won’t hear me complaining about paladins, for instance) and I think a divine-oriented campaign or party or adventure is pretty cool. What I don’t like is all the healing magic.

One of my central tenets of GMing is that players have the most fun when they are the closest to destruction. The corollary to this rule is that players work the absolute hardest they can to avoid being close to destruction. This central paradox constitutes the GM’s primary obstacle to creating a fulfilling and sensational adventure. You want to press them, make them desperate, force them to come up with the most outlandish and riskiest possible solution to their problems while, at the same time, they are working feverishly to prevent that from ever happening.

It would be this, every time, all the time.

If the players of the world had their way, every dungeon crawl would be a methodical slog in which everyone left with approximately the same hit points they had when they went in. They would win every combat by a country mile. They would save the day with effortless flair and exact revenge on their enemies exactly 24 hours after being wronged. And then gaming would be (and sometimes is) terribly, terribly boring.

The cleric aids and abets this goal of the players. Work really hard to get them desperate and clawing for supplies? The cleric’s gods waves away their exhaustion and heals their injuries. Blind a guy? The cleric’s gods give him back his sight. Kill a PC in an earth-shattering climax? The players are only a brief prayer session away from getting the dead guy right back.

Players love clerics. They love them to the point where, when a D&D party is forming and everybody is making their characters, there’s always somebody who looks around the table and asks “so…which one of us is gonna be the healer?”

Now, whenever this is said, I always (always) say “you don’t need a healer to be an effective team” or “sometimes it’s more fun to not have a healer.”

They never, ever believe me. Not once in 25 years of GMing.

And the real tragedy of it all is that, frequently, nobody really wants to be a healer. They’d much rather be a wizard or a rogue or a paladin or something. They had this cool idea for a halfling barbarian and then they looked around a realized they wouldn’t have anybody throwing healing spells and shrugged and said “well, all right – I guess I’ll be some guy with a bald head and a mace.” This is so, so sad. You’ve got this group of players who “take one for the team” so they can play a character class that actively reduces the chances of things ever getting interesting. 

And then, just when things were getting interesting…

Now, I should point out that there are exceptions to this. There are players who cook up interesting cleric characters and play them in an interesting way (I just ran a campaign with a viking-esque tempest cleric who was pretty cool, it must be said), but these I’ve found to be in the minority. Instead of playing their hearts (and thereby being really, really invested), they play cautiously, making sure to heal up everybody before they get into a scrap, making sure they’re there to prevent anything dire from really happening.

As long as the cleric has spell slots, you are working with a net. As long as you are working with a net, things don’t get “real” (as the kids say). If all the damage you have sustained can be waved away, why were you scared of being gored by that minotaur in the first place? When you play a game like D&D strategically, you can very easily kill the drama. At minimum, you make it way, waaay more difficult for the DM to present you with challenges that test your ingenuity. And challenges that test your ingenuity are the things that you wind up telling stories about later – the sessions you remember forever and which you identify with the most excitement.

There is an analog here in writing, too. Beyond simply healing magic, you need to be cognizant of consequences in your fiction. You need to make sure that the danger is real and that your protagonists don’t deal with it too easily. You need to yank their safety nets away so the audience is hanging on the edge of their seats. So, if you do have world with magical healing, you need to make sure it is associated with the proper sets of complications and consequences that make things interesting. In my Saga of the Redeemed, for instance, I have Tyvian saddled with the Iron Ring, which has very, very potent powers of rejuvenation and endurance associated with it, but that power comes with strings attached (Tyvian’s behavior) and has a variety of costs. Even when he does heal people with it, it creates problems more than it solves them.

Now, such dramatic flourishes are difficult to accomplish in an RPG, but one thing is pretty easy: next time somebody asks who is going to be a healer, volunteer.

Then don’t.

Make yourself a Trickster Cleric with NO healing magic.
Make a rogue who practices quack medicine.

Make a druid who specializes in health food (more goodberries, anybody?).

Go into battle without a cleric, and trust the GM and your fellow players to come up with some seriously memorable adventures that won’t be easy, but will be a hell of a lot of fun.