Author Archives: aahabershaw
It’s been a long time since I’ve waxed poetic about the various brilliant and talented players who have participated in my RPG campaigns and the downright awesome characters they’ve created, so I figured it was high time for a post.
Last year, I ran a campaign of 5th Edition D&D for high-level characters (all PCs started at 12th level). As I described in this post about the set-up for the campaign, I devoted significant time to make sure all the players felt as though their party had been adventuring together for ages and we collectively built for them an in-depth backstory. Since the basic concept behind the campaign was to simulate a “getting the old band back together” kind of thing, I wanted there to be history that the players could draw upon and that would make them look (and feel) super cool. I don’t mind saying that this campaign was a wild, wild success – one of the best I’ve ever run – and the reason why has relatively little to do with me and everything to do with the choices the players made during character creation and during the campaign itself.
They called themselves the Thorns.
Recruited by the radical Interventionist cleric of Rao (god of diplomacy, peace, and justice), Thister Amberlee, she was the Princess Leia to their Han/Chewie/Luke/Lando. The Church of Rao, you see, doesn’t really like to make trouble – they want everyone to be friends. The ruling clerical faction – called the Isolationists – took a very hands-off policy, advocating soft power over hard. The Interventionists, like Thister, felt that was short sighted – there was no negotiating with death cultists and tyrants, with rampaging giants and the restless dead. So, against the wishes of the establishment, she recruited her own group of adventurers to help her go around and right wrongs and bring justice to the unjust. Essentially, Greyhawk’s version of the A-Team.
They became legends, these heroes. Treasure and glory and titles were heaped upon their shoulders. I was going to start them about ten years after the party had a parting of the ways and that something was going to bring them back together. I gave them three character generation stipulations:
- They would start 12th level and have access to a variety of magic items, followers, and other stuff at the start.
- They could not have an evil alignment.
- Despite everything, they loved and trusted Thister Amberlee with their lives.
Now, this could have easily blown up in my face. Characters this powerful can do a LOT of damage and everyone knows how weak alignment and character backstory can be once the dice start hitting the table. One of the first plot points was that Thister had gone missing – kidnapped or possible dead – and she had left a secret message telling them they had much more important problems than finding her: they needed to save the world.
My second commandment for TTRPG players is called “buy-in.” It’s the idea that a good player will not only want to play in the world and style that the GM creates, but also that they will actively contribute and heighten those ideas to make them more fun. With this set-up, and given their power, the Thorns could have easily paid lip-service to the idea of helping Thister (or saving the world) and gone off to do their own thing. They could have put a torpedo straight through this whole campaign and become pirates or slave-traders or conquered a small country of their own or something. But instead, the bought-in hard.
First there was Miles Maywater, the assassin, known as the Hound of Veluna – slayer of tyrants, bane to the wicked. A prickly, analytical man with a monastic style, he was always the dispassionate one, arguing for the most sensible and practical course of action. Thister was a respected colleague and sister within the Rao faith, in whom he had the greatest confidence.
His foil was Faison Sharpe, the tiefling valor-bard, known to all as The Friendly Fiend, who loved Thister with all his heart (though she was never really romantically interested in him). A saloon owner and braggart (and also bastard son of none other than the Dark Prince Grazz’t himself), Sharpe wore his heart on his sleeve and thought with his passions not his brains. He preferred bold, heroic action and wild acts of daring. He and Miles fought constantly, but they also always bailed each other out of danger when the chips were down. One of the great moments of the campaign was when Miles was on the brink of death and all the other party members were gone and Miles had to figure out what to do with a terrible secret, the first thing he did was center himself, look down at his feet, and say “What would Miles do? What would Miles do?” It was beautiful, trust me.
Often in Sharpe’s corner was Snell, the Infernal-pact Warlock, sworn to serve Dispater, Lord of the Infernal City of Dis. Known as the Keeper of Secrets and also given the moniker the Cursed, it was Thister that saved him from slavery and always treated him as an equal which earned her is vicious, undying loyalty (he was Lawful Neutral). Snell was full of doubts where the others were confident, but he was integral to everything going on. It was, after all, Dispater, who kidnapped Thister leading him to eventually decide to betray his own patron (and lose his powers) to tell his friends how to save her. Then we got to watch him manipulate a series of imps and hellish denizens to legally box Dispater into having to transfer his contract to one of his fiendish rivals – Mephistopheles.
Rounding out the cast was the grim and taciturn Severus, Ranger and Knight of the High Forest, known as the Manhunter. Famed tracker, tactician, and paranoid loner, Severus was always the first into the fray but was also the one who most often gloomy about their chances for survival.
Without their grade-A roleplaying and true devotion to the campaign’s story, the campaign could have easily devolved into rote encounters. But, by playing up their flaws and tensions between one another, by voluntarily splitting the party at critical junctures, and by acting out a role rather than acting as a piece on a gameboard, we had truly, truly ridiculous fun. The stories of their adventures could fill a book quite easily, so I won’t relate them all here, but these characters did it all and did it with flair. I felt like I was along for the ride, trying to keep up with them, but they were running with a ball that I gave them and were making it into something special I could not have made on my own. For that reason, all four of these rate among my favorite PCs of all time. Thanks, guys.
I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.
The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make
any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:
In Rise of Skywalker
- The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
- The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
- Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
- The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
- The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
- Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.
In Lost in Space
- Sailboats don’t work like that.
- Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
- Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
- What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
- You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
- Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
- What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
- So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!
Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”
And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?
In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.
Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.
See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.
That’s right, I said it.
You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.
You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.
You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!
Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!
The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.
Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.
Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?
Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.
Great news! My short story “Three Gowns for Clara” (the tale of Cinderella from the POV of a local seamstress) is out now in the January/February issue of F&SF. I’m very proud of this story – I think it is some of my best work yet – and I encourage you all to check it out! You can subscribe to F&SF via the link I just put there or find the issue on newsstands (assuming newsstands are still a thing somewhere).
In other news, I’m going to be attending Boskone this February 14th-16th in Boston. I’m going to be on a lot of panels on Friday and Saturday and I’ll have a reading somewhere in there, too, and I’d love to see you! Come and check it out – Boskone is a great con and I look forward to it every year. You can see a mini-interview with me on their website here and see what my opinions are on Inspector Gadget’s hat (spoiler: they are unreservedly positive).
Finally, I continue pressing on with the novel writing, and hopefully I’ll have a draft of one to my agent by the end of the week. Short fiction writing also continues at its typical slow, slow pace. If I have any further news, you’ll be hearing it here first!
I now return you to your regularly scheduled Monday.
Because I am known to write battle reports from time to time – chiefly for Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar and on other websites – and I have now played The World’s Biggest Board Game, Twilight Imperium, twice now, I have elected to write a report of my last game of this huge, huge undertaking. If you aren’t a gaming fan, this may grant some insight one man’s obsession with narrative and with gaming. Or maybe it will be monumentally boring.
In any event, one of the things I like about games is the stories they create. I’m obsessed with storytelling, as you may guess, and games that tell stories are the very best kind. So, here I am taking my this 9 hour boardgame and turning it into a story. I will be eliding certain details of the game in the interest of streamlining and also because so many damned things happen in this game that I couldn’t possibly keep track of everything. But it will all make some sense in the end.
The Imperial Throne on Mechatol Rex stands empty, vacant these many, many years. Only the Winnaran Custodians sit in the Eternal City, maintaining the ancient mechanisms of rule for the day when they are utilized again. From an age of civil strife have emerged new aspirants to the throne…or, perhaps not so new.
The Kingdom of Xxcha (Played by John)
The peaceful reptilian species, learned and wise, are nestled in the galactic southwest upon the lush planets of Archon Ren and Archon Tau.
The Barony of Letnev (Played by Brandon)
Deep beneath the surface of the sunless world, Arc Prime, the ruthless Baron plots with his ministers to restore the Letnev to glory. Situated in the galactic northwest, they rest at the other side of a series of lush and fertile systems, ripe for plucking.
The Yssaril Tribes (Played by Dave)
A newcomer to the galactic stage, the once primitive arboreal species known as the Yssaril (think “Ewoks, only less fuzzy”) have emerged from their jungle homeworld in the galactic north having appropriated the technology of their would-be colonizers and with a huge network of spies and assassins bent upon ensuring they will never be subjugated again.
The Emirates of the Hacan (Played by Adam)
Their cluster of homeworlds in the galactic northeast relatively bereft of resources, the noble and leonine Hacan are a species of merchants and traders, known throughout the galaxy. They see it as natural that they should be the kingmakers in the Empire, as it is only through their efforts that civilization has persisted in these dark times.
The Mentak Coalition (Played by Fisher)
A loose confederation of pirates, privateers, and renegades based on the rugged Moll Primus in the galactic southeast, they are surrounded by asteroid fields and vast areas of empty space and uninhabitable, worthless rocks. They are free, though, and unwilling to bend the knee to anyone.
The L1Z1X Mind-net (Played by Myself)
Little do these newcomers know that the descendants of the last Imperial Dynasty – the Lazax – have re-emerged. But not as they were – no – as something far worse. Cybernetic beings of cold logic and long-burning hatred, they see the galaxy as theirs by right. Hailing from their secret planet in the galactic south, known only as 0.0.0, their arrival is a surprise to the other species, and one the L1Z1X plan on capitalizing upon.
The early objectives in the game were to conquer four planets of the same type and develop a variety of technologies, both ship-upgrades and pure tech. I, as the L1Z1X Mindnet, was fortunate enough to be in proximity to a LOT of cultural planets. The trouble was a lot of them were in the sphere of the peaceful, contemplative Xxcha. A deal was struck early on–we exchanged promissory notes for future ceasefires, to ensure a demilitarized border, and split the planets equally between us. My cyborg minions expanded quickly, conquering five planets in short order.
The other civilizations in the galaxy followed suit, to varying degrees of success, expanding their borders. The Hacan and the Yssaril, while trying to make a similar accord as the one between myself and the Xxcha, tried to split two planets in the Arrian/Meer system, which was a diplomatic arrangement that would cause both powers no end of logistical problems as they tried to keep their navies from shooting at each other (better, I think, to start shooting and have done).
In the West, the Letnev stumbled on early objectives, starting a failed border skirmish with the Xxcha and having planets annexed out from under its heel by careful peace treaties pursued by the patient, reptillian Xxcha. It played a variety of action cards dispatching emissaries to the Custodians of Mechatol Rex, feeling out the idea of the Baron of Letnev one day occupying the Imperial Throne.
Up until this turn, the galaxy was fairly peaceful, despite the L1Z1X developing improvements to its Super-Dreadnought technology (the much-feared Super Super Dreadnought!). That changed, however, when the Yssaril made the bold move to land troops on Mechatol Rex and claim the planet for their own!
The diminutive forest dwellers were welcomed as heroes for a new era as they marched through the grand Imperial square and the ambassador, clad in loincloth, climbed the podium and uttered the first words the people of the Imperial planet would hear from their new rulers: “YUB YUB!” It echoed from the stately facades of the buildings, and the revelry went long into the night (reports of cannibalism and playing makeshift xylophones out of their enemy’s helmets is unconfirmed).
In response to this insult (a slave species? Claiming the Senate? Outrageous!), the Baron of Letnev sent a punitive fleet to the Tar’Mann system, wiping out the Yssaril garrison there and claiming the planet. This was followed by the grand armada of the L1Z1X, led by its flagship, the 0.0.1, blockading the space around Mechatol Rex by destroying that Yssaril fleet. Alas, their moment in the sun was fleeting, at best, and never again did the Yssaril reach such heights.
What was strange was that the L1Z1X did not invade Mechatol Rex. In their (my) arrogance, I considered all other civilizations a minor threat, at best, and claiming their toy – the Imperial Planet my people had abandoned so long ago – held little interest for them. This was short sighted. Nevertheless, the Grand Armada invaded planets belonging to the Hacan next, crushing their fleets and claiming a series of planets good for mining rare minerals needed to sustain the L1Z1X war machine.
This new war was accompanied by a new and strange alliance. The Mentak Alliance, long a thorn in the side of Hacan trading interests (and stealing trade goods from them multiple times every single turn), made common cause with the sinister L1Z1X Mind-net, striking at Hacan outer systems in exchange for access to specific world needed to improve their technology. The L1Z1X, seeing the space pirates as a useful nuisance, used the distraction they caused to extort their home system with a ceasefire promissory note. This was again unwise – better I had negotiated for the Support the Throne note for a free victory point, but oh well.
The Hacan made an attempt at a counter-attack before this happened, trying to invade the Lodor system, only to have it smashed (at great cost to the L1Z1X fleet), exiling a lone dreadnought to the asteroid-strewn badlands around hostile Mentak space.
Meanwhile, in the galactic west, the Letnev and Xxcha, reaching an uneasy truce, made steady gains in material, technology, and political power.
The Mindnet Wars served to exhaust the Hacan, the Mentak Alliance, and even the mighty L1Z1X itself. The war essentially ended with the Hacan conquering the Mentak homeworld of Moll Primus and the L1Z1X, no longer interested in the Hacan or the pirates, now that the minerals had been extracted, abandoning the two minor powers to their fates.
In that time, however, the Letnev had grown steadily more powerful. With a huge industrial base to draw from, a steady truce with the Xxcha, and the Yssaril too weak to interfere directly (despite their many legislative riders and political ploys on Mechatol Rex earning them resources), the Barony seized control of the Imperial Planet and essentially controlled the Senate for some time, with no other power trying to dislodge them.
The L1Z1X took action against them in the Tar’Mann system, destroying a Letnev Fleet and claiming the planet. In their arrogance, however, the cyborgs had not fully reckoned on the Letnev’s strength – all the move did was anger the mighty Baron. Now, the formerly floundering barony was the most powerful civilization in the galaxy, amassing accolades and prophesies from the halls of Mechatol Rex, which they had established as their own capital.
In their anger, they marshaled the forces of the senate and their power as Speaker to have the L1Z1X ambassador publicly executed (and I lost all my action cards). The, as the Mind-net plotted its revenge, the Xxcha violated the ceasefire at Resculon – war, now on two fronts! And no mere merchants or pirates these, either – the hardened, sophisticated fleets of Letnev and Xxcha, bolstered by years of prosperity and steady growth.
At this point, lagging on victory points and spread too thin, the mind-net (i.e. myself) realized that it had left itself far, far too vulnerable. The Letnev struck, driving my forces out of Thibah, and my counter attack destroyed their fleet there, but could not re-take the planet. I needed to weaken the Letnev and keep my ships in range to support my home systems when the Xxcha attacked. So, I gambled everything on one last, big battle – a full invasion of the key Letnev system of Mornar Xuul.
It was my flagship, two super-super dreadnoughts, a carrier full of infantry, and four fighters against a Letnev dreadnought, two destroyers, and three fighters. My fighters were wiped out by the destroyers in the initial volley, while I had to work through his own to get at his capital ships. Despite being outnumbered, I destroyed the Letnev fleet, but not before a lucky shot from a Letnev Dreadnought destroyed my flagship and, thereby, wiped out my own bid for hegemony.
The Xxcha marshaled themselves for a last-turn invasion of my homeworld while the Mentak Alliance won a stunning victory over the Hacan to reclaim their own homeworld. By this time, however, the Letnev were unstoppable. They scored a last 3 victory points in one turn and won the game. The Baron of Letnev was crowned Imperial Emperor, the threat of the L1Z1X was ended, and the Xxcha, seeing the wisdom of peace over warfare, joined the Letnev in Mechatol Rex as advisors.
This is a huge, huge game and so I can’t possibly comment on every little decision made. I can, however, theorize what I did right and what I did wrong. Now, I’ve only played the game twice and this is the first time I tried to play aggressively (last time I took the slow-build strategy that the Letnev and Xxcha employed in this game and won as a result). Aggressive play is really difficult, since you have to keep moving around and it is really easy to get spread too thin and to find yourself working too hard for VPs. I think threats and extortion was the way to go, but in the future I’ll be sure to extort Support the Throne cards instead of Ceasefires.
Not landing on Mechatol Rex was a mistake. It represents a potential 1VP per turn, is way easier to defend than other distant systems, and I should have taken it when I had the chance. I also should have tried harder to become Speaker and, therefore, possibly grab the Leadership Strategy card. I was working with a dearth of command tokens for most of the game, hence why my forces were so bare by the end.
Anyway, despite 8.5 hours of gameplay, we all had a great time and we look forward to doing it again soon. Except I probably won’t be writing too many reports. This is way harder to keep straight in your head when compared to a mere game of Warhammer 40K.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who came out to play! I now return you to your regularly scheduled musings on fantasy, scifi, and writing.
Yes, yes – I’m still alive. Been over a month since I posted on this blog, but that’s been because life has a way of keeping me busy. I hope you haven’t missed me.
No, that’s not true – I hope you’ve missed me terribly and this blog post comes and an enormous relief.
I’ve only got a spare few minutes, so naturally what I want to talk about is something larger than can be contained in so short a post, because that’s how I roll.
I want to talk about character.
The other day, I was being interviewed by a grad student who asked me, essentially, how do I create characters in my stories/novels. This is a good question – a significantly better question than the usual “where do you get your ideas” thing – and part of what made it good is that I hadn’t really thought through it in any kind of concrete way and this question forced me to, all at once.
My answer went like this: at the start, every character is built around a core concept (or high concept, if you like). This is the central, fundamental trait that defines most of their behavior. So, by way of example, I used Fred Rodgers (who is a real person, not a character, but bear with me). Mr. Rodgers’s core concept is that he wishes to see the best in all people and wishes to be kind and understanding to all, and so create a more compassionate and loving world. This desire to be compassionate and kind drove every aspect of what he did – it is central and indispensable. To use another example, Tyvian Reldamar is fundamentally selfish and cynical – he does not believe that true “goodness” exists, and therefore he sees no reason to aspire to it.
The core concept is important, but it is only the starting point. You must then layer a character’s experiences around that concept. What happened to them to make them that way? Once that way, what actions did they take in accordance with their core concept and how did that shape them further. If the core concept is the mold (or the outline), the experiences give that outline depth and contour. Fred Rodgers created his show; Tyvian abandoned his family to become a pirate. Because Mr. Rodgers created his show, he became a beloved personage and found himself an essential part of millions of children’s lives; because Tyvian became a pirate, he became part of a criminal underworld which he later mastered.
But of course we are not done. The next thing – and this is possible the strangest step of all – is to ask yourself under what circumstances will that character violate their core concept. Because, you see, none of us wholly live up to who we think we are. Smart people do dumb things, angry people can be kind, and the cruel and hateful can still love. Mr. Rodgers, for instance, sued the KKK when they aired ads using his his image. It actually made him – him – mad. You can watch the interview where he talks about this: there he is, the King of Kind, his lips pressed tightly together and his syllables clipped, because nothing (nothing) makes Fred Rodgers angry except hatred. Likewise, there is Tyvian, the world exploding around him at the start of The Oldest Trick, and what does he do? Takes a second to save the life of a worthless street kid. Why? Even he doesn’t know. In fact, it take the guy a full four books to figure out the answer to that question.
This moments – what I will term the character’s moral limitations – are super important to making a character that people love and one that resonates with readers. These moments are immensely illuminating as character building moments, since all the best and most interesting characters must be capable of change, and we crave that particular quality in every character we encounter.
I’d also, as a brief gaming aside, that the same exact thing goes for Alignments in D&D and other such character-building tools in other RPGs. People aren’t robots – they can and do violate their core beliefs all the time. It’s the circumstances under which they do so and why that make them human and, therefore, relatable and interesting.
Anyway, that’s my .02. Keep watching the Mandalorian everyone. I’m sure I’ll get Disney+ soon enough and then I’ll see what all the fuss is about.
Dungeons and Dragons has been around a long time. I’ve been playing it pretty close to 30 years myself, and in that time the game has changed a lot. So have I, as it happens.
Recently I got into something of a Twitter argument with a few people who started throwing around comments that implied that they believed that there was one, “true” Dungeons and Dragons – the D&D of their youth, unsurprisingly enough – and that more (ahem) modern adherents to the game were some kind of fallen, degenerate subspecies. The word “pretentious” was bandied about, I was accused of being a genius (presumably as an insult somehow) and my players accused of being “method actors.” One of my favorite comments was that anyone who engages in a “Session 0” (i.e. a session wherein everyone makes characters and discusses how the game is going to run) doesn’t actually want to play D&D.
Now, I didn’t really “argue” with these people, as very few of them were engaging in good faith discussion anyway. I did exchange comments with those that seemed interested in sharing their experiences, and most of these centered around a “session 0” as a concept. The precise nature of their specific critiques is not really the point of this post, though. What I mostly took away from the “conversation” at large is that these people have a vested interest in defining and controlling who gets to play D&D and how. Bereft of this control (and, indeed, feeling abandoned by the designers of the game itself), they play gatekeeper with all the toxic enthusiasm of a dude at ComicCon challenging every woman they see on the minutiae of their cosplay. Not a good look.
But okay, let’s play the game they set out. Let’s define what Dungeons and Dragons ought to be – in other words, what a game like this really does best and what uses the rules and design of the game to its fullest potential. Now, before we begin, I hasten to point out that one of the things this game does better than almost any other is the fact that it can be just about anything you want it to – play it your way, and hang the critics – but if you insist on sneering at people who do it differently than you do, well…
The game, as it was originally designed by Gygax, was intended to be a kind of tactical, resource management exercise. This it has in common with a lot of hyper-complicated wargames of the era (the 1970s) and, as this, it is pretty close to unplayably dense and non-user friendly. There wasn’t a lot of player agency in a lot of areas of the game, the gameplay was wildly (almost improbably) unbalanced, and the whole thing was an organizational mess.
There was something there, though. Not the tactics or the gameplay – those were generally pretty awful, palatable only to those willing to hack and slash their way through Gygax’s dense rulebooks – but the idea of players inhabiting characters set loose in a fanciful world. That idea, more than anything else, had legs. It is, I would argue, the entire reason D&D didn’t vanish in a puff of obscurity, but found a small audience (ones willing to sweat the ceaseless fiddly details of the game system) that kept it alive.
It wasn’t the dice (lots of games used dice), it wasn’t the tactics (lots of games did that, too, and often better). It was character.
AD&D, 2nd Edition
I entered the gaming scene at the tail-end of 1st edition’s tenure. I owned a copy of 2nd Ed’s first printing (still do, in fact – it’s on a shelf behind me as I write this) and was running games as early as 7th grade (1990, for those of you keeping score). I loved 2nd Ed with all my heart back then. I owned every rulebook, every expansion. I could quote those pages to you by heart and can still calculate THAC0 in my head to this day.
But guys, this game – as a game – sucked.
The rules, while more streamlined, were still impenetrable and pointlessly detailed. For example, the Strength attribute, for no reason whatsoever other than the terrible balance of the game as a whole, did not just have the regular range of 3-18 for PCs, but a whole other sub-range of 18s, based on a percentile system, accessible only to fighting classes. So, you didn’t just have an 18 Strength, no, you had an 18/63! Yes, this is exactly as stupid as this sounds.
Crap like that was everywhere in the game; d100 tables were a dime a dozen in that book, the classes were wildly unbalanced still, 1st level characters were impotent dweebs, whereas a 7th level mage (thanks to a little spell called Stoneskin) became virtually unkillable by anything that couldn’t hit them a hundred times before they ran out of spell slots.
So, yeah, the game part of this RPG was still a garbage dump. However, this edition of the game was much, much more successful than its predecessor. What made it so?
This was the edition where we got all the glorious settings that still fire the imagination today. We had Greyhawk’s From the Ashes setting, which is one of the best ever. There was Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Spelljammer (medieval combat in SPACE!), Planescape, and on and on. Every one of them was jam-packed full of story leads, adventure plots, characters, and wild setting concepts (the Sea of Silt, anyone? Wildspace?). There were tie-in novels that fleshed out the universe and made kids want to live in them. There was some seriously, seriously badass art from guys like Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore that sucked you right in.
And again, like the editions before, kids like me put up with the bad rules to play in the places with the cool storylines, where we could embody the characters of our dreams and do cool, cool stuff. And yeah, it often fell short of our imagination, but so what? We kept trying – we (a lot of us anyway) saw something beyond what the game was offering and we tried to make it real.
D&D, 3rd Edition
3rd Ed represented a massive leap forward in gameplay. The rules, for once, made a kind of unified sense. A lot of the silly tables and sub-tables and sub-sub-tables went away. The classes remained pretty terribly unbalanced, but a conscientious effort was made to take out the silly stuff and replace it with normal, usable rules.
The game was also terrifically boring.
See, the other thing they lost by stripping out the loose wiring in 2nd Ed was all the quirkiness that made it interesting. Chief among those things was a lot of the story. All those cool settings I mentioned? They almost entirely disappeared. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk kept cooking, but the novel tie-ins vanished even from those (not that there ever were too many Greyhawk novels). They made the game generic for the sake of streamlining which, by itself, wasn’t really enough to keep D&D solvent.
This is so much the case that TSR actually went belly-up in this edition. They weren’t the only RPG on the shelves these days, and competition from games with more evocative settings and more story-friendly rule-sets gradually killed them in a shrinking market. See, if all you wanted out of a game was a tactical resource management enterprise, video games could do that for you by the 1990s and often way better than D&D could. Most hack-and-slashers drifted away from the game, drawn by the shiny vistas of Everquest of a romp through Neverwinter Nights.
What kept D&D going through these years was that it remained (and indeed was) incredibly flexible and could be molded to work with almost any setting or story. Then, as before, the real magic wasn’t in how the dice were rolled or the stats on the sheet, but how those tools could be leveraged to telling cool stories and imagining fantastic adventures.
D&D, 4th Edition
Wizards of the Coast, riding a wave made by the success of their collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (itself a superior tactical experience to anything D&D has ever done), bought the rights to D&D in 1997 and spent some time designing their own take on the game. They released a kind of “patch” to 3rd (3.5) designed to inject some vibrancy and renewed balance to the game which, to some extent, worked. Spellcasters, long at the bottom of the heap, got better. Things worked pretty well. It was still dull, though.
So WoTC released 4th Edition in 2008. It had the distinction of being the most balanced and most tactically interesting version of D&D ever. It involved a grid-map and miniatures and clear and easy-to-understand rules that were also tactically complex. The game had depth as a sort of small-party wargame.
It was also a complete flop.
It just wasn’t that popular. It didn’t catch on. And why?
The game was completely linear in design. It was almost impossible to make it work in the same loose framework of “theater of mind meets dice” that it had used since its inception. You just couldn’t tell the kind of stories you wanted to and, what’s more, the rigid nature of the combat system made encounters difficult to improvise – if not impossibly so! Players, simply put, didn’t want that.
WoTC, cognizant of this, didn’t support 4th very much and very quickly got to developing the latest edition:
D&D 5th Edition
5th Edition takes what 2nd Ed did right (intense setting details, story-focused gameplay) and replaced a better, even more accessible version of 3rd Edition’s mechanics. It has better balance than any other edition since 4th, but it has none of that editions board-game sensibilities. The game is the first one actively designed to encourage storytelling and emotional engagement with characters. It does so in simple, basic ways that are easy to grasp and play with. 5th, while not perfect of course, is the closest the game has ever gotten to the game we all thought it could be when we were teenagers. How do I know this?
Well, it is now explosively popular. Barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The rules are vastly easier to grasp and the general de-emphasis on unforgiving tactical play has made the game much more accessible to people who don’t really want to study a rule manual all the time, but very much would like to pretend to be a dwarf and slay goblins for a few hours every week or so. It’s fun!
Even for those who sneer at it, 5th also makes it fairly easy to modify (the DMG is pretty much a book full of nothing but that) and it certainly can simulate the soulless 10-hour dungeoneering sessions of your youth where a half dozen of you die and everyone goes home happy having never engaged in anything resembling a plot.
For the majority of the rest of us, though, we are having so much damned fun talking about our character relationships and casting Prestidigitation just for giggles that we honestly don’t miss the days where the rules were awkward and our characters prepared to die at any fickle swing of chance. If we wanted that, we’d be playing Gloomhaven, which for my money is vastly, vastly superior to D&D for that kind of gameplay and it doesn’t even require a GM and zero (zero) time required to make characters.
What I’m ultimately saying here is this: D&D is for anyone who wants to play, however they want to play it. If you want to run around saying there’s one true D&D, though, it’s the storytellers who win that contest. I would contend that those who insist the dungeon crawls of 1st Edition were the “true” D&D basically missed the room for the wallpaper – it could and was always supposed to be so much more than that. The success and failure of every edition since then has shown that to be true.
To crow and bleat about how much you hate “pretentious” “storygamers” is like being the guy who goes into a steakhouse and complains his chicken is dry. “This used to be a chicken place!” he yells, banging his fists on the table. Meanwhile the rest of us are eating ribeyes and wondering what the hell that guy’s problem is.
So, when I tell people I write novels, one of the most common responses I get is “are they available in audio book?” My answer, sadly, has been a reluctant “no.”
That is, until NOW!
Well, no, not exactly now – soon.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of my agency, I’ve secured a deal with Graphic Audio to produce The Saga of the Redeemed in audio format! And not only audio format – Graphic Audio basically does audio dramas. Full cast recording! Sound effects! Music! It all sounds so, so cool. I absolutely cannot wait to hear Tyvian, Artus, Myreon, and Hool (and Sahand! And Lyrelle!) come to life!
Anyway, it’s early days yet – there’s no set release date, though it seems very possible part one will be available sometime in 2020 – and I’ll be certain to keep you posted on how things develop. But I wanted to let you all know, because it’s just SO AWESOME!
Soon, none of you will have any excuse not to read my books. None. They’re going to be like little movies that can play in your brain, and who doesn’t love that!
Anyway, back to work. Talk to you later!
One of my kids is in a youth soccer league. She…isn’t good. She doesn’t pay attention, she rarely bothers kicking the ball, and while she can run with the best of them, she doesn’t really have any plan regarding what she should do when she gets to where she’s running. She is six years old, though, so none of this should really be a surprise. Her “skills” put her on par with about two-thirds of her teammates, most of whom run around the field in a loose pack and look for an opportunity to kick the ball in a direction (any direction), but don’t really want to get to close to anybody else or do anything too aggressive. Because of course they don’t – they’re little children.
This season, her coach is a guy who takes all this a bit too seriously. I mean, he isn’t hurling abuse at his players or anything truly unsportsmanlike, but you can tell he is genuinely distressed at the “level of play” (and I use that term well aware of how absurd it is) he’s seeing out there on the field. The other day, he gave me advice for improving my daughter’s “skills” for “home practice.”
“She needs to talk less and hustle more,” he said to me. “She needs to pay better attention.”
My answer was something along the lines of “my daughter is a bit of a daydreamer, so she doesn’t always pay attention.” I said it with a shrug and a chuckle, trying to make clear that I was unconcerned with the fact my kid sucks at soccer and that my interest in arranging “home practice” was effectively zero. I mean, if my six year old expressed any interest in practicing soccer at home, sure, sure – but she does not. Honestly, my wife and I were mystified that she wanted to play at all this season.
Picking up on my implications, the soccer coach grimaced and said, “Yeah, well, it’s all just fun at this age.”
That has stuck with me the last few weeks. Particularly the last part: at this age. I wanted to ask him at what age does soccer cease to be fun. When does this game stop being about enjoying yourself with friends and rivals as you kick a ball around a field on a sunny day and start being about something else? And what else is that? Money? Prestige? Fame? And even supposing soccer begins being about those things at some point, why should it ever stop being fun?
There are things in this world that are not necessarily enjoyable but are worthwhile in and of themselves. Nobody likes much of the work they need to do on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you should stop grocery shopping or going to the doctor or bathing your kids. I don’t think there’s anybody out there saying you absolutely have to enjoy working out or dieting, but those things have results that we find satisfactory regardless of what we had to do achieve them.
But games? Games aren’t like that. There is nothing (nothing) so important about any sport or game that would mean you should continue to pursue it despite hating every second of it. I’d even go so far as to include art in this category. If you don’t enjoy some kind of art? Don’t consume it. If you hate a particular kind of story? Don’t write it. Unlike eating and sleeping and earning your daily wage, you don’t have do this.
The arts and entertainment world (of which sports are part) are important to our lives, but we get to choose how and when and in what proportion we consume them. We also get to choose how and when and if we participate in or create them. The experience itself should be enriching, not some ancillary benefit that comes after the fact. The proportion of people who make a full living off of the arts is approximately the same as those who make a living playing sports: the merest fraction of those who do it. You shouldn’t write stories because you think you will be rich or respected one day. Nor should you attend grueling double basketball practices because you think someday you’ll be in the Hall of Fame and it will all be worth it then. No. It has to be worth it now.
If you hate playing baseball, you should quit. If you despise painting, stop. If you are bored by poetry, find something else to read. Don’t let somebody (anybody) brow-beat you into believing your skill at this particular form of art/entertainment is essential for your self-worth or identity, because it isn’t. And anyway, the annals of people who hate playing a sport who then go on to become champions of that sport is a vanishingly small list – even smaller than that sliver of a percentage that go pro. You can’t hate-write a novel (or at least not a good one) because writing requires a kind of self-authenticity that weeds out the posers. When someone says to you “do what you love,” it’s not some kind of aspirational mantra, it’s practical advice.
So, no, my kid isn’t any good at soccer, but as long as she says she has fun doing it, I’ll keep signing her up for this little no-try-out local league. Likewise, so long as I like writing stories and novels, I’ll keep doing that too, no matter how much I suck.
Because where we end up should matter less than how fulfilling we find the journey. It should never stop being something we fundamentally love. If it does, then we are truly lost.
Just this past weekend I had the privilege of playing one of the world’s biggest, best boardgames, the monstrous Twilight Imperium (4th Edition). For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a massive game involving the founding of a new Galactic Empire and the political, military, and economic machinations of the numerous aliens species vying for hegemony. It costs $150 to buy, weighs as much as one of my kids, and takes about 8 hours to play.
But OH MY GOD is it good. So, so engrossing. Just the exact right amount of complexity – at no point was the game tedious or pointlessly fiddly – and even after playing for about 9 hours straight, we all looked around the table at each other and realized we were not actually tired of the game itself. We were tired because it was late, but I, for one, could have sat down happily the next game and played it all over again. I think a lot of my friends felt the same way.
I will decline to summarize the blow-by-blow of the game (though I probably could), but what struck me most about playing it was how the game treated warfare. Now, it just so happens that we drew objectives that weren’t *explicitly* martial – they were mostly technological and political type things – but even with all the more militaristic objectives being drawn, fighting wars in Twilight Imperium (while tons of fun) doesn’t seem to be a great way to win the game. Fleets are expensive to build, both in resources and opportunity cost, and can get destroyed rather quickly. Going to war often doesn’t secure the strategic goals it seems to and, in any case, there are often ways to secure those goals without blowing up your neighbors. This struck me as an immensely curious thing for an ostensible wargame (all those little plastic ships? Yeah, those are for waging interstellar wars.) to include.
But, is it? Twilight Imperium was first published in 1997, but three of its four incarnations have their roots firmly in the 21st century. This is interesting because, well, the history of warfare in the 21st century (and even the late 20th) has not been one of glorious conquest or territorial expansion or even real victory, exactly. War in our era is long, almost interminable. It never seems to achieve what it was meant to (and we wonder whether it actually can or even ever did). When wars happen, we don’t expect a clean resolution. There will be no surrender and not even any declaration – one minute we’re bombing somebody for (reasons) and the next…we aren’t. Did anything change? Not that we can tell.
This is distinct from the military victories of the early 20th century – World Wars that came to thunderous (and bloody and exhausting) conclusions in which the USA was victorious and filled with the optimism and self-righteousness that such victories can cause. From this comes an ocean of games where battle is the inevitable consequence and victory at war the goal. Axis and Allies, Risk, even Diplomacy ask the player to marshal their forces, outwit the enemy, and secure power by naked force and deadly cunning alone. Scorched earth tactics and untrammeled war-mongering are the hallmark of so many games, and I might suggest the appeal of such games is firmly rooted in that 20th century outlook – if we have the brains, the will, and the technology, our armies will secure out goals and benefit our civlization (at the expense of others).
But TI isn’t like that. Indeed, there are lots of games running around these days that reject that principle. Warfare is a regrettable end in Twilight Imperium that may seem like a good plan at first, but then later on, when nothing has improved and nobody has really “won,” you realize how foolish you were. That is, in the end, how I won the game. I didn’t go to war very much at all (only once, when the opportunity was there and my opponent was building Death Stars with abandon) and, while my forces were not the most powerful by far, they were more than sufficient to defend myself and enable me to win a diplomatic and economic victory. Second place came very close using scientific research alone.
If only the real world used such means over and above violence. Then maybe we’d all be better off, yes?
Anyway, this is the stuff I was thinking about while my collectively intelligent tree-aliens slowly gained control of the galaxy.
So, another summer draws to a close. Another fall – my least favorite time of year – looms. Sigh.
There’s a lot of stuff I don’t like about the fall (I’m deathly allergic to most of it, for one thing), but chief among these is the fact that I basically see an end to my dedicated writing time. As a college professor who teaches a lot of freshman composition courses, I have a pretty gigantic workload of student papers to grade and classes to teach and lectures to prep for and so on. I just don’t have the mental real estate to write very much on top of that (though I do a little, it amounts to one writing day a week, and even that is often compromised by my responsibilities). Frankly, reading and grading literally thousands of pages of student work every semester turns my brain to goop and there’s nothing I can do about it.
(and please, SPARE ME the whole “you can just assign less work for them!” comment. Just assume I take my job seriously and what I assign I consider actually instructive. I also don’t find the “throw the papers down the stairs to grade them” thing particularly clever, either.)
Now, if I sound a little salty about this, it’s because I kind of am. Not because I don’t like my job (I actually do, most of the time), but because I always finish every single summer feeling as though I’ve failed as a writer somehow. I look around at all my writing associates who have different work lives than me and a different writing process and know that for the next six or seven months or so they’ll be cheerily writing away and submitting stories and finishing novel drafts and I’ll feel like I’m stuck on the sidelines, unable to compete. And yeah, it’s not a competition – I know this intellectually – but it often feels like a race. A race I’m losing. People are out there living that authorial lifestyle and I just…can’t. I’m watching my friends go on without me.
But that’s all bullshit.
Each summer for the past several years, I have completed a novel draft and revised a separate novel. Each summer I tend to finish a handful of short stories that I then set about submitting for publication. Each summer I seem to publish about 2-3 stories, usually in professional markets. Each year for the past several, I have published a novel. Ordinarily that should (and often is) enough for me to hold at bay the persistent brain weasels that tell me I’m not doing enough or working hard enough.
This summer has been, by my own admittedly unreasonable expectations, not a terribly successful one. Why? Well, I did not finish a complete draft of any particular novel and the revisions I made to another novel have been sent back for more revisions and so I feel like I haven’t completed that, either. Basically, I’ve been beating myself up all month; I feel like a failure. And, just to show you how unreasonable that is, let me list out what I actually wrote and/or published this summer:
- A failed draft (meaning I need to start over again) of a scifi novel (working title The Iterating Assassin): 55,000 words
- An incomplete draft of a humorous urban fantasy novel (working title One Dollar Wishes): 25,000 words
- 1 complete revision of The Day It All Went Sideways (time travel novel): 88,000 words and a second incomplete second revision of same.
- 1 novelette (“Season to Taste”) at 8500 words
- 1 novelette (“Stanley Armageddon”) at 8200 words
- “What the Plague Did to Us” in the July/August Galaxy’s Edge
- “The Masochist’s Assistant” in PodCastle (episode 586) – this a reprint from the story of the same name in F&SF a few years back
- Short story “Three Gowns for Clara” to F&SF
So, okay, that works out to 103,000 new words written, about 100,000 words edited (not counting the number of little rewrites I’ve done of those stories and other things), two things published, and one top-shelf pro sale.
Yeah, and what am I complaining about, exactly?
That’s just it, though – this way I feel, this sinking feeling in my guts that makes me feel like I’m never going to manage to publish something again and nobody in the world is ever going to care – is flagrantly irrational. All writers, no matter where they are in their career, feel this incredible weight of self-doubt each and every day they aren’t writing. And also when they are writing. That’s because this is an uncertain business, one that refuses to conform to regimented schedules and predictable outcomes. It sucks that way.
But, honestly, that’s also what makes it magical. If this shit were easy, everybody would do it. Right?
Anyway, that’s what I tell myself sometimes. I’ll let you know if it ever works.