Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts

This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.

The One True D&D

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…

Early D&D

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.

Better, but not quite there yet.

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?

Story.

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.

And then…

snore…

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

Not an RPG

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?

No story.

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:

Winner

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.

Conclusion

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.

On Loving What You Do

It’s all fun and games until…

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.

Twilight Imperium and the 21st Century View of Warfare

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.

We’re talking *big,* here.

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.

FOMO: Writer’s Edition

So, another summer draws to a close. Another fall – my least favorite time of year – looms. Sigh.

Fear Of Missing Out, for those of you who don’t grok the acronym.

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:

Writing

  • 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

Publications

  • “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

Sales

  • 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.

 

The Ten Commandments of Playing D&D (or any TTRPG)

No matter who you play, play like this.

A while back I posted a list of ten commandments I think all DMs/GMs should follow to run a great game. It occurs to me, though, that while I focus a lot on the GM side of the table when writing about gaming here on this blog, I haven’t really spent much time talking about how to be a good player. I think it’s important that I do so, since the players are responsible for most of what actually happens in a game. The GM, while essential, is the referee and guide, but they absolutely cannot play the game without players and they absolutely cannot run a successful game without the players doing most of the work. If you look at my commandments for GMs, almost all of them are oriented around getting players to trust you and giving players the opportunity to make the game great. It is time, then, that we talk about the other side of the equation.

As mentoned in the other post, I have been playing or running tabletop RPGs for (now) 27 years. I have played or run almost every system you could name, played with scores of different people over the ages, and played in almost every conceivable setting. The rules I set out here are how I try to play a game when I play, and I don’t always live up to them. However, I do think that the better everybody lives up to these statutes, the more fun everyone will have. So, here we go:

#1: Thou Shalt Show Up

Don’t be the person they’re staring at.

The first, the most basic thing you need to do is to be present. Now, when you’re a teenager or even in your twenties and you haven’t got shit else to do, this is a low, low bar – the game is set, you go. As life gets more complicated, though, this gets tougher and tougher. You have a more demanding job. You have kids. You’re married or in a committed relationship that takes up a lot of time. Things get crazy and the game can easily slide by the wayside.

Now, I am not saying the game should be more important than your kids, your spouse, or your job – no, not at all. But what I am saying is that a game can’t work if you’re not there. If you blow off a session because you’re too tired or whatever, then everybody’s fun suffers. Sure, sometimes this has to happen, but you owe it to everybody you play with to make sure this happens as little as possible. If it happens all the time? You should bow out of the campaign and just play in the next one, when you’ve got a little more time and things are under control.

A good GM should give you a very solid idea of when they’re planning to run the game, how often, and for how long. After that, you need to wrestle with your own schedule and carve out time if you want to play. If you can’t, don’t play. An empty chair at the table disrupts everything, and you should avoid doing so.

Oh, and show up on time, too. And prepared.

#2: Thou Shalt Buy In

Be enthusiastic about the game. Play because you really want to play, not because you feel obligated or can’t think of anything better to do. When the GM tells you the concept for the campaign,

These moments only happen with buy-in.

you should be hyped to be part of it. You should want to contribute to that vision and make it work. If the GM says “okay, the game is set in 1930s Germany and you’re monster hunters fighting Nazis,” your response should not be to make a character, play the game, and then the first time you slay a Nazi werewolf you say “monsters are lame – I want it to be more historical.”

Buy-in is essential because it makes the game vastly more fun for everyone if everybody is playing the same game. It’s not like one of you is constantly on their phone and only half paying attention. No – you guys are totally into it. You are planning what to do in your free time! You are deeply invested in your character and the world the GM has described. You contribute to that world by offering cool details and fleshing out subplots that tie into the main plot (a good GM will let you do this, BTW). TTRPGs only work if everybody works together. Buy-in is how that happens.

#3: Thou Shalt Play Thy Character

Characters in a roleplaying game should be played as a role. As I’ve said numerous times before, I dislike D&D (or really any TTRPG) as a purely tactical enterprise. I mean, sure, if that’s what you and your friends want to play, then have at it and disregard this. However, assuming you want to play an RPG and not a strategy or resource-management game, playing your character as a character is extremely important to the game as a whole. Your character sets up a series of expectations for the DM (your choices on your character sheet are saying “this is what I want my character to be and what I want to struggle with”). The DM builds the campaign around those choices and tries to give you opportunities to struggle and shine at the role you’ve chosen. If you blow off your own character concept because you’d rather not make things complicated, the whole narrative structure of what you’re doing can fall apart very quickly.

Consider this: if you are playing a game where you are merchant explorers in a Age of Sail setting and you decide that your straight-laced lawyer character wants to commit an act of piracy because it would be convenient, you have to understand that what you’ve done is totally violated your own character concept and that either the character must now change fundamentally (and change the entire trajectory of the campaign, possibly) OR nothing in the game makes sense anymore. That’s on you, not the GM – the GM was presenting you with a legal bind because they knew you’d made a lawyer and is giving you the opportunity to lawyer your way out of it. Now you’ve blown it out of the water, and what follows is chaos. This doesn’t mean you can’t come up with innovative solutions to problems, but those solutions ought to be made through the lens of your character, not the lens of “this will cost me the fewest HPs”

#4: Thou Shalt Get In Trouble

A close tie-in with #3 is this: get your character in trouble. Trouble, contrary to popular belief, is good. Trouble breeds conflict, conflict breeds adventure. The harder your work to prevent any kind of trouble occurring, the less fun things are likely to get. I tell you truly that the most fun anybody ever had is when things do not go to plan and everyone needs to scramble to overcome unexpected obstacles.

This is a tough one to adhere to because players are inherently risk-averse. You don’t want your character to die, so you aren’t going to walk down that dark corridor by yourself in the middle of the night because you know this is a horror game and there is almost certainly a monster down there. But consider this: if you don’t walk down that corridor, then no monster is discovered. This is a bad thing for a horror game! You want dangerous monsters! If you didn’t want that, then why are you playing a horror game (see Commandment #2)? So yeah – play your character! If your character is curious or arrogant, they’re going to walk down that corridor, monsters be damned. And then when the monster grabs your ankle, well, that’s when the fun begins!

#5: Thou Shalt Not Be An Attention Hog

This player needs to remember they aren’t the only one on the battlefield!

I know, I know – there you are, on time, having bought totally into the game concept, excited about your character, and more than willing to cause trouble and you just can’t wait to express your million ideas to the table…

But wait. There are four other people there. They also want to have fun. They also have ideas. They also are part of the group.

Remember that RPGs are a collaborative exercise. You are there to work together to make the best game possible, and sometimes the best way to do that is to shut up and listen to what the other people at the table have to say and weigh their ideas with the same consideration you’d give your own. I would even go so far as to say it is part of your responsibility to make sure everybody has a chance to contribute – if somebody at the table is shy, ask them their opinion, see if they want to contribute. The GM should be doing this, too, but the GM is just one person and needs your help to make this work. This isn’t a solo affair, it’s an ensemble piece.

#6: Thou Shalt Know Your Own Rules

We all know that the GM is the ultimate rules arbiter in any given game, but you can’t reasonably sit at a table and expect the GM to keep straight every stat on everybody’s sheets. It’s unreasonable of you to expect so. So, as a courtesy, learn how your character works and remember the basic mechanics that apply to them. When the GM asks you “what’s your Armor Class” you should know where to find that info on your character sheet and also know what they mean when they ask it. Failure to do this slows down the game and interferes with play and can knock everybody out of the scene while the GM needs to flip through a rulebook.

#7: Thou Shalt Respect the DM/GM

This commandment does not mean kissing the GM’s ass or thinking everything they do is pure gold. What it does mean is that you need to respect the work the GM has put into the game and allow them the opportunity to show off their work and be appreciated for it. This means not laughing at them when they read a piece of fluff text you happen to think is lame. This means not shouting over them when having a rules discussion. This means not holding a grudge against the GM for something that happened to your character or accusing them of cheating just because you don’t like how something went. They are the GM because they wanted their friends to have fun so much they spent nights and weekends preparing this cool adventure for you to go on. They like you. They are not your enemy (hear that GMs? You are not their enemy!) and if you treat them as such, the game can go sour very quickly.

#8: Thou Shalt Go Along With It

This is both related to #2 and #7, and what it basically means is that you will allow the game to move on rather than stall it just to satisfy one esoteric desire of your own. Okay, so maybe you want to open up a shop to sell dry goods to miners, but everybody knows that the point of this game is to go slay a dragon, so maybe you let your little dry goods idea ride for a bit in favor of everybody else’s primary concern about going along with the adventure.

This also applies to those tedious “we all meet in an inn” scenarios. Yes, we all know they’re cliche, but can you just play along so the party can meet and things can move forward? Nothing is worse than having the whole party paralyzed in the first 10% of the adventure because one player just won’t stop hitting on the barmaid and you have to roleplay out their whole stupid date and all of this is before they’ve even met any of the other players in-game yet.

Just move it along. Please.

#9: Thou Shalt Work As a Team

This is closely related to #3, #4, and #5. Unless specifically told otherwise, no campaign is about screwing over the other players or torpedoing their plans. Sure, you need to play your character, but you also need to not be an asshole. Would it be funny if your character, while drunk, stole the Paladin’s holy avenger sword and tossed it in a lake? Yes, yes it would. But it also needlessly delays the storyline, creates pointless tension both in game and out of it, and we all know you did that just to be a dick, not because you were just “playing your character.”

You need to understand and support the fact that your fun is equally important to everyone else’s. Not better, not worse – equal. If you do something you think is hilarious but everybody at the table is glaring at you, you done screwed up. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for you to cause mischief for other players or that everyone won’t sometimes find that sort of thing funny, but it needs to be set up in a way that everyone sees it coming and is okay with it. If you’ve been playing a cowardly wizard for the whole campaign, nobody is going to be surprised if you spend the big fight against the Hydra hiding in a corner and not casting fireball at it – fine – but they will be rightfully pissed if you don’t do anything to help the party at all. Play your character, but still contribute in some way.

#10: Thou Shalt Talk With the GM and Fellow Players

Ultimately, fun is the goal here. If you aren’t having fun, you need to let the GM know. If a player is irritating you, you need to tell them (politely) to knock it off. Fun cannot be guaranteed, but it certainly can’t happen if you keep it all bottled up inside. Talk with your GM and players and work out your differences. Be open to having such discussions yourself when confronted by other players or the GM. As mentioned, this is a collaborative effort, so collaborate.

In conclusion, it is my fairly well-considered opinion that these rules will lead to long, healthy, and greatly enjoyable adventures for all. Go forth and happy gaming!

New Story Out: “What the Plague Did To Us” in Galaxy’s Edge

Hey, everyone! I’ve got a new short story out (well, a flash story – it’s very short) out in this July 2019 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. I’m in a great issue, too, alongside such brilliant writers as Robert J Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Kevin J Anderson, Gregory Benford, and more! The best part is this: for this month only, you can read my story and others for free online! Just go to the website and check it out!

My story is my take on the zombie apocalypse and it is like, maybe, 1500 words, so you have no excuse not to read it. Go and check it out now!

About Readercon:

So, Readercon this past weekend was a lot of fun, even though I was only there for one day. I saw two very interesting and engaging talks, one by Graham Sleight about Instrumentality and Science Fiction (is SF useful as a predictive tool for the future) and one by Austin Grossman about the origin of genre. Both fascinating, both mixtures of things I didn’t know and things I did, and both of which I’ll be chewing over for a while.

I was on a panel about World’s Worst Jobs that was great, great fun and I heard a bunch of crazy stories (and got to tell one, too). I gave a reading from Dead But Once that had a small audience, but was well received. To wrap it all up, I went to the launch party for Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War, which just sounds like an amazing book you should all go out and buy right now.

So, overall a great experience at another great Readercon!

Writing Updates

I continue working through the summer on not just one novel, but two. Well, in truth, the first draft of the first novel I wrote this summer crashed and burned last week and I need to let the wreckage settle while I consider how to make another attempt (probably not until after Christmas). So I’m working on a second one now, which I won’t have time to finish before the Fall Semester kicks in, but I’m hoping I can at least get a sizeable chunk done. What kinds of books are they? Well, the first is a gritty space opera full of bizarre aliens and no humans whatsoever and the second is a more humorous thing set in a modern mall involving mythical creatures. So, in other words, totally different things. Is this good? Bad? Unwise? I don’t know. My agent seems to think it will be fine, but one wonders nevertheless.

In any event, onward and upward! Talk to you folks soon!

The Star Trek/Star Wars/40k Unification Hypothesis

But first THEY would…
But then THEY would…
But you forgot that THEY can…
Oh yeah, but YOU forgot…

The inevitable “Who Would Win: Star Trek Vs Star Wars” conversation I find endlessly tiresome these days. Oh, yes, back in my younger years I’d debate phasers vs turbolasers and Klingons vs stormtroopers all you’d want, but now I’ve come to understand that the argument is fundamentally pointless. Since none of the things introduced in either universe are real and any technical specifications given to them are essentially made-up numbers, there is quite literally no point in debating who would win in an “actual” fight, since there is no “actual” to be used and Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics simply cannot agree on common assumptions in order to have a reasonable argument.

Even as I write this, whole legions of people are out there in the darkness, sharpening their sticks to come for me if I don’t declare their faith the winner.

But I’m not here to argue this (again). I’m just not. The side which wins is whichever side the plot is on, ultimately. And anyway, my favorite answer is “Neither – it’s the Imperium of Man of Warhammer 40,000.” On that score, pretty much anybody whose spent much time delving into 40k lore are forced to concede the point, if only because the Imperial Navy of the 40k universe is RIDICULOUS in scale and destructive power and everything else.

And, of course, even as I write that, there are those people out there, sharpening their spears and baring their claws, ready to pounce.

So I’m here to do something totally different. I’m going to suggest that Star Wars, Star Trek, and Warhammer 40,000 all exist in the same universe. Don’t buy it? Okay, but listen to this:

The Galactic Empire

The Star Wars universe is described as being a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. This means they can easily exist in the same universe, but the odds of them every crossing paths with the Federation or Imperium are exceedingly unlikely.

Compared to Star Trek, vessels in this galaxy are much faster than those in the Star Trek universe. Hyperspace is clearly a superior FTL system – more than just a warp drive, it is something that actually punches through the material universe of spacetime into a hyperspace dimension, enabling speeds that would make Mr. Scot insanely jealous. Their weapons technology is comparatively crude, but very powerful – turbolasers and blasters, in terms of their effects on targets, seem to have a lot in common with disruptors or phasers. Blasters even have a stun function (if rarely used).

Shields and armor are less sophisticated than the Star Trek universe and many ships suffer from glaring design flaws, but the ability for the engineers in this universe to build macro-structures (like the Death Star) cannot be underestimated.

And then there’s the Force. The people of this galaxy are connected by some interstellar energy field, indescribable and extremely powerful. Those who can commune with it can navigate ships through hyperspace, move things with their minds, even transcend death. Star Trek has very little comparable with this, but this is because they are a galaxy of much younger spacefaring species, as will be made clear soon.

The Federation of Planets

Meanwhile, in a galaxy distant from the Star Wars world and many ages later, a new (nascent) series of starfaring species are seeded onto many worlds throughout this galaxy. These beings more-or-less achieve interstellar civilizations at about the same time, astronomically speaking – within a few thousand years of one another – and spread out, come into conflict, make alliances, and so on. Their method of FTL travel – called Warp Drive – is a more primitive version of hyperspace, in a sense. It warps spacetime, but does not puncture it; ships glide along the wave made by the dilation effect (subspace).

Ships in this environment are small in comparison to Star Wars. Given that these civilizations are very young and there is no purpose (yet) for larger ships, this makes sense. Their weapon systems are similarly effective as those in the Star Wars world, though their computational, sensory, and command systems are vastly superior. Shields are better, targeting computers are better, and so on. If a battle were to occur between the Galactic Empire and the Federation, individual battles would be determined by the commanders involved. However, the sheer scale of the Galactic Empire and the vastly superior interstellar speed of its (more numerous) fleets would eventually crush the Federation, almost inevitably.

Then there is the matter of the Force. The Federation has no weapons to combat this since they are scarcely aware it exists. They don’t know it exists because they have yet to puncture spacetime in a way that would lead them to become aware of it. However, such powers do exist in the Star Trek world: the wormhole aliens of DS9, the “subspace predatory” species from another dimension described in one episode of TNG (can’t remember the title – the one where they discovered some aliens were kidnapping crew members and dissecting them without anyone’s knowledge), and even the empathic powers of the Betazoids. These can be seen as certain manifestations of “the Force” being used in material space. Psychic powers.

Parts of the Warp…

The Imperium of Man

Star Trek is set in the 23rd-24th centuries. The Imperium of Man exists from the 301st to the 400th centuries. Yes, that’s right – as much as 37,000 years in the future. Humanity is an elder starfaring race – they have, at this point, forgotten more about space travel and technology than either the Federation OR the Galactic Empire have ever learned. The Imperium rules a million worlds, possibly more, and is engaged in deadly, existential-threat-level wars on all sides at almost all times.

Just to give you a sense of scale.

Their means of FTL travel? They enter what they call “the Warp” – a vestige of the ancient term bandied about by early humanity’s conquests in the age of Star Trek. But this is not a simple dilation of spacetime – they rupture it entirely, traveling into a kind of hyperspace. However, this hyperspace is now full of the psychic shadows of all the creatures who have lived before and been perverted by their thoughts and ambitions and dreams. In other words: the Force has long since fallen massively out of balance. There were no Jedi to keep the peace or, if there were, the Sith long ago rose up and destroyed them utterly. Now, hyperspace/The Warp is a realm of pure, terrifying chaos. It can, however, blink fleets across vast distances at speeds even the Galactic Empire cannot duplicate. Alternatively, it can devour fleets whole or send them lost and spinning through the mutating swirls of a hell dimension for millennia.

Star Trek exists in what the Imperium’s historians refer to as “the Dark Age of Technology,” where humans achieved dizzying heights of power and progress, but never realized that the Warp was as dangerous as it was. Eventually, they were cut off by warp storms and their civilization collapsed. The Imperium rose from the ashes, fighting every step of the way. It has blighted entire planets at a rate that would make the Death Star blush. It has access to technologies that would baffle any Starfleet engineer. Their elite soldiers are genetically engineered soldiers that would make Khan look like a designer baby intended for a photoshoot, not a firefight.

The Imperium obviously wins any battles with those other settings. They have psychic soldiers and psychic hunters the equal of any Jedi (the Culexus Temple, anyone? The Grey Knights?), they seem to have actually assimilated the Borg at some point in their history (Servitors), just as Q predicted (“you will surpass us”). They have gone so far beyond exploration that now they are the moldy remnants of a once great species in a way the Federation could scarcely comprehend. Humanity did it – it conquered the stars – only to discover that the stars are a terrible, cold place where war is unending and death assured.

And all of that is part of the same history of the universe – the Galactic Empire, in the thousand years before their time and ours, doubtlessly fell to the same conflagration that threatens to devour the Imperium of the Federation’s far future. The refugees of the Star Wars universe possibly seeded the very galaxy where humanity was born. Star Trek is the placid island in between two war-torn eras, where humanity still sees endless potential and hope for the future. But sooner or later, the daemons of the Warp will twist the hearts of mortals, and the Fall will begin anew.

What’s in a Style?

Haven’t posted here in a little bit – been busy, starting new projects, editing old ones, and keeping up with the day job, etc.. I also had a little conversation with my agent recently that kinda knocked me on my ass, because I don’t really know how to respond to it.

Basically, in discussing my next novel, he made the comment that I’ve proven that I can write in a wide variety of styles and, furthermore, that I am able to write convincingly in all of these styles. But then he asked me this:

I’m just curious what an Auston Habershaw novel would sound like if it didn’t sound like something else.

What whooshing sound you hear is my self-esteem escaping through a crack in the door.

This is a Beatles joke thematically related to this post. Bonus points if you get it.

Now, my agent said he did not consider this a criticism, per se – merely an observation. See, the book he just read of mine has a wildly different style from the Saga of the Redeemed. Part of this is because it is a first person narration, part of this is because it’s a time-travel caper and not an adventure fantasy, and part of it is because, to be honest, yes, I am a bit of a style chameleon. I can write in just about any style convincingly.

But what I heard from him when he asked that question was that he isn’t sure I have my own voice and, instead, I’ve been doing “funny voices” to entertain people. Like an impressionist. That I don’t have a style of my own – there’s no way for you to see me inside the words – and it felt (a little) like being accused of having no soul. I’m some kind of doppelganger, cursed to mimic others without ever being authentic.

I don’t think my agent meant it that way, but I’ve been wondering about what he said and also wondering if that is what it means even if he didn’t mean it.

Of course, I feel like I do have a style (you’re reading it). Everybody does, honestly – style is like a fingerprint in your work and you sort of can’t avoid it. Except maybe that I can. But wait a minute, though – if I’m embodying the voice of a character, shouldn’t I be obscured? I think so. But of course, I suspect my agent thinks so, too, since he went out of his way to point out that this wasn’t a criticism, just a question. He wants to know if I have some kind of natural voice inside me. He’s pushing me to be better, and that’s a very valuable thing. All that said, though, I can’t escape the idea that I might be derivative, and that I very much don’t want.

Hence my defensiveness.

So okay, let’s accept for the moment that I have a malleable style that mirrors other work very ably but is not distinct to myself. How does one even go about changing that? I mean, I have no real idea what it means to “be myself” when I’m writing from the POV of others. Who am I, and why would you listen to me, anyway? I want to take you on grand adventures, not putter around my study with a mug of coffee and a faded sweatshirt (note: I don’t drink coffee, but you get the idea. Another example of me not being me, maybe?).

Anyway, I’m not sure what to do or even if I should worry about it. I’ve resolved, for the moment, to just let it ride, keep working, and see what develops. Ironically, my current WIP is about a shape-shifting alien with a variety of identity and self-esteem problems, so that seems weirdly appropriate. Perhaps, in Faceless, I’ve found myself after all.

Time will tell, I guess.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Disappointment and Toxic Fandom)

All the elements were there. The follow-through? Not so much.

For my money, one of the greatest tragedies in modern American storytelling was the complete failure of the Star Wars prequels to tell any kind of compelling story. They were pretty, they were fun, but they ultimately lacked pathos or human emotion, no matter how hard the actors tried to sell it.

The thing that kills me about it was that it had all the necessary pieces to make it work. They cast a brilliant Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor remains the finest part of that series by far), had a nigh-unlimited budget, had the goodwill of millions of fans, and had the perfect set-up: a good man becomes Darth Vader, the nightmarish villain. Even the Clone Wars – at that point a totally blank slate – were rich with possibility. Then they made Anakin a little kid (?), wasted a whole movie on Naboo, channeled an extremely stalker-y vibe into Episode II, confused the hell out of everyone with the Clone army, and then had Ani go from “whiny brat” to “child murderer” in about fifteen minutes. Oh, right, and then the entire Star Wars universe can’t seem to handle a complex birth and Padme dies of nonsense causes. But it could have been so good!

But it wasn’t. It just totally wasn’t. You can disagree with me, sure – whatever – but my critique stands. I’ve watched those movies a lot by now, and I say with complete confidence that they were Not Good and definitely worse than any other Star Wars movies made before or since.

You know what I didn’t do, though? I didn’t circulate a petition to have it remade. I didn’t issue death threats to any of the actors or directors. I didn’t try to get anyone fired.

You know why?

The first reason should be obvious: I am not a child. I understand that sometimes life is disappointing and Hollywood doubly-so and I just change the channel to something I like better. This is called being an adult.

The second and arguably more important reason is that I think it is essential that writers, directors, actors, producers, artists, and all creators across the full spectrum of entertainment and literature be allowed to tell the stories they want to tell, no matter what the audience thinks of them. Now, does this mean that I want garbage like The Sopranos finale? No, of course not. Does this mean I don’t think people have a right to complain about bad storytelling? No, absolutely not – complain away! But what I don’t think the audience has a right to do is demand the artist change what they did.

No, absolutely not. Don’t even ask.

Because the work that the artist/artists created is not yours. I’m going to repeat that:

THE WORK THAT THE ARTIST OR ARTISTS CREATE IS NOT YOURS!

They made it, not you. If you don’t like it, that’s fine – feel free to complain, feel free to boycott. But you can’t force them to tell the story you want them to, no matter how much theirs sucks. You sure as hell can’t go around threatening them or their livelihood because the fictional story they presented wasn’t what you wanted it to be. That’s completely insane.

Do you know what happens when storytellers tell the stories that everybody expects them to tell? Boredom. Repetition. Basically 75-80% of everything that comes out of Hollywood (or in book publishing, for that matter). The job of the artist is to try and give the audience something they didn’t realize they wanted. This is hard. It involves taking risks, working without a net, flying by the seat of your pants, etc.. Sometimes (often?) it doesn’t work. Better artists than you or I have failed in landing franchises half as impressive as Game of Thrones. If we ever want it to work, we need to let them try, though, without living in mortal terror of what the “fans” will do to them.

Now, maybe you’re right. Maybe you could tell a better story than that in your sleep. Hell, I encourage you to try. Go ahead – show them how it’s done.

But you’re going to have to get your own story.

Motive and Obstacle: the Building Blocks of Story, Gaming

Like you do…

A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.

Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.

Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal  or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.

I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even  historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.

In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.

It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:

  • What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
  • What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
  • What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?

By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!

All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.