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 Elasticity of Time, Part 2

The test of humanity

Paul Atreides kneels before the Reverend Mother.

“Put your hand in the box,” she says.

“What is in there?” Paul asks.

“Pain.”

Dune has been on my mind lately, and not only because Denis Villeneuve’s version of the book is destined for theaters sometime after we are released from our coronavirus isolation. Indeed, my thoughts on this have been circling around Dune because of the virus itself.

In the book, Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. She places a poison needle at his neck (the gom jabbar) and Paul is required to keep his hand inside a pain-inducing box until such time as she tells him to remove it. If he removes it before permitted, he dies. The test, she says, is to see whether he is a human. In other words, is he capable of overcoming instinct and impulse (to remove his hand from pain) by being aware of consequences (death). Since permanent death is obviously worse than temporary pain, the rational human being will endure the latter to evade the former.

Which brings me to our present moment:

If you do not have the virus, it can seem like the virus is not real. If Paul is never pricked by the needle, do we really know that the poison is ever there? The discomfort we are experiencing – social isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of haircuts – grows steadily by the day. Are we sure it’s necessary? As it gets worse, our instincts kick in – you’ve been to Baskin Robbins tons of times and lived! Why should this time be any different? For Christ’s sake, it’s only a haircut and the barber isn’t even sneezing! Isn’t this just like the flu? I’ve had the flu before and been fine, thankyouverymuch! LET ME GO TO TARGET!

Left and right and all over, people are failing the gom jabbar. They are proving that their impulses are greater than their reason. I suppose we should not be surprised – even Herbert made it clear that few could conceivably pass the gom jabbar, and that it would be unusual for a male to be able to do so at all (which, honestly, I find a pretty fair assessment: if there’s anyone in our society able to endure discomfort for – hopefully – long-term gain, it’s women. Want proof? Find a mother. Literally any mother.).

We are all of us sitting there with our hand inside the box, the poison needle poised at our necks. Needle may strike, it may not, but one thing is certain: it has struck down already some 90,000 of us. The great tragedy is, of course, that many of those who have died did keep their hand in the box and did prove themselves more than an animal. They were likely done in by the animals around them – who did not wear their mask, who did not keep their distance, who did not stay home.

Yes, I called these people animals.

Frank Herbert calls these people animals, too. For what is somebody ruled by impulse and crude desire but an animal? They certainly aren’t using their higher reasoning functions, are they?

Time plays funny tricks on you when you are in pain or uncomfortable. The minutes stretch into hours and weirdly also the days run together, until it is hard to tell where you are or when it is or what you had planned to do. The world outside becomes unreal, ephemeral. In the normal world, we act as aggressively as we can to stop the pain or avoid the discomfort – this is instinct. But we’re being tested in a different way, now. We are not being tested for how quick we can move or how decisvely we can act. We are being asked to endure.

I would be remiss, also, if I didn’t make a mention of privilege here, as well. Some of us can stay inside and guard ourselves in relative comfort. There are a lot out there who cannot – first line responders and essential employees, the poor and homeless, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities that require constant care. For them especially should we endure this test. It is also deeply ironic that those who have the most privilege are the ones least able to do as they are asked.

Unlike in Herbert’s story, all of us have the means by which to evade the needle. We only need to keep going. Someday the needle will be removed and we will have passed our test.

Today is not that day.

 

Heart over Mind: Why Details Don’t Matter as Much

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

Found Family!

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

Actual Family (and Don)!

  • 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?

The answer?

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.

 

New Story Out in This Month’s F&SF (and other writing news)

Hello, friends!

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.

 

An Essential Violation of Character

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.

This. This right here.

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.

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!