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.
I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.
Every once in a while, somebody I know (a fellow writer, usually), points out that I should belong to Codex. Codex is a professional writer’s forum and, to be a member, you need to have sold some amount of pro work (don’t ask me how much). It is a networking site, a place to find critique groups, and often has postings by editors and such advertising various themed anthologies and so on. In other words, it would be a really great idea to belong to Codex.
I do not belong to Codex.
I honestly can’t adequately explain why not. I don’t really consider myself shy and I’m not any more socially awkward than anyone else. And yet I’m reluctant to join a community. Indeed, I am regularly reluctant to join communities of any kind. I had to have my arm twisted to join social media. My wife signed me up for Facebook without my knowledge and then just handed me my profile and said “here, your friends miss you.” If there was a club or an organization in school I was a member of, I never really felt like I was part of it. At the jobs I have held, I’ve done my best to remain a competent employee who is, nevertheless, not really central to the office culture or society. It’s a weird and probably destructive habit. I feel as though it alienates people, and why shouldn’t it? I am deliberately alienating myself from them.
When I was 8 years old, my elementary school had a chamber orchestra for little kids. They trotted out the violin, the viola, and the cello. Everybody chose either the violin or the cello; I chose the viola. Why? Because everybody else didn’t pick it. When they could make my glasses prescription into contact lenses and everybody I knew was getting them, I didn’t – I stuck with glasses and stubbornly so. I don’t like shirts with sports team logos on them. I don’t own a single piece of clothing or paraphernalia with the logo of my college or graduate school on it. Just about my entire work history has been a story of how I could earn money without having to wear a uniform or work in a team or have to deal with coworkers.
Now, as an adult, I see this whole loner thing be nonsensical and immature. I like people, and I like making friends. I care about my job and I do my best to be helpful whenever tasked to work as part of a group. Indeed, the idea that I can somehow exist apart and away from everybody else is arrant nonsense. Where would I be without my beta readers? Without the feedback from my editors and my agent? Without the support of my family? Nowhere. Nobody does this alone. Hell, nobody does much of anything alone. It’s a myth.
The myth of the loner is, I think, probably tied up in the ridiculous notions of masculinity that get imbued into us as kids. Men are strong. Men don’t need anybody. Men can solve their own problems. I read stories of the lone knight slaying the dragon or the lone hero challenging the gods and took all that to heart. If you work hard enough, I thought, you won’t need anybody. You’ll be free.
So there I was, at Readercon this past weekend. It was a good con, by all accounts – my panels were all great and I met a lot of interesting people – but I still felt this discomfort. I was sitting there, talking with Ellen Datlow on a Saturday night about our respective allergies, and I thought to myself “I don’t belong here. This is their community. I don’t have a community, remember?”
Of all the arrogant, idiotic thoughts to have. I am – and should be – a part of the science fiction and fantasy writing community. Why the hell am I going to all these cons if I don’t want that to be the case? I am not different. I am not some kind of weird loner, living on the outskirts. These people have thrown open their doors and I ought to walk right in and start shaking hands, not lurk in the shadows and listen to the music from a distance.
So I’m writing this now as an entreaty to those out there who are like me: those who have long felt that they have no people and that there is no group large enough to hold them or shaped to fit them. That’s bullshit. That’s self-aggrandizing hornswaggle. Your people are out there. Hell, they are inviting you in right now. Being a writer doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Get out of your basement, meet people, make friends.
Dare to fit in.
Hey, folks! I mentioned a few weeks back that I had a story in this month’s Analog (on newsstands now!), but I’m back to tell you that I have an article up on their blog right now which is probably the closest thing to an academic paper I’ve written in a long while (and it is very, very far from an actual academic paper). Check it out here! It’s all about optimism and pessimism in post-apocalyptica!
Look, I enjoyed Solo. I did. But, well, I didn’t enjoy Solo enough. That movie was a slam-dunk waiting to
happen. It was a gimmie, a freebie – a “no way you can screw this up” sandwich. And yet, somehow…
This phenomenon is not constrained to Solo, either. For long ages it was the province of just about every single superhero movie. It plagued enormous swathes of scifi and fantasy cinema. It even happens in books, in video games – in everything. Somebody brings up a high-concept idea featuring characters we already love, slaps a huge budget on it, and releases it. And then you go to the theater, all excited, and…
Meh. It was okay.
That’s a weird feeling, right? Like, I really wanted to love Solo in the same way I wanted to love the original Hulk movie (Eric Bana! ANG LEE!) and was really excited to see Will Smith in The Wild Wild West and Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and then I saw these things and it just didn’t happen. The more I thought about the movies, the more I got pissed off. They had everything going for them! Why don’t I love them?
Now, of course, there’s no magic bullet here – each of these films wasn’t that great on its own merits. Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was actively terrible. Some other movies fall into this category that I actually liked quite a bit – JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot comes to mind – but, despite my enjoyment, I recognize as deeply flawed works that fall short of their potential. In any event, I do think there’s a common thread to a lot of them that’s worth teasing out and discussing: most of them are ham-fisted.
Ham-fisted is a slightly more intense version of “ham-handed” and it basically means the films lack subtlety, grace, or wit. They are dull, meat-headed slogs that fail to understand what it is they’re doing. They are, in a word, stupid movies made about a smart premise. See, stupid movies made about a stupid idea are a whole other category of thing – they are B-movie thrillers and brainless entertainment. Smart movies made about stupid ideas are your cult classics and secret masterpieces. But stupid movies made about smart ideas are ham-fisted. And there’s a hell of a lot of them out there, with Solo as the most recent example.
To discuss Solo specifically, here’s what I feel like happened (outside of the directorial hell the movie went through, which is very likely why it wound up doing this). In order for this movie to be a glorious romp all you needed to do was have Han meet Chewie, put them in the Falcon, and have them run their first smuggling run. That’s. It. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t flashy – we want to see Han, we want to see Chewie, and we also want the Falcon and Lando. Then we want a heist story.
And…we kinda got that? Sort of. But the movie overreacted. Not only did we meet Chewie and Lando and get the Falcon, we had to have Han get his last name and his blaster and the Falcon to get its nav-computer and have another asteroid chase scene (with the same damned music!) and see the Kessel Run and have a robot uprising and talk about the Rebellion and have Han Shoot First and see stupid Darth Maul. And it was all graceless and blunt and so obviously forced. And all of this was done because the filmmakers really wanted to give us the entire “Solo” experience which they interpreted as meaning “giving the fans what they want.” They seem to have had a storyboard somewhere that had a checklist of winks/nods to the audience and you literally couldn’t go five minutes in that movie without somebody cramming another reference down your throat.
Darth Maul’s cameo is a great example of this. “Hey,” says the filmmakers, “you know what these nerds like? Darth Maul!” “But he’s dead,” says a guy and then some other, nerdier guy in a sarcastic T-shirt explains a subplot from Star Wars Rebels and everybody’s like “Oh, so it’s canon!” and bam – Facetime with Darth Maul. And then, while we’re all looking at Darth Maul thinking to ourselves “is that really him or some other guy of the same species” he ignites his lightsaber (so we know he’s serious) and we all kind of blink and wonder “did he just ignite his lightsaber while on a phone call?” That, friends, is the epitome of ham-fisted storytelling. Just cramming shit in there that they think we’d like, but lacking any grace or rationale.
And there’s one thing that the ham-fisted story forgets every single time. They always assume that characters are a summation of their clothes and their stuff and their fight scenes and forgets entirely that what really makes a story work is the deep character foundations you lay down that you can build conflict on top of. To that end, the Solo and Kira relationship worked. The Chewie and Han worked, too, if somewhat less well (they don’t really have a good moment together). But you know what was squandered? The Han/Lando relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Nor does the Han/Beckett relationship. Nor does really any other relationship. We are too busy with the heist and picking out the signposts that tell us it’s a Solo movie to notice that we’re actually watching a Solo movie. We have missed the forest for the trees.
All of that doesn’t mean Solo was a bad time. But it does mean Solo could have been a much better time. And I wouldn’t even say this is a result of people not caring what they produced – I think they gave it an honest shot. But they didn’t do it with grace or subtlety. I know, I know – a bunch of you out there just yelled “but Han lacks grace and subtlety!” I don’t mean that – I’m not talking about the exact plot, just about how that plot was conveyed. Look we all know Inigo Montoya is going to fight the six-fingered man. We know it. But what does the Princess Bride do the moment they face on another? He runs away! Why? Because it is totally in keeping with his character and, no matter how much the audience wants a duel, the filmmakers knew that the audience is not always right. If you give the people what they want, when they want it, all the time, the people become bored. Very very bored.
We all know Han is going to get the Falcon. We all know he’s going to win at cards. We all know they need the Falcon to complete their mission. So when Han loses at cards, we are surprised, yeah, but we also know that nothing has been settled because that’s not how it happens anyway and because the movie is mismanaging the Han/Lando relationship, nothing comes of it, and Han winds up flying the ship everywhere anyway and so, in the end, that whole card scene was a waste of time. No build. No dramatic tension. All we get is why Lando pronounces Han’s name wrong. Ham-fisted.
And it could have been so much better.
I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.
In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.
I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.
These People Are Not New
The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.
The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.
This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.
The PCs Can Take It
There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?
Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.
Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!
Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.
The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters
The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?
A Seat At the Table
As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.
And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.
Pretty cool, right?
Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.
Each time a novel of mine comes out, I amuse myself by casting the would-be movie of the book. Not that this will ever happen. Furthermore, even if it were to happen (Hollywood, you know where to find me!), there’s no way I’d have any say in this anyway.
But I digress!
The third book of The Saga of the Redeemed, Dead But Once, is now available for sale! I’m doing publicity stuff, too! See my interview over on Dan Koboldt’s blog, or my guest post over with Bishop O’Connell! And now we come to my own little sales pitch: casting the movie of the book which will never be made into a movie! Will this entice you to buy? WHO KNOWS?
There’s only one way to find out, right? So:
Played by: Neil Patrick Harris
Tyvian is suave, debonair, and also a lot of trouble. Harris’s portrayal of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother sets him up well for the role, I think. He’s fit without being too bulky, he’s good-looking in a rakish sort of way, and I could totally see him complaining about sub-par wine.
Played by: Emily Blunt
Myreon is courageous, determined, and willing to get her hands dirty in the name of justice. It’s taken me a while to narrow down the right choice for her, but when I saw Edge of Tomorrow, I knew she was my girl. Ms. Blunt can play the Gray Lady with style, I tell you.
Played by: Tom Holland
Much like Myreon, it’s taken me a while to nail this one down. This is, in large part, because I just couldn’t identify any 14-year-old actors for prior books. For Dead But Once, though, Artus is 16 and on the threshold of manhood, and nobody’s been doing that better in an action/adventure setting than Tom Holland’s brilliant portrayal of Peter Parker in the MCU. He’d be perfect for my idealistic, somewhat naive, and desperately-trying-to-be-cool Artus.
Played by: Michelle Pfeiffer
Lyrelle Reldamar, the most powerful sorceress in the world, is a woman who has seen to it that she’s aged gracefully. She’s stunning and forceful – when she walks into a room, everyone stares. She is a queen even among other royalty, and I think Pfeiffer has the charisma and the look to pull the role off very well. She also could, conceivably, be seen as a plausible mother to Neil Patrick Harris.
Played by: Gwendolyn Christie
Now, Christie would definitely be mostly CGI in this role, since Hool is an enormous hairy gnoll and she is nothing of the kind. But I think she has the physicality, the voice, and the presence to pull off the powerful Lady Hool and, conversely, when Hool is wearing her shroud, Christie could easily pull off the look of “Hool pretending to be a human” with all the intimidating glares and sharp words that such a thing entails.
Played by: Unknown
Much like Artus in earlier books, I’m not really sure what young person we could find to play the (also mostly CGI) gnoll pup. They’d need to be able to stand on their head, for one thing, and their human-as-puppy impersonation would need to be spot on. I’m open to suggestions.
Played by: Andrew Garfield
I don’t know about you, but something about Andrew Garfield’s face just has “I’m a teenage jerk-face” written all over it. Valen is a bit older than Artus, a bully, but is a charismatic member of Eretherian society besides that, and something about Garfield’s mug just fits the bill.
Dame Velia Hesswyn, Countess of Davram
Played by: Dame Judy Dench
Countess Velia is past her prime and yet is a powerful voice in Eretherian society and an eminent member of the peerage. She is constantly plotting and scheming to advance her own house, and bears herself with dignity at all times. Dench could play anything, of course, but this I think she could hit out of the park.
Played by: Anne Hathaway
The woman plotting to kill Tyvian Reldamar by any means necessary and the woman Tyvian Reldamar can’t help but be drawn to has to be somebody special. Hathaway’s excellent portrayal of Catwoman (in the otherwise terrible Dark Knight Rises) shows that she has the capacity to be playful and sexy and dangerous all in one.
Played by: Ron Perlman
You guys, you guys – I think I finally nailed this one. I’ve had a lot of trouble in the past thinking of an actor who could physically embody the imposing and violent Sahand while also having the ability to deliver a perfect villain’s monologue in a booming baritone. Ron Perlman is my man. The Mad Prince (in my mind) could not look more like Perlman if he tried, and his delicious threats would sound so good in his voice.
Played by: Simon Baker
Xahlven is a tough one, if only because he has to fit into that Reldamar phenotype, be a bit older than Tyvian, and be arguably more handsome. He needs a brilliant smile and a smooth voice, too. Baker, I think, fits the bill, though I haven’t seen him in anything other than The Mentalist, so I don’t know how well he can play the villain. In any case, him, Pfeiffer, and Harris would make for an interesting family dynamic, I bet.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. There are a lot of secondary characters out there I didn’t get to, but here’s the core of the book, for sure. I think it would make a pretty cool movie, myself. Of course, I would, wouldn’t I?
What do you think?
After having a conversation with my agent the other day, I’ve decided my next novel project is going to be time travel based. I wasn’t really planning to write this particular novel at this particular time, but he feels its the best career move right now and that’s basically what I’m paying the guy for – his advice – so why wouldn’t I take it? Anyway, the point here is that I’ve been thinking (a lot) about time travel in stories today and I want to share some of my ramblings.
One of the questions I’ve gotten recently is how the character in my time travel story is going to travel through time. What are the rules, in other words? Is time linear or non-linear in this story? Are we going to be dealing with the Grandfather Paradox or the Butterfly Effect or what? What about free will? Now, it just so happens that I have answers to these questions, but I’m not going to list them out here today. Instead, I’m going to talk a fair bit about how those questions aren’t actually that important. Or, at least, not as important as they first appear.
Time travel stories, you see, are really never about how time travel is accomplished. Never. Time travel stories are actually all about why the characters in question are traveling in time in the first place. This is also true more broadly of many science fiction stories of whatever subcategory – the special technology is usually more a metaphor for something present and actual rather than a literal exploration of technological progress – but it is particularly true of time travel, since, of all speculative technologies, time travel is possibly the least plausible outside of traveling at relativistic speeds (and then you could only go one direction – the future). If you want to go back in time instead of just forwards (in other words if you want an actual time machine), you kinda have to throw away most known physics anyway. If you’re doing something that impossible, does the fact that you’re traveling by Police Box or hot tub or phone booth really matter?
In other words, the rules, in large part, are arbitrary. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to tell a time travel story in terms of how the deed is accomplished and the rules surrounding said deed. Do we really question that the time machine in the Terminator can only send organic matter? I mean, it makes no sense, but do we care? Likewise, in Back to the Future, the Flux Capacitor makes absolutely zero sense, but, again, we don’t really care. We don’t care because we aren’t watching to movie to learn about how time works. We’re watching the movie to revisit our past.
And that’s really the crux of it: the journey through time is always (always) a metaphor that directly pertains to the main character’s conflict. Sarah Connor has to face the reality of her world ending and how best to prepare for that (the precise dimensions of that preparation and what it symbolizes varies from film to film). Marty McFly has to come to terms with his own parents and, thereby, his own identity. It is a crisis of self confidence, not a Hill Valley crisis. Even the Doctor and his TARDIS aren’t exploring space-time to teach us lessons about history, but rather to explore the human condition (and an outside observer’s opinion of it) in infinite contexts and scenarios. It’s not a show about aliens at all – it’s a love letter to humanity.
So, if you’re going to put together a time travel story, how you have the character traveling through time is a question subservient to why you want them to travel through time to begin with. Depending on what your purpose is – what themes you want to explore – the way time travel happens will itself be altered to fit your narrative goals. And you can do this, too! Time machines are impossible – as impossible as magic and even more impossible than things like hyperdrive or lightsabers or giant battle robots. In other words, it’s something of a blank slate – tell the tale you need to. Your audience isn’t tuning in for technical merit – they’re expecting a story about the human condition.
This is going to be one of those partially writing/partially gaming posts, so get ready for some odd leaps in logic on my part. I want to start with a meme I saw on Dungeons and Dragons Memes the other day regarding dungeon crawls in D&D:
I hate this list. Hate it. Hate it hate it. It represents what I consider to be everything wrong with how Dungeons and Dragons is frequently played and it also happens to be a blueprint on how not to write a suspenseful story or novel. Let me explain:
People avoid conflict and tension as much as they can in their daily lives. If something looks dangerous, we are unlikely to attempt it without ample preparation with the (accurate) understanding that doing so increases our odds of survival. This is a sensible and reasonable way to live one’s life.
It also makes for bad storytelling.
Of course, not every moment of our days are devoted to having an awesome story to tell. If it were, we’d take more risks and do more dangerous things because, well, it would make a great story. Yes, we would punch that guy on the train playing his music without headphones. Yes, we would give the sketchy homeless person a ride on the handlebars of our moped. Yes, we would go on solo vacations to distant lands without a hotel reservation on a whim. We’d hitchhike more.
We don’t do all this, for the most part, because we recognize the odds of unpleasant things happening to us in the real world. In a story (or an RPG), however, unpleasant things happening is the express point of the exercise. Nobody reads a story about how a guy wakes up, goes to his job, does his work, comes home, and goes to bed. That isn’t a story (or at least not an interesting one). We need conflict, of course, but conflict is also not enough. A story where a guy goes to work, discovers he has a hugely important meeting in five minutes and he left his materials at home, but then realizes he can just use the backup materials on his work computer, prints them out, and all is well is also a super boring story. Nothing came of the conflict.
Now, to that stupid list up there. When I read that advice, this is what I see:
- Research Your Destination: There must be no surprises, unpleasant or otherwise. We must know everything before beginning.
- Explore Thoroughly and Cautiously: Everything must be done slowly and methodically so that no surprises crop up and no mistakes are made.
- Stay Together: IF something goes wrong, the problem can be immediately solved with little difficulty and at minimal risk to others.
- Prepare Accordingly: We must have access to all the appropriate tools at the appropriate times so that obstacles can be smoothly overcome.
- Exercise Teamwork: Interpersonal conflicts are forbidden and independent goals must not be pursued.
- Check for Secret Traps and Doors: Again, no surprises! Slow down!
- Take Everything That Isn’t Nailed Down: Approach this dramatic event with all the drama of a moving company packing up a house.
Everything on that list is devoted to making certain the dungeon crawl is as boring as possible, which is to say they are designed to guarantee nobody gets in trouble and everything goes to plan. This list exists for two reasons: (1) there are people who see D&D as a resource management enterprise and nothing else and (2) there are a variety of bad GMs out there who see it as their job to have an adversarial relationship with the party, forcing the players to adopt these behaviors so they don’t die. In the first case, I would insist everybody is entitled to their own kind of fun and more power to them (though I don’t care for it myself). In the second case, read this list, GMs, and adjust your ways.
What most players refuse to acknowledge, but is nevertheless true, is that the best gaming experiences are when things go wrong. This is because when the players make mistakes, tension, excitement, and conflict abound. When the players sit down and concoct an elaborate plan designed to avoid any kind of trouble, it is the GMs duty – their sacred obligation – to mess those plans up as soon as possible and in the worst of all ways. Players often think the GM is being “mean” or “unfair” when, in actuality, the GM is giving the players the greatest possible opportunity for fun. Because (and this is the other thing players are not aware of) they are going to win! They are! By the skin of their teeth and suffering consequences galore and maybe not in the way they intended, but they totally are and they are going to love it.
This is directly analogous to storytelling. If your characters make an elaborate plot that is almost sure to succeed, then you, as the writer, can’t have that plot go off exactly as planned. You just can’t. Once you do, then you have abandoned all dramatic tension and eliminated all suspense. We all just shrug and go “oh, well, that was a lot of buildup about nothing.” You need things to go sideways! Polonius needs to get his ass stabbed through the curtain! The hyperdrive on the Falcon has to be broken! Indiana Jones needs to spring the trap!
So, here are my competing pieces of dungeon crawling advice:
- Do Minimal Research: If the old geezer in the village says the temple is inhabited by vengeful spirits, believe him. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right? No way it’s a death cult disguised as ghosts. That’d just be silly.
- Go Directly for the Goal: There is almost certainly nothing of interest in those little side passages. The main thing is to get in, get out, and get on with your lives. Move quickly! The time of the Planetary Alignment is nigh!
- Split Up!: You can cover more ground that way. Also, some of you can get in trouble and need rescuing, which gives everybody a chance to look awesome.
- Travel light!: Nobody wants to traipse around a dungeon with a donkey in tow or have to pay henchmen to guard your campsite or any of that garbage. Potion of Animal Friendship? Pfft – that probably won’t come in handy anyway. Extra sword? Why? Your favorite sword should do just fine. And leave the rope behind – rope is heavy.
- Those Morons Need to Listen to You!: Look, you’re the wizard, right? You are the smartest. Who cares what the paladin thinks is a good plan – you’ve got a better plan and, when it works (it won’t!), then everybody will recognize you as the leader of this stupid little band. Excelsior!
- Spring the Trap!: If you don’t spring the trap, nobody will fall into a hole and maybe die. And seriously, what fun is that, anyway?
- Gold is Heavy: You know what’s more fun that haggling over objet d’art and divvying up silver pieces? Moving the story forward, that’s what. You’re playing a game, not saving for your retirement. Take the cool magical junk and leave the rest behind. Nobody cares how much money you have.