Category Archives: Gaming

Discussions/thoughts about RPGs, video games, board games, and so on.

That Edge Between Doom and Boredom

This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:

  1. The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
  2. The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).

Sometimes I don’t even get that.

Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.

So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.

Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.

I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.

It ain’t easy, though.

The Halls of Ignominious PC Death

Oooo! Spooky!

Oooo! Spooky!

Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.

Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.

In no particular order:

Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth

Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”

Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.

Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth

The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.

Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy

The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.

Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359

So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.

Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619

Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:

So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?

No. No he did not. Kablooey.

Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!


Publicity News

Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!

No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!

More Than Pointy Ears

I’ve been playing and reading a lot of Dungeons and Dragons related stuff recently. It’s been years since I swore off D&D (the mid 90s, I believe) and I am becoming reacquainted with the things I like and the things I do not like. This post is about one of the things that I don’t like: D&D Elves.

I always had a problem with Elves back in the old days. I remember thinking they were seriously lame and that geeks’ obsessions with them were weird and annoying. As the years passed, this feeling dimmed, and I became a fan of elves as I encountered them in the Warhammer universe, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and other places as well. I eventually came to think that my dislike of elves was simply adolescent rebellion (of a strange sort) against what was “cool” (and yes, I’m painfully aware how ridiculous it is to discuss that which is “cool” or “not cool” in D&D).

Now that I’m back in the D&D world, I can confidently tell you that grown-up me was wrong and adolescent me was right: D&D Elves do, in fact, suck. What I was wrong about, however, were the reasons why this is.

Just Another Pointy-Eared Dude

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

The problem with D&D Elves is that, for all the window-dressing of a long-lived, wise race living aloof in their silver palaces or mystical forests, in practice they are nothing like that. Elves are just humans with better hair. They are, for lack of a better term, “cool humans.” People who play elves tend to do so just for their abilities; it is really rare that I have seen anybody bothering playing an elf like an elf. Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-orcs, and so on all have distinct and interesting role-playing elements that most people use to make their characters interesting. Elves? Nope. An elf talks like a human, acts like a human, has human feelings, and is essentially identical to humans except according to the rules, wherein they get a couple special buffs that humans don’t.

Part of this is the fault of the game itself. D&D is so very obsessed with game-balance, that they try to keep everything even-steven between the playable races and, furthermore, they promote a world wherein elves and dwarves and gnomes and such live side-by-side in general harmony and equality, all of which essentially homogenizes the races into different flavors of human being. Really, all an elf is is a set of different characteristics for the purpose of gameplay. Any role-playing aspect of elves is often too abstract or too serious to be actively interesting to your average Mountain Dew-chugging basement dweller. You don’t play an elf to be an arrogant prick, you play an elf because you want skills like Legolas but also want to be about the same size as a regular person so that the majority of enchanted chain mail shirts you find will fit.

The Children of Silver Starlight

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

That, however, is not how I see elves at all. I see elves as among the most alien of the demihuman races, not the least. These are beings who do not know sickness, old age, or fatigue and who live for centuries on the edge of our reality. Their every movement is graceful, their voices are pure , and their arts are ancient and beautiful. They are a species who once ruled the world in justice and peace until they, through their arrogance, failed and suffered. That suffering is still new to them, though it be ancient history to humanity. Elves are supposed to represent the best of everything, but tempered with arrogance and grief that no human can understand. They are not like us.

This, of course, is the root of the problem. It’s hard to put yourself in Elrond’s pointy shoes. How do you act? What kind of things do you say? Now, we of this enlightened age have access to a wide variety of examples of this; the actors and actresses who have played the elves in the Lord of the Rings films are great inspiration. More generally, though, I try to think of this: how would you feel if the weight of the world were on your shoulders? How would you feel if you knew you (and your people) had dropped that weight, dooming mortal beings to suffer and languish in barbarism? That’s how elves feel. All the time. Humans have the privilege of short lives and shorter memories – they can throw off their grief and their failures, dust themselves off, and try again. Elves lack this resilience. They are strong – far stronger than humans – but the breadth of history is just a moment for them, and their grief is never washed away. For them, time does not heal all wounds. They get to see their failures magnify through the ages of history. Elrond has been beating himself up for centuries over not killing Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom and tossing the ring in the lava. Now, he sees a new generation faced with that ancient evil that he could have stopped, but didn’t. If you want to know why he’s serious and grim, that’s why.

This is tall order for your average D&D game, granted. Not everybody wants to be the serious guy, nor do they always want to play alongside him while you are making your fart jokes with your dwarf pals. That, though, is what elves are about – the long view, the weight of the past, and the hope for the future. They can be happy, too, but probably about things that others think are strange. They are not looking for quick fixes, they are not looking to forget their problems, and they are not looking for ephemeral pleasures. They are seeking to right wrongs, to save the good, and to fight against a world that seems forever sliding into the Shadow. I am currently playing with a guy who, I feel, is trying to do this on some level, but he is unsure how to proceed, since what an elf asks of you is to rise above the typical petty concerns of a D&D party. Still, he consistently refuses gold and treasure (because it has no worth to him) and, instead, thinks in the long term. It’s fun to watch, but I can tell it takes him a bit out of joint sometimes.

Still, it’s a lot better than another dual-scimitar wielding drow elf, right?

Campaign Morale in RPGs

Been a while since I’ve put on my gamer hat hereabouts, so here we go…

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

Role-playing games campaigns are social enterprises that rely on a good group dynamic to be successful. In this sense, they are similar to team sports (observe how the jocks and the nerds doth rage at such an analogy! Indeed, it is beauteous to me!). A good RPG campaign, in order to work, goes beyond what actually happens at the table and into the social and (even) political sphere. Good GMs know this, and they set their games up to enhance it. Poor GMs don’t pay any attention to it, and they wonder why everybody quits their campaign halfway through.

A Word About Ideals…

Okay, so it’s worth pausing for a second to define what I consider an “ideal campaign” to be. An Ideal Campaign has the following characteristics:

  1. Everybody Has Fun: This is a minimum requirement. Everybody should be laughing, everybody should be hanging on every die roll, everybody should be invested in what is going on.
  2. Everybody Is Engaged in the Action: The storyline of the campaign should matter to the players. They should care about what happens and should want to know what happened last time. Ideally, they should even discuss what might or is happening with each other and with you outside of the game itself. In other words, they are so deeply invested in the game that it stays with them at least some of the time.
  3. Everybody Gets Along: The people playing are compatible personalities who, even if not great friends, generally get along well and are able to be comfortable with one another.
  4. Everybody is Organized: The game starts on time, it ends on time, the GM keeps things moving, the players show up consistently, and the meeting schedule is regular and consistent.

These four things, when combined, mean the “campaign morale” is high and everything is going well. If one or more of these things aren’t working, the campaign is not going well (at least according to the Ideal).

How Is This Done?

Assuming we all want to get to Goal#1 up there, we actually need to address these goals in reverse order.

Organization: The first order of business is Goal #4: getting organized. This is really essential, because it’s the basic requirement of having a game: everybody needs to show up regularly and on time. Understandably, people will miss the occasional session due to illness or unforeseen circumstances or what-have-you, but on average everybody should be there. Furthermore, the game should meet often enough to create a kind of momentum. If you meet once and then not again for two months, people forget what is happening, the GM is less invested in continuing (since people have forgotten about it), and the whole thing can just fade away. Meet regularly, show up on time, and you can go from there. The party that plays together, stays together.

You really should try to avoid this.

You really should try to avoid this.

Group Dynamic: As the GM, it is your job to make sure the party in your campaign is compatible and able to get along. If you have a friend that nobody else likes, inviting him to play may be a mistake for everybody. Now, generally I’ve found most gamers can get along with most other gamers for a few hours a week (or month), but there are exceptions (and you know who they are, too, I’d bet). Not inviting a buddy of yours because you think his incessant need to creepily leer at women might offend the two women playing might hurt his feelings, but hey – he’s the one being the creep, not you. That, of course, is an extreme case and, again, I’ve found personality conflicts like this to be rare.

More common (and arguably just as important), though, is simply thinking about everybody’s playstyle. A band of by-the-numbers point munchkins probably won’t understand or appreciate a real Role Player in their midst and vice versa. I personally recommend getting a variety of play-styles involved, assuming everybody understands how you are going to run the game. If everybody is on board and aware of the expectations, everything will go much more smoothly.

Engagement: This is a tough one. Even if you nail the first two, this one is probably the hardest one to master. It also might be the most optional of them all – players don’t have to love the plot of the game if they just love the action of playing – but I firmly believe having this in your corner makes everything better (everything!). As GM, this one lands mostly in your court. All players, when they make a character, are telling you the kind of things they want their character to be and do. If I make a greedy Halfling rogue with a complex about how short he is, I am pretty much telling you that I want to pick a half-orc’s pocket at bar and then have a bar-fight when he calls me “short-stuff”. You need to figure out what your players want and then you need to build the storyline around those desires. Alternately, you can tell everybody before the game starts what the game is going to be about and then ask everybody to make a character that fits inside that arena. Of the two, the latter is easier but the former is far more effective (if you can pull it off). In either case, if players love the concept, they will love the game, and they will be more likely to show up, more likely to have fun, and more likely (even) to get along.

Fun: The game is fun if people are smiling (or shuddering like they just saw a horror movie) after a session is over. How this achieved is complex, but generally I’d say the above three concerns are a good place to start. The other thing to remember is that this is a game. Try to avoid getting anyone’s ego involved. Laugh. Act like you’re having fun (which you should be, dammit, or else why do this?). Generally speaking, the more fun you have, the more fun everybody else will likely have.

In the end, these things all feed off one another. If you can get all four of them to work, then your campaign is guaranteed to be a success (I promise). If they all fail, people are going to be checking Facebook in the midst of the game and blowing off a session anytime a second cousin is in town. Believe me, I’ve been in both situations, and they are the best and the worst role-playing experiences I’ve ever had. Good luck out there, and have fun!

Burning Down the Forest

There’s a running joke/metaphor in my RPG group: anytime the players are faced with a complex problem, somebody will quip “why don’t we just burn down the forest?” I know it isn’t funny at first glance and, indeed, it might not be funny at all, but I find myself thinking of this metaphor a lot lately. It’s origins date back to junior high school. I was DMing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for my friends and they were lost in a swampy rainforest infested with lizardmen who kept ambushing them (or it might have been a temperate forest and they were ambushed by hobgoblins – it hardly matters now). They couldn’t successfully track the lizardmen, so attacking their camp was impractical. Still, the lizardmen attacks needed to stop – they were running out of healing potions. Their solution?

“Hey guys,” one player said, “let’s burn down the whole forest!”

Hmmm...our situation has strangely not improved.

Hmmm…our situation has strangely not improved.

They had the magic and the equipment to do so, and flushing all the lizardmen out into the open seemed like a great idea, so they set about burning the place down. As you can imagine, it did not go well. In the first place, not only did it flush out the Lizardmen, but also everything else, meaning they had to fight hundreds of angry creatures all at once. It also rendered the forest impassable, and since their objective was to get through the forest, their plans were ruined. It also lost them a large number of allies – the elves that lived in the forest, the people of nearby towns, the ranger’s friends, the cleric’s god, and so on. Basically, the whole thing, while seemingly obvious and simple on its face, made everything much, much worse.

From then on “burning down the forest” was our term for a seemingly simple and elegant bad idea.

Beyond the gaming table, I feel this metaphor has relevance to the real world. A lot of relevance – too much, in fact. The world is constantly coming up with really simple, easy to understand wrong answers to complex problems (thanks, HL Menken!). All too often, these solutions come in the form of “throw more bombs at it” or “have more guns!” Then we have the audacity to be aghast as more people get blown up and shot.

Folks, this isn’t rocket science. The long term solution to violence is pretty much never “more violence” – it never has been and never will be. Violence is certainly easier, more satisfying, and a hell of a lot quicker. It even sometimes appears to work for a time (it sure settled WW1, right?) but later on it becomes evident that what you did was just create a new, bigger, and even more difficult problem (World War 2). This is not to say violence is not occasionally or even often necessary in self-defense, but we need to remember that such acts do not, in and of themselves, constitute a solution to anything. The Nazis weren’t destroyed because we blew them up; they were defeated in the long term because of the Marshall Plan, because of how badly they treated their own people, and because of how much those same people wanted to become something different than what Hitler had made them. The war was a big part of that, yeah, but it wasn’t the only factor and wouldn’t have been a lasting one save for what came after.

Now, here we are setting the forest on fire again, and apparently hoping that what grows there afterwards will like us. Call me a cynic, but I say we were better off staying out of the woods in the first place, regardless of how satisfying it might be to watch those hobgoblins burn.

The Unreality of Fantasy-Reality Television

This summer/fall, ABC aired a new reality TV program entitled The Quest. The idea was to make a competitive reality TV show, but have it set in a fantasy world. The show boasted high production values and a new spin on an old trope. As a fantasy enthusiast, I was intrigued and I watched a few episodes – namely the pilot, one somewhere in the middle, and the finale.

It was lame.

I'd rather be meeting Phil on the mat, these awesome costumes aside.

I’d rather be meeting Phil on the mat, these awesome costumes aside.

I was disappointed, but I suppose I wasn’t surprised. The words ‘creativity’ and ‘competitive reality TV’ are almost exclusive terms, and so The Quest was essentially the same as Big Brother, Survivor, or any number of other by-the-numbers reality shows, except with a costume design department and a special effects budget. You had twelve contestants (sorry – 12 paladins) compete in a series of medieval-themed challenges to earn immunity or prevent their own elimination (“banishment”). Around this was the trappings of a ‘plot’ – a really basic ‘bad guy conquering the world’ scenario wherein the winner (“One True Hero”) uses the sunspear to defeat him (but really doesn’t, because that whole scene was staged anyway).

There was a moment, in the pilot, where I thought the show would be really something fun to watch. It was early in the episode and the contestants had just been brought to “Everrealm” and were confined in a courtyard while the locals figured out what to do with them (i.e. the contestants were forced into each other’s company to get to know each other prior to the game really starting). One guy, really playing up the setting, said “we should escape!” I immediately imagined a show in which the show designers wanted stuff like this to happen – things that seem to be spontaneous acts that, in actuality, were envisioned by the producers and allowed to happen. I saw the paladins scaling the low walls and going off on some kind of real adventure.

But then everybody in the courtyard said “no”. They sat around, the guards got them and escorted them to a bunch of rooms, and that was it. Cue the boring for the next however-many episodes. Challenge, chatter, Challenge, elimination, confessional booth, repeat. Over and over and over.

Me, I’m sick of that nonsense. I think this concept could be something way more fun and way more interesting than what ABC gave us. To do it, though, we need to change a lot of things.

1) Everybody Knows It Isn’t Real, So Don’t Try So Hard!

One of the stupid parts of the show was watching these people pretend they were in a different world when everybody (even them) obviously knew it wasn’t real. As these people were not actors, it was not convincing. Ever LARP-ed? Think of the worst LARP with the worst role-players ever, and it was like that. We can’t make emotional connections to a contest we know is fake. We can’t be amazed by turns of events we see coming a mile off as part of the show’s structure.

What you need to do here is admit that the show isn’t real and proceed from there. The stakes need to be something concrete and plot cannot be window dressing for this to work. How to do that? Well, don’t require your participants to pretend – let them be themselves, say what they want, act how they choose. Give them something to actually care about. Me? I’d set this game up like a dungeon crawl, essentially. I’d have a big-ass maze with a series of confounding puzzles and ‘monsters’, but the treasure would be REAL. Like, actual cash. Gold bars. Fancy jewelry. The keys to a new car. Suddenly, the people don’t have to act – they WANT to slay the ‘giant’, since that means getting a bunch of gold coins worth a couple thousand dollars. They don’t want to be eliminated, since that means no more treasure. Basically, this is the same motivation that drives a lot of RPG groups.

2) Take a Cue From RPGs

Don’t have a pack of idiots who are all paladins but cannot actually affect their environment. Set up ground rules and split the contestants into ‘parties’ of four. Fighter (has a fake sword, can defeat monsters), Wizard (give him spell packs, let him affect the environment with them), Rogue (give him a cape that makes him invisible to NPCs, give him a sneak-attack ability that works when he tags somebody on the back), and Priest (give him the ability to heal and also fight). Give them high-quality foam weapons. Set the ground rules and tell the audience what they are. Let the parties loose in the dungeon. Have them race each other for treasure.

3) No Structured Elimination

Don’t eliminate somebody every episode – it’s boring. Only eliminate them when they are ‘killed’ by the obstacles. Even then, let the bad guys capture team members and force them to try and save them. In fact, you could get some pretty interesting team alliances going if several members of several parties are captured. Can the wizard and the rogue get back their fighter without borrowing the fighter from another party? What will they give them to make them help? How can they be trusted? See? Suddenly there are real stakes at play, here!

4) Interactive Environment

To do this, you need to build a playground – a big, complicated playground. Think of the whole show like an elaborate dungeon in a 3D platformer (like the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time). To get through, parties need to find tools to open doors or navigate passageways. They need to defeat monsters to claim treasure. All parties can work at cross-purposes for this – maybe some will find the key and another will find the sword that kills the troll, but neither party can succeed unless they can do both things. The finale? Well, after the inevitable casualties happen, you’ll be left with the remnants of a few parties who will all have to work together to claim the main prize–a couple hundred thousand dollars split among those who make it to the end. Assuming anyone does.

To me, that sounds like a reality show I’d watch. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a fantasy author.

Return From the Edition Wars

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Once, in the dim mists of the past century, there was a glorious world wrought by the wizard Gygax. Deep dungeons, dark evils, and boundless adventure awaited those who journeyed there. The realm flourished and grew – Castle Greyhawk was joined by a vast world. Still more worlds came into being, each orbiting each other in the prosperous Prime Material Plane – Toril, Krynn, Sigil, and others. Sailing ships powered by bright magicks plied the Phlogiston between them. Heroes propagated by the millions.

In this bygone era, I was a ruler of such worlds. I wrought such wonders that those who found them were awestruck, and I laid such miseries upon the land that my name was spoken only as a curse. Heroes flourished beneath my gaze and I, myself, journeyed oft into the worlds of others to earn my own fortune.

But all was not well. The Worlds laid out by mighty Gygax were governed by irrational structures and fundamental laws. Though we of the People were well accustomed to their Byzantine vagaries, it was decided by gods more powerful than ourselves that a new age should dawn – one where the fundamental systems of the world were more logical, more sensible. So it was. But with this change came other, less positive changes. With the dawning of this new era, the worlds themselves – the ones I had walked for many years – grew stale and old. New worlds, made to replace the old, were pale shadows of what had come before. The gods who inherited the world from Gygax withered as their followers left and pursued other dreams and other worlds. I was among them, having grown weary of the dusty worlds of Gygax and hungry for new and greater adventures.

At length, starved of worship, those ancient gods died off.

Then came the New Gods – great gatherers of many-colored magicks, and wise in the ways of managing such worlds as Gygax had created. Or so we thought. They brought in a new era, one where the old systems were wiped away and replaced with a new one, so unlike the original that it was scarcely recognizable. Though still more streamlined and efficient than the old ways, it still lacked the life and vitality that Gygax had originally intended. It was solid, workmanlike, but hardly inspiring. I, from my seclusion in the far off worlds of Master Laws and Lord Wick, did not return. 

But lo, a new age hath dawned. The 5th iteration of mighty Gygax’s legacy has arrived, and a return to those halcyon days of yore may be at hand. I have heard the silver trumpets; I have answered the call. After long ages, I have taken up my staff and my sword and come to travel this new world. I will see if it is as I remember. If so, it may be that my ancient empire will once again flourish. Let heroes beware…    

The Maps of TSR: A Narrative Analysis

When The Oldest Trick, Part 1 is released early next year, I will officially be a published fantasy author. Ideally, a few months after that I will be a successful one (hint hint, folks). As I have wrestled this summer with writing the third book in the as-yet unnamed Tyvian Reldamar series, I have been considering what it means, exactly, to be an ‘epic fantasy author’ (epic fantasy being my subgenre, apparently, though that word ‘epic’ gives me fits). Now, this question has as many answers as there are authors. For me, a key part of fantasy has always been maps. I love maps, and especially fantasy world maps. I feel like a good map tells its own story and makes the world real. A good map makes you want to live there. I have extensive maps for Alandar (my fantasy world) and an atlas that I guard like the Holy Grail (as they contain the only copies of the maps I’ve drawn). I bought Campaign Cartographer to help me make more maps, but ones which I can copy and distribute (it’s awesome, by the way, but I’m not good enough with it to make the maps as awesome as they are in my head – still easier to hand-draw them.).

So it is that, recently, when I was invited to play in my friend’s Forgotten Realms D&D campaign, that pulled up a copy of the map of Faerun – the world of Forgotten Realms. It’s….it’s just awesome. Incredibly awesome. I was instantly transported back to high school, pouring over the atlases of places like Ansalon and Faerun and Oreth. Feeling the inspiration to make my own maps and, by extension, create my own worlds. In large part, I attribute the existence of Alandar to those big TSR boxed sets from the 1990s with their piles of awesome maps.  They were a lot of the initial inspiration for it all.

What’s So Great About These Maps, Weirdo?

If you love history (like I do) and study it, it becomes clear that geography has a powerful effect on culture, civilization, and history. Europe was created by the Alps more than by the Roman Empire; the Roman Empire was created by the Italian Peninsula. America owes its America-ness to the Appalachians and the Great Plains, to Cape Cod, and to the Potomac and Hudson River. Study it, and the connections are all there, plain as day.

If you look at your average fantasy world map, it often has just enough detail to let you know where you are, but nothing more. Comparing that map to a map of the real world is like comparing a child’s finger-painting to a Renaissance masterpiece. Accordingly (and obviously), the complexity of the real world dwarfs that of your average fantasy setting. This is probably always going to be true (few fantasy authors are as monumentally good world builders as George R.R. Martin, for instance), but a really good map can help make the gap that much narrower. I feel that TSR’s maps always did a good job of this. Let me discuss them in turn.

A land fractured...

A land fractured…

Ansalon

The primary setting for the D&D Dragonlance world, Ansalon is a continent that suffered a great Cataclysm in the recent past (a comet hit the planet, swallowing one corner of the continent and seriously upsetting the rest of it). The destruction wrought on the landscape is clear simply by looking at the map. Everywhere is isolated from everywhere else by oceans, mountains, and wastelands. Ansalon, therefore, is a land of peoples isolated from one another. The riding of dragons (a major setting element) is sensible in this setting – you need a way to get around these obstacles if you intend to conquer anywhere. It makes sense.

This map also demonstrates how the creators of the world (Weiss and Hickman) build this place in order to have fun with it. There’s a lot going on here – a lot of cities, but also a lot of trackless wilderness. There are plenty of places for dragons to hide. There’s a giant evil whirlpool/storm in one corner. The waterways are choked and complex, making for much sailing adventure (if desired). It looks like the kind of place adventures can be had, and that was something I latched on to long ago as important in a map. The more fun the place looked, the more fun you could get to happen.

Oerth

Look at all them kingdoms!

Look at all them kingdoms!

The principal setting for Greyhawk campaigns, Oerth is a massive continent with a intricate series of petty nation states, kingdoms, duchies, and principalities all jockeying for position in a heavily populous world. Unlike Ansalon, where the struggle is clearly Man Vs Nature, here the struggle is Man Vs Man. The wild places exist on the fringes – over mountains, across distant oceans, far away and out of mind. The day to day business of the citizens of Oerth is protecting their land from violent neighbors. The setting contributes to that, too – part of the world’s history is a world-wide war that shattered much of the political status-quo. Oerth is a land of intrigue and warfare and less one of exploration and discovery. Its geography is well suited to this.

I confess that Oerth had a definitive influence over my design of Alandar. Not only did I run a long-running Greyhawk campaign in high school, but I loved the precarious balance of powers presented by the world and noted how the geography of the place contributed to that. If you have been reading my Alandar background pieces (and God bless you, by the way), you can see that elaborate political alliances are part and parcel for the setting. One of the things that does this in Oerth is the Azure Sea and the Nyr Dyv (the inland ocean/big lake about map center and the mostly-inland sea in the south). By having these big waterways ensconced by competing powers, it makes the ocean not a venue for distant exploration so much as a setting for trade, travel, piracy, and naval warfare. Think of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean – same idea.

Faerun

Wow...just wow...

Wow…just wow…

Faerun is the grandpappy of them all. The primary setting for Forgotten Realms campaigns, it is, first and foremost, huge. Of all of the maps thus far discussed, this is the one I feel best simulates something akin to the real world. It is almost a mixture of Ansalon and Oreth – there are isolated pockets of civilization cut off by wide swathes of wilderness, but also big blocks of civilized countries that must be jockeying for resources in their little corner of the world. There are mountains and rivers, inland seas (which are themselves a result of cataclysmic events), distant wastelands, forests and jungles and so on and so forth. Unlike Ansalon or even Oerth, one look at the map of Faerun makes it clear that there is more than one story to tell in this world. What is happening in the North along the Sword Coast is not the same as what is happening in the Dalelands around the Sea of Fallen Stars, and both are distinct from the troubles of Calimshan and Chult. This is a world in regions, like our own, which clearly must have their own distinct politics, habits, cultures, and peoples.

If the West in Alandar is inspired by Oerth, the whole of Alandar is very much inspired by Faerun. My world (separated into West, North, South, and the Isles) is very much separated that way, even if inter-regional conflict does occur. Cultures, languages, and religions all differ, just as they do in Faerun. I only hope my own world is as much fun to explore and adventure in as this one, which has enjoyed 30 years of passionate fans of the books, RPGs, and video games.

I should be so lucky.

 

My Favorite PCs: Kenny “Cowboy” Garret

Cowboy must be imagined as being played by this man.

Cowboy must be imagined as being played by this man.

Sometimes, as a GM, people come to you with a character concept that has you scratching your head. Some guy says “Hey, can I play a character who’s a priest, but he’s also a were-snake and is on the run from the mob?” You want to tell them how silly that sounds to you, because you can’t really wrap your head around the idea of a snake/priest/mobster nor are you certain how on earth you’ll work such a character into your campaign and wish they’d just pick something normal and easy to follow. The thing is, though, that you shouldn’t. Well, almost never, anyway (I did have somebody want to play a character that, given the setting, all the other characters would be morally and legally obligated to kill – I talked them out of it). Let me take a second here and tell you why you should always try to say yes, though. Let me tell you about Cowboy.

Cowboy was (and arguably is – the campaign is just on an extended break) played by my friend Will in a Shadowrun campaign set in Hong Kong. He is a vampire. He is a race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong. He is Texas-born race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong.

Yeah, I know. This is a edge-of-setting character archetype from an out-of-setting locale doing a job that the character archetype isn’t technically suited to do. It sounded…odd. I wondered whether he might not just be happier if he played a physical adept with a focus in car driving. But no – Will wanted to play this character. Sticking to my mantra, I said yes.

Cut to 3 missions later. We’ve already established that Cowboy can turn gaseous but, when he does so, he leaves his clothes behind. All the other PCs at this point have seen Cowboy naked, which is amusing enough, but nobody knows he’s a vampire (as they are illegal persons in Hong Kong and could be murdered for a sizeable bounty). The rest of the team, at this moment, is involved in a dangerous manhunt in Kowloon Walled City, trying to find a man before the HKPD finds him, all while dodging ghouls, gangers, evil spirits, and Knight Errant response teams.

Cowboy and ork grifter Boris are holed up in a building nearby, watching the police perimeter. They notice that the cops are moving out, meaning they’ve got a fix on the target, which means the team is in trouble. The team is out of radio contact and Boris is currently getting high off novacoke, so Cowboy takes matters into his own hands. He goes gaseous, leaving his clothes behind, sneaks across the street, and infiltrates a police cruiser. He then goes corporeal again, starts up the car and, after swinging by to pick up a very-high Boris, proceeds to lead half the Hong Kong Police department on a crazy chase through the alleys and trash-strewn streets of Hong Kong’s meanest slums. He did this while naked, while a very high Boris screamed bloody murder in the seat next to him, and while playing country western music at top volume. The car lost mirrors, had a fender blown off, had bullets put through the windshield. It was magnificent!

Then, in the grandest of finales, Cowboy tried to make it into a mall parking structure before a Thunderbird got a lock on their cruiser with their assault cannon – he failed. The car disintegrated in a ball of fire and high-velocity slugs, sending Cowboy across the pavement at high speed, making a road-pizza of him. Boris, through expenditure of every ounce of luck he had, managed to survive by skipping across the reflecting pool before the mall and smashing through a plate-glass window.

Cowboy? Well, he’s a vampire, son! He just healed himself, stood up, and walked home. All buck naked, all while whistling “Thunder Road.” Good times.

So, yeah – if a player comes to you with something bonkers, say yes. Variety is the spice of life.

The Breaking of Fellowship

They all have to go their separate ways eventually, right?

They all have to go their separate ways eventually, right?

The truism is this: all good things must come to an end. We like to think that our current happiness or contentment is permanent, but nothing is permanent. Friends move away, loved ones die, prosperity fades, possessions are destroyed, philosophies are undermined – everything upon which we often base our idea of happiness is transient. Gaming, as it happens, is no different.

I organize my gaming life into several epochs. First was Junior High through High School, known as the D&D Epoch. I ran 5 campaigns; I played in 5-6 or so, plus innumerable one-shots and campaigns that never got out of the first session. It was mostly the same 6 people. We lost a few along the way, gained a few. Then college drew us to different states and we moved on to ‘real life.’ I looked back on those days while in college, feeling like I hadn’t yet fully capitalized upon what RPGs could do and wishing I could try again.

Then came the Pelham Epoch. Some friends of mine – all gamers and nerds – moved to this apartment in Arlington that became our gaming Mecca. I ran 5 campaigns there and played in 2-3, plus again the innumerable one-shots. This was my gilded age of gaming – a bunch of unmarried adults with no kids and few obligations getting together every week for tons and tons of geekery. It seemed like it would last forever. Of course it didn’t – people moved away, many of us got married, many of our jobs became more and more intrusive into our lives. Some of us just tired of gaming altogether and pulled back their involvement. The Fellowship was broken, to borrow Tolkien’s idiom.

What followed is the current epoch, which I have taken to calling the Diaspora. The once great gaming group is scattered and occupied with other things. Games are happening, but not all in the same place and often without our collective awareness. I know there’s 1-2 campaigns going on that I’m not involved in, but unlike in the Pelham days, I know nothing about them. I don’t hear the stories. I don’t pass through the room while the fun is happening. I never spectate. I’ve run 6 campaigns in this era and played in 1. Lots of one-shots, too. The gaming is as fun as it ever was, but rarer and more constrained by time and distance. Gaming has drifted down the priority list for most, coming in a distant third or fourth behind things like family, work, and other ‘grown-up’ activities.

This epoch, also, is moving towards its end, I feel. I don’t know what the change will be, but it’s in the wind. I grow frustrated with how difficult it is to arrange a game, with how hard I need to work to get my friends in one room again. It spoils a fair amount of the fun for me. I feel like some kind of weirdo, bugging people who don’t really care anymore to play games they pretend to like in order to assuage my ego or something. I can’t emphasize how much I hate that feeling. It makes me angry sometimes, and none of this should involve anger, ever.

So, where is all this going? Well, I could talk about gaming-as-metaphor for life, but that seems grandiose. Let me just say this: enjoy the moment, be there for your friends now.  They may always be your friends, but they won’t always be sitting in your living room eating popcorn while slaying a dragon. Nothing lasts forever.