People have wondered how my writing is going. So, here it is:
I’ve been stuck inside my house since mid-March.
I’ve got three kids, two cats, and a dog, all trapped in said house with me.
I’ve been teaching a 7yo to read, potty training a 2yo, soothing a 10yo’s anxieties about missing a Zoom meeting and getting in trouble. There has been a lot of crying.
I’ve been making lunch for everybody, especially for my wife, who has spent about 9-10 hours a day, every day trying to make sure my state’s transportation systems are safe, funded, and provided with all the PPE necessary to save lives.
The president is a fascist traitor. No, that’s not a political opinion.
Cops are tear-gassing and beating people protesting police violence all over my homeland.
The fireworks – always prevalent – have been going off all night, every night since early May.
A global pandemic has killed 115,000 of my countrymen at this point, with only more on the way.
And during all of this, I have managed to write two short stories, a rough draft of a novel, and a textbook chapter.
So, the question is: HOW?
Let’s first recognize my privilege: I am still employed and I don’t need to worry about food or paying my mortgage or anything. My family is supportive of my writing – especially my wife. My 10yo daughter has been crucially helpful in wrangling my toddler, allowing me to spend about 4 hours any given day (in 2-hour spurts) at “work” up in my office. Oh, yeah – I live in a house large enough to have a room to myself I can call an office. I also do not suffer from any particular mental illness I am aware of – I do not battle depression or anxiety, I am not a victim of trauma. I am extremely fortunate.
Beyond this, though, I find that the global catastrophes are motivating me to write rather than preventing it. For one thing, writing is an escape for me – I crawl inside my book or my stories and live there for a while and forget about everything in the world. It isn’t that I’m not worried about the world outside, but I have found that pretty much the only thing I can do is to sit down and write through it all. I sort of need to, in order to feel normal.
I say all this not as a kind of humblebrag, mind you. If anything, doing this has made me feel strange and almost disconnected. The vast majority of people I know are having trouble staying motivated, distracted too much by the outside world to focus. It sort of makes me wonder if my capacity for empathy is broken or if I’m being unusually selfish by locking myself away as I am (to the extent that I am). But…I can’t help it. I have to write to feel normal. I have to tell stories.
And furthermore: remember that this isn’t a race. I am writing well right now, fine, but soon enough you’ll be writing better than I am. And what does better/worse even mean in this context? We are all doing what we can. Me? I’m huddled up with my laptop in my office writing as much as I can – that’s how I’m coping. You? You might be coping some other way. Regardless of how, though, we are going to make it through this. We are all going to have stories to tell. And we are all going to have the time to tell them one day.
So, don’t measure how you’re writing against how anybody else is. As somebody who can’t write at any other time than the summer months (because of my day job), I keenly feel that sensation of falling behind, of not being able to keep up, of losing your focus. That’s me, eight months of the year. How do I deal with it then? I do a little work here, a little work there. I plug along at a snail’s pace. I focus on short fiction and editing and keep my expectations low. It’s frustrating, but I get there. You will too.
Good luck, my writing friends. It’s nuts out there. Keep dealing as best you can. You have my admiration and my support, always.
I come downstairs to find a stranger in my house. He is uninvited. He stands in the kitchen, poking through my cabinets.
“Information wants to be free, you know,” he says. He picks up my wallet, weighs it in one hand.
“This is a service,” he says, slipping a crisp dollar bill from inside and sliding it in his pocket. “For the poor. You understand.”
He takes another dollar. And then one more. But only that much. “What’s unfortunate,” he says, opening the fridge, “is that we have a system that makes this necessary.”
He selects a beer. I, of course, do not drink, but I say, “that’s for guests.”
“So you’re going to take their side?” He says. “You’re only helping the corporations.” He opens my beer. He drinks it.
“Who are you?”
“You know what your problem is,” he says. “You’re selfish. Greedy, even.” He opens a box of cereal from the cabinet, pours some in a mug.
“Do you ever ask for things?” I say. It’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m confused. Angry.
“Oh, you’re angry now?” He dumps the cereal in the trash. “I’ve been doing this for years, and you’re angry only now, when you’ve noticed? Typical.”
“Get out!” I open the door for him.
He shakes his head. “This could have been a revolution. Now see what you’ve done.”
As he leaves, he slides his hand into my pocket and pulls out a fresh, new ballpoint pen. “Thanks for nothing, asshole.”
There’s a kind of surrealism in the US these days. Our president is a fascist monster and hopeless incompetent, half our government are complicit toadies, the other half are arguing over the rulebook after the table has been flipped over. Then, in the fringes, you’ve got the revolutionaries who offer stirring visions of the future but no plan to achieve them that much of anybody really believes. Gangs of government-supported paramilitary groups shoot and gas unarmed civilians. Gangs of independent paramilitary groups parade around with assault weapons, threatening violence. Innocents are killed. Buildings burn. And then there’s the Plague: invisible, insidious, it sickens and kills tens of thousands all while the regional governments struggle to contain the damage and implore the ignorant and the selfish to stay home.
For those of us lucky enough to still have a job and to have thus-far avoided the violence and the disease, we sit at home and grip our coffee mugs a bit too hard as we listen to the news each day. “Damage Report, Mr. Scott” is the mood. One friend of mine observes: “I feel like I’m standing on a trap door every day, just waiting for it to open.”
Folks, we’re living inside a storybook. Maybe it’s a technothriller, maybe it’s a fantasy or a scifi epic, but it shouldn’t be lost on us that what is happening is the stuff epics are made of. Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones and a dozen other properties have imagined similar worlds, all of them based, at least loosely, off of reality.
I don’t say this to somehow trivialize our collective experiences, but only to contextualize how we understand these stories. The worlds depicted by these stories are terrifying. They are awful and chaotic and violent, and maybe we don’t notice it so much because of the heroes we follow along with. I mean, Han Solo’s adventures seem pretty romantic, right? Wouldn’t it be cool to live in the Star Wars world?
Well, now we know the answer: no. No, it would not.
Some of us out there – some special, courageous people – are rising to this occasion. They are fighting the disease and trying to fix the government and trying to stop the violence. They are putting their bodies in harm’s way or testing their endurance and their sanity by remaining engaged and active during this traumatic time.
For the rest of us? Well, we…aren’t. We feel useless, sidelined, helpless. We keep looking into the wings, awaiting Luke Skywalker’s entrance or the coming of Daenerys. But, we are reminded, this is the real world and things don’t really work that way, no matter what the storybooks say.
I, personally, feel paralyzed. I have three small children at home who need me, a wife who is working constantly to try and keep regional transportation systems working in a pandemic, and I’ve got a job that requires my constant attention. I can’t contribute in any way that feels meaningful. I donate what I can to the bail funds (which you should do, as well). I teach my students about social justice and ethics and help them hone their ability to express themselves. I share and I like and I read the articles. And yet it all erodes at my sense of equilibrium and undercuts my sense of self worth. I feel miserable and isolated, weak and afraid.
I have known for some time that I’m no hero, at least not in the Skywalker or Solo sense of the word. It’s quite a thing, though, to see the dramatic sweep of history happening and to watch it rumble by and find yourself powerless before it.
So I, and millions like me, sit here and try to stay calm and make lunch for my kids and help them with their homework and try and distract myself from that overwhelming sense that another shoe has yet to fall, and bring the remaining structure of my country down with it.
It’s quite a feeling, let me tell you.
Paul Atreides kneels before the Reverend Mother.
“Put your hand in the box,” she says.
“What is in there?” Paul asks.
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.
Hello, all my isolated friends.
Feeling lonely? Want an escape? Well, I’ve got the perfect getaway! The good folks over at Graphic Audio who specialize in creating super cool audio dramas (with a full cast, musical score, sound effects – the works!) have just released part 2 of my Saga of the Redeemed, titled Iron and Blood.
It’s the second half of the first book (The Oldest Trick), which continues the story of Tyvian Reldamar, rogue duelist and dastardly smuggler, in his quest for revenge while saddled with a magic ring that just won’t let him do anything evil. If you missed the first part, you can get that from Graphic Audio here.
There’s swordfights, man-eating gnolls, wizard’s duels, ancient ruins, conspiracies, found families, and so much more! And if you listen to these two and can’t wait for the next one? Well, the whole series is complete and available in book form, on sale everywhere fine e-books are sold.
So, help me help you by getting these excellent fantasy stories into your hands as soon as possible! Click on the links! You won’t regret it!
Hail, weak and irrelevant wetlanders! It is I, Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, come to taunt you at your darkest hour, just as was foretold by the casting of the bones!
I must say that I have been waiting a long time for this. Long has Vrokthar anticipated the collapse of your decadent and corrupt civilization – such a thing was inevitable, just as the sun sets and the coming of the winter frost. And yet, despite this, Vrokthar is…underwhelmed.
Your civilization is on the brink of destruction and all I get is…Tiger King?
Where…where are the hordes of zombies? Where is the rain of fire from your distant adversaries? Where are the howling wolves and the roaming packs of lunatics on dirt bikes? WHERE ARE THEY?
Because that is the apocalypse Vrokthar demands! If I am to descend into the chaos of your doom and chain thee to the wheels of my battle-wagon, I want there to be a decent fight, first. I wish to cast down your meager guardians, clad in their football pads and armed with crude aluminum clubs, with the strength of my mighty weapons and the sight of my invincible immensity! Not…not crash into some losers apartment and slay him in his pajamas while he binges on Picard!
And, for another thing, if you think I’m even going to raid down there this year, you’re nuts.
Vrokthar does not truck with germs. Why else wouldst he dwell here, in the frozen north, well beyond the breeding ground of any tropical plague? Because, well…
Because Vrokthar fears disease, okay? There, it has been spoken. Getting sick is scary, especially when your health plan is just some magic talismans way past their expiration date and some dentist you kidnapped back in 2012 that you’ve been keeping in a cage for just this occasion. And, it is now that Vrokthar learns the awful truth – dentists know NOTHING of plagues! Just plaque! PLAQUE!
WHAT THE FUCK EVEN IS PLAQUE?!
But no matter. What is important here is that you – yonder slackbrained imbeciles and limp-limbed toadies – have managed to find a way to have an apocalypse that is just NO FUN AT ALL! All you idiots need to do to survive is sit on your needlessly over-cushioned settees and watch infinite hours of brainless, juvenile entertainment, and for some reason you can’t even manage it! You miss your friends? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW LONG THE WINTERS ARE UP HERE? I live in a tiny cave that stinks of dead animals and dentist piss for seven fucking months a year, and you assholes can’t give up going to the bar for a few weeks? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
I think this is all a ploy, yes. All of you are just trying to cheat Vrokthar of his long-imagined revenge! You’re going to get yourselves killed in this, the most terrifying and least violent of ways, just so I won’t come down there and force you to build a pyramid in my honor in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. Ah, yes – you thought you had duped the mighty Vrokthar, but no, his keen intellect hath pierced your tattered ruse! HA!
Of course, I am not going to come down there and do anything about it. Not yet. You filthy creeps could all be sick, and Barry and I are not about to get any kind of illness here in our cozy little cave.
(Barry is the dentist, by the way. He bids greetings to his family, who doubtless gave him up for dead long ago and have found a new father to serve, as I remind him of daily.)
But I digress.
The point is, I’m angry with all of you and deeply disappointed. I thought, at the least, you might have managed an entertaining demise. But no matter. I will see you in July or something and oh, then you will pay! You will pay mightily!
Disclaimer: what follows is some world-building notes from a fantasy setting I’ve been developing for the past year or two, primarily in short fiction.
As my captors will never deign to write their history themselves, let alone read it, I, Yrelliel Dawnsbreath, the last of the the elves, take up my quill and scratch this missive in the diluted blood of my own people. So that people, one day, may know.
The wars were lost. This much is obvious. The kingdoms of humanity were crushed, the dwarven empire ground to dust, and the immortal courts of the elves slaughtered and forgotten. This was over a century ago now, though the pain of it is still keen. Know you the old human proverb, “time heals all wounds?” Not so for the children of the twilit world – we elves remember. We remember as it was yesterday, and for all time. I envy my ancient human friends now, long sent to their rest, leaving scarcely a ghost to haunt me.
But my monitor – a hobgoblin named Fether – grows anxious. He believes me to be writing something I ought not, which indeed I am. How fortunate I am that he cannot read my calligraphy. Oh, how my mother would laugh. She always found my penmanship abysmal. Now, after the world I knew has ended, how funny it is that such terrible handwriting would serve as my primary defense.
But, to business.
All orcs are born goblins. This was not commonly known in the World Before, but now it occupies my thoughts at all times. The species, which we once thought four distinct races, is really one. How arrogant of us to never learn this. How steep the cost of such pride.
Goblins are wretched creatures. Usually discarded by their mothers shortly after birth, they grow quickly into vicious, adaptable little creatures who know nothing but hunger and terror in equal measures. But I will say this: their cruelty is not genetic. Many have been the young goblins set to bring me food or spy upon my rest or run this or that errand of my captors who has looked at me not with revulsion and hatred, but with curiosity and wonderment. I see in their red-rimmed gaze the same innocence and eager energy I remember among human children, though goblins are physically the most superior children ever born. By the age of five summers they can sprint as well as any elf I can recall, and their nimble little fingers are capable of great feats of ingenuity.
Goblins survive on their wits and their will alone. Orc society shows them little mercy. They are servants, slaves, and even more wretched things in this world, and it twists them to become their worst selves or, as is often the case, kills them before they can ever amount to anything worthwhile.
The species is always growing, always feeding. The more a goblin eats, the larger they get. Eventually, they grow large enough to depart the title of “goblin” altogether, though when exactly this occurs is subject to some debate, I gather. In any event, food is strictly controlled, strictly rationed. Only those goblins that prove themselves worthy of their masters’ affection are fed, and the rest eat only what they can steal. If they are very lucky, they become hobgoblins.
Hobgoblins are the managers of orc society. Their chief responsibility lies in keeping the labor force (the goblins) in line, by lash or by hook. They are granted greater privileges by their orc masters – regular meals, a degree of protection from other orcs, access to equipment and training. Aboard a leviathan, hobgoblins act as reliable foot soldiers, as only they have a degree of loyalty to their orc masters. Like goblins, they are clever and ingenious, devising the vast bureaucracy that allows Orcdom to function and constructing the huge machines that gave it the capacity to overcome the world of old. If they are met with success, they are permitted to attend the feasting table of their orc master and are showered with food. In time, should they continue to impress their masters, they will soon grow large enough to become an orc themselves.
The orcs, of course, are the warlords, rulers, tyrants, and masters of this society. Huge, bulky, violent, and only occasionally cunning, they live for conquest, whether in the military or civilian arenas. Their hunger is, of course, their defining feature. Whatever civilized traits they once possessed have long since been beaten out of them by their hardscrabble climb to the top of the social pyramid. They are without imagination, as imagination is seen as a threat to their society. There are no artists in this world of theirs. No poets. Scarcely any scholars worth the name.
Just an elf with poor penmanship chained in a tower.
There is, of course, one more evolution beyond that of the orc. It is rarely spoken of in orc society, as the orcs fear what the greatest among them become. Should an orc be unusually successful, whether at war with other tribes or even as a merchant or ruler or otherwise, and should they gorge themselves on feasts that would embarrass even the most gluttonous human king of old, they will, of course, continue to grow. As they grow – and indeed along their whole history of growth, from their birth as a goblin onwards – their hunger becomes more and more part of who they are. The orcs are balanced (barely) between the intelligence of their former self and the barbaric hunger that has gotten them this far. For trolls, they have fallen off the precipice.
Trolls are gigantic creatures, standing ten or even fifteen feet tall and weighing as much as four or five horses. They are nothing but unrestrained appetite, eating everything they come across, regenerating even the most grievous wounds, and leaving behind them a trail of destruction. They are a thing apart in orc society – more beast that being – and bear with them a kind of religious awe. Indeed, I have heard of whole troops of dispossessed goblins, hobgoblins, and even orcs that follow in their wake, worshiping the passing of the troll and feasting upon that which was left behind. These fanatical bands are a scourge upon the order of this society, but one that Orcdom insists is necessary, for some reason. I cannot understand it. In my old life I would not have wished to. But now?
Now, there is little I have to do but to understand this new world in which I live. To marvel at its perversity and its strange vitality. And to write it so that my orcish captors will never truly know what I write of them.
Back when my books first got published, a bunch of people told me that they’d love to read them, but that they really only “read” audiobooks and when would the audiobook be coming out. Well, the answer is RIGHT NOW!
Graphic Audio has released the first part of the first book of The Saga of the Redeemed in audiobook as of yesterday. And, what’s even cooler is that this isn’t your regular, average audiobook – this is a full cast audio production, with sound-effects, music, a full cast of voice actors! Like podcasts? Like radio dramas? Man, have I got a treat for you!
They’ve also committed to producing the whole series, too! The second part of The Oldest Trick will be released in the coming months, and the rest of the series will follow after that. Hours and hours and hours of Tyvian, Artus, Hool, Myreon, and the rest of them, coming to life in a movie in your mind!
New to the Saga of the Redeemed? Well, check this out:
Tyvian Reldamar—criminal mastermind, rogue mage, and smuggler of sorcerous goods—has just been betrayed by his longtime partner and left for dead in a freezing river. To add insult to injury, his mysterious rescuer took it upon himself to affix Tyvian with an iron ring that prevents the wearer from any evildoing.
Revenge just got complicated.
On his quest to get even, Tyvian navigates dark international conspiracies, dodges midnight assassins, and uncovers the plans of the ruthless warlord Banric Sahand—all while running from a Mage-Defender determined to lock him up. Tyvian will need to use every dirty trick in the book to avoid a painful and ignominious end, even as he discovers that sometimes even the world’s most devious man needs a shoulder to lean on.
It’s got swordfights and magical duels, monsters and wizards, assassins and bounty-hunters, antiheroes and found families – what more could you ask for? Go and check it out right now! There’s even a 7-minute sample of the book for free on their website. (and, as always, if you’d just rather read the books, I know somewhere you can do that, too.)
Okay! You’ve got your mission – go!
I’m at Boskone this weekend!
I’ll be attending Boskone in downtown Boston this weekend as a guest! This is a great convention, conveniently located, and really really fun. I hope to see you there!
Here’s my schedule:
Are Superheroes Dying?
14 Feb 2020, Friday 16:00 – 16:50, Harbor I (Westin)
You can’t keep a good (or bad) superhero down for long … because they always seem to come back in the next scene, chapter, or film. That’s their essential nature: They defy death! But is that really a good thing? Should we let superheroes fade gently into that good night? Are we finally tiring of these endlessly buoyant characters?
Josh Dahl (MakeBetterComics.com) (M), Auston Habershaw, Melinda Snodgrass (Stealing Fire Productions Inc.), John Langan, Jim Infantino (Jim’s Big Ego)
Great Gamemasters as Storytellers
14 Feb 2020, Friday 20:00 – 20:50, Marina 2 (Westin)
A great GM (gamemaster) can make or break the experience. Learn about what makes a good GM, tips for running your own table, and lessons learned along the way. Also, discover how running a game can encourage creativity and lead to ideas that can then be infused into a (written) story!
Trisha J. Wooldridge (M), Christopher Irvin, Melissa Caruso, Auston Habershaw, Gregory Wilson
Reading: Auston Habershaw
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 12:30 – 12:55, Independence (Westin)
A Muster of MFAs and Workshop Writers
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 15:00 – 15:50, Marina 4 (Westin)
Thinking about attending a Master of Fine Arts program or writing workshop? Wondering how to choose between a week-long workshop and a multi-year MFA, or a low-residency versus an onsite program? How do you determine what fits your needs? And once you’re done, how do you measure personal success and deal with the writing highs and lows that are coming? Join us for an in-depth discussion on how to choose what’s “write” for you.
David Anthony Durham (M), John Kessel (North Carolina State University), Auston Habershaw, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), Isabel Yap
Building Worlds Within LitRPG and Games
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 17:00 – 17:50, Marina 3 (Westin)
Literature, litRPG, and games all share a common worldbuilding process, but at what point do those processes diverge? How do the specific genres drive the narrative, which in turn drives the worldbuilding template for these different types of stories? What key elements distinguish litRPG and gaming fiction from their speculative fiction peers?
Auston Habershaw (M), Christopher Irvin, Mur Lafferty, M. C. DeMarco, Erin Roberts
Game to Fiction/Fiction to Game
15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 20:50, Burroughs (Westin)
Game designers have to come up with an interesting world and compelling story in much the same way as authors who write fiction. So, what does it take to adapt a game to fiction or fiction to game? What new opportunities does the process create? What obstacles need to be overcome?
Gregory Wilson, Dan Moren (M), Joshua Bilmes (JABberwocky Literary Agency), Auston Habershaw, Mur Lafferty
It’s been a long time since I’ve waxed poetic about the various brilliant and talented players who have participated in my RPG campaigns and the downright awesome characters they’ve created, so I figured it was high time for a post.
Last year, I ran a campaign of 5th Edition D&D for high-level characters (all PCs started at 12th level). As I described in this post about the set-up for the campaign, I devoted significant time to make sure all the players felt as though their party had been adventuring together for ages and we collectively built for them an in-depth backstory. Since the basic concept behind the campaign was to simulate a “getting the old band back together” kind of thing, I wanted there to be history that the players could draw upon and that would make them look (and feel) super cool. I don’t mind saying that this campaign was a wild, wild success – one of the best I’ve ever run – and the reason why has relatively little to do with me and everything to do with the choices the players made during character creation and during the campaign itself.
They called themselves the Thorns.
Recruited by the radical Interventionist cleric of Rao (god of diplomacy, peace, and justice), Thister Amberlee, she was the Princess Leia to their Han/Chewie/Luke/Lando. The Church of Rao, you see, doesn’t really like to make trouble – they want everyone to be friends. The ruling clerical faction – called the Isolationists – took a very hands-off policy, advocating soft power over hard. The Interventionists, like Thister, felt that was short sighted – there was no negotiating with death cultists and tyrants, with rampaging giants and the restless dead. So, against the wishes of the establishment, she recruited her own group of adventurers to help her go around and right wrongs and bring justice to the unjust. Essentially, Greyhawk’s version of the A-Team.
They became legends, these heroes. Treasure and glory and titles were heaped upon their shoulders. I was going to start them about ten years after the party had a parting of the ways and that something was going to bring them back together. I gave them three character generation stipulations:
- They would start 12th level and have access to a variety of magic items, followers, and other stuff at the start.
- They could not have an evil alignment.
- Despite everything, they loved and trusted Thister Amberlee with their lives.
Now, this could have easily blown up in my face. Characters this powerful can do a LOT of damage and everyone knows how weak alignment and character backstory can be once the dice start hitting the table. One of the first plot points was that Thister had gone missing – kidnapped or possible dead – and she had left a secret message telling them they had much more important problems than finding her: they needed to save the world.
My second commandment for TTRPG players is called “buy-in.” It’s the idea that a good player will not only want to play in the world and style that the GM creates, but also that they will actively contribute and heighten those ideas to make them more fun. With this set-up, and given their power, the Thorns could have easily paid lip-service to the idea of helping Thister (or saving the world) and gone off to do their own thing. They could have put a torpedo straight through this whole campaign and become pirates or slave-traders or conquered a small country of their own or something. But instead, the bought-in hard.
First there was Miles Maywater, the assassin, known as the Hound of Veluna – slayer of tyrants, bane to the wicked. A prickly, analytical man with a monastic style, he was always the dispassionate one, arguing for the most sensible and practical course of action. Thister was a respected colleague and sister within the Rao faith, in whom he had the greatest confidence.
His foil was Faison Sharpe, the tiefling valor-bard, known to all as The Friendly Fiend, who loved Thister with all his heart (though she was never really romantically interested in him). A saloon owner and braggart (and also bastard son of none other than the Dark Prince Grazz’t himself), Sharpe wore his heart on his sleeve and thought with his passions not his brains. He preferred bold, heroic action and wild acts of daring. He and Miles fought constantly, but they also always bailed each other out of danger when the chips were down. One of the great moments of the campaign was when Miles was on the brink of death and all the other party members were gone and Miles had to figure out what to do with a terrible secret, the first thing he did was center himself, look down at his feet, and say “What would Miles do? What would Miles do?” It was beautiful, trust me.
Often in Sharpe’s corner was Snell, the Infernal-pact Warlock, sworn to serve Dispater, Lord of the Infernal City of Dis. Known as the Keeper of Secrets and also given the moniker the Cursed, it was Thister that saved him from slavery and always treated him as an equal which earned her is vicious, undying loyalty (he was Lawful Neutral). Snell was full of doubts where the others were confident, but he was integral to everything going on. It was, after all, Dispater, who kidnapped Thister leading him to eventually decide to betray his own patron (and lose his powers) to tell his friends how to save her. Then we got to watch him manipulate a series of imps and hellish denizens to legally box Dispater into having to transfer his contract to one of his fiendish rivals – Mephistopheles.
Rounding out the cast was the grim and taciturn Severus, Ranger and Knight of the High Forest, known as the Manhunter. Famed tracker, tactician, and paranoid loner, Severus was always the first into the fray but was also the one who most often gloomy about their chances for survival.
Without their grade-A roleplaying and true devotion to the campaign’s story, the campaign could have easily devolved into rote encounters. But, by playing up their flaws and tensions between one another, by voluntarily splitting the party at critical junctures, and by acting out a role rather than acting as a piece on a gameboard, we had truly, truly ridiculous fun. The stories of their adventures could fill a book quite easily, so I won’t relate them all here, but these characters did it all and did it with flair. I felt like I was along for the ride, trying to keep up with them, but they were running with a ball that I gave them and were making it into something special I could not have made on my own. For that reason, all four of these rate among my favorite PCs of all time. Thanks, guys.
I’d like to talk about two science fiction properties today, one of which I like quite a bit and the other which I actively despise. These properties are the Netflix Lost in Space reboot and the abysmal, frenetically empty Rise of Skywalker. In an effort to keep this from becoming a rant on RoS (because that could go on for a while), I’m going to try and focus the conversation here and use the comparison to Lost in Space to draw out certain elemental weaknesses in Episode IX that make it, very basically, a terrible movie and a story poorly told. Spoiler alert, of course, but honestly it’s really hard to spoil a movie that’s about nothing. So, mostly spoiler alert for Lost in Space.
The reason I think this comparison should work pretty well is that Lost in Space has a lot of the same weaknesses that Rise of Skywalker has. Namely, the technical details of the story don’t make
any sense and the pacing is frequently breathless and frenetic. For example:
In Rise of Skywalker
- The idea that the Sith planet is hidden and yet hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people need to have traveled there to build the secret fleet makes no sense.
- The idea that a fleet of Star Destroyers could just be hidden underwater while being built makes no sense.
- Lightspeed Jumping makes no sense
- The whole thing with the Sith Dagger makes no sense.
- The fact that Poe’s helmeted friend from that rainy planet gave him the Only Way Off The Planet and then managed to get off the planet anyway later on makes no sense.
- Palpatine’s plan to have Kylo kill Rey only to have him not kill Rey so that Palpatine could not kill Rey only so that later on he could kill Rey MAKES NO SENSE.
In Lost in Space
- Sailboats don’t work like that.
- Re-entry doesn’t work like that.
- Ice doesn’t freeze that way.
- What the hell did the horse eat on the space station for 7 months?
- You mean to tell me nobody thought to look for the kid on that space station for SEVEN MONTHS?
- Everybody’s got computers on their wrists collecting all kinds of data about them but not BIOMETRIC DATA?
- What did the raptors on the desert planet eat before humans showed up?
- So that whole forest is, like a year old? WHAT?!
Both properties have the characters in near-constant peril, sometimes arbitrarily. There is always somebody yelling something at somebody else, such as “GET BACK TO THE SHIP!” or “HURRY UP!” or “RUN!”
And yet, Lost in Space is a hundred thousand times better than Rise of Skywalker. When watching LoS, I am usually at the edge of my seat, holding my breath, cheering, and so on. In Episode IX, I was laughing at the movie, throwing my hands up in frustration, and rolling my eyes. The big question, then, is why?
In Lost in Space the peril is always character oriented and the moments of downtime are spent setting up character relationships. In Rise of Skywalker the peril has very little to do with any of the characters and the downtime is spent setting up the next set-piece or maguffin-related errand.
Look, we all know that none of the Robinsons are going to die (well, I’m pretty sure – not all the way through Season 2 yet) just like we ALL know that Rey, Poe, and Finn are going to live. We all know the good guys are going to win in the end – it’s light space opera, so it’s basically guaranteed. When that’s the case, the trick to getting the audience invested in the peril that you’ve devised is getting you to hook into the emotional state of the characters themselves. You, sitting on your couch at home, are well aware that the Robinsons live through this, but because you are so connected to the Robinsons on an emotional level, you are still anxious for them. You have empathy for their situation. It builds this empathy with flashbacks to the kids’ relationships with their parents back on Earth, with tender moments among the family or even by themselves (the Christmas celebration! Penny’s book! Will’s toy robot! Don and his pet chicken!). The “clever” plans that save the day? They come up with them in seconds and implement them through montage and then whammo, we’ve turned a spaceship into a sailboat and (hand waving) it works or something.
See, we (the audience) don’t ACTUALLY care about the technical details of a story that much. I know, I know – right now you’re trying to marshal arguments to the contrary, about how this or that science fiction movie or book or whatever had crappy science and it knocked you completely out of the book. And here I am, calling you a liar.
That’s right, I said it.
You know what beloved scifi franchise has shitty science and NOBODY CARES? Firefly. Garbage, guys – just straight up crappy world-building on several intersecting levels. Do you care? No.
You know what else has garbage technical details? Star Trek. YES, STAR TREK. The holodeck? C’mon now.
You know what else? EVERY SINGLE STAR WARS MOVIE, YES EVEN THE GOOD ONES!
Even The Martian hand-waved away crucial details to make the plot work!
The reason technical details knock you out of the story is not because the technical details were bad – you’ve forgiven those before and you will again – it’s because you didn’t connect or engage with the emotional content of the story or the characters’ conflicts.
Consider Rise of Skywalker, then. For the first 45 minutes of the movie, almost no one gets to finish talking without being interrupted (I timed it). Any character relationship building that is established is rushed, hasty, and clearly playing second fiddle to the external conflicts. Christ, look at poor Finn – he’s gone something important to tell Rey and the movie literally never gives him the opportunity to say it. What the fuck is that about? We want to hear what he has to say! No, we need to hear what he has to say or we’ll NEVER CARE ABOUT IT! And caring about what happens to the characters is literally the only thing that matters in any story, or, if not the only thing, the thing that needs to happen first before anything else will work.
Much like in the initial Abrams Star Trek reboot, any sympathy or connection we have with the characters in Rise of Skywalker is largely residual – we like them because we already know them from previous properties. There is just about no character building that occurs in the movie itself, with the possible exception of Rey and Kylo (and even that was inhibited by all the planet hopping and macguffin chasing, rather than aided by it). To make matters worse, the few moments where something happens that might affect how the characters think and behave are all erased by the film shortly thereafter. Chewie? Alive. 3-PO? Gets his memory back. Poe’s old flame? Makes it off the planet. Finn’s secret? Doesn’t matter. Hux’s betrayal? Not only nonsensical but discarded arbitrarily in the next scene. That kiss? What the fuck was that about?
Peril, danger, external conflict does not work if the audience has not invested in the characters on the screen. And that is an investment you need to keep investing in. You can’t do in once and expect it to ride for the next three films or six episodes or whatever. The audience is a fickle beast, sitting there in their comfy chair eating Raisinettes and popcorn, and looking for any opportunity to check out of your nonsensical thrill ride. However, once you hook them, suddenly you can violate the laws of physics (or even your own world-building) and almost nobody will care because, like it or not, we are creatures of the heart more than we have ever been creatures of the mind.