Works in Progress

As the witch passed deeper into the trees, their magic coursed through her, following her as she shifted silently through the shadowed green. At the point where she stopped and waited, feeling her senses spread out to touch the world around her, a faerie darted forward from the gathering gloom. It was drawn to the silver witch’s magic like a moth to the haze of the Clearmoon’s distant light. It laid down upon the talisman in her palm, nestling there like a sleeping babe in the shelter of its mother’s belly and breasts.

The witch pulled the cold-iron knife from her belt. She killed the faerie quickly, cleanly, as she always did. No fear, no suffering, no pain except for the agonized rasp of her own breathing where her throat constricted and she thought of all the magic she had coerced this way. All the bodies she had fed to the flames…


The Song of Belit

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.

      In that dead citadel of crumbling stone
      Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
      And curious madness took me by the throat,
      As of a rival lover thrust between.

      Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
      Then curse the dream that bought my sluggish life;
      And curse each laggard hour that does not see
      Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.

The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.

      Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
      No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
      Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
      Blue girdle of the world, receive again
      Her whom thou gavest me.

— The Song of Belit

It’s not annoying enough that Robert E. Howard wrote epic alt-history better than just about everybody who came after him. The dude could write poetry as well (including the above, from the Conan story “The Queen of the Black Coast”). It’s easy for lesser writers like myself to become vexed and annoyed by people with that kind of raw talent for doing the things we drive ourselves to do. But at the same time, it’s almost impossible to foment a jealous rage against Robert E. Howard’s life and career without inevitably circling around to the reality of how that life and career were both cut drastically and tragically short.

Most gamers live their lives engaging in the broad wonder of fantasy, as a matter of course. As did Howard, obviously. Many gamers have histories of feeling socially isolated and closed off from the world, as did Howard. Many gamers have stories about moments in their lives when the pressure of being closed off from the world — of feeling different and distant, and of all the uncertainty and fragility that comes with that — opened up to a particular kind of darkness that has only one way out. As did Howard.

(Aside — I’m one of those gamers, but that’s not important to this line of thought.)

But if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the vast majority of gamers are able to step back from that edge of darkness. And in many cases, often long after the fact, those gamers speak to the notion that gaming and fantasy played a significant part in what let them step back. For us, gaming and fantasy created a sense of a larger world that had a place for us, and gave us the understanding that even when the darkness seems like the only option, there are always choices. There are always ways to move forward. There are always reasons to fight on.

Whatever thoughts and emotions and pain resonated in Robert E. Howard on a particular day in June, 1936, they took away his reasons to fight — just long enough for the fight to end. And there’s a terrible kind of irony in the idea that Robert E. Howard’s imagination crafted fantasy worlds so vast that not only he but literally millions of readers have explored them without ever even getting close to learning all their mysteries, but that his own worlds of the imagination offered him no way out of the darkness of the real world.

Fantasy and gaming are about the ability to dream, and about how the ability to dream can help you look past the limitations of a real world that seems to promise nothing but pain. For me, and for a lot of gamers like me, the lessons of fantasy and imagination that Howard taught were a part of what kept us going. And I can’t help but wish that on that June day of eighty-odd years ago, Howard had been able to dream the future that the rest of us — in our time, in our own ways, and using the examples that Howard and so many others laid down for us — saw and made.


Twenty-Eight Years in the Making

Way back in 1986, my college gaming group (which had previously been my high school gaming group) took on the classic supermodule “The Temple of Elemental Evil,” with me DMing. It was the culmination of a campaign that had been going with a steady core of characters for the previous three years, and which promised to unfold as an epic awesomefest of world-shaping dungeon-crawling goodness.

And then we never actually finished the campaign. Because partway through level 2, myself and all the other players seemed to simultaneously reach that annoying stage of mid-20s life when jobs and school and family and stuff finally demolish what’s left of one’s free time.

Last night, after a few months of prep and planning and experimentation, I rebooted that campaign. We started outside the front gates of the temple under thunder and lightning, with all the old player characters, and three of the original four players, and new players (including the wife, and the older daughter, and the older daughter’s boyfriend) taking on the old NPCs, and running everything in five cities across three time zones through G+ hangouts and Roll20.

My life is awesome.


Now I Am Become Editor

The reading was completed, and we knew the story would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, but got it confused with the Chicago Manual of Style. Vishnu is trying to discuss with the writer the issues with his thirty-five pages of expository introduction and history at the head of his first chapter, and to refrain from just breaking down and beating the living crap out of him, takes on his multiarmed form and packs a fistful of red pens in each hand and says —

“Now I am become Editor, the destroyer of words…”


First Rule

The first rule of Working-for-Wizards-of-the-Coast Club is you don’t talk about the stuff you’re working on for Wizards of the Coast until it’s been officially announced. So as of this morning, guess who’s got two thumbs and has been working on the 5th Edition core books and the D&D Starter Set? This guy!

Except you can’t see me because this is the internet.

But I’m pointing at myself with my thumbs.