2010-09-28

Memos From Purgatory

The internet tells me that Harlan Ellison is telling the internet that he’s dying, and i’m kind of fucked up about that.

Ellison is one of my favorite authors of all time. He’s certainly my favorite short story writer. But more than that, i owe Harlan Ellison for three things.

My initial exposure to Ellison was a mixed bag of informed respect (i knew that he was the writer of my favorite Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”), uninformed adulation (he was also the writer behind The Starlost, a series that i loved despite its general horridness; that probably needs a post all on its own at some point), and outright contempt when i read in Starlog in about 1979 how he thought Star Wars was dreck. I, too young to know better at the time, took this as a sign that despite my informed respect for him, the man was not to be trusted, not to be read, and was most likely suffering from a brain tumor that would end his miserable life any minute. (Yes, i was one of those sorts of Star Wars fans…)

As a result, i avoided Ellison’s speculative fiction through most of my high school years, knowing of him by reputation but dismissing him as one of those science-fiction writers who took things more seriously than i liked (cf. my attitude toward Star Wars; see above). But then a few years later, i was trawling through a used bookstore looking for something to read in advance of a nine-hour Greyhound bus trip i was about to embark on. (My parents were separated and lived that far apart, so i took a lot of nine-hour Greyhound bus trips.) And i happened upon a copy of an Ellison book i’d never seen before. A book i’d never heard of before — Memos from Purgatory.

I flipped through it quickly; i read the back cover. It was a memoir, it said, of the time Ellison spent in a teenage street gang and in jail, neither of which were things i was aware were part of Ellison’s resume. Something about the cover (this was the paperback edition with art by Barclay Shaw) and its image of a sparrow being gutted by a switchblade caught my eye. So i bought the book, thinking that as long as it wasn’t Ellison’s SF i was reading, my ad hoc ban was still covered.

As i read it on that bus trip, Memos from Purgatory carved out matching holes in my head, my gut, and my heart with a rusted ice-cream scoop.

Up to that point in my life, it wasn’t like i was reading crap. As were many SF fans of my generation, i was a devotee of the holy trinity of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. I worshiped at the altar of Herbert and Niven and the younger demigods. I had dabbled in Tolkien and Conan Doyle. I’d started in on Shakespeare on my own in 8th grade. I wasn’t a literary savant or anything, but for an awkward teenager growing up in a town of 2,000 people, i was doing okay. But in that one particular moment of my life, reading through the endless dark of a northern BC highway, nothing prepared me for the emotional honesty that Ellison dished up in that slim volume. The straight up, no holds barred surgical precision with which he could lay down words on the page to create a voice and build a narrative was like something i’d never seen before.

Up to that point, i had always idly thought that i might like to be a writer someday.

From that point on, i knew that i was going to be a writer someday.

I owe Harlan Ellison for three things. That’s number one.

I read a lot of Ellison after that, and quickly. I generally avoided talking about how i’d avoided his work initially, and about our Star Wars spat. (This got a whole hell of a lot easier some years later, after Return of the Jedi came out…) Then a few years later than that, in 1992, Ellison was in Vancouver to do a kind of free-form presentation/lecture. A couple of weeks before, i did a phone interview with him for the alt-weekly i worked for at the time. I wrote a profile. I went to the gig, which was great, and then got to meet him oh-so-briefly at the end of the show. He shook my hand; we talked for a bit. He told me he loved the profile i’d written, which remains pretty much the only thing from my short semi-journalistic phase that stands out as something like real writing.

Then Harlan Ellison told me he thought i had talent.

In the years since, i’ve read similar anecdotes from other writers who’ve met Harlan, so i suspect in retrospect that it might just be a thing he says to writers, knowing from personal experience how much those words can mean coming from someone with his reputation, someone we respect. And i don’t give a shit about any of that, because Harlan Ellison told me he thought I had talent.

That’s number two.

A few years after that, i tripped across the following quotation in a screenwriting book whose name i can’t remember anymore. I should know but can’t recall offhand its original source, even as i know it better than that as the words that wrap around my office, set in 2-inch high Corona Typewriter letters in a kind of rough wash of white where the black of the walls meets the ceiling.


Don’t be afraid.

That simple; don’t let them scare you.

There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories.

A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for.

And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off  at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place. And if they close off all the bazaars, then by God go and work with your hands till you can write, because the talent is always there.

But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done.

Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.



Despite my own best instincts, i’m one of those people who spends a fair bit of time afraid. Writing is a process of constantly setting yourself up to be judged, and let’s just say i have issues with that sort of thing. But from where i sit at my desk, when i’m dealing with idiot editors (as a writer) or idiot writers (as an editor) or agents or publishers or producers or bank managers or any one or another of the endless indignities that are the writer’s lot in life, i can look up and straight ahead, and i can see the words “Don’t be afraid. That simple…” And it is that simple.

That’s number three.

I’ve read the interview with Harlan where he talks about dying, and it’s short enough on detail that i want to think he’s just taking one last shot at proving the aptness of what’s always been my favorite Ellison title: “All the Lies that Are My Life”. His attitude in the interview is positive and upbeat about where he is and what he’s accomplished, and i want to believe that’s all good.

But when it comes down to it, i’d like a chance to owe Harlan Ellison a few more things. And i’d like a few more years and a lot more Ellison books as a hedge against being able to make that happen.

2010-09-01

I’ve Got Your Improv Right Here

(A continuation of a discussion started here and here)

As has been said, i’m not crazy about the tactical encounter format that’s been the norm since the tail end of 3rd Edition D&D. Not because of any implicit shortcomings in its design or intent, but because that design and intent has had an inadvertent effect on how the D&D game is played.

Nobody, myself included, wants to simply lose the tactical encounter spread. However, in the aftermath of an email i’d received in response to my Dungeon adventure “Test of Fire”, i began to think about ways that the tactical encounter format could be put to better use in adventures. The challenge was to come up with a way that contemporary adventure design could accommodate both the specific effectiveness of the tactical encounter spread with the more free-form, improvisational style of play that i’d started out with. Then Chris Youngs dropped me a line to ask if i’d be interested in writing a Netheril-themed adventure for Dungeon. Being an inveterate lover of all things Faerûn, i jumped at the chance — and decided to try to put some of what i’d been thinking about into action.

Since the advent of the tactical encounter format, the ability to let the PCs go wherever they want and do whatever they feel like has been hamstrung to a certain degree. Using tactical encounters as the foundation and framework for an adventure necessarily creates an overall shape for that adventure — a shape that limits the options of DM and player alike in terms of how many different ways the adventure can be played. Among the most serious complaints that i see on the RPG boards and forums about the current paradigms of adventure design is the notion of the “straight-through” style of play. Open a door, have an encounter; open the next door, have an encounter; repeat. Certainly, it’s possible to create an encounter framework that incorporates a certain amount of randomness, so that the players can undertake encounters in any order. However, that really just boils down to having five or six doors to open, and if that’s the only choice the players have access, it’s not much of an advantage.

So in my original notes for the project, i hit upon the idea of treating tactical encounters not just as the static foundation points of the adventure, but as “junction points” — an event important not just for its inherent challenge, but notable because it spins the adventure off in a different direction. The opening tactical encounter of the adventure would introduce the heroes to one of the NPC factions fighting to find the location of an ancient and powerful ruin (the site of a dead portal that both groups are intent on reactivating). In the aftermath of that encounter, the PCs have to make a decision about whether to throw themselves behind faction A or faction B — or to stay neutral and try to play both sides to their own advantage. Each subsequent tactical encounter would play out differently based on the PCs’ initial decision, as well as on subsequent decisions made during the course of the adventure.

The challenge was to figure out how to do that and still keep the story self-contained. The solution was described in my initial pitch to Chris:

I’d like to use this shorter standalone adventure to do things in a somewhat nonlinear fashion (though the adventure maintains a clear throughline). The flow of the adventure is flexible depending on whether the PCs make the choice to ally with one of the two Netherese factions searching for the scroll fragments, or whether they stay at arm’s length from both factions (and thus incur the enmity of both to a lesser degree). That initial choice plays into the initial encounters, each of which generates choices that inflect the final encounters.

To accommodate this flexibility, I’d like to pitch you on a specific format that will separate out the encounter spreads a little bit. For Encounters 2 and 3, there’ll be a traditional spread detailing the area and the fixed challenge (in Encounter 2, traps and hazards; in Encounter 3, a pack of banderhobbs). However, the two factions will have their stat blocks and tactics on separate pages, with the idea being that the DM will append those faction pages to the encounters depending on who the PCs are actually fighting. Though this mix-and-match approach isn’t possible in a printed adventure, I think the Dungeon online format lends itself well to this kind of flexibility.


Some feedback from Chris fine-tuned the approach, which ultimately became the foundation for Dungeon 180’s “The Spiral Gate”. You need a D&D Insider subscription to download the whole adventure, but here’s a taste of the underlying intent as pitched to the DM:

Enemies and Allies

This adventure is different than many others, in that it allows the players to decide who the “bad guys” are. Each encounter has a specific threat that the PCs must square off against. However, that threat is faced within the context of the party having established some sort of relationship or alliance with the Sand Kings or the Shadovar.

In the world of the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting, the power of the reborn Netheril is widely seen as a threat to the stability of Faerûn. As such, a typical approach to this sort of adventure would be for the PCs to join forces with the underdog Sand Kings to make a stand against the powerful Shadovar and their hunger for even more power. If your players want to take this default approach, that’s fine. However, the adventure doesn’t force that alliance on them.

Once the existence of the two factions and their goals have been established in the aftermath of Encounter M1, the characters are free to choose their own path—allying with the rebel Sand Kings, throwing their lot in with the powerful Shadovar, or even playing both sides against the other as they seek the scroll fragments and the power they promise for themselves. Moreover, the PCs can pretend allegiance to one group while secretly supporting the other, or can even attempt to change alliances mid-adventure if they want to.

Later sidebars like this one talk about how the context of an encounter changes depending on which side the PCs are on. Beyond that, however, “The Spiral Gate” relies heavily on you and your players’ ability to roleplay, and on you using your improvisation skills to adjust encounters and bring the complex interactions between the PCs and both factions to life.


Each tactical encounter then features a short sidebar breaking down the three different ways the encounter might play out, depending on the previous choices the PCs have made.

Enemies and Allies

If the PCs have chosen one faction to ally with, they arrive at the encounter with that faction. The enemy faction is already here, and engaged in searching the tomb for the scroll fragment. The number of NPCs in each faction should equal the number of PCs. See pages 18–21 for Sand King and Shadovar statistics blocks. See “Everybody In” on page 8 for further guidelines on playing both factions in combat.

If the PCs are feigning allegiance to one faction or the other, use the same setup as above. However, at some point, the PCs are likely to turn on their supposed allies to fight alongside the “enemies” already here.

If the PCs have not allied with either faction, the Shadovar are the enemy faction here, and the PCs fight them alone. Set up a number of Shadovar equal to the number of characters in the party and yielding the appropriate experience.


I always keep an eye on the forums at ENWorld, RPGNet, and Wizards.com to see what people have to say about adventures i’ve worked on, and i’ve been doing so since “The Spiral Gate” came out. In addition, however, i’ve already gotten more direct email feedback on this adventure than i have on anything else i’ve so far written, and that feedback has been uniformly positive. Both DMs and players seem to like the challenge of an adventure whose throughline is completely determined by the choices of the players, and i think this suggests that the tactical encounter format can live happily within a much broader design context than it currently does. For me, at least, tactical encounters and the arguably more combat-focused 4th Edition of the D&D game are entirely compatible with the kind of freeform and improvisational play that Dungeons & Dragons was once all about.