2014-12-31

My 2014 Year in Review

I watched both the daughters officially leave home, and wallowed in my subsequent nervous breakdown and sense of having no purpose in life.

I got asked to edit a massive whack of D&D 5th Edition (all three core books plus “The Rise of Tiamat”), and realized I might still have a purpose in life after all.

I finished two novels I’d been working on for a while.

I wrote another novel that should be out fairly soon.

I read a lot of books.

I watched a lot of movies.

I watched some good TV.

I edited a number of novels for some really cool writers.

I read and reviewed a bunch of screenplays from some equally cool writers.

I watched a whole bunch of friends and people I’ve worked with launch and expand some massively cool creative endeavors.

After a long period of fits and starts, I finally dug into full-on development of a new game I can’t talk about yet.

I got my yellow belt in shotokan-ryu.

I wrote a lot of words about imaginary places.

I drew a lot of maps. Like, seriously, a lot of maps.

I spent another 365 days in the company of the most amazing woman in the world.

• • •

All things being equal, 2015 has its work cut out for it if it wants to measure up.

2014-12-21

My Tidings For You

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, summer is gone.

Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.

Deep red the bracken, its shape all gone —
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

Cold has caught the wings of birds;
Season of ice — these are my tidings.

2014-12-05

It’s Good to be the Dungeon Master!

So with today’s random FedEx encounter, I get to officially close off what’s turned out to be probably the single busiest year of the ten-and-a-half years I’ve been freelancing for Wizards of the Coast. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is, of course, the third and last of the core rulebooks, and is the third and last of those books that I helped to edit.


Working on the 5th Edition core books involved pretty much exactly the amount of alpha-nerd awesomeness you’d expect. The team that put this edition together are an amazing group of people, from those I worked mostly closely with (including, on the DMG, James Wyatt, Jeremy Crawford, Chris Perkins, Michele Carter, and Greg Bilsland) to the developers and other editors who flailed away at the book (virtually) alongside me, to the entire R&D team going back to the D&D Next launch. It was, in the most real sense, a dream job, and will remain a singular highlight of the work I’ve done on D&D over the past decade, and of an overall experience of the game that goes back thirty-three years.

And of all the many amazing things that went into this book, and all of the many bits of rules work and story details and minutiae that I got to mess around with, clean up, tighten, double check, and massage as an editor on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, here’s what I’m most proud of right at this moment.

If you’re of that certain age that means you started off as a DM playing AD&D with the original Dungeon Master’s Guide from 1979 (as was I), you remember the random dungeon generation rules and the random dungeon dressing tables from that book. Those tables and the type of on-the-fly design they were built for are back in a big way in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, which wholly embraces the philosophy that running a game can and should involve as much randomness as the way the game plays out at the table.

Now, I had absolutely nothing to do with the new edition embracing that philosophy; I’m just heavily on board with it, and highly appreciative of the R&D team deciding that it was high time that approach became a big part of the game again. But I was the one who got to make a change to the “General Furnishings and Appointments” table that I have literally wanted to make since 1981. Because I got to add to that table that a firkin is a small cask, and how much it holds.


(Yes, I know a firkin actually holds closer to 11 American gallons/9 Imperial gallons. One of the other things you get to do as an editor is round off.)

I did the same for the barrel, the butt, the cask, the hogshead, the keg, the pipe, and the tun. Because that’s how I roll. And so I bask tonight in the warm glow of knowing that an entire new generation of DMs can now play this game without going “44… firkin. That’s, like, a mini dagger, right?”

And my job here is done.

2014-12-01

NaNoWriMo After Mo After Mo After…

So I don’t normally do NaNoWriMo, just because in any given month, I’m usually hacking away at some fictional project or other. However, this time around, a strange confluence of big projects having finished up early combined with a few smaller projects getting pushed forward, and left me with about three-and-a-half weeks of November in which I got to work just on a single new-novel project of my own, which is unusual.

So I decided to track my progress for the month of most-of-November, and as of last Friday, had racked up a total of 91,195 words. I guess that’s all right.

2014-10-26

A Blast from the Past

This is for people on the fence about Gamergate, or who are trying to give the movement the benefit of the doubt for the sake of “There’s always two sides to every story.”

There’s a historical example of a movement within gaming that I think most of us (or at least most of us of a certain age) are familiar with. That’s the anti-D&D hysteria of the 1980s, in which it’s absolutely true that there were two sides to the story. Except that the side saying that D&D was an occult plot and that gamers were killing themselves by the score was categorically wrong. About everything. It was a movement based entirely on falsehood, which was ultimately revealed to have not a single shred of factual evidence to back up its false claims.

The parallels between the anti-D&D movement and the present state of Gamergate are fairly profound, I think, in that Gamergate is pretty much all false claims. Actually, that’s too generous — Gamergate is false claims hiding beneath even falser claims, which are turn hiding beneath a steaming mess of reptile-brain aggression. Gamergate started with some dipshit disgruntled mouth-breather going net-raging on his ex-girlfriend by falsely claiming that she had slept with an online games journalist to secure positive reviews. Everything else extends from that. Gamergate is lies, innuendo, fear, and misogyny all wrapped up in a paralyzing amount of conspiracy theory, circular logic, and argument to moderation. That’s the rhetorical arsenal of the core group of haters who insist on taking this shit to its logical conclusion of death threats, rape threats, and attempting to drive female game developers and commentators out of their homes, out of sight, out of mind, and out of the industry.

Thankfully (if there can be a “thankfully” in any story in which death and rape threats are the lede), the number of people in that core group of haters is small. But a potentially bigger problem is that there’s a far larger group of people latching on to some aspect of the outrage that Gamergate purports to be about — that would be the oft-heard and oft-mocked (by me, anyway) cry of “Ethics in videogame journalism!” And where this ties back to the original point is that the movement that opposed D&D ultimately consisted of a relatively small number of people willingly lying in an attempt to discredit and destroy something they didn’t like, and a much larger number of people who unknowingly spread those lies through misguided good intentions.

So to all ye of good intentions of the “Well, I obviously don’t approve of the death and rape threats, but let’s look at the larger issues…” variety — No.

Just no.

You’re being lied to. You’re promoting the agenda of people who have lied to you. Cut your losses. Walk away.

2014-10-14

The Warm-Air Gods

It’s been unseasonably warm enough the past month or so that I haven’t yet needed to put the furnace back onto its programmed schedule, but have just been turning it on manually when it’s needed. As a result of this randomness, the cats have taken to clustering meekly around the cold floor vents in the mornings, as if not sure why the warm-air gods are being so capricious with them.

2014-10-09

Had a Dream

Had a dream that I was playing D&D with Stephen Colbert, on a bus tour not unlike the one I took to California in high school. He was DMing. When we talked, it turned out that he had actually started gaming with a hardcore-punk friend-of-a-friend of mine back in the day, and we had met previously without realizing it at a party at the aforementioned friends’ place in 1982. He had pictures of the two of us together and everything.

His campaign was built around the world being in the throes of magical environmental disaster in the form of a deadly long-term drought, and our goal was to figure out its source and set it right. However, every time the characters tried to get closer to solving the problem, Colbert would slip into his Colbert Report persona and start denying that climate change was real. It was very frustrating. But then we went for ice cream.

I distinctly remember that Colbert ordered his Ben & Jerry’s flavor, “Americone Dream”. He made me go up to the counter to get it for him, and I was still trying to decide what I wanted when I woke up.

(Aside: I woke up really hungry.)

2014-10-06

Monsters

So this is what forty years of monsters looks like.


All told, I’ve been lucky enough to work on four of these books, including the 5th Edition Monster Manual on the far right, just delivered Friday into my trembling hands by my FedEx guy. (Yeah, I have “a” FedEx guy. I live in a very small city.)

Of the larger mass of titles in this collection that I wasn’t privileged enough to work on, I’ve read them all, starting with the AD&D Monster Manual in 1981 and with the AD&D Fiend Folio not far behind. And here’s why I like the underlying concept of the Monster Manual (by that name or any other of the many variant names of the many excellent creature books that have become part of the extended reality of the D&D game), and why it was such an enormous kick to be asked to edit the 5e MM:

Any good monster book actually needs to be two books in one, depending on who you are when you’re reading it. And for an editor, that’s a major challenge.

The second time you read a Monster Manual, it’s a reference book. It’s backstory and plot points, mechanics and numbers that can all be crunched in pursuit of the game. It’s cool art, and interesting campaign hooks, and “Holy frak, the players will never see that coming!” moments of devious epiphany.

But that’s only the second time you read it. Because the first time you read a Monster Manual, it’s the book that tells the story of the world of the game.

If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that really and truly brings the world of the game to life. If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that carries you into that world one page, one stat block, one alphabetical entry at a time. And most importantly, if you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual — not the Dungeon Master’s Guide — is the book that ultimately convinces you to cross the table and start running games rather than just playing in them.

Once you’ve made that decision, the Dungeon Master’s Guide becomes the next book you buy and your primary resource for helping to shape and hone the world of your games. And just as with the Monster Manual, there have been many different versions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide that have been really freaking cool in their own ways. (Aside: I’ve read the 5e DMG, and it’s really freaking cool.)

But the DMG is a book you dig into only after you’ve made the decision to run a game — most often because the Monster Manual was the book that first made you say: “It’s not enough to just read this… I need to make it real.”

The work that’s gone into the 5th Edition Monster Manual — even with me coming late to the game and maintaining the periphal perspective on the project that is the editor’s lot — is amazing. The long list of people who worked on this book have a lot to be proud of. But what I’m most proud of for my own minimal contribution to the work is that somewhere out there, there’s a player who’s going to read this book, and who’s going to take its remarkable mix of fantasy world-building and mythology and mechanics and wonder and be inspired to make it real.

And I know what that’s going to feel like, because that’s what happened to me back in 1981. And I’ve been working to make the mythology and the wonder real ever since.

2014-09-29

Boyhood

I saw Boyhood the other night and it was awesome. But I’m still trying to figure out whether part of its awesomeness ultimately boils down to “gimmick” filmmaking, as opposed to real art and inventiveness.

I’m sure you know the technical details, but the film was shot over ten years, with all the actors (including the two kids at the center of the story) showing the real honest-to-god aging and maturing of their characters in real time. But after watching the film, I found myself imagining an alternate version of the film, perfectly identical to the real thing — scene for scene, shot for shot, line for line — except made with entirely traditional techniques. In this alternative film, the young leads would have been played by three different actors (one as a child, one as a pre-teen, one as a teenager), with they and the rest of the cast aged up or down with hair and makeup. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

If I'd seen that alternate film, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much, because objectively speaking, the actual story in Boyhood is a little bit on the thin side. It’s a collection of great moments, but relatively few of them really connect from beginning to end. In that way, Boyhood reminded me a lot of Angela’s Ashes from about fifteen years ago — which is also a film following a character from boyhood to adolescence, but in which the central character is played by three different actors at different ages. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

So in thinking about why I loved Boyhood and why I thought Angela’s Ashes was about as exciting as warm yogurt, I start to ask myself whether the only reason I love Boyhood is for its technical side — the insane, amazing, brilliant experiment of actually shooting a movie over ten years. Or are those technical considerations totally secondary to the more important emotional connection that they allowed the story to create — the idea that explicitly knowing that I’m seeing these characters age over ten years creates a resonance with those characters that no traditional film could ever create?

2014-09-05

A Personal Thing

So this is a bit of a personal thing.

I know that everyone on the Internet stays totally on top of British Columbia's political affairs, but for those few who need the update — we're in the middle of a teachers' strike here. It's a nasty strike, driven by our provincial premier's hate-on for our education system and her love of tearing up public-sector union contracts. (For my American associates, think Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in drag.)

This strike is affecting me on a personal level because my wife is a teacher (and an amazing one, though that's beside the point), and I know how much it hurts her to not be in her classroom for the start of school for the first time in twenty-seven years. The strike is also affecting me on a personal level because our household income is taking a hit as a result of my wife and teachers across BC standing up for our education system and the kids it serves. We're not in any kind of trouble yet, and my own work continues to go well, and as a full-time self-employed creative type, I have a longstanding and prosperous relationship with our line of credit. But given that I prefer to avoid trouble before it happens whenever possible, I'm looking to keep my own side of the household income as robust as I can.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that in addition to the RPG work that I think most people tripping across this site know me for, I write books. They're good books, or so I've been told by those who read them. They're fantasy and SF, and are available in all sorts of places, and if you had any inclination to check them out, now would be a most awesome time.

2014-08-31

#RPGaDay 31

Day 31 — Favorite RPG of All Time

Because most of what I’ve talked about in this little exercise is D&D, it would seem to be a safe bet that some version of that game would top the list. But as I always do whenever anyone asks me this question, I’m going to fudge the answer by saying “My favorite RPG of all time is the one I’m playing at the time.” Because throughout many years of playing, reading, and now working on RPGs,  this has always been true for me.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was my first RPG, and as anyone who’s played it knows, AD&D has a whole host of inconsistencies, problems, and general “WTF”? moments within its ruleset. I still have personal and professional cause to read through the old rules from time to time, but I’m pretty sure I’d never want to sit down and play AD&D again in its original form. But for the years over which I played it, none of that mattered, because AD&D was the best thing I’d ever played. When I played Traveller, it was the best thing I’d ever played. When I played Champions and MechWarrior, the experience was never anything short of amazing.

When I read the games of yore that I never got a chance to play, and when I read new games now hoping I’ll get a chance to play them at some point — from Pendragon to Numenera to GURPS to 13th Age — what comes through first and foremost is the sense of wonder that’s core to the very essence of RPGs. Every good RPG has that potential to push the imagination and emotion of its players to the limits. And at that limit point, every good RPG becomes the best RPG, because that point of absolute immersion is what RPGs are all about.

2014-08-30

#RPGaDay 30

Day 30 — Rarest RPG Owned

Though the number of bookshelves in my office dedicated to RPG material is ever-expanding, I don’t own anything particularly rare. I’m not that much into collectibles, insofar as I’ll buy things for the pleasure of reading them, but not because I hope to treat them as a capital investment some day.

From the perspective of things of interest to other people, I have an almost-complete collection of Dragon magazine starting from issue 33. (I don’t expect to ever own any of the first thirty-two issues, because buying those for the pleasure of reading them is impossible as long as other people are buying them as capital investments; see above.)

From the perspective of things of interest only to me, I have my original copy of the adventure module Keep on the Borderlands. It’s not rare in any objective sense, because as one of the most popular adventures ever, there are literally thousands of copies still out there in the wild. But it’s extremely rare in a subjective sense, because it’s virtually the only one of my original high-school-era gaming works to survive. I know they’re just books, but I wish I had more of them.

2014-08-29

#RPGaDay 29

Day 29 — Most Memorable Encounter

This runs way too much of a risk of a “let me tell you about my character” moment, but:

As a player, an early high school session of AD&D. The Keep on the Borderlands. My 1st-level magic-user (Stormhand) and a couple of henchman made a not-so-stealthy infiltration of the ogre’s cave, during which Stormhand was grabbed up. With effectively 1 round in which to save his own life, he managed a shocking grasp to the ogre’s face, which the DM ruled was distracting enough to be dropped. It was the beginning of a long and auspicious adventuring career.

As a DM, a Saturday night about a month and a half ago. It was the first session of a long-awaited reboot of the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure from back in the day. I reworked the upper level of the temple (which is empty as written) to fill it with mercenary gnolls on guard for the cult. We were playing online using Roll20 and its dynamic lighting feature, meaning the characters were like little islands of light moving within this huge field of darkness filled with howling and the hiss of arrows launched by unseen foes. As an encounter I’d been wanting to play for more than two decades, it would have been memorable even if the PCs hadn’t kicked ass.

2014-08-28

#RPGaDay 28

Day 28 — Scariest Game You’ve Played

I can honestly say I’ve never truly been scared while playing an RPG. I’ve been made terrified that my characters were going to die horribly, but that’s not quite the same thing.

As far as creating a mood of dark unease, though, Tomb of Horrors did it for me back in the day. More recently, I could mention the “Skinsaw Murders” section of Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, which I was a player in earlier this year. It’s extremely and consistently creepy, and that’s a good thing in my books.

2014-08-27

#RPGaDay 27

Day 27 — Game You’d Like to See a New/Improved Edition of…

This is a tricky question, just because the resurgence in popularity of RPGs, the groundwork laid down by the OGL, and the willingness of old IP holders and new publishers to work together to revisit classic product means that a ton of games already have new and improved editions. Want to play a better AD&D, OD&D, or any of the original versions of Basic D&D? You’ve got about a hundred different options.

Two things I would like to see, though:

First, properly legal and authorized PDF editions of every game every made. All companies, all editions, all games. If it existed at some point, give me the opportunity to buy a nicely scanned and text-searchable PDF. Wizards of the Coast has taken a huge step in the right direction with their D&D Classics program, but there’s way too much TSR and WotC stuff that should be in that pipeline but isn’t yet.

Second, an exact reprinting (with acceptable corrections and errata) of the original Traveller box set and supplements (Mercenary, High Guard, and the like). Not the original books reprinted in bigger formats (which we already have in spades; see “tricky question,” above), but actual reprinted little black books. Original 5.5 x 8.5 size, original cardstock covers, original fonts, original (lack of) artwork. Take my money. Seriously.

2014-08-26

#RPGaDay 26

Day 26 — Coolest Character Sheet

Numenera all the way. It’s a rare occurrence when a character sheet can make you feel like you’re already in the game even before your first stats are set down.


Honorable mention goes to AD&D. Because AD&D.


2014-08-25

#RPGaDay 25

Day 25 — Favourite RPG No One Else Wants to Play

Any of them, really. I would play pretty much anything, anytime given the opportunity.

I’ll take it upon myself to twist this question a bit, though, and say that the thing interfering most strenuously with my ability to play anything, anytime, isn’t a lack of willing players; it’s a lack of willing GMs. I’m pretty sure I could fill a table (either in real life or online) seven nights a week if I announced I was running the game each of those nights. But not only does that way madness lie, I really like to simply play sometimes — just me and my character.

2014-08-24

#RPGaDay 24

Day 24 — Most Complicated RPG Owned

This one’s a toss-up between two different versions of Dungeons & Dragons: AD&D and Pathfinder.

AD&D stands atop this category because its various systems, subsystems, and rules arcana made it pretty much impossible to play without constant reference to the rulebooks, frequent interruptions to look things up, and a strong sense that every time you tried to accomplish something task-based, you were pausing your main D&D game and starting up a mini-game to resolve whatever needed to be done. (The fact that the game was awesome in spite of all that speaks volumes to the power of the underlying paradigms, I think.)

Pathfinder is an honorable mention here because Paizo Publishing has done such a phenomenal job of building a new game on top of D&D v3.5 — but in the course of making sure the original core of v3.5 was kept intact, everything that’s been added to it has increased the complexity of possibility in the game. All the core Pathfinder expansion material (and much of the third-party expansion material) is excellent. But taken as a whole, it creates such a wealth of options for play (the original classes, new classes, backgrounds, new prestige classes, alternate class features, new races, archetypes, and on and on) that it  too often and too easily leads to a kind of analysis paralysis. Especially for new players, it’s impossible to figure out what you want to do with your character because there are simply too many options.

2014-08-23

#RPGaDay 23

Day 23 — Coolest Looking RPG Product/Book

Too many to choose from.

Old-school stuff:

Two maps of Greyhawk — the original World of Greyhawk folio and box set map (left and right), and Paizo’s four-part version that came with Dungeon magazine 118–121. I own multiple copies of the former and pristine copies of the latter, and I desperately need more wall space in my office.

The Planescape box set.

Newer stuff:

The Numenara corebook. (I suspect the Strange corebook should also be in here, but I haven’t had time to crack it yet.)

The 5e Player’s Handbook. A few illos are a little bit too retro for my taste, but across the board, the art direction in the book creates the sense that you’re looking at illustrations created within the world itself. And that’s what an RPG book should do.

2014-08-22

#RPGaDay 22

Day 22 — Best Secondhand RPG Purchase

Because virtually all of my original high-school-and-college-age gaming material vanished during a long-ago move, pretty much everything I own of those back-in-the-day games have been secondhand purchases. But out of that morass of materials, scoring a four-volume set of the Encyclopedia Magica (which I’d never actually owned back in the day) was pretty sweet.


2014-08-21

#RPGaDay 21

Day 21 — Favourite Licensed RPG

Middle-earth Role Playing for sure. But having said that, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with licensed RPGs, mostly because as a creative sort, I’m more interested in shaping my own story worlds than messing around with other peoples’. For example, I know that many of the numerous Star Wars RPGs have been described as excellent, and had those games been around when I was in high school, I would have devoured them wholesale, I’m sure. However, as a jaded adult, they all fall into the category of things I’ve looked at and read but will probably never play, because the licensed properties they’re based on don’t hold my attention as they once did.

2014-08-20

#RPGaDay 20

Day 20 — Will Still Play in Twenty Years Time…

Dungeons & Dragons, by one name or another. (If you’ve been following along, not a big surprise.)

2014-08-19

#RPGaDay 19

Day 19 — Favourite Published Adventure

Too many to come up a single title. Choose from among the following:

In Search of the Unknown — The first adventure I ever played in, and still one of the best step-by-step guides to creating and running a classic dungeon crawl.

Tomb of Horrors — An adventure I loved so much as a player that I rewrote it twice.

Slave Lords — The original four adventure modules A1–A4: Slave Pits of the Undercity, Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Taken as a whole, the Slave Lords series is a perfect example of how narrative and dungeon crawling don’t have to be antithetical, and about how even the most straight-up adventures can make use of intrigue, mystery, and the unexpected to create compelling game story.

And in a break from this being an all-D&D award show:

Twilight’s Peak — Adventure 3 for the original Traveller system, Twilight’s Peak remains probably the single best adventure I’ve ever played. The scenario is a multilayered mystery whose every stage introduces more mystery, and which eventually draws the characters into the deepest secrets of the Traveller milieu. This melange of history, legend, and investigation is something that any number of Call of Cthulhu games have done in the long years since. But for me at the time, Twilight’s Peak was a wake-up call for understanding what kind of story and character development an RPG adventure could pull off.

2014-08-18

#RPGaDay 18

Day 18 — Favourite Game System

d20. Not to say that the d20 System and D&D 3rd Edition are the best game systems ever, because I definitely don’t think that’s true. (I don’t even think 3rd Edition is the best D&D; that nod goes to 5e, in my opinion.) But the underlying paradigms of d20 — especially including the OGL and the idea of truly open gaming— completely reinvented the idea of what D&D was and could be, and pushed the potential for gaming as a narrative platform into new realms.

2014-08-17

#RPGaDay 17

Day 17 — Funniest Game You’ve Played

Any game I ever played with my friend Mitch. And almost always for the good reasons.

2014-08-16

#RPGaDay 16

Day 16 — Game You Wish You Owned

The original Gygax/Perren Chainmail, just because.

A complete set of Middle-earth Role Playing, including all the product that was destroyed because the Tolkien estate are a bunch of sanctimonious pricks.

All the house rule notes and homebrew dungeon crafting of my youth, which disappeared in a long-ago move.

2014-08-15

#RPGaDay 15

Day 15 — Favorite Convention Game

A tie between:

At last year’s Gen Con, playing Munchkin in the convention center atrium with my friends Dave and Kevin, because last year’s Gen Con was the first time the three of us had gamed together face to face in twenty-seven years.

and:

Also at last year’s Gen Con, playing Dawn Patrol and meeting Mike Carr. In addition to writing the In Search of the Unknown adventure that launched a thousand DMs, Mike was the original TSR rules editor. When I shook his hand, I thanked him for inventing my job. He smiled at that.

2014-08-14

#RPGaDay 14

Day 14 — Best Convention Purchase

At last year’s Gen Con, the bourbon chicken at the Cajun Grill in the food court of Circle Center Mall. It was really good. Also, I bought a new Batman shirt.

Reality: I don’t go to many conventions. I’m trying to change that.

2014-08-13

#RPGaDay 13

Day 13 — Most Memorable Character Death

Probably the first one, just because it was the first one. Aton (elf fighter/magic-user), killed by a giant tick in the moathouse in the Village of Hommlet adventure. (Pro tip: 1st-level elf fighter/magic-users don’t have a whole lot of hit points.) This would have been in about 1982.

Some twenty-six years later, I was DMing the first part of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil as a play-by-post campaign. One of the players was my friend Dave, who was the DM who had killed Aton with a giant tick back in The Village of Hommlet in 1982. He didn’t remember any of it. I gave him some grief about that. He responded with the following:

In the ruined kitchen, the party takes a few moments to install the brass plaque that they have brought with them, putting a gleaming polish on it before they observe a moment of silence. It reads, “Aton - Fighter, Philosopher and Despoiler of Women.”

So I finally have some closure.

2014-08-12

#RPGaDay 12

Day 12 — Old RPG You Still Play/Read

I’d have to go with “pretty much all of them” on this one. Owing to the details of my relative geographical isolation (I live in a rather small city in the middle of the Canadian hinterland, about five hours north of Vancouver) and having spent much of the past couple of decades engaged in the time-consuming activity of raising well-adjusted children, it’s been years since I regularly gamed as much as I’d like to. That’s been changing slowly over the past year or so (particularly with the help of Google+ hangouts), but I still spend way more of my gaming time reading and writing RPGs than I spend actually playing.

Old RPGs that I’ve read in the past year (either for pleasure or research) or that I’m in the current/ongoing process of reading include: Traveller (the original box-set books), original D&D, AD&D (including the core books, Oriental Adventures, and a ton of adventure modules), Dragon magazine (the AD&D and early 3rd Edition days), Call of Cthulhu d20, Conan (TSR and Mongoose), Elric, Middle-earth Role Playing, Runequest, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Lejendary Adventures.

2014-08-11

#RPGaDay 11

Day 11 — Weirdest RPG Owned

That’s a tough one, only because I’m not normally in the habit of digging into or picking things up just because of their bizarre factor. As with fiction, there are plenty of good weird games — but there are a greater number of games that use weirdness primarily to cover for a lack of real content.

So from the limited selection, I’d have to go with the Red Dwarf RPG. It’s a remarkable work for its painstaking attention to detail and the way the complex ruleset creates a really cool framework for playing out the types of stories seen in the awesome TV series. But having done all that, it’s a weird work because it’s hard to imagine going to the trouble of learning a complex ruleset in order to play out slapstick space adventures.

2014-08-10

#RPGaDay 10

Day 10 — Favourite Tie-In Novel/Game Fiction

Ed Greenwood, Dave Gross, Erin Evans, Erik Scott de Bie, Ari Marmell, Gary Gygax.

Gygax in particular deserves a lot more respect as a fiction writer than he usually gets. His story sense sometimes wasn’t as sharp as the editor in me wishes it was, but his ability to capture setting and character with a rich, nuanced prose shows off the influences of the fantasy writers he loved, and gives some fresh context to the inspiration that many of those writers had on Dungeons & Dragons.

2014-08-09

#RPGaDay 9

Day 9 — Favourite Die/Dice Set

This one’s easy. My favorite dice are my dice. My first dice. My only dice.



In the early spring of 1981, I bought my first dice at a store in Vancouver called Dragon’s Lair (Broadway near Cambie; if anyone else but me remembers the place, I’d love to hear about it). These were the days when sets of dice didn’t exist (at least I never saw them); you bought them exclusively as singles. My first set of dice were an old-style d20/d10 (0–9 twice), a d12, a d6, and a d4, all in transparent emerald green (what were called “ice dice” back in the day). My first d8 was purple transparent, just because they didn’t have the green in stock to complete the set. In subsequent trips to Dragon’s Lair, I picked up the green d8 and eventually added a new-style d20 and a new-style d10.

I don’t know the manufacturer, but these are the same style and hard-edged, unpainted goodness of the Gamescience dice you can still buy these days. I used to fill in the numbers with crayon for long ages, then finally got around to painting in the numbers a few years ago. When the paint starts to flake, I paint them again. The only distinguishing feature on them is one weird thing about the d4 — one of the “1” marks along the bottom is an “A” for some reason.

Though I now own a whole lot more dice than these, these are the dice I’ve used for every single game of D&D I’ve ever played. For thirty-three years now, the old-style d20 is the only d20 I’ve ever rolled for any of my PCs. (I use the new-style d20 when I’m rolling as a DM.) When I’m rolling 10d6 lightning bolt damage in my current Pathfinder game, I roll my original d6 alongside whatever assortment of newer d6s are at hand. When I’m rolling the result of a cure spell, my original d8 is always in the mix. My magic missiles always include my original d4, which means I occasionally do A + 1 damage. I’m still not sure what that means.

2014-08-08

#RPGaDay 8

Day 8 — Favorite Character

Morgan, AD&D fighter, rolled up sometime in the fall of 1980 (S 18/96, I 14, W 13, D 18, C 16, Ch 13) and inspired by the Travis Morgan character from Mike Grell’s comic The Warlord.

Back in the AD&D days, your favorite characters tended to be the ones who survived past third level, because the game lent itself to characters dying and replacement characters being easy to roll up in equal proportion. Morgan was not only one of those surviving characters, he was also my first character, and his extended career was no small feat considering some of the killer dungeons my friends were working up at the time. And the fact that in the earliest stages of our play, we weren’t really down with a lot of the more subtle points to the rules. Like, for instance, did you know that you really shouldn’t take 4th-level characters into the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief? We didn’t. It was messy.

Not only did Morgan the D&D character survive his various campaigns, he also migrated into fiction as the character Morghan, who appears in the story “The Name of the Night” in A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales. Morghan has a few more stories he’s set to appear in that I really need to get around to writing one of these days.

2014-08-07

#RPGaDay 7

Day 7 — Most “Intellectual” RPG Owned

(I’ll be honest, I’m a little uncertain about what the quotation marks are supposed to mean. But anyway.)

The snap response to this question is that all RPGs are, on some level, intellectual. Even the simplest or most seemingly slapstick RPG (I’m looking at you, Toon) is based on the idea of trying to create compelling narrative within a framework of storytelling rules. As such, I think it’s effectively impossible to create an RPG that doesn’t involve some amount of intellectual legwork. Though having said that, the intellectual legwork underlying an RPG can often go seriously wrong. (I’m looking at you, Carcosa.)

If I’m answering the question straight up, though, I’d have to say Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP), even though I don’t own very much of it.



Being built around the wickedly complicated Rolemaster system made MERP a game for thinking people to begin with, and the amount of Tolkienesque detail packed into the game’s setting supplements was insane. I never actually played MERP, partly because I never crossed paths with a group interested in playing it — but partly also because I always got a sense that the amount of time one could spend digging into the details of the setting and the system would quickly consume me.

2014-08-06

#RPGaDay 6

Day 6 — Favourite RPG You Never Get to Play

Traveller. The original box-set rules were the second RPG I ever played, a year-and-a-bit after I started RPGing with D&D. And though I’ve gotten back into/continued with D&D in a big way starting with 3rd Edition, I haven’t played a game of Traveller since about 1985.



At Gen Con last year, I think there were a grand total of three Traveller games happening — none of which I could go to because they conflicted with other stuff I was doing. I noted at the time that there were more sessions of the Ghostbusters RPG on the schedule. There’s something wrong with the world.

2014-08-05

#RPGaDay 5

Day 5 — Most Old School RPG Owned

Original D&D white box, though just the end-of-product-cycle “Original Collector’s Edition”.



I never owned this set back in the day, though I procured and read the PDF versions of these OD&D rules when such things first started making their way online. The three-book set was an eBayed Christmas gift from the coolest wife and daughters in the world a few years ago, and was subsequently augmented by all the other original supplements with the exception of Chainmail, which I have yet to track down.

Even having read the PDFs, there’s something magical about actually holding these books in your hands. There’s something equally magical about reading them (which I did most recently in January, celebrating the nominal 40th anniversary of the box set’s original release) and going “How the hell did anyone ever play this game in the first place?” Because the original books have some editing/development issues.

2014-08-04

#RPGaDay 4

Day 4 — Most Recent RPG Purchase

The Deadlands Player’s Guide and the Deadlands Marshall’s Handbook. I desperately want my friend François to run a game at some point, because he’s a man of rare storytelling talent and would make a kick-ass GM. When he jokingly said to me, “If I ever run an RPG, it’ll have to be set in Tombstone, Arizona,” I sent him the links to the Pinnacle website and he went down the Deadlands rabbit hole like a shot. It’s just a matter of time now…

2014-08-03

#RPGaDay 3

Day 3 — First RPG Purchased

Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes blue box. If you read the first day’s entry, you’ve heard that story already, but here’s another peripheral take on it.

2014-08-02

#RPGaDay 2

Day 2 — First RPG Gamemastered

Dungeons & Dragons. (That’s going to be a theme throughout much of this month; sorry.)

When I started playing D&D (see yesterday’s link), my friend Kevin was my gateway DM. As the person who’d been playing the game already, he was the one who gave me the first taste of adventure through In Search of the Unknown and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, then unleashed me onto an unsuspecting world. Truth be told, though, it took me a while to start DMing because of a strange confluence of geography and finances.

The geographical factor was the reality that living in a small town of 2,000 people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, we didn’t have a gaming store that stocked the AD&D books, meaning that missions to secure those tomes required long-distance travel. The financial factor was that me and everyone else I knew were all perpetually broke in those heady days of 11th grade. As such, when we first started playing, myself and the other two core members of the party (Dave and Mitch) only owned one book a piece — Mitch, the Players Handbook; Dave, the Dungeon Masters Guide; and me, the Monster Manual. And though we traded the books around a lot between ourselves, it wasn’t until I actually got around to securing a DM Guide of my own that I felt comfortable pushing myself onto the other side of the table.

The first adventures I ran were the Slave Lords series of modules (A1 through A4 for you old-school types). I can remember being really worried about whether I had what it took to actually run a game, despite having been playing for almost a year at that point. I remember an enormous number of rookie mistakes I made during that campaign. I also remember one moment at the beginning of the first adventure, Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, where the party was locked down in a standoff with slaver mercenary orcs in a courtyard. The decision was made to clear the courtyard with a fireball — except the party didn’t know that the orcs had strapped together an old pushcart, a barrel of lamp oil, and a bellows to create a jury-rigged flamethrower designed to stop the frontal assault they were too smart to make.

I remember the adventure talking about how if the cart caught fire, it would explode to deal damage to the orcs nearby and that’s about it. I remember thinking, “That’s kind of boring,” and instead describing the cart blowing sky-high as the fireball hit it, an explosion of lamp oil setting fire to the nearby wooden doors as the remains of the cart arced through the air and slammed down in front of the party, forcing the characters to run like hell to get past it and into the fray.

I remember thinking “That was pretty cool.” And I haven’t looked back.

2014-08-01

#RPGaDay 1

So this is apparently a thing, and so I shall I make it a thing that I do!

Day 1 — First RPG Played

Dungeons & Dragons. Kind of. You can read all about it here.

2014-07-29

Tribalism

Those who know me best know that I have a touchy temper and a tendency to want to go after all the stupid I see in the world around me. However, I also have a tendency to not want to suffer a self-induced rage stroke, so as a result, I stay well away from most controversy and politics online.

I am making an exception to this policy tonight.

There’s a story making the rounds about a group of gamers who really love the new 5th Edition ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, they love it so much that they decided to show their love of the new game by gathering up a pile of 4th Edition books and burning them. Because there’s absolutely no symbolism there.

There’s video but I’m not linking to it. You can find it if you like.

I was talking to a friend (hey, John) who’s a non-gamer, and who was interested in knowing what exactly was going on with this display. For other non-gamers, a short version of the story: D&D has been around since 1974, and has gone through a number of different versions. 4th Edition D&D (from 2008 to about 2012) marked a very different take on the game from previous editions, and was highly polarizing. A lot of players loved it. A lot of players hated it. We’ll have to assume that this particular group of book-burners were in the latter category. But maybe they were just cold; I don’t know.

Anyway, in talking to my friend John, he used a phrase that struck an unexpected resonance with me, speaking about the sense of the ‘tribal and ritualistic’ in what he’d seen of the video. And in thinking about it, I realized that even more than the surface-level stupidity, that’s what bothered me the most.

You don’t like a game? Don’t play it. You bought books and ended up regretting it? Sell them, or give them away, or donate them to your local library. Destroying them is stupid. It’s decision-level stupid; it’s “Hey, this won’t make us look bad on the Internet, right?” stupid. Just plain stupid.

But roleplaying gaming is, at its most basic level, a positive social and tribal endeavor. That’s what sets it apart from other forms of entertainment, and even from sports (which is built around the idea of a winning side and a losing side — a concept that doesn’t exist in gaming). And to replace a positive tribalism of imagination and shared world-building with a negative tribalism of anti-imagination goes far beyond the merely stupid and pushes into darker realms.

That particular group of haters thought they’d show their love of the new 5th Edition D&D by burning 4th Edition books. I worked on a lot of 4th Edition D&D. I’ve worked on (and continue to work on) a lot of 5th Edition D&D. And what I have to say on the topic of people who would burn books to prove a point in the edition wars is that these fucking morons don’t deserve to play any version of this game.



2014-07-25

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…

2014-07-21

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 short of Tolkien. 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.

2014-07-06

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.

2014-06-27

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…”

2014-05-16

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.

2014-05-09

To Love Is Good, Too

“To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation… Love is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world for himself for another's sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.”
— Rilke



This is for Colleen Craig, who, twenty-three years ago today, chose me out and called me to vast things. Happy anniversary, babe.

2014-04-20

Child in Red


Child in Red 

Sometimes she walks through the village in her
little red dress
all absorbed in restraining herself,
and yet, despite herself, she seems to move
according to the rhythm of her life to come.

She runs a bit, hesitates, stops,
half-turns around...
and, all while dreaming, shakes her head
for or against.

Then she dances a few steps 
that she invents and forgets, 
no doubt finding out that life 
moves on too fast. 

It's not so much that she steps out
of the small body enclosing her,
but that all she carries in herself
frolics and ferments.

It's this dress that she'll remember
later in a sweet surrender;
when her whole life is full of risks,
the little red dress will always seem right.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

2014-03-29

Fallen Heroes

If you played D&D in the 1980s, you knew Dave Trampier. You might not have known his name. You might not have known his story. But his iconic illustration work was the gateway to gaming for millions of players, in the most literal sense.


In the cover of the AD&D Players Handbook, published in 1978, a fire-lit archway in a mysterious temple becomes a portal beyond which a whole world of imagination lies. On the front side of that archway, you’re the observer stepping into the aftermath of battle. You take in what lies around you. You feel the sense of events and history that brought you to this point. You linger and dream of what might lie beyond the looming darkness.

Trampier’s work — including iconic illustrations in the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and some of the game’s most memorable adventures — did more than just define D&D in its early days. It created a foundation of fantastic authenticity that defined what the game could be. A Trampier illustration captured the essence of what fantasy gaming is all about — using imagination to create a portal beyond which anything is possible. Tramp wasn’t a realist by any stretch. Especially in the black-and-white that the early rulebooks and adventures of D&D demanded, his work was often sedately stylized. But that sense of the sedate was never static. Rather, it captured the essence of a fantasy world driven by the motions of life and conflict, then flash-frozen in a single image.


Tramp extended that gift for drawing the viewer into his world when he began tell his own stories in the comic “Wormy”, which had an occasionally intermittent but eventually breathtaking run in Dragon magazine for more than ten years. “Wormy” was a strip that never bothered to even glance at the mundane in its cast of working-class trolls, sadistic ogres, sarcastic monsters, and an eponymous wisecracking dragon. But within the confines of the strip’s comic fantasy, Trampier created a compelling story and some of the most strikingly beautiful art ever put to paper.


The saddest thing about Dave Trampier’s passing — taken as a whole with his walking away not just from his RPG work but with his apparent retirement from art as a whole — is that his last days should have been filled with the knowledge of how many people his work inspired, and the degree of love that we have for that work, even after forty long years.


Trampier is gone now. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are gone. David Sutherland (whose art stood alongside Trampier’s in defining the look of D&D in its earliest days) and J. Eric Holmes (who edited the D&D “Blue Box” basic set that was the introduction to the game for so many players) are gone.

On some level, it’s an amazing thing to be part of a hobby and an industry still possessed of so many living legends. But the downside of that is the sadness that comes of seeing — even after only forty years — the first and greatest of those heroes slip away.

2014-02-26

Getting Out of the House

A writer I’ve worked with a couple of times as an editor dropped me a line last week saying thanks for the work I’d done on a book, and apologizing for (his words) making me work as hard as I had. When I reminded him that he’d actually paid me for the work and that I was totally okay with that arrangement, he responded that so many of the story and technical issues I’d caught for him in the text amounted to what he called “the obvious” — things he felt he should have caught himself, given the amount of time that he’d spend on the writing and his own editing and revisions. I responded with the following, which I repeat here with his permission.

Imagine you’re at home and you find yourself in a huge mother of a windstorm. It’s a bad storm. You can feel the walls shake. You can hear the windows rattle. You can hear the groaning of the foundation and the howling of the wind as it smashes against your four walls. But then the storm thankfully ends, and all that’s left is to assess possible damage and see what needs to be fixed.

Only you can’t leave the house for some reason. Maybe the storm came with flooding, which didn’t harm the house for the purpose of this analogy, but which prevents you from going out the door. Maybe you’ve suffered some traumatic injury and are doing the Jimmy Stewart thing from Rear Window. All you can do is assess the outside of the house from inside the house, sticking your head out the window to check the siding, looking up to the roof and down to what you can see of the foundation line. And in doing so, you’ll be able to check some areas of potential damage, but there’s always going to be a whole lot of the house you can’t see.

As writers, we spend all our time inside the house. When we create story, we live inside that story. We have to. It’s an essential part of the process of telling story — or at least the process of telling good story. We need to live within the narrative worlds we create so that our narrative voice is authentic to that world. We need to live alongside our characters so those characters can become as real as any of the people we live alongside in our nominal real worlds.

A writer that does the job properly is so focused on the interior of the story that someone poking around the outside of the narrative will always be able to spot occasional bits of the obvious more clearly. A good editor does that, noting the missing roof tiles and the place where the drain spout popped free. An editor notes which shingles are truly loose and which are just weathered. An editor looks for potential weak spots in the foundation that can’t be seen from inside the house, and gives the writer suggestions on how those weak spots might best be fixed.

If you’re a writer, spend as much time on your own editing and revision as you can. But don’t get uptight or frustrated over missing the obvious when an editor points it out to you. Even writers who are also editors (gives self-conscious wave) have this same problem of being forced to see from the inside out. Living inside the story is the best well to tell the story, so don’t fret that part of the process. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing your job. It means you’re doing your job the way it’s meant to be done.

2014-02-07

Edition Wars

An actual dream I recalled upon waking this morning.

D&D Next was about to be released to much fanfare and anticipation. Only the security around the release was so intense that Wizards of the Coast decided they needed to do the initial print run at my house, which is eight hours out of Seattle, and in another country for that added layer of obfuscation.

Chris Perkins and Rob Schwalb were both flown in to personally oversee the transfer of files for the core books and the installation of an offset press and a bindery in my garage on which those books would be produced. (Aside — I know it was just a dream, but you guys are totally welcome to stop by anytime.)

Unfortunately, midway through running the first galleys for the Player’s Handbook, we discovered that my house was secretly infested with haunts (AD&D Monster Manual II, page 74) that were intent on preventing the new edition of the game from ever being released.

I remember we were fighting the haunts with chainsaws at one point, but things get hazy after that.

I rarely remember my dreams, and based on remembering this one, I think that might be a defense mechanism.

2014-02-05

Memos from Nirvana


Last year, I put together a short anthology called “Voices of the Dead”, which I dedicated to Harlan Ellison because Ellison’s work was a huge influence on me at several key points in my writing life (including the decision to actually take up a writing life).


Because I dedicated the book to him, I sent him a copy, with a letter saying, “I have no expectation that you’ll read this, but this book literally wouldn’t exist without your books, and it means a lot to be able to send it to you.”

Several months went by, and I thought nothing else of it.

Then I got a letter from Harlan Ellison, who said that he did read the book. And that he liked the book. And that he had added the book to his library.

So that was pretty cool.

2014-01-30

Living the Dream

I was editing last night until just before I crashed and went to bed. So naturally, I spent all night dreaming that I was editing.

In the dream, I was still doing the editing I’d actually been doing before crashing and going to bed, so that in the dream, I had just continued to edit a little bit more without going to bed.

At one point in the dream, I looked up to see the time, and realized that I’d worked completely through the night. It was now 6:30 a.m., giving me exactly one hour to sleep before I had to get up and start editing again.

But then in the dream, I realized that I was dreaming, and that I hadn’t actually worked all night. So in the dream, I made a blog posting talking about how I’d been editing just before I crashed and went to bed, then spent all night dreaming that I was editing, then realized I was only dreaming.

I now have absolutely no idea whether I’m awake or not.

2014-01-26

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today, I had absolutely no idea Dungeons & Dragons existed. Hey, I was in elementary school in a small town of two thousand people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness and had one channel on the TV; cut me some slack. Thirty-nine years ago, we got a second TV channel. Thirty-three years ago, D&D was broadsided into my consciousness like I’d taken a 2x4 across the frontal lobes. (There’s no connection between those two things; I just like to tell people I only had two channels of TV growing up to see their looks of horror.)

I had seen D&D around, but we never connected. In high school, my friends and I read a whole lot of fantasy and SF, and we read a whole lot of comics, and we played a whole lot of board games, including a number of Avalon Hill titles. I was more about the Kingmaker; the rest of the party were into laboriously recreating World War II minute by minute. But any time I was in a bookstore or toy store, I would cruise the game shelves just to see what looked interesting, and I had thus seen the Holmes D&D Basic Set (called “the Blue Box” among the initiated) a number of times between 1977, when it came out, and 1981, when I played for the first time.



(I know the Holmes Blue Box isn’t actually blue. The rulebook inside was, though. Don’t worry about it.)

I can remember actually taking the Holmes Blue Box off the shelf and reading the back cover copy more than once. But I never took a chance on it, because as interesting as it sounded, I could never quite figure out what Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to be.


And so as is the case with a lot of people who play D&D, figuring out what the game was became a matter of hearing about it from someone who had already played.

In eleventh grade, Kevin (one of the aforementioned comic-and-fantasy-reading friends) left our small town of two thousand people in the middle of the Canadian wilderness and moved to Vancouver for a year. As we kept in touch by phone and the occasional letter (ask your parents), Kevin would share with us tales of the strange wonders he was seeing in his new life, like Conan writing home from Arenjun to his yokel kin on the Cimmerian frontier. I can remember one of those phone calls in particular, and Kevin talking like he was recounting the story of having scaled the Tower of the Elephant as he said, “I’ve been playing this game called ‘Dungeons & Dragons’…”

The first chance I ever had to play the game was a on trip to Vancouver to see Kevin, with another of the party (Dave) in tow. When we saw Kevin, D&D was the first thing he started talking about, with broad explanations of what the game was, and how it was played, and it’s like you’re a character in a book, and one player is making up the story of the book, but all the players are writing the action, and no, there’s no board, and no, you don’t really win the game, it just kind of goes on, and… you know what? I’ll just show you.

However, there was a problem with Kevin showing us the game, insofar as where we were together and talking about it, he didn’t actually have the game with him. But he showed us anyway, using the rules as he remembered them, and distilling them down to a simplified system we could actually grasp, and tearing paper into squares to make numbered chits in lieu of dice, and sketching out a dungeon off the top of his head. I don’t remember a lot of the details, except that I’m pretty sure Dave and I were both playing fighter/magic-users, because swords and lightning bolts got a workout at different points. I remember treasure chests and traps. I remember giant rats and flaming oil. I remember a dragon in the final cavern.  I don’t remember how we beat it, or even if we beat it, because it didn’t matter.

The reason it didn’t matter is that I remember, even as we were playing — even from the first moment that Kevin described us standing on a hillside staring into a passageway leading down into darkness — that the way I was feeling right at that moment was something I’d never felt before.

After the long journey back to Cimmeria, I picked up a copy of the Holmes blue box. I can still remember the feeling of reading it for the first time, in my bedroom in the dark of one of those awesomely lonely winter nights you get in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. I remember the feeling of slipping inside the game as it was laid out for me. Not just internalizing rules for movement and attacks and spells and monsters, but actually going to a place where those things were real. I got that same feeling again when I read the AD&D Player’s Handbook for the first time a couple of weeks later, courtesy of a guy named Mitch, who Dave saw reading it in the library one lunch hour.

(Some time ago, I relayed an anecdote regarding me, Kevin, Dave, and Mitch in the context of the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure I cowrote for Wizards of the Coast. I still think the anecdote is awesome.)

I’ve been gaming ever since that strange no-rules session with Kevin, the Holmes Blue Box, and Mitch’s Player’s Handbook in 1981. I’ve been writing professionally since 1992. I’ve been working as an RPG editor and designer since 2004. I stopped gaming for a long stretch when the demands of real life got in the way of my free time and sapped a large portion of my imagination and creativity. I got back into D&D shortly after the advent of 3rd Edition, when the philosophy underlying the Open Gaming License seemed like the herald of a renaissance of creativity in gaming.

But even through the years when I wasn’t playing, when I was struggling to create even as I was making stupidly good money doing it, I never forgot the feeling that comes of standing outside the yawning mouth of a cavern, with a friend at your back and a weapon in your hand and a world full of evil to defeat. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of falling into the game to become a part of it — not just being a reader or a player, but being a character in a world so real you can touch it.

Some of the best moments of my adolescence and of my professional life have revolved around Dungeons & Dragons. The game as we played it — as characters striving to prove that the actions of individuals taken in concert can thwart the darkest forces of fate and monstrous inhumanity — has inflected every word of fiction I’ve ever written— both fantasy and nonfantasy; during the times I was gaming and even when I wasn’t. Some of the most important friendships I continue to nurture can draw a line back through the game.

Like a lot of people, I can say with complete honesty that Dungeons & Dragons not only changed my life — it saved my life. D&D is the best training ground I know for storytelling. It’s an ongoing experiment in how to layer meaning into creativity. It’s entertaining and maddening and life-affirming and frustrating and rewarding in a way different from any other entertainment I’ve ever partaken in.

D&D is a lot like life that way. And having D&D at the center of my life means more to me than these or any other words can tell.

2014-01-13

Sidnye (Queen of the Universe)

Sidnye Dupree was going on thirteen years old when she broke the Bishop’s nose with a dodgeball and dreamed the dream of the shooting star. But even if she’d known then what was happening to her, it would have been far too late to stop it…

Kids! It’s time for another installment of Scott’s ongoing “Will you pick a freaking genre and just stick with it, jackass?” writerly sweepstakes. Today’s entry: YA speculative fiction. Because it’s Sidnye time.


Life is complicated enough when you live full-time at boarding school because your parents are dead, and when the other students around you are mostly idiots, and when you’re doomed to spend the rest of your existence in cafeteria detention because you just can’t stop annoying the people in charge of your life.

But that’s when you discover the headaches you’ve been having aren’t just a part of being thirteen and feeling the weight of the world hammering down on you. That’s when you realize the dreams you’ve been having are more than dreams, and the people you thought you were closest to are less concerned with caring about you than with keeping you from knowing the things they don’t want you to know…


• • •

The first in a series of… well, hopefully a few, Book 1 of “Sidnye (Queen of the Universe)” is out as an ebook on Amazon now, out in trade paperback in about a week, and on all the other usual ebook sites in March. Owing to some strange quirks of the editorial process, Book 2 of the series will be out next month. Book 3 will be out next year like I’ve been told is normal for most writers. Because I’m all about the normal.


• • •

Even as she closed her eyes to try to escape the screaming, Sidnye remembered the dream.

Sidnye rarely remembered her dreams, which made them unique enough that she recognized this memory at once for what it was. The image split the fractured darkness of her sight, unfolding in her memory the way ice crystals spread across winter windows. In the dream, she was scared and she was moving. Darkness rose around her as she ran. Image fragments shuffled past her like the fast video cuts Emmet liked to use, no scene held onto long enough to figure out what it was. Then around her, a flare like dawn erupted from the shadows, brighter than anything she’d ever seen before. Pillars of light pulsed fast, heat and cold crashing in.

Rising slowly above her, Sidnye saw a thing that couldn’t possibly exist. This was the thing she’d been dreaming of when she woke, and which had frozen her voice in her throat. As it uncurled from shadow, its six legs gleamed like black steel. Its eyeless head jutted out from no neck, looming over her as she fell back, arms up as if she might protect herself that way. The thing’s insect shape was steam and darkness, a haze clinging to it as it slammed toward her, too fast for her to escape…