Dance For Me

I was sorting through old books today and flipped open Watership Down for the first time in a while, remembering even as i glanced through it that the book begins with the following fragment of poetry:

He said “Dance for me” and he said
“You are too beautiful for the wind
To pick at, or the sun to burn.” He said
“I’m a poor tattered thing, but not unkind
To the sad dancer and the dancing dead.”

— Sidney Keyes,
Four Postures of Death

When i first read that fragment, way back in the university days, it lodged itself into my brain and heart like a piece of white-hot shrapnel. Though the real memory is long gone, i can still second-hand recall the potency of those words, the starkness of their impact on me, both on their own and juxtaposed to the darkness and futility and bright hope of the book. (It’s good; you should read it.)

But for a number of years thereafter, i tried to figure out who the hell Sidney Keyes was or had been, ultimately drawing a blank at every library and bookstore in which i looked for his name. (I was on bad terms with English professors in those days or i would have just asked and probably saved myself some time. Long story).

More years went by and i forgot about looking. Then yesterday, i read those words again and remembered what i’d forgotten. I dove for the keyboard, Wikipedia to the rescue.

Sidney Keyes was a poetic prodigy of the 1940s, eighteen years old at Oxford when he was first anthologized. Nineteen years old when he published his first collection (The Iron Laurel) and was lauded as one of the most innovative British poets of his day. Twenty years old when he joined the West Kent regiment and was killed on a raid in Tunisia, two weeks after he was deployed.

March 1942, Keyes wrote the following:

War Poet

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.

March, 1942. Keyes was twenty years old. When i was twenty years old, i was lucky if i could properly compose a shopping list.

For more than half my life, I’ve been carrying around inside me the words of a dead twenty-two-year-old. Words too beautiful for the wind to pick at or the sun to burn. For any of us who aspire to scratch our names on the altar of creative thought, it can be a sobering prospect to reflect on those who came before us and, with far less time, accomplished far more. It’s an even more sobering prospect to think about what Keyes might have accomplished if he’d had the chance.



It’s fall again, and the same sense of combined dread and crispness that always hits me this time of year is slamming down now like a freight train. The crispness comes from the obvious sense of the night-cool air and the first hint of frost sweeping in on the changing of the daylight wind. The dread comes from being forced to remember how many times previously you’ve felt this hint of frost before.

Fall is the season that speaks most strongly of transition. The line between summer and fall is sharp like fresh-cut glass in a way that no other boundary between seasons is. Fall to winter is a continuum of moody darkness, a fading mesh of grey lines burned black and bleached white in a crucible of frost and shorter days. Winter to spring is more physically abrupt but less visceral. Spring creeps up on you, a hint of green change that swallows the memory of winter, so that by the time winter truly goes, you’ve already lost touch with what it was and what it meant. Spring to summer is a continuum of settling idleness and ever-lengthening days that mask their own transition.

But summer to fall is a sudden hammerstroke of time advancing and tightening around you to drag you forward with it. Fall is the sudden splintering sensation of the previous year as it cracks underfoot and pulls you down into the shadowy space that memory makes. Fall is the realization that summer, spring, and the winter before have come and gone and left you, and that you stand on a familiar rise of seasonal insight, wondering where the all the time went since the time before.

The dread of fall lies in feeling the lingering modal memory of every other fall, every other instance of this chill transition, all of them echoing each other in your mind. And with each echo, you feel the space of your life stretched out a little thinner, a little bit finer. You feel the chill a little deeper than you did the year before, realizing that on some now-unseen point on the line of seasons, you’ve passed the point where the seasons before you now exceed the seasons ahead.


The Flow

One of the ways in which the internet has changed my life is that i no longer have any idea whatsoever how i find things out. Used to be, i could think about a thing i knew and draw a relatively straight line back through the books or articles where i’d read about it, and the informed conversations i’d had with people who knew more than i did about it, and the initial reference where i’d first heard about it and decided to learn more.

None of that works anymore. The web is where pretty much all information starts and ends in my life these days, and its endless waves of content and context just kind of wash through me with no sense of where anything begins and ends. On the plus side, i probably know more about more things than i ever have at any previous point of my life. On the negative side, i have no idea where most of it originally came from.

Life for all of us who spend time on the web has become a flow of ideas, constantly clashing, crashing, and colliding with each other to create a shifting matrix of information that inflects and directs our lives.

Case in point.

A month or so ago, i read this piece by mystery/thriller writer J.A. Konrath on the Huffington Post site, but have absolutely no idea how i got directed there in the first place. I know i didn’t arrive by way of something else on the Huffington Post, because i wasn’t reading the HP at that point (i like to rotate my media around from time to time). It wasn’t through anything having to do with Konrath, since as a mostly non-mystery fan, i had no conscious recollection of ever having heard of Konrath before. (Colleen, significant other, is a mystery fan, so it’s entirely likely his books have been in my house.) It might have been through Slashdot; might have been through a blog, but even if i remembered which one, i doubt that i’d be able to remember how i got there, and so the recursion of uncertainty is constant.

Here’s why this is annoying to me. When i read that post by Konrath, i think something changed in my world. Assuming i’m right, it would nice years from now to be able to know why that happened.

I’m a technical kind of guy. I got into publishing in the first place not out of any particular love of publishing, but because i was a writer and a computer science major, and i was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of magazine publishing’s transition from traditional galley typesetting to the first desktop publishing systems. (I’ve done full-page, full-color magazine layout on a 9-inch monochrome Macintosh SE screen. I am teh hardcorez.)

Because i’m a technical kind of guy, i’ve been more than aware of the e-book movement. As a tabletop gamer, i was there for the rise, fall, and leveling out of the RPG PDF market. I followed the release of the Kindle in 2007 with much interest, though i shied away from owning one over my lack of enthusiasm for DRM and proprietary file formats. However, i was running Stanza on my first-gen iPod Touch from the moment i became aware of it (first book bought: Moorcock’s Elric: The Stealer of Souls anthology). My iPad currently rocks the iBooks reader, the Kindle app, and Kobo (where i like to do most of my shopping, because of the whole Canadian thing).

But for some reason, until i read Konrath’s Huffington Post piece, the following very important realization hadn’t clicked with me.

I’m a professional writer with credits up the yin-yang and books with my name on them and a ton of script work to my credit and a fair number of other people’s movies with my story editor’s fingerprints on them, and i’ve been bashing my head against the brick wall that is the traditional fiction publishing industry for a lot of years now. And what Konrath is doing, i can do, too.

As said, i’m a technical guy. It’s just that my ability to get with the program still runs on the old steam-powered analog system sometimes.

Originally, largely as a result of the experience of PDFs in the RPG market, i saw e-books as an interesting and long-overdue extension of the boundaries of book publishing. A change something along the lines of the appearance of the first mass-market pocket books — something that would put more books into more hands at a cheaper price, which is all good.

Now, along with Konrath and a whole bunch of other people, i think e-books are going to be the undoing of mainstream book publishing. E-books represent the new flow of information and power in publishing, with the former spreading to greater numbers of readers even as the latter redirects itself from publishers and agents to writers. Book publishing (and fiction publishing in particular) are built around an economic and power-structure model that’s been in place for a century or more. Just about the same length of time that galley typesetting in its various forms had been the center of magazine and newspaper publishing before me and the other computer-savvy hordes buried it for good.

Note that i’m not saying or implying that i predict “the undoing of books”. Merely the undoing of the traditional publishing industry. Books will always be around. Small press and indie publishers will always be around. Books will thrive in the e-reader era like never before, i think. They’ll just be created and sold in ways that the mainstream publishing industry has been entirely unable to predict and has no chance of reacting to.

That high-pitched whine you hear is Charles Scribner, spinning in his grave at 50,000 RPM.

The times, they are deranging. If you’re a writer, this is a very good thing.


Have Fun

Every year at about this time, you hear on the blogs and in the emails and on various websites and (if you actually get out of the house, unlike myself) from people at large just generally bitching out loud about the so-called fun-sized chocolate bar. (I believe that’s the so-called fun-sized candy bar to my fine American friends.) The so-called fun-sized chocolate bar is, of course, smaller than the regular chocolate bar by an order of celestial magnitude, and most people who get wound up by this sort of thing kvetch on and on about how it’s all just some stupid exercise in marketing speak and how a real fun-sized chocolate bar would be the size of your head, etc., etc.

Here’s the real truth.

Fun-sized chocolate bars aren’t called that out of any reference to their size, ironic or otherwise. They’re called that because you can eat the little bastards indefinitely without ever stopping.

Real chocolate bars have precise weights and sizes that are scientifically formulated to satisfy your psychological need to eat a chocolate bar. Chocolate bars are so-designed in order to prolong the sense of being satisfied by one, so that in the end, you recall not the taste or eating of the bar itself, but the serotonin rush in the aftermath. This is what you gets you eating the next time, in the best kind of addictive spiral. The exact number of calories, the exact balance of cocoa, fat, and preservatives that allow a single chocolate bar to be the eating experience that it is are rendered by arcane formulas run on aging twinned supercomputers buried in bunkers beneath Hershey, PA, and the Mars plant in Slough, England. The only people privy to a full understanding of their secrets are a sect of blind Shaolin monks controlled with an iron fist by the Trilateral Commission.

It’s true. You can look it up.

But the fun-sized chocolate bar...

The fun-sized chocolate bar follows no carefully crafted formula for critical mass. On the contrary, the fun-sized bars are exactly of a confectionary and caloric prime factor that allows your body to not actually notice that you’re eating them at all. And so you eat them. And you eat them. And you eat them. Under normal circumstances, two chocolate bars is too many, but even if you measure by mundane weight and calculate out that one full-sized chocolate bar is the equivalent of, say, ten fun-sized chocolate bars, it won’t matter, because you’ll plow through thirty, sixty, ninety, three hundred of these fuckers without missing a beat.

The fun of a fun-sized chocolate bar is the rush that comes of your blood eventually containing more cocoa than white-cell plasma. The fun of fun-sized is the sensation of hanging suspended between glucose-driven cardiac arrest and diabetic coma, never knowing which direction your body’s going to go. Fun-sized is about finally understanding what it feels like to be the frog that gets put in a pot of water that’s brought slowly to a boil, never noticing that he’s being cooked until it’s far too late.


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.


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.


Firestorm the Foundations

(A continuation of a discussion started 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. However, the most important thing about the tactical encounter format is that its very creation has made it indispensable to the way adventures are designed — and, as a result, the way game play is conducted.

From a design standpoint, using the tactical encounter format takes a lot of work. Although there’s a certain amount of boilerplate and stat block cut-and-paste in the layout and construction of a tactical encounter spread, from a design perspective, creating a compelling tactical encounter is a delicate balancing act of form and function. There’s a lot of work that goes into a well-made tactical encounter — and as a result of that, the D&D game no longer has any room for tactical encounters as an optional choice. If i, as the designer, have gone to the trouble of crafting the tactical encounter, you as the DM or player are effectively obliged to run it.

From one perspective, tactical encounters take up a huge amount of design space. If i’m a designer writing a tactical encounter, i don’t dare to make it throwaway or optional, because doing so means that i’m cutting a significant amount of the limited space i’ve been allotted to craft my adventure. From another perspective (and from the other side of the table), today’s adventures consist mostly of tactical encounters by page count (often by a ratio of 2:1 or more). If you’ve paid for the adventure, you’ve implicitly paid for the tactical encounters first and foremost. As such, there’s no rational basis on which you can arbitrarily throw them out or let the players simply bypass them, because if you do, you’ve wasted your money.

And so tactical encounters have become the foundation of the adventure — the absolutely necessary points of play — on which the implicitly expendable nontactical material and backstory are draped for show. And this is a huge, huge reversal in terms of design philosophy. Once upon a time, adventure scenarios were crafted in a fashion that can lovingly be described as “sparse”. Once upon a time, adventures were a continuum of tactical encounters, nontactical material, and backstory — all of which was equally important and equally expendable at the same time. As a DM, you made choices at every stage regarding what was worth keeping, what had to happen, and what could be thrown away based on the whims and decisions of the players, and thus did the game progress. Now, the game progresses according to a tactical script for the most part — but the game should be more than that.

Here’s an example that i think is fairly telling. For the home game i run with my wife and daughters (yeah, my wife games; suck it up), i decided that it would be cool to create a campaign based around mostly-on-the-fly v3.5 adaptations of the large number of older AD&D adventure modules that i’d owned and read but never got around to playing (plus a few good enough that it’s always fun to play them again). One of those never-had-a-chance-to-play it adventures (because i wasn’t playing during the 2nd Edition days) was Bruce Cordell’s epically bugfuck (and i mean that as an extreme compliment) chthonic masterpiece “The Gates of Firestorm Peak”.

The initial encounter of GoFP is a classic D&D tactical scenario. A steep climb up a remote mountainside. A lone portal hacked out of the living rock. A passageway beyond. Invisible poisoned caltrops strewn across the corridor floor. A stone wall set with barbs and spikes that blocks the PCs’ passage. A force of twelve enlarged Duergar behind the wall, locked, loaded, hunkered down, and ready for anything.

In the end, the party walked through them without losing a hit point.

Arcane eye scouted out and noted the Duergar positions. Invisibility all around, with characters moving up connected by rope (because not having invisibility sphere, they were invisible to each other). Message for whispered communication. The rogue carefully sweeping the caltrop field, the sorcerer getting ready with the fly spell that let her lob multiple fireballs over the wall before the Duergar knew what hit them. It was epic. It was perfect. And it would never, ever happen — would never even be allowed to happen — if “Gates of Firestorm Peak” was converted to the tactical encounter format. Because the tactical encounter format says “You have to fight now.”

Dungeons & Dragons in any of its many forms has always first and foremost been about options. The entrenched reliance on the tactical encounter format reduces the options available to player, character, and DM. And for me, at least, the game risks losing something as a result.

(Next: I’ve Got Your Improv Right Here)


Tactical Breakdown

I love Dungeons & Dragons in all its myriad, varied, and mostly contradictory forms. In high school, i started with the Holmes Blue Box and graduated quickly to AD&D. I went all down-and-out-in-Greyhawk-and-Faerûn during 2nd Edition, but continued to read the game even though i wasn’t playing it. I was intellectually and emotionally revitalized with 3rd Edition and the idea of Open Gaming, and am now one of the few people lucky enough to be asked to watch over 4th Edition and (unless Wizards finally gets tired of me and fires my freelance ass) the implicit future of the game.

So here’s a confession — i really, really, really dislike the tactical encounter format. I disliked it when it appeared at the tail end of v3.5; i dislike it in 4th edition. I dislike all previous attempts to revamp it, to streamline it, or to make its fragmentation of the playing experience less obvious. (The one narcissistic exception to this is the RPGA Tomb of Horrors update that landed last month, for which i asked and gained permission to flow the tactical encounters freely within the overall text. However, that combat-light adventure is a specific corner case that can’t be automatically applied to adventures as a whole.)

Why i dislike the tactical encounter format isn’t for any of its mechanical features. Taken for what it is, the tactical encounter format does its job extremely well. Combat encounters are easier to play by far with a well laid out tactical encounter breakdown in front of you. The problem is that not all combat encounters deserve or need to be tactical encounters, but current adventure design is slanted so strongly toward the tactical encounter format that it creates a dependent relationship. Tactical encounters now define the game session as anchor points, where they were once simply part of a continuum of process and play that shaped itself in a largely gestalt fashion.

Well-meaning contemporary game designers like me are thus responsible for an entire generation of gamers (a generation of gamers being about half the life of any particular edition of a game, so figure five years on average) who no longer know how to conduct an encounter unless the tactical encounter breakdown is sitting in front of them. And, in my view, the basic style of gaming has undergone a sea change because of that, and not necessarily for the better.

I got an email shortly after my adventure “Test of Fire” appeared in Dungeon the beginning of this year, which read in part:

When I download an adventure I expect to be able to run it not have to dig out stat blocks. All these random encounters in the [“Through the City of Brass”] skill challenge, why am I doing your job?

I wept openly when i read this, and not just because of the comma splice, or because like all writers, i crave validation and the rejection of my work makes me suicidal. The bigger issue for me is that there are now countless D&D players —players of all ages, of varying experience — who don’t understand that improvisation is the heart of what this game is supposed to be about.

The tactical encounter format has done more than simply make certain players forget how to wing a combat encounter on the fly. The tactical encounter format has actively taught certain players that combat cannot be conducted that way.

The reason that there are random encounter groups tabled in the big cross-city skill challenge in “Test of Fire” is that the question of which of those combat encounters are necessary depends entirely on how the skill challenge progresses. Nothing is set; everything flows from the players’ decisions and the luck of the dice. And this underlines for me that the singular problem with the tactical encounter format is that it makes combat inevitable — and thus makes the expectation of combat inevitable. A tactical encounter format makes a tactical encounter necessary, and for all the wrong reasons.

(Next: Firestorm the Foundations)


Or does that sacrifice stand here…?

I talked last post about the awesomeness that was working on the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure. Unfortunately, the dark power of Acererak cuts down adventurers and adventure designers with equal ease.

I’ve put together a bit of an unofficial addendum to cover text that went missing from Chapter Two of the adventure (including Acererak’s second poem), which can be found here. As well, thumbnail updates to some of the maps in the Shadow Tomb (showing map layers that went missing from the final versions in the book) can be found here.


Somewhere Under a Lost and Lonely Hill…

So some time back, I mentioned working on a writing project that was very cool, and which I couldn’t talk about. What I didn’t say at the time was that it was actually two related writing projects, whose juxtaposition made both even cooler. Here’s the first.

In the new Tomb of Horrors super-adventure, the excellent Ari Marmell (lead designer) crafted a story framework within which we both had a hell of a lot of fun thinking up new and exciting ways to send your D&D characters to an untimely end. You can read more about it here, and I’m sure people will be talking about it elsewhere, so I’m not going to.

Except to say this.

The super-adventure builds on the events of Gary Gygax’s original Tomb of Horrors, as well as the sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors by the incomparable Bruce Cordell. In that mega-adventure, a necromancer’s enclave called Skull City has been built up around the fabled dungeons of the Tomb. In the new Tomb super-adventure, the original Tomb of Horrors dungeons have been mostly destroyed. Skull City is a ruin, fought over by factions allied with and against the demilich Acererak. One of those factions is a group called the Skullbreakers, which are described as follows:

The Skullbreakers

Much smaller in number and presence than either the Blackfire or Faithmarked factions, the Skullbreakers are not the descendants of those who settled Skull City. Rather, this loose band of warriors consists of heroes who heard that the Tomb of Horrors had been drained of power — and who intend to make sure it stays that way.

The Skullbreakers are named for the shattering of Acererak’s skull — the legendary (though ultimately false) means by which the demilich was said to have been endlessly destroyed. (The devious Acererak had long spread rumors that an Acererak construct guarding the Tomb’s final vault was the demilich himself.) The Skullbreakers control a well-defended portion of the residential ruins, from which they make strikes against the Faithmarked and Blackfire factions.

But what nobody knows except me (and, well, you now) is that the Skullbreakers are based on me and three good friends of mine — David, Kevin, and Mitchell — who were the three people I originally started playing Dungeons & Dragons with lo those many years ago.

(Heroic portrait by the excellent Kerem Beyit.)
From left to right, that’s Myshal (Mitchell); Daud Jatmor (David, from David the Giant Killer, his first PC); Njall (me, from Nigel, an old nickname; it was the 80s, leave me alone); and Kobhein (Kevin, continuing to demonstrate my incredible fantasy-writer ability to translate ordinary names into Epic-Speak).

Frankly, I think the likenesses are amazing, especially considering that Kerem wasn’t working off of any pictures of the actual people, but merely my art-order description of celebrities we each kind of resembled. (I’m seriously thinking about getting that skull tattoo.)

In a pivotal encounter in Chapter Three of the super-adventure, the PCs face off against the Skullbreakers — and hopefully parley with them, because we will kick their asses.

And if that wasn’t cool enough (at least I think it’s cool; your mileage may vary), here’s something else.

As mentioned, the original Tomb of Horrors is a wasted ruin in the new super-adventure, which I thought was a great twist by Ari on which to build a “sequel”, of sorts. However, the backstory of the super-adventure made me think it would be kind of cool to actually update the original Tomb to the 4th edition rules, making it a kind of “before” picture to the super-adventure’s “after”. I pitched the powers that be on doing just that for Dungeon, and they agreed — but wanted it done as a free adventure for the RPGA (a worldwide players’ group that TSR created and that WotC now runs). That free adventure was also out this month, and was just as much fun to work on as the super-adventure. Especially getting to break out the cover credit.

The one thing that I want to share from the RPGA update module is the afterward.

The short version: I really like my job.


Charlie Can’t Swim

LOST. Season finale. Series finale.


I confess that the last gasp of this once-beloved-by-me, now spurned and excoriated waste of my goddamn time had its moments (like realizing that Juliet was Jack’s ex). And on a whole, it wasn’t quite like the final season captured all the excruciating inanity of the Seinfeld finale, except stretched out over 16 hours. But it felt like it at times. Never mind that none of the real questions raised in previous seasons didn’t get answered. They introduced brand new questions in this season that they didn’t bother answering.

I could go on, but i’ll put on my story editor’s hat instead and just say the following. One of the underlying touchstones of the show has always been that the dramatic stakes are exceptionally high. All along, Cuse and Lindeloff and company have been saying “Look! Characters will die! Oooh, that’s how edgy we are!” Except then you write an ending where it’s revealed that none of that edge matters one freaking iota because you were just kidding. I mean, seriously?

Another way to look at it. All along since the show started, there’s been this need to speculate on what might really be going on, and what things mean, and how the story will end as a result. And of all the discussion on all the boards and in all the forums and Facebook pages and in endless emails, the two worst possible, most mind-numbingly stupid, failed-Creative-Writing-101 foundations/endings for the show were the following:

1) Everybody’s actually dead.

2) It was all a dream.

Faced with an endless number of things they could have done, the writers of LOST chose not one but both of the worst of all possible endings.

The way it’s been broken down (including by the Creators, TM, patent applied for) is that the sideways stuff was a kind of consensual hallucination engaged in by all the survivors, which somehow allowed them to leave their pain behind, yada, yada. Some people in the hallucination recognized it as such (Desmond’s mother, directly; Bernard also seemed to, indirectly), which cracked the dream open enough for Desmond to figure it out, blah, blah. However, that fails to address the questions of why they’re all engaged in this dream, and (more importantly) what the hell actually happened when the nuke went off? Reading between the lines, it seems likely that THAT was the moment when everybody who wasn’t already dead died; but then that makes no sense vis. Hurley’s comment to Ben at the church about them working together; except maybe that means Hurley’s only dreaming about that; blah, blah.

Any way you slice it, it’s still a colossal cheat.

For me, i started off liking the parallel timeline a lot, but only because i was writing my own really cool story as we went along. My expectation was that it was going to be revealed that the split in the timeline was the real threat against the island/the world/whatever, and that both parallel groups of characters were going to end up having to work together to knit the timeline back — even as they didn’t know whether they’d survive it. Which is to say, the arc of the season would be about both groups having to make Juliet’s decision at the end of last season. Each would have to accept the responsibility to sacrifice everything they remembered as their “real lives”, and you’d have things like characters dreaming their other lives to get important messages across to the other time stream and so on.

A big part of this better story would have been that the Man in Black/John Locke actually had John’s personality still imprinted in him, such that the real John would pop back from time to time to help Jack and the others when the Man in Black was weakened somehow. A very potent kind of “You need to kill me!” scenario, which of course would make it even harder to kill him.

I shudder to think of the number of alternate version of this series out there somewhere, consisting only of the things they didn’t do that are better than what they did do. I guess starting off with the episode where they forgot that Charlie can’t swim.

Ah, well.

Equally nice would have been an endless series of spinoffs where the sideways characters get their own shows (Sawyer and Miles as a gritty cop drama; Jack and Claire sharing an apartment in a wacky sitcom; et al).

Oh, and this is hilarious. The crashed plane at the end was apparently a total screw-up, just to really end things on an anticlimax. The studio/network decided to add that footage so there wouldn’t just be a black screen over the closing credits. The producers had no idea the studio/network were going to do so, and so they had no way to prevent the obvious questions of 1) Did they all die in the crash and the whole show was a dream?, or 2) Is that the plane Lapitas was flying, so that all those guys crashed?

I’m seriously thinking about giving up TV. Wait, i already did. Damnit.

I’ve been told that Fringe is good. Damnit.



“The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.”
— Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University
(as read in Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind)

Sometimes you can read the simplest things and have the most profound reaction. The master metaphor explaining why i do what i do lies within the words above, i think. The reason for everything i’ve ever done, for everything i am, is wrapped up in that single sentence.

In my view, escapism has a purpose — but it’s not the purpose most people assume. Escapism isn’t about letting people turn away from the problems of the real world, but about letting them gain the strength to deal with those problems. The whole history of fable and myth (including religion) boils down to that simple concept. We’re forced to live with what we have. We’re forced to deal with the world as it unfolds around us. But like any fight, the battle with life requires that we break away from the enemy once in a while, regrouping, finding our feet, choosing new offensive and defensive strategies. When we need to turn away from the world for a time, we need to step outside that world. And when we do, thoughtful escapism — escapism with meaning and literary purpose, whether SF, fantasy, film, RPGs, or what have you — lets us do that.

Though i’ve never thought about it this way — though i might never have used the word before reading it as i did today (aside: Pink’s book is great, get it) — i understand suddenly that when i sit down to write, it’s always about wanting to transcend. I understand suddenly that it’s always about wanting the reader to be able to rise above the real world with me.


All You Tech Legends, Get Off My Lawn

Here’s why i should read more, or at least should read more thoroughly — i just discovered this morning that Linus Torvalds is younger than i am.

This is particularly embarrassing as i’m supposedly kind of a computer guy. As such, i know about Linux. I can talk about Linux without soundly exceedingly stupid. I actually run Linux from time to time, just for the sheer thrill of doing so. (Current installation: Ubuntu 9.10 running under VMWare Fusion.)

I’ve probably read a gazillion things on, about, or by Linus Torvalds on the web over the years. However, the web (or at least my experience of the web) tends to be about glossing, picking out interesting snippets, cataloguing only whatever information is most useful in the moment, then moving on. And as a result, i’d never had reason or cause to note how old Linus Torvalds is or (inexplicable as it might seem) to see a picture of him. And so in my head, i had made him a next-generation contemporary of Dennis Ritchie and all those old-school guys, and imagined him a kind of curmudgeonly 55-year-old Scandavian academic type with a black sweater and a pipe. Ingmar Bergman running Pico or something.

Then i caught this tech-blog snippet this morning, which was accompanied by a portrait of the artist as a young man that sent me straight to Wikipedia. Linus Torvalds is forty years old and has already changed the world, inspiring me once again to ask the question “What the fuck have i done with my life?”


The Freelancer’s Life

The most significant problem with living the freelancer’s life is that you have no intrinsic sense of when to stop working. With a real job, you have office hours. You have that time past which everybody else has gone home, or the front doors are locked up, or you realize that you simply can’t get anything more accomplished that day. With a real job, you probably hate what you’re doing anyway, so more often than not, it’s not like you need an excuse to give it a rest until tomorrow.

However, get lucky enough to write and edit games and books and movies for a living, and all the “Now’s a good time to stop” signs go straight out the window. Get lucky enough to be able to spend the time in between all your paying projects writing for yourself, and watch the line between work and life get sandblasted away by the joyful pressure of the creative process.

All work and no play make Scott a dull boy, but when your work essentially is play, you need to remind yourself to put the toys away and, like, eat and sleep and remember what day it is and stuff.



The secret to living a satisfying life is determining the perfect ratio of questions to statements. There’s that wonderful, wonderful period at the beginning of your existence when you don’t know anything, so that everything you learn, everything you do, everything you try satisfies the insatiable desire for experience that lies at the foundation of existence. When you’re young, life is nothing but questions.

The problem is that the more you learn, the more you know, the more things you pick up — the more locked down your life gets. The more answers you have, the harder it gets to find questions that haven’t already been asked. Questions that don’t seem simply like new variations on what’s been asked and answered already. Questions that become statements when you realize that you’re only adding to the sum total of what you already know, not discovering something you never knew before.

When you understand a thing for the first time, it carves itself into you. The first time you try to understand the nature of god, death, love. All the big questions. The first time you hear that particular band, read that particular book, see that particular sunset that changes your life and makes you ask what it means. All the little questions. These first things leave their mark on you, tattoo their names and their images, their sounds and scents into your flesh, your marrow. But then the second time, the third time, the tenth, hundredth, thousandth time, you come up against experience that’s really only shades of the same colors that have already marked you. You feel the shadow of understanding, but the magic isn’t there anymore. The grooves that first knowledge carves into you become worn with the passage of time, and the later knowledge begins to seek the established channels where the flow is familiar to you.

We all begin as a single question. We ask ourselves who we are.

We all fight the inertia of statements by constantly reminding ourselves of that initial question, and of all the other questions that need to be answered before this particular exam is done.


When You’re Young Enough

When you’re young enough, when you’re raw enough, when you’re naive enough, there’s always time.

There’s time enough to clip and photocopy and bookmark every article that ever changed your mind about something.

There’s time to read every book you want to read.

There’s time enough to figure out who you are.

When you’re young enough, you can be anybody you want to be. You can feel the possibilities, the potential futures inside you as they tug and pull you forward.

But the older we get, the more acutely aware we become that the number of people we can become gets smaller every single day. The older we get, the more possibilities we feel splitting off from our lives, disappearing like shedding skin.

In the end, when it’s done, we’re all destined to become the one version of ourselves that’s the only version left. So what are all of us doing to make sure that last of all possible persons is the person we really want to be?


Pepysing Tom

Up to January 21st in the Diaries of Samual Pepys, and i've just discovered the secret to Sam's good living:

"Thence to my office where nothing to do."

I seriously need to work on that.


Old School

If i ever play a cleric again, he’ll be named after this guy.


“You Always Wanted More Time”

It occurs to me that i listen to the first six bars of Wilco’s “I Must Be High” more than just about any other piece of music i own. This is because Wilco’s A.M. (on which the above-mentioned track is the first song) is the very first album listed alphabetically in my iTunes library. This means that pretty much every time i start iTunes up with the “play” keyboard shortcut i have hardwired into my system, it starts playing that song, after which it takes me six bars to get iTunes up front on my display and actually find and play whatever I actually want to play.


Play It

As has been discussed earlier, i rarely remember my dreams, and so when i do, it’s cause for celebration and noting them here in order to create the illusion that i matter in some inconceivable way.

I dreamt that a good friend from back in the day (Dave) had been here to the house, and upon departing had made mention of leaving something for me, in a kind of smiling “You’ll have to find it on your own” way. Eventually, i discovered that he’d left a videotape sitting in my VCR (yes, i still have a VCR, even out of the dream). I played the videotape. It was something he had taped off TV years ago, complete with the old scan lines and occasional drop outs attesting to its age. On the tape,  J.P. Patches and H.R. Pufnstuf were recreating the late-night “Of all the gin joints” scene from Casablanca. J.P. Patches was Rick, of course.

No, i don’t know what it means.