The Best Game

My paper copy for 5th Edition Player’s Handbook

Whenever someone asks me about Dungeons and Dragons (and sometimes even when they don’t) I tell them, “It’s the best game, ever.”

And I mean that, sincerely, truthfully, wholeheartedly. There are so many parts to love about D&D, and I would be hard pressed to name a single one. At any given moment, it might be the collaboration, or the storytelling, or the randomness, or the strategy. Or maybe the friendships, the laughter, the gripping moments of uncertainty for a character’s fate.

I didn’t own my own copy of the AD&D handbook. I had to borrow Jim’s

I first played Dungeons and Dragons (technically Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) in 1982. I was a junior in high school, and my friend Jim Law introduced me to the game. We played at his house and then later at school, under the watchful eye of our history teacher, Mr. Gaines.

Jim was the DM. I played a fighter. We had a rogue and a ranger. Later, when Mr. Gaines joined for a few sessions, we had a wizard.

We were all pretty new at it. The game had been around about 10 years at that point, and it was about to get an overhaul with a 2nd edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragon rule set.

AD&D dragon kin

And the rules, as I remember them, were pretty complicated. It makes sense in a math geek sort of way, but you figured out if you hit a monster by using a probability chart. What’s the probability that you, a 1st level fighter, are going to hit that lizard creature? It’s low, right? The probability is low, and to calculate it, you have to do math.*

*I mean, you have to do math now, too. The monster has its armor class (AC) and you have your combat modifiers – your attack and damage numbers. So you roll the 20-sided dice (d20) and add your attack number – the number that modifies the dice roll, and if it exceeds the monsters AC, you hit them!

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, you had a formula called THAC0. That stands for “To Hit Armor Class 0” The formula is your THAC0 score MINUS the monster’s AC = the number you need to roll to hit a given monster. Your THAC0 — character level and class (and sometimes race) — against the monster’s literal armor. But it’s backwards. Because: probability. How likely is it that your level 3 fighter is going to hit the boss monster? Not very. Which means….

From an AD&D Monster Manual supplement

….. A super hard to hit monster could have an AC of say -5. Negative armor? What? And you, as a level 3 fighter, will have to roll a 20 on the 20-sided dice to hit that monster.

My three D&D versions

Flash forward to 2019, and I’m still playing, playing a fighter again, as fate would have it, although I spent most of my 3.5 years as a healer. I didn’t think that any system could surpass 3.5 in my heart. That’s where I really fell in love with the possibilities within D&D, and yet the 5th edition retooling took the best of 3.5, tempered it with the best of 4th edition and made a system that just purrs along, allowing the story, the players, and the DM to come together and make true story magic.


LitRPG or The Art of Writing Quickly

Perhaps you’re familiar with the sub genre of fantasy called LitRPG. A friend of mine – Andrew Seiple – turned me on to it. He’s a fellow writer, gamer, and all-around good guy so I knew he wouldn’t steer me wrong. He’d begun to dabble in this genre, and since I am fortunate enough to edit his writing, he wanted to make sure I was up for editing his latest effort, a LitRPG story called Threadbare.

As with all his work, I was hooked by page 2. He wrote 3 books in the Threadbare saga, and he published them first on a popular LitRPG website called Royal Road Legends. That’s the interesting thing here – he wrote and published the books before he ever let me get my grubby editorial hands on them.

That’s part of the attraction of LitRPG in general and Royal Road in particular, the stories are fast-paced, serialized, continuous narratives. The readers are reading work that is, in some cases, hours old. There’s no “write your novel and wait three months before editing” vibe here. In other words, writing in this genre violates my own writing advice.

Andrew is a fast writer anyway. He writes approximately 2.5 novels to my 1. And I think the joy of writing to an ever-growing audience of readers and fans just spurred him on. In about three months he’d cranked out the Threadbare trilogy. So even a fast writer like Andrew was blowing past normal writing protocols.

I’ve long enjoyed turning my real-life Dungeons & Dragons game sessions into narrative form. I’ve talked about how writing up those sessions helped unlock my creativity. It’s something I still do – you can check out my current campaign here. And so I wanted to try out this genre for myself. The sequel to The Girl in Gold was sputtering along in fits and starts, and I thought a break would do wonders for me.

But here’s the thing: readers are a hungry bunch. They want chapters and they want them fast and frequent. Did I say fast? They want them faster than that. So I tried to be prudent. I dashed off about 5 chapters over a long weekend, got a start on my story – basic characters, basic premise. And I published the first chapter. And then a few days later, the next chapter, and so on. But then I realized that I wanted to stay at least 2 chapters ahead of the readers. At least 2, but maybe 3 or 4. Why not 3 or 4?

So I started writing not just every day but for serious amounts of time every day. Work? Dinner? Exercise? Hygiene? So what? Gotta get those chapters done. My wonderful wife put up with it. She’d been through two NANOWRIMOs with me, so she knew the drill. It took me a little longer than a NANOWRIMO to finish the novel, Late Night at Lund’s.  I think I spent almost two months writing it, but to my credit, the novel is about 112,000 words. Not quite double a NANO book, which is 60,000 words, but pretty good for a sustained effort.

So I had to write not like a marathoner, but like a sprinter. I made mistakes along the way, mistakes that my readers thankfully caught so I could correct. Most were minor. The worst was giving one of the characters two separate backstories. Early on he’s a former architect. Later he was a manager at a hotel. Easy enough to fix that, and the old me would have taken the time to dig through the draft to find Joth’s info, but the LitRPG writer in me, well honestly I didn’t remember that I’d given him a backstory yet – not one that included an old job.

But because of its game-like structure, LitRPG stories tend to work. Main quest, side quests, looting, wandering, fighting…..  the characters do a lot of those things. Random encounters, unexpected allies, secret identities, magic items that move the story forward….  LitRPG has ’em all!

If you want to stretch yourself as a writer, if you want to write as if your words were beaming directly to the reader, with all the joy and terror that implies, take a stab at LitRPG. It is so worth it.

*And rising!

The Girl in Gold

GirlInGoldThe new Vox Swift mystery is up on Amazon!  The Girl in Gold is book 2 of the series and wow was it fun to revisit the world of Thornbury.

I knew that I wanted to return to find out what Vox and Even and the others had been up to since the end of Thornbury Confidential. And I know that I will return again — book 3 is already brewing in the back of my mind.

I was fortunate to have the help of the very talented Taryn Costello for the cover. She’s agreed to redesign the cover for Thornbury so soon the books will have a matching vibe.

I have long been a fan of Agatha Christie. Her intricate mysteries are a wonder to behold. One of my favorites is The Body in the Library, and at the risk of spoiling Girl in Gold (GiG) for you, I lifted the major plot points from it for GiG. There’s that saying, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” Odds are good, though that you’d have to have read The Body in the Library recently or more than once (guilty on both counts!) in order to notice the patterns.

In this latest installment three months have passed since the events of Thornbury Confidential. Vox is still smarting from Marilye’s betrayal (um, spoiler!) and trying to keep the agency afloat with messenger work.

A theme that Agatha Christie just touches on, but really never explores in her books is class. The characters in her book are always upper class, unless they are the villains, of course. Or servants. But no one ever considers their status; one’s place in the social hierarchy is a given. And class is an interesting topic for me so I’m playing around with it in the book – rich people, servants, elves versus humans…

But all that aside, it’s a cracking fun Whodunnit. If you enjoy the book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It’s a huge help to me.

Plot Problems Solved

I like to be surprised. Fresh implications and plot twists erupt as a story unfolds. Characters develop backgrounds, adding depth and feeling. Writing feels like exploring.
~ David Brin

BrinNew writers tend to overthink plot. They outline and organize. Overthink and under-do. It’s safer to outline than to write. Feels easier too. Except that it’s not.

Tell me a story

Tell me a story. That’s all. The plot will work itself out. Unless you are telling an epic tale worthy of Tolkien or a mystery intricate enough to stump Agatha Christie, plot can take a backseat to good old fashioned storytelling.

Explore

As David Brin says in the above quotation, writing can feel like exploring. It is one of the joys of the craft – learning the story as it unfolds under your fingers. Start with a character, a voice, a need. Start with a setting, a conflict, a hero or villain. Explore the character or setting. What’s he like? What’s the town like? The haunted house? The deserted space station?

As the author you have to know more than anyone else — more than your main character, more than the villain. You learn by exploring the edges of your story. You don’t have to dive right into the action (though you can!) You can warm up by writing about the restaurant where your hero likes to go for breakfast.

Reuse

Nothing is wasted. Don’t feel like it’s a waste of your limited writing time to write on the periphery of your story. You never know when you will be able to recycle a scene and incorporate it into the body of the story.

In that same vein do not be afraid to use a trope as a placeholder for later development. A classic love triangle, a son avenging his murdered father, a woman seeking revenge on her cheating lover… there is a reason these are time-tested plots. They were good enough for Shakespeare; they will certainly serve their purpose for you.

Listen

Your characters will tell you what they want, and what they want equals plot. Character + desire = plot. So write some scenes! Write a scene with your main character. You have a main character, right? What does she want? If you’re not sure, than write a scene where she’s hungry and decides to make a sandwich. It’s that simple. What she does now will tell you depths about her.

Does she go to her kitchen and make a brie and apple slice sandwich on homemade French bread? Does she find a slightly stale bagel thin and some baloney with a dark edge where the package wasn’t sealed properly? Does she get a bowl of cereal because she’s out of bread? Does she grab her car keys because she never cooks, not even a peanut butter sandwich.

Respond

You have a flow going with your character now. Respond to what your brain is giving you. This is a “Yes, and….” moment. Don’t stop to edit. Don’t re-read it (not yet). Just respond to the narrative and keep writing. Plot is happening. You’re writing about one woman’s epic struggle to get lunch in Boone, Idaho, and that is the heart of the scene, and scenes are the bones of your story, so keep writing. Keep “Yes and”ing until you run out of steam.

Relax

Now relax. You’ve gotten good work done, and you can take a break. Your story needs to sit for a bit, resting like bread dough. And your brain needs a break, too. So relax and let your story develop in the back of your mind. What happens next? What’s the next thing your hero wants now that lunch is done?

Don’t sweat plot. The first draft is called first for a reason. The second and third draft will give you the depth and structure of the full narrative. Right now you are just walking around inside your character’s head. Be content with that. It’s the stuff of great stories.

 

Fiction Engine

gearsA novel is a machine. This is never more evident than during editing. Scenes come together like the gears meshing inside an engine.
And for the writer, when the first draft is long done, and the story has lain fallow for a time, coming back to the story is like lifting the hood of your trusty car. You are now ready to edit!

Editing

When I was younger I did not care for editing. I thought that inspiration fell upon one from heaven and words flowed like a deep river. Poetry taught me the error of this thinking. I learned to love not the rush of creation but the workman-like editing. I realized that this is where true creativity happens.
So it is with fiction.

A novel is a fiction engine. You have characters, plot, motive, conflict. Bring these pieces together in just the right way and they can create an amazing machine. If you assemble your machine well enough, the reader turns the key and drives your novel away to another realm.

Ingredients

This concept has been on my mind these last few weeks as I edited a friend’s novel. All the elements are there, all the ingredients for a pot-boiler of a story. What it needs now is rewrites! Editing is the place where you go back to the first chapter and plant the seed that blossoms in the last chapter. Or maybe the second to last chapter…  but the important part is planting the seed and making sure that it gets a little bit of attention through the book and then at the end, it pays off.

Stoker_Dracula_Notes_Personal

A page of Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula

I realize that writers who are also planners — those odd people who create more than a Post-it note sized outline — might not need this step as much as I do. Planners probably know that Jordan is a good guy who ends up helping the hero finish the job when they start writing. Me, I just know that there’s this guy named Jordan, he runs a laundry service, and he knows something about the murder. He’s impatient, overworked, and easily annoyed. That’s enough for me. I’ll learn his story as the chapters unfold. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is not the fastest way to write, but it’s the best way I know how, and more importantly it’s fun.

Motion

The novel is a simple machine. Simple machines, like one-speed bicycles, work well, work consistently, and motion is the fuel for simple machines. That is why people say (attributed to John Gardner) that there are only two plot lines: A stranger comes to town or a person goes on a journey.

Plot is the engine block of the story, and all the little bits that orbit it (damn, I’m mixing metaphors!) are the parts that make it move. You have a through-line in the novel — Character A wants to get Z. Z can be anything — the girl, the money, the killer, the promotion, the stolen diamonds.

Foundation

That’s all just fine, but who is A? What’s her biggest flaw? What is her foundational behavior? By that I mean, when things are really bad, when she’s stressed to the breaking point, what does she do? Does she lash out or retreat inside herself? Does she blame others or herself? People all have this core self that only sees the light when things are in turmoil.

Once you know the answers to the questions you can plant seeds of the behavior throughout the story. I like to use stray thoughts that flash through the character’s mind. You can build/reveal cool backstory this way. For example Jordan, our laundry guy, maybe he helps the main character because she reminds him of an old flame. A quick little bit of dialog in that first scene sets up the thread: “Cindy? What are– Oh sorry, I thought you were someone–  Never mind, whatcha need?”

As you work through the revision with this mechanism in mind, you might find 2-3 places for more Cindy background, and even better you may realize that you can collapse two really minor characters into one and change her into Cindy! Suddenly your story is stronger, your characters more motivated, your reader just that much more engaged.

Simplify

rube goldbergThe novel is a machine, but it shouldn’t be a Rube Goldbergesque machine! The story should use only as many characters and plot points as needed, otherwise the story becomes a mess of people and places. Your readers (if any of them stick around) will need a field guide to characters and Cliff Notes on the plot: Sir Harvey, who was really the Duke of Wellington’s third cousin, had his own plans for the cursed ruby. He and his paramour Lilly Black planned to buy a casino, but Lilly’s husband, the craven John “Jeb” Black, had learned of the plan and wanted a piece of the action…..  Fascinating subplot, lovely writing, no doubt, but does it really help move the story forward? If you cut it, what would happen?

Keep the plot simple and sleek. Yes, life is messy, but this isn’t life. This is an artistic rendering of life. In the same way that dialog is not simply real speech transcribed, your novel’s plot should not be lifted from real life. Two or three principal characters, one or two main goals, a handful of minor characters/plot points and that’s it. Your plot and characters should fit in a shoe box.
Keep your simple machine simple, and it will not fail you.

Listen to the World

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it. ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

flower budGood dialog is essential to good storytelling. Characters need to express themselves, react to their environment, argue with each other, complain, cajole, compliment, question….  in other words:
act human.

Good dialog opens the story like a flower budding – everything expands, opening ideas and implications for the reader.

Listen

In order to write good dialog you have to listen to the world and listen to the whole of it — not just the words but the meaning. Not just the meaning but the inflection. Not just the inflection, the intent.

When you can absorb all the layers, you are on your way to reusing it for your own writerly purposes. You need to fill the well first.

Eavesdropping on family and friends is a dangerous habit that can lead to trouble. Cultivate instead the art of listening to strangers. Sip your latte and listen to the girls at the table next to yours. Maybe it’s a mundane conversation; maybe it’s disjointed, half-hearted. Maybe it’s almost nonexistent — maybe they are on their phones.

Refine

It is important to note that simply transcribing real world dialog is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Have you listened to a conversation? Really listened? It is filled with pauses, repeated phrases, verbal nods (“yeah”, “uh-huh”) and filler.
Example phone conversation:
“OK I’ll see you later,” said Macy.
“Yeah.”
“Do you have the letter?”
“What?” Benny sounded distracted.
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
“Yeah.”
“OK, bye.”
“Bye.”

Condensed for the page:
Macy started to disconnect but then asked, “Do you have the letter?”
“What?”
“I said, Do you have the letter?”
Benny mumbled that he did and disconnected the call. 

In the same way that readers should not have to read actual dialect transcribed on the page, they should not have to suffer through real-time conversations. Readers are smart; they will understand implied agreement between characters without you having to spell it out. Trim conversations as mercilessly as you do other parts of the story, otherwise your prose will stall under the weight of lifeless dialog.

Eavesdrop

conversationFor all that, there are gems to be mined from real life conversations. You might learn new slang or a different phrasing for a common saying. If you can, try to watch people talking, too. Using dialog tags (“said Alex”, “Deena said pointing her finger”) are important to orient readers during dialog blocks. And physical movements are crucial to impart meaning and nuance. For example, saying, “That’s fine,” said Macy. tells you a basic fact, a building block of the story. One character has assented to a request. But what about this instead: “That’s fine.” Macy didn’t turn her head when she spoke. 

Two ways to convey the same bit of dialog. The second one gives you another layer into Macy’s feelings and possibly her relationship to the other character. She could have many reasons for not turning her head — the reader gets to chew on that until more is revealed.

Intent

It is the writer’s duty and privilege to decide how to convey each bit of character to the reader, and dialog and the words that frame it are the prime way to do this. In the example above I first wrote Macy didn’t bother to turn her head when she spoke. I changed it – took out the editorializing (the word “bother”) because I realized I was coloring the reader’s perception of poor Macy. She hadn’t done  a thing to deserve such scorn! To say that someone didn’t bother to do something is quite different than simply saying they didn’t do something.

How dialog tags are used depends on the point of view (POV) of the story. In a first person story where the narrator (the I of the story) is mad at Macy, it could be entirely within character for the narrator to say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head. She says this from her narrative perspective — she can’t know what Macy is feeling; this is her interpretation of the moment.

In a third person narration it depends on whether you’ve limited the POV to a single character (this is my favorite POV, by the way). If you have access to Macy’s point of view, then saying that she couldn’t be bothered to turn her head is likely something that she herself is acknowledging. It is, in other words, a conscious act.

Which is all to say that you can have a first person narrator assign meaning to other people’s actions — the 1st person narrator can say that Macy couldn’t be bothered to turn her head when she spoke. It is simply important to realize that’s what you’re doing; you’re having your character give meaning to another character’s actions. Meaning that cannot be confirmed or denied.

People talk constantly; characters are no different. Learning to use dialog to effectively set the mood, illustrate character, advance the plot, and create tension will help you become a better writer. Harness the power of conversation to drive your story, flesh out your characters, and build your world.

DREADful Storytelling

Dread is a great role-playing game (RPG). Sharing similar roots to my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, Dread is a 21st Century twist on the RPG genre. DreadI wanted to talk about it here because it’s one thing to be a player in a role-playing game; it is another beast entirely to be the Game Master.

Running a role-playing game is equal parts writer, actor, and referee. I’ve talked about how Dungeons and Dragons inspired my writing journey, but this is a whole other level.

Dread doesn’t have dice. No armor class. No stats. You give your players a character questionnaire with particularly worded questions (to elicit certain avenues of response — these questions are a bit like “When did you stop beating your wife?” In fact — that would be a great Dread question.)

The pass/fail mechanic is handled using wooden “tower building” blocks – you can probably name the popular branded version of this game. That’s truly the only prop that you need to play Dread.

Gaming aside, why bother with Dread? It is one of the most story-driven games I’ve had the pleasure to play. We played a pre-generated scenario (but they tell you how to craft your own!) called Under the Metal Sky, which is set in space. As the game’s name implies, this is heavy on the horror tropes.

Being the Game Master for a role-playing game means that you (unlike your players) know the whole story. You also know what everyone has created for their own character (via the questionnaire), and you have to be ready to role-play as any of the minor (and sometimes major!) characters that your players will encounter during the game.

You are also the prop master. In storytelling games the props are like booster packs — your players suddenly have something tangible to handle, something to hear, a puzzle to unravel. It can revive them if their attention is flagging, their stamina depleting, if they’ve lost the desire to continue in the face of overwhelming vampires (not a spoiler, btw)….

Novelists write in one dimension, but a Game Master tells a story in 3-D! There are words on the page, lots of them. But there are also maps, journals, and audio recordings, pictures…. All the items that as a novelist you have to describe, as Game Master you actually create them!

I encourage writers to step outside the page and create a living story. Watching your friends work to unravel a puzzle you’ve created, playing the stubborn parking garage attendant that your friends need to charm, rewriting the story in your head as your friends do something that never, ever would have occurred to you…. that is the thrill and delight of being a Game Master, and Dread is a great place to start.

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