The Witch’s Castle

A couple of years ago, I went for a hike with a friend of mine, another author. Really, it was just an excuse to get some exercise while we talked about stories and writing. He’d recently read my short story “Conjure Man” (which is being published this week in Strange Horizons), which is set at Forest Park here in Portland. It’s an urban fantasy story featuring American folk magic known variously as hoodoo or conjure.

So, we went for a hike in Forest Park.

Forest Park is so named, in my opinion, because it is basically a forest inside the Portland city limits. (Technically, I think it extends beyond city limits over into Beaverton. I’m not sure. I think it’s a county park.) Hills creeks and rivers, dozens of kinds of trees and thick undergrowth within feet of the many hiking trails.

It’s a little slice of temperate rainforest in the west hills, minutes from the heart of downtown.

We weren’t more than a half-hour into the hike when we found this little concrete building with no roof.

I was amazed. I had no idea such a place existed, what it was, anything. But it fascinated me. I must have taken a dozen photos (most of which, alas, were lost when my SD card died) but two survived. You can see them here.

Witch's-Castle-1       Witch's-Castle-2

This was what I refer to as a “writer moment.” Writer moments are when I encounter something that I know, with iron-clad certainty, that I must use that in a story. I won’t know what or how, but the details won’t matter at the time. Just that I need to remember this moment for later.

A couple of years passed, and I was writing The Patron Saint of Necromancers, a novel starring Heath Cyr, the same main character as in “Conjure Man”. Heath was running all around Portland, and suddenly I knew he needed a pivotal scene at that weird little concrete non-house in Forest Park.

That meant I needed to know more about it.

Just another reason I love the modern internet.

Turns out the place is known as the Witch’s Castle, and its history has multiple versions. One has it as being built as a bathroom about fifty years ago, though it had no plumbing that I could see. Another includes a story about the first hanging in the area over a hundred years ago, complete with a star-crossed lovers element.

Perfect place for a major magical confrontation.

That’s part of what I love about writing urban fantasy. Especially this new series, Ars Portlandia, which gives me an excuse to dig deeper into Portland and tell stories about little parts of the city that most tourists never see.

I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Expanding on a Trilogy

It’s not easy for a creator to go back to a franchise. Especially one beloved by millions. One that has three films that fans watch over and over, buy multiple versions of on DVD for this extra or that extra or just one … more … interview….

I’m talking, of course, about the Evil Dead trilogy.

Ash vs. Evil Dead

(If you were expecting Star Wars, yeah, I’m not ready to write about that yet.)

For those of you who don’t know, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell have brought back Ash and the Deadites (worst doo-wop group ever) for more over-the-top action. It’s not a movie this time, though. It’s a weekly half-hour series called Ash vs. Evil Dead.

I was torn about this. After all, another trilogy of no little importance to me attempted to resurrect itself and I felt, well, kicked someplace uncomfortable by the “effort.” (Stopping there. Not ready to write more about it yet.)

I have to assume that the creators of the show – and the movies – knew the fans would set a high bar for this. Wow, that’s an odd sentence to type. It reads as though I’m comparing this series to the long-delayed sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. As though there’s an expected high-water mark for quality that could be all but impossible to meet or exceed.

That’s not quite what I mean. These are cult films, not blockbusters, award-winners, or darlings of the art houses. They are entertainment, and if you think I mean that as any kind of insult, I don’t.

Quick aside: people love to say that art should educate or uplift as well as entertain, but they forget the implicit core component. First it must entertain.

But the fans – and I am definitely one of them – came to the series with high expectations along one simple line: the show had to work.

The character of Ash had to feel like Ash. The deadites had to feel like deadites. The physical gags had to spin off from the traditions of the Three Stooges (which, oddly, I never cared for much). The physical conflicts had to be over-the-top. The one-liners had to pop.

That’s a lot to live up to. After all, Army of Darkness was twenty-three years ago. That’s a long time for fans to re-watch three movies. Many, many viewings to develop strong opinions about the characters and situations, about the film style, and to see all the little details that people overlook in their first, or third, or fifteenth viewings of a movie.

It can’t have been easy for the Raimis, Tapert and Campbell to do this again. (Especially Bruce Campbell, who had to get out in front of the camera and get the hell beaten out of him again. I hope they aren’t as rough on him as they used to be.) The social media world is a harsh, unforgiving place, and fans can whip themselves up into a frenzy when they aren’t happy.

So, as a fan, what do I think of the new show?

I love it. I do. I enjoy the heck out of it. I like how they’ve aged Ash. I like his supporting characters. I like the direction they’ve gone with Lucy Lawless’ character (watch it to find out) and I love that she’s in the show! They’ve expanded the demons in a cool way. I think the storyline and conflicts are working so far, and I look forward to each new episode.

But what about the feel? Did they get the feel of the show right, for my expectations?

Well, I can’t say it’s perfect in that regard. For example, there are places I could see other directors trying to emulate the directing style of Sam Raimi and not quite getting it, but I appreciated the effort. Raimi, after all, has pioneered film techniques and left his mark on the profession. In another instance, this most recent episode, they had the perfect set-up for a classic line … and didn’t deliver. The moment was still good, but something was missing.

So, to sum up, have they hit the right tone?

Well, maybe they didn’t hit every single little note, no, but basically they hit it, yeah. Basically….

(And if you didn’t get that last line, do yourself a favor. Go watch Army of Darkness again.)

I know I’ll keep watching, but feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Age and Fiction

Mr. Holmes poster

I saw a movie over the weekend. Normally an unremarkable enough feat, but I haven’t been to many lately. This year’s blockbuster season hasn’t set my blood on fire. In fact, the movie I saw wasn’t a blockbuster. It was Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen as an old Sherlock Holmes, looking back on his final case.

The movie wasn’t what I expected at all. From the single commercial, I was expecting an active Holmes in his sixties solving one last crime. We do see some of that, but it’s not the main thrust of the film.

Instead, the main story itself is about a Holmes who is past ninety, with all that entails. And I do mean all. McKellen does a brilliant job of portraying a man nearing both the century mark and death. I was blown away by his performance, and my wife – a hospice nurse who has seen her share of patients of that age and stage – was truly amazed at how completely he embodied it.

I won’t spoil the movie for you. I will only say that it moves back and forth from the present to the past, dealing with both what he thinks of as his final case and what might actually be the final mysteries he solves.

More important than the plot of this movie – at least to me as I write this – is that this is the story of a man at the end of life. Not a man dying too young from some sudden disease. Not the violent death of a vibrant man. In fact, his death is not the story. (Remember, I am specifically not saying whether or not he lives through the movie. Go see it.)

Holmes is simply the main character we follow through this movie, and he happens to be aged and limited in the resources that most of us take for granted. He is contrasted with both his past self and the two other primary characters of his story, his housekeeper and her son.

It got me thinking. I couldn’t remember the last story I saw/heard/read that featured a main character so old. Minor characters, certainly, especially if that character will die in the course of the story. Further, I can’t help but note how little advertising the movie got. How small a release it is, compared to the blockbusters.

Age and death are subjects we don’t consider much in our society. Children are sheltered from it, and as adults we don’t speak of it much apart from imparting basic information and the societally prescribed responses.

“Excuse my tears/distant behavior. My parental unit has died.”

“I feel appropriate sorrow for your loss, given that I don’t share it.”

(Okay, that was flippant, but it feels that way sometimes.)

People often lament our American culture of youth, but they usually do so in the context that it seems those of middle-age are considered less attractive as mates and less desirable in the job market.

But our stories still feature vibrant, powerful characters in their middle ages and early old ages. They are not as often main characters as the young, but they still play prominent roles.

But the truly aged? They tend to exist as plot points. The nobles position themselves to vie for power when the bed-ridden old king passes. The main character must stay home and tend his aging grandparent instead of going off with the other youths (usually with the grandparent dying at last).

Nothing I say here is going to change anything. I know that. Heck, I’ve got dozens of stories waiting for me to write them, and none of them feature aged main characters. So I guess that makes me part of the problem. But I do think it’s something we should all think about. Maybe even talk about.

If we start doing these things, maybe over time it will change.

Then again, main characters near the end of life may never become popular. Mr. Holmes was based on a novel, and though I loved the movie, I don’t know if I could read the novel. The movie was hard to watch in places. I can only imagine how much harder I might find being inside the character’s head as I read the novel.

I just don’t know. But if you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do.

And if you made it to the end of this, I’d love to know what you think.

Wow, I haven’t been blogging much lately, have I? Honestly, it’s because most of my blogging bandwidth has gone into my weekly fiction list. Each week I include something behind the scenes in addition to a chapter in a novella. If you want to read more regular stuff from me, you might want to check it out there at the top of the right-hand column.

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Redemption and Fantasy

Twice Against the Dragon - Stefon Mears - Web Cover

The hero (or heroine) arises out of nowhere, often from humble beginnings. The farm boy. The scullery maid. The bastard. Et cetera. Sometimes the Chosen One, and sometimes just the right person at the right time.

Then comes the quest. Allies are found. Enemies reveal themselves. Obstacles oppose. And in the end, evil is vanquished and good triumphs.

That – in very short form – is the essence of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. You’ve probably heard of it. You may have read about it. Goodness knows it’s been analyzed, dissected and more over the years. It’s also been lauded as the ultimate storytelling form and vilified as the downfall of modern fiction.

Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in between. But what I think is most significant about the Hero’s Journey is that it’s pretty much always the first attempt for the characters in the story. If the goal is to overthrow the evil despot, then we might find out about the hundreds who have tried in the past and failed, but we won’t read about their attempts.

In fact, the story about a hero or heroine who succeeds often includes mention of those who failed, even when the story structure has nothing to do with Campbell. For example, the folk tale “Sleeping Beauty” has to be stretched and twisted to try to fit it into Campbell, but still we hear about the princes who tried and failed to rescue the cursed princess before we meet the one who succeeds.

Failure is a traditional part of the background of fantasy stories. Not the foreground. Past heroes failed, not the heroes we’re reading about now.

I thought about that, and I decided it wasn’t fair.

Why should the new heroes have all the fun? Why can’t we have heroes who have failed? Who stood against nigh-impossible odds and didn’t measure up? What happens to them after their great failure?

And most of all, do they ever have a chance to redeem themselves of their great failure? We have many characters in many stories who must redeem themselves for the evil they have done, but few have ever focused on the characters who have failed their chance to be heroes, much less seen them have a chance at redemption.

That was the driving concept behind my new novel Twice Against the Dragon. I took three characters and forced them to survive the greatest failures they could imagine. Failures that shook them to the core of their identities. All with an eye toward giving them a chance to redeem themselves.

Larek, a wizard who failed in his attempt to slay the dragon Blackflame. The weight of hundreds of deaths lies on his shoulders. Dyrra, a warrior who not only feels responsible for the death of her beloved, but also the weight of her failure to save an innocent family from a foul fate. Sindra, a healer who lost faith when her patients needed her the most.

Three failures seeking to put their pasts behind them. Three failures, who find one chance at redemption. Twice Against the Dragon.

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Why so five minutes ago?

I’ve noticed a tendency in magazine articles (and these days blog posts) when they write about the past. I find that it’s all too commonly presented that we should be embarrassed about things that used to interest us. A couple of examples (forgive the lack of citations, but I’m not trying to call any one or two writers onto the mat here. I’m looking at a trend):

“Back when the Spin Doctors were popular (what were we thinking?)…”

“…and we all went insane over that swing revival…”

Et cetera. This time of year it’s pretty easy to find that sort of chortling at the ignorance of our youth because there are more articles and posts looking back over the year, or the decade, or the century so far.

Once I noticed that, I began catching that people do it on an individual basis too. Not everyone, but some people will act embarrassed when they “admit” things like, “I used to be into death metal,” or “I watched Power Rangers,” or (my personal favorite) “I used to play D&D.”

The losing interest part I understand. We only have so many hours between birth and death, and we should devote our time to things that intrigue us now, not cling to them because they once fascinated us. Goodness knows I’ve abandoned hobbies and interests over the years. For example, I couldn’t tell you when the last time was that I did any woodcarving or listened to Marilyn Manson.

What I don’t get is the embarrassment. The sense that, because one has changed as a person, former interests become the equivalent of broccoli stuck to the teeth of one’s life. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I suspect it has something to do with the cult of newness that forms part of the modern American culture. After all, whole segments of our society would be embarrassed to wear last year’s clothes, use last year’s slang, or listen to last year’s music.

For crying out loud, just run a Google search for the phrase “so five minutes ago.” I just did it and got “about 185,000,000 results.”

If we fixate so on staying “current” with our interests, that means we have to put past interests behind us. And continuing to enjoy something that is no longer popular becomes a faux pas. From there, is it so large a step to being embarrassed by past interests?

That’s just musing on reasons though. Far as I’m concerned, the reasons don’t really matter.

Whoever you are, as you read this, you have grown and changed over the years (and I hope you’ll continue to do so). Everything you’ve done and everything you’ve been into has helped make you who you are. Denying those old activities and interests, or feeling embarrassed about them, devalues their contribution to your evolution.

So with that in mind…

I hereby give you permission to continue liking anything you’ve ever liked. And if you no longer like it, that’s all right too.*

No excuses. No apologies. No shame. That’s what matters.

As part of that, I’d love it if you’d comment below (or elsewhere, but preferably where I’ll see it) on something you used to like and how you feel about it now.

I’ll go first, but I’ll limit myself to three.

Informer, by Snow. I liked that song when it came out. I like it now. I do wish his other songs had been that good though.

The Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game. The game balance … wasn’t. The skill system was … interesting. But the game was still a blast, and I would play it again today.

Faster Pussycat. Yes, the band. I have all of their albums (I still think the first two were their best), and no one will ever convince me that they weren’t underrated in the late 80s/early 90s. I’m still shocked that bands like Poison and Warrant could hit big but not Faster Pussycat. Also, those guys kicked ass live. (Oh, that link says they’re still around. I cannot speak to what they’ve done since 1993.)

I went with a second band there because I couldn’t think of a movie or book that anyone would expect me to feel embarrassed that I still like. Rockula, maybe? Simon, King of the Witches? I know. Some people would expect me to be embarrassed about having enjoyed Rogue Warrior. Whatever.

Oh, and I still like some songs from the Spin Doctors. Like this one…

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The Boy from Gray Elf


I don’t remember if we carried dice at school then.

I don’t know why I’m thinking of this.

Back when I was in grade school – in the 70s for those of you keeping track – I didn’t fit in with the other kids all that well. I was the sort who was at the top of every class, but didn’t have more than one or two friends at a time. Plenty of I.Q. but not enough social skills.

To give you an example: didn’t matter how many of the other kids watched Star Trek, I was the one sufficiently identified with Spock that the kids sang me a version of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” retitled “Let’s Get Logical.”

I’m not telling you this to elicit sympathy. Heck, I was a big Spock fan. I knew the kids were teasing me, but it didn’t send me home in tears or anything. I’m just trying to give you some context.

My grade school was K-6, and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in first grade. This was before the days of Mazes and Monsters or even the accusations that the books were satanic. My mom saw an article about the new game in our local paper and thought it would be great for her sons. She bought my brother the game for his twelfth birthday (I was six).

With a few exceptions, for a long time I only played with older kids. My brother and his friends. But by fourth grade I started introducing more of my friends to it, and sometime around fourth or fifth grade we were playing informally at lunch times while walking around the schoolyard.

It wasn’t for everybody. One guy from up the block couldn’t get his mind off of baseball long enough to figure out what was going on. Another played for a bit, then dropped out.

It was that latter one that surprised me.

In sixth grade, for a creative writing assignment, he* wrote a “short story” called “The Boy from Gray Elf.” It was a thinly veiled excuse to make fun of me. He made it overt through certain gaming terms – such as the City of Clouds,** which was a location in one of my games – plus direct references to Children of the Atom (including a mention of the title), which was a book I’d recently brought to school.

All our classmates quickly picked up on the joke. It followed me to junior high school where it spread to people I hadn’t even met. I heard references to that story for years.

But I wasn’t mad at the kid who wrote it. Oh don’t get me wrong, I was embarrassed as hell and more than a little upset. But not at him.

At me.

I saw it as my fault. It came back to something that had happened a week or two prior. A friend and I were coming back from lunch, gaming until the last possible second, as usual. This meant that I was still in character – a gray elf welcoming my friend’s character to the City of Clouds.

A couple of the other kids overheard me and asked what the City of Clouds was. The idea that it wasn’t obviously a fantasy city didn’t even occur to me. I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking. I think I saw a chance to try to draw some other players into the game.

So I answered in character.

Yeah, I kind of walked into it. Didn’t I?

That incident led directly to “The Boy from Gray Elf” and from there to its legacy.

As I think back on the event, some thirty years later, what I think about is not how it felt to hear the story read aloud there in class. Nor is it about the teasing that followed, or even about the times I heard about it in the years that followed.

I think about the story’s author. I try to imagine him sitting in his living room, having to do an assignment he didn’t want to do. He had to make up a story. And somewhere in trying to do that, he found himself thinking of me and of roleplaying games. He turned his mind to fiction, and he thought of me.

Maybe the resulting story wasn’t what I would have chosen, but that’s still pretty cool.


*Yes, I remember his name. No, I’m not going to use it.

**That city was in my games for at least two years before The Empire Strikes Back brought us Cloud City. Just sayin’

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Of Fandom and Success

Today I want to write about fandom, but I’m starting from a type you might not be expecting.

Last week the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in five years. People are throwing around the word dynasty. As a Giants fan, I’m over the moon.

And after that final out in game seven, a friend of mine asked if all the recent success might set my expectation level unreasonably high.

For some fans, it might. But I’m not worried about that happening to me.

I grew a Giants fan. Watching baseball with my father is one of my cherished childhood memories. Now I’m not saying this to brag, but to make clear a sense of the timeline for you. This means I started watching the Giants in the mid to late 1970s.

Go take a look at the Giants records between, say, 1975 and 1986. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

That’s right. The first time I saw the Giants get into a pennant race, it was 1982. It was the most excitement I’d ever seen. Fighting the Dodgers and Braves right down to the last series of the season. The Giants got knocked out by the Dodgers (which always hurts), but then turned around the next day and eliminated the Dodgers.

That’s right. Part of the reason the Braves won the division that year was that the Giants and Dodgers knocked each other off.

I could go on and on about that season, but I think it says enough that I still remember watching second baseman Joe Morgan hit the home run that knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs.

But think about that for a second. The most exciting season of my young life, and the Giants finished third. The most important moment was eliminating another team.

In fact, I was seventeen before I saw the Giants finish higher than third place. That was the year they won the division for the first time in my awareness. And they got no further, going down to the Cardinals.

It was only two years later before I got to see the Giants make the World Series. And what happened? The A’s blasted them in four games. (In fact, I used to be a Giants and A’s fan, but I’ve never quite forgiven the A’s for that.)

It was almost another decade before I saw the Giants even make it back to the playoffs. Sure, they had another dogfight with the Braves in ’93. But the Braves coming out on top again, by one game as I recall.

The Giants finally got back to the World Series in 2002. Thirteen years after their last trip. And they played well. In fact, they had the series in the palm of their hands.

And dropped it.

That was it until 2010. About thirty-five years of watching the Giants before they won a World Series.

Why does that matter?

Because I was trained early in life to have fun watching baseball without seeing my team win the big prize, or even coming close. I was able to enjoy the game without stressing the outcome.

And I hope today’s fantasy and superhero fans feel the same way.

Growing up a fantasy and superhero fan was a challenge unto itself. If you wanted fantasy movies, you got b-movie fare like Hawk the Slayer, Deathstalker, and The Sword and the Sorcerer. (With the occasional effort like Dragonslayer.) If you wanted fantasy on evening television, you got The Charmings or Wizards and Warriors, shows that made fun of fantasy as much as anything. For superheroes, the cartoons were pretty good, but the live action stuff was painful* (I’m looking at you, Spiderman and Captain America).

Consider that right now, some of the biggest shows on television are fantasy (led by Game of Thrones). Some of the biggest films too. And superheroes practically rule the earth these days. Too many to even bother listing.

Is there a chance this trend will last forever? Sure. There’s also a chance that the Giants will continue to win the World Series every other year for the rest of my life.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

So remember: enjoy the material, and not just the commercial peak.

*All right, The Incredible Hulk was a good show, but the batting average was still pretty bad.

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Murder in Lost Carcosa

True Detective

Something left this guy in tatters…

I finally sat down and watched the first season of True Detective, only some six months after I first mentioned intending to. For me, that’s not a bad turn-around time.

It’s a good show, well worth watching. But I’m not actually here to talk about the ups and downs of the show itself. I enjoyed it, and if you like detective stories, you might enjoy it as well.

But we all know the real reason I was interested in watching it – I was curious about the buzz it generated for referencing The King in Yellow. And on that score I have mixed feelings.

Oh, I should offer a sort of spoiler warning at this point. I don’t intend to get into specifics or discuss anything plot related, but if you read what I say below, you’re likely to figure out a few things ahead of when you might normally do so. I’d hate for anyone to blame me for that. Also, you absolutely do not need to read the book to understand the show.


So, consider this spoiler space.


Now, then.

First, there are no direct references to the fictitious play, The King in Yellow. It may be that a copy was lying about in the background of a scene, but if so, I didn’t see it. (If you did, please tell me below.)

Second, I enjoyed the subtle introduction of the Yellow King, and the idea that those who knew of it fell to raving. It was handled in the background. Not really shown – or at least nothing like shown – until late in the season, at which point the degree of rambling was somewhat more … tame than implied early on. Also, the king himself was never identified with a character, which was probably a good choice.

All told, the Yellow King references set the stage well.

Third, the Yellow Sign. I really dug the way they depicted the Yellow Sign. First of all, they never used the phrase “Yellow Sign.” There was no need to. It was enough to simply show it, on people, on places, formed by flying birds… When they needed to call it anything, they just called it “their sign.” Very effective.

Fourth, there were references to Carcosa. I appreciated those references, even if they were a bit jumbled. Given the idea of people exposed to the tattered king being less than completely sane, it makes a certain amount of sense that they would be inconsistent.

But … as a geek, I found their use of Carcosa a bit of a letdown. Carcosa is described by Chambers in most poetic fashion. I wanted to see some of that.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.
— Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

I have to say, though, that any complaints I have there are nitpicking. They did several things right with Carcosa. They left it mysterious. They never explained it, never talked about its origins, never attempted to make it mundane.

And then, toward the end of the season, when they finally revealed a place called Carcosa by a key character, it was creepy as hell. The writers handled the essence of it well, even if they didn’t take more from the original book than inspiration.

Which, I suppose, is fair to say about the show itself and its handling of The King in Yellow.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? Let me know below.

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Why I Write

The College Notebook

The college notebook in question

“Why I Write” was originally written for the 2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference, where I will be one of the presenters. They posted it here. If you’re curious about the conference, you can read about it here.

I tried not to write. It didn’t work out.

For the first part, I could blame Harlan Ellison. I was in college at the time, and starting to write down some of the stories coming into my head. I even bought my first book or two about writing science fiction and fantasy.

But then I ran across some advice from Harlan Ellison. If I might paraphrase, he said, “Don’t write unless you cannot do anything else. It’s an incredibly tough way to make a living.”

I took that advice seriously. After all, Ellison was the long-term professional and I not yet even a true novice. So I tried to do anything else.

I spent more than a decade trying not to write. Living in Silicon Valley I worked in tech. Funny thing, though. No matter what my job title was supposed to be, I ended up writing or editing. But for a long time I didn’t see the significance of that. I was too close to it. And besides, I was still telling stories. I ran roleplaying games.

A good life, but not quite good enough. Something was missing.

Then, one evening, I was reading a novel and listening to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies album Soul Caddy. The song “Irish Whiskey” came on. It’s about the pain and frustration of a man who gave up on his dreams without ever really giving them a shot.

The song shocked me out of my book. I don’t even remember what I was reading. I just know I started sweating and crying. I would not, could not, become that man.

I started writing again the next day. For a long time I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t give up. I kept studying. I kept learning.

And I kept writing. I’ve never looked back.

I still have that college notebook, full of aborted beginnings. It’s both a lesson and an inspiration. Some of those characters will yet see print. It’s the least I can do for them. They’ve waited patiently to tell their stories for more than twenty years.

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That D&D Feel

A party in trouble

This party is in trouble. (image by Alan De Smet, courtesy of Wikipedia)

The better part of a year ago, I speculated that I wouldn’t bother picking up the new D&D.

I meant every word of that post. Really, I did.

And yet, when the new edition of the Player’s Handbook came out, I picked it up.

No real surprise there.

What did surprise me is that it felt like D&D again.

Mind you, this is strictly the view of one long-time player, but to me, Dungeons and Dragons has always been a specific, unique branch of fantasy unto itself. Yes, it has visible roots in the work of Tolkien and Vance (and others), but once filtered through the flavor writers and mechanics, what comes out the other side is specific to itself.

You can play a barbarian in conflict with society, but it won’t really feel like Conan (the magic system is too far afield). You can play a fighter/magic-user/thief, but no trick of multiclassing or dual classing will make the result feel like the Gray Mouser.

And these are just two examples. But the purpose behind these examples is not to trash the system. No RPG system can reflect any given fictional setting without a fair amount of tweaking, and that includes systems intended to be generic (such as HERO, GURPS, and FUDGE/FATE).

But D&D created for itself a niche of fantasy that could stand on its own, even get imitated by other games. Not because its mechanics were so brilliant, nor its flavor writing impeccable, but because it created a feel that gamers came to love.

There are still many gamers who only play Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a reason for that. And that was also what caused such a gross divide among the players when 4th edition came out. The D&D feel could still be created using those rules, but it required a game master who knew that feel well, and players who were looking for it. It didn’t come pre-installed, as it were.

Which brings us back to the new D&D.

The system itself seems like an attempt to evolve from 3.5, using a few of the lessons learned in 4th to try to create a system that feels familiar, but avoids the problem imbalances of previous editions.

With the caveat that I have not yet played the game (only read the book and made a couple of characters), I would say it looks pretty good. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic has potential, the spellcasting classes have been separated enough to make their differences clear, and the less complex classes (such as fighter and thief) should be able to continue holding their own with the more complex classes (such as wizard and cleric) even into higher levels.

Mind you, the Player’s Handbook does not cover magic item creation rules, which may tip the balance, depending. And that detail brings me to another point: spell duration.

In previous editions (4th notwithstanding), most spells gained in duration as the caster’s level increased. For example, Unseen Servant (which summoned a telekinetic force to do simple tasks) lasted one hour per caster level. And now in the new edition, it lasts one hour for everyone who casts it.

The lowliest 1st level wizard fresh out of apprenticeship can cast Unseen Servant just as well as the most powerful archmage in the history of the game world. It has the same scope and the same duration.*

I had a chat about this with some friends of mine on GooglePlus, and came to the conclusion that this is largely a game balance decision (and also a help to minimize bookkeeping). For example, Lower-level spells risked eclipsing higher-level spells when their effects increased with caster level (the main reason 4th level Ice Storm went largely ignored for the 3rd level Fireball).

I confess, I worry about how this will affect utility spells, but mostly I worry about what this means to world-building. D&D is an innately high magic system, and that means that players will expect to see impressive sights. Previously, the game master could provide those without fudging the rules.

For example, in one of my last 3.5 campaigns, the town had a mayor who was an adept (an NPC class) of about 6th level (as I recall). When he got to his office in the morning, he would cast Unseen Servant and boom! All day long simple, cool fantasy display that fit the setting without breaking the rules.

Now I don’t know if NPC classes exist in the new edition (I imagine I’ll have to wait for the Dungeon Master’s Guide), but assuming they do, that mayor would have only two options: 1) he could burn through all his spells for Unseen Servant – an inelegant choice; or 2) he could spend ten minutes every hour casting it by ritual – not burning a spell slot, but taking up ten minutes out of every hour. Not an elegant choice either.

In this case, the elegant choice is to give him a ring of unseen servant, letting him keep it going all the time.

However, there are problems with this approach. Magic items are great theft targets, both for players and NPCs. Also, that means someone had to make that ring, and the question becomes who and what else did they make? And why? And why does the mayor have it instead of someone else?

In this instance, those questions can just lead to cool answers, as the game master figures out just who this guy is and why people give him magic rings. (or maybe that it’s his ring of office. Whatever.)

But here’s the thing. The answers to those questions shape the mayor into a different character than the one who dabbles in magic and takes time to cast a spell or two to each morning to make his work day easier.

I could give you other examples about how spells affect the design of dungeons, castles, even the evolution of societies. But I’m going to stick with the one example for now.

I like the flexibility of having a mayor who casts his own little spells as well as a different mayor who uses a magic ring. To me, that’s part of the feel of Dungeons and Dragons.

Overall, the Player’s Handbook looks good. I just hope that when I get the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it addresses my concerns about world-building under the limits of the new magic system. If they can do that, this game will truly feel like D&D again.

Have you looked at the new D&D? What do you think?

*Yes, the archmage’s save DC is higher. But why do you feel the need to save versus unseen servant?

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