December 5, 2014

It’s Good to be the Dungeon Master!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did the same for the barrel, the butt, the cask, the hogshead, the keg, the pipe, and the tun. Because that’s how I roll. And so I bask tonight in the warm glow of knowing that an entire new generation of DMs can now play this game without going through the following, which may or may not be an actual conversation that happened:

“44… firkin. That’s, like, a miniature dagger, right?”

“I thought that was a bodkin.”

“No, that’s a leather jacket.”

“I thought a jerkin was a jacket.”

“That’s a type of pickle.”

“No, that’s a gherkin, dumbass.”

“Wait… what were we talking about again?”

And my job here is done.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

October 9, 2014

Had a Dream

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

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

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

(Aside: I woke up really hungry.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

October 6, 2014


 So this is what forty years of monsters looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

September 5, 2014

A Personal Thing

So this is a bit of a personal thing. Except I’m not sure how good I really am at personal things online. I mean, I try to be honest, and I try to not oversell myself because I typically don’t care for it when other people oversell to me. But this is something… a bit different than the usual.

A little while back, I had Robert E. Howard stuck in my head, and I pulled up the poem The Song of Belit that he wrote as part of the story “Queen of the Black Coast.” And I talked a little bit about Howard’s suicide, but with lots of lyrical obfuscation so as to avoid using that word, because that word scares me for reasons you’ll discover in short order.

I talked about the idea that fantasy provides a way out of the real world on some level, as every reader of fantasy literature and every player of fantasy RPGs knows. I said it like this:

Most gamers live their lives engaging in the broad wonder of fantasy, as a matter of course. As did Howard, obviously. Many gamers have histories of feeling socially isolated and closed off from the world, as did Howard. Many gamers have stories about moments in their lives when the pressure of being closed off from the world — of feeling different and distant, and of all the uncertainty and fragility that comes with that — opened up to a particular kind of darkness that has only one way out. As did Howard.

(Aside — I’m one of those gamers, but that’s not important to this line of thought.)

I tell myself that a lot. That I’m not important, that my experiences are pretty typical, that my life is a life anyone else could have lived. And I think that’s all generally true. But it’s also an excellent means of hiding from thinking about things I don’t like thinking about.

• • •

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write something about what happened to me in high school, at the beginning of grade 11. Junior year for my American friends. But I haven’t written it, because the idea of doing so felt weird. It felt self-indulgent, it felt like distraction. It’s my story, but I know it’s also a story shared by a lot of other people. So wanting to write it felt like me trying to make myself the center of attention, when there are always so many other things with a greater need for attention than me. But that’s all also an excellent means of hiding from thinking about what happened to me in high school. Or, more complexly, from hiding from thinking about one half of what happened to me in high school, even as the other half of what happened continues to be one of the central focuses of my life.

At the beginning of grade 11 in high school, I wasn’t a gamer, and was absolutely certain that I was going to die. Then RPGs in general — and Dungeons & Dragons in particular — saved my life.

That’s the short version.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about it more. How to dig into the long version. Trying to overcome the reluctance to talk about it. And then I remembered that way, way back when it happened, I went through exactly the same process of wanting to talk about it and not being able to. So rather than hitting myself in the head continuously trying to figure out how to talk about this now, I thought I’d share how I talked about it then.

This is from just about two years afterward. End of grade 12. I wrote this down because I used to keep a journal, which is like a blog that only the person writing it reads. (That might be an accurate description of this blog. Nothing really changes.) You’ll have to imagine this on yellowed paper, typed up with considerable strike-throughs on a Corona portable typewriter, which is like a laptop computer with a built-in printer, but no memory or screen. I’ve excised some personal details and some discussion of the specific traumas that precipitated everything else. But other than that, these are the thoughts of a seventeen-year-old white kid dealing with undiagnosed depression in a small town in Canada thirty-two years ago.

This is me talking to myself about a thing I don’t like talking about, as a means of talking about it to you.

• • •

July 4/82

In general, I think I’m a naive and romantic kind of person, so maybe this thing that I’ve been thinking about for the last little while will just boil down to being naive and romantic in the end. 

When I think back over everything that’s happened in the past two years or so, I understand with total certainty that gaming saved my life.

This is a roundabout way of talking about things that I’m still having trouble talking about. I look back at the words that fill the pages before this one and I can’t see anything in them except the avoidance of the truth that lies under them. It’s like everything that I said and thought and committed to words is true, but it all hides the more important truth that I’m afraid to touch. It’s like one of Mr. Smith’s killer multiple choice tests — the point isn’t to find the one right answer, it’s to know which of all the right answers is the most right.

At the beginning of grade 11, I was working under the assumption that I wouldn’t be alive to see the end of grade 11. I looked around my life and all I saw was darkness. All the places where I should have been able to see the future, all there was was the past staring back at me. Everywhere that should have made me happy reminded me of the sorrow I felt. Every friendship felt like the loneliness that had drawn me into those friendships in the first place. Everything that should have been beautiful turned to nothing as I watched, and the black dust of rot spread where I tried to touch it before the inevitable end.

This is still too roundabout. Even as long as it’s been, it’s still so hard to talk about all this. Maybe I’m afraid on some level that looking back on how I felt and what I thought then will bring those thoughts and feelings back in some way. Maybe that’s the whole idea behind our collective need to try to forget things as easily as we do. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but forgetting the past seems to be the most popular human past-time except maybe for sex. But then you could probably hypothesize that for most people, forgetting is the point of sex anyway. Sleep with someone you love to forget what it felt like to ever be alone. Sleep with someone you don’t love to forget about how afraid you are to be in love. Sleep with someone new to forget someone old. Sleep with someone old to forget how afraid you are to find someone new all over again.


The beginning of grade 11 was the darkest point in my life so far. Compared to the pain that came down on me then like the hand of some insane god, the feeling when my mom and dad split up was a full-body hot oil massage. Compared to the fear I felt then, all the various traumas of elementary and junior high were like the special effects in a third-rate horror film. Compared to how helpless and how hateful I felt then, this past year has been an ongoing birthday party.

It was a strange period that I don’t remember very much of. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I remember it at a distance, like I’m remembering remembering. It feels like longer ago than it was. I didn’t know what my life meant anymore, so I just stopped wanting to live it. It was a simple escape from the pain.

I thought about suicide but I never really planned it. I considered with a strange kind of detachment and logic all the different ways I might do it, and compared this method to that method, and made endless mental notes of what my own death might look like. I never looked for the moment, though. I just looked at my life from the point where I stood, and it just seemed to me that it was over then. I looked at the future and there was no future, like I might have had some terminal disease and was making my peace with the world. I knew that it was going to end and didn’t care. I wasn’t planning to die, but I simply knew that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it.

I never planned on seeing the end of that year, grade 11.  I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew that it would happen with the same certainty that made me know the sun would rise the next day. It was an inevitable outcome. All the possible futures that I’d seen once were narrowing down to this one final point, because there was no point in trying to fight it.  I think on some level, I expected that death would come to me in its own way and on its own terms, not mine. I felt like there was no point in me trying to plan the end because the end was already out there waiting for me. A sense of blind fate overwhelming me, expecting maybe that the darkness inside me would take control. One moment when something would click inside me and I’d know that it was time, and I’d do what I had to do. I would be forced to do what the darkness needed me to do, and then that would be that.


Way back at the beginning of this, I said that gaming saved my life. This is how I know.  At the darkest point of the darkest time, the beginning of grade 11, the primary driving force behind the darkness was the feeling of helplessness that came from not being able to look away from the darkness I saw in myself. And I never bothered to look for other options or ways out of the darkness, because it seemed to me that any ways out would lead inevitably back to the same conclusions. I might be able to push myself past the things that had happened, but I understand with perfect clarity that they were going to happen again.

And I don’t remember the moment that what I saw and knew changed, or even if there was a single moment from out of the many moments. But in the opening months of grade 11, at the time when I’d set myself up to simply wait for the gap between not wanting to live and actually not living to slowly close, I started gaming. First, the weekend in Vancouver with Kev, then Dave saying he’d found this guy Mitch who owned a Player Handbook

It’s hard now to put the memory of that period into words. Saying that gaming gave me something to live for would sound as ridiculous as it is wrong, because when it comes down to it, I don’t live these days only for gaming any more than I’d ever want to live for any single thing. Saying that gaming taught me something that made me want to live wouldn’t be accurate either, because I don’t think I learned anything in particular from or through gaming that I hadn’t already known before. Saying that gaming made me able to forget what had happened would be as wrong as it would be dishonest, because nothing that’s happened to me in the past two years changes what happened before that. Nothing undoes what was done.

Right now, the feelings and the memories of who I was before are as sharp as anything could ever be. I remember the darkness with as much clarity as I felt it then, and if I closed my eyes and let myself forget how far the calendar’s gone, I could put myself back there in a moment. But I can see now that I feared the darkness that I’d felt in myself then because I feared that that darkness had cost me the humanity that I’d always hoped was in me. Now, I recognize the darkness as a part of what it means to be human. Now, I see being human as the process of keeping the darkness at bay.

Gaming showed me what it means to be human. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. At its most basic level, gaming is about the struggle of being human. Gaming is about the conflict that exists inside every one of us, the struggle for survival and understanding that either kills us or makes us stronger as it passes. I won’t say that gaming taught me that, but I think I can safely say that gaming let me look at it like I’d been afraid to look at it before. It’s like it was in me already but I couldn’t see it at first for the need that was crippling me, and then I couldn’t see it for the darkness that the need allowed to escape. And I would never claim that gaming is the only thing that could have let me see this thing or might let others see it in themselves, because I think the things that make gaming a place of focus for emotion and conflict and the understanding of what it means to be human are the same things that allow all fiction and history to contain a core of those same truths. A person might see these truths more easily in Hamlet or Plato as they ever would in the moral make-believe that gaming is. But at the beginning of grade 11, I didn’t read Shakespeare or take a philosophy class. I started gaming, and everything changed.

Before, my life had been detached from the world around me in a way that I had never seen or realized. Then I saw that detachment but couldn’t close the barrier that living apart from reality had created. Before, morality had seemed a separate thing from life, but then came the crippling fear that moral choice was impossible. Everything around me made me think that on some level, the desires that drive us will always be stronger than the morality that allows us to examine and name those desires. The need to conquer, to consume, to control.

In life, our moments of moral choice tend to be small moments. We reflect our choices within ourselves, but unless you’re a pope or a president, those choices hardly ever reflect into the larger world. Our choices so rarely affect the people around us that those times when people are affected by the choices we make become moments of maximum impact and uncertainty. These are the moments when we become aware of what it means to be human, but they come to us so slowly, and are so staggered that trying to see the pattern the moments make — the pattern that makes up the morality of your life — is like trying to pick out the melody of a piece of music played to you as individual notes an hour apart. But within the game (or at least the game the way we play it), morality is the fuel that drives the engine of imagination. Within the game, moral choice is constant, and the repercussions of those choices always extend beyond the confines of you and the character alone, because that’s what makes the game interesting. The challenge comes not in simply accomplishing things on the level that you might accomplish them in real life, but to accomplish the things that real life rarely offers. In everything we do in the game, there is the extension into the lives of other players, other characters, other people. The game becomes life in a way that people who simply see it from the outside — people who just watch the dice rolled and hear the narrative detached from the imagination and the life that creates it — can never see.

All around me, I hear the criticism that gaming is an escape from real life, and even if you could explain it to people, it would probably be impossible to get across to them that gaming is real life. Not in the sense that one should settle for what gaming offers and stop seeking relationships and beauty and involvement in the outside world, but in the sense that all the things that make life worth living make the game worth playing if it’s being played right. There are so few moments in life where we get to find out what we’re capable of. Gaming lets us see inside ourselves in a way that we’re afraid to look in the speed and the slowness of everyday. Gaming is about finding out what we’re capable of. And maybe on some level, gaming has even more potential to show us what we’re capable of being than the other forms that it descends from. Even in the best circumstances, with the closest reading or the best performance, we might think we can feel what it must be like to be Hamlet, but we’ll never really be Hamlet in the sense that what Hamlet does on stage can change depending on our own needs and interpretations. We’ll see the choices he makes and react to those choices, but we don’t get to make the choices ourselves. We don’t have the potential to learn what those choices say about us.

Two years ago, I fell under the weight of what was and lost sight of what could be. Gaming, like life, is about what could be.

July 8/82

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 31, 2014

#RPGaDay 31

 Day 31 — Favorite RPG of All Time

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 30, 2014

#RPGaDay 30

 Day 30 — Rarest RPG Owned

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 29, 2014

#RPGaDay 29

Day 29 — Most Memorable Encounter

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 28, 2014

#RPGaDay 28

Day 28 — Scariest Game You’ve Played

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 27, 2014

#RPGaDay 27

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

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

Two things I would like to see, though:

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 26, 2014

#RPGaDay 26

 Day 26 — Coolest Character Sheet

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 25, 2014

#RPGaDay 25

 Day 25 — Favourite RPG No One Else Wants to Play

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 24, 2014

#RPGaDay 24

Day 24 — Most Complicated RPG Owned

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 23, 2014

#RPGaDay 23

Day 23 — Coolest Looking RPG Product/Book

Too many to choose from.

Old-school stuff:

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

The Planescape box set.

Newer stuff:

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 22, 2014

#RPGaDay 22

 Day 22 — Best Secondhand RPG Purchase

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 21, 2014

#RPGaDay 21

Day 21 — Favourite Licensed RPG

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 20, 2014

#RPGaDay 20

Day 20 — Will Still Play in Twenty Years Time…

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 19, 2014

#RPGaDay 19

Day 19 — Favourite Published Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 18, 2014

#RPGaDay 18

Day 18 — Favourite Game System

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 17, 2014

#RPGaDay 17

Day 17 — Funniest Game You’ve Played

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 16, 2014

#RPGaDay 16

Day 16 — Game You Wish You Owned

The original Gygax/Perren Chainmail, just because.

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 15, 2014

#RPGaDay 15

Day 15 — Favorite Convention Game

A tie between:

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


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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 14, 2014

#RPGaDay 14

 Day 14 — Best Convention Purchase

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 13, 2014

#RPGaDay 13

Day 13 — Most Memorable Character Death

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

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

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

So I finally have some closure.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 12, 2014

#RPGaDay 12

 Day 12 — Old RPG You Still Play/Read

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 11, 2014

#RPGaDay 11

 Day 11 — Weirdest RPG Owned

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 10, 2014

#RPGaDay 10

Day 10 — Favourite Tie-In Novel/Game Fiction

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 9, 2014

#RPGaDay 9

 Day 9 — Favourite Die/Dice Set

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

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

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

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

(Addendum: Since first writing this, I have learned that the A on my d4 means it’s a first-gen Armory die! Thanks to Jon Peterson for geeking out about this stuff.)

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 8, 2014

#RPGaDay 8

 Day 8 — Favorite Character

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 7, 2014

#RPGaDay 7

 Day 7 — Most “Intellectual” RPG Owned

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 6, 2014

#RPGaDay 6

Day 6 — Favourite RPG You Never Get to Play

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 5, 2014

#RPGaDay 5

 Day 5 — Most Old School RPG Owned

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 4, 2014

#RPGaDay 4

Day 4 — Most Recent RPG Purchase

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 3, 2014

#RPGaDay 3

 Day 3 — First RPG Purchased

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 2, 2014

#RPGaDay 2

Day 2 — First RPG Gamemastered

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

August 1, 2014

#RPGaDay 1

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

Day 1 — First RPG Played

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

July 29, 2014


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

I am making an exception to this policy tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

July 21, 2014

The Song of Belit

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.

      In that dead citadel of crumbling stone
      Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
      And curious madness took me by the throat,
      As of a rival lover thrust between.

      Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
      Then curse the dream that bought my sluggish life;
      And curse each laggard hour that does not see
      Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.

The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.

      Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
      No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
      Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
      Blue girdle of the world, receive again
      Her whom thou gavest me.

— The Song of Belit

It’s not annoying enough that Robert E. Howard wrote epic alt-history better than just about everybody who came after him short of Tolkien. The dude could write poetry as well (including the above, from the Conan story “The Queen of the Black Coast”). It’s easy for lesser writers like myself to become vexed and annoyed by people with that kind of raw talent for doing the things we drive ourselves to do. But at the same time, it’s almost impossible to foment a jealous rage against Robert E. Howard’s life and career without inevitably circling around to the reality of how that life and career were both cut drastically and tragically short.

Most gamers live their lives engaging in the broad wonder of fantasy, as a matter of course. As did Howard, obviously. Many gamers have histories of feeling socially isolated and closed off from the world, as did Howard. Many gamers have stories about moments in their lives when the pressure of being closed off from the world — of feeling different and distant, and of all the uncertainty and fragility that comes with that — opened up to a particular kind of darkness that has only one way out. As did Howard.

(Aside — I’m one of those gamers, but that’s not important to this line of thought.)

But if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the vast majority of gamers are able to step back from that edge of darkness. And in many cases, often long after the fact, those gamers speak to the notion that gaming and fantasy played a significant part in what let them step back. For us, gaming and fantasy created a sense of a larger world that had a place for us, and gave us the understanding that even when the darkness seems like the only option, there are always choices. There are always ways to move forward. There are always reasons to fight on.

Whatever thoughts and emotions and pain resonated in Robert E. Howard on a particular day in June, 1936, they took away his reasons to fight — just long enough for the fight to end. And there’s a terrible kind of irony in the idea that Robert E. Howard’s imagination crafted fantasy worlds so vast that not only he but literally millions of readers have explored them without ever even getting close to learning all their mysteries, but that his own worlds of the imagination offered him no way out of the darkness of the real world.

Fantasy and gaming are about the ability to dream, and about how the ability to dream can help you look past the limitations of a real world that seems to promise nothing but pain. For me, and for a lot of gamers like me, the lessons of fantasy and imagination that Howard taught were a part of what kept us going. And I can’t help but wish that on that June day of eighty-odd years ago, Howard had been able to dream the future that the rest of us — in our time, in our own ways, and using the examples that Howard and so many others laid down for us — saw and made.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

July 6, 2014

Twenty-Eight Years in the Making

Way back in 1986, my college gaming group (which had previously been my high school gaming group) took on the classic supermodule “The Temple of Elemental Evil,” with me DMing. It was the culmination of a campaign that had been going with a steady core of characters for the previous three years, and which promised to unfold as an epic awesomefest of world-shaping dungeon-crawling goodness.

And then we never actually finished the campaign. Because partway through level 2, myself and all the other players seemed to simultaneously reach that annoying stage of mid-20s life when jobs and school and family and stuff finally demolish what’s left of one’s free time.

Last night, after a few months of prep and planning and experimentation, I rebooted that campaign. We started outside the front gates of the temple under thunder and lightning, with all the old player characters, and three of the original four players, and new players (including the wife, and the older daughter, and the older daughter’s boyfriend) taking on the old NPCs, and running everything in five cities across three time zones through G+ hangouts and Roll20.

My life is awesome.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

March 29, 2014

Fallen Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

February 7, 2014

Edition Wars

An actual dream I recalled upon waking this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)

January 26, 2014

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

According to Jon Peterson, who is wise and knowledgeable, today is as close a date as can be reckoned for the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Archive post from the personal blog.)