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.)