Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 1

At CarnageCon in Killington VT a few weeks ago, I was finally able to run my Valley of Tombs game. This is a 5th Edition D&D game designed to feel like playing an open world CRPG (like Skyrim) with an ongoing continuity and ever-expanding setting. I refer to it as my Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG (MMTTRPG). AT Carnage, I ran a grand total of five slots (20 hours) and I just submitted the same event for TotalCon in Mansfield, MA in February (this time, 6 slots or 24 hours of table time).

 

I thought I would talk about my experiences at Carnage, both with the 5th Edition D&D rules and with the MMTTRPG format, as well as my hopes for TotalCon and the time between now and then. This post focuses on my experiences with the 5E game itself, while the next will go into how The Valley of Tombs ran.

 

5th Edition

 

Finally having run the game for more than a single session (plus one floundering fight versus a Tarrasque very early on), I can say that D&D 5E is probably my second favorite edition of the game, after BECM (you never forget your first) and just ahead of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It is unsurprising, then, that 5E feels very much like a blend between those two (seasoned to taste by various rules and systems found in every other edition of the game a few besides). It is possible that given enough time with the game, it will in fact become my favorite version of the game, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it is enough to say that I would rather run 5E than either AD&D or Pathfinder.

 

The primary reason is that 5E feels clean. Its systems are easy to grasp and run relatively quickly and smoothly. The core mechanics are intuitive and well integrated (with the very strange exception of the cover rules, which don’t seem to jive with the overall design goals) and it is a game that not only enables Dungeon Master input and interpretation, but demands it. There are of course some fiddly rules that take some effort to remember, it being a new edition and all, and it is easy sometimes to revert to some previous edition or Pathfinder rule. Part of the beauty, though, is that doing so will not very likely break the game and there are even a few rules from those games (gold = XP perhaps, or Pathfinder’s disease mechanics) that would enhance 5E play.

 

Character creation is easy. I found a nice little online character generator to help speed the process, but I had previously created some characters by hand with the PHB and it took about an hour to create a 20th level character: 30 minutes to create the base 1st level character and another 30 to level the character all the way up to 20. The choices after 1st level are limited, usually one or two things per level (perhaps more for spell casters), so it is a quick process to create a high level PC. That said, at least so far the game is missing a few things usually associated with creating high level PCs, like a suggestion as to how much and what sort of equipment a higher level character might have, but this is not insurmountable. The apparent default assumption of the game is that characters are not expected to possess dozens of magic items and weapons, and the math in the game is designed to flatten the power curve and reduce the importance of items on character capability. Much of this is dependent on information probably found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (coming soon!) and that book will likely answer some questions as well as inspire a few.

 

We played without a battle mat or a grid (though we did occasionally use a little sketch on paper to illustrate relative positioning). Because the game is more strategic than tactical, it worked well. Simply asking players what their intent was and being accommodating but tough made combat move quickly and with no want for tension. Rather than counting squares, players were trying to figure out ways to gain Advantage, which suited me just fine.

 

Advantage and Disadvantage are, to me, the single most inspired aspects of the 5th Edition rules. Simply put, Advantage provides a bonus on an attack roll, skill check or saving throw in the form of rolling two d20 dice and taking the better result. Likewise, disadvantage affects the same kinds of rolls in the same way except that the the lower result is taken. Some character abilities, such as the rogue’s sneak attack, interact with Advantage or Disadvantage in specific ways, but otherwise the system is unencumbered by a large number of associated rules. One official rule I did immediately dispense with was the idea that one Advantage or Disadvantage inducing circumstance would negate any number of the opposite, and instead I went with a broader view: i.e. do all the circumstances of the moment suggest Advantage, Disadvantage, or an essentially balanced circumstance. It worked well and while players would sometimes try to negotiate for Advantage or against Disadvantage, I considered this a good thing that increased their engagement and added to everyone’s fun.

 

Related to advantage is a system called Inspiration, which basically provides a “free” Advantage based on things related to character goals, flaws and so on. Because we were using pregenerated PCs, I decided to dispense with giving Inspiration based on play acting and instead gave it for being generally awesome and increasing everyone else’s fun (whether through melodrama or humor or heroics or whatever) or for bring me, the DM, coffee or beer. Shamed as I am to admit it, I am bribable. I also use a special d30 for Inspiration and the rule is only one person can be in possession of that d30 at a time (meaning no one else can acquire Inspiration until the holder of the d30 uses it) but you can always use the d30 for another player’s roll. It worked well, except in a few instances players sat on their Inspiration for most of a session and so it did not see a lot of use in some sessions.
Overall, D&D 5E is a well designed, fun game that speaks to my style of play. It probably is not for everyone, especially since it is moderately dependent upon DM calls and it does not have the deep well of player character options that some people really like, but it is a good game. I look forward to mastering the system a little more every time I run it and finding places where rules from other games or editions enhance play.

Wicked Wednesday: Madra Nocht

Madra Nocht is a night hag who dwells in the Valley of Tombs, between the growing frontier towns of Threshold and Minehold. She is a creature of pure evil and she is as cunning as she is wicked. She is also immortal, endless and ageless. Her schemes touch nearly everything in the Valley, either as her handiwork or her allies, or something to be discarded or destroyed.

 

Her cabin is located aside a gently flowing stream. It is a small simple structure with an herb garden and a porch on which a dog sleeps. Only upon closer inspection can visitors see that only poisonous plants grow in the garden and the dog is in fact a three-headed Death Hound gnawing on too-small bones. By then it is too late, for Madra Nocht emerges from her dwelling, soul sack hanging at her side and wickedness glinting in her eyes. She may not attack the trespassers immediately — she is very likely not to, in fact — but she is a predator to be sure and is sizing up her prey. No mad beast, Madra Nocht needs pawns and servants, sport and playthings and she will take pains to determine which her visitors may be. Unlike some of her kind, she never hides her gruesome visage behind an illusion of beauty. She revels in the terror she creates and loves nothing more than the moment of horror when her victims first see her — except perhaps their last, terrified gasps for breath.

 

Madra Nocht needs not eat or sleep. She never does the latter, and is always up late into the night ranging from dream to dream in search of nightmares to empower and innocents to torture. She sees and manipulates them through her cauldron. The former, she does indulge on occasion. Usually, she limits her indulgence to children (which she has the local goblin tribes snatch from their beds for her) but she may make an exception for particularly troublesome guests. If she or her Death Dog subdues a would be hero, she devours them slowly over days, keeping them alive to watch her cook their flesh and feed their bones to her pet until the last thing they see is a fork coming into their eye. But that is a rare fate, reserved for the most egregiously uncouth Madra Nocht is an immortal and a power and she demands respect.

 

As stated, she needs servants to carry out her will in Valley, willing and otherwise. She threatens, promises and cajoles, lies and manipulates and entices. She has much to offer, from wealth for the greedy to hope for the forlorn to simple desire for survival. When that does not work, she shreds off pieces of a victim’s soul and holds it as ransom until some particular deed she might need done is complete. Attacking her is both futile and suicidal: if threatened, she simply escapes into the Ethereal Plane where dreams and nightmares live. If one can manage to kill her before she can escape, she is not destroyed: her body turns to smoke and she is trapped in the Ethereal until the next new moon. In either case, she follows such a defeat immediately with revenge. She hunts through the land of dreams until she finds her attackers and slowly, with horrifying pleasure, turns all their hopes to ash and eats away at their souls until they are but husks of themselves, at which point she commands these empty vessels to do such horrid and vile things that whatever is left of the victim goes mad with guilt and terror.

 

Game Rules: Madra Nocht is a fairly typical Night Hag as presented in the Monster Manual (page 178) with a few minor but significant tweaks. In addition to the usual night hag innate spellcasting abilities, Madra Nocht is an accomplished ritualist and brewer. She can cast nearly any spell that is available as a ritual and can brew any potion. She never uses potions herself and rarely uses ritual spells for her own benefit; rather, these are tools she uses to bribe would be servants and punish those who defy her. Also, Madra Nocht may plane shift at will between the Prime Material and the Ethereal only. She may do so as a bonus action if she is wounded and automatically does so if she is reduced to 0 hit points.

 

In addition to the normal effect of her Nightmare power, anyone affected by it becomes a sort of thrall to her. She cannot control their actions but gains the ability to read their minds, scan their memories and use their senses from afar. A victim who takes psychic damage from the ability gains a level of exhaustion is addition to the other effects and anyone reduced to 0 hit points by the power becomes a wight under Madra Nocht’s control.

 

Madra Nocht is considered CR 7 for defeating her in a single encounter or adventure, but given that she is immortal and driven by revenge, characters may gain XP for defeating her more than once (DM’s discretion) on a separate occasion.

 

Her pet is a Death Dog (page 321) with three heads (and therefore three bite attacks) rather than two. The save DC on it’s disease is 14 Constitution and it causes 2d6 permanent damage rather than 1d10. It has a CR of 2.

 

At Carnage Con, Madra Nocht used her nightmare power and threats to consume the soul of a part member in order to cajole them into attacking a group of harpies who were preying on Madra Nocht’s goblin servants. This is an example of the kinds of thing she might require PCs to do for her, rather than just try and kill them outright.

Magical Monday: Treasures of the Timeless Tower

My 5th Edition open world “massive multiplayer table top RPG” The Valley of the Tombs (VotT) finally saw actual play this weekend at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. While I will have a full write up based on the event in the near future, I thought I would use an element from VotT for this week’;s Magical Monday.

 

Among the location discovered by the adventurers during the 20 hours of VotT I ran this weekend was the Timeless Tower. Located atop a large hill that may or may not be a giant king’s barrow mound, out from which metallic smelling springs flow here and there, the Timeless Tower is a quat structure, just 50 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter at the base. From a distance it seems mundane, if in exceedingly good shape for being located in the ancient, lost region known as the Valley of the Tombs. Upon closer inspection (after dealing with the flock of Perytons living atop the tower) it becomes obvious that although vegetation has grown up on the stones, they are as perfect as the day they were hewn. In fact, the entire tower is unperturbed by the elements or the passage of time (hence the nom de guerre). In fact, the windows allow both light a wind through but no precipitation may pass into the tower through them — and adventurers, they too may pass with ease.

 

Haunted by the unquiet spirit of an abused servant and her daughter and full of tricks and traps laid by the vicious former owner, the Timeless Tower is a brief but engaging adventure locale in the Valley. It’s real worth is in its treasures, I think, so I present them here:

 

The Bookstand is exactly as it sounds: an ornate wooden device intended to be placed on a desk and table and upon which a book is supposed to be put for easier reading. The bookstand has a powerful enchantment upon it, however. Anyone who places a book on the stand gains a magical psychic link to the contents of the book. Whatever language the book is written in, the user of the stand may understand its contents (note that it does not actually translate the book so onlookers gain no special insight). Moreover, the user may magically turn to any page or even find any subject within the book with but a thought. Finally and most impressively, the user may consume the entire contents of the volume. It is a temporary effect, lasting only one minute, but in that time the user may call upon the knowledge and make a related skill roll (usually Aracan, Religion, or Nature but technically any knowledge based skill check is possible) with advantage. As soon as the knowledge is used, the information leaves the user’s mind. While the book stand may be used any number of times per day, the process of consuming an entire volume of information is mentally exhausting and any character who does so suffers a level of exhaustion for any such uses after the first. Note that the stand can be used to comprehend any written work that can fit on it, from tomes to maps to scrawled notes.

 

The Wine Chiller is a curious magical construct. A beautifully crafted silver wine bucket on a three legged stand, the wine chiller is magically enchanted in two ways. First, the interior of the bucket is always frosty cool and any bottle or other vessel placed inside is instantly chilled to the perfect temperature for consumption (it will not heat liquids, however, nor will it freeze them solid). In addition, the chiller walks around on its three legs attempting to service anyone within 30 feet. It is a stupid construct and does not know whether there is a bottle in its bucket, let alone if the subject of its attention possesses a wine glass. It merely stands by a subject for a minute or so, then moves on to another subject, visiting everyone within range and then starting the process over again. There are command words to make it be still or to come immediately, but they are long forgotten. The wine chiller seems ties to the parlor in which it was found and ceases to move of its own accord if removed, though the bucket remains chilled. It is likely it merely needs to be attuned to a location with another lost command word. It would fetch a pretty platinum to the right noble buyer should one discover the command words.

 

The Imperial Suite is a whole room that is a magical creation. Located on the second floor of the tower in a space no larger than a linen closet, the Imperial suite is actually a vast apartment in an extradimensional space. Through the open door a viewer can see the opulent room, with is huge bed and massive hearth, multiple soft couches and exquisite marble bath. Upon passing over the threshold, they find themselves teleported to the center of the room, at least 50 feet from the door. The room is warm but never uncomfortable and smells of perfume and pleasure. It is large enough to comfortably sleep six on the various couches and bed, but a small army could camp within if they rested on the floor. In either case, anyone who takes a short rest within the room recovers as if from a long rest, and anyone who takes a long rest within the room loses two levels of exhaustion and regains all used hit dice. No one can gain the magical benefit of any rest, short or long, more than once in 24 hours (although one could take a short rest to gain the benefits of a long rest and then later come back and take an actual, unmodified long rest later in the same 24 hour period). The suite is, sadly, immobile, and not apparently accessible from any location on any plane other than through the doorway to the room.

 

The Timeless Tower was full of other magical object, most enhanced versions of mundane items. The owner of the tower, whoever he was (it is known to be a he based on the depredations he performed against the servant and their daughter) left with most items of real power or value, apparently a very long time ago and with careful intention. Perhaps he will one day return and be miffed that some of his favorite baubles are missing.

 

Please come back on Wednesday when I give an overview of Madra Nocht, a night hag who haunts the Valley and has a penchant for manipulation and intra-monster politics.

 

The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.

Wicked Wednesday: Monster Manual Impressions

It has been a couple weeks since I finally got my hands on the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual. While I am not going to do a full review, I do have some thoughts on the book as I prepare my convention hexcrawl The Valley of the Tombs for the Carnage Convention in Killington, VT next month.

 

First and foremost, the book is beautiful. The art is top notch (although there are a few re-used pieces, which is not necessarily bad but was unexpected) with a vibe that, like the PLayer’s Handbook, evokes AD&D 2nd Edition more than it does 3.5 or 4th Edition D&D. Just look at this Dragon Turtle illustration:

That’s not to say there aren’t more modern styles of images, such as this ghoul:

 

but the vast majority of monsters fit the high fantasy novel cover vibe of 2nd Edition rather than the video game concept art (and I absolutely DO NOT mean that in a negative way) of 3.5 and 4th Edition. As a lover of 2nd Edition, this pleases me. There is enough variety, I think, to keep everyone happy, though individual illustrations may or may not please. For example, I pretty much hate the Kraken:

It is ugly and doesn’t look a thing like a Colossal Squid of Doom.

 

One thing I found problematic with the 5E MM, especially as I worked to populate the above mentioned Valley of Tombs, was the poor indexing of the monsters. There is no list of monsters by terrain type — or even type in general. Nor is there a list of monsters by Challenge Rating, though a PDF is available on the Wizards of the Coast Web Site. Above all else, a game manual, particularly a Monster Manual, is a tool and it should, in my opinion, be designed for maximum utility both in play and during preparation.

 

On the subject of utility, I really like the statistic (stat) block layout for the 5E MM. It is clean and easy to read with minimum need for reference to other books outside of spell or spell-like ability descriptions (which is a fault, but a minor one). Even high level, highly dangerous monsters are described in relatively simple stat blocks, as evidenced by the Tarrasque:

Compare that to the Pathfinder RPG Tarrasque and you can see what I mean (note the list of Feats you have to look up in addition to all the basic monster stats).

 

The addition of an animal/beast and an NPC appendix are also great, except that it is difficult to find what you are looking for sometimes based on the alphabetizing choices made (ex: all the giant versions of regular animals are listed under “giant x” rather than “x, giant”).

 

One place where the 5E MM pales in comparison to the AD&D 2E version is the lore, or “fluff” that it presented. Lore is certainly presented, and some of it is good, but it does not evoke the complex quality of the old 2E flavor text. I understand that books are different now. If nothing else, layout is different and far fewer words fit on a page. The 2E MM was crammed full of text under a very brief stat block and a small illustration, while the 5E MM uses larger fonts and bigger spacing and much far bigger illustrations. Therefore, in order to fit as many monsters as possible in the book, the text sometimes suffers. That said, so far I have not run across any flavor text I feel is objectively poorly written, though I do find some changes in the lore to be circumspect (Merrow are now demons, rather than aquatic ogres?).

 

Overall, I like the book very much and it invigorates my enthusiasm for 5E. I am especially excited to be running 5, 4 hour session of 5E at Carnage. If you are in VT between November 7 and 9th, be sure to come and check it out!

 

AFTERWORD: I wanted to apologize to me reader (that’s a joke, son) for the sparse updates. Between taking engineering courses, fall baseball for my son and a little bit of writer’s block/insecurity, I have not been great about updating. I’ll make an effort to do better. Thanks for reading!

Wicked Wednesday: Real World Evil

My original plan, with it being October 1st (the unofficial start of Halloween season) was to produce a Wicked Wednesday based on the imagined evils of the season: ghosts, goblins, witches and the like. However, today a real evil reared its head and I feel the need to talk about it. There’s nothing in here for your D&D game, so I understand if you don’t bother reading this post, though I do think it will be of some value to some of you, anyway.

 

In the case you have never clicked my “About” page, I should tell you first that I live in Newtown, Connecticut and my children attended Sandy Hook elementary on December 14, 2012 when Adam Lanza attacked the school and killed 20 children and 6 educators, after murdering his mother in their home and before killing himself as the police arrived. If you are interested in greater detail about what happened that morning, please read the essay I wrote following the event. Suffice it to say, the day deeply affected our family. My children both survived, but my daughter lost many friends, eight of whom were Daisy Scouts in my wife’s troop. My wife was a first hand witness to the carnage and still deals with Post Traumatic Stress from the incident. Since that day, the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been moved to Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe, Connecticut. My son has since moved on the our Intermediate School but my daughter remains at Sandy Hook.

 

Today, I received a panicked phone call from my wife. She could hardly speak, barely breathe. The kids had dentist appointments this morning, and I knew she would be dropping the kids off at their respective schools afterward. (As an aside that I did not realize until this very moment, I had a dentist appointment on 12-14.) When she dropped off my daughter, there were police cars with their flashing lights on. She was assured she could leave my daughter at school, however, and did so with some trepidation. By the time she got home, the resurgent terror and helplessness of 12-14 had bubbled up in her beyond control. That’s how PTSD works. She called me in a full on panic attack, certain that she had made a terrible mistake. Excruciatingly, I talked her down and calmed her. A few minutes after I got off the phone, she called back, her panic returned. The school had sent out an alert: there was a threat and our daughter, who had only a little while before been safe with my wife, was at the school. My wife was both terrified and guilt stricken.

 

It was not long before we received emails and phone messages assuring us of the safety of our child. They had been evacuated. There would be an early dismissal. The threat was of minimal or no credibility. All of that was good news, but of no consequence to already traumatized parent who, like my wife and I, had stood in a parking lot on a cold winter day, holding one another against the horror that our children would not come out of that school alive. And that is where the evil comes in.

 

It is impossible to argue that someone calling in a bomb threat is as evil and monstrous as one who kills innocents. That said, the desire to inflict massive psychic trauma upon innocent people is indeed a mark of an evil and monstrous mind. Someone, somewhere (and we don’t know who yet, and perhaps never will) chose to create panic and terror among traumatized children, educators and parents today. Why? To what end? Entertainment? Revenge against some imagined slight? Perhaps it was a Sandy Hook Hoaxer or a 2nd Amendment Extremist who wanted to harm those who were seen as enemies to their world view. No matter that motivation or the identity of the individual responsible, one simple truth can be ascertained: that individual is evil, in the way the real people can be evil to one another every day.

 

If you have kids, hug them. If you don’t, do something nice for a child you do know. Maybe give a little to a PTSD charity or an organization dedicated toward understanding the roots of violence. In any case, do something to make the world a better place.

 

Oh, and if you are the person called in the threat to Sandy Hook today, go fuck yourself.

Magical Monday: Everyday Magic

The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook is chock full of magical abilities and spells, power at the fingertips of the player characters. While the PCs are arguably the most important characters in their world — at least they should be the most important character in their combined story — they are not alone in the world. Where medieval peasants and feudal nobles exist alongside powerful wizards, where the gods let their might be known through overt action on the world, where mighty dragons and giants spar for dominion, magic would permeate every level of society and every aspect of life. The magic in the PHB may be sufficient for describing warriors and wizards raiding the tombs of long dead kings or bringing the fight to the doorstep of the Dark Lord himself, it does not serve the needs of the everyday world that is the backdrop for the PCs’ grand adventures.

 

Practitioners

 

The first issue to address regarding everyday magic in a D&D world is: who are the practitioners of this magic? While clerics and sorcerers other than the PCs surely inhabit the world, those  spell-casters and their kind serve a function usually directly related to the PCs, as either aid or opposition. Warlocks and druids have greater concerns than the peasantry or even the local lord.

 

Most everyday users of magic are specially trained in the use of magic. They are hedge wizards whose powers pale in comparison to that of real wizards but whose art is far more useful to the common man. They are priests and priestesses, and while they do not act as direct conduits to the divine as do clerics and paladins, they provide the benedictions and blessings that the faithful need. They are witches and oracles, not born of or bound to otherworldly powers in the way warlocks and sorcerers are, but still they can hear the whispers from beyond the veil and sell the secrets they learn to the vengeful and the lovelorn.

Religion and Ritual

 

The degree to which religion influences culture cannot be overstated, at least in our own world.. If the goal is to create a recognizable world in which our adventures take place — even if it is an anachronistic and idealized one — then the presence of religion in the lives and cultures of the people that inhabit that world is equally important. That is not to say that a monolithic entity like the medieval Church is required (although for certain sorts of stories, it helps)but rather the religious beliefs of the population must be present. In such a world where magic is a part of the everyday, that religion would be the source of much of that magic.

 

While clerics are the main source of overt, powerful divine magic in a D&D world, not every preacher, priest or friar is a cleric by class. Most are normal, unclassed NPCs, perhaps with proficiency in Religion and a decent Wisdom and/ir Charisma score. They maintain their influence over their flocks with a combination of oratory skill and ritual magic. Unlike clerics, who can heal the sick and create miracles on demand, these religious leaders must engage in religious ritual to invoke even the small magics available to them. Prayers, offerings, sacraments and other accoutrements are all part of the ritual magic and, when performed with precision and faith, they can produce small but notable effects.

 

Blessings: First and foremost, religious magic is used to provide blessings. Usually, these blessings are over a particular action or institution, such as to plead for a fair trial or to provide for a good harvest. In these cases, any one individual involved directly in the execution of the activity may invoke an Inspiration one time with the goal to produce a positive result. For example, a barrister in charge of the trial of an innocent man may use this free floating inspiration on her final Diplomacy check against the jury, or an aged farmer might make his Profession check using inspiration to advise the younger farmers in the town on when to plant. Once any one person has used the inspiration, it is considered exhausted and only a new ritual, if such is allowed, can allow another. Alternatively, a blessing may be granted on a longer term institution or situation, such as a new courthouse or a marriage. In these cases, the blessing grants a simple +1 to any roll by any person involved on any check that will determine the fate of the institution, from the simple (a Charisma save by a husband to avoid seduction) to the complex (the Craft rolls by an architect and builder during the remodelling of a public structure). This sort of blessing is not exhausted upon use, but may only be invoked once per day.

 

Hedge Magic

 

After religious services, the next most common form of everyday magic is hedge magic — the use of so-called lesser magic by trained but ultimately minor magicians to produce limited results. These “hedge wizards” may go by that name, but might also be called magicians, enchanters, illusionists, alchemists and any number of names. Many calling themselves by these titles are likely charlatans, but some few know real magic, however weak, and offer their services to common folk and lords alike for recompense.

 

Hedge magic is similar to traditional wizard magic in that it involves complex formula, strange reagents and esoteric ritual in order to produce real results. The difference is that hedge magic can be performed by anyone with the proper training, while real wizardry is the result of a combination of training, birthright and arcane mystery. Some hedge wizards could have become real wizards if they had been whisked away to a proper academy early enough, rather than having been trained by a hedge wizard master as an apprentice, but most do not possess the magical talent to be real spellcasters. For the commoner, though, hedge wizards are magical enough and anything more spectacular is considered alien and dangerous.

 

Charms: Hedge wizard specialize in charms, magical talismans that provide very specific benefits under very specific circumstances. There are no “good luck” charms that work in general, and any purported hedge wizard trying to sell you one likely also has a bridge you may want to take a look at. Rather, a charm is usually used to provide a small bonus (+1 to d20 rolls) while performing a certain task. A charm might benefit gambling, for example, granting a +1 on skill rolls to attempt to win at gaming. The power of the charm is permanent, but can only be used three times per day. In addition, invoking the power of a charm requires a minor ritual in itself (rubbing the rabbits foot, for example) that while brief (requiring one turn to complete) is obvious to anyone witnessing it. Most charms are made for professional tradesmen who both have the money to purchase said charm and could use the advantage against their competitors. Charms of this sort cost between 1 and 10 gold pieces, depending on their use and the local economy. Note that charms must be related to a proficiency or tool use under a specific set of circumstances; attack rolls, saving throws or other broad categories of action cannot be the subject of a charm.

 

Witchery

 

In the alleys behind the hedge wizard shops and in the shadows of the temples, in the wilds beyond the druid graves and hovels far from village elders, there are places where darker desires can be fulfilled. Not all everyday magic operates in the open, for everyday people often have secrets: secret desires, secret pain and secret sins. When folk need magic to fulfill those desires, to salve that pain or to absolve — or indulge — those sins, they seek the power of the witch.

 

In this context, a witch is any practitioner of everyday magic who specializes in the unpleasant aspects of the art, willing to invoke power from dreadful places within themselves, their patrons, the world itself and even beyond. While some witches claim to be in league with demon lords and dark gods, such pacts are far beyond these folk. Just as priests are taught the liturgy of church rituals and hedge wizards study manuals of complex rules, witches too learn to work minor magic through arduous training at the foot of a mortal master, not a wicked entity. Nor are witches inherently evil, though they are almost always outcast from normal society: trade in desire, whether it be of the flesh or of fate itself, is oft looked down upon, especially by those who trade in the status quo.

 

Brews: While witches are known to offer something like the blessings of priests and craft charms similar to those of hedge wizards, witches are most (in)famous for their brews. Falling somewhere between mundane alchemy and magical potioncraft, the art of the witch’s brew is a closely guarded secret and the origin of much of the mystery behind the witch. Always bubbling and noxious, witches brew is like a bottled ritual or a single use charm, usually offered in return for more than simple gold. Many a maid has sold her beauty or her sweet voice for a love potion. Yet other times, the witch asks no payment at all. A brew is designed to create a specific effect one time. In the case of a love potion, for example, drinking the brew grants the imbiber advantage on any Charisma checks against a single target for one interaction. Other brews are more explicitly magical, such as allowing the drinker to pass as another for a short period or grant one the ability to perceive the true meaning of a liars words. In any case, the powers of a brew are temporary and uncertain and often come with an unexpected price.

 

Ten: All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

I was recently nominated by my good friend Jeff L. to name my ten favorite books. Since it is better than pouring a bucket of ice water over my head (that’s how this works, right?) I have decided to indulge him. Now the rest of you have to suffer. Everyone say, “Thanks, Jeff.”

 

Before I give you my list, I have a couple notes: these are not necessarily my “favorite” books in the sense that I read them a lot (some of them are, but that’s incidental). Rather, they are “favorites” in the sense that I think about them and what’s in them a lot. They made a positive impact on me, in some form or another, even if any given book on this list isn’t “good” by any metric or even if I have never read it a second time. That said, here we go:

 

1.) The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide by E. Gary Gygax: It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am, above all other self identifiers, a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I am not old enough to be a proper “old schooler” or “grognard.” I came into the hobby in 1985 at 10 years old, ushered in by Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore. That fabled Red Box didn’t just show me a new way to play, it changed my life. I wrote stories before then, but that game showed me how to be inside them. So why the AD&D DMG instead of the Basic Set? My brothers and I played the Basic and Expert and following sets for years. We played by the rules in a style informed by what was in those sets, and it was fun, but it was very insular and specific. Some years later when I found the AD&D DMG, I was shown a whole different world of play. Moreover, it was introduced by a powerful style, a voice of authority that resonated with me. It forever changed the way I not only ran the game, but the way I viewed the game at its most fundamental level. Before, D&D had been a story construction engine; the realization from within the hallowed pages of the DMg that it could still be a game, that the story was better when it emerged organically from play, was, well, a revelation. No matter what edition of the game I run, I refer to the AD&D DMG for inspiration and as a reminder of what the game is.

 

2.) Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: I was a comics late bloomer. My first comic book was Flash (series 3) #50, which I picked up from the newsstand at the corner store (remember those?) after having fallen in love with The Flash Television Show. I was hooked on comics — the Flash especially — from that day on. For a long time, I survived on typical super-hero books, mostly by DC Comics. At the same time, I was playing a lot of the DC Heroes Role Playing Game by Mayfair Games. Among the many supplements for that game was one for the Watchmen. At the time, at 15 with no point of reference, I did not get it at all. I tossed it in a box, forgotten. But the seed was planted. Soon after, I was skimming through the monthly Science Fiction Book Club order book that arrived at my house. I always scoured the “Alterverse” section for comic books, novels based on games and other media properties, and the like. That day, I saw a hardcover, copy of Watchmen advertised. All I knew was that it was somehow related to the universe shared by Superman and Batman, so I ordered it. Four to six weeks later, my mind was blown. I read Watchmen once a year, and every time I find something I had not fully digested before. It speaks volumes about comics, about comics fans, about wish fulfillment, about sex, about dreams, about life. If ever there was a super-hero comic that could be called capital-L-Literature, this is it. That it inspired a decade of heinous anti-heroes and spiked leather is a testament to how powerful it is, in the same way that a decade of terrible derivative fantasy flooded the bookstores after the Lord of the Rings appeared. Speaking of…

 

3.) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit in sixth grade. It is still one of my all time favorite adventure stories. But (by design) that is all The Hobbit is, a fairy tale adventure for young readers that turned out so well written that it is satisfying for adults as well. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more. It is an adventure story (a Heroic story, to be more precise) but it is also a universe, a world so convincing that it has created a world around it here in our real world. The power of LotR is in its Truth (rather than its Reality). It was carefully crafted to speak to the deepest aspects of human nature, calling back to our oldest and most universal tales. That is was inspirational on everything from Star Wars to Dungeons and Dragons (both things I love) is just gravy. As a novel, LotR is a great work; as work of Literature, LotR is hugely important. It is also difficult. There are sections that drag, especially if one is looking for a fast paced adventure story. It’s most intricate and well crafted elements are woken subtly so that often scholarship, or at least very careful re-reading, is necessary to tease them out. It is long. It is very Male and very White. But these difficulties merely serve as obstacles in the quest to conquer it and make the prize at the end all that more rewarding.

 

4.) The DragonLance Chronicles and Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: Perhaps best described as the bastard child of Tolkien fandom and Dungeons and Dragons, DragonLance (DL hereafter) is stilted in its prose, cardboard in its characters, cliched in its plot and ham-fisted in its themes. Nonetheless, it is near and dear not just to my heart but to the hearts of millions of fantasy fans and gamers who came of age in the 1980s and beyond. We laughed when Bupu fell in love with Raistlin. We cried when Sturm and Flint died. We raged when Raistlin betrayed his brother and the Companions, and we cried again when he sacrificed himself to save all of Krynn. DragonLance was, for the 14 year old D&D fan, perfectly crafted and whatever its faults it is forever a part of those of us that discovered it at that perfect age.

 

5.) Incognito by David Eagleman: It is hard to overstate the impact this book had on me when it read it shortly after its release. It reveals so much about our minds and manages, ultimately, to only inspire more questions about who and what we are from a cognitive perspective. The idea than any of us could become a monster due to something as base and material as a brain tumor is terrifying. That we all see things we don’t realize we see and make judgments that we think are just “intuition” but are actually completely analytical decisions is inspiring. That there within each of us is a sort of internal council of Selves that are all Us, while all also being someone Else is mystifying. The machines locked in our skulls from which we emerge are the real Final Frontier and this book serves as a great introduction to if not understanding it, appreciating it.

 

6.) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: I have loved The Last Unicorn since I was a you child, enchanted by the beauty, whimsy and depth of the animated film. It spoke to me, through the Unicorn’s loneliness, through Schmendrick’s ambition, through Molly’s hope, through Prince Lir’s love and even through King Haggard’s desire to own all the magical things in the world. It is astounding, even to myself, that it took until this year for me to actually read the novel. It was one of those situations, like with, say, Fahrenheit 451, where my familiarity with it through other media and means told me that I did not need to read it, that I would not get much out of it. Perhaps I was even a little afraid that the book would be that rare creature that was worse than the beloved film. Whatever, the case, I avoided the novel, both actively and inactively, for decades. What a terrible mistake. Beagle’s prose is exquisite, a beauty unto itself. That the film hewed so close to the novel was a blessing, for I could immerse myself in the poetry of the language without suffering under the dissonance of trying to square the film I loved with the novel (imagine, if you will, a rabid fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies reading that novel for the first time!). Perhaps it is better that I discovered the novel so late: I think prose is a thing one appreciates more with age, especially if one is a writer oneself. In any case, The Last Unicorn is easily one of the most well written, most powerful novels I have ever read.

 

7.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy: If there is a novel more beautifully crafted than The Last Unicorn, it is The Road. While the film is good, the novel is a near perfect piece of fiction. It was the book I read that made me realize that, whatever I think of my own abilities as a storyteller or a wordsmith, I would never win a Pulitzer Prize because no haphazard combination of nouns and verbs I could throw together could ever hope to equal McCarthy’s prose in that book. Moreover, aside from the craft of the prose, the power and truth in the tale was overwhelming, arresting and at once uplifting and crushing. I do not know that I will ever read The Road again — as a man and a father it strikes so deeply into me I do not know if I could bear the terrible beauty of it again — but I will never forget it.

 

8.) The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe byGeorge Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier: I own and have read a lot of writing guides, especially those that focus on speculative fiction. This one is by far the best — not for its writing advice (it barely gives any at all), but for its comprehensive survey of science as it relates directly to science fiction. A lot of SF writing books talk about incorporating science and about making speculative science or magic consistent, but this book laid out actual science and then extrapolated. It suggested and also warned. In short, it was exactly what it said on the tin, and was superbly indexed to boot. Twenty years after having acquired it, even though some of the science has since been overturned, when I have an idea for a hard science fiction story, the first book I grab and peruse for inspiration and guidance is The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe.

 

9.) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: Any number of Clarke’s novels could have gone on this list. Clarke is, by far, my favorite science fiction author, especially among the hard science fiction authors, most because in his work he never forgets that he is talking about Us. There are strange worlds and aliens and objects in his stories, but there are also always people — recognizably human characters that act as we might even if they live a thousand years hence and a thousand light years away. The reason I chose Childhood’s End above, say, Rendezvous with Rama or The Light of Other Days (both of which I adore) is because Childhood’s End left me hurt and uncertain and flabbergasted. Some read the end of the book as an optimistic promise, and perhaps Clark himself meant it that way. But to me, the novel promised an unsatisfying end for our species, an extinction devoid even of the dramatic exit of a hurtling comet. Even the brainless dinosaurs deserved so much. In Childhood’s End, we simply faded away, relinquishing the definition of “human” to our progenitors, but suddenly and irrevocably. It is an existential novel, and one I recall whenever I see great injustice or stupidity commited by mankind.

 

10.) There are so many books vying for this last place, from the beautiful agony of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the the dense tension of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, from the wit and wisdom of Twain (pick any of them, though my favorite is Puddin Head Wilson) to the visceral, guttural magnetism of Beowulf. As one who possesses a degree in English Literature, I have been exposed to many, many great novels (and some not so great ones that continue to get read anyway). And as a fan of genre fiction, I have consumed a great many rotten apples (and some beautifully crafted works otherwise ignored because they had a dragon or rocket ship on the cover). In the end, what I realize is that all narrative prose, fiction or nonfiction, classical or fresh, literary or genre, has value. We are a species of stories, and while stories in the short form are often satisfying and powerful, only longer tales can delve the complexities of our nature. Our authors create worlds for us to experience, and by that experience we get a clearer sight into our own world and ourselves. So, my final “favorite” book is every book every written, for each one, no matter how terrible or how banal or how shallow, is a window into something of ourselves.

 

I want to thank Jeff L. for nominating me to do this. It was a pleasure, and a bit of a challenge, to really think about my favorite books, and why they are my favorites.