Tomb of Horrors, Players of Evil

May 27, 2013

This weekend, my group had the opportunity to try its hand at the classic D&D adventure, the Tomb of Horrors. While there’s a super-adventure for 4E that’s set years after the original adventure, I wanted to give my players a taste for old school bash-the-door-in-and-pray-you-don’t-die games, so I updated the original module for their level and kept all the traps, save-or-die situations, and general geekiness that is the original.

I’ll write a full article on everything that happened, but I did want to share some initial observations.

My players have been doing this campaign since the winter of 2009, but they haven’t played previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons and we don’t really have the chance to branch out into other games given our schedules. However, I’ve been lucky enough to play 3.0 and 3.5 D&D, Fireborn, a little Magic the Gathering, d6 Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and others. In a way, I wanted them to feel like they were part of a long tradition of gamers. Anyone who’s played through the Tomb of Horrors knows it’s a meat grinder. Making it out alive, or with most of your limbs, is an accomplishment.

Seeing as how the party is epic level now, I wanted to give them a taste of what it used to feel like to be so vulnurable.

This is a key part of the last few gaming sessions and levels I think is missing.

Do the players have fun? Oh yes.

Did they also enjoy a night of deadly rooms and tapestries trying to kill them? Oh yeah.

Like I said, they still have another week to go to get to the end, but so far, there are stories aplenty.

Just thought I’d let you know.

D&D Next Preview

November 20, 2012

We finally got a chance to go through a playtest session of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and I had a chance to take notes, see how my players worked with the new rules, and get a general feeling for how this new edition will or will not appeal to players.

In my head, however, I just kept screaming “SQUEEEE!”

The Set-Up

I’m part of the D&D Next playtest group, which means I get access to the new materials as they are designed and I, along with hundreds of others, report back what we feel about the new changes.

The new edition feels like a strange hybrid of 3.5 of 4E, a bit like what Pathfinder tried to do, but this one is much more streamlined and open-ended. If you want to skip the technical stuff, read on ahead, but for those who are wondering, here are some major changes from 4E to Next:

  • Class cherry-picking appears to be back. Players will be able to take levels in whatever classes they want instead of having to choose multiclass feats from a single class beside their starting class. This means your fighter/ rogue/ wizard rides again!
  • Backgrounds and Specialties, new optional rules, can provide minor abilities such as spellcasting, contacts, and military ranks.
  • Healing surges are gone, instead replaced with Hit Dice, a pool of dice you can roll throughout the day to regain hit points. Once you roll all your Hit Dice, you better rest for the night to regain them.
  • It seems the “standard pantheon” will be done away with. Clerics, for example, get special abilities based on the god they serve, but these are specifically designated as the Lightbringer, the Trickster, etc. Text indicates this is done so players can create their own pantheons.
  • Powers are gone, instead replaced with both maneuvers and spells. Martial characters like rogues and fighters get to choose from a set of maneuvers which cover everything from reactions, to attacks, to fighting styles, to weapon tricks. Maneuvers have virtually no restrictions aside from what class you have a level in when you can choose one. It seems you will be able to multiclass rogue/ fighter, for example, and get to pick from almost everything on the list. These abilities can be used at will.
  • Vancian spellcasting is back! Fans of older edition will remember the age-old question for clerics and wizards: “Have you prepared your spells today?” Spellcasters must once again prepare spells that are lost as soon as they are cast, but there are slight differences. Characters don’t get extra spells per day based on high ability scores. Instead, clerics become more spontaneous, gaining the ability to cast from a set pool they choose every day. They can cast one spell several times or cast several throughout the day until they run out. Wizards also have the option to choose spellcasting traditions to give them at-will spells they can cast as long as they wish.
  • Solo, elite, and minion monsters are gone.
  • There is an actual condition called “intoxicated,” once and for all eliminating the need to cherry-pick conditions when a player decides to hit the ol’ dwarven ale.
  • Defenses and attacks do not scale up, but hit points, hit dice, and skills do increase, albeit gradually. This means that low-level monsters can still be used at higher levels to function as “minions,” or one-shot-one-kill monsters.
  • One of the biggest changes, and the one Wizards of the Coast will help unite the varying factions pushing for AD&D, 3.5, and 4E, is the fact that the new system is modular. If you’re a fan of old-school, classic D&D, you simply play the game as is. If you want a 3.5 or even AD&D experience, you can bring in the specialties (feats, special abilities, etc), and powers. In essence, they’re broken up the  rules into distinct packages that DMs and players can choose to use to create the kind of game they wish.

Our party was 4th-level and consisted of a hafling fighter, an elven cleric of trickery, a dwarven wizard (academic tradition), and a human rogue.

Their names were, respectably, Chikis, Sadie Moon Blue, Vorg Hammertime, and Kent. Obviously, Kent was the freak in the group.

Now, for those interested in the way this all played out, here we go.

The Good

The game did away with powers and a lot of other crap and went back down to basics: adventuring. Since there are no more encounter powers, the adventure design philosophy went back to a day’s worth of adventures. That may seem academic, but think about it. You can no longer just rest and get your hit points back or get all your encounters again after a skirmish.

This makes adventuring more tactical and much more dangerous. When confronting a single low-level spellcaster and her thugs, the party made a few mistakes and the rogue wound up getting a shocking grasp to the face… and got knocked to 0 HP. After getting healed by the others, he had to contend with a handful of HP from his lone healing potion, his Hit Dice, and the protection of his comrades.

It was a sobering return to the days of clerics (AKA armored first aid kits) and healing potions, and it worked very well. Players knew they could no longer be reckless and just hope for everything to reset.It gave a slight edge over the 3.5 system, but it didn’t turn the PCs into walking hit point reservoirs like 4E.

The simplicity with the system is also a breath of fresh air. We’ve been playing 4E for almost four years now and the group is at 25th level and on its way to fighting gods, primordials, and horrors from Lovecraft’s nightmares, but even at low levels, DMing was a CHORE.

The new streamlined rules are closer to 3.5, but without the baggage or ten thousand monster special abilities. This doesn’t mean the flavor is gone. The orcs, for example, felt like brutes and powerhouses while the bandits still felt crafty, mobile, and sneaky.

One of the biggest changes, though, is the ability to do almost anything you wish with the new Contest rules. Want to flip that table over and knock someone off-balance? Make a Strength versus Dexterity check. Want to grab the guard’s sword in the middle of the fight? Trip someone? Push them? There are quick, easy rules for all of that. Plus, the new edition has the advantage/disadvantage rule. If conditions are very favorable (such as you having just thrown dirt in the orc’s eyes or having flipped said table over to knock someone off-balance), you can roll your d20 twice and use the best result. If, however, you have unfavorable conditions (you’re drunk or just happened to be set on fire before trying to concentrate), you roll twice and take the lower one. It’s a quick, easy way to handle modifiers.

The Bad

There are only four classes out right now (five including the recently-added monk), and the classes only go up to level 10 for the playtest. This, however, is a product of the system still being in development, so it’s forgivable.

My biggest gripe, however, is with the way skills and damage don’t scale up. I foresee a major problem like with 3.5 wherein the players will beat on an enemy for an hour and still only deal a small amount of damage relative to Hit Points. This damage progression was fixed in 4E, but there isn’t anything like it in the new edition. Maneuvers and high-level spells might offset it, though, so we’ll see.

The fragmenting of skills is another. For example, was there a big push to make Knowledge: Heraldry, History, and Warfare skills? Any need to split Perception into four skills: Spot, Listen, Track, and Search? That was one of the nice fixes with the last edition.

Some classes also feel much less adaptable. Without a solid set of at-will powers, wizards and clerics can easily find themselves at a loss once all their spells are expended whereas fighters adn rogues can keep regenerating their maneuvers.

The Verdict

Overall, much more good than bad. The new edition is still in its early stages and things are changing all the time. For example, last month, they released the initial drafts of the sorcerer and warlock builds… and promptly took them back after a huge negative reaction in order to retool them.

At the end of the day, it’s like they took the lessons learned from 4th edition on ease of play and applied them to the customizability of 3.5 while streamlining the whole system. Some parts, like the skills, still feel very clunky, but since this edition is being playtested by fans BEFORE release, I’m somewhat hopeful that the final product will fix most of these problems.

And now, as promised, a few picks from our game. Have fun, and I’ll see you around.

Fired, Broke, and Beaten… Best Thing Ever

Seriously. That thing annoys the crap out of me.

November 9, 2012

Four years ago, I was in Washington DC, working as a speechwriter. I was working 50+ hours a week but making decent money. I was also freelancing on the side to help pay off the debt I’d incurred moving to DC. I was staying with a friend in Indiana who was kind enough to open the door for me while I found a job, but had to leave after only one week. The job started literally the day after I arrived and managed to find a place to live. I was stressed, lonely, and barely slept, but I was prepared to work even harder to be the best I could be and make my mark and possibly a new career…

Then… things happened. And I was $3,000 down, jobless, and had to pack what few belongings I had left into my car and drive and hope for the best. Longest 40 hours of my life.

Now, I’m making less than a third of my former salary…

But I met the love of my life upon returning to Laredo, I have a job with two bosses that I respect, teach children how to write using Mythbusters and Batman, have the time to write and do what makes me happy, started, and have a kick-ass D&D group. And did I mention my AWESOME wife?

All I’m saying is… plans change. The world kicks you in the tender spots. You know what? Get drunk. Cry. Meet up with friends and tear it up. Pack everything up and drive through snow and hope you don’t die… and when you get to your next destination… well, you never know.

Someone asked me upon returning, “What are you going to do now?” I just said, “Start over. What else is there to do?”

I guess as I sit here editing Charcoal Streets and reading the news for a new video for Monday, I look over at my wife working on her graduate studies, translating a new document, and I can’t believe I might have missed all this. I might have missed her.

Just four years ago, the world seems simple and difficult. Now, it’s still difficult, and I may not be making the kind of money I was making before, but I’m happy. Plus, I get to prove that I can bounce back from something like that and make the people who doubted me eat crow.

What more could I possibly want?

Oh right! We’re going to watch Mister Bean, Parks and Recreation, and Star Trek and drink Blue Moon later. WORLD. GOT. EVEN. BETTER.

Gaming, the Writer, and the Great Mirror

Mary plays a dragonborn. Manny, our new player, gave her a little Charizard toy. Said toy is now her marker on the board. Here's Mary's dragonborn encased in a block of ice because she failed tow saving throws. Any questions?

May 1, 2012

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about tabletop gaming. It’s no surprise, seeing as how “Elves with Shotguns” is just about ready to hit RPGNow. However, I’ve also been thinking about my experience in RPGs. In a way, I can chronicle my journey through gaming the same way I chronicle my journey through writing.

My first character was a runethane named Seth. He was curious about everything (much like me since I was new to the game), and used words to cast his magic. Writing and runes were his power source. This echoes my own mentality that writing was an important, if not vital, aspect of everyday life. However, Seth was also a very squishy mage. Two or three hits and Seth went down faster than Lindsay Lohan trying to get into a nightclub.

Seth was a reflection of how I saw myself. I was fairly new, and while I was proud of my early accomplishments, I knew I could do better.

Ancient rune magic. by ~KypcaHT on deviantART

My next character had no name. He was simply called the Envoy, a warrior with a purpose. He was a soldier through and through, flexible enough to fling razor-tipped darts before unsheathing a sword and going to town on the enemy or either beat a prisoner into submission or scare the information out of him. He even got the kill-shot on an elemental after having been poisoned for much of the fight. All in all, a good sophomore try, but he was tough and boisterous and lacked the subtlety of Seth.

Likewise, my early forays into writing left me with a bruised ego, so I overcompensated in some ways. I wanted the writing to be tougher, grittier, but it only lost the little elements that I enjoyed inserting into my work.

Next came Jareth, a half-elf rogue who could do a lot of things… he just wasn’t that great at any of them. One running gag with my group was that it was better to have me try and lock something than to try and open it. Because I rolled so low, it was just assumed that instead of unlocking treasure chests, I had somehow just put an extra lock on it. Yeah. That bad.

Jareth represents the evolution from enthusiastic to hard-headed and then to jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I had to find the right balance…

Next came Pommel, my warforged fighter. Resolute to not fall into the trap of the meat shield again, I built him to fit the world: this was an evil campaign. He was strong and tough but had some smarts. He wasn’t reckless… except for that level of barbarian that let him rage. Pommel was controlled chaos. He was simple but effective in what he did, and he could be versatile if the need arose.

After realizing I couldn’t do everything as a writer, I did something similar. I started specializing, but I never forgot to pick bits and pieces from here and there to supplement my work. Every writer needs to read poetry, news, and memoirs even if he or she only writes novels. Likewise, a fighter could always benefit from a level of wizard and barbarian.

warforged by ~monkesso on deviantART

Finally, we get to my latest character: Wren the warlock. Wren was very much a hard-hitter. He was a striker. He did the most with the least. He also had that bit of versatility I’d come to embrace in Pommel. He could cast ritual magic aside from blasting things at long range. He was also personable and could handle himself in social situations if need be, but there was nothing that said he wouldn’t pick a pocket if it got him.

Wren embodies my most current attitude towards writing. I write short articles like this, but I also have learned to say the most with the least in everything from Charcoal Streets to the upcoming gaming book. I read news, journals, poetry, and anything else that seems interesting if only to be exposed to new writing styles and keep mine from getting stale. Of course, I don’t doubt my writing and gaming will change. It’s just interesting to me how each stage can get represented by a character form that time period.

And now, back to making prints and proofreading the final chapters.

See you soon. Oh, and feel free to share your own gaming stories below. How do your characters represent you? Or are they reflections of what you wish you could be?

While you ponder that, please enjoy two and a half minutes of sheer nergasmic joy.

Learning How to Spell 10: Characters are Trees

It took years of research to bring characters such as these to life... not the ones in the pic. I mean REAL characters.

April 10, 2012

Characters are funny.

I’ve been writing since I was in fourth grade. And by that I mean stories, not just writing in general. I can’t for the life of me remember the names of any of my early characters, but I can certainly remember the ideas and images that made e want to use them. Characters, I found out early enough, need to be able to breathe. They must feel real and alive.

A character does whatever a character does.

I found this out playing Dungeons and Dragons, too. Most monsters are faceless and nameless thugs, thieves, demons, and occasionally fey who are there to provide a good combat challenge. For the big dogs, though, the characters that become recurring villains, I have to do a little more work. The same thing goes for Charcoal Streets. I need to sit down and figure out what makes these guys tick. Once I do that, I can put them in a situation and see what they do.

It’s an interesting thought exercise, but it’s not something out of reach for most people. If you don’t have time to make up your own characters, try to figure out what two established characters would do in a situation. What would happen if you put Richard Riddick in a maze trap designed by Jigsaw? All the people he could just let die and not care… but what WOULD make someone like that care? How could you raise the stakes?

Epic battle by ~Kalopz on deviantART

When I designed my current D&D campaign’s primary villain, I set to make her something that would resonate with everyone and just let the interactions color future installments.

Her name is Keyleth Greymoon. She was a paladin of light until her xenophobia and paranoia made her leave her unti with several dozen soldiers in an attempt to gather power to “properly protect” her realm. This included trying to free a fallen angel and killing every non-fey in an isolated valley.

At first, she was just a xenophobe. She was particularly sickened by our half-elf rogue whom she called a half-human and, infamously for my players, a “half-breed bitch.”

Two and a half years later and they’re still steamed at her about that.

Weapon 119 by ~Random223 on deviantART

And that’s when I knew I’d made a memorable character. The line was ad-libbed. It sounded like something Keyleth would say, but it struck such a chord among my friends, all of whom abhor any sort of racism or elitism, that Keyleth is still around and the mere mention of her makes their skin boil. There are other incidents, but they all started with a few background notes.

I have similar notes for the characters of Charcoal Streets. Miguel, Carmen, Luz, Father Flores… if you think I don’t know their favorite drinks, hobbies, and hang-outs. You’re sadly mistaken. I know why Carmen prefers Glock pistols. I know what Father Flores’ tattoo means. I know why Miguel lives in that crappy apartment.

It’s all in the details, in the little things that nudge a character. Make sure you know what your characters do. Let them breathe. Let them have a drink, a smoke, and go to bed with whatever or whomever they want.

Characters are trees. You can’t tell where the branches will go. Just let them grow.

And now, until the next post, please enjoy dumb people this month.

Randomology: The RPG

This is your soul. This is me playing with your soul. Any questions?

September 9, 2011

Anyone who’s ever gamed with me more than once knows I like to mix it up. When the players are looking for a rogue Star Destroyer, they discover it’s actually an old derelict found and mostly patched up by the Hutts. Great! The guns work just fine, though…

Oh, so you’re in the Nine Hells in search of an artifact needed to seal a planar rift in the kingdom? Awesome. And you made a deal with a devil to fight in a tournament for it? Okay… and on the opposing team is one of the player character’s mom? Uhm, okay, things just got complicated. 

It’s been a long few days, but while looking through my old files, I dug up this little “Welcome Packet” for my players in a modern horror campaign. We were using the d20 Modern system, Shadow Chasers setting, and I wrote this as an in-game packet they get upon entering service with Department-7. Basically, the heroes are pseudo-government agents tasked with finding and containing supernatural threats. Think X-Files, but with more magic and no aliens. And more shotguns. 

Anyway, I thought it would give a glimpse into why so many of my players develop an slightly stronger paranoia than the average player. Some of these are Murphy’s Rules of Combat, and the others were adapted from an old list I found in a forum many years ago. I take no credit for much of this, just putting it together. 

And if you have time, check out this little quiz I put together on Facebook a few years ago. I’m curious what you guys get. 

Call of Cthulhu: Beings of Ib by *Cryptcrawler on deviantART

From: Director Lewis Alanor

The Ten Commandments of Shadow Hunting

Shadow is a mysterious and little-understood property of the world, either a realm or a subset of our own where creatures of myth and magic reside. Throughout the ages, Shadow has come and gone like a tide. Over the last two hundred years, we seem to be in “high tide.” Agents of Department-7 should mind these commandments in order to maximize their time with the agency, as well as extend their own lives.

1) Keep It Secret

“How can we expect another to keep our secret if we cannot keep it ourselves?”

-Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld

We hire unique individuals for Department-7 because they have shown their resilience at interacting with the supernatural and strange. Though we have other field agents knowledgeable in Shadow lore and its denizens, most people will be outright driven mad by the sights and horrors of the world beneath the one they see.

Additionally, agents for various cults and hostile organizations live everywhere, and we cannot be sure who they are until they strike. As such, keep all connections to Department-7 a secret. Do not pass along the knowledge of Shadow to the uninitiated.

For this reason, we demand you keep your true motives concealed from those who should not know. Of course, there may come a time when a small number of local law enforcement may need to know, though be careful. Most will think you are insane when you start talking of Shadow. Be prepared to many breathalyzer tests.

2) Stay Together

“An army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!”

-General George S. Patton

Put simply, trust your teammates and work as a unit. No one agent can do all the things needed to combat Shadow, but a team can bring a myriad of resources together. Some are adept at occult studies. Others are trained military personal. Still others know how to run a good con. All skills will come in handy. Make no mistake about it. You never know what you’ll need on the field.

Private Investigation by ~hewsan on deviantART


3) Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure

“Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.”

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Before doing something irrevocable, make sure you have no other choice. Ammunition may be replenished, but life cannot. Time is limited, so act when you must. Cry over fallen comrades later.

4) Always Have a Plan

“What I plan is driven by those earlier failed.”

-Robert Burns

Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. While a bad plan may get everyone killed or committed to a sanitarium, the lack of a plan always will. When investigating a Shadow manifestation, every member of the team should have a clear idea of what will be expected of him or her during the investigation. If possible, a backup plan should also be available. When possible, a backup backup plan should also be on the table. If one member of the team is especially important to the success of the investigation, make sure he or she is safe at all times; don’t leave them alone in the cellar, don’t take a nap while they read some awful eldritch book, and don’t let them experiment with strange talismans.

5) Scout

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

-President Woodrow Wilson

Before risking an encounter, make sure someone has scouted the area. Doing a bit of research into local history can be quite effective. Careful survey of all the evidence is vital. Remember: knowledge is power. One of the surest ways to be killed by Shadow is to run in with no information about possible escapes, numbers of hostiles, and other such vital information.

While those silver bullets might be toxic to certain creatures, they’ll do next to nothing against the more ancient evils of the world.

Glock and Hissatsu by ~MrPorter on deviantART


6) Know your tactics and weapons

“Cannon to the right of them,/ Cannon to the left of them,/ Cannon in front of them,/ Volley’ed and thundered.”

-“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson

A firearm is a useful tool, handy in opening jammed locks, an excellent way to signal a comrade, or useful in attracting the attention of local authorities. When confronted with unruly locals, nonchalant display of a firearm can often effect quick cooperation. A gun has a wide assortment of uses; no Department-7 team should be without one. Shotguns and submachine guns are available upon request. C4 and other demolition packs may be given at the Agency’s discretion.

Also be conscious of other methods of combat, such as hand-to-hand and perhaps knife-fighting.

However, keep in mind the enemy may also have firearms, and in larger calibers. They are also not shy about massive collateral damage or friendly fire. Local law enforcement also rarely enjoys firefights in the middle of town.

7) Know Your Enemy

“Theory should be study, not doctrine.”

– Carl von Clausewitz

Use all forms of media as research tools. Books, movies, and the television news can all give clues and information about the weaknesses, powers and whereabouts of the enemy. Know the sign of Shadow creatures, but do not expect that something which worked on the late show will work against real-life monsters. Folklore is filled with varying accounts of the types of creatures you can expect to find, but don’t rely on hearsay. Always keep an open mind.

“Whisperer in Darkness” by *WhiteStains on deviantART


8) Things Are Not Always as They Seem

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

-Albert Einstein

Many people and creatures of Shadow know they must stay hidden. Despite their power, they are too few in number to act freely. As such, be wary of anyone you encounter over the course of an investigation. Almost anyone could be a worshipper or agent of Shadow.

Don’t trust your own eyes. The power of illusion is rare, though not unheard of.

Never trust someone close to the case. They’re close to the case for a reason.

However, be wary of dreams and portents. The psychic turmoil of Shadow can touch anyone. Chicken entrails and tea leaves, however, are always unreliable.

9) Never Give Up

“One who has health has hope, and one who has hope has everything.”

-Arabic proverb

Inexperienced agents commonly give up when it appears victory is impossible. Dedicated scholars never cease action, no matter how hopeless matters seem. Never overlook the obvious, recheck your data, and do more research. If things still look bleak, try random approaches to defeating the menace. No matter how bad it seems, it can get much worse if you give up. Don’t go poking sticks into wasps’ nests unless you are prepared to finish the job. Our brothers and sisters in arms are all that stand between Earth and Shadow.

10) Be Prepared

“Once a man’s will is set, he need no longer rely on others or expect anything from the world. His vision encompasses Heaven and Earth, past and present, and the tranquility of his heart is undisturbed.”

-Yoshida Shoin

This goes much further than just bringing along extra rope or ammunition. Before starting an expedition, do research on the subject, find out any legends about the area which may give helpful clues; with access to ancient tomes, you may stumble across a vital clue. When ready to confront the menace, consider the hardware needed. Take anything which sounds even remotely useful, but does not burden or impede movement. Spare handgun magazines are lighter than carrying a gun for every scenario. Remember, you must try to blend in as well as be an efficient Department-7 Agent.

Bullets by ~AlexBridgez on deviantART

Other rules suggestions from various agents throughout the years are also important, though more specific than we would have liked for the purposes of this list. Some go a bit far and forget about the subtlety Department-7 agents are expected to show. However, learn and abide them.

  1. If the enemy is in range, so are you.
  2. Incoming fire has the right of way.
  3. Keep your affairs in order, just in case.
  4. Don’t look conspicuous: it draws fire.
  5. There is always a way.
  6. The easy way is always booby-trapped.
  7. Try to look unimportant; they may be low on ammo.
  8. Professionals are predictable; it’s the amateurs that are dangerous.
  9. The enemy only attacks on one of two occasions: when you’re ready for them, and when you’re not ready for them.
  10. The enemy diversion you have been ignoring will be the main attack.
  11. Don’t draw fire; it irritates the people around you.
  12. If it’s stupid but works, then it isn’t stupid.
  13. Never enter a dark room with anyone braver than you.
  14. Anything you do can get you shot. Including doing nothing.
  15. Make it too tough for the enemy to get in and you can’t get out.
  16. Explosives are equal opportunity weapons.
  17. A good citation on your record just proves you were smart enough to think of a plan, stupid enough to try it, and lucky enough to survive.
  18. If you’re short of everything but the enemy, you’re out in the field.
  19. The important things are always simple.
  20. The simple things are always hard.
  21. When both sides are convinced that they are about to lose, they are both right.
  22. If in doubt, empty the magazine.
  23. Overkill works.

The Luck o’ the Skittish

It's real because I say so.

June 15, 2011

Careful readers may have noted how I tend to knock on people who hold outrageous beliefs for the sake of tradition or comfort. Think gays are committing a sin by loving and existing because the Bible says so? Do you think that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles despite the Bible being entirely opposite to what the Bill of Rights guarantees?

Guess what? You’re a moron for ignoring reality.

On the other hand, it’s comforting to believe in something that has no basis in reality. It’s yours. It’s personal. Conspiracy theorists work this way. They see themselves at the center of some unimaginable tangle of powerful beings and organizations that can somehow control everything from the political landscape, to the progress of technology, and yet cannot catch these desktop detectives as they unravel the web of deceit.

And yet you and I are much too smart for that, right?

Well, I got to thinking…

Tempting fate by ~jsings on deviantART

How different is superstitious thinking from fanatical religious thinking? Not that far off. We had people who believed, who genuinely believed, the world was going to end last month. Some people, even if not religious themselves, will cross themselves before entering a Catholic church, just in case. My sister refuses to shuffle cards a certain way when we play poker because it will disrupt her card-ma.

Yes, “card-ma.” Her word, I swear to Bob.

I have a Dungeons and Dragons player who insists her dice rolls don’t count if the die touches an object before it comes to a standstill. While I don’t think she really believes it, she insists that touching another object throws her off. In fact, gamers are finicky when it comes to their dice. Some dice are just “lucky.” Of course, gaming dice aren’t tested for balance like casino dice, so there very well might be lucky and unlucky dice.

Everyone’s done these sorts of things, and I tend to laugh when I see them or hear about them.

I believe in chance and choice. I believe there are things I can and cannot control. The things I cannot control are the events that are beyond my grasp, the choices others make, and the totality of existence. I can’t tell lightning where to strike. I can’t make others think what I want them to think. I can’t luck out and hope a publisher sees my work online and offers me a contract.

love is chaos by ~parasite3 on deviantART

I can, however, choose to not stand out during a lightning storm while wearing a tin foil hat. I can learn how to put together a coherent argument and make my point as persuasively as possible. I can make my work the best possible and look for ways to advertise and get the word out.

There is nothing that says charms, spells, or even good luck rituals work for us, and yet so many of us really do cling to these beliefs. I know someone’s going to fire back with, “But that’s the die I used when I slew the vampire king! It’s lucky!” or “I was wearing this shirt when I met the love of my life. It’s my lucky shirt.”

Well, show me the study where we discovered luck. Show me equations. Prove to me that our lives and random events around said lives are controlled by invisible force fields and I’ll eat my words!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do laundry and make sure I have my gaming shirt for this Saturday. When I wear my Star Wars shirt, I KILL!

Old school gaming by ~Kiaaaa on deviantART

And now, for your viweing pleasure, links.

  • And finally, I have to say that while I’ve never heard of or tried this beer, this commercial alone makes me want to do it. it’s over the top, obviously conscious of its own absurdity, but it owns it like a boss. Enjoy, and I’ll see you Friday.

How Dungeons and Dragons Made Me a Better Teacher

All DMs think they're God... Also, thanks to my beautiful fiancé for the image!

April 11, 2011

I’ve been gaming since the fall of 2004. I’ve played a mage, a rogue, a fighter, a half-elf, human, a gunslinger, a warlock, a Rebel Alliance pilot, a dragon, a demigod, and everything in between. It’s been a fun ride. At the same time, on a subconscious level, I’ve become a better teacher thanks to my years as a Game Master in various games from modern supernatural thrillers to campy fantasy adventures.

Sound weird? Let me explain.

Let the Rogue Shine

Every player likes to work a different way. Some players like to negotiate and interact with the Non-Player Characters (NPCs). Others like to solve puzzles and figure out mysteries. Still more like to get right to the battles and get their hands dirty. Giving each player a chance to do what he or she loves is a great way to keep interest high and make sure people leave satisfied.

In a classroom, I look for the students that like to answer questions. I make them team leaders. I once had a young student who liked to doodle in my journalism class. I made her cartoonist for the newsletter we were putting together and she never looked happier. I had a student once who liked to talk more than write and couldn’t figure out how to write his essay, so I told him to tell me everything he needed to say. When he was done, I showed him the outline I’d written just from what he said, and from that, he was able to finish.

Decisions by ~pezton22 on deviantART

Follow the Bouncing Bard

Looking for that player or two that likes to go ahead sword swinging is a good way to lead the rest of the party into the right direction for the story. More than once, I’ve had a situation where one player dictated the rest of the group’s actions because of experience or sheer personality. Our current fighter is clashing with our new wizard, but getting one to decide on a course of action is a good way to get the party moving as one.

In a classroom, I look for the ones that like to talk and answer and, if I have a few of them, I’ll have group activities where these students will help lead the others. I don’t have to move the entire class. I just have to nudge a few people the others will follow. Yeah, it’s Machiovellian, but it works.

Dice Stacking

It’s a well-known fact that the number of dice your players stack is a good indicator of how engaged they are with your story. If you ever see them actually stack all seven standard die, check to make sure you’re actually at the table and not a hallucination.

In a classroom, it’s good to know the subtle signs of boredom. Leaning on your arm is not enough. That could just be normal sleepiness. Kids that move their feet a lot are a good indication of boredom. The smart ones may try to look engaged, but if you see feet moving, they’re restless. They couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, and if they do, they’re only paying attention for the grade.

Crayel Nero by *dagger3000 on deviantART

When We Last Met Our Heroes…

The best games are the ones that have continuing stories. The renegade elves moved this way and entered the dungeon. After following them into the depths of the earth, you find that they not only want an artifact of great power, but they seek to summon an angel of destruction. After dispatching the elves, the angel is still summoned and you must stop it from entering the Shadowfell and reclaiming its full power so it can cut a path of death across the land.

Linked stories build on the world on the game…

In the classroom, linking each lesson to the last is important to avoid to the inevitable, “What does this have to do with anything?” question. Well, lesson one showed you how to put an introduction and thesis statement together. Lesson two shows how to use that thesis statement to outline your body paragraphs. Lesson three shows you how to use the body paragraphs to summarize everything in your conclusion and how the thesis should still guide every part.

It’s all about running a scenario and making sure everyone gets what they want and what they need. If you plan it right, pretty soon what they want and what they need turn out to be the same thing.

No links today. It’s been a long… LONG weekend. More fun stuff on Wednesday, though. Thanks for reading, and keep sharing Randomology links!

Dungeons and Dragons Goodness by *candypalmer on deviantART

Learning How to Spell 6: Music Soothes the Beast

February 14, 2010

You are about to enter another dimension... of SOUND!

Writer’s block is the kick of the junk that keeps pressing down harder after the initial hit.

Many writers have different cures for it. Mario Martinez, a collegue, suggests a stiff drink and some James Brown. Other authors take walks or exercise or just do anything else to get their minds off writing.

Personally, I think these are all great options. Who couldn’t use a little James Brown to funk up their mojo?

However, there’s something I believe works better than all of these if you’re determined to keep writing no matter how much your eyes bleed.


Think about it. We associate music with almost every part of our lives. A friend of mine quoted “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls and I was instantly reminded of middle school computer class where I would put my headphones on and listen to the Dizzy Up the Girl album while I worked. Whenever I hear songs from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, I’m instantly taken back to my time in Washington DC as I walked around the Capitol on my lunch break and thought of all the hypocrisy I saw on a daily basis. Joy Division brings to mind the first time I read James O’Barr’s The Crow back in college.

I have entire playlists for different projects. I have one for Charcoal Streets and various other ones for different projects. One playlist is even for planning Dungeons and Dragons games.

And it’s not just about finding music that references whatever you’re trying to do. And it’s not about looking for lyrics to match. Let’s go over a few examples, shall we?

Don’t let the music escape by *JacobRM on deviantART

Charcoal Streets

It would be easy to just put a bunch of music specifically from the border. I could get country and cumbias and call it a day. After all, that’s the music commonly heard around here, but it wouldn’t be music that matches the tone of the piece. For example, in “Call the Baptist,” I used Joy Division’s “Disorder.”

The lyrics, I felt, match Father Flores’ moral dilemma, but I also wanted a song that harkened back to 80’s punk and rebellion, highlighting Flores’ unorthodox style.

For Carmen, I figure she’s more of a traditional girl, a real native, so I play a cover of “O Death” whenever I try to picture her mannerisms. The song is a little country, but it’s also a modern take on an old Western classic. The lyrics fit her beautifully, I think, since she really is the embodiment of Death in Via Rosa: uncaring, callous, and cold. That being said, the people she targets may be drug dealers, pimps, and killers, and she is still murdering people, and sometimes that comes back to haunt her.

Dungeons and Dragons

Amateur Dungeon Masters might instantly go for movie soundtracks from films like Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, or similar movies.

In truth, doing so really misses the opportunity to play with expectations.

Aside from music by Nox Arcana, Midnight Syndicate, X-Ray Dog, and Immediate Music, I like to play some modern pieces for battle sequences. Bands like Demon Hunter, Otep, and Disturbed have the heavy rock to compliment a fast-paced fight while bands such as Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Lacuna Coil have combinations of rock and strings that not only sound epic, but very fantasy-oriented.

For example, there is a recurring villain, a renegade elven paladin named Keyleth Greymoon, who always presents a challenge to the players. I have one particular piece of music I play whenever they fight her. It’s “I60 BPM,” By Hans Zimmer. The combination of chorus and bells invokes the mystery and grace this enemy uses to her advantage whenever my players fight her. The song goes between extremes, one moment ethereal and the next moment hard and fast, just like her movements through the battlefield.


I have a series of science fiction short stories that I’d like to start writing again once I finish Charcoal Streets in a few months. The series is called Endeavors and covers humanity’s future history over the next thousand years. Some stories are set in the very near future while the longer pieces are set in the 32nd century.

My first impulse was to make a playlist with electronic and classical music to show the contrasts in society.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Right now, the playlist has everything from Chevelle to Credence Clearwater Revival. The stories focus on people who will leave Earth and explore space. They’re not the crew of the Enterprise, but neither are they brigands and space pirates. They’re scientists, pilots, real people who have real problems. A few classical pieces remain, but for the most part, the soundtrack has few electronic pieces and instead spreads out over a very wide range of music.

The one piece that I always listen to when I want to get inspired, though, is Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes.” The main point in the stories is that you can’t run away from what you’ve done. No matter where you go, you’ll find yourself. The song’s got the kind of build up and mood I want to create with this SF collection.

Remember that writing is not just about the words on the page. Inspiration comes from everywhere. That’s why I wrote that you need a notebook at all times. Write a song you hear that evokes unique images. Make a note to look up a word you heard that seems alien but could benefit you.

Learn to embrace all your senses and you’ll become more than just a writer. You’ll become a storyteller.

Music by ~mrsnikkisixx on deviantART

And now for some links to get your week started!

  • Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite authors. in fact, he’s the writer that helped me decide I too wanted to write, and now here is perhaps his shortest story, dug up from the archives. It’s quote striking.  Additionally, it’s a great example of flash fiction.
  • And finally, during our weekly D&D game, someone bough ChocoVine, a chocolate-infused red wine mocked during Ellen. Curiosity beat us to it and we tried it out. The music in the background is what I had on as we played D&D. The reactions are real and… just watch.