Free Story – Springtime

I tried to write a positive, uplifting story. I really tried.

But there’s been something about March this year that has my thoughts taking a dark turn.

This month’s free story is called Springtime. It’s not what you might expect from the title, though it is the story that was in my head and needed to come out.

This was another one of those that came to me fully formed and my fingers could barely type fast enough to get it all out.

I hope you enjoy.

Writing Update – March 2017

I’m going to change up the order of my updates this month to highlight the biggest news first.

Tales of the Undying Empire

The Kindle Omnibus Edition of the first three novels in the Tales of the Undying Empire series is now live at Amazon!

I’ve priced this Omnibus so that you get all three novels for the price of two if you bought them separately.

The files for the print version of the Tales of the Undying Empire Omnibus Edition have been submitted, and I’m just waiting on final approval from Amazon for it to go live. I expect this will be available for order by the end of this coming week.

The print edition took a lot of work to produce the final product. At 728 pages in a 6” x 9” format, this is a hefty volume. But I’m very happy with the finished book, and I’m excited to see what others think of it.

The Traitor and the Thief

Now that Tales of the Undying Empire is complete, I’m going back to the manuscript for The Traitor and the Thief for another pass. I expect this will take about a month before I’m done and it goes off for editing.

Short Stories

The response to Inheritance last month was amazing. I received a number of comments from readers who told me that it really connected with them, and it has been my most popular story by far.

I’ve been playing around with a few ideas for this month’s short story, but it’s not quite finished yet and I don’t want to promise something that I can’t deliver. So I’ll just say that it’ll be my first post of Spring, and it reflects some of the themes of this time of year.

As mentioned last month, I’m about to start dedicating time to the first of the Kaus Kagunvar short stories, The Broken Temple of Yinak. I expect to have it ready for posting in April.

Origin

Once I complete The Broken Temple of Yinak, and after I finish the next pass through The Traitor and the Thief, I’ll be dedicating a week or two to evaluate Origin and see what needs to be done to get it ready for publishing. However, my primary commitment is to complete the Undying Empire: Rebellion trilogy in a reasonable timeframe. So while I’m going to spend a bit of time on this, if I see that it’s going to take some real effort to get it out, then it’ll bump down the list while I focus on The Revenant and the Reaper.

The Revenant and the Reaper

This is the third book in the Undying Empire: Rebellion trilogy and I’m really looking forward to diving into this one. My plan is to start writing this book in early May, and I’m making some adjustments to my weekly writing schedule to get more time in front of the keyboard. So I’m aiming to get the first draft of the manuscript completed by Hallowe’en at the latest.

That’s it for this month. If you haven’t read any of the Tales of the Undying Empire novels yet, don’t forget to check out the Tales of the Undying Empire Omnibus Edition.

See you next week.

The One Ring is a Work of Art

No one can deny the influence that J.R.R. Tolkien has had on the fantasy genre. Many of the elements from his books have become genre tropes that dominated novels for decades. There are countless books that include Tolkien versions of elves, dwarves, and hobbits (though they might be called halflings, or little people, or some other non-copyrighted variation).

Tolkien-esque tropes also dominated fantasy roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons, the biggest game by far, incorporated most of those genre elements, and there have been many, many imitators since then.

And yet, despite the popularity of Tolkien’s writings, there haven’t been very many licensed roleplaying games through the years.

The first, and longest-running, was the Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) game that was published from 1984 through 1999 by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE). This game used their house system, Rolemaster, which was a poor fit for Middle Earth, but their success was based on the hunger of gamers for official Tolkien RPG products.

The next company to produce a game based in Middle Earth was Decipher. This was published in 2002 and was intended to capture renewed interest in Tolkien’s world from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. This was a short-lived game, with just seven published books over two years before the line was cancelled.

Which leads us to The One Ring Roleplaying Game, published by Cubicle 7. Originally published in 2011 as The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, a revised core rulebook was released in 2014.

There is no doubt that The One Ring (a.k.a. TOR) is love letter to Middle Earth. Using rules developed specifically to support playing through the kinds of stories that Tolkien himself wrote, Cubicle 7 has managed to publish a game that actually feels like Middle Earth.

The-One-Ring-Art2

Mysterious Magic: Unlike the in-your-face magic of games like D&D, magic in Middle Earth is subtle and mysterious. A common question by new players of the game is “Where is the magic-section of the rulebook?” but magic is embedded in the various races and cultures. It’s internal, rather than external. There are no rules for playing Gandalf or others of his ilk, as player characters are intended to reflect special individuals caught up in grand events, in the vein of Bilbo and Frodo, Boromir and Faramir, Gimli and Legolas.

Emotional Tone: Characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of attributes and skills. Middle Earth can be a dark place, and this often takes an emotional toll on its heroes. Hope and despair are key thematic elements in the games, and this is reflected in a character’s Hope score, which can be used to keep the character moving when faced with adversity and shadow.

Fellowship: A group of player characters in The One Ring are more than just a collection of adventurers who happen to travel together. The characters are expected to form a Fellowship, which represents friendship, loyalty, and trust. Their Fellowship score provides points that can be used to regain Hope (turning to your friends in times of need can help you overcome despair), and special abilities that the party can use to overcome adversity.

The-One-Ring-Art1

Journeys: Much of Tolkien’s stories involve great travel by the books protagonists. Many games gloss over travel, perhaps simply including a random encounter chart or something similar. But travel is an essential part of any game set in Middle Earth, and so they developed a set of rules to make travel a more interesting part of the adventure. It’s not just the destination that’s important in The One Ring, it’s also the journey.

Corruption: The forces of darkness don’t rely solely on physical threats. Both Boromir and King Theoden found themselves under the influence of Shadow at various points in The Lord of the Rings, and the rules reflect how this can affect the player characters. From the book, “Adventurers accumulate Shadow points to represent the growing burden of grief, doubt, weariness and self-interest that comes to rest on the hearts and minds of those who oppose the Shadow.”

Since its release, there have been a number of fantastic sourcebooks published by Cubicle 7 for this game.

  • Ruins of the North: A collection of six great adventures for the game.
  • Adventurer’s Companion: New cultures and callings, and expansions to some areas of the game.
  • Horse-Lords of Rohan: Expands the game to include a new region that is quite different from those in the North.
  • Erebor: The Lonely Mountain: Expands the game into this region of Middle Earth.
  • Rivendell: A guide to the people and places of this area in Middle Earth.
  • Tales from Wilderland: A collection of seven fantastic adventures.
  • The Darkening of Mirkwood: A thirty-year campaign that starts in 2947 with the first hints of the returning shadow and ends in 2977 with the death of King Bard. This is an epic book that provides an entire campaign for the players to run through.
  • The Heart of the Wild: A guide to Mirkwood and the Vales of Anduin.

And there are other great products, such as custom dice, a Loremaster’s Screen, map collections, etc.

The-One-Ring-Art3

Conclusion

There are few games that work so well capturing the themes, tone, and experience of an existing property like The One Ring does with Middle Earth and Tolkien’s stories. Everything, from the rules, to the art, to the design all contribute to make a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Luckily, Cubicle 7 continues to support The One Ring with new products. It’s a fantastic game, and one that I will continue to buy as long as they keep putting out quality material for it.

Have you played The One Ring, or any of the other Middle Earth-based RPGs? Which one was your favorite? What is your TOR campaign like? Tell us about it in the comments.

Reading and Writing: Reader Expectations

As I mentioned many times, I love to read out loud to my wife and son. I’ve gotten to share so many books with them over the years, and it’s so much fun to do.

Over the last month, I introduced my son to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In the past few weeks, I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, The Universe, and Everything.

And that’s it. I have to admit I’m not a fan of anything that came after the original trilogy, so we’re stopping there.

This series, originally written and performed as a radio play, works wonderfully as a read-aloud story. There are some funky things done with the spelling of names that I had to stop and explain as it’s not obvious from the pronunciation of the words, but otherwise I had a great time reading the books and my son—who had never encountered the series before—really enjoyed them.

Of course, I can never read a story anymore without part of my brain thinking about the craft that went into the creation of it. And what really stood out to me while reading these three books was Douglas Adams’ excellent use of reader expectations.

Experienced readers are tough to surprise. They’ve seen it all before—the tropes, the twists, the characters, the three-act structure, the misunderstandings, and the resolutions. Really savvy readers will almost always see what you’re going to do before you do it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy the story, but it takes a lot to surprise a reader these days.

The best way to do that is to play with their expectations.

Douglas Adams was a master of this technique. It starts right away, in the prologue.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

And you think that this is introducing the girl, and the story might just be her story, about how she makes the world a better place. But then…

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

And finally…

This is not her story.

That’s just a taste of how Adams plays with the reader. This same technique plays out in some form in almost every conversation Arthur Dent has with Ford Prefect, for example. It’s what makes reading these exchanges so wonderful.

“All right,” said Ford. “How would you react if I said that I’m not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?”

Arthur shrugged in a so-so sort of way.

“I don’t know,” he said, taking a pull of beer. “Why, do you think it’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say?”

In most of these cases, the words spoken and the questions asked are taken completely literally by the character hearing them. In the above exchange, for example, Arthur reacts to the question that Ford literally asks, “How would you react if I said [a particular thing]?” And his answer addresses that question, and only that question, completely ignoring the [particular thing] that Ford was really trying to get across.

In other instances, he takes something with which most people are familiar, and adds an unexpected twist to it.

“No, don’t move,” he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, “you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

It’s been mentioned to me by a number of different people that they didn’t get this joke the first time they read or heard it. I didn’t get it the first time either. If this is your first time with it, give it some thought…it’ll come.

These kinds of conversations and events occur with great regularity throughout the books. Adams takes a common phrase, or an overused trope, and then sees if there is a way to use it literally, and what the literal words actually mean. It helps the reader get into the mindset of the protagonist, Arthur Dent, who is completely out of his element throughout the entirety of all three books.

Douglas Adams used this technique for comedic effect, of course. But the same technique—playing with readers’ expectations and then throwing them off balance—can be used in more dramatic storytelling as well.

One of the more famous examples is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It’s a common element in fantasy stories that the protagonist(s) generally survive to the end of the story. But Martin took the “life is cheap” trope literally, and decided that the vast majority of his main characters were expendable. Many seemingly essential characters have died throughout the novels, and it led to the feeling among readers that almost anything could happen, and the ending was always in question.

Obviously, that’s a large-scale example of playing with expectations. This can also occur on a smaller scale, and it’s often used to keep the reader off-balance, or to disturb them.

In my own novel, The Tower of Dust, the character Sulid and his friend Weese discuss a place where Weese works called The Black Door. I hint that this “club” uses boys and girls without going into any detail about what disturbing things go on in there. I’ve been told by a number of readers that they had very specific expectations about what was happening, and when Sulid finds himself inside and sees for himself what is really going on, the readers were thrown completely off-balance. It made the entire situation even more disturbing, because the readers had prepared themselves for what they thought Sulid would see, but that left them open to something completely different.

Conclusion

So my son enjoyed laughing at the absurdities of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original trilogy, and I loved reading these again. They are pretty short books, and we managed to get through all three of them rather quickly.

Douglas Adams was a great writer who obviously loved playing with language and with reader expectations. It’s one thing to have a big plot twist in a novel, but Adams managed to keep readers off-balance in an enjoyable and quirky way by playing with expectations constantly throughout the stories. I’m a big fan of writers who can play with language like that, but there are lessons to be learned from his techniques in many other ways as well.

Next on the reading-aloud list is a rather long story by Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Though I will probably stop at the end of the Corwin cycle, it’s still a five-book epic and will take us much more time to get through than the Hitchhiker’s trilogy did.

Take care and see you next week.

Free Story – Inheritance

This month’s story has a great deal of personal meaning to me.

March 12th will be six years since my father passed away. At the time, he was experiencing severe dementia and was forced to live in a facility where he could be properly cared for.

I wrote this story quite some time ago but I’ve held off publishing it until now. While the story itself is fiction, of course, there is a great deal of reality in the thoughts and emotions which reflect how I felt when we were going through this with him in 2010 and 2011. I needed a bit of that distance that fiction brings or would never have been able to write it.

I have kept this story on my hard drive for years, and reading it again recently was far more difficult than I thought it would be. But I’m at the point where I feel ready to share it, and so here it is.

The story is called Inheritance, and this one is, most definitely, entirely from the heart.

Writing Update – February 2017

This month is a fairly short update, but overall things are moving well and I’m excited by how these projects are going.

The Traitor and the Thief

The manuscript for this book is essentially complete. I’ve got a couple of scenes that I’m going back to rewrite, but that will be done by the end of this coming week.

I will then leave the manuscript to sit for a couple of weeks to clear my mind of it, before I go back and do another pass to see how everything hangs together and smooth out any rough spots.

Then, it’s off to editing.

Short Stories

This month’s short story is one that is very personal to me. I wrote it a few years ago, but I’ve kept it private until now. I’ll reveal more next week when I put it up on the site.

As mentioned in the list of projects last month, I’ve put the Kaus Kagunvar story The Broken Temple of Yinak on hold until I can give it my undivided attention. So, I don’t expect it to be ready as March’s free short story, but if everything holds up well on my schedule, you should see this one in April.

Tales of the Undying Empire

The next project on my list is to get the Tales of the Undying Empire Omnibus out on Kindle. I’ll start tackling the issues with that shortly, and I hope to have it out by this time next month.

Other Projects

Both Origin—the story I wrote for my son—and the third book in the Undying Empire: Rebellion trilogy, The Revenant and the Reaper, are on the list. With the completion of the manuscript for The Traitor and the Thief, things are moving well and I expect to get started on these in the next few months.

I’m really happy with how things are progressing, and I hope to see you back here next week.

T.I.M.E. Stories

Recently I had the opportunity to play a very interesting boardgame called T.I.M.E. Stories. The primary publisher, Space Cowboys, calls it a “decksploration” game, and that invented word actually describes the game play fairly well.

The premise of the game is that the players are temporal agents of the T.I.M.E. Agency (the acronym stands for Tachyon Insertion in Major Events), an organization that protects the time steam from alterations and “time faults” that could destroy the continuum. The time stream itself isn’t just a linear sequence of events, however. There are also an infinite number of alternate realities that also have major events that affect the entire continuum.

The agents do not physically go into the past or these alternate realities. Rather, only their consciousness is sent and they inhabit the physical bodies of individuals who live in that time/reality. And there are some rather interesting characters that you get to play.

The game is played on a board, but the key element of gameplay is the mission deck. The deck is divided up into “areas” (an area could be a room in a building, an outdoor space, or any defined place that could be encapsulated in a single picture). The cards for that area are laid out on the board and together they display a picture of the area. Each player moves his or her agent to a particular card, representing that the agent is examining something in that part of the area, or interacting with a person or creature in that part of the area.

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For example, the area might be a kitchen in an insane asylum in the 1920’s. One card shows the butcher cutting up meat, another card shows the dishwasher cleaning dishes at a sink, another card shows a couple of staff members whispering to each other, and the last card shows the door to a walk-in freezer. One player may assign his/her agent to check out the freezer, another might assign his/her agent to speak to the butcher, and the last player might assign his/her agent to speak to the whispering staff members. (Note that I’m not describing exactly a room in the base mission for the game, I’m just using it as an illustration of what you might find in an image across a bunch of cards.)

Then, the players turn over the card that they picked and read the information on the back. The freezer, for example, might contain a large slab of beef hanging from a hook, with strange claw and bite marks on it. The text on these cards provide clues to the situation, which the players use to figure out what is going on and how to fix it.

There are a great number of reviews of T.I.M.E. Stories already available out there on the internet, which go into more detail about the gameplay, the many awards this game has already won, and more. What I do want to mention is that the rulebook for the game asks the question if this is a roleplaying game or a boardgame.

The rulebook states, “Neither one or the other — or rather both! Our first desire was to capture the feeling of the roleplaying games of our youth, but in a more compact and less time-consuming format as the era of self-contained campaigns in bomb shelters is unfortunately over …”

And it’s true that you can certainly choose to roleplay the person your agent inhabits during the mission. There are little behavioral cues that a player can use to help them get into “character”. And when the I played the game the first time, I certainly enjoyed getting into the role and speaking in character when it was my time to act.

But by the second time we played—most missions will take more than one session to complete—I found that I had stopped playing the character and focused solely on playing the game.

Ultimately, roleplaying in T.I.M.E. Stories is exactly like roleplaying your investigator in Arkham Horror, or roleplaying your hero on Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, or any of the D&D Adventure System boxes. You can do it, but it has absolutely no bearing on the game itself.

This is because, unlike most traditional roleplaying games, no one is playing the opposition. This is a cooperative game in which each player is playing a T.I.M.E. Agent. So you while you can roleplay among yourselves while making decisions, at the end of the process you are just reading clues and instructions off the card you’ve selected. And that severely limits the options you can take.

It’s like trying to roleplay while reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

But is it Fun?

The game itself was enjoyable enough, and it’s a very well-designed game. It provides an experience that is unlike any other boardgame I’ve ever played, and there is a definite story that you play through during the game. The cards are evocative of the time anomaly in which you find yourself, the artwork is great, and the entire thing is impressive in its clever use of the various elements to work together.

But I have to admit that by the end of the second session, when we successfully completed the mission, I did feel like, “finally it’s done.” Keep in mind that I’m not a big puzzle person, so part of the basic premise of the game—that you’re investigating and putting together clues to figure out what is actually going on—is not one that I particularly enjoy. If you like mysteries and puzzles, you’ll probably have a very different take on this game.

For me, though, I felt like the game was interesting, but not compelling. I compare this to Blood Rage—after playing that game I wanted to run a Viking RPG and use thematic elements from that game in my campaign, because I was excited by both the flavor and the gameplay. After playing T.I.M.E. Stories, I was happy to have gotten to experience this game, but that’s it. It didn’t get my imagination fired up and I wasn’t thinking of ways to take those elements into my preferred form of gaming.

Would I play it again? Yes, I’d be willing to try another, different, mission if my friends wanted to give it another go. But there are more games I’d like to try than I will ever have time to play, so if it turns out I never return to T.I.M.E. Stories, I’m perfectly happy with that.

Should you try it? My advice for anyone wondering if they should play a particular game is to read reviews, both positive and negative, and see if that gives you a better idea if you’ll enjoy it or not. I think it’s an interesting experience to have, and I was lucky in that some close friends invited me to play their copy with them.

Have you played T.I.M.E. Stores? What was your experience like? How many runs did it take for you to complete the mission? Tell me about your own stories in the comments.