Rotblossom Rose (1.3R)

Welcome to the space where I experiment, my weekly serial. It is written raw, not edited at all, and mostly unplanned.

The world is partly based on the background of an unpublished Steampunk game that I worked on with a few friends, which has grown in my mind over the last couple of years. The story is a take on those ultra-violent revenge epics of the eighties where a man’s family is abused and killed, but he survives and seeks vengeance. Needless to say it is a grim, bloody tale, that deals with bad people doing bad things, so be warned.

Here is the first post of this series.

Here is last week’s post.

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The present comes down to three names waiting to be crossed off, the last on a very long list.

“Is she really that ugly under the mask?” asks Green Jim, the youngest man on their dive. “I mean… the way she moves…”

“Ask her yourself, kid,” says Scarab, smiling as Rose steps out of the dark.

“Captain, I…” stammers Green Jim.

Rose meets his eyes and holds, letting the moment stretch uncomfortably. She has a reputation for severity. There are rumors about bad things happening to those who cross her. She lets her hood fall back, revealing the mask that covers the ruined half of her face and lifts her metallic arm. Green Jim swallows hard.

“I’d gladly bed you, boy,” says Rose, sitting down slowly. “As long as you don’t mind the rot.”

Everyone else around the fire laughs as Green Jim relaxes.

It is the third day of the dive and Rose is running a crew for Nietch, the man they call The Spider. She is the best sniffer outside The Syndicate, bringing in hauls of Wraithstone that have made her boss into the most powerful man in the Southside Hive. Deep Delving is a dangerous business, far less sure but far more profitable than mining Wraithstone blooms in the badlands further away from The Gash, at least for small outfits.

As always, Rose seats herself across the fire from Geb. She likes looking at him, and does not mind that he knows it, The big man is often smiling, even in the deeps, even with the company he keeps. It does not hurt that Geb handsome in a rugged kind of way, confident, and even-tempered. He even smells nice.

Today though, her choice of seating has more meaning. She is careful to make certain that Chris Cackles is seated to her right, fearing hat if she can see him easily, she might give herself away. It is important that he does not know that she recognizes him, and thinks that she trusts

Like Green Jim, Cackles is new to her crew. Unlike Green Jim, he is an old hand to the deeps. In spite of his grey hair, he is an agile climber and a sharp-eyed scout. The men respect him already and he has already eased into his role on their expedition with little fuss.

“Listen up,” says Rose. “Geb, Scarab, Cackles, I want you to make sure everyone is prepared. Tomorrow we are going after a live one, near the underside of Syndicate territory, bounty on it and everything. You all know what that means.”

“Sure thing, Rose,” says Geb.

“Yes, boss,” say Scarab and Cackles.

“What’s a live one?” asks Green Jim.

“A bleedwarpt thing,” says Scarab, rolling his eyes. “Why the fuck d’you think we need an extra Lancer, boy?”

“I though you just liked my company, Scarab,” says Green Jim, acting hurt.

Most of them chuckle as Scarab gives the younger man a dark look.

“Bleedwarpt have some of the best Wraithstone inside ’em,” intones Cackles. “Not a lot, but potent stuff, full of power. The stones you get from them make the strongest juice… I’ve got a furnace in my shack that still runs off a Red I got from this Bleedwarpt rat-thing fifteen years ago. Have I told you the tale?”

As Cackles spins his tall tale, Rose is only half-listening. Her focus is on the day ahead, and how she intends to cross another name off her list before they leave the depths.

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RPG Building: On Dice Mechanics and Consistency.

I was actually referencing this post for a project I am fiddling with, when I realized that it was better than what I was working on and switched over. That got me to thinking about dice mechanics in general again.

I am also reading Ready Player One, which has a lot of D&D references, so that helps as well.

The player should always know what dice they are rolling. It speeds up play and increases confidence in novice players. It seems like a stupid point, but so many games are bogged down in dice pools (older) or fancy, custom dice (newer) or finicky mechanics.

D&D is a good example of this in action, especially after 3rd edition. Most rolls are resolved with a single toss of a d20. It becomes reflexive at the table. I feel 5th edition actually stumbles a bit with this since you must figure out advantage before rolling, you cant just drop the d20 and be certain that it holds. Minor quibble, but I do think it holds.

Some of the player’s rolls in a d20 game are other dice, but these are fewer and tend to be damage rolls or percentile rolls that the player has control of and are very easy to keep track of. After 3e it is also important to note that all high rolls were positive rolls for whoever was acting. This mean that seeing high numbers on your dice always made you feel good, even before the final resolution.

Contrast this with another of my favourite game systems, Champions. This game dominated my youth, since you could play almost any genre and make very interesting characters if you were familiar with the system.I still have my 5th edition Champions in my book-case, and while the game is complex, it opens up universes of play with amazing depth.

Champions used six sided dice exclusively. The problem is that they vary both in number rolled, how they are counted, and even whether high rolls or low rolls are desired. This is a flaw in an otherwise superb game, it introduces needless complexity for simple dice mechanics in an already demanding system and really does not gain anything for it. Mutants and Masterminds recognized this, snivved some of the ideas and added a simpler dice mechanic, and it does quite well.

Then again, sometime you can simplify too much. The old White Wolf dice pool systems had a variable number to get a hit on each die. The newer ones count a 7+ as a hit, which cuts out a lot of the flexibility in the earlier systems in favour of a trivial gain in ease of use. It is not hard for a player to count successes from different numbers, especially if high rolls are always good, and the number of dice rolled is consistent.

Anyways, I was thinking about this and then I realized how awesome a Yahtzee style dice mechanic would be for an RPG. I’ll be in my bunk.

The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART FOUR

The first two articles in this series dealt with the differences between Diablo II and Diablo III, two of my favourite computer Action RPGs. The third post discussed how the systems clash between the Damage and Primary Attribute systems and the Itemization system and how Blizzard had to work hard to fix the gameplay contract, namely a game based exciting loot drops that provide the primary means of customization.

In this post I talk about another gameplay contract: namely that of the sequel. D3 is the sequel to D2 in the franchise, but many players point to other games as spiritual successors, and some even feel that the story line in D3 does not mesh at all with D2. But that is jumping ahead of myself. There is an even more basic question that must be answered here:

How much does a sequel owe to the original?

I will admit that I was pissed off that D2 did not have the same classes as the first iteration of the game. My initial complaints, however, were drowned in a Tsunami of awesome new features, combined with reverence for the original game that I knew and loved. D2 was more or less everything I loved about D1, but with better systems and a sweet skill tree to boot. Once I understood the new classes, I saw why they did away with the old. It was pure evolution.

Many people feel that a sequel to a beloved game should stick to improvements on existing systems and save the real innovation for new things (like the skill trees, set items, and sockets added in D2) and not rock the boat too much.

Others are obsessed with originality, and feel that every iteration of a game, even a sequel should strive to be new and different. These critics fear the stagnation that comes with sticking to a tried and true formula.

Both sides have a point, of course. If a sequel strays too far from the original it risks offending fans, on the other hand stagnation seems to be the order of the day with AAA games like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed turning out very, very similar games at a yearly rate.

In the end, a sequel should strive to stay true to the original but it must also try to make improvements in the series.

Is Diablo III a true sequel to Diablo II and why do I keep referencing D&D?

While I love D3, it is not a true sequel to D2, and I feel it breaks the gameplay contract by straying too far afield. D3 changed too many core systems and has an entirely different feel to character creation, leveling, story, and even the role that items play. While it doesn’t bother me, I can see why it upset a large number of people who loved the older games.

I am a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t play the game much anymore, I prefer homebrew systems, although I still own books from every edition. Nonetheless, D&D opened up the world of role-playing games for me, and kindled my interest in fantasy, so I love the game. (For the record, I think 5th ed D&D is a great edition for new players and nostalgia driven fans, but that is a different tale.)

Most of the editions of D&D follow a very similar evolutionary pattern, with relatively changes with each new version of the system. Obviously some players preferred the older editions, but as a whole each one felt like a natural progression from the last; even if you did not like where that progression went, you could still see where it came from.

Not so with 4th edition D&D. 4th was a major departure, leaving behind tried and true systems in favour of radical new ideas like encounter and daily powers, healing surges, and so on. Gone were the days when the fighter was defined by being the guy with the high attack value and multiple swings. Interestingly 4th ed also introduced the idea of each class having a primary attribute that mattered more than anything else on all their powers.

Sound familiar? There is no direct connection between D3 and D&D 4th but the design philosophy is very similar. Let me break it down:

  1. Fear of sub-optimal character builds: Both D&D 4th and D3 are afraid that a player might gimp their character by building it wrong. This is where the primary attribute and damage mechanics prevalent in these games come from: they are meant to prevent a player from playing a barbarian who puts all his points in charisma and is not as effective as a strength based barbarian.
  2. A desire for “smooth” gameplay experience and power curves: the statistical analysis that goes into both game is pretty impressive — it has to be because bucking the curve in either one results in a character that is either too weak or game-breakingly powerful. In D3 this is handled by allowing the player to shift difficulties, while in D&D 4th it is up to the DM to be aware of it. Because these systems are so tightly wound around having a certain character efficiency at a certain level they require special systems to cope with outliers. A good example is in D&D 4th where campaigns without magic items must compensate characters with special bonuses to hit and damage so that they can keep up with the expected curve. In D3 they replaced the old normal/nightmare/hell difficulty progression with player selected difficulty, which gives an entirely different feel to the game. When I say replaced, I mean it: D3 originally had a normal/nightmare/hell progression system (with a new level, inferno tacked on… badly) but it scrapped this in favour of a player controlled system, partly to compensate for outliers. In D2 players who bucked the power curve could simply progress at their own pace, but this is a less effective control in a game where DPS is so rigidly defined.
  3. Rigidity of Design: This is the real kicker. Both D&D 4th and D3 are rigidly designed games. Their basic systems are not flexible at all. In creating a polished, balanced experience they have filed off some rough edges that actually had real design purpose in their predecessors. A good example of this is levels in D2 versus levels in D3. In D3 Levels mostly act as a control — unlocking new powers and determining what level of gear you can equip. In D2 Levels were a core framework, directly determining how powerful a character was by offering precious skill levels and attribute points. As a core system levels advanced beyond the difficult of most areas in the game, allowing even the most casual of players to eventually conquer a difficult area by leveling up. A corresponding example would be hit chances in D&D 4th. Prior to 4th the fighter classes enjoyed a much higher attack bonus than other classes, allowing them to reliably land melee attacks, even on higher level creatures. Mages and Rogues were compensated with other abilities such as massive damage spells or exceptional skills and positional attacks. In 4th everyone has very similar damage potentials, hit chances, skill levels, and the general utility of spells just disappears. Most of the flavour and a lot of the flexibility are ground off in order to satisfy design goals of smooth play, balance, and safe builds.

The Gameplay Contract of Sequels

Ultimately a player expects a sequel to be faithful to the original. IP aside, D3 is as guilty of being unfaithful to the original design as 4th edition is. Both games are good in their own right (yes, some people like 4th, get over it), but just play differently than their predecessors. The design philosophy is simply too different. Both D&D 4th edition and Diablo III were influenced by the reigning king of fantasy games at the time: World of Warcraft which needs the systems that they embrace (builds, smoothness, rigidity) to handle the needs of a very different player base.

D2 and D3 are both Isometric Action RPGs with cool randomized loot, but that basically describes the genre that Diablo built. Many games that have been created since are evolutions of D2 while if I took away the name and the visuals I doubt you would recognize D3’s pedigree. The game’s systems are radically different and thus it is easy to see why some people who truly love D2 just feel betrayed by the sequel, even though it is a really fun game. It just isn’t faithful to the original, is it?

Structures and Systems: The Grand Championships in the Domains of the Chosen (part two)

One of the running themes of my musings on this blog are how structures and systems can become the enemies of people, and how this can make for great genre fiction. I find it interesting how modern escapism is often apocalyptic in nature: in some ways we often end up pleased when the Zombies or that Meteorite come along and finally wipe out the monumental systems that dominate our lives. No matter how horrible the walking dead gets at least they don’t have to worry about debt, work, taxes, or unrelenting boredom.

One of the problems with my early D&D games, and other works is that when I put effort into world-building I often created these clockwork societies and systems that never changed. Much of this is because I wanted to preserve my work. Sadly, I found that these eternal structures were lacking because they did not change. Imperfect beings create imperfect things, and that includes institutions, cultures, and even beliefs. Only those that acknowledge their imperfections and take steps to adapt and change can really stand the test of time. (Change just for the sake of change doesn’t count — that is just another system in a way. I’m looking at you new WordPress UI.)

Last week I outlined the basic system of the Grand Championships. This week I will illustrate the sort of corruptions that have changed this system over time. Think of this as an example of how systems can change over time. There are exploits, and then regulations put in place to halt those exploits, then there are corruptions that become popular changes, almost an evolution of the system.

Here are some examples, using the structure of the Grand Championships from last week’s post

  • Location: The Grand Championships are always held in the City of Krass. How can this be exploited? well for one, any Gladiators who have easy access to the City of Krass have a kind of home-field advantage. While people come from all over the Domains for the Grand Championships, the largest significant group in the arena crowds will be from the City. Gladiators who spend time wooing the people of Krass thus have a significant advantage in a show of thumbs.
  • Selection Part One: Part one of the selection is a general vote open to any citizen in Krass. The system here is the same as gaming the system in any Democratic election. Skilled Gladiators will often lose out to more interesting or popular fighters. In a sense this is the original corruption of the games. It was supposed to pick the best fighter, but popularity soon became a factor.
  • Selection Part Two: This part is utterly corrupt. The Factions and the Chosen trade favours and butt heads over the previously selected candidates. The only oversight is that the people will riot if a favourite is left out. Exploits here include getting rid of fighters who might be a danger to your Gladiator, changing patrons, and so on.
  • The Parade: On the surface the parade is the least important part of the Grand Championships, merely a way for the Gladiators to present themselves to the people. And yet it becomes surprisingly important, since Gladiators who make a great impression here can sway the crowds of Krass. I like The Hunger Games for understanding the importance of presentation in a contest of this sort with Katniss and her flaming gown. There are other exploits in the parade as well. Most importantly: who gets to provide food and drink and who gets other important contracts for parade day. The parade is a huge holiday in Krass, and very few places are open. Those that are given contracts to provide services during the parade gain wealth and reputation, at least if they don’t mess up. Getting these contracts becomes a matter of great importance with all sorts of wheeling and dealing.
  • The Qualifying Round: Each Gladiator faces a monster in the qualifying round. Judges score how each Gladiator fares and the lowest eighteen fighters are eliminated. Judging is fraught with corruption, of course, just look at Olympic figure skating. However, it is also possible for a Gladiator to be put up against a monster that is too easy or too hard.
  • That One Little Wrinkle: Ut Nex, the challenge to a Deathmatch forces the other Gladiator to make a split second decision on whether or not they will put everything on the line. Deathmatches tend to gain the attention of the crowd, which allows a less skilled fighter willing to risk more a secondary path to victory. Few Gladiators will turn down Ut Nex, mostly due to pride, so one must make sure one can win. Interestingly enough Ut Nex in the qualifying round is another way for a Gladiator to show show mad courage.
  • That Other Little Wrinkle: Assassinating the other Gladiators is just plain ol’ cheating. However the politics of such a manoeuvre would likely be very interesting
  • Cheating and Exploits: Anything that can be abused to gain an advantage will be abused to gain an advantage. The Gladiators have to be on guard. The Deliberative have to monitor everything. And yet all of these people are human with desires and needs that can be pried at to gain advantage. A lusty Gladiator might be lured into a late night dalliance before a crucial match that leaves him strangely drained. A lucky pre-fight meal at a favourite restaurant might be drugged. Last minute advice on how to exploit an opponent’s fighting styles. An accident on the training grounds. The sudden death of a loved one. There are many possibilities for exploitation, and the best of them are the head games that mess with the psychology of individual fighters. After all, at the highest levels of competition, it is often focus and the will to win that carry the day.

 

 

My Gencon 2013

I am a big fan of Gencon, Gencon is a huge gaming convention that takes place every year, currently situated in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is a great festival with loads of games, vendors, and geek culture. The main exhibit hall can only be described as a shopping mall for gamers and geeks, with half a city block’s worth of goods. It is amazing.

Sadly, I’ve missed out on the last few years while I try to get my life in order (writing these damned books!).  This year, however, my girlfriend convinced me me to go. It was her first time (to Gencon, get your mind out of the gutter, Grimdark…) and her enthusiasm was infectious. Since I signed on late, I had to scramble for hotel and badge, but Tommy Gofton, a local gamer and real life fixer in this case, came through for me and made it happen. Here are my impressions of the show.

1) Indianapolis, the host city: The city of Indianapolis continues to impress me as a host city for Gencon. Last time I was there was 2009, and the city is much improved as a host site since then. More of the local restaurants are showing their Gencon Spirit and the city is much more active during all con hours. The food trucks were brilliant. I felt very welcome, even with 40,000 bikers having a get together two blocks away! (I’m not joking, it was cool)

2) Man, that Vendor’s Hall: My Gencon experience centers around the immense vendor’s hall. It takes me several hours to get a feel for everything in the hall, excluding playing demo games and enjoying conversations with enthusiastic vendors and gamers. The vendor’s hall this year was as spectacular as ever. There were fewer “new” releases due to the prevalence of games releases over kickstarter, but the show always tended to overpower smaller releases anyways. The geek accessories were stunning and the booths were amazing. I overspent this year, and could easily have spent orders of magnitude more.

3) What, no Wizards Booth?: Wizards of the Coast did not have a booth in the vendor’s hall. There was a large area reserved for playing D&D in the main gaming hall and magic was, as always, omnipresent, but WoTC declined to put together a vending hall display. Perhaps they are saving up all their mojo for next year for the 5th edition D&D release?

4) The Gamers Movies (Zombie Orpheus Entertainment): So Tommy and his crew, as well as some of the people I drove down with (Todd and Monica) were in a gaming movie, working with Zombie Orpheus. Since I went with them I politely decided to tag along and watch Gamers III, Natural One, and Humans and Households. I wasn’t expecting much, despite having heard good things about The Gamers, Dorkness Rising. I find many shows about Geeks, like The Big Bang Theory, annoy me. The Gamers Movie that I watched (III) was awesome, striking the perfect balance between highlighting the oddities of gaming culture without belittling it, Made with love, I suppose. Even Raw and not fully edited I loved Natural One and Humans and Households. It takes quite a bit to get me to laugh like that, well done!

5) Shadowrun: This being the year of Shadowrun, the venerable RPG came out in its fifth incarnation. I was suitably impressed and decided to make that my big purchase for the con. The Catalyst booth looked as busy as some of the much larger players, like Fantasy Flight and Paizo, which is impressive. This combined with the success of the Shadowrun Returns computer game, really has made this a great year for a much loved series of games.

6) Author Pannels, Where did these come from?: So Gencon is frequented by Fantasy authors, many of whom are gamers and have worked for WoTC, or other game companies. R.A Salvatore, Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, and Ed Greenwood are hardly lightweights. But this year I was impressed to see juggernauts like Brandon Sanderson and Patric Rothfuss at the convention (who game, but are not affiliated with game companies). The author pannels were almost as good as the gaming pannels. This is another area that continues to grow and impress. I was particularly taken with Lucy A Snyder at the Dark Fantasy panel, her crisp command of the subject made for an excellent discussion. With a growing spate ofquality author events, I can only see this aspect of the con being more enticing in the future.

7) My Privateer: I went to the convention looking for a Typhon (pictured below) for my Legion army, for Privateer Press’ Hordes game. Man, I have been trying to get my hands on that beast for six months… I was disappointed that they were out at the Privateer Press Booth. However, after a day and a half of searching at the con, I finally found one up for trade! In addition to my hunt for rare models, Privateer also dropped the card game High Command, which I saw everywhere at the show, despite it not being on any hot lists. I played a demo of High Command, which is somewhat similar to deck building games like Ascension and Dominion, and really enjoyed it. I also had lunch at the Ram, which has a Warmachine themed menu during Gencon.

Typhon. Not my paint job…

8) Paizo, Fantasy Flight, and Boardgames: The biggest and most impressive booth seemed to be Fantasy Flight Games. They had lines all the time and several new products including a Star Wars RPG(?). Paizo apparently kicked ass with a thousand person game of Pathfinder and a great new card game. Boardgames were really strong at the con this year.

9) My Indy Pick: I always try to pick up an indy RPG at Gencon, This year it was Dungeon World, a product that was Kickstarted last year. Unlike many games I have picked up (indy and otherwise) this one seems worthy of play and really does live up to the hype of combining old school dunegoneering with some new ideas.

10) Cosplay is King!: The costumes were crazy. Even children were getting in on the action this year, Todd and Monica from our party cosplayed. So many costumes…

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Todd and Monica as Cortana and Fantasy Wolverine 

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Awesome Starcraft stuff 

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Some Bounty Hunters Cornered me

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An orc gives me a nice snarl

Biggest Dissapointments:

  • I missed the Evening with Patrick Rothfuss Event. Tickets were sold out 😦
  • I missed the 1000 person Pathfinder Game. Did not even know til afterwards. Damnit, why?
  • Took a picture of an awesome Dark Elf Samurai dude and my flash screwed it… I need lessons 😛

Best Game:

  • I played D&D at the WoTC Candlekeep event. It was my Girlfriend’s first time playing in 20 years or so. We grabbed a table with a father and son team from Saskatchewan and managed to survive the event. It was enjoyable despite a tired GM and a noisy play-space. I played a cleric. 5th edition looks to be shaping up well.

Elric of Melnibone and complexity of character.

Bound by hell-forged chains and fate-haunted circumstance. Well, then—let it be thus so—and men will have cause to tremble and flee when they hear the names of Elric of Melinbone and Stormbringer, his sword. We are two of a kind—produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!
― Michael Moorcock, Elric: The Stealer of Souls

Elric is another character I first encountered in that old D&D Deities and Demi-gods. I must admit that I am not a huge fan of Michael Moorcock, and yet his most popular creation is seared into the fabric of fantasy literature and even into my brain. Elric, the restless Emperor of a decadent, the albino swordsman and sorceror whose genetic defects leave him nearly crippled without drugs or magic. Elric wielder of the evil, soul-drinking sword Stormbringer, itself one of the most Iconic weapons in fantasy fiction. Elric, whose complexity as a character often defies categorization, perhaps even by his creator.

As an iconic character Elric’s influence can be seen in Sephiroth from Final Fantasy and Geralt from the Witcher series, as well as a host of written works.

In appearance Elric is fairly unique. He is both elfin and demonic, beautiful and broken, his exquisite pedigree and his awful weakness are immediately apparent and easy to visualize. In fantasy canon, Elric is certainly not the manliest of leading men with no hint of a broad chest, powerful physique, or square jaw. He is exotic and unusual, his appearance working to prepare the reader for his unique personality and story.

In terms of power, Elric is off the charts. He is among the most best swordsmen in the world and also among the best sorcerors. He is the ruler of a powerful empire. He consorts with Daemons, Gods, and powerful spirits, many of whom are bound to serve him through ancient pacts. His sword drinks the souls his enemies and gifts Elric with some of their strength, increasing as he kills. When he is at the top of his game, Elric seems invincible, and yet if one catches him without his herbs or sword, his is frail and as weak as a kitten. He sets the standard for many modern characters in this regard.

Elric’s intelligence and curiosity, along with his defiance of conventional morality are also traits that have been passed on to modern Fantasy.

Mentally, Elric is an extremely complex character. He battles with ennui. He feels out of place in his world, rejected in his own society because he is not their ideal Emperor and feared in the young kingdoms because of his birthright and the fact that he tends to be the harbinger of ill omen. He is curious and compassionate. He perpetrates brutal massacres. He is passionate, doomed, and more than a little unbalanced. Interestingly, if you are willing to engage in a little dirty rhetoric, you can argue that Elric belongs as a hero or an anti-hero, is tragic or triumphant, or is his own beast entirely.

Many people would scoff at the notion that Elric is a true, classical hero. He follows the standard hero of the monomyth pattern fairly closely, leaving the comforts of home, heeding the call to adventure, and ushering in a new age. He may not follow conventional morality, but he is the most compassionate and curious of his kind and acts consistently within his own understandable morality, at least until the sword drives him mad with bloodlust. In this he seems quite close to some Norse and Celtic heroes, particularly Cu Chulainn. You know, the type of heroes that you want on your side of the battle, but would avoid making eye contact with if you met them on the street.

Elric is often presented as an anti-hero by critics and readers. He certainly laughs in the face of conventional heroic qualities. He does whatever he wants most of the time, often causing great damage to the world around him. he revels in sex and drugs and strange magics. Yeah, pretty easy to see why this label is applied to him.

You could even argue that Elric is a reader identification hero. Despite his power, he is a sad and vulnerable man who often feels like he does not belong in the world around him. We see the young kingdoms through his eyes, cynical and yet not blind to the fantastical. This is an attitude that many young fantasy fans can identify with. At times he even seems caught between youthful idealism and cynical adulthood, crushed by the burdens and expectations of an uncaring world and yet defiant still. Themes of alienation resonate with a culture of outsiders.

Moorcock himself once noted that Elric was a “doomed hero”, a tragically ill-fated man who struggles against his own destiny in the vein of ancient heroes like Gilgamesh or Lancelot, whose efforts are ruined despite their power. This fits Elric well, although he does not aspire to greatness or even good, and often seems to just wander into adventure, much like Conan, but with worse luck.

In fact, an astute reader can approach Elric from almost any philosophical angle and find purchase, something to define him in the way you want to see him.  Maybe it is because his creator  keeps coming back to the character, adding new stories decades after killing him off.  Or perhaps the character was always thus, as defiant of our desires to define him as he is of his of  the mantles he was born with. Elric is an intricate character, powerful and yet frail, heroic and and yet amoral, and always without a doubt, interesting and conflicted. The most enduring legacy of Elric is his complexity, a complexity which blooms to its fullest in a unique and interesting fantasy world.

There’s Something About D&D

Now that I have published my first book, I feel obligated to check out other writers in the same genre. I have read quite a bit of fantasy, but I rarely payed any attention to the author’s blurbs. In fact, I often felt knowing too much about the author might prejudice my reading of their work as I look for clues about how their influences show up. However, as a novice writer I seek out other writers to trade information with, and so I have been paying more attention to the actual writers. It does make me enjoy reading a little bit less, due to my tendency to over-analyze, but I often gain valuable insight into my peers. This is how I discovered that the ranks of modern fantasy writers have been infiltrated by tabletop RPG players (I used the term D&D in the title for name recognition, most RPGs could fill in)

I wrote a little blurb a few months ago about how I noticed while reading the Dresden Files and Codex Alera that Jim Butcher was quite willing to show off his gaming influences (Dresden even joins a weekly tabletop game in book 4, Summer Knight). It turns out that a large number of prominent fantasy others are RPG players. They may not be serious Grognards, but they certainly know what a d20 is (shorthand for a twenty sided die). Here is a link to a video of several of the best and best-selling fantasy authors playing D&D. Apparently you can win a chance to play with some of them, as part of a charity effort. Myke Cole (One of the long suffering GMs in that game, author of the Shadow Ops series and a longtime D&D player, has an excellent post on what it was like be at that D&D game.

I was a little stunned when I first saw this. I’m not sure why. My first irrational, visceral thought was where the hell were all these people when I was was trying to set up my last game. I guess I’m not really used to the idea of Geek Chic yet.

On further reflection. Duh. It makes quite a bit of sense that people whose interest in fantasy led them to RPGs and vice versa are now writing, in ever increasing numbers. It makes even more sense that an author would trumpet this fact now that nerdy things are kind of cool (I call it geek chic). Also on reflection Ed Greenwood, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, and Steven Erickson all have some RPG background, so really I should not have been that surprised. Maybe I just miss my Saturday night game.

I think tabletop RPGs are very good for focusing and developing your imagination. Here are some of the ways in which RPGs have influenced my writing.

1) Action scenes. Combat is inherently chaotic and hard to describe. In many traditional RPGs (like D&D) the focus of the largest chunk of rules is break that mess down into easy to manage chunks, resolve what is happening, and then weave it back into the larger narrative. Because of my tabletop RPG background (Which also including some miniatures games, Battletech, Legions of Steel, Warhammer 40K, and Hordes which are also great for combat) I find it much easier to keep track of what is going on in a fight scene. Given that my first book is about Gladiators, this has proven especially useful.

2) Magic Systems. RPG magic systems are often more practical than creative and inspiring. However most of them are very, very consistent because the game has to set rules and limits for what magic and mages can do. (Some advanced RPF magic systems do not have set rules, but I did not have access to any of them as a kid) When I create a magic system I strive for consistency over originality. When I read a fantasy novel with a magic system that is coherent and consistent, I am very rarely taken aback when a character uses some new spell since it operates within the same framework as the others, if the system is not consistent new powers often seen Deus Ex Machina in the worst possible way. While RPG magic descriptions translate awkwardly at best, the idea of having a consistent set of mechanics for magic in your world is very, very useful and important even if it is never fully communicated to the readers.

3) World-Building. RPGs were the basis for my first forays into world-building. Every RPG needs a setting, and for some reason I was never satisfied with even the best of modules (Keep on the Borderlands, Undermountain, and the first Ravenloft are my favorites since they had more of a sandbox feel) or pre-generated campaign settings (Earthdawn is my favorite there, Birthright if it has to be a D&D world). RPGs and D&D in particular encouraged me to make up my own worlds. At first these fell apart after a few sessions as my players found and exploited the cracks in my creations. One of my early games allowed for enchanting and also incorporated futuristic elements like power armour and guns. The enemies were still orcs, bad equipment and all. Every encounter ended very quickly, in a hail of enchanted exploding elemental munitions that would have been cool and glorious if I weren’t countering it with feeble opposition. As time passed, my skills at making a more cohesive sandbox for my players increased. My ability to make a world evolved, and yet the my gang of players also got more skilled at finding the weak spots. We matured and our tastes changed, with players no longer interested in just interested in combat and direct conflict I was forced to flesh out backgrounds, histories, and characters to make the setting come alive. The skills help me tremendously when writing, to the point where with Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale I have take the relatively limited and contrived idea of Gladiatorial combat, placed it at the centre of a setting, and built a story and a working world around it.

The players are another part of RPGs that could be helpful to writers. The Game-Master might create the world but each player wants to weave their own character into it, which helps expose flaws and brings a unique kind of feedback that can really improve any setting.

I could go on about this at length, but company has come over, so I shall end with a rough teaser from Bloodlust: Will to Power

A muscled, athletic ogress strode into the arena. At first Gavin could not make sense of her armour. As she strode across the fighting grounds he realized that he was seeing segmented metal plates, each individually pierced into her flesh. He saw blood around some of the blades, which cut into the Gladiatrix as she moved. The blood ran into clever channels on the plates, forming a decorative pattern that signaled some skill in blood magic. Her expression was add odds with the obvious discomfort of such a form of protection, serene and watchful. He felt a thrill of recognition. His opponent was the only true Disciple of Pain that the arena had produced in fifty years.

“Welcome Razorthorn,” said Mistress Chloe [The arena master in the Killer’s Circle, more on that later]. “You look sharp today. [Groan, I know, this may not make the final cut]”