For the past few months I’ve been closing in on the end of a complete draft for my latest novel. As of yesterday, it hit the ‘tipping point’. There’s less than fifty pages left in this sucker, probably closer to thirty, and that means I am probably going to bury myself in it and finish it in one go.
All of my novels hit this point towards the end. Traditionally, it means that I cocoon myself in my office and write non-stop for a couple days, forgetting sometimes even to eat, until the thing is finished. I’ve completed four novels to date, and its happened with each of them when I get to the end of the initial draft. I’ve heard this happens for other authors, too.
While I can’t speak for anybody but myself, part of why I believe this happens is because writing a novel is a lot like solving a labyrinth. You know, ultimately, where you want the whole thing to go, but getting there often involves twists and turns you didn’t anticipate, dead ends that turn you around, and the occasional spot where you find yourself going around in circles. Then, though, in a fit of inspiration, you see the whole damned thing – the path from where you are now to the finish line in perfect clarity. At that point you are no longer lost. You’ve got it. It just remains to write it all down. The feeling is exhilarating, and you feel an almost physical compulsion to finish it, no matter how long it takes.
Of course, this tipping point has coincided with the end of the fall semester, which means stacks of papers to grade as well. That complicates things somewhat, but I should be very surprised if I don’t have Lych done by Christmas, one way or another. So, what I’m saying here is that my blog will be neglected, one way or another, for the next 2-3 weeks or so. Sorry. I’m sure the internet has other ways to distract you, anyway.
Then, of course, I’m going to have to face the infinitely harder task of revising the novel I have now, which is nothing like a labyrinth and everything like a CIA interrogation at a black site. Anyway, wish me luck, and I’ll see you all on the other side!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, too!
If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.
So, what to do?
Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.
The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.
As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.
But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?
This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ’true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.
Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.
The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.
But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?
Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?
Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.
Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.
Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…
You get the idea.
These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.
It should be fun.
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.
Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:
…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.
That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*
On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.
When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.
That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.
I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”
The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?
I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really - and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.
At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?
I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.
Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.
Purchased a map-making program the other day with some of my writing money. Lookee what I did with it:
This is as complete a map of Western Alandar as I’ve ever managed to make. It isn’t perfect and doesn’t include everything, but it does cover all the major landmarks. This post is a bit outside my usual schedule, but I wanted to see what this looked like on the internet. It isn’t at the top resolution, so some of the smaller cities might not be legible, but on average I’m pretty satisfied with it.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I can now make maps that can be transferred over the internet rather than all housed inside a single sketchbook that I am forced to protect like one of my children. Enjoy!
BTW: Most items are self-explanatory, but the red lines are the tracks for Spirit-Engines that have been laid since the ascendance of Keeper Polimeux II shortly after the end of the Illini Wars (so slightly over twenty years ago in the timeline). They are essentially trains that run not on steam power, but on the pressure created by the capture of dozens or even hundreds of ‘engine-fiends’ who are summoned from their home plane of existence and then agitated to the point where they push the pistons. They *hardly* ever have accidents.
Of course, when they do, it is pretty damned spectacular.
I’m midway through Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, and the more I read, the more I grow to appreciate Lynch’s command of vulgarity. For those of you who haven’t read any Lynch, his Gentlemen Bastards series is, for my money, one of the if not the best fantasy published in the past ten years or so. It is, essentially, the Sting/Ocean’s Eleven, but set in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Mediterranean world during the Italian Renaissance. Good stuff.
As his many of Lynch’s characters are thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals of the lowest sort, they swear a lot. But as these are so often very clever thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals, they swear artfully. The words ’fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘asshole’ are masterfully crafted into some of the more colorful and amusing metaphors I’ve encountered. My recent favorite is this phrase, spoken of a boorish, arrogant, stupid ass of man who has ruined the lives of numerous people:
I wouldn’t shit on his head to give him shade from the sun.
Just bask in the layers of that metaphor, would you? Let it wash over you. I’m telling you, for all its vulgarity, it’s beautiful. When I initially read The Lies of Locke Lamora (the first book in Lynch’s series), I felt as though the profanity was a bit overpowering. He was overplaying the card, I felt, and going from clever and edgy to merely crass. Now, though, either Lynch is growing on me or his has mellowed and tempered his f-bombs into something more than simply shocking. They are evocative epithets, laced with emotion, that give the reader a front-row seat to the seething tempers of Jean and the outrageous frustrations of Locke, as well as all the other raw moments of all the other colorful characters inhabiting Lynch’s dirty world of crime and skullduggery.
There is something to be said for swearing. The proper curse at the proper moment is the naval broadside of the spoken word. It has power and depth and feeling. If used cleverly, the word ‘fuck’ can paint pictures lesser words would have to work very hard to match. In Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, the poet Martin Silenus delivers his part of the narrative with a profanity-laced tirade against the world. The first lines read:
First came the Word; then came the fucking word processor; then came the fucking thought processor; then came the death of literature. And so it goes.
There’s a rhythm there – a poetry, if you will – I find important to the timbre of Silenus’s voice. There’s a kind of electricity in it, and not because I’m ‘shocked’ by bawdy language – I’m from Boston, so trust me when I say I’m used to it. Rather it is because the word ‘fuck’ and its weaker cousins is a word that does not hide any of its meaning. It is bare and raw; it cannot be misunderstood.
Now, am I saying that science fiction or fantasy stories/novels don’t swear enough? Well, sort of. I do feel that the genre, as a whole, is needlessly bowdlerized to be ‘suitable for children’, even though so much of the genre is not intended for the tender ears of true children, but rather for the teenagers and adults that make up the majority of the audience. If you don’t think those folks are acquainted with a few swears, then I have some shocking news for you.
Of course, profanity just for the purpose of being profane isn’t a good idea – there is no call to be offensive needlessly. Profanity needs to serve an artistic purpose, as absurd as that sounds. Also, there will always be people who will jump all over you for even the mildest transgressions (I’ve been scolded for saying ‘goddamn’ before, which I find pretty hilarious, honestly). Of course, folks whose ears are that tender are going to be offended by a wide swathe of things and trying to please them is like trying to get that guy who only likes cheese pizza to try a slice of sausage and pepper – it’s a waste of your time and, ultimately, it’s their loss.
In the end, cutting out a whole segment of language that is used and used often by lots and lots of people is sort of like tying one hand behind your back. I say learn to use the hand, get it to work for you, and there is some real magic that can happen there.
As usual, I am in the process of putting together a new science fiction/fantasy setting in which to set stories, novels, and potentially a homemade RPG or two. This one is space operatic, so we’re talking giant spaceships, exotic aliens, high adventure, and a healthy dollop of weirdo mysticism. You can read a bit about the world here, if you like. Talking about it, though, isn’t the central thesis of this post. What I want to talk about is the creation of a badass.
Not your basic, run-of-the-mill, loner badass, though. I’m talking one of a whole society of badassery. My world needs a class of super-dudes that every little kid wants to be for Halloween. The dude who gets top billing on all the movie posters. The guy who cosplay fanatics break their wallets to dress as. How does one create such a thing? Well, once you allow for lightning to strike so that your book is the most popular thing ever, the rest comes down to a kind of basic character alchemy. You find stuff that’s awesome and you add it up together somehow. Here’s my process, as it stands:
Step #1: Pick Ninja, Pirate, Samurai, or Marine
Okay, okay – I know somebody is going to start crowing about their Ninja Pirate, so lets just cut this one right off at the start: you don’t get two. You might think you get two, but you don’t. Ninjas are sneaky assassins who study the arts of subtlety and stealth to kill their enemies. Pirates are brash, freedom loving duelists who excel at pithy dialogue and clever tactics. Samurai are honor-bound super-warriors with a stoic demeanor and ancestral codes of respect. Marines are tough-as-nails destruction artists who believe in their survival and the survival of their men in situations that usually overshadow their apparent abilities. You can try adding some of these together, but it quickly becomes a muddle. Pick one to start.
I pick Samurai.
Step #2: Does He Have A Gun or a Sword?
Sure, he can have a gun and a sword, but which is his favorite? Which is the thing he uses most, the thing that defines him best. And by ‘sword’, by the way, I don’t mean it has to be a sword. I mean does he fight with his hands, or does he blow stuff away from a distance? In the first place, you’re creating a group that is up close and personal in their battles. You should expect to write a lot of duels between individuals or small groups. If you’ve got a guy who is worshipping the gun, he blows up big things and guns down hordes of nobodies like its nothing. For that character, combat isn’t a contest of individual wills but rather an environment to be survived, akin to a violent storm or a sweltering desert. You aren’t going to zoom in on everybody they blow away, but you will be following their trail of destruction with a variety of crane/wide shots (to use movie terminology).
I pick sword.
Step #3: Barbarian or Sophisticate?
Is your group of bad-asses on the inside or the outside of the social order/civilization? For example, the Fremen are outside, whereas the Adeptus Astartes (the Space Marines) are inside. The Jedi began on the inside and wound up outside, but they really belonged inside all along. Barbarians are there to destroy or conquer the corrupt society, whereas sophisticates are there to protect the jewels of civilization from the barbarous ravages of the uncivilized. They are two halves of the same coin and, while they may switch sides during the story, there is a default setting to be considered.
I pick Sophisticate.
Step #4: Walk or Ride?
Does your dude go about his business on foot, or does he ride/fly/pilot himself into his incredible acts of derring-do? If he’s on foot, to some extent this means he is a part of the fabric of the battlefield. He cannot leave at a whim – his story has him bracketed by circumstance, trapped in situations he must either resolve or be destroyed by. If he rides, he swoops in suddenly and can depart suddenly, too. He is aid unlooked for, and therefore often operates alone. This is the difference, essentially, between the fighter pilot and the grunt: the fighter pilot has a plush airbase to fly back to, while the grunt hunkers down in the mud and holds on with his dirty fingernails until the job is finished. Most of your superhero types ‘ride’ in some way (Superman’s ability to fly basically counts), while your grittier heroes get stuck in.
I pick Ride.
Step #5: Born to Rock or Tooth-and-Nail?
Do folks who become badasses of this variety become so by virtue of birth (like Jedi or Aes Sedai), or do they choose to become this thing, forsaking all other goals in the pursuit of their awesomeness (Shaolin Monks)? In the first place, they are engineered to be awesome, which gives them a certain aura. In the second case, they are mentally determined and driven to succeed, which gives them a certain grit.
I pick Born to Rock.
Step #6: Magic or Muscle?
What is the secret to their super-ness? Do they have access to unique tools or superhuman talents or, instead, do they learn that the most dangerous weapon is just their own will to win? In the first place we’ve got your Jedi and your samurai and your cyborg super-soldiers. In the second place we’ve got your kung-fu masters, battle-tested campaigners, and your Dirty Dozen-esque commandos.
I pick Magic.
Step #7: Work It All Together
I’ve got myself a Magic Sophisticated Samurai, born to rock while Riding with his Sword. In my science fiction setting, this works out to my Dryth Solon using super-advanced nano-technology and quasi-organic armor to fly through space ripping things apart with his incredible nanite-blades, having become so by being raised from birth to be the supreme arbiter and bearer of his House’s honor and word. Cool, right?
Try this little system with other famous groups of badasses:
Jedi: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Walk, Born to Rock, Magic
Space Marine: Marine, Gun, Sophisticate (or Barbarian, depending on chapter), Walk, Tooth-and-Nail, Magic
The Kingsguard: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
The Fremen: Ninja, Sword, Barbarian, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
And so on and so forth…
It might be incomplete, but tell me I’m wrong.
Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:
1) Shelve it and never look at it again.
2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.
Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.
…and yet here I am.
I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.
I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.
The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:
1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?
2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.
Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the author’s intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:
- The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
- Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
- Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
- Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.
I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…
Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.
Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?
Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!