As I mentioned a few months back, I've been running an OSR-hacked Curse of Strahd game with my regular D&D group. And this past weekend, I realized I'm probably DMing the most creative bunch of murderhobos to ever set torch and pitchfork to the gods-forsaken land of Barovia.
I also realized they just might be the villains.
For those of you unfamiliar with the adventure and its basic set-up, Curse of Strahd is a 5e remake of the classic AD&D module, I6: Ravenloft. The adventure finds the PCs trapped in the mist-shrouded valley of Barovia, which is ruled by the vampire count Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd will only allow the PCs to escape if they surrender his intended bride, an innocent peasant girl named Tatyana.
Unless the PCs find a way to defeat Strahd, while simultaneously keeping Tatyana from falling into his clutches, they'll be trapped in Barovia forever.
This set-up was pretty railroad-y by 1e standards, but the mix of Gothic horror tropes with high adventure struck a chord with players. Ravenloft was one of the most popular D&D adventures of its era, and has seen some form of remake or reinvention for every subsequent edition of the game, including a full campaign setting in 2e.
Anyway, the details are a bit convoluted to go into here, but the bottom line is that in this run-through, Strahd's intended bride Tatyana ended up dead.
Normally, this is bad news for the PC's.
But rather than just try to conceal this fact as long as possible, and launch a surprise assault on the castle—which is what I expected—my merry band of murderhobos decided they now had a unique weapon in their hands. So they proceeded to hatch the most twisted "get Strahd" plan I've seen in all my years of DMing the Ravenloft setting:
The next evening, they loaded the Zombie Tatyana up into a carriage and rode for the castle. When they arrived in the courtyard, Strahd came out to greet them. He was dressed in finery himself, and flanked by skeleton warriors in polished dress armor. The PCs dismounted, and gave a speech humbly apologizing for being so unreasonable before. The also expressed their hopes that Strahd would honor his earlier promise to help them escape the valley, in exchange for Tatyana.
Strahd replied that he is an honorable man, and would keep his agreements. He also invited the PCs to stay for the wedding: "I always prepare an excellent feast."
With that, the PC's opened the carriage. The Zombie Tatyana walked towards Strahd. As soon as she got within range, the Magic Mouth spell went off, causing her to whisper her line. Strahd gathered her in his arms.
Then the PCs sprung one of the most beautiful and sadistic traps I've ever seen.
It's important to note that the PCs were 100% aware that this wouldn't kill Strahd. In fact, they knew damned well that he'd be strong enough to break out of this. The entire goal was psychological warfare. They wanted to horrify him with the sight his beloved's corpse erupting with vines, vomiting holy water, and then exploding in a bloody mess.
Like I said. These guys might just be the villains, all things considered...
Anyway, the PCs pressed the momentary advantage they got from exploding the innocent village girl's corpse all over the vampire. As the skeleton warriors moved to attack, the spell casters immobilized them. The Cleric used the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind to completely immobilize Strahd, so the warriors could move in and begin pummeling the bejeezus out of him.
The "battle" was so one-sided it wasn't even funny. They finished him off by forcing a Bag of Holding full of Holy Water down his throat. I didn't even bother to roll for damage. I described the vampire's body beginning to bubble, boil, and burn...
Honestly, watching them plan and execute such a crazy curb-stomp of a battle was so damn satisfying, I almost felt bad that I was about to pull the rug out from under them.
That said, I also started running Ravenloft games back in the 90's. And I know damned well that the one thing that makes Strahd a memorable villain is that he's not an idiot.
As the PC's were watching the vampire's face melt, I had one of them notice the illusion spell fail, revealing that the "Strahd" they'd just killed was a decoy: a lesser vampire spawn he put in place so he could quietly observe them from a distance.
From above, the PC's heard an amplified voice boom over the courtyard: "I was going to be honorable. But you allowed my bride to die. Worse, you desecrated her. For that crime, you will all pay."
A fireball then dropped into the center of the PCs formation. It delivered massive damage all around, thanks to a bunch of blown saving throws. Behind them, the gates of the castle slammed shut. And above them, the amplified voice issued a final, cold proclamation: "None of you will leave this place alive."
We ended the session right there, with the PC's trapped and without any ideas where to go from here.
This is D&D storytelling in a nutshell, folks. These crazy, unplanned moments that the players—and the DM—will still be discussing years from now. This is where the real magic of the game has always been: in watching the players come up with some crazy, over-the-top scheme, and try their damndest to execute it.
Real D&D storytelling has nothing to do with the DM, his campaign notes or (Gygax help us) "plot arcs." It can only happen organically. It's also entirely player driven. The DM can't force it, and the more he tries, the more he gets in the way.
If you truly want to create great stories in your D&D games, the only thing you need to do as a DM is put great obstacles in the players' way. Let them use their own ingenuity. Because when they come up with a plan, you get to do the best part.
You get to sit back and watch.
The DM isn't the story's architect in a D&D game. If anything, he's the set designer. But if he does a good enough job, he also gets to be the front row audience.
That's worth its weight in gold, folks.
Two days ago, the news broke that sci-fi legend Mike Resnick passed away.
I had a brief, passing acquaintance with him. Back in 2015, I was a quarterly winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, which Resnick helped judge. As part of the prize package, winners were flown out to California for a weeklong writing workshop, with the judges as the instructors.
I honestly can't say I remember much from Mike's lecture. I still have the notes I took somewhere around here, but they're a jumbled mess. More than with any of the other instructors, I found myself trying to copy down everything Mike said verbatim. But each time I did, I'd have to abandon it halfway through, because Mike would be in the middle of spouting off something else I wanted to urgently copy down word-for-word. At last I just gave up and listened, hoping I could absorb and remember as much as possible.
Mike spent each night down at the hotel bar, spouting off even more of his hard-won wisdom among us newbie writers. It's there that I got my most lasting impressions of the man. Again, I can't say I really knew Mike, but from what I saw of him in that short week, he seemed to be a decent guy. One who was genuinely eager to help up and coming young writers.
It was during one of those "Bar Con" nights that Mike dropped a bit of wisdom that I'll always remember him for. He gave the most perfect definition of Science Fiction that I've ever heard.
"Science Fiction is the literature of warning: This BAD THING will happen IF..."
Reader, all of the storytelling possibilities in the world are encapsulated in that sentence. Every time I've sat down to write a sci-fi story since then, that phrase has been in the back of my mind.
Mike had one other personal impact on me, one that originated from the same night at the bar.
We were discussing the movie Avatar, which Mike said he hated. He said he didn't make it more than ten minutes into the film. I thought he was going to talk about the acting, the effects, or the cliches, but he took me off guard when he gave his reason.
He said it was the fact that the main character—a disabled veteran—rolled around in a non-motorized wheelchair at the beginning of the movie.
"They expect me to believe humans have mastered interstellar travel, but they don't have a motorized wheelchair? We have motorized wheelchairs at this hotel right now!"
Me being a young smart-ass, I said there was a perfectly logical reason for that in-universe. "He's obviously dealing with the department of Interstellar Veteran's Affairs."
Mike laughed. And I knew, right then, that I had something.
I realized that I had just made one of the most famous humorists in the entire sci-fi field laugh. And I also realized that a few hours earlier, he had invited the entire cohort of winners to submit stories to his magazine, Galaxy's Edge.
I realized that if I could build an entire story around this, I might just sell it to him.
Here's the thing about imposter syndrome, folks. Even if you do something right—say, winning an international writing contest—you might still feel like it's just a fluke. A one-off. You might feel like the only fraud in a room full of talented artists.
That's what I felt like in the back of my mind during Writers of the Future. It wasn't rational, and the instructors—including Mike—told us time and again we all deserved to be there. But that inner critic never listens to praise.
When I went home, I wrote that story. I sent it to Mike. And he bought it immediately.
Mike Resnick sat on a panel of judges, and selected my first story for publication. That validation made me believe I could write.
A few weeks later, Mike bought my second story. That made me believe I could do it again.
The story itself didn't see publication for a while. But I kept plugging on after that acceptance, knowing damned well that I had the chops. Thanks for that, Mike.
RIP, Mr. Resnick. You will be missed.
I'm going to blame today's post on Alexandru Constantin, who motivated the hell out of me with his resolutions and goals post the other day over on Barbarian Book Club.
Constantin, Jon Mollison, and other writers in the PulpRev movement have been talking about a re-commitment to blogs over social media spaces in 2020. So consider this post my first step in solidarity with them.
Not that I plan to abandon the Beast that Tweets, mind you. It's been a remarkably good thing for me this past year. Among other things, it's introduced me to guys like Constantin and Mollison. And it was Mollison who helped inspire one of the biggest things I've got on the table for 2020.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, here.
Before I get into the things I have on the burner for 2020, I want to take a brief look back at what I learned from the wreckage of 2019's writing year.
Longtime readers of the blog will remember that I wrote a similar "looking forward" post a year ago. I took myself to task for my failure to accomplish the previous year's writing goals, and I laid out my goals for the upcoming year.
Of the four upcoming projects listed there, only one of them came to pass: more blogging, including the guest post over at DMR Books' blog.
Blogging is about the only thing I'm going to put down as a win for 2019. I got barely any fiction written in 2019, and none published. But I did keep a fairly consistent blogging schedule. And that turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected.
Doing that forced me to create some regular columns, like my 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews and my Kitbashing D&D series. Both of those proved to be popular, and have managed to get me some regular readers.
Several posts of mine got shared in regular PulpRev and OSR gaming blog roundups, like Castalia House Sensor Sweep, The DMRtian Chronicles, and Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog. Each time that happened, I've reached a wider audience and gained new readers.
One of those posts--in which I discuss D&D's baked-in, apocalyptic assumptions—flat-out exploded in popularity, generating 10,000 unique page views, a 300+ comment debate on Facebook, and a comment on my site from Luke Gygax.
All of which is small potatoes in Internet terms, I know. But considering that I'm a Twitter nobody with less than 200 followers, it's pretty damn impressive.
Bottom line, I'm thankful to all the PulpRev and OSR writers I've linked up with through my blogging in 2019. The most important lesson learned this year is to keep it up, and to keep it consistent. To that end, I'm going to have more of what worked in 2019: More 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews, and more D&D and gaming related posts.
As to the rest of the projects I mentioned in that "2019 and Looking Forward" post:
The project I didn't want to talk about never got the official traction, meaning it's more than likely dead in the water. That could change, but I'm not optimistic. In all likelihood, the IP holder has lost interest and moved on.
On the plus side, the other creators I was working with behind the scenes are all talented people, and we've stayed in touch. If nothing else, it will eventually lead to a pooling of resources on other projects.
The lesson here—if there is one—is to always be open to possibility, but never be reliant on outcomes. If the IP holder emails me tomorrow, I'm still more than happy to drop everything and get to work for them.
But until then, I'm afraid it's just going to remain stuck in creative limbo. C'est la vie.
The ambitious self-publishing project I mentioned was an attempt to try writing a Japanese Isekai-style light novel series. I was attracted to the idea of slightly-longer-than novella length stories, cranked out at high volume. And I've always like the idea of second-world fantasy.
But the damned thing kept falling apart on me. I hated my protagonist. I couldn't make myself root for him, which meant I couldn't make myself write him. The story became a slog.
I eventually set the thing aside in frustration, deciding that it was just a genre I wasn't equipped to write. It was months later, when I ran across this little bit of writing advice from Misha Burnett, that the reason I hated my protagonist clicked.
Bottom line, I was breaking Burnett's rule #1.
In following the Isekai "earth loser gets reincarnated to a world of adventure," I realized I was opening an action adventure story like a frat-bro comedy. I was introducing the earthbound "hero" in a way that showcased him as a self-centered loser, and then trying to build him up through gradual change to a selfless, mature adult.
That change works great in a Seth Rogen comedy, where the goal is to get the audience to laugh.
But it works like absolute dogshit in an action adventure.
The lesson here? Embrace the mantra of the PulpRev. Regress harder. Traditional storytelling tropes work, traditional heroes work, and Man Plots are not ironic. And while I'm probably not going to circle back to that Isekai project anytime soon, I definitely won't be afraid to give my main characters some balls in 2020.
The second self publishing project I had planned for 2019 was dependent on the other two succeeding, so I can't really say much about it without spilling the beans on that first one. What I can say is that it was supposed to be a tabletop RPG.
Which is a nice segue into what's on the burner for 2020.
A couple of months back, one of Jon Mollison's offhanded comments about "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" got my mental wheels spinning. It was an older term I hadn't heard before, but that's mainly because I spent next to zero time online when the term apparently popped up in the mid-2000's. That first blog led to a few more, where I imagined what house rules and tweaks I'd use to mimic a hypothetical "Fantasy 'Nam"-type setting, in which the adventurers were unwilling, under-prepared draftees, and the goblins were a ruthless, brutally-competent guerrilla force.
Anyway, at the request of some readers, what started as a series of time-killing blog posts has now morphed into a full-blown, OSR-compatible RPG supplement.
My plan is to have it play-tested, formatted, and edited for release in the early part of 2020. More blog posts will be coming in the next few weeks, detailing some more of the features, rules, and the thoughts behind them.
I also plan to have another go at self-publishing novels this year. Adam Lane Smith's Write Like a Beast--reviewed in depth here—has made me seriously re-think my own outlining and drafting process. I plan to give his method a try, to see if it works for me. At the very least, a new avenue of approach should bust some of the rust off of my own methods, even if I do eventually go back to them.
I'm also armed with some new knowledge of the things I was doing wrong, courtesy of writers like Smith and Burnett.
Lastly, I have another guest blog at DMR Books coming up this month. Once again, Deuce Richardson and Dave Ritzlin are doing me the honor of inviting me to participate in DMR Books' New Year's Guest Bloggerama. Just six days in, and they've already had some fantastic writers covering some amazing subjects. I was humbled to be a part of it last year, and I'm equally humbled to be part of it again this year.
Bottom line, 2020 is going to be a full and interesting year. And I plan on grabbing it by the Man Plots.
So Adam Lane Smith has a new writing guide out. Short review?
Get it. It's good. Real good.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a loud, proud fan of Smith's work. His novel Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross more than lived up to the promise of it's absolutely nutso blurb, delivering violent, bloody apocalyptic action from start to finish.
In addition to being one of the most flat-out fun writers I've had the pleasure to read in recent years, Smith is also productive, churning out seven novels this year, with more ready to go in 2020. As I'm preparing to motivate myself for a better writing year over the Holiday week, I wanted an insight into the mind of a man that's just been flat-out inspirational in terms of both work-ethic and quality of output.
Anyway, I just finished the book. And I'm not at all surprised to report that Write Like a Beast delivered on my expectations.
What did surprise me was that Smith also helped to decode a bit of writing advice I once received from Lies of Locke Lamora author, Scott Lynch.
I had the chance to attend a WorldCon a few years back, thanks to it being held in a city near my in-laws' place. During that con, I had a chance meeting with Lynch, and we talked about our mutual favorite SF/F author, Matthew Woodring Stover, who I guess had been something of a personal mentor to Lynch.
I mentioned that Stover's fight scenes were something I was completely awestruck by, and I still hadn't run into anything that quite equalled them in fiction.
Lynch passed on a bit of advice Stover (a martial artist of some 20-odd years' experience) had given him: "All fights are scenes first and foremost. But all scenes are also fights."
That quote was like a lightning bolt, and it's stayed with me ever since. I've always tried to keep it in the back of my mind when planning out my story scenes, but I never quite had a "nuts and bolts" way to apply it.
Until around 8:00 this morning, that is, when I read Smith's chapter on "choreographing." Suddenly, that old advice clicked in a way that it didn't before. For that advice alone, Write Like a Beast was worth the price of admission.
There's plenty more to it, of course. Smith's book is motivational in tone, offering plenty of inspiration along with the practical advice. Even if some of the advice is aimed towards beginners—and some of it is--Write like a Beast leaves you feeling energized and eager to take on the page.
Which is exactly what every good writing book should do.
Buy this book. Go forth. And conquer.
I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.