Some Tabletop RPG Advice

Image is in the public domain. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t want to do a rant for this week’s post, but YouTube keeps recommending bad tabletop RPG advice to me. After watching several episodes of Critical Role, I’m now seeing videos that are just bad. Part of me says I shouldn’t be surprised by this; tabletop RPGs have become more popular in recent years, but there aren’t many players who can give decent perspective on what to look for in a good game.

Here’s just a short list for anyone interested, in no particular order.

The popularity of a game doesn’t matter.
I started playing tabletop RPGs in college with D&D Third Edition. There were a ton of people at the game shop who LARPed White Wolf games. A bunch of other games got run, including GURPS and D20 Modern and Shadowrun. The list is endless. What separated the good games from the bad ones was interest in what was going on and ease of use. Basically, as long as you have people who are willing to sit at a table with you and learn how to play, you have a game.

The only time when popularity of a game matters is when you want to find strangers to play with. For this reason, White Wolf and D&D 5e are two games you will most likely find in places. Learning about them can help you connect with people and encourage them to play your old copy of 1st edition D&D. But really, I’ve also met plenty of gamers who are down to play any game so long as they have fun.

Tabletop games are a collaborative effort.
At its core, tabletop RPGs are like improv theater with the chaos of dice rolling added into the mix. As someone who has run a few different games over the years, I can say the best memories players have are the ones where their choices mattered, and their choices mattered to each other. Players have stories to tell with every character they bring to the table. When those stories affect the audience (everyone else there), they naturally feel good about what happened.

Even people who like murder hobos (read: characters that kill everything and loot that which is not nailed down or on fire) enjoy a collaboration. The main difference is that a tough obstacle was overcome, and their player contributed to the group’s success. There’s still cooperation there, although it might be buried in post-combat victory dancing.

Thus, working with other people is going to lead to more fun for everyone involved. If you’re running the game, try to include as many people as possible in whatever’s going on. Let players figure out among themselves how to defeat a trap or pick a lock without any actual lock picks. And if you’re a player, find excuses to have other players help you out. Even having a character learning to do something mundane can lead to an epic experience.

People running the games are not competing against the players.
There’s a term in D&D for the person running the game: Dungeon Master, or DM for short. Most other games have a Game Master, or GM for short. A ton of gamers call the person running the show one of these two things. I’ll be using GM.

As a general rule, if your GM is actively trying to get everyone’s character at the table killed, you’re going to have a bad time. Most sessions will end in a character death, sometimes with arguments following suit. Over time, this will lead to players and GMs mistrusting each other – and possibly ending real friendships.

Generally speaking, players are supposed to overcome encounters (except Call of Cthulhu, but that’s a different rant). This does not mean victory has to come easy. But victory can’t be impossible all the time. The goal of any game is to have fun, and RPGs are no exception.

End of Rant.

Radical Character Changes I #AmWriting

One of the unique things about long fiction like novels is that characters can change drastically over the course of revision. There have been a few reasons why I’ve changed my characters from minor roles to larger ones, along with some other important details. Mostly involve making the story tighter, and getting rid of less interesting characters who just never managed to do anything noteworthy in 90,000 words or less.

Of course, the urge to change these characters doesn’t come easy. I generally write a rough draft a particular way for a reason. There is time and energy invested in a draft, and it can feel awful to undo hard work.

The best example I can come up with for what I’m going through involves my science fiction project. Originally my protagonist had a wife and three kids. In the rough and 2d drafts, the only time I saw the wife was when she was being a whiny asshole. Everything was about her, and she felt like a caricature in a bad joke that never had anything to do with what else I was writing. I figured out that she was simply there as a shorthand device to get people to feel for my protagonist, and nothing else. While it might be acceptable in a Michael Bay movie, that’s not what I’m writing.

On the other hand, I did have a romantic subplot based on my protagonist’s aide and closest friend along the course of the novel. There was a history they shared which I only hinted at, and it was far more gratifying to write than anything involving the wife. She was even interesting enough to get the attention of my writing group, who suggested that she should have been an ex-wife with an undisclosed reason as to why the couple split.

I liked the idea, but I don’t think it went far enough. Eventually I settled on my protagonist and her having a kid together, but they never made any relationship official. Most of all, it makes a better character do what I need her to do. She can provide insight into two different characters that justify the messy decisions they make.

The character might change even more before I’m done. But I can say that I’m happier with the new situation than I was with the old one. Sometimes it takes extra work and courage to make a big decision for a story. As long as it expresses what you want to express, those decisions are worth it.

How Diverse Should Characters Be In Novels?

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

With a society that’s growing more diverse, there’s a natural extension that fiction should resemble that growing diversity. The technical, plot-scheming part of me likes including more diverse characters in stories. Diverse characters who have their diversity hidden can be a great way to generate conflict and keep a story interesting. But then I feel like the whole point of having a diverse character gets defeated, turning it into at best someone like John Ritter’s Character from Three’s Company. There, homosexuality was often the brunt of a joke rather than a means of delivering humor.

Ultimately this is what makes me hesitant to just wantonly include different characters just for the sake of having something different. There’s been too much mishandling of this in the past, I think, and I really don’t want to add to it. The last thing I want is for someone to read a story of mine and think, “He’s making fun of me.”

Personally, I also don’t want to create worlds that are simply extensions of stereotypes. There are several novels I’ve read recently that have done this, and it’s depressing. Discrimination that is the scrutiny of a novel is a powerful literary device; what these books have done is use discrimination as a trope. At best, the latter will conjure up a story where empowered majority protagonist will personally lift up every helpless and weak discriminated class. The worst examples are ideas I don’t like to think about.

Wanting to do a story that was mismanaged is something that does fuel me as a writer. I think this is why I keep coming back to wanting to create and use characters of very different backgrounds. There are great people I’ve met in my life who did not fall into conventional categories. Their stories are as fascinating and uplifting as the people themselves. I want to share the benefits of knowing people like them, to enrich others as I’ve been enriched.

What Do You Do When You’re Blocked?

True story: if this is your morning coffee, you’re brewing it wrong.
Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I’ve got a deadline coming up for a short story tomorrow, and I’m suffering the worst case of writer’s block ever. Well, maybe not the worst case ever. But it’s still really bad.

So I’m going to take some time here to list all of the nice things I’ve done today instead of write. And if other people reading this have some awesome things to add to this list, I’m all ears. I figure that if I’m going to not meet a deadline I knew about months in advance, I might as well get some ideas on how to do it in style.

Right now, my process for being writer’s blocked is (in no particular order):

–Panic

–Talk to my computer like it can hear me.

–Ask my pets to write the thing for me.

–Get lost on YouTube while feeling regret every time I click on a new video.

–Make just enough progress on the story to get false hope, and then reach new levels of despair as the story idea I thought was great turns out to be an unmanageable mess that isn’t even interesting.

–Drink coffee in the vain hope that more caffeine will help.

–Regret giving up smoking.

As you can probably tell, I’m having a rough time coming up with any good idea, let alone one that’s fit to write about. At least if I can’t finish my story, I hope that other people will read this and take heart. Oh, and coffee doesn’t help with everything. But I suppose that’s something for a different rant.

The Sky Princess, Part Three

Image by Pixabay, courtesy of Stockvault.

Author’s Note: Here’s the third and final part of the story I wrote for a short story anthology published by my local public library. Part one can be found here; part two can be found here. You can purchase the anthology here. All proceeds go to the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. This story has been reformatted for easier reading on this blog.

“Wait, you set fire to a water tank?” asked Betsy.

“Yes, water can burn if it presented with a sufficiently hot fire,” Isak explained.

“What are they going to use to put it out?” asked Gravat.

“I wouldn’t suggest using water,” said Isak. “Anyways, it’s a ‘them’ problem, not an ‘us’ problem.”

Over at the dirigible, Flannigan erupted from underneath the canvas balloon and said, “I’m not going anywhere in that death trap!”

Felicity poked her head out and said, “It’ll be fine! Lightning capacitor engines haven’t killed anyone in the last twenty years!”

“That’s because they haven’t been used in the last twenty years,” Flannigan retorted.

“What seems to be the problem?” asked Gravat.

Felicity lifted her goggles. “The engine on this is an old one, and it uses two free arcs of electricity to generate power. To start it, someone needs to crank it while the other holds a metal driveshaft between the arcs.”

“That sounds unnecessarily dangerous and quite insane,” said Gravat, who received an affirming nod from Betsy.

“Engineers are all about the machine first,” Felicity explained, as if the mystery was solved.

Gravat looked at the heap of rusty iron and felt like being shot at in battle was safer. “Do we have no other choice?”

Felicity pointed to the Kesperrians. “We can sneak this craft out the doors at the back. All the others are too large.”

“Fine,” said Gravat. “But why does Flannigan have to hold the drive shaft?”

Flannigan held up his hands. “These are the steadiest hands in the whole kingdom,” he said. “Precision is my passion. But I think Felicity abuses it sometimes.”

“I can do it if someone explains it to me,” said Gravat.

“You’ll just get yourself killed,” said Flannigan. He scowled at Felicity. “Fine, I’ll do it. But I want you to get me some of those mercury pressure gauges I’ve been asking for.”

Felicity gave him a peck on the cheek. “Consider them yours!”

Jim and Ginny helped wheel the craft out the back while Felicity and Flannigan worked on it. Gravat tried eyeing what was going on, but the canvas balloon was in the way. Eventually Felicity poked her head back out and said, “Everything’s ready. We just need to inflate the envelope with a lifting gas. Do we have anything useful nearby?”

“All the helium is guarded,” said Betsy, her attention still on the Kesperrians. The fire seemed like it was finally dying out, and some of them turned their attention back to the hangar. “Can’t the engine just make hot air or something?”

“That would take too long,” said Felicity.

“I would just like to point out that this is why a coal-burning engine is better,” said Isak.

“We can use my teleportation apparatus,” said Ginny, holding up a bracer with wires and blinking lights. “It will work this time.”

“To be fair, you say that every time,” said Flannigan.

Jim staggered towards them and said, “I have gas.”

“This is not the time,” said Flannigan.

“No,” said Jim, pointing to a pile of manure and plant matter next to an outhouse. “There’s the gas. Just – hic – get the balloon on top of the outhouse.”

Gravat helped Isak and Felicity push the craft next to the small wooden structure. The smell of the manure and decay made Flannigan pale, and Betsy held her nose. Jim opened the door to the outhouse and started shoveling in stuff from the pile. Ginny and Gravat began to help at Jim’s direction: “This is some good sh – hic – stuff. Shovel as much as you can.”

They reduced the pile by half, and Jim told them to stop. He produced from his coveralls a series of three glass bottles with cork stoppers; the liquids were green, pale yellow, and orange. Stepping inside the outhouse, Jim closed the door. “For science,” he muttered, and then he came back out again.

Nothing happened for five minutes.

“What is supposed to happen?” asked Gravat, who noticed that the fire was mostly under control, and the Kesperrians had almost fully returned to their duties.

“It’s bas-basic chemistry,” said Jim. “You can’t rush it.” He nodded at the top of the outhouse, and Gravat saw the balloon flutter a bit. Then, it fluttered some more, and it started to inflate. “Can I have my happy flask back now?”

Nearby, Gravat heard some shouting. Betsy said, “It would appear the Kesperrians have found us.” She pointed at a dozen angry guards running towards them.

“We should get going then. All aboard,” said Gravat, jumping onto the flying rust bucket.

“Starting the engine. Ready Flannigan?” said Felicity, her hand on a crank.

“No, but if I don’t survive this, I don’t want Jim to have my thermometers,” he replied. Jim wiped a tear from his eye. One of the Kesperrians took a shot at them, and the bullet whizzed over their heads. Flannigan shouted, “This isn’t going to work if they shoot me, either!”

Isak leaned out of the craft and yelled, “Hey! You’re shooting at a balloon filled with the most flammable gas known to humanity! Do you want the whole hangar to be set on fire?” One of the Kesperrians heard him, and she waved for the other guards to stop firing.

“Is that true?” asked Betsy, her face losing all its color.

Jim opened his mouth, but Isak interrupted and said, “Not really.”

With the danger averted, the group floated into the air slowly, picking up speed as the engine kicked to life. The propellers on the side of the bucket started turning, and the craft ascended up towards their destination. So close to the ship, Gravat sat back and marveled at its size. Having survived a war with the Kesperrians, he trembled to think what they could have done with such a massive weapon.

They got close to the ship, and Gravat jumped out onto a landing. Up so high, the wind howled and it was difficult for him to keep his balance. He managed to tie a rope from the dirigible to the ship, and he waited for the others to disembark. Betsy got out, but no one else followed.

She pointed a gun at him and shouted, “Untie the balloon now!”

“What is the meaning of this?” asked Gravat.

“I’m taking the ship from you,” said Betsy. “Your services are no longer required!”

“You fiend,” growled Gravat. “Do you always double-cross people who work for you?”

“It’s cheaper that way,” said Betsy. “Stop stalling and untie the ship, or I will shoot you!”

“You’ll have to shoot,” Gravat yelled. He lunged forward, and he saw Betsy’s gun fire. His chest burst with pain, and the bullet knocked him back to the deck. Gravat hit his head, and his vision blurred. He saw Betsy lift her gun again, and then he saw a bright flash of light. Then, he saw nothing. Hands lifted him up from the deck, and they took him below.

“What happened?” he asked after the pain dimmed a bit.

“Ginny saved your life,” said Felicity.

“So did – hic – my happy flask,” said Jim, holding up the dented steel container. “You’re welcome,” he said, taking a long pull.

“It worked, it really worked,” said Flannigan, staring at Ginny. Isak was also scratching his head.

“Where’s Betsy?” asked Gravat.

Over on his right, he heard a loud knocking on the wall. “Get me out of here,” Betsy yelled, her voice muffled.

“By my calculations, she’s in a janitor’s closet,” said Ginny, doing the math in the air.

“What do we do now?” asked Felicity, helping Gravat sit up. “We’ve cleared the moorings, and the ship has power.”

“Since we just stole an airship, I don’t think we can go back to the aerodrome,” said Gravat. “On the bright side, we can fly anywhere we want.”

“Sounds good,” said Felicity. “Where to first, captain?”

“Captain? I’m sure you’re more qualified,” said Gravat.

“You look – hic – look like a cap’n,” said Jim.

Gravat shrugged, then winced. “Okay, well, fine. Let’s head due west, and chase the setting sun.” With a salute, everyone hopped to it, and the Sky Princess sailed on her maiden voyage.