Tag Archives: Novel

Tricks, Traps, and Puzzles in RPG’s and Stories.

I used to Gamemaster a lot for … well, not necessarily AD&D, but my own system based on that game. It was lots of fun. I especially enjoyed designing clever tricks, traps, and puzzles. This has carried over into my writing, as well. Many of my books and stories have some kind of puzzle in them. In RPG games (like AD&D) puzzles are an integral part of the game. I mean, after a while, even the most bloodthirsty person will tire from the endless hack and slash of your basic dungeon crawl. Tricks and traps add a special degree of unexpected flair to your basic gaming session. They force the players to think—and usually require them to put the thief in the party to work; though the best ones require input from the whole group. There are loads of pretty standard tricks and traps to choose from: poisoned needles, trap doors, poison gas, etc…. The best, though, are the ones you design yourself to really challenge the players. Probably the most difficult to pull off in a gaming session are riddles. This is because it’s all too easy to write a poor riddle (I know … I’ve done it). Basically, you write something that seems crystal clear to you at the time of writing, but when it comes time to spring it on the players, either they come up with two or more equally valid answers which you didn’t think of, or the riddle is too opaque and vague, and they just can’t solve it. In the case of riddles and RPG games, it’s usually best to go with actually published riddles, something some company somewhere wrote down, researched, and developed, supposedly with the help of experts, or something. The above is true of other puzzles you might feel inclined to include in your game. Some puzzles, like riddles, may just be too difficult for the players to figure out. That happened to me once, with one of my favorite puzzles of all time: an invisible maze. I won’t go into the details of the puzzle—I believe I have elsewhere—but I will just hold it up for the lesson it taught me. A puzzle/riddle in an RPG is useless if it is unsolvable.

This is NOT true in writing. No, when you are writing a story, you, the author, are the one who determines what the purpose of the puzzle is in the context of the story. You can use your basic tricks and traps from the RPG setting—the poisoned needle or the trap door, or what-have-you—or you can design your own. In such a case, almost anything goes because, generally speaking, the puzzle will be solved by the characters in the story because you are the writer and you are in complete control. There is no risk of, say, a riddle being unsolved because it’s too opaque, because you know what the answer is and you can just write it in—unless, of course, you want the riddle to remain unsolved, but that I would probably counsel against lest you irritate your readers. Regardless, you should still make the effort to design good riddles (and avoid the published ones for copyright reasons) but that is because they are a reflection of your skill as an author and not because you may inadvertently stump the characters. Puzzles in writing serve a similar purpose to what they serve in an RPG—they provide a break from action and just give the reader something to wrestle with. There is one more point to make about puzzles in writing: distance. Generally speaking, the puzzle shouldn’t be solved the sentence after it is presented to the reader; otherwise, they won’t have a chance to think about it and be impressed with its cleverness. The presentation of the riddle must be separated by a certain amount of distance from its solution in the story. The characters must struggle with it for a certain length of time, otherwise, the reader will not struggle with it—and what’s the fun of that? Give it a few pages, at least, so that the reader has a chance to ruminate about it for a while.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on tricks, traps, and puzzles in both RPG settings and writing. Enjoy!

The Art of Writing: Brainstorming

So, you want to write your next big novel or short story. The first step (at least it is for me) is to brainstorm your story. Jot down all you can about your story. Start with the characters: the people around which the story revolves. Who is the main character? What characteristics define them? What are their goals? Is there a love interest? Do the same for him or her. Flesh them out. Once you have your characters straight, you can work on the plot of the story. What’s the conflict? What drives the tension? What is the story arc? Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Differentiate between such things here while you’re brainstorming. Don’t get upset if it’s still a little muddled, or even if you have more than one exclusive storyline in mind. You’ll straighten it out by the time you’re done. Brainstorming, as we were all taught in school, is just about stirring the pot of ideas. Write down everything you can think of. Every little detail. It doesn’t matter how small, nor does it even matter if it contradicts something you’ve already written down. Just get ideas on paper.

 

When are you done? Well, it depends on the length of the work in question. If it’s just a short story, you’re probably done when you have delineated the main characters and fleshed out the plotline. Then, you can start writing. If it’s a novel, you have to do the same type of work, but the details can be a little less clear. Many novelists change things or add things halfway through their work. Don’t feel boxed in because you’ve already brainstormed a path for your novel. Leave yourself some flexibility; it’s all part of the creative process.

 

Once you are done brainstorming your ideas, the next step is to outline your story. Of course, all of this is moot if you are a “pantser.” That is, a writer that writes by the seat of their pants. They kind of brainstorm as they go along. I used to be like that, but no more. Now I plot things out. Must be my old age, I guess. 🙂

 

World-building Athron: The Magic System: Some Basics

In the gaming system I used in Athron while world-building, I spent a considerable amount of time on the magic system. The nuts and bolts are formed by the spellcraft, rune lore, and alchemy skills augmented with the energy skills. But there is more. Not much more, but a few additional skills I feel are worth mentioning. Specifically, scholars in my system have access to a Scroll Lore skill, Command Item skill, and Item Lore skill.

 

Scroll Lore allows wizards to create their own scrolls. Basically, the wizard inscribes a spell from a specific spellcraft on a piece of parchment or vellum or what-have-you. Thereafter, the wizard may use the scroll in lieu of casting an actual spell. The advantage comes in the form of an energy savings. A scroll only requires the expenditure of as few as one energy point when it is used. Casting a spell with spellcraft requires far many more. The initial construction of the scroll, of course, requires the same amount of energy as casting the spell, but then the wizard may rest as many days as he likes and restore his energy levels. Such will give him more access to more spells when in the depths of a dungeon with a bevy of scrolls at hand.

 

Command Item is a skill that allows a wizard (or anyone else with the skill) to summon up and control the magical abilities of an enchanted item. If your sword bursts into flames upon command, it requires an effort of will to activate that function. There is not a guaranteed success to such an activity. No, it is based on a character’s or creature’s Command Item skill or its equivalent. Increasing the skill increases the chance of success.

 

Item Lore is a skill that allows a wizard (or anyone else with such a skill) to study a magic item that he or she has found over the course of adventuring or in the course of a novel. It requires a certain period of time to examine and study the item in question. If the character does this successfully, he or she will unlock the mysteries of the item and learn all its special abilities and powers.

 

The final skill in the system is a skill called Magical Lore. This does not translate well into a novel; it is more specifically a gaming skill. Basically, it increases the modifiers bestowed on other skills. For example, a high Magical Lore skill will increase the effectiveness of a character’s Rune Lore or Scroll Lore or what-have-you.

 

Lastly, the system allows for minor access to the spellcrafts through two additional minor skills. With these skills, the character can gain limited spell abilities. It’s difficult, but not impossible, for a warrior character to gain access to a limited form of flamecraft, or some other spellcraft. Theoretically, a warrior could have normal access to flamecraft, but it is prohibitively expensive in terms of experience and skill slots, so it is almost unheard of. These minor skills are a little easier for non-scholar classes to use than full-fledged full access major skills.

Book Review: Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb) (4 *’s)

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robing Hobb is an unusual fantasy story in that the main character is an apprentice to a king’s royal assassin. If you are going to read the book for enjoyment, you’ll have to put on the shelf any moral reservations concerning assassination you might have. It sounds like a dark and nasty profession, but the way it is presented in the book, it is almost respectable. I admit I liked the characters, including the assassins, and once I got into the book, it flowed quite smoothly.

 

The main character is a young boy named Fitz, the bastard son of the king-in-waiting, a prince named Chivalry (that was an interesting little facet about the book: all the royalty were named after the virtue they were supposed to embody in their lives. Thus, you had King Shrewd, Lady Patience, Prince Verity, Prince Regal, etc….). Fitz is a young man with an exceptional array of talents. He has both the Wit (the ability to bond with and essentially telepathically speak with animals) and (later in the book) the ability to Skill (much like the Wit except it applies to humans). The story begins as a first-person narrative on Fitz’s part like a memoir. His earliest memory is being dropped off at a royal outpost by his grandfather. The grandfather is apparently tired of supporting the bastard son of a royal personage and consigns Fitz to the care of his father. Then the grandfather disappears from the story, and the story of Fitz’s life in the royal household begins. At first, he is all but ignored and simply under the care of Prince Chivalry’s loyal stablemaster Burrich. Then he comes to the attention of King Shrewd who wants to put him to use as the next royal assassin for the king, and his training begins.

 

Strengths: the characters were well-developed and existed in a well-proportioned number. There weren’t so many that the reader got confused, nor were there too few that the reader got bored. It was just about right (cue Goldilocks). The writing was superb, the character development excellent, and the plot and storyline were good and engaging. Weaknesses: hmmm … I can’t think of any at the moment, except, it did take me a while to get engaged in the book. There was just something about it I didn’t like at first. Also, the “magic” system of the Wit and the Skill I thought was kind of lacking. I prefer fireballs and lightning bolts like in AD&D. Oh well. It was still an excellent book.

 

I’ll give Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Apprentice four stars out of five.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin 4 *’s)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is the first book of the Earthsea series, a rather famous series that has been around for decades. The copyright on A Wizard of Earthsea dates it to 1968, so it’s stayed the course of time. I’ll begin my book by saying, I didn’t really like the first chapter that much. It was written in that older style (I don’t recall the technical name—it’s like 3rd person narrative, or something like that) where every scene runs into every other scene and it consists of a shallow narrative that simply seems to connect dots in a line to me. I much prefer the modern style, where you sink into the scene getting glimpses of even the thoughts of the characters. Anyway, from the outset it is quite clear that Ursula K. Le Guin has incredible skill with the written word. Although I didn’t like the style, I was very much impressed with her technical skill.

 

The story told is of the early exploits of the young wizard named Ged. It’s worth pointing out that Ged is his true name (in normal affairs he goes by Sparrowhawk). I’ve always wondered where the notion that knowledge of a thing’s true name gives one power over that thing came from. I’ve seen such referenced in Dungeons and Dragons, The Black Company books by Glen Cook, and now here. As this dates to 1968 it is the current winner in my experience. Anyway, the character of Sparrowhawk begins the book as a precocious, power-hungry wizard-in-training. He is so precocious, and so power-hungry he gets himself in trouble and inadvertently, in an attempt to upstage a rival, unleashes a shadowy being from the underworld onto the real world. The rest of the book deals largely with him dealing with this shadowy being with only a few side adventures. It’s a short book, so the side adventures make up a good portion of it. It’s got a dragon in it, which is always a plus in my view, provided the dragon is done well—and this one is.

 

Strengths: like I said, Ursula K. Le Guin’s skill with the written word is quite impressive. The main character evolves quite convincingly over the course of the book from a rash impetuous youth, to a more mature seasoned individual. I must stress again the writer’s skill: it is very difficult to write in the style she chose. She used that old English type prose that Tolkien did many times (you know, kind of a Yoda-speak: “strong, it was, and sleek,” etc …) and it didn’t come across as tiresome and forced. That is an achievement in its own right. Weaknesses: although I found the tale to be entertaining, I was not fully smitten by it. It was an okay story, written in an earlier, more difficult to read style, but written with incredible skill.

 

Ultimately, I’ll give A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin four stars out of five.

Book Review: Game of Thrones

I finally got around to reading George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.” It’s a classic fantasy book with battles, intrigue, and fantastical creatures. When I first heard of the series, my original impression was that it was just a simple medieval setting without any fantasy creatures. I don’t know why I had that impression, but I did. As it turns out, I was completely wrong: It’s got the medieval armies and the fantasy creatures. Specifically, just in book one, it has direwolves, wights, and dragons. It also mentions a few other critters that may rear their heads in later books.

The story is complex and convoluted. There are quite a large number of point-of-view characters: Eddard, Catelyn, Tyrion, Danerys, Sansa, Arya, Jon, and Bran (I think that’s all). Things start out simply enough with most of the action taking place in the northern citadel of Winterfell. Soon enough, however, the storyline fractures. Eddard Stark is appointed the King’s Hand. As a result, one group of people goes south to King’s Landing, another group stays at Winterfell, and Jon Snow (Eddard’s bastard son) heads even further north to the Wall. There is also the building side storyline involving Danerys who, I think, is on an entirely different continent not shown on the book maps. I assume she’ll be crossing the water soon enough, but on the whole, it makes it difficult to follow the plot … not the major thrust: the assassination attempt on Bran and Catelyn’s investigation into such and Eddard’s intrigues at court. That went well enough, but the problem was the whole horde of characters in this book. There’s probably five or six or more characters for each point-of-view character, so very soon, the sheer numbers of such become unmanageable.

Also, this book should come with an adult warning. There’s incest, teen sex, and a six-year-old boy who still breastfeeds just to name a few eyebrow raisers. I also read somewhere that things go very poorly for the Starks in later books, which is a shame, because those are the characters I liked the most … particularly Jon Snow. Because of that, I probably will not read any further in the series. I read the first book and overall I’d say my reaction was lukewarm. It wasn’t bad; it was decent, but the eyebrow raisers listed above and the fact I was forewarned about a number of Starks dying does not inspire me to read more.

Strengths: I liked the direwolves and dragons, and the Night’s Watch. The writing was decent and the main characters were likeable enough. Weaknesses: there were too many characters, too many things done simply for shock-value, and for some reason or other, I never fully sank into the book. Sometimes, it was almost a chore to read.

Ultimately, I’ll give “Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin three stars out of five.

This review was originally published on Goodreads on 6/27/13.

Book Review: The Emperor’s Soul

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson is a much shorter book than many of Brandon Sanderson’s other works. The copy I have is only about 170 pages long. To me it came across as kind of a long short story, instead of a novel. Maybe it was intended that way; I’m not sure. Anyway, the story is set in the same world as Brandon Sanderson’s first novel: Elantris. However, it’s hard to tell that on first blush. The magic system seems different—which it shouldn’t be, as it is the same world. There is no mention of the Dor at all in this book, but there are a few references to some of the countries from Elantris, like Fjordell, but that’s about it. It says in the postscript that it is set in that world so I’ll have to take Brandon Sanderson word on that.

 

Like I said, the magic system seems different than before; I had to think about it to find a similarity. And, as far as I can tell, it is this: writing. The magic systems introduced in Elantris all involved some form of writing to invoke their power. This book introduces a new form of writing to invoke magical power. The main character, a young woman named Shai, is a master Forger. And the term Forging here, is more reminiscent of the term meaning copying something than it is heating steel and shaping. That had me confused on the back copy. When I originally read it, I thought she was creating a whole new soul for the Emperor from nothing… something I find, if not impossible, at least philosophically unsatisfying (although it is, of course, Brandon Sanderson’s book). Her actual task in the story is slightly different. The Emperor’s true soul is still there, it is just suppressed and inactive due to injury. She must, through the art of Forgery, construct a new history for the Emperor and his soul, allowing him to function. Because it is a Forgery, it won’t be a perfect method of “healing”—there will be gaps in his knowledge, etc…–but it will give the Empire its ruler back and allow him to function similarly to the way he did before he was injured. Hence, it will be as if he has a new, slightly faulty “copy” of his original soul. At least, that’s how I understood it.

 

There isn’t a lot of action in this book. It consists mostly of Shai being in prison and talking to/figuring things out about her captors. A considerable amount of effort is also spent developing and explaining the magic system.

 

I was having certain issues while reading the book, so that I had some difficulty concentrating on it. As a result I’m not comfortable giving it a precise rating, so I will give it a range. I’d say it is somewhere between three and a half, and four stars out of five. It seemed worth reading to me, but I won’t swear by that testimony.

Fantasy Literature: Character Development: A Few Thoughts and Pointers

I’m of the mind that characters are one of the constants of novels. I think it would be impossible to write a novel without having at least one character. If you were to write something without a character, you might be able to pass it off as a poem, perhaps, but certainly not a novel. An essay, maybe, or a dissertation, but not a novel. Also, realistically speaking, I don’t think you’d be able to limit yourself to just one character. You’d probably need at least one more. For what is a novel, but an exploration of human relationships and character development? How could one explore such without a selection of characters to delineate?

 

Since the above is true (or at least I regard it as true), it may be worthwhile to pound out a few thoughts on how novel characters come to be. What kind of effort goes into constructing one?

 

In the first draft of my first book, Drasmyr, I wrote everything stream-of-consciousness, revising as I went along. The characters only existed in my mind. I had a relatively small number, I was much younger with a more energetic brain (I think) so I could keep such things straight. I had no need for character description sheets, or anything of the sort. Nowadays, I’ve changed my approach. It’s kind of an approach-in-progress—because I’m constantly adding new things and tweaking things in a chaotic, disorganized way—but currently, I have notebook filled with character information sheets.

 

What’s in them, you ask? Well, start with the basics. First, you need a general description of the character. Height. Weight. Eye color. Hair color. Muscular? Thin? Etc… Keeping a good physical description in one place is a very good idea (I’m actually learning this the hard way, because I wrote the rough draft of book II before I wrote the character sheets—a silly mistake, but a painful one—but I intended to reread the thing a million times before I published it anyway), that way you can refer back to it whenever you need to and you don’t have to worry about making a mistake describing the character with blue eyes in one place, and brown in another, or what have you. That’s probably one of the simplest ways to save yourself some headaches. So, whenever you are writing and you introduce a new character, do yourself a favor and make up a character information sheet (unless that character is just a walk-on), put it a neatly organized folder for easy access later on.

 

Of course, characters are much more than their physical descriptions. They have personalities with conflicts and hang-ups and what have you. Their outlook on life changes as they progress through the story. All these things must be kept straight in order to tell a good story.

 

So, in order to flesh out the character, I include a section on the character’s history (birthplace, parent’s names, etc…), their clothing preferences (although that is hardly essential), their general personalities, and the crises, evolutions, or aspects of human nature I wish to explore while developing them. If the character is a religious fanatic, I include it here and try to explain why. If they hate goblins, well, what led to that bias? Recording changes in a character is probably the most important aspect of character development, but is also the hardest to convey in a single blog post. Characters evolve and change, they learn new things, they change their minds. That’s what the “development” in character development means.

 

Of course, this is very complicated particularly when there are multiple characters (I suddenly see the wisdom in limiting a novel to one main character—that definitely makes things easier). You have to track the changes and interactions. Generally, I do this on a separate sheet, in outline form only.

 

I’ve found that the easiest approach to character information sheets is to start each character on a fresh piece of paper. If you try to use the same piece of paper for multiple characters, you’re apt to run out of room. I’ve done this. I know. If they are separable, you can alphabetize (for easy reference) and also expand upon previous notes. You don’t have to write a character’s entire background the first time you use him or her, and you can always add additional sheets as you see fit.

 

Okay, I’ve blabbed about characters for quite a bit now. Time to end the post.

Monster Mishmash: A Vampire Dragon

I stumbled upon this concept while traipsing across the Internet the other day. The blogger was talking (here’s the link) about vampires in Magic the Gathering and the like. She mentioned how vampirism, although it affects humans most commonly, can affect other species. She mentioned dragons as one such species. And that just gives me shivers.

 

Why, oh why, would you want to take two things as powerful as a dragon and a vampire, and combine them? I mean, I can’t imagine anything worse to fight short of a deity. I mean, a fire-breathing, spell-using, killing machine, plated with armor and possessing deadly claws and teeth. Then, you add the abilities of a vampire on top of that? A dragon that can only be killed by a wooden stake through the heart? I mean, seriously, how do you stake an armor plated dragon with a shaft of wood? Please, Mr. Dragon, remove the scaly hide that protects your heart so I can drive this flimsy shaft of wood in. Oh, and the dragon can become a cloud of mist; it can polymorph into a variety of forms… look at that tiny little bat. What do you mean, it’s not really a bat? (Of course, in some traditions dragons already have the ability to polymorph, or can even assume gaseous form)

 

I remember in AD&D there were these creatures called Dracoliches, which were a form of undead dragon. And as a lich was pretty much the most powerful undead, a Dracolich was one of the most powerful creatures you could encounter. We fought one or two in our day. Nasty critters. Reminds me of the days when all I ever rolled for saving throws was a 1 or a 2. Anyway, a dragon vampire would be pretty much about the same thing. Maybe not quite as powerful, but I certainly wouldn’t want to face one. In 2nd edition AD&D, vampires drained 2 levels with a touch. Could you imagine fighting a dragon that did that? With multiple attacks? Claw, claw, bite (and wing buffet, wing buffet, tail lash for complete measure). In one round, your 13th level butt-kicking warrior prince is reduced to a first level greenhorn. Next thing you know, you’re a snack.

 

I suppose the balancing factor would be the weaknesses. A dragon that is destroyed by sunlight or running water would have to be very careful. He wouldn’t have to worry about invitations, though. He could just destroy any building he couldn’t enter, so no one could hide in it. And, of course, there’s holy objects. It would be nice to have a powerful high priest around when facing a dragon vampire.

 

But the real mystery of the dragon vampire is: where did the first one come from? A normal vampire couldn’t kill a dragon (well, if you have level draining, maybe), so how did the first one come about? Was it just some crazy wizard doing foolish experiments? That seems the most plausible explanation to me. But you would have to be really crazy, and a little stupid, to dabble in that!

Interview on The Vampire’s Shadow

Tylerbleu of The Vampire’s Shadow has posted an interview with yours truly concerning my novel, Drasmyr. Here’s the link: Interview with Matt. Go check it out and let us know what you think.