New Blog up on Castalia House

I have never owned a Dungeon Masters Guide.

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What is “Appendix N” and why should you care?

appendixn

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In 1979 a company called Tactical Studies Rules published Dungeon Master’s Guide, which was the third hardcover book in their  extensive reworking of the Dungeons & Dragons game.

The growth of the game’s popularity had been explosive, considering that the original set of rules had been published only five years before.

Those five years had seen the publication of several officially authorized supplements to original rules as well as an officially authorized monthly magazine.

The wealth of unofficial and unauthorized material for D&D published during those same years is hard to estimate.  It seemed as if anyone with access to a mimeograph machine and a copier was producing adventure modules, collections of monsters and treasures, and pamphlets of optional rules.

At this same the authors of the original game, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, had a falling out, with Gygax remaining with TSR and Arneson moving on to other projects.

All of this led to Gary Gygax deciding to reboot the game, producing the three hardcover books that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax wanted to set down the definitive rules.  These books were a stark contrast to the ad-hoc garage shop feel of many of the mimeographed “supplements” with construction paper covers that were circulating at the time.

To get back to the original question, though, “Appendix N” refers to the Nth appendix to the DMG.  Titled “Inspirational And Educational Reading”, it is a listing of the fiction that inspired Gary Gygax to create Dungeons & Dragons in the first place, and that he recommended to players of D&D.

So that’s what it is.  Why you should care is a little more complex. In fact, it’s complex enough that Jeffro Johnson wrote a book on the subject.  How that happened is, well, kind of a funny story, because he didn’t set out to write a book.

Jeffro Johnson is gaming blogger.  His blog is called Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog.  Despite the name, he doesn’t limit himself to space gaming, he writes about all manner of subjects relating to gaming as a hobby, as well as a wide selection of games.

A while back he had the idea to do a series of reviews of the books listed in Gygax’s Appendix N.  As near as I can figure it, (and I’ve been reading his blog for some years now) that’s all it was.  He was going through his old DMG and saw the list of recommended reading and wondered if anyone had ever sat down to do a series of reviews on those particular works, as a sort of companion piece to the original appendix.

When he didn’t find one he decided to do it himself.

And therein hangs a tale.

Over the course of the project Jeffro discovered not only a number of neglected classics of the Fantasy genre, but also a tradition of adventure-oriented storytelling.  His observations regarding those traditions have helped to spark the current Pulp Revival movement in genre fiction.  They have certainly had an influence on my own work.

While this collection of reviews is unapologetically written by and for role playing gamers, with numerous specific examples of  how a particular narrative was adapted as a particular set of rules, the insights into what makes good storytelling are applicable to fans of genre fiction in general.

What’s more, the press that his series has garnered, both positive and negative, has helped to introduce new readers to older works that have unfairly forgotten. As such, I can recommend this book to anyone who is interested in discovering the roots of the Fantasy genre.

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What do your dreams do when you are awake?

Chewing over that question is what has got me stuck on Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts at the moment.

You see, I am working from the premise that what humans dream is actually an objective reality and that when humans sleep they astrally project into another universe. (Well, one of nine different alternate realms, each with their own physical laws and inhabitants and culture and so on.)

The inhabitants of the Realms of Nightmare are collectively called oneiroi, with each realm having its own people (“norns” for Messidor, “morauxe” for Nivose, and so on.)

The technology of the oneiroi is based on harvesting ectoplasm from the human souls, which is a physical manifestation of emotional energy. So many of the oneiroi work as harvesters, making the dreams of humans vivid and powerful, with a strong emotional component (the exact emotion that they strive to induce is dependant upon the realm–different sorts of oneiroi harvest different emotional states.)

So far so good. But what about the oneiroi life outside of humans? To be compelling and realistic, I need to be able to understand the “backstage” of oneiroi cities and daily life. Some would be involved in manufacturing, I suppose–refining the emotional ectoplasm and using it as both a material resource and a power supply.

But it’s what they do outside of their work that is giving me problems. Particularly because it won’t be the same for all realms. So far most of my “rules” for oneiroi in general are negative in nature. I know that none of them sleep, and I know that they don’t raise children (oneiroi reproduce collectively–there are places in each realm where the young essentially grow wild–they begin as plantlike sessile creatures and then metamorphose into animals, gradually becoming self-aware as they grow).

They do eat, although they can’t starve to death. If they can’t get food they shrink and revert back into animals and eventually root again.

I suppose that they would have their own arts, which also would be realm-dependant (the blind djinn of lightless Brumaire, for example, could hardly be painters).

So. Norns, then. Norns feed on human despair and resignation, particularly on the dreams of those who are near death. (This concept comes from a line from the band Shreikback’s song “Nemesis”: “We drink elixirs that we refine from the juices of the dying.”)

And then there is trade with the Midworld.  The realms of Nightmare are also the basis of the magic system in the human world.

Plus, of course, the internal politics.  Oneiroi would have their position in society, their own concepts of wealth and status (gak–I’m going to need nine economic systems, too!) Each realm has a ruler who is the next best thing to a god in that particular realm, so there would be competition for status within the ruler’s court.

Okay, I think I have a better idea of what I need to do.  Often just writing things down helps me to clarify my own thoughts.

Thanks for listening.

 

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On the midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away

This past weekend I went to Springfield, Missouri.  It’s on the opposite corner of the state from my home in St. Louis, but Missouri is one of those medium size states in the middle of the country.  It takes me about five hours to make the trip, but I like to stop and stretch my legs and get a bite to eat along the way.

I have an uncomfortably complex relationship with the town. I grew up there and left at a critical age–I was in the middle of high school and finished out (well, failed to finish, actually) at a completely different school in a very different place. For a long time I had transferred my feelings of pain and betrayal at being uprooted to the town itself, which was both unfair and understandable of me.

So I used to hate Springfield, MO.  But then a very strange thing happened.  My two eldest children, for different reasons, ended up settling there.  And so I began to visit them, which has involved me revisiting my own past.

This has had some profound effects on my writing.  I write in what is probably the exact wrong way.  I tend to throw a bunch of words at the paper, taking ideas and images from whatever happens to strike my fancy, and then go back and try to figure out just what the Hell I’m talking about.

With The Book Of Lost Doors (and the more distance I have from that project the more I realize that it’s really one big novel told in four parts–which helps to explain why the ending of the first one, Catskinner’s Book, is so gawdawful) I didn’t really understand what I was saying until I was nearly finished with Gingerbread Wolves.

It was on a trip to Springfield that I put the whole thing together, driving slowly around my old neighborhood.  That neighborhood is called “Village Green” and those of you who have read Gingerbread Wolves will recognize the name.  The middle third or so of that book–from James’ first entry into Village Green to the final battle with Nyarlenthotep–was conceived and written in my head while cruising the streets I grew up on.

When I got back to St. Louis I just had to write it down.

On this last trip I had a similar revelation about Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts.  I am still not quite sure what the book is about, but I suddenly understood who Sam Jackknife really is. In The Book Of Lost Doors the identity of Catskinner was one of the few things I was certain about when I started the project–from a personal standpoint, Catskinner was based on a part of myself that I called The Hanged Man, who was what psychologists who specialize in dissociation call a “protector altar”.

When I started Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts I just wanted a narrator who was different from James.  I was looking to try out a different voice.  I took the name “Sam” from Roger Zelazny’s Lord Of Light (and made it short for Samhain rather than Samuel to keep from echoing Samuel the Pale Surgeon) and “Jackknife” from the Alice Cooper song “Jackknife Johnny” on the album From The Inside.

The Jackknife part was a deliberate mismatch–Sam is the antithesis of the deeply wounded veteran of the Cooper song.  Sometimes I do that–pick a name with associations that are completely wrong for the character.  I’m not sure why, but it seems to work. Blame Michael Moorcock, who chose “Mr. Smiles” as the name of a depressed loser in The Final Programme.

In any event, it suddenly occurred to me that Samhain Jackknife, who is a wealthy idler, musician and dancer, clothes horse and style mavin, pretty rather than handsome and arch rather than clever, was based on another part of myself–my anima, the feminine part of myself who I had objectified as Valentine.

It’s the kind of understanding that changes everything that I thought I knew about the book, and is going to involve rereading everything I have so far written with a new eye. But then, I keep rewriting the damned thing as my cosmology evolves, so another time won’t hurt.

 

 

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Waiter, there’s a grobginthnik in my x’nibblierk!

Without warning the captured gnomish thief reached into his cloak and removed a g’tharknik–

[Hang on, wait–what’s a “g’tharknik” again? Isn’t that the big shaggy animal with horns? How did a gnome fit one of those in his cloak? Is it a cloak of holding or something?  Gonna have to check the glossary–

Flip flip flip flip…

Oh, here it is: G’tharknik, (n) A ceremonial dagger used by gnomes to commit vernarkdik (c.f)

Vernarkdik?  What the heck’s that?

Flip, flip, flip…

Okay: Vernarkdik, (n) An act of treachery performed by a gnome.

Got it.  The gnome has a knife up his sleeve. Now where the heck was I?]

Without warning the captured gnomish thief reached into his cloak and removed a g’tharknik, which he plunged into the heart of the soldier holding him.  Leaping nimbly across the floor he leapt on the back of his waiting g’liptrik–

[Right, the “g’liptrik” is the big shaggy animal with horns, I guess]

Leaping nimbly across the floor he leapt on the back of his waiting g’liptrik, which instantly took off into the air–

[Hang on, “g’liptriks” can fly?  Lemme see–

Flip, flip, flip…

Oh, wait: G’liptrik (n) Giant eagle raised by Gnomes as a riding beast.

Oh, that was an eagle in the corner–I was thinking it was like a longhorn sheep or something.]

Leaping nimbly across the floor he leapt on the back of his waiting g’liptrik, which instantly took off into the air, narrowly missing the flishoopalert on the castle wall–

[Flishoopalert?

Flip, flip, flip…

Flishoopalert, (n) An Imperial bowman.

Now where the hell was I again?]

Leaping nimbly across the floor he leapt on the back of his waiting g’liptrik, which instantly took off into the air, narrowly missing the flishoopalert on the castle wall, then escaping eastward towards the waiting ygg’nimblinks–

[Screw it.]

This is why I don’t read much Epic Fantasy.

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The Schlock Aesthetic As Narrative Xeriscape

“Schlock” is one of those things that is easy to recognize, hard to define, and nearly impossible to demonstrate by example without getting into a shouting match.

However, let me open with a few observations.  First, I do not use “schlock” as an insult.  I consider it a style, not a level of quality.  There is some very good schlock out there, in the sense that it is entertaining and well-crafted, just as there is much dreadful “high brow” literature.

The term began as a derisive term applied to low budget films, made for drive-in theaters originally, then the direct to cable TV and direct to video market. These films tended to be shot quickly, using poorly paid talent both in front of and behind the camera, working from scripts that were written just as quickly, using visual effects that were selected on the basis of economy.

And yet many of these movies have an enduring charm, continuing to be watched and enjoyed long after that year’s serious cinema has been forgotten.  Reviewers of serious cinema like to label enduring schlock films “cult films”, but that term is less an explanation than a way to avoid thinking about it.

I believe that these so-called “cult films” endure not in spite of being low budget, but because of it.  The limits of physical economy impose an economy of style which can–when combined with essential competence in the craft–result in a story that is stripped to its essentials. As such, I can point to some characteristics of the genre which can be applied to other forms of storytelling.

Start From The Payoff: The essence of  schlock is “getting to the good part”.  These films are usually designed around certain scenes that are expected to gather a positive audience response. The plots are then written backwards from there.  Rather than asking, “what would happen if there was a spill of toxic waste?” and then researching the biochemistry of human beings and the protocols in place for transporting such waste, the schlock mindset begins with the desired scene–grotesque mutant cannibals overrunning a small town–and picks “toxic waste spill” as a possible mechanism for getting there.

Use What’s Available: Locations for schlock films are usually existing structures that happen to be available to the filmmakers. Got a cousin who manages a hair salon and the owner says we can use it if we pay for cleanup and repairs after shooting?  Great, our heroine is now a hair stylist.

Writers of fiction should take this lesson to heart.  There’s a reason why Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was set primarily in a high school–King was working as a high school teacher at the time.  John Grisham wrote stories about lawyers.  Michael Crichton wrote stories about doctors.  The hero of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series was in IT support because Charles Stross worked in IT support while he was writing it.

“Write what you know” doesn’t mean “Don’t write anything you haven’t experienced directly”–there’s always a place for research–it means “Use what you do know to make the parts that you have to research more real.”

Don’t Waste Time: Every scene in a low budget film has to justify its cost.  In filmmaking time is money.  In writing pages have to be paid for with the reader’s attention and if you ask for too much without giving enough back your reader is going to walk away from the deal. The question to ask of a scene is not if it is well written, but does it need to be there? Does it keep the story moving or is there just because you wanted to write it? Too many good scenes that don’t advance the plot can kill a story just as thoroughly as poorly written scenes.

Don’t Pretend To Be Something You’re Not And Don’t Apologize For What You Are: As I said above, I don’t use “schlock” as a pejorative.  It’s a descriptive term, and often it describes exactly what I am looking for.  It’s not to everyone’s taste, granted, but judging from the number of companies in the business of selling DVD transfers of old direct-to-video movies there is quite a market. Stories that are honest will always appeal to someone–maybe not a lot of people, but if you want to tell it somebody is going to want to read it. There are unscrupulous producers who release crap that is designed to look enough like the latest blockbuster to fool people into buying it by mistake.  Don’t be that guy–let your readers know exactly what you are offering and make your sales honestly.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Producers of Serious Cinema can delude themselves that their work is Important and World-Changing.  Schlock-makers don’t run that risk.  They know that they are in the Fun Business.  Sure, some folks have a pretty odd definition of “fun” (don’t look at me like that) but the end result is entertainment. I give you money and you show me a good time. Smiles all around. If we’re all having fun then nobody is going to get too stressed about the occasional shadow of a boom mike or flubbed line. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, and don’t sweat the customers who expect it from you–those aren’t schlock people. They can go back to their Criterion Edition of Winter Light. 

The rest of us are here to party.

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Rogue One Review (With Spoilers)

Another perspective on Rogue One.

Cirsova

Star Wars Rogue One did something I did not think was possible: it made me feel excited about Star Wars again. Like, “I want to go out and grab a Star Destroyer model to build after I finish my next Gundam” excited.

I actually enjoyed Rogue One more than the last four Star Wars movies I’ve watched, at let me tell you, I’ve skipped a couple.images

Okay, yeah, it was not really pulpy, and as dumb as it sounded when those sites said “this is the first Star Wars movie about war”, they kind of had a point. This was not the Star Wars of the original trilogy, or the plastic and cartoony prequels and their spin-offs – this was expanded universe Star Wars: the Star Wars of TIE Fighter, X-Wing, Rebel Assault, and Dark Forces. In fact, it dawned on me when the blind Force Monk showed up: Rogue…

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