Author Archives: Andy

New Roll for Topic episode: “Romance and Shopping”

Episode 32 of Roll for Topic is out! This time we were joined by Donn Stroud, an RPG designer and freelancer. Of the various things Donn has worked on, Mothership and Dead Planet are the two I’m most familiar with—I fell in love with Mothership last year at Gencon. It’s a lightweight RPG designed to emulate space-horror games in the vein of Alien, and it’s set apart by a combination of great writing and fantastic visual design.

The topic for this episode is an odd one that was added to the list of topics at least partly as a joke by a past guest. It is often the case that Chris and I (and our guests, when we have them) look over the table before we begin recording and wonder aloud what on earth we would have to say about, say, romance and shopping in RPGs. But those slightly weird topics often end up being the most fun to discuss, and that was the case here. Anyway, give it a listen and let me know what you think!

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Disadvantage: Enemy (Secret Service)

Cover image of GURPS Cyberpunk

Here’s a nice writeup of a famous tale from the game industry: the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games in which they confiscated the manuscript for GURPS Cyberpunk.

It was perhaps not our country’s finest hour:

In spite of the fact the rulebook contained rules for having your consciousness transferred to a gender-swapped clone, when [Steve Jackson] spoke to them the day after the raid he was told that his company was publishing “a handbook for computer crime”. When he protested that it was clearly made up, he was repeatedly informed: “This is real.”

I’ve heard versions of this story retold over the years. According to this article, GURPS Cyberpunk was a target of opportunity, not the official reason for the raid: the Secret Service was poking around, equally ridiculously, for evidence that Steve Jackson Games was connected to some suspected BBS shenanigans. They grabbed the GURPS book when no other nefarious evidence presented itself. From a SJ Games post about the raid:

Their agents were very critical of [GURPS Cyberpunk], and on March 2 in their office, one of them called it a “handbook for computer crime.” Since their warrant was sealed, and they wouldn’t comment, our best guess was that they were trying to suppress the book. They did suppress it, but apparently it was through bureaucratic inertia and stonewalling rather than because it was a target of the raid.

Imagine if terrorists had gotten hold of the information in that or any GURPS tome—they’d know exactly how many one-inch hexes away from a target they can be before they get a -4 penalty to pickpocket attempts unless they paid 50 character points to replace their arms with telescoping cybernetic limbs. I feel safer already.

You know, it’s crossed my mind over the years that the game-prep Google trail of a typical gamemaster probably sets off all kinds of red flags in the various Orwellian surveillance systems keeping tabs on us. “Siri, how much C4 would you have to use to topple the Statue of Liberty onto a shoggoth that’s rising from New York Harbor?”

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Encountering Cthulhu in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum

I recently decided to re-read Umberto Eco’s strange, dense novel Foucault’s Pendulum. I was pleased to discover that it not only holds up over the decades since I first read it way back in high school, but that I found much more in it to appreciate now that I’ve had a few dozen additional years of, well, “life and stuff” to color my perspective.

Much of the book consists of a very convoluted tour of occult beliefs and conspiracy theories—at times it’s just a firehose of information from Eco’s very widely-read mind. It’s hard to imagine any bizarre historical belief, no matter how obscure, slipping by without at least a brief mention in Pendulum.

And so as I read, I found myself waiting hopefully for a mention of… Cthulhu. While most of us read Lovecraft for the cool slimy monsters, bits of the Cthulhu mythos (or at least, its infamous tomes) have been co-opted by real-world belief systems. Mostly (I presume) in a winkingly self-aware postmodern kind of way. That’s exactly the sort of oddball thing that should crop up alongside all the other crazy beliefs Eco explores. And anyway, it’s hard for me to imagine that Lovecraft wasn’t represented in the pulpy pop culture that Eco appreciated.

Friend, I was not disappointed. In the final pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, a shout-out:

Iä, indeed!

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Did I mention I have a podcast? I have a podcast.

The biggest gaming-related project I’ve worked on over the last year has been the Roll for Topic podcast, which I co-host with the inestimably talented Chris Salzman.

It’s a bi-weekly podcast about running roleplaying games with a simple gimmick: we don’t decide on each episode’s topic of discussion in advance. Rather, we roll a ten-sided die at the beginning of each episode, check the result on a random table, and determine what we’ll be discussing. The goal is to simply have a friendly, casual conversation about topics of interest to gamemasters. Thus far, joined by an array of different guests, we’ve discussed topics ranging from handling GM anxiety to running convention games and, well, lots more. You can find all the past episodes at the Official Website(tm) or on iTunes/Google Podcasts/your favorite podcast service.

We’re coming up on episode 32 (this Thursday)! This episode features a fantastic new guest who hasn’t been on the show before.

It feels odd to post this announcement a year into the podcast’s life. But I’m honestly still a bit stunned that the podcast is still going strong over 12 months in; and I wanted to correct the inexplicable lack of mention of the podcast here on the blog. If you haven’t listened to Roll for Topic yet, tune in this Thursday when the episode 32 drops, and please let me know what you think!

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Fate of Cthulhu at AADL Mini RPG Fest

It’s been a while, but I’m still alive! In fact, in a few weeks, I’ll be running four (!) short games of the Fate of Cthulhu roleplaying game at the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Distrct Library’s Mini RPG Fest on March 21.

Fate of Cthulhu coverThe purpose of the Mini RPG Fest is to provide a place where the general public can try out different roleplaying games in a casual and friendly environment. Most games are only one hour long, so you can sample different games as you like.

One-hour games are a challenge for the GM to run, but an interesting one. Last year, I ran (more or less successfully) four one-hour games of Numenera at the last Mini RPG Fest and learned a few valuable lessons. One hour is just enough time for a handful of short game encounters, so the trick is to pick a few situations that show off the game but which can also be resolved quickly. Both Numenera and Fate of Cthulhu keep combat pretty fast and simple; I don’t envy some of the other GMs who were running detailed-combat game systems like D&D. But from the laughter and cheers I heard at the other game tables, people were having fun with those games too.

Fate of Cthulhu is an action-oriented game in which the PCs play time travelers from a future in which Lovecraftian monsters overran Earth; its pitch is “Terminator, but Skynet is Cthulhu.” I find that premise irresistible, and hope to attract a few Cthulhu newbies to my game at the Mini Fest.

If you’re in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area on the 21st, stop by and roll some dice!

RPG Mini Fest at AADLFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

There’s a rule for that: the customer is always right (when it comes to things crashing and exploding)

It’s always fun to try and identify game rules that came into existence not because they were part of the designers’ vision, but because players insisted on them.

When you’re a game designer faced with player demands for a rule you don’t particularly want to include in the game, you have a few choices. You can simply ignore the requests. Alternately, you could include a passive-aggressive note in the rulebook:

No need to get snippy about it!

That’s from the Star Fleet Battles Master Rulebook, and it makes me smile every time I read it. In defense of the players crying out to the heavens for such a rule, ships ramming into each other does sometimes happen in Star Trek, most memorably in Star Trek: Nemesis; and besides, who wouldn’t want a chance to melodramatically shout “RAMMING SPEED!!!” during the ever-suspenseful SPEED DETERMINATION PHASE of a Star Fleet Battles match?

Nevertheless I can sympathize with the designers’ annoyance here: if it were possible to ram other ships in Star Fleet Battles, every single battle would end with the losing player attempting to ram the other player out of spite, and players would start fielding ships not for their tactical value, but to use as kamikazes. That might be fun for a match or two, but would quickly get old, and doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing the Federation would do.

But there’s another way designers can react to unreasonable player requests: just roll with it. From Tactical Operations, a book of optional advanced rules for Battletech:

Bless you, Battletech rule designers.

In a regular Battletech game, landing hits on a ‘Mech’s nuclear-powered engine can quickly disable the ‘Mech, but won’t result in the Hollywood-style atomic explosion that players have long pined for. But this is the best way to do it: make it an optional rule.

(In this case, the Battletech designers must accept some blame for this rule, because ‘Mech fusion engines exploding is a thing that has happened from time to time in Battletech novels. And the intro videos to the third and fifth installments of the Mechwarrior videogames feature ‘Mechs detonating in big nuclear fireballs when their engines take critical damage. There’s just something about ‘Mech reactors going critical that we can’t get enough of!)

I am sure that most complex games that aim for quasi-realism run into this sort of thing a lot: the tension between sticking to the purity of your vision for the game, and giving players what they want. Know of any other good examples?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

There’s a rule for that: a spell by any other name

Some time ago, I ran a very (very!) short-lived tumblr called There’s a Rule for That in which I posted unusual and/or ridiculous rules I came across in roleplaying (and other) games. I hadn’t thought about that for a while, but after coming across this gem, I’m officially reviving this as an every-now-and-then series here on the blog.

Without further ado, then, I give you:

Source: Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game, 2nd Edition, p. 191.

It’s a second-level wizard spell. If they had just called this Spectral Sound or something, it would (well, might) be possible to not giggle.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #46, “A Death”

The story: “A Death,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2015. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: In a small town in the Old West, a rancher named Jim Trusdale is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for the murder of a young girl. Despite strong circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt, Trusdale insists he is innocent, and the town sherriff starts to think he just might be. But Trusdale’s time runs out—and after his death, incontrovertible evidence is revealed proving that he was, indeed, the murderer.

Pictured: a cowboy. From the Wild West.

My thoughts: This is an offbeat King tale, both in genre and in style. First, it’s a western. King rarely writes historical fiction; almost everything he’s written takes place in or around the present day. While his epic Dark Tower series certainly has one foot in the cowboy-western genre, the western elements are wrapped heavily enough in scifi-fantasy-horror trappings that you won’t find King’s The Gunslinger shelved next to Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour.

It’s a stylistic change of pace for King as well; in “A Death,” he eschews his usual verbose writing style and aims for the dry, terse language that we tend to associate with western stories and the dour-faced lone wolves who populate them. We’ve seen King step outside his familiar style in several short stories: think of “Umney’s Last Case” (Chandler-esque noir), “Jerusalem’s Lot” (Lovecraftian verbosity), or “The Doctor’s Case” (full-blown Conan Doyle). One of the joys of reading King’s short fiction is following along as he indulges in these little side treks away from the horror genre that defines his work.

Spoiler alert: he didn’t do it.

What’s King up to here, then? “A Death” subverts that most familiar of plot narratives: the “falsely accused of a crime” story. You know how it goes: somebody (the hero, or somebody close to them) is accused of a crime they didn’t commit. The evidence seems overwhelming, but we just know they’re innocent, and that an eleventh-hour discovery or revelation will vindicate our hunch. This ubiquitous plot structure appears in everything from mysteries to thrillers to superhero blockbusters.

“A Death” hits all these familiar beats: Trusdale maintains his innocence despite strong circumstantial evidence of his guilt, even seeming touchingly naive about his dangerous predicament. The case isn’t a slam-dunk—a key piece of evidence (a silver dollar stolen by the girl’s murderer) can’t be found; and when a blatantly unfair trial railroads Trusdale into a death sentence, we suspect along with good Sherriff Barclay that the rancher just might be innocent. Will the sherriff be able to turn up evidence at the last minute to save an innocent man from the noose?

As it turns out, no. Trusdale goes to the gallows and a jeering crowd watches his pathetic, undignified final moments. We think that a terrible injustice has been done until the last piece of damning evidence shows up post-mortem: Trusdale had swallowed the stolen silver dollar (repeatedly… ewww) and must certainly have been guilty. The sherriff’s gut hunch (and our own instinctive impulse to root for the underdog) proved wrong; the judgmental townsfolk and their unjust trial stumbled accidentally upon real justice.

If you’ve read even just a few Stephen King stories, you’ve watched him repeatedly wrestle with the cosmic question of Why: Why do bad things happen for no reason? Here, the “Why” question is directed not at a distant God or impersonal universe, but at the human heart: Why do people do bad things for no reason? Why would a seemingly ordinary, unremarkable man like Trusdale commit such an awful and motiveless crime? Why would he insist on his innocence even after his fate was sealed if he knew he was guilty?

And what about us? Is it justice if it’s accidental justice? In the absence of certain evidence, what makes one person assume innocence and another guilt?

The questions raised by “A Death” aren’t terribly novel, and it makes no real effort to answer them. But the twist on the “falsely accused” narrative makes this an interesting read, and seeing King try out some cowboy deadpan is fun.

Next up: Let’s take a look at “Ur,” also in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Who’s Flying That TIE Fighter?

One thing that’s always struck me a little odd about Star Wars is that, for a film series that features so many epic spaceship battles, few of those spaceship battles feel very personal. With a handful of exceptions, the spaceship fights in Star Wars films feature our heroes facing off against hordes of faceless minions.

The heroes in a Star Wars space battle are always quirky personalities: Luke, Han, Lando, Poe, etc. But there’s almost never a matching personality on the enemy side—no Red Baron, no grudge-bearing enemy ace to duel with our heroes. Instead, it’s mostly waves of generic TIE Fighters piloted by black-uniformed Imperial minions:

TIE Fighter pilot

(Darth Vader’s presence at the Death Star run in A New Hope is the main exception, and not coincidentally, that space battle is the most compelling one in the entire series.)

So, that’s a little boring. Wouldn’t it be more fun if at least one of the TIE Fighters in that squadron you’re fighting was an ace, a coward, a psycho, or just anything other than a generic, faceless minion? I got to thinking about my old Why Is This ‘Mech So Terrible? chart and decided to create a chart for making TIE Fighter encounters more interesting.

This chart is for use in a tabletop RPG or other Star Wars game. When the heroes encounter a batch of TIE Fighters and you want to shake things up a bit, pick one of the TIE Fighters, roll a d20, and find out who’s sitting in the cockpit.

WHO’S FLYING THAT TIE FIGHTER? (roll 1d20)
Die result (1d20) It’s piloted by a… What’s their deal?
1-3 Loyal Imperial Citizen-Soldier Like most of the Imperial military rank-and-file, this pilot is a decent, hard-working guy who signed on with the Imperial navy because he believes the Empire is the best hope for peace in the galaxy. He has faith in his leaders even when his orders are unpleasant, trusting that his higher-ups know better than he does. He follows orders to a tee.
4-5 Bitter Conscript Drafted into service against his will, he just wants to get through his term of service in one piece. In combat, he does the absolute minimum needed to avoid being executed for cowardice, but otherwise takes no risks and shows no initiative. He doesn’t like the Empire but also has no interest in the Rebellion. His only motivation is to get back to base alive each day.
6 Conscience-Stricken Imperial When he signed on with the Imperial navy, he thought he’d be helping to bring peace and justice to the galaxy. But the more he sees (and is ordered to do), the harder it’s getting to reconcile that idealism with the reality of Imperial rule. This pilot is close to defecting; the right set of circumstances might see him refuse an order on the battlefield or even switch sides in the middle of a fight.
7 Zealous Political Officer This pilot is a political officer and true believer whose job is to make sure his squadmates act with sufficient… enthusiasm for the Imperial cause. In battle, if one of his squadmates shows “insufficient aggressiveness,” he just might decide to turn his guns on the coward to set a vivid example for the rest of the squadron, even if it means turning away from the Rebels for a few precious minutes.
8 Ambitious Promotion-Seeker This pilot has lofty ambitions for a career in the Imperial navy, but lacks the political and family connections needed to secure promotions. He’s just putting in time in the TIE Fighter service while hoping to catch the approving eye of his superiors. He cares more about looking good for the promotions board than he cares about the Imperial cause. Accordingly, he plays it safe in battle but is carefully watching for a chance to score a flashy victory that puts him in no real danger… and he’s not above secretly collaborating with the enemy to stage such a situation.
9 Imperial Avenger He just learned that Rebel scum killed his family in a terrorist bombing on Coruscant (or at least that’s what his Imperial masters told him), and he’s out for blood. He’s not going back to base until he’s killed every Rebel (real or imagined) he sees, no matter what his orders are. His rage gives him an offensive edge in combat, and he won’t retreat even if ordered to.
10 Rebel Spy This pilot is actually a Rebel spy who funnels Imperial military plans to the Rebels, and he’s looking to transmit stolen data files to the first Rebel ship he encounters. But he’s got to do it without blowing his cover… and without getting blown up by the Rebels he’s trying to contact.
11 Imperial Test Pilot The Imperial navy is evaluating some souped-up new TIE Fighter variants, and they’ve placed one in this squadron to test its combat performance. This TIE’s armor, shields, firepower, or manuverability (pick one) are one notch higher than average. To make sure this expensive prototype is handled properly, its pilot is almost certainly a cut above the rest.
12 Unknowing Force-Sensitive This pilot is your typical Imperial serviceman, loyal and brainwashed to follow orders. Except for one thing: he’s sensitive to the Force, although he doesn’t realize it. He’s prone to remarkable “luck” in battle—every now and then he pulls off impossible shots, and when his TIE Fighter gets hit, the damage always seems to just narrowly miss vital systems. Once per combat, he can reroll any die roll that didn’t go his way or which caused him harm.
13 Imperial Ace Uh oh. This guy is bad news; you can tell by the number of X-Wing silhouettes painted on the hull of his fighter. All of his combat and piloting skills are way above average.
14 Secret Pacifist He was drafted into the TIE Fighter service, but in his heart he just really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He’ll go to almost any lengths to avoid actually harming anyone in combat—making sure his shots miss, pretending not to notice potential targets on the long-range sensors, faking weapon malfunctions, etc. His commanders will soon figure out that he’s dragging his feet; he’s already planning how he might use the chaos of battle to make a run for a backwater system where he can hide from the Galactic Civil War.
15 Victim of Sabotage Enslaved aliens working at a TIE Fighter factory sabotaged some key components, and nobody’s noticed yet. At a key moment in the next battle, something will go horribly wrong for this TIE Fighter: maybe the guns or other key systems will abruptly stop working, or the torpedoes will target friendly Imperial ships instead of Rebel ones, or the wings will fall off. Use your imagination!
16 Imperial Psycho TIE Fighters are cheaply built and utterly expendible, as are their pilots. Everybody knows that, especially the poor suckers forced to fly them. For obvious reasons, most Imperial pilots jump at the chance to be promoted into a better spaceship. But not this guy: he actually likes his TIE Fighter and he keeps turning down opportunities to fly something better. He’s crazy and he scares all his squadmates, but he knows how to coax unbelievable stunts and maneuvers out of his lowly TIE Fighter. For game purposes, his TIE Fighter is treated as a TIE Interceptor, and his piloting skills are close to maximum.
17 Marked Man This pilot’s gambling problem has put him far into debt with the Hutts, and now there’s a bounty on his head. Partway through the next battle, a bounty hunter shows up on the scene. The bounty hunter ship ignores everybody else and focuses on destroying or capturing this TIE Fighter.
18 Pampered Scion This lazy dilletante from a wealthy Imperial family is grudgingly doing his time in the navy. He’s a terrible pilot, but he’s used his family’s wealth and connections to ensure that he always flies in the best spaceship possible. While his squadmates make do with aging, cheaply-built equipment, he’s flying a souped-up TIE Interceptor with all the upgrades money and influence can buy. Will his advanced fighter compensate for his lack of instinct and skill?
19 Former Classmate This pilot attended the Imperial Academy with one of the heroes (before the hero joined the Rebels), and may have been a terrifying bully or honorable rival to the hero (pick one). And there may still be scores to settle!
20 You Don’t Want to Know You know how you sometimes read about kings and generals quietly visiting the common soldiers in the trenches, to get a sense for morale, pretend to care for the everyday grunts, and remind everybody what they’re fighting for? Darth Vader’s not that gracious, but he does like to show up unexpectedly to terrify recruits into obedience. And he’s been known to fly along unannounced on random TIE Fighter patrols….

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #45: “Bad Little Kid”

The story: “Bad Little Kid,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2014 (in German and French, interestingly enough). Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Throughout his life, George Hallas is visited by an unaging schoolyard bully who appears every few years to murder somebody George holds dear. George eventually contrives to kill this apparently demonic being, but at the cost of his own life: he is convicted and executed for murdering a child. The story’s final pages make it clear that the bully is no figment of George’s imagination.

My thoughts: What would you say is the archetypal Stephen King villain? To be sure, he’s created quite a few classic bad guys, from creepy supernatural entities (Pennywise from It) to psychotic madmen (Jack Torrence from The Shining). But if you ask me, the definitive King villain type is the schoolyard bully.

Imagine this guy showing up in your life every few years.

Imagine this guy showing up in your life every few years.

Bullies—actual steal-your-lunch-money bullies—are a recurring menace in King novels and stories. Many of King’s other villains are just grown-up versions of the bully (like the abusive husband/father, sadistic prison guard, etc.). And even his most terrifying supernatural villains (again, like the one in It) often behave exactly like bullies, right down to deploying fat jokes and crude sexual slurs intended to dishearten victims.

This might seem a little ridiculous at first, and it is a bit jarring when a nightmarish Lovecraftian entity pauses to tease its victims about their asthma. But King knows that horror is more effective when it exploits real-life fears, and who among us hasn’t had some kind of upsetting encounter with bullying behavior? Whether it was getting pushed around on the playground or being ostracized at work, most of us have experienced the humiliation and helpless rage that comes from witnessing, or being victimized by, bullying.

And so here we are with “Bad Little Kid,” a story about an actual, stereotypical schoolyard bully. Throughout all of his life, George Hallas has been terrorized by a non-aging, apparently supernatural child who appears every few years to kill somebody he loves (usually through a sequence of events that can be passed off as a tragic accident). Whether it’s luring George’s best childhood friend into the path of oncoming traffic or harassing his aging nanny with threatening phone calls until she has a heart attack, this very bad little kid has it out for George. (George narrates this story from death row—he ultimately managed to gun down the evil kid, but of course to the rest of the world it looked like he murdered an innocent child in cold blood.)

Two things stand out to me about this story. First is that it’s in many respects a retread of “Sometimes They Come Back,” an early King story also involving ageless, murderous supernatural bullies. Unfortunately, “Bad Little Kid” comes out worse in a comparison between those two stories. In “Sometimes,” the beleagured protagonist devises a truly original way of dealing with the bullies: demon summoning. By contrast, in “Bad Little Kid,” George simply buys a gun and shoots his tormentor. Gunning down your enemy might be the most American way to deal with problems, but from a narrative perspective it’s a lot less interesting than calling on infernal powers.

Second, “Bad Little Kid” allows for some interesting speculation about what’s really going on here… only to dash that ambiguity with a strangely disappointing denouement that reveals the evil bully to be an actual, real demonic being. The story hints at various alternative theories about George’s predicament. It might be that George is inventing the “bad little kid” in a desperate attempt to attach some kind of cosmic rationale to the seemingly meaningless (but natural) deaths of those he loves. Or the “bad little kid” might be a delusional manifestation of George’s own murderous impulses—most of the victims are women with some kind of perceived weakness or vulnerability (disability, mental illness, minority status, etc.) who might have triggered some kind of hidden misogynistic reaction in George. But rather than leave us pleasantly uncertain of the explanation, King settles on what I would say is the least interesting option: the bad little kid is a demon from hell.

This story also gives King a chance to once again articulate what I take to be his own understanding of the “problem of evil.” Asked to explain why the demonic bully chose to pick on him, George retorts:

You might as well ask why one baby is born with a misshapen cornea […] and the next fifty delivered in the same hospital are just fine. Or why a good man leading a decent life is struck down by a brain tumor at thirty and a monster who helped oversee the gas chambers of Dachau can live to be a hundred.

This is a competent story, but it’s overshadowed by many other King works that explore similar ideas. I recommend the cruder, but more compelling, “Sometimes They Come Back” instead.

Next up: Let’s shift gears and read something with a bit more heft: “The Mist,” a novella-length story collected in Skeleton Crew.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather