Author Archives: Andy

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

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.

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

Stephen King Short Story Project, #44: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets”

The story: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1997. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A blue collar man named L.T. recounts a humorously embellished account of his failed marriage to his wife, Lulu, and the role that their pet dog and cat played in breaking up the marriage. What L.T. studiously avoids mentioning in this bittersweet reminiscing is that Lulu was murdered by a serial killer shortly after their breakup.

My thoughts: This is an odd one. It’s not odd that King occasionally takes a break from the horror and suspense genres—most of his short story collections contain one or more tales that deviate from the gruesome norm. This story is odd because it’s unusually paced, and because after a lighthearted, comical, and touching tale of a marriage that didn’t quite work, it ends on a surprisingly dark note.

King writes in a foreword to this story that “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” is in part an experiment in lowering the reader’s guard and then striking while they’re emotionally vulnerable. And he’s reasonably successful in doing so: despite a few vague hints early on that there’s a darker context to the story, King lulled me into complacency with L.T.’s flavorful recounting (to the story’s narrator, a friend and coworker) of his marriage’s final year. L.T. and his wife Lulu may have been in love, but they just don’t seem to have been destined for a successful marriage. Childless, they buy each other pets (a dog for L.T. and a cat for Lulu) as gifts; comically, L.T. and Lulu wind up hating “their” pet but becoming attached to their spouse’s. Their building irritation with their spouse’s pet serves as a proxy for and reflection of their frustrations with their own marriage, until Lulu finally picks up and leaves.

L.T.s account, which takes up the bulk of this short story, is reasonably fun. King tries to emulate the speech mannerisms of a modestly-educated meat-packing plant worker, and the result is a mildly humorous story in the vein of Dave Barry: the usual gags about men leaving the toilet seat up and the like. L.T. comes across as an unappreciative husband and Lulu as a flighty wife; we’re a bit sad but not especially surprised when Lulu leaves.

In the story’s final pages, however, things take a turn for the bleak: Lulu left L.T. to move back in with her mother, but never made it. While her body was never found, it seems certain that she fell victim to the “Axe Man,” a serial killer preying on women in the area. The narrator of “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” muses that L.T.—who still loves and misses his wife, however annoying she was—is unable to accept this reality, and uses his oft-repeated story of a marriage ruined by pets as a mechanism of denial. Wracked with sorrow and guilt (Lulu wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t driven her out, after all) L.T. clings to the hope that Lulu is out there somewhere alive and well.

As I said, an odd story. I was waiting for L.T., or the story’s narrator, to be revealed as the Axe Man, but King doesn’t take that route. In that sense, it’s nice to be surprised. And I always enjoy King’s depictions of married relationships; he relates with insightful clarity the ways that spouses love and exasperate each other. Whether this all hangs together as a good story once you add the discordant tone of serial murder to the mix, I’m not sure. I respect the effort to emotionally disarm and then ambush the reader, and to branch out from King’s usual fare. But the slightly goofy account that takes up most of this story isn’t strong enough to bear much narrative weight, and the combination of I Love Lucy-style yuks and murder doesn’t work all that much better than L.T.’s marriage.

Next up: Let’s jump back into some straight-up horror with “Bad Little Kid,” from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #43: “Gramma”

The story: “Gramma,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1984. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Eleven-year-old George has been left alone for a few hours to care for his aging—and dying—grandmother, an unpleasant woman whom he has always feared. “Gramma” dies on his watch, but that’s not the end of it: Gramma was a powerful witch in life, and her death is part of a plan to permanently possess George. The extent to which her plan succeeds is left unclear by the story’s final pages, in which George has acquired Gramma’s infernal powers but has possibly retained at least some of his own identity.

My thoughts: What would it be like to have a witch in the family? What if that witch was not a quirky spellcasting spouse, but a domineering matriarch willing to kill her own children if they crossed her? And what if, in her old age, that witch became senile, unable to control her powers?

Like this, but with more Hastur the Unspeakable.

Like this, but with more Hastur the Unspeakable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; for the first part of the story, it’s not clear that Gramma (who is offscreen for much of the story) is anything other than a completely ordinary old woman in the final stage of life. It is thus actually unclear what manner of story we’re dealing with, and my initial reaction was nervousness at the theme of old age and declining health. As many families can attest, caring for a dying relative can be a painful and emotionally harrowing experience for everyone involved, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a story that made light of that. Of course, horror stories are most effective when they can exploit an emotional vulnerability in the reader, and King has rarely hesitated to connect his supernatural horrors to real-life ones: parents’ loss of a child (Pet Sematary), domestic violence and miscarriage (Rose Madder), to name just a few.

Eleven-year-old George is terrified of his grandmother, and it initially seems that he’s simply unable to process the stark mortality exhibited in Gramma’s decaying physical and mental state. However, things shift into more recognizeably Stephen King territory as George slowly pieces together scattered family memories and vague comments by other nervous relatives to conclude that there’s something much more fundamentally wrong with Gramma: in her youth, she forged some kind of relationship with dark (Lovecraftian, actually) powers to bear healthy children and secure family prosperity during the Great Depression. Gramma would be a sympathetic figure if it stopped there, but as the years wore on, Gramma occasionally used her power to murder people (even family members) who crossed her and to generally keep her family living in constant fear. Now, in her descent into senility, she has seemingly lost control of her powers to unpredictable and unpleasant effect:

Sometimes, when she had her “bad spells,” she would (as Mom put it) “act out the Tartar,” calling for people who weren’t there, holding conversations with total emptiness, mumbling strange words that made no sense. On one occasion when she was doing this last, Mom had turned white and gone in and told her to shut up, shut up, shut up! George remembered that occasion very well, not only because it was the only time Mom had ever actually yelled at Gramma, but because it was the next day that someone discovered that the Birches cemetery out on the Maple Sugar Road had been vandalized—gravestones knocked over, old nineteenth-century gates pulled down, and one or two graves actually dug up—or something. Desecrated was the word Mr. Burdeon, the principal, had used the next day when he convened all eight grades for Assembly and lectured the whole school on Malicious Mischief and how some things Just Weren’t Funny.

Getting warmer, but needs more nameless horror.

Getting warmer, but needs more nameless horror.

To George’s simultaneous terror and relief, Gramma dies while he’s in the house with her. And the ensuing sequence, which tracks George’s mental state as he prepares to go in to check the body and cover it, is some of Stephen King’s absolute finest suspense writing. It is a truism that scary stories are usually much more effectively frightening before the monster shows up, and King demonstrates this well here with a truly nerve-wracking dozen pages. The reader suspects with George that the wicked grandmother isn’t really out of the picture, and King stretches this tension out as long as he can. When Gramma does finally come lurching back from the dead to chase George through the house, it’s almost a relief.

Gramma’s plan puts her pretty squarely in Evil Old Hag territory; she apparently (it’s not entirely explained) aims to escape death by transferring her own mind and spirit into George’s body. (The extended period of senility may or may not have been a ruse, but it’s clear Gramma has been planning this for some time.) George tries to defend himself by calling on the Lovecraftian entity Hastur, Gramma’s evil patron, but it’s unclear if it works; King switches scenes before we find out. At the end of the story, George is still with us, but clearly has absorbed Gramma’s supernatural powers and her malevolent attitude. We’re left to guess whether Gramma has full control of poor George, or if George somehow managed to retain control over himself.

All in all, this is a very effective story—I’m not often truly creeped out by King stories, but this one gave me a few honest-to-goodness chills. Beyond the solid suspense writing, there are just so many compelling ideas packed into this story: we’ve got a cultist gone senile, a strong-willed matriarch driven to preserve her family through dark means, some unexpected Lovecraftian touches, and creepy mind/body switching (itself a Lovecraftian trope). I’d call this one of the stronger King stories I’ve read thus far.

Next up: “L.T.’s Theory of Pets,” from Everything’s Eventual.

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #42: “The Dune”

The story: “The Dune,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2011. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: As a child, Harvey Beecher discovered something bizarre: a tiny island with a sand dune on which, each day, is written the name of somebody who will soon die. Now a bitter old man, Beecher returns from his latest visit to the dune and hastily summons his lawyer to finish drafting his will. Whose name do you think he saw scrawled in the sand?

My thoughts: Premonitions of death—especially of your own death—are a beloved staple of spooky storytelling, from the Bible to modern teen-scream movie franchises. That’s the rich vein that King taps in this short tale about a grumpy retired judge who’s found a way to get advance notice of upcoming deaths.

Pictured: a sand dune (non-deadly-premonition variety).

Pictured: a sand dune (non-deadly-premonition variety).

Since childhood, Judge Beecher has been visiting on an almost daily basis an isolated island where he can read, scrawled in the sand on a dune, the names of people who will soon die. When, after his most recent visit to the island, he hastily summons his lawyer to complete work on his last will and testament, we assume that Beecher has finally seen his own name written on the creepy dune. King feints in this direction for most of the story before producing a twist ending: Beecher hasn’t seen his own name in the sand, but that of his lawyer… hence the frantic rush to get the lawyer to complete work on Beecher’s will (before the lawyer dies and Beecher has to go through the hassle of finding new legal assistance).

Effective twist endings are tricky to pull off, particularly these days when we’ve seen so many of them in stories, books, and film. Yet we readers still hope for and expect them, and I don’t envy writers who have to try and mislead a readership that is actively hunting for the trick. Here, King knows you’re scrutinizing the story for the inevitable twist, so he does his best to make you think you’ve guessed what that twist will be, before surprising you in the story’s final sentences with a different twist. And it works, but imperfectly; to keep readers thinking down the wrong trail, King has to try a little too hard, mainly by emphasizing a few too many times that Beecher is very old and frail. When the punchline arrives, it’s fun, but because you hardly know and aren’t emotionally invested in the lawyer character, it has little lasting impact.

There are a few other noteworthy bits in this short tale. First is the mysterious dune itself. As usual, King resists the urge to try to explain what the deal is with the dune. Beecher does, however, propose one interesting possibility: that the dune is a location where for some reason the skin of the cosmos has worn thin, exposing a tiny glimpse at the inner workings of fate to anyone (un)fortunate enough to stumble across it. Depictions of supernatural encounters as largely random, impersonal, and undeserved are common throughout King’s writing.

Secondly, there’s the fact that Beecher doesn’t take any action to change or subvert these prophesied futures. Stories in which people receive frightening premonitions of the future typically focus on their (usually futile) efforts to change that future. (King has written tales of this sort as well—most notably his novel 11/22/63, about a time-traveler’s attempt to prevent the JFK assassination.) You might imagine that Beecher would act on his terrible knowledge by warning doomed people, destroying the dune, or something else. But despite his daily visits to the dune, the only time Beecher seems to have ever taken action is, as in this case, when he stands to be personally inconvenienced by the foretold death.

All in all, this is a short, solid, but largely unremarkable tale with a fun little twist ending. There’s not a lot to “The Dune” beyond that surprise; this is a simple story that exists entirely to deliver you unsuspecting to the final sentence’s revelation.

Next up: “Gramma,” in Skeleton Crew.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Oddities From My Game Library: Darksword Adventures

s-l1000I have a big collection of roleplaying games—far too big, I’m reminded every time I venture into the basement room where it resides. With a few exceptions, my collection doesn’t contain anything terribly rare or valuable (the games in my library that would command the highest prices from collectors also happen to be the ones I played to death over the years, so they’re far from mint condition). But I do have a good number of oddities nestled amidst all the predictable D&D tomes. I came across one of them today while rearranging the family bookshelves.

It’s called Darksword Adventures. And it’s an odd duck.

It is not, as far as I can tell, rare or valuable. (The going rate on Amazon for a used copy is one cent.) But in my many years of going to game conventions, lurking on roleplaying game forums, and playing all manner of games, I swear to you I have never once heard Darksword Adventures even mentioned, let alone have I seen evidence that anyone has ever played it.

Let’s take a look at this quirky little artifact of gaming history. It’s written by the mass-market-fantasy powerhouse team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the immensely popular and influential Dragonlance chronicles. Darksword Adventures is a roleplaying game (sort of—more on that in a bit) based on a different fantasy trilogy they wrote in 1988: the (you guessed it) Darksword Trilogy.

img_4026The Darksword series is set in a fantasy world called Thimhallan. Its central gimmick is that everyone in Thimhallan is a magician of sorts, able to tap into a Force-like source of magical power and employ it to do things that would otherwise be done with machinery and technology. In fact, mechanical devices and anything (or anyone) that operates on principles other than magic are considered to be “dead” abominations. The hero of the series is a man born “dead”—unable to use magic. There are ancient prophecies, annoying “comic” sidekicks, noble sacrifices, a depressing ending, and other stuff you’d expect from a 1980s fantasy saga. It’s not going to dethrone Tolkien anytime soon, but it was appealing enough for high-school-aged me.

Anyway. Like most of Weis and Hickman’s numerous non-Dragonlance series, the Darksword novels didn’t catch on like Dragonlance did. But its publisher believed in it enough to publish a truly odd follow-up book: Darksword Adventures, “the complete guide to venturing in the enchanted realm of Thimhallan.”

Why was this book weird, you ask? Because it’s a roleplaying game system disguised as a paperback novel. More specifically:

See? Looks just like every other novel on your 1980s teenage self's bookshelf.

See? Looks just like every other novel on your 1980s teenage self’s bookshelf.

The format was odd. In the 1980s, roleplaying games were published as oversized, textbook-style tomes or fancy boxed sets. Darksword Adventures, however, looked exactly like a 1980s paperback fantasy novel—physical size, cover art, everything—which presumably let the publisher get it shelved next to all the bestselling Weis/Hickman novels at bookstores rather than relegated to a “games” section in the back of the store. Shelved alongside other mass-market paperbacks, it would be indistinguishable from them at a quick glance. At the time, I’d never seen a full-blown RPG in a paperback-novel format (not counting a few “choose your own adventure” style RPG-lite gamebooks).

It was presented more as a fan guide than as a game. The back-cover copy pitches the book mostly as a fan companion to the Darksword novels, not as a D&D-like roleplaying system. It was clearly an effort to break out of the roleplaying market and entice non-gaming fantasy readers. In later years, companies like Guardians of Order would publish combined fanguide/roleplaying game sourcebooks for various media properties, but in the late 80s I hadn’t seen any such thing before.

The writing is in-character and very ‘meta.’ Every roleplaying game I’d encountered by the late 80s was written like a textbook. The game rules read like a technical manual, and setting descriptions read like an atlas or encyclopedia entry. Darksword Adventures, however, presented both its setting and its rules in the voice of a character from Thimhallan. The setting is described in a (fairly entertaining) novella-length travelogue written by an inhabitant of Thimhallan; the game rules are presented with the in-setting conceit that they’re a popular form of organized make-believe enjoyed by Thimhallans, called “Phantasia.”

I'm not sure this is any quicker or better than going out and buying some game dice. But I respect the effort.

I’m not sure this is any quicker or better than going out and buying some game dice. But I respect the effort.

It doesn’t require dice. Darksword Adventures includes an overly complex, but workable, method for determining random results using hand signals, on the assumption that you might not own nerdy gamer dice. Which was probably a safe assumption if your target audience was not existing RPG players.

It’s nonetheless a full-blown roleplaying game system. It’s as complete a game system as most of its peers at the time, covering character creation, a big variety of character classes (different varieties of wizard, as you would expect from the setting), a (typical for the 1980s) complicated but logical rules system, a bestiary, a surprisingly interesting and versatile magic system, and enough world information to run a campaign. You just had to get over the fact that much of it is presented in-character.

A character statistics writeup from Darksword Adventures.

A character statistics writeup from Darksword Adventures.

It was weirdly ahead of its time. While (as far as I can tell) it went almost completely unnoticed by the gaming world, Darksword Adventures was doing some legitimately interesting things. It was an early attempt to cross over into the (huge) non-gaming, fantasy-reading market. It eschewed most of the telltale formatting and presentation standards of the game publishing industry in order to do so. Its rules and writing style didn’t assume any gaming expertise (or even ownership of dice). I’m sure it wasn’t the first game to attempt most of these, but it has to be one of the first to attempt all of these things at once.

I have no idea how well it did or didn’t sell, but the complete lack of buzz about the Darksword RPG then or now suggests that this was a failure, albeit a noble one. Since then, many roleplaying games have embraced one or more of the elements above, with varying degrees of success. Darksword Adventures isn’t exactly a lost classic, but for historical reasons at least, it would be fun to see a reprinted or revised version made available again.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather