Writing Legends

I feel like this every day.

I feel like this every day.

Lately, I have been working on a manuscript to support Kobold Press’ upcoming 5E Midgard release. If you’ve never read the original campaign setting (Pathfinder rules only), you’re missing out on some seriously rich world-building. At one point in an email exchange with KP, I called Midgard a “buffet of plot and lore hooks”. Granted this was near Christmas, so all my analogies were food-related, but the book is a great read. I would go so far as to say that it is worth reading even if you are not a table-top gamer.

One enjoyable part of writing inside Midgard is researching the legends and icons that populate it. The book is stocked full of figures from folklore, fairy tales, and history. The way the stories surrounding these figures are woven together is nothing short of mythmaking. You can sense the tremendous amount of research that went into the book, as each sentence blends folkloric elements seamlessly.

It’s a tricky thing, translating cultural stories from the real world into gaming rules; the path to walk between disrespectful appropriation and meaningless generica is a thin goat trail. I maintain that the only way to do it well is to do your research, work from a place of respect, and learn what things to avoid pinching. At the time I am writing this, there is a very worthwhile discussion taking place in Canada about who can speak for our Indigenous peoples; the appropriation of Indigenous culture for the sake of fiction (or in my case fantasy), and the legitimacy of authorial voice is a very important conversation. Currently, it’s a conversation I am listening to - since my hot-take is not nearly as interesting (or required) as other voices.

Pulp fantasy doesn’t have a great record of respecting its source material. Too often, we end up with a messy collage. This is why the Midgard campaign book hooked me. There aren’t any shortcuts taken, the material is handled carefully and with respect.

For my part, I’m working on material for the world’s Rothenian Plain - an eastern swathe of land featuring centaur, nomads, and a massing Khanate. Legendary figures such as Baba Yaga, and Koschei the Deathless rule the wild steppes of this place. As I write, and bring these legends to life as citizens of Midgard, I pay close attention to the stories that have already been told. If I present Koschei the Deathless as a 5E foe (example only), how are his traits and actions related to his real-world history? How can I ensure that my Koschei is authentic and at the same time unique and novel? I have a family connection to the part of the world that the Rothenian Plain is pulled from. My ancestors farmed in that area before revolution saw them lose their land, lives, and other unnamable things.

RPG writers and designers face the same problems as any other writer. One unique characteristic is this: I have to write for presumed interaction. The content I create (if done well) ends up being used in a very complex and worthwhile social event: a night of D&D. Writing legends is part of the gig - but learning to do it well...that takes practice.

As a gamer and reader, I am very excited about the upcoming Midgard campaign setting book. As a writer, it’s a rich and rewarding place to spend some time.

Be kind, game on!

-J

Imprisoned by Nefarious Cults

It’s not unusual for people to launch websites and then update them only rarely. I had every intention of stacking this thing with content, but I was given an opportunity to contribute to a fantastic book, and so it goes - we only ever have so much time.

The last three months have been busy ones. I am very excited to say that the massive project of developing the 5E version of Kobold Press’ Demon Cults and Secret Societies book is wrapping up. I admit that when it comes to writing and design, I have a tendency to boldly agree to do things, while secretly making this face.

It's doubt, get it?

It's doubt, get it?

One of the things I really enjoyed was trying to distill the twisted evil of Jeff Lee’s cults so that I might inject it into sound 5E mechanics. Pathfinder and 5E are really not 1:1 compatible systems. Early in the process I stopped going to the Pathfinder rules for inspiration when drafting 5E traits and actions, and instead clung to Mr. Lee’s narratives. Recreating complex Pathfinder crunch was going to make for a very long and arduous process that I think would have ended up quite stale. Instead, I read the narrative closely, identified the qualities and characteristics of the fantasy, and did my best to recreate that as 5E material. I feel like in the end I really got to know the cults, and understood what it was that they wanted, and what strategies they employed to achieve that.

The amount of material was overwhelming. I underestimated the timeline for producing the manuscript by a large amount. Chalk that up to learning I guess. That said, I did get faster at it as I went, and then even faster when I made myself a tool to help. I called it AUTOMONSTER, and it was glorious - a google doc sheet that pulled monster building data from a bunch of sources and interfaced it all as a series of drop down windows. Can’t sell it, or share it, don’t ask.

Now that the Demon Cults and Secret Societies project is winding down, I’m happy to say that I have time to write my own material again. I have several projects in the pipes for 2017, the first one is a source book for Kobold Press’ Midgard setting - more on that later; however, I also have plenty planned to upload here. I’m hoping to commission a little art for the website as well - Saskatoon illustrators only!

-J

 

I Call Dibs

The first encounter in the Prepared! collection has the PCs standing off against a goblin fortress. In typical goblin fashion, the fortress aspires to greatness - but falls more than a little short.

Journalist, gamer, contributor to gnomestew.com, and papercraft enthusiast Troy E. Taylor contacted me before his adventurers assaulted the Impregnable Fortress of Dib, and sent me a great photo of the wagon before its destruction. Furthermore, he sent me a PDF printable that you can download here! Now you too can have a dire-badger-pelted wagon to set on fire.

Thanks Troy for the awesome photo and printable. The Prepared! collection is available on Amazon and at the Kobold Press Store.

Be kind, game on!

Click for full size.

Click for full size.

Everything's Coming Up Milhouse

Hey look, my collection of one-shot 5th Edition adventures is now available on Kobold Press!

Two back to back publications in a few weeks! Even I'm tired of me!

In all seriousness, I'm pretty proud of this little collection. I think it's a great bunch of short form adventures, made awesome by Meshon Cantrill's cartography. I owe him a big thank you for developing the original maps for the Kobold Press blog, and for his hard work getting them all print ready.

If you received a copy of my Prepared! one-shots because you backed the Tome of Beasts Kickstarter to that level, you're a hero and you helped launch what I think is a milestone in 5th Edition products: The Tome of Beasts rules.

If you received a copy of my Prepared! one-shots because you bought them on the Kobold Press Store, or on Amazon, you're a hero because you took a chance on a newbie.

I already went down the heartfelt gratitude road with the release of Sanctuary of Belches (which you can read here), so I won't repeat myself - other than to say this:

One of the hardest things for me to do as a writer is to call something done. You could fiddle forever. I have to remind myself of something I also have to remind my six year old son of fairly often - it's ok to be done.

Not perfect, but fun.

This is how I press send when submitting manuscripts. This is my mantra - it also encapsulates me.

Not perfect, but fun.

Be kind, game on!

-J

 

An Undead Ape-Thing with Snaky Arms

There is a whole family of monsters in D&D that is just ooze. Now, to be fair, all those oozes are different colors and do different and invariably awful things to adventurers: 

  • melting armor,
  • melting faces,
  • consuming you whole.

In the end though, they're just semi-formed blobs of, well...blob. Now before all the ooze lovers go off and defend their viscous favorites - I'm not coming down on them. I just want to point out that D&D writers and designers have enough imagination to make congealed ick into a whole species of dangerous animals.

So on one end of the spectrum, we have the simple ooze; on the other end of the spectrum we have things like the arboreal grappler (Tome of Beasts, Kobold Press, 2016). It's an orangutan with arms that curl up like ropes and wrap up PCs like fuzzy constrictors. Sit back for a minute and revel in the weird of that creature.

In my scenario, The Serpents of Hailwood, I absolutely revel in the weird. I may or may not have also made it a zombie. Want your PCs to face an undead ape-thing with snaky arms? Of course you do. I also incorporated the strange and foreboding moon blooms in this scenario - and included their stat block in the text. Remember though, while I can freely use the names of the monsters in the Tome of Beasts, you'll have to buy it if you want the details.

 

My Gamer to Gamer Interview

Recently I had a rare opportunity to meet Ennie award winner and insanely productive creative madman, James Introcaso on the interwebs. His blog is a must read, and a pretty amazing online resource for RPG fans in general.

James interviewed me for his ongoing podcast series, Gamer to Gamer. Reading the list of guests he's had on that series makes me feel a bit like the short kid on the basketball team... I'm told he's finished editing our conversation, and has released it for you ears. You can listen to my interview here, but be sure to explore his other offerings such as the Round Table - a rotating cast of pros and crazies and crazy pros chatting about the games we love. James is a real professional on the microphone, and it was a genuinely rad time talking to him.

Thanks to James for providing me an opportunity to ramble on about gaming, writing, and the compulsion to share. I hope we can chat again soon!

Whoah...

So the response to my last blog post has been pretty amazing. Thanks for the emails and tweets and all of it. My 5th Edition Fun content has proven pretty popular since the site went up a few weeks ago, so I thought I'd outline what's coming up.

Regarding Scenarios

I'll continue to post the short, text-based scenarios a couple time a month. They'll be accompanied by a blog post. I am completely in love with the monsters in the Tome of Beasts, and am going to use that manual heavily. I've received some requests for maps or illustrations of some kind for the scenarios, and while I would love to provide these - my talents fall a bit short when it comes to map-making and drawing. I am investigating some ways to make serviceable maps for some larger pieces I have in the works.

Regarding Project Worthystone

I'm in the process of writing a darn cool adventure setting/location which I will release here for free in the coming months. For this project I will be providing (commissioning) visual material to support the text (to what extent, I am not sure). I'm really excited to get the guide booklet finished and released. I'll have some more on this soon.

Thanks again for your interest in the site, and my writing!

Stay rad,

-J

Sanctuary of Belches

The terror is unique. That dream where you go to work, or school, or church, or to the park only to realize you forgot to put on pants - it’s a bit like that: a mortifying revealing. That’s what it feels like to be a newly published author. I feel like I’m not wearing pants, except instead of my pasty white legs, my imagination and creative core is exposed - and the internet can see it - and that makes me want to barf with nerves.

That’s not to say that I don’t have confidence. I would never have agreed to write things for other people to read and use at their game table if I lacked confidence. I also have healthy self-esteem - but there is something indescribably unsettling about seeing your best intentions printed on glossy paper.

A lot of people talk about having a thick skin. A thick skin is supposedly required if you want to make things and share them with others. Apparently the best way to avoid the icky feelings stemming from criticism or failure, is to don a big suit of armour. I don’t really subscribe to this notion. I do not think that putting on armour is ever the right solution for me. Instead, I think it’s ok to simply admit your own madness. You have to be a little bit crazy to share your creative works with strangers - that madness is what keeps me doing it. Be mad, be you, be vulnerable - That’s how I get through. That’s how I write this stuff.

I started writing Dungeons and Dragons material a few years ago on the Kobold Press Blog. My ambitions were not high: write, revise, and share. I have loved RPGs my whole life, and thought, “why not try and share, why not try and engage?” The result was a bunch of short articles that were more experimental than focused. It is worth pointing something out here:

The Kobold Press Blog allowed me to experiment - this is invaluable. Everyone should read that blog.

Eventually, and with absolutely no idea what I was getting into, I started writing small adventure scenarios. The scenarios were released under the title, Prepared!. The intention was to provide one-off side-tracks for DMs whose players had wandered off the trail a bit. They had maps (thanks to Meshon Cantrill), monsters, rewards, fun stories, and as much flavour as I could fit into 1200 words.

Then, the editor in chief of Kobold Press contacted me about putting together a print collection of the articles. A dream come true! I was tasked with editing and standardizing the adventures, along with designing four more with monsters from the Tome of Beasts. So, with a sense of wonder and adventure, I took the project on and had a blast writing it. It’s coming soon.

Somewhere in there, Wolfgang also asked me to write a temple delve - a longer format adventure that uses scary monsters from the Tome of Beasts and the recently released SRD. Getting an email from Kobold Press asking you to design an adventure is pretty overwhelming. I probably pitched half a dozen things before we agreed on the direction and type of fantasy I was going to write.

Turns out that type was, gross.

At its core, the Sanctuary of Belches is the story of a town in peril. But instead of being in peril from invading forces, the town is besieged by terrible horn playing (is there a such thing as good horn playing? I’m not a jazz fan) and clouds of noxious belches. I wanted to explore ‘gross’ as fully as I could - and I think I delivered. At one point, Wolfgang referred to the manuscript as “earthy”, which I took to mean not quite gross enough - so I added a pretty gory final battle to push it over the line.

It’s out there now. My first adventure for Kobold Press. You can buy it at their store, or on Amazon.

It means a lot to me, to have an adventure from my head out in the world - the nine year old boy who fell in love with D&D is particularly thrilled. Thanks to Kobold Press, and all the kobolds working in the warren for making it happen.

Be kind, game on!

 

 

OMG OMG OMG I got published and look at this art!

OMG OMG OMG I got published and look at this art!

The Changeling Scared Me

I started watching horror movies about the time the Hellraiser series started. I watched Nightmare on Elm street at my friend Jimmy's house when I was way, way too young. The 80's went all out with the gore - I mean if you compare them to the relatively tame mainstream horror of the 70's. I grew up watching teenagers being hacked in twain' by machetes. 

Bouncing balls are scarier than machetes.

Bouncing balls are scarier than machetes.

I was absolutely desensitized to it. Contrary to what the moral majority might have suggested, I still ended up being a really ordinary and frankly nice person. It seemed like all that human gut-spillage that formed the foundation of my childhood movie watching had granted me immunity from being afraid.

Then, when I was maybe 14, I saw The Changeling. Now, there is a scene in the Changeling that still shakes me today when I think about it. It has no blood, or music, or screaming, or machetes - it has a ball, bouncing slowly down the stairs. For anyone who's watched this movie, you'll likely remember it. It was so innocent, yet filled with dread. I think, in retrospect, it was the first real horror movie I ever watched. All the slasher films had nothing on the bouncing fucking ball.

I've uploaded a new scenario called Dead Weight. It's a small ghost story with the potential to be pretty creepy in the right DM's hands. Carry me to my grave, begs the slain youth in noble clothing. Carry me all the way...

Enjoy!

Monstrous Books

I stole the money I used to buy the Fiend Folio from my parents. Specifically, I stole it from my mother's purse. It was 1986, the year my entire extended family drove across the country in gigantic cars from Saskatoon to Vancouver for the Expo. I was 11. I remember being so impressed with the art in that book - I mean I was 11 so what did I have to compare it to, but the Gith man, the Gith...those wrappings.

For the true RPG geek, a book full of monstrous enemies is like an index of awesome. I'm guessing somewhere in the range of 15% of my brain is used for storing information about monsters. It's locked in there, permanently, like the smell of the Oldsmobile en route to Vancouver. Sometimes I joke with Laura about being forgetful, but it's not true - I just can't make room for new stuff - I will always need to know the AC of orcs in the first monster manual right?

Kobold Press dropped their Tome of Beasts last week. That thing is ridiculous. I'm too old to absorb it into my pores like I did when I was 10. I need to keep the PDF open when I'm using the monsters in my current campaign. I will say, that that book is kind of a milestone for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It's so full of heart and talent and effort! Gads. Man the Kobold Press might be small, but zowee do they rally the troops. I can't fathom how much work that was.

I have a writing credit in the Tome of Beasts. I redesigned a monster: the rime worm. I wonder if there is a 10 year old kid out there committing it to memory. Go easy, I'd say - you might need room to remember family birthdays when you're forty.

In case you were wondering, my parents caught on. They raised my allowance as a result. Sounds crazy, but that was the end of my petty thieving days. One in the win column, Mom and Dad.

Buy the Tome of Beasts. Huge congrats to the whole Kobold Team. It's a really fucking great manual.

Website Launch, New Content

I have so many dragons they're coming out of my butt.

Hey rad! Super excited you stopped by. I'm launching this website and blog with the intention of giving away a bunch of game stuff for free. I've been writing a lot of 5th edition adventure material since the rule books came out, and have had some great success getting published. I find myself with an overflow of content though, and want to have a place to publish my own work.

The inaugural batch of content includes:

  1. A creepy scenario that stacks 1st level PCs against supernatural agriculture! 
  2. A custom monster, the Bramble Farmer

Go game now!