Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Author: Ben S. (page 1 of 4)

You Know, For Kids…

Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you I have quite a stubborn streak.

Sometimes, this can be a good thing. It can make you persistent and committed to the things you believe in, helping you to overcome obstacles and make those ideas a reality. But it can be a problem as well, blinding you to unpleasant truths or preventing you from accepting ideas that you really should consider.

One of my stubborn writing hang-ups has been over the audience I’m writing for. It’s not something I gave much thought to early on because I was writing for myself. Even when I started getting stories published, I took the position that I would worry about my audience after I actually had one. However, this put me in a classic “chicken or egg” conundrum. You don’t want to write for an audience before you have one, but how are you supposed to gain an audience if you’re not targeting one?

To be perfectly honest, I hate questions like this. As a writer, I desperately want to believe that I can write absolutely whatever I want and the ideal audience will magically find it. But what if that audience is, well, not that big? There are some grim realities writers have to cope with in the novel writing business, the biggest of which being the fact that people just don’t read all that much. At the same time, more novels are being published today than ever before, so that small number of readers has an ever-expanding pool of choices. If you can’t find your niche in that market, anything you write is pretty much going to be dead on arrival, lost in a swirling sea of new releases that come and go every single day.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing exactly what you want to write and hoping your work finds an audience. Luck is a huge part of the publishing industry, so there’s always a chance that you’ll write the thing nobody knew they wanted and it becomes a hit. It happens. But I can tell you from experience that the opposite outcome, writing exactly what you want and having it land with a resounding thud, is painful as hell.

My wife has been telling me for years that I should stop trying to write books for people like me and start aiming for a younger audience. That makes sense for two reasons: first of all, I don’t actually read that much fiction these days, so it’s probably unwise to hope that people like me are more frequent readers than I am myself; and second, 10-16 year olds are absolutely voracious readers. My 12 year old daughter blasts through books and binge watches television shows on a regular basis. If there’s anybody a fantasy author should be aiming at, it’s readers like her.

But I didn’t want to write for preteens and teens. I had an arrogant, stubborn mentality of wanting to write for “adults.” Most of my characters are usually older, and I had problems with the idea of centering a story on 18-20 year old characters, much less adolescent aged characters. It wasn’t that I thought it was beneath me or anything like that; I was simply more interested in the conflicts and struggles of characters in later stages of their lives. I was also concerned that I wouldn’t be able to strike the right tone stylistically.

What  got me over my aversion was finally reading the first Harry Potter book (which, amazingly, I’d never done), and watching my daughter obsess over the show Stranger Things. Both instances reminded me of something Michael Moorcock once wrote about the Narnia books. Moorcock hated Narnia with a burning passion because he was offended by the way CS Lewis treated his audience. He thought Lewis wrote like someone who believed kids were stupid (to quote Moorcock from his infamous “Epic Pooh” essay: “As a child, I found that these books did not show me the respect I was used to from Nesbit or Richmal Crompton, who also gave me denser, better writing and a wider vocabulary.”). It occurred to me that the best way to write for a younger audience was to simply conceive a story based around younger characters and then, well, write the way I always write (and toning down the language and the violence just a tad, of course). You don’t have to “write down” to reach younger audiences. Most of these kids can handle whatever a genre writer like myself can throw at them.

So I gave it a shot. Having a typical representative of my prospective demographic living in the house has proved to be great advantage. I’ve been handing off completed chapters to my daughter for her assessment, which has mostly gone well. One moment where I realized just how different of an audience I was writing for came when she criticized a chapter for having very little character descriptions. “How,” she asked, “will people be able to draw fan art of the character?”

That’s certainly a question I never considered before. Still, that enthusiasm and the idea that you’re writing for an audience that wants to contribute to a fandom around the books they read was a pretty good indication that I’m on the right track. The final results are still a ways off, but I feel like I might be on the right track for the first time in quite a while.

The Culture Tsar: Musical Discoveries (Week of January 7-13)

Here’s what The Culture Tsar has been listening to for the past week. Check out highlights from each album on The Culture Tsar’s Weekly Highlights playlist on Spotify to listen for yourself.

1: The Birthday Massacre: Under Your Spell (2017)

The Culture Tsar has a soft spot in his black heart for goth music, so this band is pretty much everything he ever wanted to hear. Simply put, I loved this album from the first track to the last and it made me want to never go out the front door again without leather and black eyeliner. Listening to The Birthday Massacre is like dancing on an Ecstasy-induced high in the Pacific Northwest’s coolest goth club in 1997. I’m honestly shocked I’ve never heard of this band before since they’ve been around since the early 2000s. The Spotify algorithm spit one of their older songs into my player after my playlist concluded, probably inspired by the fact that I’d put a London After Midnight song on the list. Their latest album is probably my favorite, although Superstition (2014) and Pins and Needles (2010) are quite good as well. They sound a little bit like a turbocharged version of classic 80s goth bands (The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees) mixed with elements of symphonic metal (Nightwish, Xandria), only without sounding completely ridiculous. The lead singer has a beautiful voice, and she really reminds of Sarah Brightman for some reason (incidentally, if you remember Brightman’s 1995 album Fly, The Birthday Massacre kinda sounds like the coolest possible alternate universe version of that album). I became very excited after hearing them, thinking that I’d be able to find similar bands through the Spotify “Related Artists” listing, but most of the other bands in this genre are terrible. At any rate, The Birthday Massacre is great. Check them out if you’re at all interested in goth rock.

2: Sinistro: Sangue Cassia (2018)

This is a bit of a cheat because I was already familiar with this band. I saw them open for Paradise Lost last year and heard some of their debut album, but I hadn’t given them an in-depth listen. A Portuguese doom metal band with a female lead singer (who sings all the lyrics in Portuguese), Sinistro has a pretty unique sound. Most of their songs are quite slow, with crushing riffs interspersed with serene moments. The lead singer’s voice is haunting, and they sound like something you’d hear in the background while you were performing a séance in an abandoned house at midnight. My primary criticism is that they’re one of those metal bands that had fairly lengthy songs with multiple parts to them, so it’s a bit hard to distinguish one song from another. This is an album I think I’d have to listen to several times to really get the most out of it. The whole thing is a bit of a detuned blur upon first listen and it’s not the type of music that gets stuck in your head. If you’re into bands like My Dying Bride or Opeth, you’ll probably love them. Casual metal fans will probably get a bit bored, though. This album also has an absolutely great cover of “Nothing Sacred,” one of my favorite Paradise Lost songs.

3: Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss (2015)

An interesting album by an interesting artist. I found Wolfe on Spotify after listening to Myrkur (a black metal project by Danish pop singer Amalie Brunn; it’s awesome). It’s a bit hard to describe what this album sounds like. Not really metal, not really ambient, not really goth, but rather some ever-shifting combination of the three. The album suffers a bit of the same problem as Sinistro’s in that it’s hard to distinguish one song from another after only a single listen. Wolfe is incredibly talented, and this album has some powerful moments as it careens from one style to another. There’s a thematic darkness holding everything together that’s very compelling, even after only a cursory listen. She’s one of those artists that you have to put in some work to get the most out of, but you know it will be worth the effort. Although I think her most recent album, Hiss Spun (2017), a bit more accessible than this one, Abyss is a great artistic achievement that I’m looking forward to listening to again.

4: Peter Murphy: Lion (2014)

You might know Peter Murphy (AKA: The Godfather of Goth) from his work with the Bauhaus or his (sort of) classic 1989 solo album Deep, which featured the hit song “Cuts You Up” (and the equally memorable “Deep Ocean, Vast Sea”). He’s one of those artists that’s been around forever, had a few hits here and there, but never really stayed in the public eye for prolonged periods of time. After listening to his most recent studio album, though, I’m having a hard time understanding why. Simply put, Lion is awesome. The album has that rich, echo-laden sound that makes each song sound absolutely gigantic, like its bouncing off the walls of a 200,000 seat arena (just for the record, these don’t exist). Murphy’s voice is great, showcasing far more range than a lot of his older material. I’ve always thought that his solo material sounds a bit like a collection of David Bowie B-sides (albeit very good ones), but this album reminds me of what a Bowie-Depeche Mode collaboration in 1994 might have sounded like. The production is great, and there are a number of memorable, standout tracks. Although the second half of the album fades a little bit, the first half is good enough to make up for the fact that it kind of runs out of steam by the end.

5: Metallica: Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (2016)

Metallica? Really?

Okay, look: I know they’re still one of the biggest bands in the world and this album was a huge seller. The fact remains that The Culture Tsar didn’t listen to it when it came out and hasn’t heard anything off it since then. Since I own every other Metallica album and have been listening to the band for 20 years, I had an obligation to listen to it eventually. So what’s the verdict? Actually, it’s pretty good. Maybe great. It didn’t blow me away at first, but I found myself enjoying it more and more throughout the initial listen. The last track “Spit Out the Bone” is good enough to bump the album up half a letter grade (or it would be if I was doing ratings). As happens to a lot of bands, Metallica has entered that phase of their career in which their music becomes more of a showcase of technical proficiency rather than straightforward songwriting. That’s kind of a fancy way of saying they overthink everything. Riffs end up being a measure too long and most of the songs could be two minutes shorter if they took out at that one unnecessary movement that sounds different from the rest of the song. A bit of dead weight aside, though, most of the songs are pretty good. Some of the guitar work has a very Iron Maiden sound to it, and it was nice to hear them dip into their mid-90s sound at times. The Culture Tsar holds the rather unpopular opinion that 1996’s Load features Metallica’s best work, so he certainly enjoyed songs like “Dream No More” and “Now That We’re Dead.”

That’s it for last week’s selections. Tune in next week for an overview of this week’s albums:

Draconian: Sovran

Cut Copy: Haiku From Zero

Dragonette: Bodyparts

The Warlocks: Songs From the Pale Eclipse

Process of Guilt: Black Earth

The Culture Tsar: Musical Discovery in 2018

The Culture Tsar often finds himself in a bit of musical bind. There’s a ton of music out there worth listening to (and not worth listening to, but more on that in a minute) and so many ways access it, but sometimes it’s difficult to find the motivation to take a chance on new music.  For many of us, music provides the comfort of predictability when everything else in our lives is crazy. Despite having access to basically every artist ever through streaming services like Spotify, I somehow wind up listening to the same damn stuff over and over and over again.

This year, I’ve decided to change that.

Well, to be fair, I didn’t come to this decision independent of other factors. My iPod Touch had a “Documents & Data” black hole taking up about 3 GB worth of memory. That, coupled with all the music I had on iTunes, made downloading new podcast episodes and albums on Spotify an incredibly annoying game of memory Tetris. Anyone who’s tangled with the “Documents & Data” problem on an Apple devices knows how much of a pain it came be to clear out that memory. Finally, I decided to take a drastic solution by resetting my iPod to its factory settings and wiping all of its data.

In addition to fixing a number of lingering issues, it provided an opportunity for a clean music slate. Rather than re-uploading all my iTunes music (or the tiny portion of it that will fit on the iPod), I decided instead to just install Spotify and download albums from there. But not just any albums. Rather than downloading familiar artists I know and love, I’m going to start checking out new artists on an ongoing basis.

For the rest of the year (and maybe beyond), The Culture Tsar is going to begin every week by downloading at least five albums he’s never listened to  before. At the end of the week, he’s going to provide a short review of each one, detailing what he liked or didn’t like about them and highlighting a song or two worth checking out. Keep in mind that not all of these artists will be new. Some might have been around (or gone) for several years/decades. The key aspect is that the music itself is new to me, either because I’ve never heard of the artist before, only know of them only vaguely, or simply haven’t listened to the album in question. In some cases, there will be artists who were well-known in the past, but have fallen out of the public eye despite releasing new material on a regular basis. In other words, the selections will be all over the map.

These reviews aren’t going to be exhaustive. In some cases I’ll probably only have a few thoughts on each one, just enough to give you an idea of what the album/artist is like and what I thought about it. Sometimes, if I really like an artist, I might wind up listening to other albums they’ve done for some additional context.  I’ll try to keep well-known artists to a minimum, although there will be a few cases where I’ll wind up listening to an album I missed for some reason. When possible (as in, when I remember), I’ll also mention how I found the artist in question.

For starters, here’s the slate of downloads from last week. I’ve already listened to these at least once and will share my thoughts on them in the next day or two:

1: The Birthday Massacre: Under Your Spell (2017)

2: Sinistro: Sangue Cassia (2018)

3: Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss (2015)

4: Peter Murphy: Lion (2014)

5: Metallica: Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (2016)

And here’s the list of albums I’m listening to this week:

1: Draconian: Sovran (2015)

2: Cut Copy: Haiku From Zero (2017)

3: Dragonette: Bodyparts (2012)

4: The Warlocks: Songs from the Pale Eclipse (2016)

5: Process of Guilt: Black Earth (2017)

Thanks, SwampCon!!!

Thanks to everyone who came out for my presentation yesterday at SwampCon! I was really excited to have so many people turn out and I enjoyed talking about all the different aspects of worldbuilding. Hopefully it was an informative and entertaining session for everyone in attendance, even though I apparently can’t pronounce “Sauron” correctly.

If you’re visiting the site for the first time, be sure to sign up for my email list to get a free ebook copy of the Distant Worlds short story anthology and the Archive Morana’s Breath music sampler. The email list delivers important updates about new releases, but you can get more day to day updates by following me on Twitter (@bensperduto) or Facebook (BenjaminSperdutoAuthor). And, of course, if you’re interested in seeing how well I follow my own worldbuilding advice, you can find ebook and physical copies of my first two novels, The Walls of Dalgorod and its sequel Mirona’s Law, by clicking on the links below.

Thanks again for coming out to SwampCon and I wish everyone the best of luck in their own writing journeys!

Worldbuilding 101: Sleeping Through History Class

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post has to do with presenting history in fictional worlds.

Look, I get it, I used to teach history. The sad truth is that no matter how interesting you think some historical event might be, it just can’t compete with a student’s latest Instagram notification. Sure, you can spruce things up a bit talking about incestuous royal marriages or get a little irreverent by joking how dumb George Washington must have felt at the Constitutional Convention listening to debates involving much smarter guys like James Madison and Gouverneur Morris (I know, sweet name, right?), but that’s a tactic with diminishing returns because once students figure out those amusing asides won’t be on the test, they start turning them out too. For most students, history is just another class they HAVE to take, and if they can space out for long portions of it and still get by on the accumulated knowledge they’ve gained after years of passive exposure to the subject, then that’s exactly what they’re going to do. It simply doesn’t matter to them for much of their everyday lives.

What does this have to do with worldbuilding? Fiction is all about the here and now. When you’re reading/watching a story, you’re interested in what’s happening and what’s going to happen next. What happened in the past might be important for the sake of context, but it’s not the story itself. Certainly the characters in the story aren’t going to be obsessing over it. Very often, aspiring worldbuilders populate their new creations with characters who aren’t really characters; they’re tour guides. They spout off encyclopedic knowledge about this family or that location or this battle or that empire. Sometimes that information might provide important context for the plot, sometimes it doesn’t.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance. The story itself is concerned with Frodo’s journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting historical detail that gives the world some color and makes it feel like it’s a real place, but do you really need to read The Silmarillion to get the most out of that history? Furthermore, the urgency of the narrative conflict falls flat on its face whenever Tolkien veers off course while the characters discuss the history of some watchtower or keep whilst sipping on afternoon tea. Actually, The Lord of the Rings is an example of another problem with putting too much emphasis on history. In many cases, the history of Middle Earth is far more interesting than the story Tolkien’s trying to tell in the present.

None of this means that history shouldn’t inform your worldbuilding. But you have to keep in mind that people aren’t looking for a textbook or a documentary; they came for a compelling story. History provides color and texture, but it should never be the star of the show. On a related note, it’s perfectly acceptable for the creator to not know things. I have a feeling that the idea of the Clone Wars sounded way cooler as a vague concept in George Lucas’s head in 1976 than when he ironed out the details of it twenty years later. However, not knowing anything about the Clone Wars didn’t diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the original Star Wars. Part of the reason the Star Wars prequels fall a bit flat is because they’re not movies you watch to find out “what’s happening,” but rather to find out “what happened” to produce an outcome you already know about.

History in fiction is like a seasoning. Some people like more of it than others, but nobody wants to eat it by itself. The Silmarillion is a difficult read because it’s like doing shots of paprika; sooner or later, you just can’t take anymore and you have to go rinse your mouth out. As a creator, you might be deeply invested in the history of your world, but you simply can’t assume that readers/viewers will care as much as you. Remember, most of them probably slept through history class when they HAD to take it. How much of a chance do you think they’ll give your world when they’re only there because they WANT to be there?

Their attention is a gift; don’t waste it trying to give them a lecture.

Worldbuilding 101: The Culture Conundrum

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post focuses on the challenge of portraying fictional cultures.

Few things get creative types more excited than talking about culture in a fictional world. As writers, we like to think of our creations as living, breathing things that go right on existing after we’ve set them aside. As fans, we like to imagine we could actually go to these imagined places just as easily as boarding a plane for the other side of the world. In both cases, it’s usually the portrayal of culture that makes the fictional become real for us. We want rich details underpinning every aspect of life, details to explain how and why the society functions a certain way. We want to know how the culture informs the beliefs, motivations, and actions of the people within it and how it shapes the consequences of their decisions.

The irony, of course, is that actual culture is anything but an orderly construct. It’s complicated, messy, and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even to people who spend their entire lives surrounded by it. Surprisingly, it’s also something we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about. I mean, do you ever stop and think about, say, eating utensils? Take a fork. Everybody in western society knows how to use a fork (more or less). Why do we use forks? It’s not because they make eating easier, because they don’t. In almost every instance, your hands are much more effective tools for shoveling food into your primitive primate face. No, we use forks because they help us keep our hands clean, because at certain points in human history (around the 14th or 15th century in western Europe, but earlier in other places), keeping your hands clean became equated with socio-economic and political status. The aristocracy begins using utensils at meals and, since social mores are historically exerted downward, the rest of society eventually adopts the trend. Next thing you know, the wealthy nobility are using thirty-five different kinds of forks for a fancy dinner while the peasants down the road (on the other side of a wall by that point) are using the same crudely made fork for every meal. The difference of degree is vast, but everybody has tacitly agreed that forks are great, even though they’d all have a much easier time eating with their hands.

Wait, where was I going with this example? Oh, right…culture…

The point here is that the sociological development of eating utensils and table manners doesn’t make much sense, at least not in the way you’d expect. It’s not a simple case of people changing the way they do something because a new way proved to be better. Rather, it’s a case of deliberately doing something that doesn’t work as well because of some ancillary reason that might not be readily apparent. This is what makes human culture so fascinating. We do all kinds of things that don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes for really bizarre reasons. The worst case is when there’s literally no reason for why we do something a certain way: somebody made an arbitrary decision and we’ve been following that example ever since.

We can accept eccentricities like this in the real world. Life doesn’t always make sense. But we absolutely refuse to tolerate them in fiction. In a fictional world, we expect everything to make sense. In a lot of ways, this is similar to the problem of character motivation and narrative structure. We get angry when a character does something “out of character” or events “don’t make sense.” But this is pretty true of real life. We’ve all made plenty of decisions that an outside observer would be left scratching their head over. Random stuff happens in our lives all the time. But you can’t get away with that in fiction (at least not TOO much of it). Characters have to “stay true to their character” and events are expected to connect with one another enough to form a coherent, directional narrative.

This expectation bleeds into the fictional culture as well. There’s a temptation to provide a lot of cultural context to explain how a society functions. But the more you try to explain why people do what they do, the more you create a rigid and ultimately artificial view of that society. The next thing you know, you’re creating an elaborate calendar system that you think tells us so much about the world, but really doesn’t contribute anything beyond verisimilitude because you’re creating it out of whole cloth at one moment rather than looking at something that developed organically over time (and yes, I’ve done this before).

No amount of appendices and glossaries of slang will make your world’s culture come alive. That’s because the responsibility of conveying that culture belongs to the characters. There’s a great observation in one of the “making of” documentaries for The Fellowship of the Ring where screenwriter Phillipa Boyens said they decided the best way to explain to viewers what dwarves were like was to cast John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and let him show them.

When it comes to portraying culture, then, writers of all stripes should keep in mind the boring old advice to “show, don’t tell.” A reader can pick up more about the role of religion in the world from a character’s off-handed comment about priests than they will from page after page of exposition on the theological basis of the church. To bring the focus back to the earlier fork example, you won’t find many people interested in the lengthy description of the sociological development of eating utensils. Even if they did get through it, they wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to apply it to characters and situations. All the reader needs to know here is that people equate clean hands with high social status, which is easily established with a disparaging expression, a disapproving glance, or a smug comment from one character to another.

My point here is that culture is both impossibly difficult and incredibly easy to portray all at the same time. The conundrum is that it’s something so important that you want to explain it in exacting detail, but the more you do, the more artificial and detached it feels. Finding just the right balance is one of the ongoing challenges that make writing such a compelling and worthwhile endeavor.

Worldbuilding 101: The “Setting” Question

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. The first post has to do with the big picture concept of “setting.”

One of the first questions I often ask about a work of fiction (be it a movie, a book, a video game, or a roleplaying game) is deceptively simple: “What’s the setting like?”

Now, that seems like an easy question to answer at first, but it’s harder than you might think. In very broad terms, the question is trying to place the work somewhere in an elaborate taxonomy of genres. But that’s not really all that helpful in describing what makes the work unique. As an example of this, think about the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, they’re both works of science fiction that take place in space and feature a wide range of (conveniently) humanoid alien species, faster than light travel, and exciting adventures on distant worlds, but they utilize these common traits in vastly different ways that make them totally unique.

The “setting” question gets not just at the features of the fictional world, but the tone in which those features are utilized. Keeping with the Star Trek/Star Wars example, I recently saw an argument on Twitter about whether or not a Star Wars roleplaying game needed to have a skill dedicated to, broadly speaking, “Computer Use.” At a glance, it might seem obvious that it would. There are computers in Star Wars, after all, so it stands to reason that people would have skills necessary to use them. However, if you really think about it, how much does the use of computers actually play a role in the world of Star Wars (as presented in the movies; let’s keep Expanded Universe/Legends/whatever it’s called these days out of this)? As a setting, Star Wars really doesn’t care about technology unless it involves an impossibly huge weapon system of some kind (Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, Death Stars, etc). Sure, it has tons of computers and advanced technology, but all of it pretty much operates on the principle of “press the button and it goes.” Star Trek, on the other hand, is almost comically preoccupied with the way its technology works. Fixing a malfunction in the ship’s computer or using computer simulations to figure out how to escape some temporal anomaly is a common challenge in the Star Trek universe.

The distinction is important. You’ll notice that Star Trek tends to be at its worst when it tries to emulate aspects of Star Wars and that Star Wars stops feeling like Star Wars when it tries to be more like Star Trek. Setting doesn’t just describe what the world looks like; it also establishes what it feels like to inhabit that world. It’s an aesthetic as much as a description. If you stray too much from that aesthetic, you start to lose the very things that make a setting distinctive.

Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t explore new territory within a setting and redefine what’s possible. For Star Wars, Rogue One pushed viewers beyond what we’d grown accustomed to seeing from the setting, but it remained in keeping with its core identity. Every new thing it gave us felt like something we’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie, even if it was different from what we’d seen before. At the same time, it hit many of the fundamentals we did expect from Star Wars, which made the newer aspects easier to incorporate. The best example on the Star Trek side is probably Deep Space Nine, which took an aspect of Star Trek we already knew and pushed it into a less familiar context. It felt very different from anything we’d seen from Star Trek before, but it still felt like Star Trek because the core elements of the setting remained constant.

When you go about building a fictional world, the “setting” question might be the most important decision you make. It establishes the ground rules not only of what is possible, but also of what is expected. Most of the time, those expectations have more of an impact on the world than any features you might build into it. Knowing what the world “looks like” is important, but you can’t effectively tell stories in that world until you know how it works and feels when all the elements you’ve built within it interact with one another.

Check back here over the next few days for more on the subject of worldbuilding.

New Google+ Community Page for Last Redoubt Games

I’ve set up a Google+ Community for Last Redoubt Games. You can join up to get all the latest updates on games in progress, download playtest documents, and discuss what you like (and don’t like) about them. I’m hoping to add a lot more stuff over the next few months once I transfer tons of assorted notes into usable rules documents.

You can join the community by clicking HERE.

Teaching an Old Night Owl New Tricks

I’ve never been much of a morning person. Even when I was younger, I always wanted to squeeze more time into the day by staying up as late as possible. I could get up when I needed to, of course, but I never went to bed thinking, “Man, I can’t wait for that alarm to go off at 6 AM.”

From a creative standpoint, I’ve always done most of my work late at night. When I worked a regular day job of some sort, I would squeeze my writing into the evening hours by necessity. Now that my schedule has flipped around to give me free time during the day, I’m having to adjust to being a morning writer. It’s been a big change, but I think I like it overall. There’s something to be said for being able to hit your writing target for the day before midday. Rather than stressing out later in the day and scrambling to make the most of rapidly dwindling time, I feel accomplished and able to focus on whatever else I need to get done for the day or plan for tomorrow.

The biggest challenge has been establishing discipline at the end of the day. Take last night for example. I should have gone to bed around 11:30 or midnight, but instead I was up until nearly 2 AM because I started working on a blog post that stretched on much longer than I originally intended. The lesson, I think, is to not start something I don’t think I can finish too close to bedtime. That might not have helped me last night, of course, because I totally thought I could finish yesterday’s post within an hour or so.

Waking up after four hours of sleep wasn’t a very fun exercise this morning, but I did at least manage to get my morning writing done, so I still feel ahead of things. I’m glad I’m not facing the stress of wondering if I’ll be able to fit the day’s writing into whatever time I end up having tonight.

I’m not sure if there’s a “writerly lesson” to be taken from this other than recognizing that sometimes it’s worth trying new approaches to your schedule (provided that’s possible given your work/personal life). You might find something that works better than you’d expect. I never would have expected that I’d find writing in the morning to be so productive. It may take me a few months of practice to eliminate my old night owl instincts, but I think I’m on a good path towards making that change.

The Long Road to the Last Redoubt

So, Last Redoubt Games…

Maybe it’s best to start at the beginning. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for over twenty years, going back to the time I somehow convinced my mother to buy me a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons “Red Box” starter set (the Mentzer version with the sweet Larry Elmore cover) at a yard sale. I must have been eleven or twelve at the time. That box set included a single player starter adventure that introduced you to some of the basic elements of the game and then provided a basic starting adventure for a multiplayer game run by a game master (or, in D&D lingo, a Dungeon Master). Since I was an only child living outside of town, I didn’t have a group of friends at the ready to play, so the game kind of collected dust on my shelf after I played through the initial adventure.

My real introduction into roleplaying came when a guy in my marching band squad in the ninth grade turned to me and asked me if I’d heard of a game called Shadowrun. I was, in fact, familiar with the game because I knew about the recently released Super Nintendo game that was based upon it. He and a friend of his had recently ordered a copy of the Shadowrun rulebook and suggested that I join them for a game session when it arrived. We got together with yet another friend to play a game called Underground, which was kind of a bonkers sci-fi dystopia where the players are down on their luck mutant war veterans making a living on the mean streets of a cynical post-capitalist society (think First Blood crossed with Taxi Driver crossed with Blade Runner crossed with Total Recall). It was a weird game session that saw my character literally blown to bits in the first ten minutes (and carried to the hospital in a beer mug and a used condom), but I had a blast and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since. In addition to playing Shadowrun, I ordered Earthdawn, the recently released fantasy game from the same publisher (FASA Corporation). My high school gaming group changed composition a bit throughout the years, but we played a lot of Earthdawn. Even when I moved to another state while I was in college, a few of us would still play every time we got together (Sadly, we took a hiatus from Earthdawn a few years ago, but that’s a rather sensitive subject for another post).

That’s all a long way of saying that I’ve always been drawn to roleplaying games. Almost from the very beginning, I was the person in my group running games and coming up with adventures. In high school, my dream job was to be a writer and game developer for FASA or White Wolf Publishing (who at that time published the World of Darkness game line). By my first year of college, I was devoting a lot of thought to creating roleplaying game settings, fleshing out entire worlds that could be used as the basis for entire game lines. Much of this was a byproduct of the era. Roleplaying games in the 1990s focused HEAVILY upon setting and story. Even D&D was featuring game lines like Dark Sun and Planescape, which established evocative new worlds with intricate storylines that were advanced little by little with the release of each adventure module. I played a lot of FASA games in those days, so I got a hefty helping of this style of game development from Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Battletech. I had more setting material for Shadowrun and Earthdawn than I could ever hope to use in a single campaign, but I couldn’t get enough of those worlds.

My first game I tried to develop was…um…bad. Known at various points by the awful title “SoulQuest” and name of the setting, “Ranchess,” this game was…well…an attempt at something. All kidding aside, the setting was important for my development as a writer because it was the first thing I actually tried to use as the basis for a novel. I still have a crate of notebooks somewhere in my house with the first thirty or forty thousand handwritten words of this first attempt (Bits and pieces of it have actually survived to live again in other projects, some of which might yet see the light of day). As a game, though, it sucked. I don’t remember how much of a rules system I had sketched out, but I quickly abandoned the idea for another game that I started working on in the early 2000s. That game, Dark Earth, actually got quite far along. I had a prototype rules document, complete with various races, classes, and abilities written out in rather exacting detail. Since I didn’t have a gaming group at the time, playtesting never got off the ground and I eventually decided that the rules were too similar to other things I’d seen anyway (there was an attempt to convert it to a d20 system at one point as well).

A little over ten years ago, I wrote a short story called “La Tierra de la Sangre,” which features a magical, swords & sorcery alternate history of the Caribbean in the Age of Piracy. Partially inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I envisioned a setting that drew heavily upon both actual history and a madcap mashup of historical “could have beens” such as the Chinese continuing to establish naval dominance in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Vikings gaining a firm foothold in northeastern Canada, the Aztecs repelling the Spanish with massive stone warships powered by blood sacrifice, and so on. I thought the setting was a natural fit for a roleplaying game, so I set about developing a rule system I thought was pretty unique. The resulting game, Crimson Seas, felt like it fit a niche I hadn’t really seen filled and I had high hopes for publishing it in some form as digital publishing for rpgs had become so much easier by the early 2010s.

Last Redoubt Games was the name I came up with for this publishing venture that never got off the ground. The name itself is a reference to “The Last Redoubt,” the foreboding pyramid fortress featured prominently in William Hope Hodgson’s brilliant but obtuse 1912 novel The Night Land. Unfortunately, Crimson Seas didn’t withstand the rigors of my own close scrutiny, much less playtesting. By the time the game got to a playable state around 2014 or 2015, I’d started gaming more frequently and I came to see that Crimson Seas wasn’t quite as groundbreaking or as interesting as I’d thought. Even worse, the more I worked on it, the more it started to resemble the types of games I didn’t particularly like in the first place. I eventually scrapped everything and laid out a plan to totally redesign the game.

But I never got around to it.

Sometimes you work on something for so long that you just can’t go back to it again. Maybe I got burned out or maybe I came around to the idea that the concept itself wasn’t all that great. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I never went back to rework the game into something usable. In the meantime, though, I started developing a few new ideas into fully-fledged game concepts. One of them was inspired by the video game Helldivers, which my son and I became obsessed with about two years ago. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s essentially Starship Troopers, with the players in the role of elite soldiers being dropped down to a planet to perform some super dangerous mission deep in enemy territory. For my son’s birthday party, I thought it would be fun to make a tabletop miniatures game version of Helldivers for he and his friends to play. We didn’t get around to playing it, so the idea sat in a notebook until last year when I started tinkering with it again. This time, however, I actually got a group of people to sit down and play it. This kicked off a playtesting process that saw the game, now called Archangels, change dramatically. The first major change was the elimination of a gamemaster player. Originally, Archangels required one player to control enemy units. In the latest version, enemy actions are totally automated by way of a card system, so every player can concentrate on strategy and coordination with their teammates rather than bookkeeping enemy stats. While it still needs a bit more refining, Archangels is feeling more and more like a finished game and I’m starting to let myself think about things like researching how to produce game components, how to organize a Kickstarter, how to commission artwork, and how to do graphic design. It’s a daunting but exciting prospect.

Since Archangels is a bit of a complicated project, I thought it would be a good idea to put together something simpler that would help me establish an identity for Last Redoubt Games. My taste in roleplaying games has changed dramatically from when I was younger and had more time on my hands. While I used to enjoy books that gave you page after page after page of rules, character options, and setting detail, today I appreciate games that are simple, flexible, and to the point. A book like Dragon Age from Green Ronin Publishing is fantastic and I love it, but sometimes I want the simplicity of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which provides no specific setting material and a very simple set of rules. The two games that have had the biggest influence on me in this regard are Into the Odd by Chris McDowall and Ghost/Echo by John Harper, which focus heavily on getting into the game as quickly as possible and not getting bogged down by requiring players to master extensive rules mechanics to get the most out of a game.

The result of all this brainstorming is a game called Hounds of the Tsar. Based on an idea for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I never got around to running, the game sees the players take on the role of Oprichniks, who were ostensibly the secret police force for the Ivan the Terrible in late 1560s Russia. While I intend to run a number of playtests myself, I decided to make the prototype version of the game available for anyone who wants to give it a try. The draft document is only about fifteen pages long and provides enough information to get a basic campaign off the ground, but gamemasters and players will have to fill in some gaps if they want to stretch things beyond a few adventures. Some of those omissions are intentional. I want the game to be open ended enough for groups to create their own unique material. Too often roleplaying games condition players to do everything strictly “by the book” and they become hesitant to make up their own rules when the situation might demand it. While Hounds of the Tsar will almost certainly add more material to provide players with a toolbox for incorporating their own ideas into the game, I don’t anticipate adding much in the way of specific rules or content. For the time being, the game is what it is, and I’d need to have some pretty compelling and overwhelming feedback to make me want to change that.

You can view and download a PDF copy of Hounds of the Tsar here. Read it, play it, and let me know what you think. I’ll have a little more to say about it in the coming weeks, so keep checking in here for updates if you’re interested in how this little project pans out.

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