In Search of the Perfect Dungeon

   Your seven players are now fourth or fifth level. Wandering monsters won’t cut it anymore: they’re a waste of time, since they don’t stand a chance in hell. One carrion crawler in a corridor is just a nuisance. Avoid it. I have seen my players generate 320 points of damage in one fight scene.

   When you sit down to design the next big adventure, it’s a balancing act: on one hand, the intricacies of role-play and worldbuilding; on the other hand, the simple, straightforward mayhem of big combat scenes with lots of miniatures. To this end, I have identified 6 key elements I think will help build (almost) perfect dungeons. You need to look at

 • PC Motivation
 • Visual Aid
 • Time Limit
 • Declustering
 • Chokepoints
 • Branch Off Options

PC Motivation

   “Ten volunteer NPC heroes are already set to embark on that dangerous mission. Your party has acquired quite a bit of local renown by now – so you guys can choose to bump some of the NPCs out of this adventure lineup and take their place. But you don’t have to. These volunteer heroes are ready, and they’re gonna get all the juicy XP...

   There, PC motivation solved.

   Let them know that there is always someone else in line for any given adventure. This is a D&D world, after all. There’s always a young druid and two wandering paladins around the corner.

Visual Aid

   When you provide the players with a map of the dungeon – even an outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete map – it gives them a general idea of how much terrain they’ve yet to cover. They can see the remaining corridors and rooms. Very efficient, especially for one-off adventures.

Time Limit

   “This Gate opens once every 25 years, only stays open for 50 minutes, and can only allow 10 people to get in – or out.

   The in-game time limit prevents too much retreat and recharge; spellcasters may be able to huddle down in some corner and replenish ONE first level spell, but that’s it. Use up your scrolls, guys, and use up the charges in your magic items. (That’s the reason your DM gives them to you in the first place.)


   Back in the early eighties, players were reckless. Most of them, anyway. Nowadays it’s all groupthink and elaborate min-maxed strategies – a blatant legacy of the video games and various MMORPGs. Players move in tight knots with the spellcasters in the center, and the thieves unable to do their thing (finding traps, listening to doors, hearing noises, etc).

    Narrow walkways and teleport traps are the two best tricks to deconstruct that solid clump of miniatures on the table. Monsters appearing from above (or through the walls) are also an excellent method – lava children, blink dogs, wraiths, xorns, or a good old lurker above.


   Scenes are of the utmost importance. Arcs, not that much (especially if you don’t play often). I now focus all my energy on scenes – i.e. amazing rooms or locales in which messy / complicated clashes occur. Dungeon Chokepoints, if you will. That is the fundamental part, and that’s what players will remember.

    This room is a fitting example: a cul-de-sac teleport fronted with a pit, three concealed doors high up on the right wall, and two separate landings on the opposite side. The PCs teleport in and find themselves bottled up. There are three ways out of there. One, through the concealed doors. Two, across the pit, right side. Three, across the pit, left side – but there’s a gnoll archer waiting over there and of course he starts firing arrows immediately.

   Those concealed doors slide open, and kobolds begin throwing spears down onto the party. As for the pit itself, it is covered with huge iron bars upon which it is possible for a character to walk. A giant scorpion dwell inside that pit. Too large to slip through the bars, but its pincers and stinger can still strike at any PC attempting to cross over to the other side...

   There’s no shortage of potential action in there. The party cannot fall back: that teleport only works one way. They also have to decide on a course of action quickly, because they don’t have any cover while the damn gnoll is firing away – and he’s got cover, plus a large supply of arrows. So it’s either climb that wall under raining spears, or walk across those iron bars and risk being stung / shot with an arrow.

   Thieves or bards may decide to climb, and tackle those kobolds. Magic-users will fire magic missiles at the gnoll and maybe spider climb on the ceiling, bypassing the pit. Fighters and clerics will have no choice but to cross the pit on foot, weapons drawn.

   The only way out is through. Party needs a little push? So push. Trust me – it’s for their own good. Players don’t know better, even if some of them are also DMs who run their own games. When you sit down and put on that Player hat, you forget things.

   If you give them a retreat option, they’ll use it.

    The question is: are you willing to let them chop your combat scene into three smaller combat scenes? If not, then why bother with the monsters chasing the party throughout an entire dungeon level – how many different dungeon floors will you have to whip out then? Just go one step further and keep the PCs trapped in the one room. They will thank you later: memorable combats don’t have two or three time-outs. Unless what you want is precisely that: a full-tilt, arduous running battle like the Chain of Dogs, but within a dungeon environment.

Branch Off Options

   Be up front about the stuff you’ve prepared. Your players are grown-ups, right? Just tell them, “This is what I have with me today. It’s a portal to Avernus, and a lemur-infested volcano fortress. I made all the props, sculpted them, and painted them, plus the necessary miniatures. You don’t want to go? Alright. I can improvise a game in the city or out in the forest, but we’ll have no props and almost no minis. There are no lemurs and Legion Devils in the forest.”

   Nobody wants an absolute railroad. Keep some lateral options open. Sub-levels. Opposite corridors. Even if you provided the party with an accurate map of what the previous expedition saw twenty-five years ago in that very same dungeon, I’m sure there are corridors they haven’t explored – or maybe some new dungeon developments were added sometime during the course of the past 25 years? Allow them to go off-script if they really want to.


   The perfect dungeon is a mix of what’s fun for the players (optimizing / gaining powers) and what’s fun for the DM (utter, absolute mayhem). Give your players some room to optimize, especially if they’re a bunch of project managers / web architects / university teachers – but not too much room. The best role-playing memory is never a perfectly optimized adventure, but rather, a time when everything went to hell as your cleric didn’t save against Polymorph and was turned into a swarm of bees and the fighter drank his Potion of Heroism and then rolled three consecutive 20s but died 7 rounds later because he had lost way more than his regular HP and also the thief tried to backstab an otyugh and the magic-user simply fled the scene and the others called him a damn wimp for months!

   Twenty-five years, and I still remember that.



The Governor vs Negan

   I “walked away” from The Walking Dead a long time ago, at the end of season 3, because the Governor was a complete, utter fail. He didn’t look like some death metal bassist and was not at all the atrocious monster / torturer he is in the books (the dude hacks off Rick’s right arm, for God’s sake). The producers of the show decided to tone it down, and the Gov simply became boring and fickle.

   Four seasons later now, they seem to have learned something from that trainwreck, because they’ve decided to do Negan exactly like he is in the books – I saw a 10-minute clip on Twitter: the infamous scene where he kills Glenn with Lucille. That’s exactly how it happens in the books. So, The Walking Dead is getting better over time, is that it? Truer to the source material? Maybe I should start watching again!

   Jason Sansbury of Nerds on Earth walked away because he didn’t like the storytelling anymore. Well, Jason, that is Robert Kirkman’s storytelling right there. Season 1 was not Kirkman’s story – what with that ludicrous sentient building and all that crap. And season 3 isn’t Kirkman, either – it is loosely based on his story, but that’s all. If you liked the show before and can’t stand it now, good for you... but isn’t that like saying you love The Force Awakens but despise A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back?

   SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want them.

   In the books, Carl is now fifteen, but when he was 8 or 9 he almost got raped on the highway by two rednecks reminiscent of the ones in Deliverance. You wouldn’t see that on TV, no sir. And what about Michonne torturing the Governor for six solid pages, nailing his dick to the floor, taking a power drill to his shoulder joint, and ripping out all ten fingernails with a pair of pliers? You want to adapt Kirkman, go ahead and adapt Kirkman. If you prefer C.S. Lewis, stick to Narnia.

   Some people have told me that the comic book narrative isn’t at all like the TV show narrative, and that “screenwriters should know better”. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Is there a stupid rulebook somewhere? Where do all the little “rules” come from? It’s killing entertainment, plain and simple. If you want to make an adaptation, you ought to play by the source material’s own set of rules. If you don’t want to play by any book’s rules, do not adapt – invent something, man. Like Lucas did. Like Roddenberry. Like Jarmusch, even. You can do it.

   I know you can.


Player vs Client

   Dungeons & Dragons gave us the first amazing encyclopedia of fantasy creatures: strong monsters, weak monsters, average monsters, unique individuals, with funky illustrations, stat-blocks, treasure types, etc. That was good ol’ 1977.

   Forty years later, you can “collect” a thousand different dragons in Dragon Mania Legends, or catch hundreds of Pokémons with your phone. What hyperconsumerism did with the original idea of a “monster compendium” is appalling.

   My nephew turned nine last April, and he’s obsessed with Nexo Knights and Pokémon and Dragon Mania. Often he begs my brother to buy him more gems – or whatever in-game stuff – because he absolutely wants to face off against this or that powerful monster. That’s okay. We did the exact same thing, back in the day. I remember being obsessed with Orcus: I wanted my fighter / magic-user to take him on, just to see how many rounds I’d last. My friend told me, “No problem. Grab your lucky dice. You’re duelling with Orcus in a dream. You won’t lose your character... Roll init!”

   I lasted two rounds, and blew every Save. But at least I didn’t have to use my credit card and buy a goddamned pack of 200 virtual gems. Oh, and I didn’t have a credit card.

   Video games spoiled almost everyone. Dying is another excellent example. My nephew has never lost a character, ever. The iPad or Xbox games are difficult, sure, but on the other hand, you won’t die, you’ll “respawn”. Because dying is such a huge bummer, game companies had to render their “clients” immortal in order to keep them happy. Keep paying, and you’ll keep living.

   And that’s the problem right there – fewer and fewer “players”, more and more “clients”. Clients won’t ever be killed by a game. In the event of their character’s death, they would simply walk away; after all, they’ve invested time and money into this, and now it’s gone. So that company loses a client.

   Bad business model.

   Then again, the respawn principle existed in First Edition D&D already, since player characters could be resurrected up to 18 times. The TPK was one of the only ways PCs could die permanently (i.e. nobody left standing to bring any and all unconscious comrades to the nearest temple and cough up some gold).

   The RPG death is something recent, in a sense that people didn’t experience anything like it before, let’s say, 1976. Do you ever put three, four, or five years in one single game of chess, dodgeball, or poker? Do you ever put three years of invested time and passion on the line in any other kind of entertainment? So yes, in a way, I can understand this respawn school of thought. Vampire: The Masquerade came up with a clever in-game respawn device – it’s demanding indeed to permanently destroy a vampire!

   Still, the true RPG death is something that should be treasured.

   “But back then, the finality of it all seemed dramatic, and with someone who was willing to not just end the game there but play out the result of a death or failure in the continuing context of an adventure? It was exciting and new.

– David Goldfarb       

   Not so long ago there was this whole debate on Twitter about “playing D&D for free”. That’s another fitting example of the Player vs Client rift, and what I call the role-playing generation gap. My friends and I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer for free since 1986 with the same books and character sheets and dice. This is how people used to play before Wizards of the Coast and Dwarven Forge. What else do you really need?

   I said it before. I’ll say it again. In the very beginning, Gygax himself was staunchly opposed to the idea of published adventures. He wanted to put out those three core books, and let both players and Dungeon Masters come up with the rest.

   We basically went from Gary “this is the source for creating imaginative situations” Gygax to Mike “what additional product can we give you” Mearls. From DIY to consumerism. But the same thing happened everywhere, anyway. World War II was very “DIY”, in a way; our grandmothers worked part-time in weapons factories. Nowadays, forget the grandmas: war has become big business. Same thing with role-playing games. Even Sly Flourish says he’s “leaving the design to the professionals”. But who are these professionals, and where do they come from? They were once grandmas working part-time in weapons factories, right? Hell, I’m still a grandma working part-time in a weapons factory – and proud of it! Because that Gygax blurb clearly indicates that there wasn’t any “professionals” around, back in ’85.

   Role-playing games didn’t need professionals to become a huge hit – players were enough.

   Players, not clients.


The Dark Pillar

   New system. The game session begins with a big set-piece encounter. I had already set the stage for this during two previous (and smaller) sessions, and now everything comes to a head in a complex / deadly three-tiered chamber.

   Also, the party is not at full HP, and certainly not at full spell capability.

   At the end of our last big game (see The Great Halloween Dungeon Dive in the archives: November 2016), the party was sucked into an untethered Shadow Door and split in two small groups of four and three. The Shadow Door then “spewed out” both groups in a new, unexplored level of the same dungeon, but in different spots.

   I ran those two smaller games last winter, but didn’t post about them. Group “A” had to battle a whole lot of very special skeletons, and escape a succession of “living” murals à la Tegel Manor, while group “B” fought a female ghost and squared off several times against an entire subterranean village of Duergars – the widely reviled “Gray Dwarves”.

   This megadungeon is increasingly confusing for the PCs, since so many contrastive powers seem to be at play. Each level appears to have a boss, sure – but then there’s this uncanny Shadow Door that’s literally all over the place, and there is a Crypt Thing who once before helped the party, and a Kloistergeist that keeps warning them about the biggest threats. First time they saw it, the Kloistergeist said, “Beware the Crypt Thing”. Second time they saw it – in the labyrinth of the Duergars – it said, “Beware the Dark Pillar”.

   I knew it was going to be a “close shave”, but it wasn’t level inappropriate: 3 grells and 5 gargoyles against 7 fourth or fifth level PCs. Plus, they got two very useful items up their sleeve: a Potion of Heroism, and a Figurine of Wondrous Power.

   Group “A” (bard, thief, Dwarf) arrive via that wide staircase visible on the picture above. They begin on the second tier: a vast brownstone floor with a huge square pit in its center – and the most humongous pile of gold pieces any of them has ever seen! Looking ahead, they see a transparent wall with an unpropitious row of five gargoyles on top of it, and crooked stone stairs to the left. Oh, and the giant pile of gold seems to be moving just a little bit...

   Group “B” (cleric, ranger, 2 magic-users) came tumbling down a long dark slide. They begin on the bottom tier: a rectangular floor with heavy pavestones, a rough brownstone wall with two holes and two levers, and a fascinating transparent ceiling. They lit their last torch. Through the glassy section of the wall they could make out their friends on the second tier. If they looked all the way up, they could also see the third tier – gargoyles, wooden winch with rust-pitted chain, old granite throne, and perfect round trapdoor in the ceiling!

   The ranger immediately puts the Rope of Climbing to good use and climbs. Then, down the slide comes a blazing flow of molten iron – a parting gift from angry Duergars. The cleric decides to pull one of the levers, thinking that if water comes pouring in from those holes in the wall, it’ll quickly cool the pool of molten metal, and the party might be able to resume its climb, because that’s the only exit, really.

   He pulls down a lever. First, nothing but a funny gurgling sound. Then, two grells are expelled from a hole. Roll initiative everyone!

   Meanwhile on the second tier, Dwarf and thief came too close to that pit full of gold, and a xorn appears out of the floor – just the arms, eyes, and mouth (for now). “Leave my food supply alone, ugly trespassers,” says the xorn in his own language, but of course nobody can understand. Roll initiative everyone!

   All the characters went down at one point or another in this big encounter. All seven of them. One magic-user went down first, followed by the cleric who had a grell tied neatly round his neck. Luckily, the cleric was immediately brought back up to 1 HP by that mysterious Shadow Door – but where did he end up? He wasn’t in the same room anymore, and didn’t see nor hear his friends who were (most certainly) still battling those grells...

   This is where the cleric met with a very polite spectre who introduced himself as Prince Lamah Khan – and eagerly asked several arcane questions. But he didn’t threaten or attack in any way. Prince Lamah Khan exclaimed, “I know what’s happening! I figured it out!” The cleric is groggy, barely managing to stand on his feet at 1 HP. What is it you think you have figured out, mild-mannered spirit? he seems to think. And then, the spectre says, “If you ever need to come back in through my own level, I can hold back the revenants and even my undead dragon, granting you safe passage all the way to the Gate – but you and your friends are gonna have to bring me something in exchange.”

   The poor cleric doesn’t like the next thing he hears.

   Then, the spectre says his good-bye and leaves through a wall, as spectres are wont to do. The cleric is left alone in a very long corridor, with empty cells lining the right wall as far as the eye can see.

   Back in the glass chamber, the fight continues. Dwarf and bard are still impeded by slow shadows – shapeless, dark parasites attached to their clothes and skin, slowing them down to half their normal movement. The thief also has these all over him, but his DEX 18 still provides him with somewhat decent speed. The Dwarf painstakingly made his way up the crooked stairs, destroying gargoyle #1 in the process. He finally reached the topmost floor – or glass ceiling to the lower room, if you prefer. The thief climbed the transparent wall, and also gained that top floor. The bard removed his cape, stepped into the huge pile of gold pieces, and filled the cape with as much gold as he could carry. His timing was impeccable: the xorn didn’t see a thing, being down into the lower half of the room, where one grell still lingered.

   The ranger hauls the two unconscious magic-users towards the Rope of Climbing and ties them both together, lifting them out of there three rounds later. After the last grell is destroyed – and seeing how three gargoyles haven’t yet moved at all, the party takes a short break (less than half an hour). During that time, the cleric returns, having walked a long prison corridor, and seen only two live prisoners – a lizardman, and a monk.

   Reunited with his fellow adventurers, the cleric manages to cure one light wound, but the group is hit with a second wave of monsters: a gravewailer is discharged from the second hole in the wall, and an albino grell – my favorite monster of the game – enters through the third tier.

   The albino grell is a mean fucker, because he has been bullied all his life by the other grells... There was one young female grell who thought the albino grell was kinda cute, but then she was brutally murdered by a group of Human paladins and clerics. This is why the albino grell wants to kill all Humans, and especially clerics and everything that resembles a paladin!

   Having experienced eldritch visions while sitting in the old throne, the thief regains full consciousness just in time to see that the albino grell is upon him. Eleven attacks – ouch! From across the room, the ranger fires his last arrows, but the poor thief is down and out by the end of round two.

   Trying to hit the climbing gravewailer, the Dwarf falls down the round trapdoor and takes 3 points of damage. The gravewailer diligently spits acid phlegm on both ranger and Dwarf. The two tanks go down in rounds 4 and 5. Both magic-users were already at -1 and -3 HP. So, yeah, it’s up to the bookworms: the bard and the cleric!

   Bard fends off that acid-spewing abomination for three more rounds, and then falls. Cleric runs back into the “prison corridor”. With 1 HP left, and his 6 comrades all under zero HP, he’s not risking anything. He finds those cells in which a Human monk and a lizardman warrior still await his return, and successfully frees the monk with his Wand of Opening. First time he’s used it in three games!

They’re all down except the cleric.

   The good monk Dalmas – currently with 17 HP out of his 30 – agreed to help, and swiftly got the cleric’s unconscious buddies out of that room, and then out of the dungeon altogether. He moved silently and only had to tackle two gargoyles. Talk about divine (or at least monastic) intervention!

   They’ll be back in there, for sure. This dungeon is rather large, and they still haven’t seen any “Dark Pillar” anywhere. Plus, they’ve got a map, now.


The Malazan Empire of the Petal Throne

   Numerous role-playing games influenced Steven Erikson as he wrote The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Assassins, bards and paladins (“Shield Anvils” in Erikson’s stories) came directly from Dungeons & Dragons. Rat catchers, obviously, were taken right out of Warhammer. But the most influential game, in my opinion, was Empire of the Petal Throne. Here’s why.

  Non-Caucasians make up half of the entire Malazan world, which is unheard of in any sword-and-sorcery fiction except for Professor Barker’s own books. Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms are rather white. Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon is mostly white. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is overwhelmingly white (see Where is Middle-Earth in the archives below for an in-depth Lily White explanation). Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is the most “ethnic” setting, ex aequo with the Malazan world – but nothing comes close to Tekumel where there are simply no white people.

   The Malazan world has two Caucasian continents, namely Genabackis and Lether, and two Non-Caucasian continents. Quon Tali has Black people (the Dal Honese) as well as “Native American” people (the Wickans). The Seven Cities continent has Semitic people, but no Hindus, alas. Emperor Kellanved himself is actually a Dal Honese magic-user, and his greatest champion, the First Sword of Empire, is also Dal Honese. And the legendary Fist / General Coltaine (who ascends to quasi-godhood) is a Wickan warleader of the Crow clan.

   Many heroes and heroines of The Malazan Book of the Fallen are non-whites, including the most badass assassin you’ve ever seen, and the boldest / craziest magic-user. So that’s cool.

  Vast Underworlds can be found beneath cities and mountain ranges, none of these more extensive than the multi-layered ruined city complex underneath Y’Ghatan. The concept of Ditlána is there all right; Y’Ghatan has been levelled and then rebuilt several times, and all the different iterations of that city lay buried / compacted under the current city, just like it is with most major Tsolyani cities.

   Erikson even does the Underworld one better. Case in point: if a city is really torn down and levelled and reconstructed several times over, those subterranean layers ought to be flattened and compacted like piles of old cars in a junkyard, and you shouldn’t be able to ever find a hallway in which you can stand upright. That’s exactly how Erikson depicted the Y’Ghatan Underworld: it’s a literal dungeon crawl. Sometimes, all one guy can see is the naked soles of the feet of the guy crawling in front of him. If the first guy comes face-to-face with a giant spider, the guy behind can’t provide any assistance – if he happens to be a cleric, maybe he can touch the sole of a foot and cast cure light wounds...

  Remnants of Technology are scattered all across the planet, and they appear to be especially easy to find on the continent of Lether. These mysterious artefacts are quite similar to the long-lost technology of Tekumel before the béthorm.

   Erikson’s “Indifferent God” is rather similar to the Tsolyani goddess Dra the Uncaring. The names of Karsa and Hársan are almost identical. The Malazan Warrens mirror Tekumel’s Nexus Points – they look absolutely identical when they’re opened by a mage, and the various ways they can be used are pretty much the same.

   Erikson’s K’Chain Che’Malle are not an “allied race” at first, but seem to be a mix between Shén and Hlüss. The K’Chain Che’Malle have “Matrons” while the Hlüss have “great mothers”. Both Shén and K’Chain Che’Malle K’ell Hunters are powerful warriors. Say it out loud: Shén and K’Chain – the pronunciation is identical.

   Later in the Malazan cycle, those K’Chain Che’Malle do finally become some sort of an allied race, like the Shén:

   “It is the new way our mother foresaw. The path of our rebirth.
   “Humans, welcome us. The K’Chain Che’Malle have returned to the world.”

   Even the narrative techniques in the books (the Tekumel novels) appear to be the same. In one book you are with the Tsolyani Twenty-First Imperial Medium Infantry (or with Onearm’s Host), and then comes the next chapter: you’re with the enemy now – the people of Yan Kor (or Darujhistan). You keep going back and forth between the two... and of course you grow attached to both sides of the conflict!

   Aridani women are present throughout the Tekumel novels and The Malazan Book of the Fallen alike: strong, independent females who choose to be “liberated” from their traditional “clan duties”. Back in 1984, this was almost unheard of in fantasy / sci-fi literature – the Professor was a trailblazer, and certainly scored major points.

   Here are a few other stunning symmetries between Barker’s and Erikson’s worlds:

The “First Palace”
The “First Throne” / “First Empire”
Dharu (a city)
Daru (a people)
Jakalla (a city)
Jakatakan (Malaz Island)
Horusel (a soldier / Tirrikamu)
Hurlochel (a soldier / outrider)

   Griggatsétsa is a “Mad King”, while Rhulad, the Mad Emperor of the Tiste Edur, is quite literally a Man of Gold – a resurrected corpse covered in hundreds of gold coins...

   And Steven Erikson isn’t the only one, by the way. Looking at the early years of TSR is quite fascinating in that regard: it is a huge whirlpool of creativity. Take the “Eyes”, for example. Each of them has one effect – slowing down enemies, petrifying foes, raising infernal barriers, or disintegrating. Those awesome “Eyes” first appeared in the original Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). But then you have the equally awesome beholder, first introduced in the Greyhawk supplement of 1975. And what’s a beholder exactly, if not a living, floating collection of eleven “eyes”, each one with its unique power – slow, flesh to stone, disintegrate, etc? So, which of those two awesome things inspired the other? They both appeared at the same time and in the same nascent company; there must be a link.

   The four-legged, four-armed ahoggyá was also featured in 1975’s Empire of the Petal Throne, while the xorn (three-legged and three-armed) first came out in 1977’s Monster Manual. This one is much easier to call.

   You also have a dlaqó / carrion crawler symmetry; you have the biridlú / lurker above; you have the teqeqmu / grell... and the list could probably go on. Professor Barker, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson borrowed freely from each other: that’s how this hobby was born and became such a huge phenomenon. A few more lawyers, and nothing at all would have ever happened. Imagine that.

   Today’s Sci-fi and Fantasy authors belong to that generation: like Erikson, they began playing D&D or EPT as teenagers, round ’75 or ’76. It figures.


Star Trek: Into Crappiness

   When I wrote about the first of these J.J. Abrams movies, I never thought I would be watching the second one – but there it was on TV, during the Oscars, and I kept going back and forth between the two channels. I was absolutely dumbstruck.

   Earth looks just like Coruscant. Kronos looks just like Zion in the Matrix trilogy. The gunfight on Kronos looks like a game of Lasertag. The evil Admiral who wants to start a war with the Klingons – that’s rather old. The secret prototype starship with cutting-edge technology – been there, done that.

   It all made me realize something major. We’re not going to have movies anymore; from now on, we’re only going to have copy-pasted rehashes of the classics we know and love. Yes. A hundred years from now there’s gonna be so many versions of Star Trek, so many Batman origin stories, so many Darth Vaders, so many Aragorns and James Bonds... Just like it is with the Arthurian mythos. Really, why do you think we got so many confusing iterations of that thing? Simply because those characters were “popular” back then, and various authors kept retelling the same story over and over again, with slight differences every time.

   The book of Saint Kentigern stipulates that Merlin died in the Tweed river, pierced by a spike. But Thomas Mallory says Merlin was forever entombed in a magic cave. Which is it?

   Cicero wrote that the goddess Aphrodite was a daughter of Uranus and Hemera. But Hesiod has said that Aphrodite appeared when Cronus cut off his father’s testicles and threw them into the sea. Again, which is it?

   Matthew wrote that Jesus on the cross said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But Luke wrote that Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What did he really say, boys?

   Tim Burton introduced a Joker who’d become what he is after an accident at a chemical plant. But the Gotham TV show now gives us a street performer / orphan Joker who died and was resurrected in Arkham...

   With Roddenberry, Spock dies after replacing the warp core by hand. With Abrams, Kirk dies after having kicked that damn warp core back on...

   Redux and remake – with no clear end in sight. Beloved characters don’t have a choice anymore: they’ll live forever, and they are doomed to transform endlessly.


Gaming vs Eating

   My friends are foodies. I mean, really. You should see the table sometimes: 55% foodstuffs, 45% gaming materials. So, what’s the real star of the evening – the game itself or the grilled cheeses and pastries and goddamned Oysters Rockefeller?

   I realized that the games I run are the only time we all get together. Just a few years ago we still had regular parties, summer barbecues, Halloween bashes, New Year’s gatherings, or just plain old TV night – three or four guys with beer and chips. But that was three years ago now.

   One guy moves out of the city. Two other guys have children. Another has to work three jobs. A few have minor health issues. And then, all of a sudden, the TV nights and barbecues and big dinner parties are just gone. Three players told me that my game is the only social event left in their lives where they get to “see the others”. An awesome thing, right?

   But also a problem.

   Because now Game Day isn’t just Game Day anymore – it’s Party Day, Booze Day, Talk Day, Pot Smoking Day and Food Day altogether. Of course, the game suffers. It’s not sharp, not focused. Towards the end of the session, it’s a big mess – not on the game table but around it. Honestly, I don’t know exactly how to deal with it.

   If a DM puts in sixty hours of prep work and spends two hundred dollars on miniatures, paint, foam boards, wood, plastic wood, clay, silicone sealant, epoxy and other stuff – well, that final result should be the focal point, come Game Day. If it’s still just some silly excuse to get together and smoke weed / drink / eat / chat...

   I didn’t expect to suddenly become Keeper of the Social Cohesion or something, and I didn’t ask for such a job. All I wanted was to run a First Edition AD&D campaign and do it just like we used to do it in the early eighties: exhilarated, focused, silly and fun. The silly and the fun ought to be in-game, though, and on the table. Half an hour spent talking about some silly / fun episode of Family Guy doesn’t count as fun-and-silly tabletop gaming, sorry.

   If I ever run games at cons or over with Adventurers League, it’ll be a sharp contrast indeed: keen players, not stoned, not half-drunk, with their livers not acting up from too much olives or prosciutto. I’ll be out of my depth for sure. After two hours these players will be done with everything I’d prepped, and we’ll still have two more hours to go – and me, I’ll be like, “Ugh, I’ve got nothing, guys. Usually that’s enough to fill six hours at the table! Are you really sure you don’t want to discuss Breaking Bad or Mister Robot for a while?”

   I’m starting to think of these games as “luncheons with a side dish of gaming”. Eating is something the guys do enthusiastically – but then sometimes it’s a hassle just to get them to pick up a die and roll new init. I don’t really mind, because it is only twice a year. But man, it’s insane. Think six-inches Subway sandwiches, but instead of sweet teriyaki beef or turkey breast you put a giant Wiener in there with lots of mustard and slaw. Some of my friends gobble TWO of these monsters plus a homemade cheeseburger, and then wash the whole thing down with a beer or two... and it’s only 3:15 PM. This is not dinner yet, right?

Please note that these are just the LEFTOVERS.

   D&D has changed a lot since I was fifteen. I was part of a D&D “club” back then, and so we had access to a nifty little classroom with a chalkboard and six tables and lots of chairs, plus one teacher’s desk. We could use that room every day between 12:15 and 1:00 PM, and then again from 3:45 to 4:45 every day except Fridays – and we sure used every motherfucking minute of that allotted time. Sure, when the bell rang at 11:45 we went downstairs to the cafeteria, but only because we had half an hour to kill and mister what-was-his-name wouldn’t open our D&D room for us before 12:15. We ate whatever disgusting food the cafeteria had to offer and already debated about our party’s next move. By 12:10 we were back upstairs, waiting by mister what-was-his-name’s tiny office, and at 12:15 sharp we gently knocked on his door. He came out and unlocked our room. By 12:16 the rulebooks were already open; we played a solid 44 minutes until the 1:00 PM bell. We just played. Books, pencils, graph paper, dice. No cheeseburgers. No spaghetti. No meatloaf. No giant Wieners with pickles and mayonnaise. No Pepsi. No beer. No wine. No coffee. No Southern Comfort or cognac or anything. We were hungry for power and glory – not goddamned steak tartare.

   Even in the early nineties with Cthulhu, Warhammer and Stormbringer – we gamed a lot, and didn’t eat much. Nowadays we eat a lot, and don’t game as much as we used to.

   Food has officially become some sort of a gaming nuisance. But what can you do about it? We’re not teenagers anymore: we need our eight burgers a day, right?