Kind Words from Speculating Canada

I’ve said good things before about Speculating Canada, a web site devoted to Canadian SF. Recently, they’ve been doing a series about what Canadian SF writers are doing during the COVID-19 lockdown. Today is my turn to talk a bit about it: check it out!

I should also say that Derek Newman-Stille recently wrote a kind review of my novel Commitment Hour. Commitment Hour was my second book published, way back in 1998. It deals with gender, and the world has changed a lot since the book came out; I’m happy that Derek still found it worth reading.

Show-Pieces

In the past few days, I’ve been watching RWBY, an anime-style cartoon series…and during the final episode of the second season, I had an epiphany about something to do in Dungeons & Dragons, and in role-playing games in general.

The episode features a show-piece fight, where all the important characters get to strut their stuff. I recommend that you watch the fight before reading what I say about it. Even if you aren’t familiar with the series, you should have no trouble following the action; monsters are loose in the city, and students at a school for monster-hunters have no choice but to fight them.

Here’s the YouTube link. The fight lasts from 2:24 to 8:47.

This sort of show-piece fight happens near the end of many a movie or TV season. The music starts (whether it’s the James Bond theme or driving heavy metal) and for a time, the heroes are invincible. They never miss; they can’t be hurt; and the enemies are always perfectly arranged for the heroes to put them down with clever moves. Each character gets to use their abilities in some distinctive fashion, and they all prove they’re bad-ass.

It’s fabulous. So how can we do the same in D&D?

D&D combat can be nail-biting, but it isn’t Metal. There’s too much time spent rolling dice. “I hit AC 14. Does that hit? No, I was aiming for the ogre, not the owlbear. Okay, I’ll roll damage. I role a 12. And then I’ll duck out of sight before it hits me back.”

Not. Metal.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I’m thinking and what I intend to do in one of the campaigns I run: once in a while at an appropriate moment—maybe every four months—I’ll declare, “This isn’t a combat, it’s a show-piece.”

Put away the dice. Put away the rulebooks. Just be bad-ass.

Each character has as many opponents as they want: exactly the right number, lined up in a perfect configuration for whatever the character is going to do. Every attack hits. Every skill attempt succeeds without rolling. The enemies always miss, or if (for dramatic reasons) they connect, they don’t actually do damage. Each enemy goes down when you want it to…so if you want to take off its head with a single kick, that’s what happens. If you want to slash it twenty times in a second with your sword, and have its hacked-up pieces fall to the ground…done and done.

You can shoot five arrows simultaneously and pin an enemy to the wall. You can leap onto a monster’s back and use a dagger in each hand to dig into the creature’s hide and climb to the monster’s head. You can shoot a fireball down a monster’s throat, slam its mouth closed, and watch its entire body explode.

No dice rolls. No game mechanics. You don’t count how many spell slots you’re using, or how many ki points you spend. This isn’t combat; the player characters are putting on a show, because you’ve reached a point in the story where kick-ass mayhem ought to happen. The goal is to make your fellow players go, “Woah.”

I haven’t tried this yet in an actual game, but I plan on giving each player maybe three minutes to devise a showoff sequence: multiple actions against multiple enemies, all in a row. I wouldn’t want the sequence to take more than a minute to describe; this isn’t done in combat rounds. Player A describes their whole sequence; then Player B describes theirs; and so on.

Each sequence should use the abilities the character has right now—a wizard can’t suddenly know new spells—but everyone has unlimited uses of their powers. A wizard who knows Fireball can throw seventeen of them in a row, provided it’s bad-ass and not just repetitive.

I suspect some of you may still need guidance, so here are more thoughts:

  • The point is to show off, not to do math.
  • You can go into slo-mo when you want. Get that moment when you leap into the air and fire ten arrows before you land again.
  • Ridiculous flukes of luck are encouraged.
  • Monsters may roar, but they only attack when you want them to. This means you have time to deliver whatever dialogue fits. (See the RWBY clip for examples.)
  • Gravity is merely cosmetic. You can leap off something very high and swing your ax as you fall, cleaving a monster in two and not hurting yourself at all when you hit the ground.

Once each character has had a chance to strut, why not go through the order again, but this time in pairs on tougher enemies? Characters will team up (e.g. for Fastball Specials) to take on bigger badder opponents. Again, each pair of players will be given time to figure out a show-piece: using their abilities to beat something exceptionally scary. Maybe go through the order a second time with different pairs…and then one final super-boss-level enemy that all the characters unite to take out in some imaginative fashion.

I recommend ending with a slow-motion walk and stuff blowing up in the background.

Just remember the mantra: this isn’t combat, it’s a show. No dice, no rules. The player characters always succeed, and their enemies always fail…

…at least, as long as the show continues. Because in movies, these set-pieces often end when the real boss shows up. The wall bursts open, and in comes a monster just as bad-ass as the player characters. Suddenly, the DM puts the rules back in force, and it’s not a show, it’s by-the-book combat.

I offer this to D&D DMs (and GMs in other RPGs) as an occasional break from the ordinary, especially at dramatically appropriate moments. I intend to try it sometime soon. If anyone else tries it too, let me know how it goes!

Shapers of Worlds Kickstarter

Just a quick pitch for the Shapers of Worlds Kickstarter headed up by Edward Willett, a long-time friend, excellent writer, and all-round great guy. Ed is the host of The Worldshapers, a podcast in which he has talked to numerous SF writers (including me).

The Kickstarter aims to fund an anthology of stories from all the writers who appeared in the first season of the podcast. It’s a great idea, and I’ve pledged money; I hope you will too!

Accelerated RPG Campaigns

I am the Dungeon Master for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I recently had a great insight. Let me share.

Like many a DM (I think), I adapt published adventures for my players. This means I use the published adventure as the backbone of a story, then I add or modify material to meet the specific interests of players and given them an interesting character arc.

For example, one of the player characters in our group seemed to be leaning evil, and I knew the adventure I was using would eventually lead the party to a city that was a hive of scum and villainy. I therefore dropped hints that the character might be able to join an assassins guild there. When that prospect seemed to catch their interest, I arranged for the character to meet someone who told them how to contact the guild. Eventually, when the party reached the city, the character had to decide how much or how little to become involved with the guild.

The guild wasn’t part of the published adventure, but going to the city was. Thus while the party followed the plot-line of the adventure, the character had personalized opportunities that (I hope) made the game more interesting than just following the predetermined plot.

As I said, I believe a lot of DMs do the same. This approach provides a nice mix of plot (from the adventure) and character material (added by me personally).

So now my great insight: I could throw away huge amounts of the published adventure and still have a great game.

For example, suppose the adventure calls for the party to work their way through a 30-room enemy castle. Why not toss out 25 of those rooms (or more accurately make the rooms pretty much empty)? The only rooms I’d keep would be ones I found really cool, or else ones where I could insert character-based material. In other words, I could drop the “crawl” from “dungeon crawl” and distill the whole thing down to a few rewarding set-pieces.

In the old days, you crawled through a dungeon so the characters could accumulate experience points through the slow process of killing monsters. There’s some value in that—it takes a long time to achieve significant milestones, so the players feel great when they finally kill The Big Bad (or whatever). It also gives players time to learn how to use their current abilities to best effect, and to yearn for the cool new stuff they’ll get when they reach their next experience level.

But my group only meets once a month or so. Grinding through a generic battle means that no one advances their story, even if the battle is a memorable challenge. So new plan: follow the adventure’s plot, but cut it down ruthlessly to its bare essentials so that the added character material takes on a much larger percentage of the action.

Also accelerate character advancement—discard keeping track of experience points at all, and allow players to go up a level every four or five sessions. If that’s too fast, use incremental advances: let players take partial advances now and then, e.g. increasing their hit points or taking one of the new abilities they’d get at the next level. Incremental advances are a great trick I learned from 13th Age.

In this way, the campaign will make faster progress through the published adventure and through D&D levels, finally reaching the adventure’s conclusion in a reasonable time. This avoids one of the major problems of D&D campaigns: petering out before you get to a satisfying end, because the DM gets busy, or a player has to quit, or whatever.

In other words, I plan to speed things up by dropping 90% of the published material. This should let us actually reach the end of a well-rounded story, while still not feeling too rushed. I recommend the same to all DMs reading this.

Electric Blankets

A short note this time, but I want to say a word in favor of electric blankets. I own three: one on my bed, one at my writing desk, and one on the couch where I do most of my reading.

To save money, I keep my house’s central heating relatively low, and just get under a blanket whenever I need to. Unlike a space heater, an electric blanket heats me, not the room; it’s direct, and I’m pretty sure it uses less electricity. I do all my writing under an electric blanket from about October to April.

While some electric blankets are pricey, you can a decent one for under $50, especially if you’re just looking for something to cover yourself with when you’re writing or reading. And if you’re worried about the blanket getting too hot, every blanket I own turns itself off after two or three hours of operation.

There’s nothing so wonderful as turning on the blanket half an hour before bedtime so you can slip into a preheated bed. It’s virtually orgasmic on a cold night. I recommend it.

Strike At, Strike With

My first kung fu teacher used to say, “If you’re being attacked, ask two questions: what do I have to strike at, and what do I have to strike with?” In other words, what targets has your opponent left open, and what parts of your body can you use to hit those targets.

The same advice is surprisingly useful when dealing with choreography problems in writing.

I use the term choreography problems for those times when you know what has to happen but you don’t have specific ideas of how to make it so. A simple example is a fight scene: you know that character A fights B and A wins, but you have no specific plans for how the fight goes. Similar examples: A has to persuade B to do something, or A has to gain some crucial piece of information, or A has to change their mind about something.

Whether you write from an outline or by the seat of your pants, these situations come up all the time: you know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re going to end a few pages later, but you haven’t thought of exactly the steps that take you from one to the other.

So what do you have to strike at, and what do you have to strike with?

What do you know about the characters involved? What are their wants, needs, fears, points of stubborn pride, prejudices, gaps in their knowledge, etc.? In other words, what are their vulnerabilities? These can be exploited in order for one character to get the better of the other, whether that means physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

And what materials do you have to work with in the scene? What have you already established in the setting?

The thing is that every scene takes place somewhere; every time a viewpoint character walks into a room, you have to provide some description, even if you don’t go into a lot of detail. So you already know what props are surrounding the characters. You know what they can pick up, point to, play around with. Is there some way you can use the objects or the setting itself to do what you want to do?

Surprisingly often, you can find a solution to your problem. Trying to achieve something in a vacuum is often hard. (“How can A win the fight?”) But trying to achieve it by using specific objects is easier. (“How can A win the fight when the room contains a moose head, a jug of cold coffee, and fifteen bowling trophies?”)

Specifics give your imagination something to work with. Try it and see.

Reduction of Disbelief

Allow me to pontificate.

Recently, I’ve read a number of stories that take place in our contemporary world (more or less), wherein one or more characters come face to face with supernatural or science fictional elements. (Magic. Aliens. Etc.) The stories then spend a great deal of time during which the characters refuse to believe they’re confronting anything beyond the mundane; they prefer to think it’s an illusion, delusion, lie, hoax, etc.

This gets tiresome pretty damned quick. I soon end up yelling, “Get on to the good stuff! Quit wasting my time!”

I’m prepared to accept a short interval of doubt. If someone in our modern world walks up and says, “I’m an alien,” a character ought to have a few misgivings; otherwise, the character seems like a gullible fool, and that’s usually not what the writer wants.

On the other hand, I hate when a story spends any significant time in this phase. I want to read about cool stuff, not about someone who disbelieves in cool stuff! Disbelief is almost always boring and irritating. After all, I know the fantastic elements will turn out to be real eventually—I probably got the book from the Science Fiction & Fantasy section, and I’ve already read the cover blurb. Even if the blurb doesn’t have spoilers, it’s designed to give me a feel for the book and its general ambiance. I picked up the book it looked like it would give me magic or aliens…so writers, stop dragging your feet, and give me what I paid for!

Seriously, any more than a few paragraphs of disbelief are enough to make me skip ahead in search of something more promising. Either that, or I put the book down and never pick it up again. I strongly recommend that authors create characters who buy in quickly…or else make the encounter so clearly beyond the ordinary that even skeptical characters can’t deny what’s going on.

Please. Please.