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!

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.

Checking In

2020. Amazing.

What did I do in 2019? A lot of writing, almost none of which has been published yet. I’m still working on the haunted house novel, titled The Hacking of Hyll House (at least until someone tells me I can’t use the name). I hope the book will be finished in a couple of months, because other stories want to be written too, and I’m not getting any younger.

The holidays were mostly quiet, except when a water pipe developed a pin-sized hole on Christmas Eve, spraying a fine mist all over my basement. I tried to fix it with duct tape (of course), which changed the fine mist into a more manageable drip. I happened to have some old hose from my clothes dryer sitting around, so I rigged it under the drip to funnel the leak into a nearby drain. I considered taking pictures and posting them here, but it would have given my insurance agent a heart attack and/or made me go viral on some belittling website, so I decided against it. I eventually managed to get a plumber in on Monday, and life is dry again.

So that was my Christmas…although I also read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tomaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which I heartily recommend. And I’ve been dying a lot while playing Control. Dying isn’t fun, but the game is, so it’s worth checking out.

I haven’t made any resolutions for 2020, but I do intend to blog more. So happy 2020, and I hope to write more in the near future.

Christmas Role-Playing

A week ago I tweeted the following:

Now I can explain.

I am Games Master for two role-playing groups, and with one, we’ve developed a tradition of having a special Christmas adventure every year. These are conducted in the spirit of an imaginary story, the way that DC Comics used to do: not really in the serious continuity of the ongoing role-playing campaign. Basically, these adventures are extravagant spoofs, often ending in wild chase scenes or over-the-top fights.

So this year’s adventure: “Die Hard” meets “A Christmas Carol” meets “Legend” meets “Land of the Giants“. Seriously.

The setting is the present day in a world much like ours, but with magic and magical creatures of all kinds lurking in the shadows. The player characters are all teenage mages recently graduated from a high school that is more like Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters than Hogwarts. They are currently connected with a slightly shady “talent broker” who hires “special” people for “special” jobs.

The broker was approached by an anonymous client and asked to arrange a classic Charles Dickens scenario to convert a Scrooge-like billionaire into a nice guy. They wanted the same sequence of events as “A Christmas Carol”: Marley, then the Spirit of Christmas Past, then Christmas Present, then Christmas Yet-to-Come. Such powerful spirits do exist in this world…and a powerful mage could use rituals and bargains to induce the spirits to visit a given target. The spirits themselves have plenty enough mind-altering power to reprogram an ordinary human into someone who loves Christmas.

So the job was not impossible. But when the broker investigated the situation, he found a lot of warning flags. For example, the Scrooge-like billionaire lived in a penthouse atop Nakatomi Plaza, and the whole building was enveloped in sophisticated magic shields. It’s not unheard of in this world for a billionaire to have some protection against magic, but these shields went way beyond normal. They also had embedded triggers and characteristics so complicated it would take ages to figure out what they actually did.

The talent broker decided the job was too hinky to undertake, so he turned it down. He expected the second best broker in the city would be contacted next, so he sent a message to Broker #2, warning not to take the job. Broker #1 expected #2 would take the job anyway, so #1 started making plans to deal with what might happen if things went pear-shaped. This included having the player characters on hand on Christmas Eve, just in case.

Just past midnight, everyone in the world forgot that there had ever been previous Christmases. They thought this year’s Christmas was the first ever. Yes, it looked like the Spirit of Christmas Past had somehow disappeared from the world.

So our heroes were rushed to Nakatomi Plaza to see what was up and what they could do to set things right. They stopped at the edge of the magic barrier surrounding the building, and just as they got there, all Christmas decorations in the city disappeared. Oh no! The Spirit of Christmas Present was gone too!

Before sending the heroes any farther, the talent broker gave them magical items that he promised would make them really really hard to detect by normal security systems and magic ones. He didn’t say how they actually worked, because a moment later, our heroes were shrunk to the size of ants. (In all my years of role-playing, I’ve never shrunk an entire group of players, and it’s high time I did. And if you’re going to do a remake of “Die Hard”, isn’t it more fun when the good guys are less than an inch tall?) Anyway, the broker gave them flying ants to ride, and away they all went to save Christmas.

I won’t go into many more details, but they had to deal with a host of obstacles, some of which were easy to circumvent at ant size, and some of which were tough. (The billionaire had two cats. Uh-oh.)

When the heroes finally got to the top of the tower, the place had been transformed by an abundance of Christmas energies spilling off the captured spirits. One room was full of toys…and yes, of course, since our heroes were mages, they could change the toy helicopters so the toys really flew and shot missiles. During the adventure, our miniature heroes almost got eaten by four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtledoves, and almost got stepped on by twelve lords a-leaping…but eventually the heroes found the spirits being held prisoner in Christmas stockings, chained up by Marley’s chains. A battle ensued with the heroes driving around in toys, facing off against villainous elves riding reindeer…

Anyway, we laughed continuously for a couple of hours, and much delirious action took place. (Not even gonna mention what the toy Batmobile did to the cats.) But yippie-ki-yay to all.

(Note to GMs: I strongly recommend the occasional holiday free-for-all…if not at Christmas, then Halloween or some other favorite event. Throw away the dice completely; if a stunt makes things more fun, it automatically succeeds, and if it’s a downer, it fails. Don’t forget that Chase scenes are always a great way to end.)

[Marley’s ghost and Scrooge illustration by John Leech, from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing, February 26, 2019

Stuff I’m doing:

Fixing a cataract: I’ve had a slow-growing cataract in my left eye for at least three years and it’s finally reached the point where (perhaps) it’s time to get rid of it.

My cataract is almost certainly just a symptom of age. The way I understand it is that the lens in your eye is made of transparent fibers which should lie tightly side by side. As you get older, the fibers loosen up enough to allow small gaps between them. Not only does the lens have more difficulty focusing, but light can get in through the gaps which has various effects. In my case, if I look at a single point of light, I see three points (or sometimes six, depending on the size of the original point).

Luckily, my right eye is still good, and with my glasses, it’s 20/20. This means I can still see fine for driving. However, I’d love to have two working eyes again. As it happens, eye surgeons prefer not to deal with cataracts until they’re bad enough—cataracts can develop very slowly, in which case there’s no reason to jump the gun. At long last, though, my optometrist says that it’s time; so I now have an appointment with an eye surgeon to see if he agrees.

What I’m reading: The Mister Miracle graphic novel by Tom King. Mister Miracle is a lesser known DC “superhero” created by Jack Kirby. I put “superhero” in quotes because MM doesn’t fight crime, and he seldom gets involved in standard superhero shenanigans.  Instead, he’s the greatest escape artist of all time.

The graphic novel is essentially about MM having an extended bout of depression. It’s not played for laughs (although there are plenty of humorous moments). It’s very human and highly recommended.

What I’m playing on the computer: Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don’t know why…but on the weekend, when I looked at the list of games I have on my computer, DA:I is the one I clicked on. (I’ve played DA:I from start to finish at least four times. I guess I might be making it five.)

What I’m writing: In the mornings, I’m working on the novel I’ve designated PROJECT TECH-BRO. In the afternoon, I’m working on a short story I’m tentatively calling “The Red Wolf Canto” (although that might change). It’s a combination of Little Red Riding Hood and Dante’s Inferno. Because they belong together.

(Seriously, on the very second page of Dante’s Inferno, Dante meets a wolf in a dark forest. So hey, it’s a gimme.)

Sharing: February 18, 2019

A rundown of what I’ve been up to recently.

What I’m Reading: The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. They’re fun middle-grade books about the demigod children of deities in the Greek pantheon. Percy Jackson is sometimes painfully slow on the uptake—I’m on Book 3 (The Titan’s Curse) and he still hasn’t got it through his head that EVERYTHING HE ENCOUNTERS IS SUPERNATURAL…but because these are middle-grade books, I’ll cut him some slack.

What I’m Listening To: Audio versions of the Goddess Wars books by Kendare Blake. You might consider these a dark YA counterpart to Percy Jackson. These books too feature characters from Greek mythology, including gods and heroes, but in a much grittier context. Gods are slowly dying in horrific ways, and those who still survive are at war each other. Interesting but nasty.

What I’m Playing on the Tabletop: One reason I’m reading the above books is because I’m running a campaign of Scion (Second Edition) from Onyx Path. Players portray the half-human/half-divine children of gods; our group includes children of Thor, Loki, Kali, Lugh, Winonah, and Cheeby-aub-oozoo. This is part of a continuing campaign that’s been going for more than ten years, having spun through multiple game systems including D&D, Ashen Stars, Mage: The Awakening, and more.

I’m also part of a group play-testing a tabletop RPG that I can’t talk about. Maybe eventually…

What I’m Playing on the Computer: Sunless Skies, a game where you fly a Victorian locomotive through otherworldly landscapes. I’ve reached the point where I don’t die too often, and therefore can follow the story-threads of my crew. It’s an odd but compelling little game. I got it on Steam.

What I’m Writing: The novel I’m calling PROJECT TECH-BRO, and a short story for an anthology that will be published in 2020. I will definitely say more about these in the fullness of time…but not yet.

Sharing: November 23, 2018

More things I like:

Used first-year university textbooks
I live within fifteen minutes of two universities: the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Both have stores where you can buy used textbooks for under $10 each. The books that go for such low prices aren’t the latest editions—they may be around five years old. But even in 2018, the introductory principles of various disciplines don’t change much in five years. If you buy a slightly old textbook, you still have an amazing resource as a starting place for learning a subject.

So I’ve bought first-year textbooks in dozens of fields, from anatomy and economics to Italian and microbiology. Wikipedia is certainly great for quick-and-dirty fact finding, especially when I already know the basics of a subject…but when I want to learn something from scratch or in depth, I love textbooks. They’re designed to teach topics in some rational order, where one thing builds on another. So I strongly recommend that everyone should make a trip to the nearest university campus and see what gems you can get for a surprisingly low price.

By the way, let me add one way that I use such books: I keep one in my kitchen. Whenever I’m taking a break from writing and go for a snack, I can read a few paragraphs while I’m munching. Also, when I’m cooking and waiting for water to boil or something like that, I can also read a bit. I like having something to read that I can pick up and put down without too much angst.


The Comics trilogy by Scott McCloud
I’ve long been aware of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s 1993 book on how comic books work. (The book also covers comic strips, manga, graphic novels, etc.) If you haven’t read it, rush out to your library and grab a copy now.

I was also aware of the follow-up, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. It was McCloud’s attempt to nudge the creators of comics to aim higher and be more ambitious.

But I only recently discovered that he’d written a third book in 2006: Making Comics. I have no idea how I missed it…but I’m reading it now, and it’s full of great insights on how to create comic books that work. Highly recommended.

Sharing: November 18, 2018

More things I like:

Book-: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a long-time dancer and choreographer, and this is her book about the creative process. As the title suggests, she recommends developing the habit of being creative, and she offers numerous ways to improve your creative process. I first read this book many years ago; now, as I’m rereading it, my creative juices have started bubbling fiercely.
Newsletter: Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis
I think of Warren Ellis as a comic book writer, but he also writes novels, screenplays, and a heck of a good weekly newsletter. Every posting talks about books that I’ve never heard of but immediately want to read. His Morning, Computer blog is also well worth following.
App: Freedom
Freedom is an internet blocker, available for most operating systems. I use it on both my iPad and my Windows desktop. Freedom helps you avoid indulging your vices; I have it set up to prevent me from reading Twitter when I’m supposed to be writing, and from playing solitaire anytime after 10:30 at night. In other words, Freedom has willpower when I don’t. It lets me work and sleep when I want to, despite the addictive nature of the web.

Cryptic Crosswords

The other day, I met someone who had never heard of cryptic crossword puzzles. Since I’ve been addicted to cryptics for (OMG!) more than thirty years, I thought I’d talk about them today.

I assume that everyone reading this is familiar with normal (i.e. non-cryptic) crossword puzzles. A cryptic looks much the same, except that most of the answers have letters that don’t cross with other answers—every ACROSS word has letters that aren’t in any DOWN word, and vice versa. You can only complete the puzzle by solving every clue, both ACROSS and DOWN.

Another slight difference is that every cryptic clue tells how many letters the answer has. For example, if you see (7) at the end of a clue, it means taht the answer has 7 letters. Of course, you could get that from looking at the puzzle grid…but you might also see something like (4,3) meaning a 4-letter word followed by a 3-letter word, or (5-2) which means that the answer is hyphenated as shown.

But the major difference between cryptic and non-cryptic crosswords is that cryptic clues are deceptive. They don’t just give a synonym for the answer word; they usually give a synonym and a secondary hint, both disguised to make it hard to tell what’s what.

Here’s a simple example:

Midnight running event creates elegance(5)

(I’ll pause while experienced cryptic solvers figure it out.)

Okay, the answer is GRACE. Midnight = the middle of “night” = “G”. A running event is a RACE. Add G+RACE and you get GRACE which can mean “elegance”.

Here’s another:

The arctic is mapped with some of my minor thoughts(5)


The answer is NORTH. The arctic is mapped up north, and some of “my miNOR THoughts” is NORTH.

These are common types of clues. You can see more such standards in the Wikipedia entry on Cryptic Crosswords.

If you’re interested in trying a cryptic or two, the Globe and Mail offers a free online cryptic six days a week. Doing the puzzles online lets you guess and get immediate feedback by clicking the “Check” button. (Warning: Canadian spellings.)

I also recommend the Two-Speed Crosswords in the UK’s Sun. “Two-Speed” means that there are two sets of clues: cryptic clues, and “coffee-time” (i.e. normal) clues if you can’t solve the cryptic ones. I should note that the Sun puts the T&A in TAbloid, so be prepared to see links to sleazy articles. The puzzles are good, though.

Both the Globe and Sun puzzles are reasonably easy. Several other newspapers, especially British ones, also run regular cryptics, but they’re usually much harder. They may also require knowledge of cricket and British football teams. But hey, it’s an education just trying to understand the clues, even when you know the answer. And if you’re a writer, cryptics are also good for your vocabulary.

[Blank crossword grid by Wikipedian en:User:Michael J, published under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2]