Day Twelve: I’ve Got Options

With the word “dungeons” as a part of literally the name of the game, it’s surprising how easily these can be forgotten. I know that, for me, if my players are going to have to explore one, it needs to matter.

It’s day twelve of 30 Days of D&D, and the topic is Favorite Dungeon Type or Location.

Video games like Skyrim are awesome for the quality of the sandbox the player is placed in. I remember hearing that as soon as you finished the tutorial / intro, you faced an unstated choice:  Follow the road to the next storyline quest location, or wander in whatever direction you liked, exploring the region and its assorted scenic points.

D&D can be like that. Some DMs prepare that way, sprinkling the setting with a whole lot of everything else that’s going on in the world. I think that’s a good component of a game, especially if you’re trying to maintain a sandbox style or at least feel.

At my best, I keep a few of those parts of the world at the ready in a computer file or hard copy folder, just in case the players decide their current plan isn’t as interesting as some bit of news or rumor they hear, or some random clue they find in the wild.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to feel like they’re on rails in any way–“You can only go east because, um… reasons.” Namely, because that’s where the thing I prepared is on the map. (I did have to admit that to a group of players once. Didn’t like it.)

That said, I also don’t mind if they end up mysteriously coming across the orc cave I’ve prepared, regardless of whether they turned north toward the mountains or east into the forest. It feels natural and unexpected, because I haven’t tied myself down to “this dungeon exists at this partiuclar spot, period dot, end of story.”

Even more than location, what matters to me about dungeons is purpose. Every dungeon or mini-dungeon I build is meant to have some kind of meaningful end result.

I don’t remember what, but something powerful and BAD happened at that altar, carving a deep ditch through the stone.

Maybe it’s finding out more information about a bigger threat to the region or discovering an item necessary for the Big Bad’s ultimate evil plan.

Maybe it’s a plot twist or even a low-scale moral conundrum. Those goblins you thought were a threat? They’re actually in trouble, oppressed by the kobolds who moved in with the young dragon they serve, or deceived by their newfound friend, the hag. This sort of thing has led to some great role-playing and even a few recurring NPCs of an unusual variety.

Ancient Ghost
A picture card I made for an ancient ghostly NPC the players had to deal with in order to enter a key structure within a ruined city…

Maybe it’s just some object of great power, the knowledge and details of which have been lost to time. I don’t know why, but I always love the “ruins of the ancient, more advanced civilization” background to a dungeon, with objects that exude strange powers, interact with the players in various ways (usually bad), or reveal secrets about the world on a much larger scale.

I care far less about the location or type than about why it matters for these heroes to stomp through this particular network of tunnels and caverns.

Day Eleven: Adventure Time

Today’s topic in the 30 Days of D&D (or yesterday’s… don’t judge me!) is:

Favorite adventure you ran

I’m thinking the creators of the post might mean published adventure content. D&D puts out a bunch of rule books or setting content, stuff that gives you and your players great big worlds to play in and great big heroes to portray, and that’s most of what I purchase.

They also put out scripted adventures – story arcs designed for characters at certain levels with enough details provided to run games, in case you’re not looking to try to design your own. While these might have enough details to provide a setting or add onto a campaign already in progress, they’re also designed around providing some villain or villains, who are enacting some evil plot and must be thwarted.

I’ve never run one of these.

A lot of people get excited about the new stuff, like when Tomb of Annihilation came out (late last year? I think? Wasn’t paying attention). More power to them; I certainly don’t have anything against people playing the scripted books. Sooner or later, I hope to run a game of Curse of Strahd, which is like D&D in a horror/vampire setting.

There are advantages to the adventure books – they usually have a lot more thoughtful details put into the encounters and immediate locations. Someone has mapped out the dungeon, or they’ve laid out the blueprints of the castle, along with all the traps, monsters, plot twists, and treasures. They’ve probably been more inventive and varied in their approach than the stuff I come up with on my own. Maybe they’ve put a lot of backstory in, or they’ve set out some additional plot hooks so that the group can continue playing and building upon the story after the published part is over.

The heroes try to rescue a (supposedly) good necromancer from drow captors and their elemental minions, in order to get to the bottom of a surge of undead swarming the mountainous region…

For better or worse, I have only run homebrew settings. Usually, I’m trying to explore a corner of the world in my fantasy works, building upon the little bit I’ve already established in my head or in my books and drafts. This is invaluable to me, as sometimes what the players do can spark a creative idea for a scene using my established fictional characters.

In a way, running a game based on the world in my head makes the improv part of my in-game storytelling job easier. I know what has transpired in this or that part of the world, and what someone in one town might know about what’s going on in the region. Even though there aren’t a lot of details written down, I feel more comfortable describing the world to my players than I would if I had to remember a bunch of details in a published book.

This might feel like a cop-out answer, but my favorite “adventure” that I’ve run is the ongoing story of the world I’ve made, and the players’ contributions to the events that shape its future.

Day Ten: In the Dark

I’m working my way through 30 Days of Dungeons and Dragons, and today’s topic is: Craziest In-Game Experience.

Side note: The concerned reader might ask, “Where did day nine go?” Actually, it was D&D session day, and after that, my brain is usually pretty fried. Additionally, the topic of “Favorite PC you’d like to play” is pretty close to my answer for Favorite PC in day eight. Given the chance, and the DM’s permission if it fit the story or setting, I would play a PC of “the good necromancer.” I wrote my thoughts on that concept, as well as a fantasy fiction scene imagining how it might work out.

Now for day ten!

I’ve enjoyed some really lovely groups, with some excellent role-players and a ton of laughter. Most of the crazy in-game moments happen when villains get slaughtered all too easily, or when players come up with insane requests that I can’t help but agree to.

Despite coming up with some prepared events and ideas of what might happen, a DM is often left feeling in the dark until moments play out, then forced to adapt. On the one hand, that can feel like panic, when everyone looks to you asking, “What happens next?” On the other hand, it creates a wild spontaneity, an energy born of impromptu acting, planning, and adjusting.

The collaborative part of tabletop RPGing is a key component to having a great game. Players who can act out a roll of 1 as well as they describe a roll of 20 are a great boon to my already-taxed mind when trying to keep the action going.

We had a moment where our rogue was trying to withhold some information or mislead a suspicious ruler in a city. Two of the players in this group were fans of rolling certain skill checks and then playing out the result of the roll. “It sucks when you come up with a good speech and then you roll a 1 on your diplomacy check. It feels off… so I’d rather roll, and then I can play it well or poorly based on how my character did.”

Any DM will say, “Yes, please, more power to you.”

So he rolls, gets a decent result, and offers a pretty good effort at giving the ruler what she needs without exposing compromising information. However, before I can respond in character, his buddy the fighter says, “I’m gonna help.”

He rolls a 1 and starts laughing. “Uhh… yeah. So…”  He turns to his friend and whispers as loud as a normal speaking voice, “SHE’S TOTALLY BUYING IT. YOU SHOULD LIE TO HER.”

I think my first lesson concerning how easily a DM’s plans go off the rails came in the first session I ran. We had our 4th Edition characters ready: a dwarf paladin, a couple elf rangers, a halfling rogue, an eladrin warlord, and a half-elf NPC.

I went with “you’re hired as merchant guards for a caravan, on your way down the road when–Bandits!” That first fight went well and got us a little bit used to the combat rules. Of course, the party wanted to chase down the bandits that got away, and maybe find their hideout.

The dwarf paladin’s player starts up this elaborate plan, being all diplomatic and “let’s see if we can work some arrangements out” and “we come in peace.” He rolls well, and my bandits are suspicious but eventually, the party and the bandits are standing around the campfire under the night sky.

Things seem to be going well, though I’m surprised that the players went with parley as the plan.

“So,” the dwarf’s player declares, “as we reach this agreement… the bandits are all human, right?”

Me: “…yes?”

“I attack the fire.”

Me: “…wat”

“It’s night time,” he says. “All of us have darkvision.” (4th Edition was so generous with darkvision.)

“I attack the fire. I want to hit it like a golf swing, just–you know, catching the main logs and throwing the embers up into the bandit leader’s face… but ultimately, I want to scatter the fire to where it’s no longer giving off that light.”

Me: “… roll, I guess.”

Two short rounds of combat later, cue the Final Fantasy victory music, because those bandits literally didn’t see what was coming for them.

And that’s when I learned what I was in for if I was going to keep DMing.

And that’s also when I decided I loved being on that end of the table, behind the screen, in the dark.

Day Eight: Never Again (again)

For the last week, I’ve been working my way through this lovely “30 Days of D&D” series:

Today’s topic is Favorite PC of your own.

I don’t often get the chance to play characters. Since I started playing D&D, I’ve been the DM for six different groups.

I’ve played a dreaded DMPC in a few of those, and very quickly learned how terrible that idea can be. I had two chances to make a character and play through a short session, once as part of playtest materials when 5E was still in the works, and once as part of a new group at the local library. I also created a fun character for a Pathfinder game that had to stop soon after it started.

Point being, many times, my NPCs are characters in the world who I would love to play as PCs if given the chance. My favorite character that I actually played as a PC was one I made to round out a small party for an intro session with my two sons, giving them a feel for their characters’ powers and skills.

We explored the first half of “Death House” from Curse of Strahd, and I played Assyla, a warlock haunted by her tragic past, who spoke with spirits whose voices no one else heard, and fought to ensure no one else suffered the same fate.

The face card I use for Assyla as an NPC. Face cards are amazing for building NPC recognition from your players.

Given an Old One style pact, twisted spells made the most sense (stuff like Arms of Hadar and Dissonant Whispers). I gave her a creepy way of talking where she repeated the last few words of anything she said, but in a raspy hiss like it came from a strangled throat (strangled throat).

I also arranged the role-play traits I felt would best suit her:

A person with no trust in divine beings, who refuses to be a victim or allow others to be victimized. “The gods won’t help us, so we must help ourselves (help ourselves). Rest assured, we won’t let anyone hurt you (hurt you).

She was chaotic good – not beholden to some laws or moral ideology, but certainly willing to sacrifice on behalf of others.

Even so, her flaw was assuming the worst in people–that, and the whole “talking to spirits” thing. As an NPC (or briefly as the DM PC to round out the party for my kids’ intro to playing 5E), she served as an unreliable voice that could give the party misleading “insight.”

The ‘haunted one’ background in Strahd includes another key component – a harrowing event that set the character on their path into some form of darkness. For Assyla, that was the day her entire village was slaughtered before her eyes. However, when the shadowy beast found her, it froze and stared at her for a moment before calmly walking away, never to return.

One day, in fiction or in a campaign, Assyla will have her time in the spotlight… but for now, she’ll appear as an NPC, providing heroes the questionable wisdom of those beyond the grave (beyond the grave).

Day Seven: Story Trumps Powers

Today is Day Seven of 30 Days of Dungeons & Dragons, and the topic is:

Favorite Edition

ok. It’s actually day eight for me… I failed my saving throw against sleep after getting home from work around 10:30 PM, so my post is late!

I feel like we’ll all get over that.

Full disclosure: I really only have two options to choose from, 4E and 5E, even though five editions exist. I suppose it might be fair to say that since I’ve tried Pathfinder, I’ve played something much like D&D 3.5, but I absolutely hated the mechanics of that system, so I won’t address it further.

I liked 4E. I love 5E.

I first started playing D&D when 4th Edition came out. Unbeknownst to me, having no previous experience with which to compare the new books, 4th Edition focused heavily on all the cool powers your characters possessed.

Every class had a variety of options. Some could be used all the time, at-will. Some were complex or taxing enough that you could only use them once per encounter or combat. Some were the best abilities in your whole bag of tricks, and could be used only once a day.

Fighters didn’t just get better at swinging a sword or ax as they leveled up… they learned amazing techniques and maneuvers that they could employ much like how a wizard might cast a spell.

I honestly enjoyed 4th. It felt like a big deal when one of my players declared, “I draw back my bow, glare at the enemy, and unleash a Thunder-tusk Boar Strike.” Then he rolled a nat 20, and everyone cheered at the ridiculous damage inflicted on this rando bad guy.

It also felt a lot like learning your button rotations in World of Warcraft or some other MMO. Use these abilities when fighting trash mobs, and then use all these “cooldown” super abilities when fighting a boss.

4E got a lot of grief for putting the spotlight on tactics and combat, powers and spells, while leaving the story in the dark corner at the edge of the stage. I think that’s an unfair perspective–if story mattered at your tables (as it always did to my players), you could make sure the collaborative storytelling aspect shone through.

It’s an unfair assessment in my opinion, but it’s one I hear often.

Not surprisingly, from the playtest materials of 5th Edition, the D&D team made sure to sprinkle hints and ideas throughout their works, like plot seeds ready to sprout into epic campaigns.

The character sheet dedicates prime real estate to jotting down reminders for role-playing, covering what matters to the character:

  • Personality Traits, like “I have a quip for every situation, the more inappropriate, the better” and “People, like feral beasts, are not to be trusted unless broken.”
  • Ideals, such as “I’ll always lend a helping hand” or “I’m not afraid to use my strength to get my way.”
  • Bonds, such as “I would do anything for a member of my old traveling troupe” or “One day I will find my missing sister and make those who took her pay.”
  • Flaws, such as “At best, I immediately forget the plan. Most days, I directly disrupt it” or “I can never resist a pretty face.”

When you make a character, you establish these aspects and have them readily available to answer “What would Grobthar do in this situation?”

One bit that caught my eye was the character backgrounds, particularly the starting equipment that you get for being a sage instead of a charlatan, for example. The sage starts with, among other things, a letter from an old friend with a question you haven’t yet been able to answer. What question? Who is this old friend? Where might the answer be found? Why does this information matter? 

The charlatan starts with a particular scheme they use to dupe their marks – do they forge documents, run con games on street corners, or make some easy gold by selling worthless trinkets to the naive? How would you role-play this in town? Who have you fleeced in the past? Who might be looking for a refund for the fake holy relic you pawned off on them?

The trinket tables in the DMG and Curse of Strahd are full of interesting and/or creepy options that can tie into a campaign or provide additional fluff for the setting.

Also, there are rules for laser guns, jetpacks, and bombs–if your campaign needs those. Haha… “needs,” as if there is any other option.

Newer 5E books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes break down the story and background elements for a variety of monsters, allowing a DM to create enemies that feel like real personalities operating inside a vivid world, with unique motivations and intentions along with distinctive features or quirks.

With Volo’s, for example, common enemies like a hag, an orc chieftain, or a gnoll pack alpha become much more than bags of hit points and loot, pursuing some obscure, vaguely evil threat while waiting for a party of heroes to come slay them for XP.

To me, 4E felt like a great game, well worth the time spent playing.

With every section of every book, the 5E materials feel like pieces of a living world that welcomes you into a story which is already being told, already ongoing, just waiting for the answer to the age-old question:

What do you do next?

Day Six: You Need the Villain

In my 30 days of D&D blog challenge, today’s topic is:

Favorite Deity*

*in Dungeons & Dragons

As a Christian who grew up in America in the 80s, there’s this sense that it’s wrong and EVIL™ to answer such a question. Clearly, D&D is a tool of the devil.

D&D is (usually) framed in a fantasy setting. Well, multiple settings, actually. As such, there are dozens and dozens of made-up deities, and sometimes historical pantheons are also included. If one of the fifty (or five hundred) existing divine beings doesn’t suit the needs of a campaign, just make up another!

(There’s an atheist joke in there somewhere, but I won’t make it for them.)

So, the answer for today depends on the rigidity of my options. If I have to choose from a published work, Lolth is what got my campaign-writing (and thus novel-writing) started. If I can be a little more liberal, I’ll choose my main homebrew villain, An’Khel, who is a sort of Lolth 2.0.

When the core rulebooks for 4th Edition released, I started devising a long-term story arc for my players. I delved into the details provided about the setting, including the deities described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  It didn’t dawn on me that the first books contained a bare minimum to run a game, instead of an exhaustive list of all possible options.

The wonderfully charming or chilling actor Christoph Waltz is quoted as saying, “Well, you need the villain. If you don’t have a villain, the hero can stay at home.”

More specifically, I needed a Big Bad Evil Guy… or God… or Goddess.

Of the options presented, two were listed as Chaotic Evil. Not simply “take over the world” bad, but “burn it all down” bad. Oddly enough, they seemed night-and-day different in how they approached that goal.

Lolth, a spider-goddess of deception, used elaborate plots and intrigue to draw her victims into her web. Gruumsh, the god worshipped by orcs, seemed more like an out of control wildfire, sending forth his minions to “Raid. Kill. Conquer.”

Surely, over the course of millennia, they had to develop some kind of rivalry, right? A bit of “Anything you can do, I can do better” sparring or one-upmanship? “My way’s better than your way” and all that.

Originally, my idea of Gruumsh was very much Lord of the Rings style orcs. “Burn. Crush! KILL!” and mindless rage along with some unhealthy pyromaniacal tendencies. Then I watched The Dark Knight and realized what a chaotic evil villain could look like.

Naturally, in my homebrew settings and novels, what started as the destructive god of rampaging orcs has taken a much stronger turn toward the chaotic side of the alignment.

With Lolth, I started reading the Drizzt books by R. A. Salvatore, trying to get a feel for a proper D&D setting as well as for this main villain. I love the schemer, the killer you don’t know is bearing down on you until the spider’s fangs have already dug into your flesh and the venom is taking its effects on your innards… and yet, with a Joker twist on my Gruumsh, I knew his objection to my Lolth would be all those plans of hers.

By definition, plans aren’t chaos, and even mind-games have rules.

…unless the plan is to flip the table and scatter the pieces.

Thus, my version of Lolth grew beyond mere deception or a “mua-ha-ha,” mustache-twirling sense of evil bent upon destroying the empires of the goodly races. (She’s already done that anyway.)

When there are established and fairly balanced dichotomies of good and evil, life and death, light and dark, order and chaos, and so on, it’s not enough to tip the scales one way or another.

The truly chaotic thing to do would be to toss a rock in the gears and bring the whole system crashing down into nothingness.

Rocks fall. Everything dies…

…unless those pesky players can stop her.

Day Five: Gimme a Roll

Today’s “30 days of D&D” topic is:

Favorite die or dice

I’ve bought several sets of dice over the years. I imagine that’s true of any tabletop gamer. It’s like every shelf of dice sets at the local game store or online has a +5 to all charm effects, and my Wisdom save is REALLY low.

When I started out, playing Middle Earth Role Playing with my brother and his friend, that system used percentile dice – two ten-sided dice, one for the tens, one for the ones. I didn’t need a set; having two different colors made it easy to play “fair” by declaring which was the tens and the ones. (I don’t recall seeing d10s printed with the double-digits like most sets provide.)

Eventually, my brother and his friend got started on BattleTech, which is all d6s all the time.

A little foray into Palladium’s Robotech RPG forced a purchase of some varied dice, as it used a little of everything.

I think I eventually bought some of those dirty Dungeons & Dragons dice, with all their ridiculous variety of sides and shapes, but it was out of novelty rather than need.

In that vein, I recently purchased a “quality” set of dice—something meant to be special, sturdy, lasting. Metal dice sounded amazing, and the weight in one’s hand makes each roll feel like you’re about to drop something powerful on your enemies.

Turns out, they thunk on the table in a disruptive, annoying way, even in a felt-covered dice tray.

I also picked up a set of dragon dice, black and red, something a little more ornate than the usual. Turns out they’re not always easy to read, and in the middle of a bogged-down combat, I don’t want to waste time trying to sort out what my monsters rolled against the PCs.

I’ve got a blue and silver set and a deep crimson set with clear, legible numbers, and those are my go-to game dice… but they’re not the ones that mean the most to me.

My favorites? Back in the BattleTech days, I had a pair of black six-sided dice with white pips that I used every chance I got. When I started writing a set of short stories about an Old West gambler-prophet whose dice seem to foretell the future, the black-and-white changed to black and red. I ordered a stack of those dice for use in games and for writing inspiration.

One of these days, I’ll put together the whole novel… but for now, I’ll be rolling these lovelies for D&D spell damage and BattleMech hit locations.

How about you, fellow gamers? What’s your favorite set of dice, and what game do you use them in? Hit me up with a comment and let me know.

Day Four: A Broken World

This is day 4 of my 30 days of D&D challenge. Today’s topic:

Favorite game world

Dungeons & Dragons incorporated a variety of settings over the years… some high fantasy, some science fiction, some with a respectable technological & magical industrial component, and some designed as minor add-ons to existing games. (5E’s version of Ravenloft as a sort of pocket demi-plane which you can enter but can’t easily escape comes to mind.)

I read a good number of Forgotten Realms books, and if I’m not running a homebrew game, that’s the easy go-to since it captures a “plain vanilla” type of game where all your options are on the table. Actually,  given the broad spectrum of options, it’s more like a plain vanilla sundae with chocolate-dipped cone pieces, sprinkles, Oreo crumbles, hot caramel, banana slices, and one maraschino cherry.

Even so, that’s a choice more concerned with what my players would want than with what I like.

There’s another setting, one with a ruined planet where the gods died off in some long-forgotten combat, or perhaps abandoned the world to a slow, suffocating demise. It’s a world where the immortal rulers of the major kingdoms fought wars using magic that corrupted the environment and forever altered the natural order. It sounds like Mad Max meets D&D, and I want to play in that world so bad.

Ever since I first read about Dark Sun, I’ve had a campaign in mind for the setting. I got the 4th Edition campaign setting guide just in time to stop running or playing tabletop games for a few years, and 5th Edition hasn’t expanded into many of the familiar settings (yet).

I even wrote a three-part campaign arc I’d run in Dark Sun, in the hopes of “someday” getting to play this particular version of the game. (A version of this arc will also become a standalone novel prequel/offshoot in the fantasy series I keep saying I’m writing.)

could do a lot of work converting things, or trust my improvisation / BS-on-the-fly skills to carry a game through… but that would involve a lot more effort than I can commit to at this time.

So my favorite game world is one I haven’t ever touched in game… yet.

In unrelated news, the Wizards of the Coast folks that manage D&D mentioned that next month, they’ll be teasing some upcoming 5E versions of settings loved by hardcore fans… fingers crossed.

Day Three: Lawful Stupid

Today’s 30 Days of D&D challenge is:

Favorite PC class.

Leaving aside previous editions, 5th Ed already gives a number of strong options. I can see lots of interesting uses for bards (I even had an annoying NPC bard sing a mocking song about the heroes in the party I DM for). Rogues are fun, especially when it’s not the chaotic neutral, steal-everything-in-sight type. Sorcerers bring rolls on the Wild Magic Surge table, making for some cinematic and/or hilarious moments in-game. Warlocks offer so many story-laden options depending on where they get their powers.

Despite all that, I decided upon Paladins as my favorite.

Not exactly a paladin, since this comes from LOTRO… but he looks the part

Those who have played editions prior to 4th coined the phrase “Lawful Stupid” regarding paladins because back then, pallies had to be bastions of virtue and morality… which often turned into some ridiculous moments where a paladin refused to go along with the party’s plan OR engaged in a foolish plan of their own, all because “I have to be Lawful Good or else I lose the source of my power!”

I mean, they DID have a lot of restrictions. From Wikipedia:

Typical tenets of the Paladin code are as follows (though many variants exist):

  • A Paladin must be of Lawful Good alignment.

  • A Paladin may never willfully commit an Evil act.

  • A Paladin cannot associate with any character who persistently commits acts which would cause the Paladin him/herself to Fall – notably Evil creatures.

  • A Paladin must remain truthful and forthright at all times.

  • A Paladin must give fair warning and due quarter to enemies.

  • A Paladin holds stealth, subterfuge, attack from the rear, missile weapons and especially poison as weapons of last resort.

That might lead to conflicts with the rogue, for example:

“Not only will I not slit the sleeping orc’s throat, but I will fight you if you try to do so.”

“Oh by all the gods, who invited this dolt on the quest?”

Now, I admit, there are a lot of storytelling options connected with keeping in good ties with the Divine in order to drop those holy smites on the forces of evil. Players might lose their alignments or their class powers and be forced to make atonement for their evil ways. Or they could just go evil and find… “other” sources of power.

4th Edition said, “Hey, you know what? Evil paladins are a thing.” It makes sense in a way. If the gods can give you holy power, certainly the EVIL gods (or neutral gods) can likewise grant their power to their servants. One of the first players in a campaign I DM’d was a dwarf paladin of nature, and he was awesome.

5th Edition took it further and said, “You know what? Some paladins champion an ideal or virtue. You want to play the brooding edgelord with a past who is out for vengeance? Why not make that your oath which gives you power? You want to play that atheist paladin? Why not?”

Again, the point is broadening the story options, not restricting, so I feel like it works.

On top of that, Mike Mearls (one of the big names in D&D design) put out a video saying that classes like paladin and warlock don’t have to stay on good terms with their power source (divine beings or powerful supernatural entities, respectively), so that does away with much of the “lawful stupid” problem of the past.

This step, I disagree with, as I feel like it divorces the character and their power from the story aspect which explains their existence… but to each table and player their own.

“Do you have a moment to hear about the Dark Lord and his gift for you?”
Totally a paladin, guys… it’s fine.

Since the newer editions opened up more options, I see interesting or compelling story backgrounds that fit the class. It’s a very close competition with some of the others, but if forced to choose only one class, my PC will be a paladin.

An Alpha Among Betas

Some days, writing is hard.

I’m not even talking about the deeply emotional, soul-searching stuff like the Hemingway quote about bleeding all over your typewriter. (If you’re doing that to your computer, get yourself checked by a doctor. Get your computer checked, too–they’re not waterproof, let alone blood-proof.)

I know, it’s supposed to be as easy as pouring words onto a page, knowing they’re garbage, so that you have something to sculpt or reshape into actual quality. It’s dumping sand into the sandbox so you can eventually build your little castle.

Like that kid in the sandbox, the castle of words I see in my mind is often quite different from what everyone else sees in the real world.

A little outside perspective is necessary.

Enter the beta reader!

Beta readers are the folks who get to see first (and second, and fifth) drafts of a novel. They’re the trusted friends and fellow writers who have the opportunity to give the vitally important reader perspective to a novelist. They can let a writer know what parts are working great and what parts need more work, long before the draft gets submitted to a publisher or to a self-publishing service.

If you’re working with a publishing house or agent, you’re probably paying for editing, or it’s part of some arrangement with your creative overlords. If you’re self-publishing, it can be liberating to avoid all the hurdles and onerous steps of the traditional process, but you’re also left in desperate need of that outsider perspective.

I’ve been blessed to have several beta readers along the way, each of whom helped make my efforts better. One of them, a friend named David, just came to Okinawa for a month-long, work-related trip, and we had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth as I look at my meager efforts on book 2.

David is a great example of how to be a beta reader. What does he do right?

  1. He gets into the setting and questions world-building.
    “If your magic system works this way, then how do you have an economy? It can’t be based on precious metals if people can simply conjure metals.”
    “It would be difficult to be a classical atheist or even agnostic in a world where people literally manifest symbols of power granted from the Divine, so have you thought about how that might change social interactions and expectations?”
    The messages in the pic above are another example, this time questioning the details of the magic system. While I had an answer, I also noted that I didn’t communicate the concept clearly enough in the story to prevent the question from being asked.
  2. He challenges the writing when it doesn’t fit the character. 
    “You made your main characters sound like middle school girls playing around and laughing when… I mean, the town might not still be on fire but several buildings are still smoldering, and Lyllithe just got kicked out of her religious order, not to mention the attack in the woods… that whole dialogue feels wrong.”
    A beta reader can also tell you which characters are hitting the mark and which feel forgettable.
    “You’ve got Lyl and Jo, and they’re great… and then there’s… uh… Blade Guy with the knives, and Mage Guy who casts spells, and the Other Guy who is scarred. I don’t know anything really about them, and so I don’t really care about them yet.”
  3. He offers tough but fair criticism that is genuinely constructive.
    Feedback like “You’re trying too hard” or “this is bad” is terrible, as it doesn’t offer any corrective option. Feedback like “I liked it” is so vague that it doesn’t identify any positive quality to capitalize upon. I suppose no feedback at all is the worst sort.
    Instead of any of that, I get moments like, “One thing to do in the future may be to pick a single metaphor or simile. There’s a lot of instances where you choose two, where one might have done. Like a child caught between two slices of cake, or pieces of candy.”
    Feedback on the actual writing is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing what makes a beta reader good, but I put it last for this reason:
    Writers need this kind of attention to the quality of their writing, but a grammatically correct manuscript might still be full of plot holes and flat characters.

David and I talked on the way to the airport yesterday, as he is headed back to the States. “It’s a unique experience,” he said of reading my book and peppering me with friendly, well-intentioned grief. “It’s not every book I read where I know the author and can message them with challenges or questions about their work. It’s not like I can email Stephen King and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here?'”

Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to hear… preferably before we publish.

If you want to support a friend who is a writer, offer to be a beta reader for their work… then follow through.