Tomatoes and Cretins

I hate tomatoes.

I always have. I don’t know why.

They’re disgusting. They’re wet, nasty chunks of blegh. They pollute everything with their slimy seeds, so that even if you pluck them off your burger or salad, you still end up tasting them.

Farmer’s Market I, by Karl Thomas Moore, shared under Creative Commons license

Actually, tasting the flavor isn’t the problem. I love ketchup and
pizza sauce; I even like tomato soup so long as it’s smooth liquid
instead of being filled with pieces.

I used to hate peppers the same way I hate tomatoes—for as long as I
can remember. I would find diced green peppers in an omelet or larger slices in some oriental dish then set them to the side of the plate in revulsion. Tabasco sauce? How about Tabasc-NO. Peppers, I felt certain, were the worst… almost as bad as tomatoes.

Salsa was pure hell, chunky style.

Then one day I tried some Tabasco sauce on a bit of meat cooked on a campfire, and it was amazing. A few years later, I had no option but
to eat a meal with diced green peppers mixed all throughout. They
added a great flavor to one of my favorite dishes, and I had to
reconsider my ridiculous food aversions.

Sometimes the things we “know” with absolute certainty from a young age are actually false. Sometimes, we’re just reinforcing mistakes we’ve made or bad beliefs we’ve accepted as fact–to the extent that we’ll actually argue with people about them.

It’s pretty stupid, but it feels so sensible at the time.

I found myself in that position (yet again) last week when a friend
used the word, “cretin” in a way I thought didn’t quite fit. “That’s
not what that word means,” I proclaimed.

(As a writer, of course I know all manner of important things about
words and their meanings, both subjective and literal.)

Maybe from context clues, kid’s cartoons, or childhood assumptions, I took “cretin” to mean something along the lines of “villain” or
“troublemaker.”

“Is that what it means?” my friend asked. “I thought it meant ‘idiot.’”

To the Google-machines!

He was right. The answer flashed onto the screen.

Cretin. Noun. 1. (informal, offensive) a stupid person (used as a
general term of abuse).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines our modern use of ‘cretin’ as:
“(informal) a stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person: clod, lout”

Google also showed us the Urban Dictionary definition: “A person that is: brainless, stupid, child-like, and full of pointless information
that makes no sense and appeals only to other cretins.”

Now, I won’t recommend Urban Dictionary as the go-to for defining
words—especially while at work, where your network usage might be monitored or scrutinized. That said, their definition struck home for me in an unexpected way.

How often does my faith get wrapped up in child-like arguments and
pointless information? How much do I get wrapped up in nit-pick
debates about politics and living out the Christian faith? How many
discussions quibbling over theological details have I dived into on
Facebook? How many tweets have I fired back in response to a
disagreement over something that doesn’t matter?

In the Church, we find so many reasons to disagree and dispute, to
decide and deride and divide. We split into denominations as often as we split hairs. We say nice things about how “those believers are
pretty good and all,” but we know deep down that they’re missing out on so much (which, thankfully, God has revealed to none other than us).

I wonder at the division over politics and other issues in our
country, and then I realize how often we have the same mentality and spirit operating within the Church. At worst, we demonize the other denominations, highlighting all their faults and flaws while hiding our own. At best, we engage in lengthy dialogues about minor details – which method is best, what style is ideal, what personal subjective preference should everyone take as objectively superior, and so on.

As I considered how wrong I was—while feeling absolutely convinced I was correct–about the meaning of ‘cretin,’ I wrote the following in my journal:

Am I a cretin about the things of God? Do I focus my attention on the little details that matter nothing in the grand scheme of eternity? Do I focus on whether tongues is this or that, whether one can say or sing “Reckless Love” and be theologically sound, whether the Trinity is best described in this or that complex explanation instead of a simple albeit imperfect analogy? Do I get wrapped around these silly details while missing the point of the much greater matters?

I think of the Pharisees and their tithing of mint, cumin, rosemary, and whatever else… And Jesus looks at them like, “Yeah, ok, you do those things, and that’s great. But how about justice, mercy, compassion? Have you thought about doing THOSE things?”

Are we a bunch of religious cretins today?

Are we missing out on something God has provided for us to enjoy or called us to do?

Are we standing around debating which is the proper oil to use in our lanterns, while the Bridegroom passes by?

He sets a table for us, a wonderful feast to which we’ve been invited.
Am I in a tizzy over how the silverware is placed or the quality and
color of the tablecloth?

Am I pushing away the plate like a child, scrunching up my face
because I just KNOW that I hate tomatoes?

Headphones

Here’s another spoken word style poem I wrote over the last few days… thinking of the tape or the playlist that often goes on in the back of our minds, calling out our failures and playing off our doubts. This one has a decidedly Christian bent — while acknowledging the negative thoughts that sparked the idea for the poem, I didn’t want to wallow in them.

HEADPHONES

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put the phones in, Try to home in
On the feelings and the voices that keep dronin’
All the echoing whispers condoning
Condemning thoughts I’m alone in
Awash in a well of emotion
Where I wade with the weight of the burden
And the heaviness hurts ‘til I’m groaning
But I keep it inside like I’m owning
All the pain that I hide when I’m hurtin’

So many voices, so many words
So many streams of empty air
Saying the same old things that I’ve heard
There ain’t nothin’ new out there
Under the sun, feel like I’m done
Broken down in disrepair
Thoughts that I shun come back and run
All through my head and leave me bare
Without a prayer,
Carry the care you wouldn’t dare reveal and share
All that you bear, ditch the despair
Don’t let ‘em see the wear and tear
Don’t let it scare the unaware
Wouldn’t be fair—not their nightmare

Just turn up the music and sway to the beat
Try to confuse all the voices that speak
Drown them in tunes that you put on repeat
Try to refuse to believe their deceit
All the abuse ‘cause they see you as weak
All the excuses you make for defeat
All the regrets leaving you incomplete
All of the fears from which you retreat

We’re all listenin’ to our own playlist
S’posed to listen more, try to say less,
But the voice in my head is a sadist
And the man in the mirror’s a menace
So I walk with my head down dejected
When my life goes to hell as expected
All the chances I dodged and deflected
And the burdens and shame that I’m left with
Tried to pass off the blame, got rejected
By the masses my game disrespected
And I’m groping for hope resurrected
But my options remain unaffected
‘Cause I’m leaving the efforts neglected
That would cure all my sickness—infected
By the ego that won’t be corrected
So I keep to myself, disconnected
While I’m tellin’ myself I’m protected
By the stories and lies I’ve collected
‘Cause the liar inside misdirected
And my purpose has been intercepted

Shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the sound I don’t mind the prison
And the feeling of coming unbound like light in a prism
When the beat is starting to pound against the system
I feel like I can rebound –  I will not be a victim

But the playlist just keeps on repeatin’
All the ways that my sin’s got me beaten
All the failures and falls got me bleedin’
All the hopes and the dreams are receding
‘Til the song and the voices I’m hearin’
With their mocking and laughing and jeering
They get lost in the sudden appearing
Of a radiant Champion clearing
All of the fog and the doubt and depression
Turning my eyes from my inward obsession
Toward the prize beyond any possession
That He purchased for us through redemption
Every sin every failure—you name it
It’s been stamped with His Name ‘cause He paid it
The whole list is now His, He forgave it
Powerless to condemn ‘cause He nailed it
To the cross where He bought our salvation
And I need to get this revelation
That the God who says “No condemnation”
Is rejoicing in celebration
Over us and our consecration
As He’s working toward sanctification
Now that we are His brand new creation
And the echoes that kept up their whisp’rin’
Kept on pickin’ on me and all my sin
Well He shut off those tunes and He put in
A playlist called “Fully forgiven”
His mercies – they’re new every sunrise
His love – you’re the apple of His eyes
His grace – it cannot be diminished
His work on the cross – it is finished
‘Cause along with the song that He’s singin’
There’s a message of hope that He’s bringin’

So shut all the voices out, I’m trying to tune in
Turn up the volume loud, the music is boomin’
Drownin’ the fear and doubt beneath all the rhythm
Bobbing my head unbowed by my inner schism
So long as I lock on the voice that freed me from prison
And the glory in which I rejoice like light in a prism
When Your mercy and grace overpower my limited vision
And Your Spirit alive in me shouts that this corpse is now risen
When the power of love You have shown has shattered the system
Through the favor and grace You bestowed
When You took my place and embraced the disgrace as a victim

So I take out the earbud a minute
And I think about what’s playin’ in it
And I know it’s not for me alone
That’s why I pick up this microphone

 

Writing for Non-Writers

Last week, I facilitated a discussion on Writing for Non-Writers as part of our base library’s summer reading program. Our librarian knew I had been published in a couple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul and thought I might have a few lessons learned or tips for folks who would never call themselves writers, but might have interesting stories to tell. Thanks to a few eager participants, we enjoyed an energetic discussion and exercised our creative muscles.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

(Quote boxes are composed of inputs others offered as we discussed the topic.)

Intro: You may not feel like a writer, but chances are you’re a story-teller. Story is the vehicle for how we communicate our lives and share our experiences with one another. What if you put some of those stories in writing instead of merely sharing them in person?

Q: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT STORIES?

“Stories validate you and help you connect. Our stories can help others find their way or enjoy new experiences.”

Power of Story: We process random circumstance into narratives. We tell people stories about ourselves and create stories to explain life. It’s why conspiracy theories have so much strength.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw the other day…”  Yeah? Tell me about it. “So there I was, minding my own business, nursing my cup of coffee, when this crazy guy comes in…”

“I have to tell you about my trip to the store, oh my gosh—UNBELIEVABLE!” But it’s totally believable, depending on the skill or the passion of the story-teller. We expect a hilarious and unexpected ride on the struggle bus… so we lean forward, smile, and wait for the laughs.

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY BAD?

Not tragic / dark, but “turn off Netflix / put the book in the bin” bad?

“A story is bad when there’s too much or too little detail. If it’s too complex, with pages of description…  and on the other hand, if there’s not enough information, it’s hard to relate.”

Q: WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD?

“When we can see it happen, when we feel the buildup and climax, when we can apply our story to the story or feel ourselves being IN the story.”

Does a good story mean having an interesting character? Often, WE are the characters; we can’t help if we’re interesting or not.

What about an interesting event? Not necessarily; a good story can be about a mundane event told in an interesting way.

How about a relatable event? At the very least, something that connects to the specific message or point, like an analogy.

Good stories often show how someone grew or changed as a result.

Interesting telling. No rambling, side jaunts, or rabbit trails. Stories usually have direction and purpose. Think of a testimony at church, or a blog post with a life lesson. These often have a three-part structure:

  1. How things were (I didn’t think of myself as creative, or worth listening to)
  2. What happened (I met some folks who showed me how to write well)
  3. How things changed (I ended up submitting to Chicken Soup and got published!)

Tell it with your voice. Write what you might speak. How would you tell a friend? Tell that same story to the paper or screen.

“You can always revise! It might be trash but it can become better.”

Q: HOW MUCH DETAIL IS TOO MUCH?

Have you ever asked a kid to tell you a scene in a movie?

“So the bad guy did this, but then the hero came in, but wait–so before that, there was this one guy, and he said to the lady–um, she is the friend of this other dude who shows up at the beginning of the movie but then the shark eats him–the shark is the one from the aquarium but it got out because the bad guy opened up the doors on the tank so that he could–wait, so there is this secret message…”

“What is relevant to the story? That’s all you need.” 

Concrete = convincing… to a point.

Which sounds better?

“A hot cup of coffee” or “a steaming cup of Sumatra dark roast”?

“A Dachshund the color of cinnamon,” or “a brown dog”?

Only the most important adjectives, not all possible descriptors. Convey the point, not the entire movie.

“Seventeen long-forgotten, cheap, thin, old, wet, dog-eared, ink-smudged, blue-and-white-speckled Composition-style notebooks…”

While it paints a clear picture, that might be too much–certainly far more than is necessary unless the story hinges on all those details.

Use all five senses. We focus on the eyes and ears like we’re describing the movie in our heads. We’re used to the cinema, but the world has smells, feelings, textures, tastes…

Someone might say, “Well, I’m not a writer.”

“I’m not going to make up stories and worlds and stuff like that.”

Great!

Q: HAS ANYONE TRIED JOURNALING?

A journal gives us a place for processing the junk in our lives… A chance to be “honest” in a way we may not in public. Pour out the words onto a page and tell it like it is. Keep it private so you can unload and release. If you want to go deeper, try exploring what comes up when you ask yourself a series of “why” questions like a three-year-old.

I feel like they took advantage of me. Why?
Because they didn’t say thank you and that bothers me. Why?
I want to know that what I do has value. Why?
I don’t want to waste my time on things that don’t matter. Why?
I feel like there are too many things I don’t have time for which matter to me, and if I’m wasting my time on people that don’t care about the effort I put in, then I don’t want to do those things…

“A journal is a perfect place for the ‘bad’ emotions – we can vent our hate or anger.”

Q: ANYONE HAVE PERSONAL / FAMILY MEMORIES THEY STRUGGLE TO RECALL?

What about keeping a family journal? How many times have we lost important memories? “Grandad had all these great stories, but I didn’t pay attention back then, and I don’t remember them now…”

We can write down important details to keep for ourselves or pass down to our kids.

Mom? How did you meet Dad?

What was it like before the Internet?

The day I got the good news about…

I remember where I was when…

Kadena AB, 2012
This was a story worth telling.

The day I got an F-15 incentive ride, I went home and wrote down all the details I could in order to capture the memory. I knew I would forget details over the years, even though it’s one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences in my life. (Full disclosure, I actually wrote things down later in the week. That detail doesn’t matter to the story so we can fudge it a bit without losing anything.)

What about hilarious conversations with kids? How about the silly things they say when they first start speaking?

We think we’ll have these moments forever in our minds, but the hard drives in our brains get corrupted and fragmented pretty easily, and time passes quick.

(I made an Avengers: Infinity War reference at the workshop, talking about our memories flaking into ash and fading away… and not one of the participants had seen the movie. What a wasted analogy!!!)

These ideas and writings may not lead to a book deal, but they may prove satisfying in a way we didn’t expect, meeting a need we didn’t realize we had.

EXERCISE

(I put on some soft instrumental music and read the following directions and questions.)

Close your eyes for a minute and think of a happy memory. Relive it for a moment. Pay attention to the details.

Where are you?

What’s happening?

What objects do you see?

Who is with you?

What does it sound like?

What does it smell like?

How do you feel in that moment?

Why is this glimpse so special?

The Basement

I’ve been listening to too much NF (lies! I love all his music) and the Mansion reference at the beginning of this is aimed at his first big album. All his albums and singles are great, and worth checking out.

I am also a fan of spoken-word style poetry with loose structure, soft rhymes, and rhythmic phrasing. I occasionally write such pieces as the lyrical equivalent of emotional venting on a given subject or feeling.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the human condition and the “bad wolf” in the popular analogy about two wolves. Really, I wrote it to ensure I sent something in for our critique group, but it led to some conversation and deeper thoughts after the meeting.

We talked about whether there was something “more” in the proverbial basement, psychologically speaking. While I can’t claim any significant trauma or tragedy in my past, I do habitually shove my frustrations and emotions down to shut them up–partly because I try to pick battles worth fighting, and partly because I try too hard to avoid conflict.

All that stuff festers and builds up, if not checked or dealt with. Contemplating that led to this bit of “poetry.”

The Basement

To borrow from Mansion, maybe build an expansion

I’m considering action toward the house that I’m trapped in,

all these feelings I’ve wrapped in the lines that I’ve crapped in

to documents tapping the keys like I’m rapping

but I know I’m lacking—-Lotsa talk but no backing,

lotsa thoughts but still slacking, lotsa dreams but they’re stacking

like firewood packed in a shack getting racked up

for hacking to kindling I’m axing the questions

I’m tracking the lessons but passing up chances

amassing like cancer, outlasting the answer

by lapsing in trances and grasping at fancies

and fables and falsehoods in fashion

like all of the lies that I cash in

when I choose to live out excuses

and act satisfied when I know that I tried

with far less than the best of my passion

 

I know there’s something in the basement, but I thought I boarded that door,

Did I make a mistake in the placement, did I open a hole in the floor?

Don’t you think that’s some kind of statement, do you wanna know what came before?

Maybe this goes beyond entertainment, we ain’t creative writing no more

When the fear or the pain or the hatred rears its head through the holes that it tore

I don’t know if I can restrain it if I open up down to my core

If I can’t even start to explain it, how could I hope to win such a war

All these white-washed walls’ll be painted blood-red with emotional gore

some kind of lore, some kind of more that I’ve held back in store,

some kind of knowledge encountered before,

maybe I took a mental detour,

maybe I turned something painful I learned,

some experience earned,

some life lesson I spurned,

like a victim got burned,

a prisoner blamed and unnamed,

restrained and contained

 

Like a blur that you see for a minute

at the edge of peripheral vision

but when you turn your eye to look in it

what you thought was right there—now it isn’t

and the hairs on your neck start to raisin’

like there’s someone behind you appraising

all the weakness in you, like he’s gazing

at the prey that he’s planning on tasting

And those holes in the floor are his ceiling,

when he’s looking at them I start feeling

like he’s reaching up through it and stealing

all the joy and the possible healing

all the good things I say, he rewrites em,

all the good deeds I do, redefines em,

absolution? he keeps it behind him

in the dark where he knows I won’t find him,

and his voice echoes up from the stairwell

with a challenge he knows I won’t bear well,

“Wanna come down and play Show and Don’t Tell?”

‘cause he tells me confession won’t fare well

all the pain in my heart, I will hold it,

try to trap it, collapse it, enfold it

in a poem or song where I’ve told it,

in a part but never the full bit,

that would take recognizing the whole of role

of the beast that retreats to my soul pit

and I’d rather just give it the bullet,

got my hand on the trigger—can’t pull it,

so it stays in the place where I placed it,

I guess it’s the guest in the basement

Crawl Space Inside, by Newell Post. (Public Domain)

Human Con Diction

They say to channel your anger, don’t keep it inside,

just like a plane in the hangar, when it’s meant to fly,

but I think there’s a danger, I might be that guy

who acts all nice to the stranger and makes the ones I love cry

But hey I’ll deal with it later, apologize,

‘cuz that makes it all better, so I rationalize

My temperament is unstable, my excuses are lies,

my lack of discipline fatal, so opportunity dies

My hopes and dreams are pre-natal,

and they end up aborted;

my discernment and wisdom is vision distorted,

I can’t afford to reward it,

my sins and tormentors lord it

over issues unsorted,

all my pain transported

in the feelings I’ve hoarded

in these phrases I’ve worded

to call out all the failings

with hostility nailing

all the ill in me trailing

through the wake of debris

of my life that I’m trying not to see

never looking back

that works out well for me

never have regrets, I can’t tell—

are they just buried?

I don’t know what’s wrong with me

Who or what am I supposed to be?

Where’s the results that I wanna see, can’t achieve

Unless I change and gain maturity, it’s hurting me,

Here I am still struggling

It’s the same old stuff I’m fighting with

past 40, still a kid how I live

the attention I should give leaking out like water through a sieve

feeling drained because of this, how it is

purposefully purposeless,

watch it slip, like a dress,

I can’t cover all my mess

all the flaws I should address,

All the junk I should correct,

All the stuff inside collects

Until it’s piled high I guess, I confess,

It’s easier to focus less

Try to medicate the stress and not regress

But then I fail again, can’t get any rest

No reprieve, no relief from no good me,

I’m becoming my worst enemy,

I can see that who I am on the daily

Can easily defeat the man I say I wanna be

taking it on the chin from within,

it’s my own weakness that does me in

selfishness and lack of discipline

I let the bad wolf win and take him in

Pour a bowl full of kibbles out for him

For a bit, just to get me through today

While the good wolf starves and wastes away

Like a stray, like prey, he’s kept at bay

By the way that I stay inside and play

To escape all the things that call my name

All the needs and the deeds that I proclaim

Are my hopes and my dreams that I’ll one day claim

But my efforts and actions remain the same

Like the game is about the fear and doubt

And they’re winning every inning, every round, every bout,

Grinning as I’m sinning and they’re pinning me – I’m knocked out

Rocked back, blocked out, cock my fist and try to shout

but I’m not fighting back,

Once again, I’m way off track,

Like a rope with too much slack,

Slouching like a sack of burdens on my back

That’s the luggage that I pack,

Learning that I have a knack for leaning on the thing I lack

Day Fourteen: Supporting Actors

Day Fourteen in the “30 Days of D&D” challenge is Favorite NPC.

Players are the heroes, the stars of the epic adventure, upon whom the spotlight shines and about whom the story is meant to be told.

Non-Player Characters are supporting actors filling up the world, the “everybody else,” almost always played by the DM. Whether it’s the innkeeper or the salty guard captain or the evil necromancer raising an undead army, the NPCs are there to spice up the game and create interaction, but they’re not meant to steal the show.

When played well, some NPCs can still garner significant attention and affection from the group–either as a trusted ally or a hated foe.

I know I’ve done something right when the party keeps bringing up the name of someone they’ve encountered, and several have achieved that status.

Faelynn, the washed-up, binge-drinking former leader of a band of rival heroes, is one my players reference for laughs.

The leader of a small quest-hub town is a guy whose Pathfinder miniature figurine is like fantasy Nick Fury holding two axes over his shoulders. My daughter threatened to disown me for not calling him “Samuel El-Axen” from the moment he entered the scene… and that is now his name.

I wrote about Fleuris the good necromancer and Asslya the mentally scarred spirit-talker, both of which I love to add to the mix.

Right now, my favorite NPC is a little male goblin no wait male halfling no wait female elf sorcerer who has a knack for getting reincarnations off that Wild Magic surge table.

Early on in the game, the low-level heroes found out that some goblins were sneaking into the town and filching supplies. The PCs followed the tunnel to the goblins’ lair and had a good fight with some ranged magic users and archers. I took advantage of the description of “booyahg” as the goblins’ limited understanding of magic in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and so I really wanted to bring that out in the game.

One of the goblin casters got a fumble. Yes, I’ve been using fumbles on nat 1s and crits on nat 20s, combined with a crit hit deck and fumble deck which are unfortunately designed around 3.5 rules. The fumble card I drew said “Wild Magic surge,” and had some minor bad effect… but that seemed like perfect justification to roll on the surge table for the goblin.

Come to think of it, unless I misread it, Volo’s says that you roll every time the goblins cast, because they suck at magic. Or maybe that’s how I wanted to read it. 

I rolled the effect that grants an immediate cast of reincarnation if the creature dies within one minute. Needless to say, the PCs knew that caster = bad, and my poor goblin wasn’t long for this world.

They flipped out when suddenly a cloud of light enveloped the dead goblin and it got up as a halfling, then ran to hide in a secluded room of the cavern. The bloodthirsty players charged toward the hiding goblin halfling, ready to strike… until a pathetic attempt I made at distracting them actually made them feel pity for this little guy.

Cue role-playing, lengthy discussions of “Are you REALLY going to try to change and not be evil?” and warnings that they would be watching his every move. Based on the cloud of light, we named the halfling “Brightborn,” and he guided the PCs through the rest of the cave.

Well… he also accidentally dropped a fireball on top of himself and the party, then played it off as a sign of power from the chaotic evil gods, shouting, “I AM THE EMISSARY OF KURNN!”

He popped up a few more times over the course of many sessions, most recently via a handwritten note to come to the Laughing Mountain Inn and “look for the elf.”

They enter and find a blonde female who waves them over. “Hey guys, it’s me,” she whispers with a nervous grin. “I’m the emissary of Kurnn and all that. So… um… you won’t believe what happened…”

Day Thirteen: Sum of the Parts

Day Thirteen of “30 Days of D&D” is Favorite Trap / Puzzle.

I’ve clearly fallen victim to the traps of life and distractions since I’m a few days behind. Time to fix this! Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Favorite trap… you mean, other than the mimic chest to catch the greedy PC who loots the bodies and the treasure in the middle of a battle?

I’m going to extend “trap” to “potentially harmful terrain features” rather than the by-the-book definition. One of my favorite moments involved a dungeon with conduits of power pumping magical energies into something deep below.

I used some of a Dungeon Tiles set, and found a long straight one, with a hall maybe six squares wide. Two rows of four pillars filled the space, each with enough room to maneuver between them.

I figured this would make for a narrow chokepoint that might force the players to be in a little danger… especially when one or two of the columns randomly flared with damaging magical energy, zapping anyone around it. A d8 roll would tell me which pillars to flare, keeping it random and chaotic.

It didn’t all go the way I planned. The players used smart tactics to minimize their exposure to the area effect, and they tore down the monsters in the encounter quite easily.

The best moment came when the Tiefling cleric studied those pillars.

“Ok… I know I don’t have a prehensile tail, but… can I maybe wrap my tail around a pillar and use Arcana and my skill with magic to maybe channel the energy into something harmful? I know it’ll hurt me some…”

Uhh, YES. Gimme a roll…

I’m not saying it was an effective trap, just a fun one.

Puzzles on the other hand… I’ve included a few along the way. I gave one of my players the equivalent of a cryptoquiz, where a message was scrambled by using a simple cipher using a special font full of strange runes.

In the course of running a few campaigns over the years, I’ve always wanted to include a puzzle item related to a major quest, where the players start finding pieces with little to no explanation other than whatever they get from Arcana or History checks and such…

Some of these would do nicely.

And then more of the bad guys end up having these things which are clearly connected, and some bad guys are searching for the pieces lost deep in ancient ruins and flooded dungeons, or taken by tribes of feral, cannibal gnomes…

Of course, the idea is that piecing the puzzle together is the key to stopping the Big Bad and the evil plan that threatens the realm. Players being players, I suppose it could also be the key to becoming the Big Bad and threatening the realm.

By the way, if you haven’t seen this or don’t really know what D&D is about, this video explains it really well. Also, if you’re looking for a way to explain D&D to a newbie, or to try to convince your religious friend that you’re not summoning demons in the basement, this might help:

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.