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Lost in The Wood -- Leonard and Ann Marie Wilson

Yes, Dark Fantasy Can Go Too Dark

Woman with Lighted Cigarette Stick on Mouth Woman with Lighted Cigarette Stick on Mouth by Vlada Teaca. Editorial usage license secured through

Time for a visit to Ye Auld Social Media Mailbag.

Q: "Have you ever read dark fantasy so dark that you don't like it? Why?"

If you're looking for a broad psychological reason: why do amusement parks build roller-coasters? I mean, all those curves and hills and loops just interfere with the business of going as fast as physically possible. They slow the ride down. Wouldn't it be a more intense experience if an amusement park was just long and narrow, where the ride accelerated at top speed in a single direction for as long as possible until it had to come to a stop?

Rides aren't built like that because people don't feel speed. They feel change. The coaster whips around, switching up the vector of acceleration because that's way more exciting than unidirectional acceleration. Doing too much of any one thing gets boring at best and can easily proceed through mind-numbing on the way to onerous and oppressive.

Worse, when people try to max out their stimulation from a single source, that source demands more and more and more extreme stimulation to achieve the longed for result, like an addiction. You get used to it, so dark stories that go only one direction—dark—go numb to the depravity they sink into. They reach for all the awfulness they can possibly imagine and keep upping that game until it consumes the narrative and the whole story becomes nothing but torture porn.

(I'm looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire. Has anyone considered maybe Martin can't finish the books because his imagination's run out of ways to be even more relentlessly awful to his characters?)

All of that is neither socially nor emotionally healthy, and I personally take no joy in being strapped in for that ride.

I'm a writer of dark fantasy myself, but never grimdark. I'm a big believer in the roller coaster. Awful things happen in my stories. So do beautiful things. Horror is counterbalanced with humor. Anger is counterbalanced with joy. Despair is counterbalanced with hope. Insanity is counterbalanced with sobering insight.

If you never change things up, I already know the ending and I'm not going to have fun getting there.

There and Back Again: An Author's Holiday

We took the long way home from our 4th-of-July weekend at InConJunction--handling things we'd been putting off until we'd reached full vaccination status--but we're finally back to relieve our house-sitter, and we had a great time.

Because we launched our first book in October of 2020, InConJunction marked our first public appearance as self-publishers and vendors.

Even with COVID still suppressing attendance, the small, friendly convention turned out to be an excellent chance to ease into the new life, meet new people, reconnect with old friends, and get some in-person, real-time reactions to what we've got to offer.

When we weren't in the dealer room, we spent a lot of our time in the fun, low-key writing panels.

When we were in the dealer room, the up side of the sparse crowd was having time to personally interact with nearly everyone who stopped by, and we got to hear a lot of love for the work of our amazing cover artist, Peter. He really brought together the Gothic-fantasy vibe we needed.

It also left us enough time to get to meet the other writers and artists who'd set up shop nearby.

Here are the treasures we collected from them. More on these as we work our way through them.

The Books We Love to Hate--or Something

So I've noticed a thing since I started joining reading groups: Even the most beloved books have a lot people who hate them passionately.

When someone comes out and declares a book I consider sociopathic rubbish to be a masterpiece, it's hard not to think of it as a personal attack.

When someone comes out and declares a book I love to be trash, it's hard not to take it as a personal attack.

And--clearly--from the patterns in the conversational threads, that's just a basic human reaction.

It puts me in mind of my college days and all the snobbery I had to endure from the gatekeepers of literature who were determined that they knew what constituted true "art".

And you know what their definitions of art never involved? They never involved either fantasy or science fiction. Never, that is, unless it was fantasy or science fiction that had gotten slipped into an anthology that some supposed higher authority had declared contained only great art. Then it was fabulous. It was "in".

My point and my take-away are this: Literature is art, and no art is inherently great except that thinking makes it so.

Even sales figures are an arbitrary measure of greatness because so much of sales is about who you know, what budget you have, marketing savvy that has zero to do with the art itself, and plain dumb luck.

If not for the efforts of just two of Shakespeare's friends a few years after his death, his plays would have disappeared into oblivion and we never would have heard of him.

Given all that, as far as I'm concerned, it really doesn't help anything to proclaim a book is wonderful or awful outside of a purely technical sense.

Instead I'm going to try to start saying I had a great (or not-so-great) personal experience with it.

Relax and Enjoy That Star Wars Sequel -- Your Childhood Is Safe

Every time a new sequel for a beloved franchise hits the theaters a new wave of angry hysteria hits the Interwebs. The same things happens when the film adaptation of a beloved set of books arrives. No matter how it turns out, someone somewhere is going to begin angrily screaming that the film makers did it wrong, thereby ruining the offended party's childhood. For every one of these fans across every franchise, I have one simple plea: "Breathe."

My entire life has been built on fandom culture but I haven't been a serious, devoted fan of any single franchise since the 80's when Marvel Comics taught me some hard lessons about serialized fiction. I was about thirteen and in the hospital when my mother brought in a random comic book to cheer me up. Other than the occasional issue picked up at a yard sale, superhero comics had never been my thing but here on the cover was a fiercely defiant girl just barely older than me and rendered in the beautiful pencil work of Paul Smith, standing her ground with her back to a wall on the cover and boldly declaring that, "Professor Xavier is a jerk!" on the splash page. That issue of the X-Men featuring Kitty Pryde front and center remains one of the best comics I ever read. It instantly hooked me on the X-Men in general and on Kitty Pryde specifically. It started me collecting comics and searching through comic stores for back issues to find out what I'd missed. But less than a year later, Paul Smith stopped drawing the X-Men and the magic began its long, miserable decline for my comic-book interest as I slowly learned that not even the best writer can maintain a compelling comic story without an equally talented artist. Then Secret Wars happened.

For those of you not into comics at the time, Secret Wars was Marvel's first big universal crossover of all its titles, hot on the heels of DC's groundbreaking Crisis on Infinite Earths. But where Crisis seemed to have been years in the making and had been lovingly crafted by the fabulously talented artist George Perez, Secret Wars reeked of marketing gimmick thrown together to try to cash in on the energy of DC's successful crossover extravaganza. It was lazily written by then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and drawn by some artist of middling talent I'd never encountered before. He was incapable of capturing the sort of depth of emotion in a few quick panels that Perez could, so the whole thing came off as raw melodrama. In the midst of all that melodrama, Shooter destroyed the X-Men for me by turning the sensitive young artist inside the power-house Colossus that Kitty had developed a crush on into a complete jerk who ground her heart under his boot for absolutely no justifiable reason. And then, in the wake of that atrocity, after years of Marvel Comics swearing up and down that Jean Grey was dead dead dead dead dead never coming back so forget about it, and after they'd crafted an amazing story arc teasing us with maybe they'd been lying before finally saying, "Ah, no. Psyche!" they suddenly dragged her back to life after all and started cloning her into as many incarnations as they could come up with at a breakneck pace.

That one-two punch opened my eyes to a cynical truth about fiction: there is no canon. By the time DC started crowing about its upcoming "Death of Superman" event that would get coverage from serious news outlets, I wasn't buying any of it. No fictional character is ever dead so long as there is someone out there who believes money can be made off of his being alive, and where even death can be hand-waved away there is nothing permanent and nothing sacred.

The characters and worlds of popular serial fiction outlive their original creators. Passing from hand to hand to hand, they never escape the imprint -- for better or worse -- of each new creative team. So often we feel that we know these characters as intimately as real life friends, but at the end of the day it all comes back to what I've always told my daughter about her beloved stuffed pig. She used to fret dreadfully over the possibility that they would someday be separated, so I told her straight up that the pig wasn't real like her or me. Her beloved friend wasn't that body. The real pig was the one that existed in her heart and in her mind and would never go away, could never be taken from her. The body was just a temporary convenience for getting hugs. And when the dreadful day came when that little pig body well and truly disappeared forever, I told her about the magic of telepresence robots and pointed out that her personal piggy mythology already included her friend being amazingly tech savvy with all sorts of wonderful toys at her disposal. A few days later she came asking me to help arrange for the arrival of the little pig's telepresence robot. Today it's all but forgotten that the original body went missing and my daughter still has her faithful, lifelong friend never far out of reach.

No one can destroy your favorite characters and your favorite worlds unless you let them, and no creative team owes it to you to keep churning out material that will continue feeding the existence of your personal imaginary friends. Keep the stories you love close to your heart. Reject other stories whole cloth if they don't fit your personal vision. For me, the X-Men saga started with the founding of the second team and ended with the happily-ever-after in issue #175. Every X-Men story that happened before or since is just alternate universe, "What if?" stuff. Other people can include it in their personal canon and that's fine, but to me it's not "real" and therefore non-threatening. And if you have to keep sharing the lives of your imaginary friends and no one's churning out material in a way you're satisfied with, that's what fan fiction is for. It may not be the ideal solution but it's what we've got.

There's Goodly Trade in Unicorns

I love a good charlatan. It doesn't take a deep analysis of my work to notice that. I've got a soft spot for fictional con-artists like Harold Hill, Bugs Bunny, or the Hugh Jackman version of P.T. Barnum. Yet somehow I can't abide a liar in the real world. Counterintuitive, yes, but it's hardly the only thing about me that appears like total nonsense at a superficial glance.

When it comes down to it, I love those fictional fast-talkers not for their lies, but for their ability to weave a better reality out of nothing but words. Bugs Bunny continually conjures karma for the bullies that cross his path. Harold Hill shakes the dust off a sleepy, unchanging little town and transforms all its residents into brighter and happier versions of themselves. The glamorized Barnum plays Pied Piper to the girl of his dreams, leading her into the wonderland of their shared imaginings even as he forges a troop of marginalized misfits into a family of awe-inspiring performers. Each of those liars has his dark side, yet each is also a study in harnessing that dark side for the greater good. In the real world, habitual liars seldom find such redemption, with one major exception: storytellers. A professional storyteller is a professional liar. And like Harold Hill, a storyteller can create a better world simply by convincing his audience it's possible for such a world to exist, making them long for it, and then leaving them to do the rest. It was following in the footsteps of Harold Hill that I convinced my lovely co-author that -- despite past discouragements -- she did have what it took to be a writer. One of my greatest achievements to date, the belief ushered in a world where she finished her first novel a month ahead of me.

As in that personal example, words don't have to be lies to change the world, but humans are hard-wired to love a good lie -- especially when they know going in that they're being lied to. No one wants to hear a minute-by-minute recount of your day manning the grill at your fast-food job. If they wanted that, they could just get behind the grill themselves. But lies can whisk people away to a magical life they could never experience otherwise. For a short while, they can feel what it's like to be the plucky orphan overcoming adversity to save the world. They can become a thrill-seeking star pilot or a cunning freedom fighter. They can become literally anything -- live any life -- that a skilled liar can envision. And even though their life in that fiction must all too soon fade, giving ground back to relentless reality, it never totally goes away. To paraphrase my all time favorite poem ("The Unicorn Trade" by the recently departed Karen Anderson), that fictional life is theirs to keep, as real as any memory.

If you're any sort of kindred spirit in loving and respecting the power of these benevolent, invited lies, then you'll understand how shattered I was to find such bald-faced, malevolent lies taking over our national halls of power recently. Only by appreciating the full power of lies and by studying the tactics of charlatans can you truly appreciate the precipice the world has been dancing along. Two years ago, I was giddy with the accomplishment of finishing my first novel and shopping around for an agent. Then poltics happened, and suddenly my little dream so recently realized after so many years paled into tawdry nothingness. It's taken this long for me to find faith in my own lies again.

So, here I am, back and -- along with my lovely co-author -- ready for another bite at weaving a better world using only the power of words. With your kind permission, I'd like to lie to you. Just be warned, my idea of a better world involves lots of roller coasters.


Outside the Asylum

Once upon a time, the greatest and most advanced super-power in the world built a mighty wall and set up strict laws to keep out uncivilized foreigners who threatened its way of life.

Outside the wall, shut off from becoming part of the super-power's shining dream, the rest of the world busied itself by developing fresh new technologies and vigorous trade networks.

Meanwhile, barricaded safely within its fortress of solitude, the great super-power became complacent and stagnant. Caught up in its own cultural quagmire, it woke up one day to find that the world had left it behind.

That's why it was the U.S. and not China that dominated world culture throughout the 20th century.

Trump 2016. Because it's about time we return the favor. </sarcasm>

Pawn or Protagonist? (Part 2)

Reconciling the Dual Nature of Player Characters

The 1980's was one long journey down the road from pawn toward protagonist for the player characters in RPGs. The novelty of controlling a pawn as he crawled through mazes, battling monsters and collecting loot, was wearing off. Jaded players wanted more from their time at the gaming table, and they set off in two different directions seeking it. One of those directions was simulating reality, but those attempts largely dead-ended. Reality does a good enough job simulating reality all on its own, and the harder you try to compete, the more you get bogged down in details that are boring or depressing or icky. Role-players never actually wanted realism, they wanted a good-parts version of realism, which is what stories are. Gradually we relinquished the work of simulating reality to the personal computers that were rapidly changing our lives, and we focused our search for something more in the direction of storytelling. As we entered the 90's, "Vampire: The Masquerade" would emerge as the poster-child for that movement, using "storyteller" as a synonym for game master where early D&D had used "referee".

To understand the dynamic that this new paradigm created, one really has to understand the job of a storyteller, which is to engage his audience with a plausible fiction that keeps it hungry to find out what happens next. Once all the questions have been answered, his story is done, and the storyteller hopes that his audience found the answers satisfying enough that they'll come looking to him to tell them another story later. A storyteller game-master, then, isn't some chess-master looking to test the limits of your resourcefulness in a game of wits, he's an entertainer who wants to keep you guessing and curious.

Early attempts at this style of game-mastering were clunky to say the least, and introduced us to the concept of "railroading". With no other road map to follow, GMs and game designers alike turned to the established storytelling patterns of movies and novels for inspiration -- all linear by nature. If you've been role-playing long enough to have read this far, you probably already know and loathe railroading. The problem, of course, is that it relegates players back to the role of passive audience, which is not the experience they signed up for.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from railroading, gamers generally say you'll find "sandbox" play, but in the storyteller's lexicon, the opposite of railroading would be "wish fulfillment". A railroaded RPG totally ignores the players' desires. Wish fulfillment gives them everything they want without making them work for it. In a dungeon-crawl game, in which the goal is to amass treasure, glory, treasure, power, and treasure, that's commonly known as a "Monty Haul" game: walk through some easy encounters, collect cool gear and lots of bling. In traditional storytelling, it's most infamously the plot of nearly all "adult" films and literature. In either case, the story exists as nothing but some context for a fantasy. Wish fulfillment is what you get out of an RPG when the GM realizes that it's all about the players, but fails to grasp that both pawns and protaganists share one common thread: they exist for the sake of conflict. Without conflict and uncertainty, you have no game, and you have no story.

This sets up another dilemma about the nature of RPGs. Assuming we follow the tradition of first-person role-playing in which each player is allowed control of a single piece in the game (i.e: player character), the clear and obvious goal for each player is to achieve any personal aims attributed to his character. The clear and obvious goal for the GM then becomes standing in the way of his players' goals. Yet within the game he's necessarily omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. Even when he's showing restraint, you get scenarios like these:

Four goblins won't be enough to bloody them: I'd better put another one in this room.

There are five goblins in the room when the PC's enter. The fifth goblin rolls a lucky critical with its arrow on the first round, slaying the party's magic user just before he could get off his sleep spell that would have ended the fight. Half the party winds up dying in the encounter because the GM tried to make them burn a few extra hit points, based on nothing more than gut instinct.

They let the bandit king go. Guess I'll roll to see how grateful he is. 11...? Seems pretty grateful. He'd probably ask Redscale to spare their lives, and Redscale surely owes him a favor by now.

A total party kill at the claws of the dragon morphs into a total party capture. Rather than shredding their character sheets and starting over, the players prep their beloved group of 14th-level adventurers to go off on a quest Redscale assigned them, all because of the GM's subjective intepretations of one roll and of the relationship between two NPCs.

Hmmm... the druid's butterfly familiar flapped its wings in Minas Tirith. Wouldn't it be cool if that meant rain in Mordor?

Frodo suffers a -2 penalty to his climb check on the wet mountain side. He fails his roll by 1 point and slips to his doom. Sauron recovers the ring. Minas Tirith falls. The age of men ends because the GM saw Jurassic Park twenty years ago, and Jeff Goldblum's explanation of chaos theory stuck with him.

Each of these examples hinges on a single reasonable-enough but subjective GM's-call that completely alters the course of a campaign. For a GM to claim, "It's not me, it's the dice!", "It's not me, it's the rules!", or "It's not me, that's what's written in the adventure!" are all cop-outs. The game master decides. Even if what she decides is to roll dice and not fudge the rolls, she chooses how to weight the probabilities of each roll before it hits the table. She decides which adventures to pull off the shelf and play. She decides how to populate her sandbox. She decides what every NPC will choose to do in every unscripted situation, of which we hope there will be many. She decides whether any moment of play is worthy of an exemption from the normal flow and rules. ("You kick sand in the beholder's face?" Time to look up the sand-throwing combat sub-system? Yeah, right. Well, that eye's a pretty-big target, so... "If you can roll a total of 15 to-hit, you can disable it's main eye ability for 1d6 rounds.") Moment by moment by moment, throughout the life of her game, she decides -- because if she doesn't decide, she's not a game master, she's that Sigourney Weaver character in Galaxy Quest, parroting whatever the computer has already said to the rest of the crew because that's her one job on the ship.

The GM can't really treat player-characters like pawns because she can wipe them off the board with a few words. Nor can she really treat player-characters like protagonists because their players require the freedom to make choices with meaningful consequences, up to and including the inconveniently early demise of their own characters. All of which means that any argument on how to play an RPG that reduces the role of the GM to either impartial referee or artful storyteller is missing the big picture. I suspect that RPGs shall ultimately find their identity in the modern trend toward meta-game rules about how the story itself will progress (as opposed to rules purely about the minutae of actions taken by a character), because therein lies the crux of the matter. No matter how useful rules governing a simulated physical reality are, they will always play second-fiddle to the power invested in a game master, but meta-rules that impact the flow of the story itself can apply a whole new layer to the game that strengthens collaboration between GM and players without throwing dramatic tension out the window.

Taking this phenomenon to the extreme, you wind up with games like Universalis and Microscope, that are nothing but meta-game rules and don't need a GM at all. Replacing the GM with a committee of players is a lot like replacing the GM with a computer, though: it addresses the problem of balancing the dual pawn/protagonist nature of player characters by getting rid of it entirely. That makes them a whole different style of game, and outside the realm of this discussion. But any existing RPG can be seasoned to taste with meta-game rules, as those game masters who aren't afraid to tinker have been proving for many years.

Next time, I'll finish up the series with specific thoughts on- and examples of meta-game rules.

Pawn or Protagonist? (Part 1)

Reconciling the Dual Nature of Player Characters 

Nameless, faceless, identical -- pawns exist to be sacrificed on the chess board. Growing emotionally attached to your playing pieces, struggling to keep them instead of staying focused on which ones to give up in order to move yourself closer to victory, is an amateurish mistake, and there lie the roots of role-playing. Our hobby sprang from a tradition of tabletop miniatures wargames, which sit nestled securely in the same family tree as chess, even if you're not going to accept them as direct descendants. 

Larger-than-life, flamboyant, enduring -- the heroes of adventure stories exist to do the things we wish we dared, or the things we hope we'd be capable of if we suddenly found the fate of the world resting on our shoulders. They're forever risking life and limb without ever really risking life and limb, because we know the all-powerful storyteller can't actually let them die before reaching the climactic struggle. Yet we lay down good money again and again, not to answer the question of whether our hero will live through his countless exploits, but how. And it was these sorts of protagonists that sparked the imaginations of the wargamers who invented role-playing games, and led them to adapt their rules from managing massed armies to covering man-to-man combat. 

So which is the "right" way to treat player-characters in an RPG? As expendable pawns on a chessboard, or as the charmed protagonists of a novel? My answer is, "Neither one." Even though RPGs are marketed as games; and despite the fact that many players approach RPGs with all the dramatic earnestness of a Shakespearean actor playing Othello to a packed house; RPGs are in that adolescent phase where they're struggling to establish an identity of their own, independent of their parents. Trying to pigeon-hole them as one or the other can quickly lead to pointless frustration. 

The very first player characters in role-playing may not have been identical, but they were certainly pawns. D&D's inventors just replaced their companies of soldiers with individual heroes. The players would still plan strategies; move pieces about the map; and roll dice to decide their fates. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and when they lost, the pawn "died". It died because that's what happened at the miniatures table: once defeated, the units of a miniatures army were lost and gone -- forgotten as the swirl of battle moved away from the spot where they'd fallen. 

A funny thing happened on the way to this particular battlefield, though. In focusing on the individual warriors, players gave them names and imagined faces for them. Those warriors who survived one battle often moved on to the next, and when they did, they took their stories with them, accumulating a semblance of humanity bit-by-bit through weathering each storm, not unlike the Velveteen Rabbit. Without fully understanding the implications of this phenomenon, the pioneers of the hobby embraced it. In the days before home computers and sophisticated video games, after all, this was the closest it got to virtual reality -- stepping inside a story and living another life. So it came to pass that the players of the game began bonding with their pawns. 

Once you bond with anything, it becomes a part of your life, and you will naturally want to keep it there. The heroes of a D&D game could no longer be allowed to go so gently into that good night as just another pawn, and the creators of the game found themselves needing a way to ease the sting of player-character death. Attempting to address this issue brought them to the first great fork in the road in the history of RPG design. 

An experienced storyteller, faced with the knowledge that his audience needed its heroes to spend more time on stage before death removed them permanently from the tale, would typically think in terms of killing heroes less often -- but the pioneers of role-playing weren't storytellers, they were gamers. Killing player characters less often would interfere with the gambler's adrenelin high created by the perception of great risk; and a gamer thinks nothing of grabbing up a fallen token and placing it back on the board later so long as the rules allow. The minds behind D&D latched onto the precedent of stories in which the dead are brought back to life, and -- trusting that making it high-level magic and charging a hefty fee in gold would keep it seeming rare and wonderous enough -- they introduced raise-dead spells into the dawning world of role-playing. But once the precedent had been set, most players expected access to the spells, just as they would come to expect ability scores that averaged better than the 10.5 you get from rolling three six-sided dice for each. So overlooking the option to back off from making "to-the-death" the default standard for combat encounters, D&D instead re-defined "death" as sending your character to his room for a time-out and docking his allowance. Specific GMs might choose to keep death more harsh, just as specific GMs might reject the new methods of generating ability scores that skewed PC-abilities higher, but the overall trend had been established, and the stage had been set for countless squabbles between extremist role-players and extremist roll-players. 

In many ways, this fight over the word "death" is the fight over the identity of RPGs themselves. Players who sit down at the table for a story with some game in it will typically expect player-characters to die hard, but for death to be (more or less) the final word. Players who sit down at the table for a game with some story in it may expect PC survival to hang constantly in the balance, but then turn around and head for the banks of the river Styx when their characters do die, waiting expectantly for the ferryman to bring them back out of Hades. And always it comes back to that essential yet misleading question: are the player-characters pawns or protagonists? 

If you'll be good enough to hold that thought, I'll get back to it next time in part 2.

The Rules of Narrative: Every PC Comes to the Table Armed with Chekhov's Gun


"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." -- Anton Pavlovich Chekhov


Much ink, both virtual and real, has been spilled on the subject of how important it is for a GM, in his limitless power, not to break the rules laid down by the books of his given game. He must (it is often said) stand apart as an impartial arbiter, and let the dice fall where they may. I cannot entirely agree with that point of view, but I'm not here to argue against it, either. What I am here to do is discuss the sadly neglected other set of rules -- the rules of narrative -- which to my mind are at least as important to a game master.

The rules of narrative are not something written down in any game-book's contract of how play shall proceed -- at least not in any game book that I've ever seen. Rather, they're things etched into human nature by the way we think in stories. Yes, you can run an RPG without any conscious regard for the rules of narrative, but it perilously increases your chances of becoming the subject of your players' bitter "that game master who" stories. And if you want your game to truly sing, if you want your players to engage with it on a visceral level, you have to hit many of the same chords that a novelist does. Yet it's not enough to simply emulate a novelist. You have to understand how role-playing games are decidedly not novels, and adapt the rules of narrative to fit.

I'm going to make a start by discussing the famous rule of Chekhov's gun, and the way it applies to those character sheets your players are holding. In role- playing, when a player chooses for his character to be good at something -- anything -- it's a way of voting on the sorts of elements he wants to appear in the game. I would wager that most players have never thought to articulate it that way, but that makes it no less true. A player's character-creation choices are usually his first opportunity to shape the direction of the coming game, and he doesn't squander them on stuff he expects to be irrelevant. He focuses on empowering himself to accomplish the things he wishes to accomplish, and in ways he thinks will be fun and cool.

It follows, then, that a game master owes it to his players to take careful note of the strengths his players have chosen for their characters, and to liberally season his game with opportunities to make those choices meaningful. Every one of these character design choices is a metaphorical pistol hanging on the wall, with your player waiting for an opportunity to fire it.

Failing to indulge your players in this disrespects their most fundamental involvement in the game, and is just another form of railroading. The only thing that makes it more forgivable than most forms of railroading is that it's not so bloody obvious. A game master needs a higher level of social awareness to understand that he's doing it.

So if your player chooses goblins for her ranger's sworn foe, and you don't stop and tell her, "Sorry. There just aren't any goblins around. Why don't you pick something else?" you have just agreed that she will find goblins around to battle. Out of respect to this implicit promise you just made to her, please place goblins in multiple locations around your sandbox for her to discover; add them to your encounter tables; and/or commit to making them show up multiple times in planned encounters. And please don't make them all super-goblins in some misguided attempt to balance out her ranger's bonuses, because it's not the mere presence of goblins that fires that particular gun; the gun goes off when your ranger shows just how great she is at vanquishing goblins. Sure, having elite goblins waiting in the wings to make her sweat is an excellent idea, but they should absolutely be the exception, not the rule.

Whatever your player characters' individual specialties may be, recognize them, and allow them to be special. Keep failure as an option, but in these few things, go out of your way to set them up for success. The player still pulls the trigger, but she can't do that unless you leave her gun within reach.



Further Thoughts On the Resolution Bonus Chart

It was brought to my attention after my last post that the defensive fight maneuver was changed in fifth-edition Pendragon. It now longer allows a normal damage roll on a critical success, so the maneuver has been reduced to use as a delaying tactic. I only checked to make sure that the maneuver still existed in fifth-edition, and that it still granted a +10 bonus. I didn't stop to comb the maneuver for other changes in wording.

The +5 bonus for a knight fighting "unburdened" remains fully in effect in fifth edition.

I never did put the "fight defensively" tactic to much use in actual play, though. I just picked it out here as a quick way to underscore how above-20 modifiers can stack up, and what happens when they do.

The real point I wanted to make is that criticals are game changers. One critical hit from a typical 5d6 attack is generally going to deliver a major wound. One critical hit from a 6d6 attack (a reasonably common number of damage dice) will quite often strike an unwounded knight dead on the spot if he can't get his shield in its way. One critical hit from a 7d6 attack (e.g.: a typical saxon knight with an axe) will quite often strike an unwounded knight dead on the spot even if he _can_ get his shield in its way. A really big Saxon paragon of Wotanic virtue wielding a great axe is going to roll 10d6 on a normal hit, and he'll reduce any man he strikes with a critical hit into a bloody memory.

Critical hits are not terribly rare to begin with. No matter what skill-level opponent your PCs are facing, you can multiply the number of their opponents by the average number of rounds their opponents stand and fight. If the result is 20 or higher, it's reasonable to anticipate at least one critical landed against a player knight. So in just four rounds of combat with five player knights slugging it out with an equal number of axe-armed Saxon knights, you've got really good odds of a player knight falling dead from a single blow.

If those same saxon knights all had an axe skill of 21, the odds would go up from "really good" to "fairly certain". You might even be looking at a player knight falling dead from a single blow every other round or so. Against an elite unit of skill-23 Saxon knights, don't be at all surprised if you see one of those player knights fall dead from a single blow in a single round of combat.

There's only one true defense against all those criticals, and that's rolling criticals yourself -- preferably while holding a weapon that won't shatter when it parries someone else's critical. That makes rolling criticals as often as you can the key to long-term survival. And because this key to survival is no less the key to offensive power, as a player I found indulging in it to be addictive. I made a real nuisance of myself by piling on all the bonuses I could find toward achieving that end, until I hit on this house-rule to keep the essence of the mechanic intact while defanging its extreme application as impenetrable armor.

Your players may not react the same way I did. I'm a remarkably obsessive sort, in addition to being acutely aware of math and probabilities. But if you do find bonus-escalation is becoming a problem in your Pendragon campaign, I hope my experience will help you resolve that.

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