Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Art and Faith (and D&D?)

During the summer, I received a query from a woman who writes for religionlink.org, a site that offers tip sheets for reporters writing about religious topics. A few days ago, the little blurb we crafted about me went up on the site, and yesterday I got my first query from a reporter—a student writer at Brigham Young University. In response to her couple of timid questions, I ended up spilling out an essay I've been meaning to write for a long time. There are themes in here I first elucidated when I held "Coffee, Theology, and D&D" meetings with folks like David Noonan, Jeff Quick, and Johnny Wilson—meetings that resulted in some of the ideas about a Christian roleplaying game that I articulated on this site years ago. There are other themes that I've discussed with my wife over the years as she pursues her Ph.D. in spirituality and the arts. So this has been a long time coming... and after that big lead-up, it's probably going to seem a bit anti-climactic. Here it is, before I make it sound any more important than it is:

One of the things that appeals to me about Christian music is that I like songs that are about stuff that matters. Even though I grew up listening to the Beatles, a song like "I want to hold your hand" is a fine head-bopping sort of a song, but I don't find it particularly significant in its subject matter. Good Christian music points to the mysteries of life emerging from death, of hope arising out of suffering, of a small and flickering light unquenched by the vast darkness around it—in other words, it points to the cross and the heart of our faith. In fact, theologian Paul Tillich has argued that all good art is religious, in that it is an expression of an ultimate concern—an attempt to wrestle with real questions about the nature, purpose, and meaning of human existence.
There is plenty of bad Christian art out there—music, visual art, and games of all sorts that deals with Christian subjects but fails to really express any serious conviction about our existence. Lots of Christian music is filled with eempty platitudes that have little to do with the real struggles of real people trying to live faithful lives in our world. Lots of Christian art depicts hollow saints or an insipid savior without managing to communicate the power or significance of their lives. And lots of Christian games try to teach Bible verses or recreate Biblical stories without really saying anything about what it all means.
The flip side is that there's plenty of good art out there that does not treat explicitly with Christian themes. Here and there in the world of secular music are songs that say more about the ultimate meaning of the universe than any ten randomly-chosen CDs of Christian music. I think Tolkien did a better job conveying the Truth in the non-Christian world of The Lord of the Rings than Lewis did in his allegorical world of Narnia. 
It's my hope that some of my work falls into this category. Nobody would try to argue that Dungeons & Dragons is a Christian game, but I always try to reflect my values and my beliefs about the nature of existence in the material I write for it. I've got a fantasy novel coming out next summer that's all about forgiveness and redemption, though it never comes close to Christian allegory.
All that said, to talk about games as art is sometimes a stretch, and sometimes we all take games too seriously. Educational games are fine, whether they're teaching multiplication or Bible verses. But sometimes a game should be just a game. Is Tetris a Christian game or a secular game? No, it's a game. It's not art, and it's not making any kind of statement about human existence or anything else. You can debate all you like whether Christians have any business wasting their time on frivolous games (I had to give up Tetris for Lent during my senior year of college, or else I never would have finished my thesis), and you can certainly try to ensure that your frivolous games of choice at least don't encourage or replicate behavior you find reprehensible. But if you purge a video game of sex and violence and make it fit a storyline out of the Bible, that doesn't make it Christian. That makes it a game you hope to sell to Christians.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A few more random things...

A couple months ago I mentioned working on a project with Andy Collins and Gwen Kestrel. Well, it's finally posted on the Wizards web site, and it's a new look at the classic adventure, White Plume Mountain. I wrote up the intelligent weapons from that adventure in the D&D Arms & Equipment Guide, but treating them as legacy weapons (using the fabulous rules in Weapons of Legacy) was really, really cool. My favorite thing about using a legacy item in an adventure is the idea that you'll keep using that item, and unlocking new capabilities from it, long after the adventure is over. It makes adventures really memorable.

On Friday, I went in to work and found a copy of the May–August 2006 catalog on my chair, which includes... my novel! I saw the cover a couple of weeks ago (featuring a painting by Wayne Reynolds, which rocks), but it was pretty neat to see it in the catalog. I've been getting good feedback from those who've read it, including my editor. And I'm getting excited to start the next one, as soon as I get a breath of free time.

Last little thing: The other day I ran across a little essay I wrote for this site three years ago. It seems as pertinent now as it was then, and I don't know how many of you saw it then. It's sort of an Advent meditation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Another new thing of mine

Here's something I put a lot of work into lately. I designed the course and will be teaching the first session, starting in January. Please note, though, that it's intended for newbies—so if you're reading this, you're probably not the target audience. :)

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Eyes of Gith

Another short story I wrote for the D&D website has gone live: "The Eyes of Gith." Featuring a character introduced to illustrate a prestige class, this little piece explores the horrors of obsession and vengeance. Check it out.

I also just discovered that my novel appears in amazon.com's catalog. Hey, that's pretty cool. They also list the anthology that contains my short story, sort of a prologue to my novel.

That's all for now!

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

What I've Been Up To

One might have thought that finishing my novel would have given me ample opportunity to keep this pathetic excuse for a blog updated with some regularity. One would, of course, have been sorely mistaken.

So what have I been doing?

First, I've got a short story up on the Wizards web site. Called At the Wellspring, it ties in to one of the campaign arcs in Magic of Incarnum, offering one version of how incarnum might come into the world. I'm pretty pleased with it, and I hope you enjoy it. Look for a horror story tied to Heroes of Horrorcoming a little later this month.

Speaking of Magic of Incarnum, the web site had a lot of stuff about it in the last month. Here's a few cool things:
• I answered a bunch of questions from fans, compiled by web editor Bart Carrol, in this interview.
• Andy Collins did a really neat "Use this book tonight" column about it. Andy led the development effort for the book, and gained several ranks in my already very high estimation of him in the process.
• I also did a chat on the Wizards site on 9/9, but I can't find a transcript of it. Can anyone else?

This month's big release for me is Heroes of Horror. I had a blast working with Ari Marmell and C.A. Suleiman on that book—they are two very talented writers. One of the maps from that book is this week's Map-a-Week. Look for another product spotlight as well as the aforementioned fiction, coming soon!

Outside of work, I've been playing surprisingly little World of Warcraft. Instead, sudoku puzzles have been tickling my brain (my favorite sources are here[the hard ones] and here). I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I enjoyed greatly. I just started The Briar King, which I'm also enjoying. Greg Keyes' Fool Wolf stories in DRAGON Magazine turned me on to his writing. And I made it about halfway through the Firefly series on DVD before Serenity opened last weekend. If you haven't seen Serenity yet, do.

My gaming has been a little sporadic, unfortunately. I played for a while in David Noonan's Eberron campaign set during the Last War, but a weekly game is generally hard to mesh with my family schedule. I've also started playing in Andy Collins's Umber campaign, which is monthly. My own monthly Eberron campaign has been on hiatus for a while thanks to the summer convention season and the arrival of three new babies to different players in the campaign! My schedule is complicated by the fact that I sort of got roped into performing in a production of The Sound of Music this fall, which is eating up many of my Saturdays. I'm playing Franz, "the old butler" (as he says in the movie, though not in the play). My son is playing Kurt, and my wife is choreographing the show, so it's quite the family affair.

Oh, I also worked on another project for the Wizards web site that isn't up yet, so I won't spoil the surprise. But I got to work with Andy and Gwendolyn Kestrel, which was a lot of fun. I'll try to remember to post when it goes up.

At work right now I just started working on a project with Bruce Cordell, which I've never done before. I have tons of respect and admiration for Bruce and his work, so this should be a lot of fun—and a darned fine project when it's all done. 

And speaking of Andy, which I seem to have been doing a lot this entry, I ran an event at this year's GwenCon convention (in Andy and Gwen's house): an approximation of Blackfathom Deeps using the OGL World of Warcraft RPG from Sword & Sorcery. What was weird was my players: I had one WoW player and four people who were basically just looking for a D&D game. So the faithfulness of my adaptation of the instance (or lack thereof) was hardly an issue, and we just sort of got a laugh over the awkwardness of translating an MMORPG to pen-and-paper play. Anyway, it was fun. Perhaps sometime I'll post the characters I generated and the encounters I created—though then you might see how much I cheated on the NPCs. (It was late the night before, and I was in no mood to count up skill points or gear value!)

So I guess that's about all the news, what I've been up to. I have a couple of more serious musings rumbling around in the back of my brain, but they've been doing that for quite some time and who knows when they'll ever make it out? So no promises on the next update—could be next week, could be three months from now. Have fun until then!

Monday, July 4, 2005

Wild and wacky D&D day

OK, now it's really done—the first draft of my novel, that is. I just finished my first pass of revisions and emailed it off to the editor. I'm a little bit stunned. And quite happy.

I saw a copy of Adrian Cole's novel, The Crimson Talisman, the other day, and was pretty tickled to see my novel listed inside the front. I guess some of you probably saw that months ago. Color me oblivious. It kind of made the reality sink in—I have actually written a novel, and it should actually get published. That's a pretty cool feeling—even for someone who's already worked on a dozen game books. This one's different, somehow.

But I have chosen to file this entry under "Active Games," so let me tell you about the game I played yesterday!

It's a holiday weekend, and my wife and son are out of town, visiting family. This leaves me feeling somewhat lonely and unusually free. So I decided to pull some folks together for an unscheduled D&D session yesterday, and Andy Collins, Gwen Kestrel, Steve Schubert, and Mike Mearls descended upon my house. Mike had kindly volunteered to run an adventure for us, and Andy came up with the wacky idea that we should all make characters who use races and classes from sources other than the Player's Handbook. So that's what we did.

Andy and Gwen played a pair of goliath brothers. Andy was a barbarian 1/favored soul 4. Cheating? Sort of—but he took the goliath barbarian substitution level to get mountain rage, so it wasn't really like he was playing a class from the PH. Gwen was a barbarian 5, but she also had substitution levels and/or variant class features from Unearthed Arcana—the dragon totem and whirling frenzy variants. So again, not very PH-like.

Steve played a kalashtar character with a class I can't tell you anything about. It appears in a book currently in development, and received some development in mid-game session. I kind of think that's cheating, but it's hard to argue when the two people at the table who are actually working on developing the book agree on the change. And it wasn't exactly game-breaking.

I played a shifter totemist, a class that appears in Magic of Incarnum

Mike is a seriously twisted guy, meaning he fits right in to the development team. He ran us through a very disturbing adventure laced with seriously gruesome imagery, but involving plenty of nail-biting combat. A splendid time was had by all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I finished my novel

Well, what I really mean is that I finished my first draft, and it's not even the first draft that I'm going to submit as my first draft in two weeks. But I can now say that I have written a novel. My target was 90,000 words, and it came in at 89,750. I'm frankly stunned that it came so close. 

I'm really pleased with it. I have not gone through a period of hating every word I type, whether that's because I've been on a fairly relaxed schedule with it or just because I have an overinflated sense of my own worth as a writer. I think it might actually be a darned fine novel.

I am going to leave it for a few days—print it out and let my wife read it and made her comments before I plunge back into the work of editing it. Then I'll turn it over to the editor by the end of the month. My final draft is due in September.

It feels very strange. Thinking about not going to Starbucks tomorrow morning feels strange. I sort of want to go, just to announce to all the baristas that the darn thing's finished. Maybe I'll stop in on the way to work and get my mocha valencia to go, just to throw them for a loop.

But right now, I'm going to play some World of Warcraft. 'Cause I've earned it. Hey, I've got a new Horde character on Dalaran: Ashhorn. 

Updating this site more often is on my list of things to do now that the novel pressure is off. So I'll be back soon.

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Beth Waters is back

The album I mentioned last time, which had disappeared from the iTunes Music Store since I had purchased it, has now returned. It's Beth Waters, by Beth Waters. Check out her web page, too.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Searching for "Weather Channel"

I've been doing a lot of work in Starbucks lately, writing my novel mostly. I spend a couple hours there every Saturday and Sunday morning, sipping my mocha Valencia, sometimes eating some pineapple, and trying to get about a thousand words on the page before heading home to my family. Working there usually means being away from my 8-year-old, who often wants to be on the computer, and it means being off the Internet, so I'm not checking email or visiting a half-dozen web sites every time my thought process stalls. Or, heaven forbid, logging in to World of Warcraft. ("Just to check my auctions!")

In fact, I've even been taking my son there in the afternoons twice a week, while my wife is off teaching at Seattle University. (Side note: My father ended up with a student in one of his classes who was familiar with my work. I think it would be pretty darned funny if my wife had students who were D&D players. Anyone reading this who's taking a theology class with Prof. Wyatt at Seattle U? That's my sweetie!) I leave work early and bring him, with his game boy, to Starbucks while I try to get some more work done.

So the upshot of all this time at Starbucks is more than a highly-caffeinated lifestyle. I've also been hearing the same music on a regular basis for a long time. (Pretty much the whole month of February and the beginning of March; they've changed playlists recently.) And there was one song I kept hearing that just grabbed me, but I could never hear it well enough to identify it. It turned out to be "Weather Channel," by Sheryl Crow. I found it a couple of weeks ago, downloaded it from the iTunes Music Store, and have listened to it a lot since then.

So let me explain: I am the most casual of Sheryl Crow fans. She only caught my attention when I watched the video for "Soak Up the Sun" on the iTMS. I bought that single, then went looking for more. I found The Very Best of Sheryl Crow and found myself saying, "Oh, she did that?" A bunch of songs that I had heard and liked well enough, but that never grabbed me enough to go figure out who they were by. Plus, you know, those songs came out before the iTMS. I buy a lot more music now than I used to.

So it took me a long time to find that song. I spent many hours browsing the iTMS, looking for mellow songs by female artists, listening to the samples to see if they sounded like the merest snippets I could barely keep in my head from the song played too quietly over the din of Starbucks on a Sunday morning. (Another side note: I think that my local Starbucks is practically an outpost for the growing megachurch down the road. I'm pretty sure that all sorts of semi-official church meetings, fellowship groups, and Bible studies take place in that Starbucks rather than in the gigantic building this church erected a couple of years ago. I actually think that's pretty cool.) 

Along the way, I discovered some great music. That's the real point of all this. I don't think there's any chance I would ever have discovered Beth Waters if I hadn't been searching for this song. (Now that's weird. The album of hers that I bought seems no longer to be on the store! Find her self-titled album if you can.) I bought "Today's the Day" by Aimee Mann because I had also heard it at Starbucks, just barely loud enough to make out enough words to search on, and conflated the two songs in my head. It wasn't until about two Starbucks visits after I bought that song that I realized there were two different songs by mellow female vocalists that I liked, and I had only found one of them.

So what I have for you now is two playlists: One is most of the songs that were playing in Starbucks for pretty much the month of February. The other is my new mellow female vocalists playlist.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Getting my addiction under control

I think I've worked it out now. I have a system, see—a system that made last week the most productive week to date in my work on my novel, to the tune of nearly 5,000 words. I wrote over 620 words every day last week. And here's how I did it.

At one point,I toyed with the idea of laying down the law: No World of Warcraft unless I had written a chapter already that week. Yeah, right. That wasn't going anywhere.

But my new rule is working. It goes like this: No World of Warcraft unless I've already written at least 670 words that day. 

So every day last week, I managed to get up and do at least a little writing in the morning. Then, when I got my son into bed, instead of saying, "Oh, I'm too tired to write... I'll play WoW for four hours instead," I would sit down to write, thinking, "OK, 200"—or 400, or 670—"more words and then I can play WoW guilt-free."

The results were spectacular.

Today's the first real test. I failed to get up early enough to write anything this morning. I'm home from work, my son is busy reading Calvin & Hobbes... I could be playing WoW. But I'm not going to. I'm going to try to write those 670 words, and I'm not going to click that icon down in my Dock until I do.

That's how I'm getting my addiction under control, and getting my novel written, all in one brilliant stroke of self-discipline.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Order of the Stick

I can't remember when I first read the Order of the Stick. I remember that it was at Jesse Decker's desk, when Jesse was still a relatively new designer (fresh from DRAGON Magazine, before he became Development Manager). I remember reading the strip, laughing like heck, and going back to my desk to read all the archives up to that point. I remember not getting very much work done that day, but I don't remember what day it was. 
I met Rich Burlew when he came to Wizards to talk with us about his proposal for the setting search. I liked his proposal a lot, and I still hope we do more with it some day. Would it be utterly inappropriate for me to tell you that the creepy death-worshipping elves of Aerenal originally appeared in Rich's setting, and we liked them so much we incorporated them into Eberron? Probably, but I guess it's too late now. 
Now Rich is selling a compilation of the Order of the Stick comics. It's going to be a fabulous book. You should buy one 
Oh, and Rich asked me to write the preface to the book. How cool is that? I was tickled to do it. I guess I still don't recognize the fact that I have any degree of fame in this tiny little community of gamers. It was an honor.
This is the picture of me that Rich drew to accompany the preface in the book. Looks just like me, doesn't it?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

I'm still alive!

Three months??? The whole point of changing to this blog format was that it was supposed to be easier for me to post updates. *sigh* I'm hopeless.

I've been really, really busy. Got that impression? I still am, and it's 1:30 A.M., so this isn't going to be a long update, alas. A couple of quick things:

One reason I've been so busy is that I'm working on a novel! It's an Eberron novel, and I can't really say more than that. It's my first novel, and despite the hundreds of thousands of words of gaming products and articles I've written in the last decade, I find it very intimidating and difficult. Primarily I'm insecure about it. Our culture shrouds The Novel in quite an aura of mystique and prestige. It's a bit daunting to enter the realm of people who are working on a novel. I count myself quite lucky to stand among those people holding a contract for the book in my hand and a deadline hanging over my head, but I still feel like a trembling first-time novelist hoping to write something at least halfway decent.

Earlier this month I hit an important milestone, though. When I submitted my novel outline, the editor came back and said, "Yes, we want you to write this novel, and would you like to do a short story as well?" So I submitted a first draft of that short story a couple of weeks ago, and my editor really liked it. So I'm starting to believe that I really can do this and write something worthwhile. My hope is that it will be an enjoyable fantasy novel but also more than that. It's not the Great American Novel, by any stretch of the imagination, but I hope that it goes beyond the standard fantasy novel.

That's all I'll say about that right now.

Another reason I've been so busy, and a big part of the reason I'm not where I want to be through my novel, is World of Warcraft. Man oh man, but that's a good game. You have to understand that I have been largely immune to the lure of electronic games. And before you crack any jokes about my choice of computing platform, let me point out that I have in the past played SimCity until I saw buildings going up behind my eyes when I finally went to bed, I had to give up Tetris for Lent my senior year in college so I could get my honors thesis done, and I've played quite a bit of Civilization over the years. It's not that the games haven't been available. And I've certainly had periods of heavy addiction in the past. But really for like the last 8 or 9 years, I've been doing so many other things that I just didn't have time for computer games. Work all day, come home and spend time with the family, do freelance work once everyone else is in bed, repeat ad nauseum. 

Well, it might perhaps be clear by now that I have something of an addictive personality. So I began my inexorable descent several months ago when Wizards set up an RPG R&D account in City of Heroes, so that we D&D designers could get familiar with the cutting edge of MMORPG technology. With Atari working on D&D Online, our bosses felt that we should have some grounding in that world. Yeah, City of Heroes was a lot of fun. I played through lunch a lot of days. But it's Windows-only, so there was never any danger of my bringing it home. I always figured that was a good thing.

Then I started seeing people playing the beta of World of Warcraft. Then I learned that it would be Mac-compatible. Then I had to promise myself I wouldn't get involved.

And for a month after the game's release, I was strong. Everyone around me was talking about this game and had been for months. When it came out, several people in the department took extra time off before Thanksgiving so they could play... IN THE OFFICE! We're talking die-hard, here. But I remained aloof, feeling slightly superior, while telling myself that when my novel was finished I would get World of Warcraft as a reward.

I couldn't wait that long. The day before the office shut down for the holidays, our manager let us go early. But I had made plans to hook up with my family after normal work hours. What to do? I wasn't going to get any work done, and it didn't make sense to go home and then turn around half an hour later to go back out and meet them for dinner. So I went and asked Dave Noonan whether the department City of Heroes account was still active. "No," he said, "but you should totally play World of Warcraft." He set me up on his account and I spend the next hour playing a tauren. Then I went and met my wife for dinner and told her I had to have this game.

I rationalized it really well. See, I have ways to avoid things. I had been really good about working on my novel: I'd set the alarm for 6 A.M., get up and write for an hour or until my son woke up (whichever came first), then get ready to go to work. Then I'd come home from work in the evening, have dinner, tuck my son into bed, and at that point I'd be too tired to do any serious writing. So I'd putter an hour or two away playing games on Neopets , for crying out loud. Nothing against Neopets—those are some fun games—but I'm hardly their target audience, you know? 

So my reasoning went like this: Look, I'm not writing in the evenings anyway. I'm playing games because I'm too tired to write, all written out for the day. (Ooh, this is a great song. It just came up.) So why not play World of Warcraft instead of Sutek's Tomb?

I'll tell you why not. It's much easier to stop playing Sutek's Tomb.

It was a great theory. But what's happened is that I'll stay up until 3 A.M. playing World of Warcraft. "Oh, I'll just do one more quest." "Oh, just a quick trip to Ironforge to learn mining instead of leatherworking." "Oh, I'll just kill a few orcs before I turn in for the night." JOMT—Just One More Turn—is the technical term for this phenomenon, according to Rich Baker. These guys at Blizzard know what they're doing. And when I stay up until 3 A.M., it's a whole lot harder to get up at 6 and sit down to write for an hour.

Now, a month into the game, I'm getting my addiction under control. I knew better, for example, than to start playing when I stopped working at 1:25 A.M. (Over a half-hour ago, now!) And for the last week or so, I've been getting up early and going into the office, because I've been working on an exploding project—which is the last thing keeping me very busy. So I think it's OK... the novel will still get written on time (so if you're reading this, Mark, relax!), I'll get this project at work finished, and I'll find a happy balance in my life again. 

But man, it's been a crazy month. Anyway, if you happen to be on Hyjal and see Rieta wandering by, give me a wave. (The real reason I made a female night elf warrior, though no one believes me when I say this, is that my son had seen a picture on the Neopets site of a Neopets staff member dressed up as a female night elf warrior for Halloween. He was on my lap when I made my first WoW character, so that's what I made. It has nothing, nothing at all I say, to do with night elves being hot.)

No D&D game in November. I need to write updates for December and January, but that's not going to happen tonight. I'm going to bed (it's now 2:06), and I'm going to get up early and go work on my novel for an hour or so before church. My exploding project can wait until nightfall.