It was a dark and stormy night, and this book sucks . . .

No, not this! This book is great!

I try not to do this. Honestly, as a fellow writer, I don’t want to. But there’s simply no way around it. The book I am reviewing today just isn’t very good, not for me, at least.

For many people, this is a classic. I know this because the cover states, “50th Anniversary Edition” and “Newbury Medal Award Winner.” See, I am very picky with what I read. At Barnes & Nobles, I gravitate to the classics, not because I’m a stuffy college grad, but because those books have proven themselves over time. Who’d remember Shakespeare if he were just an OK playwright? This is what, initially, drove me from the shelf to the check-out counter. Fifty years! It must be good. Also, it’s a kid’s book, and many of my favorite books were originally intended for younger readers, like The Never Ending Story, Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. There is a simple kind of joy and wonder that comes from a story told without the pretension and jaded outlook rampant in so many of today’s adult works. I consider Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” a literary genius, and The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams brings me to tears every time I read it. So for me, finding the book in the kid section at Barnes & Nobles was a plus. Which book is it? Ah . . . that you’re going to have to figure out for yourself. The author has been dead since 2007 so nothing I say or do can possibly tarnish her reputation, but I still feel uncomfortable trashing another writer’s work. Usually, when I am this level of disappointed, I won’t even bother to review it. But with this book, I was looking for inspiration. It seems these days reading is falling out of fashion, but I often find the culprit to be bad writing and poor story telling. I am the father of a nine year old who loves Zelda, Minecraft, and how-to YouTube videos. Getting her to read can be a hassle. But put the right book in her hands—like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web—and electronic entertainment can collect dust for a few days. So you can’t always blame Steve Jobs for making it tougher on writers like myself; sometimes you have to blame the writers. After a number of disappointing reads, I was desperate for something to rekindle my faith in the written word. Then an odd thing happened; the glittery cover caught my wife’s eye and she stole the book from me. For days, I waited for her to finish, but about halfway through she started to ride the donkey carriage. I teased her a bit, until she gave it back to me, flatly stating, “this book sucks.” Really? A Newbury Award winner? 50th Anniversary? How can that be? Snatching the book off her dresser, I tore into it, certain of its literary merit, and the first line went like this,

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

Wait a minute . . . I know that line! When it comes to opening lines, that’s as famous as, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities) or “Call me Ishmael . . .” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), both great authors and great novels! Surely, my wife had to be ignorant to the makings of a classic. Uninteresting, maybe, but it couldn’t suck.

It did.

The protagonist, a pre-teen girl, is as bland as a carton of milk that just says “Milk” in Times New Roman. Her two brothers and a neighborhood friend (also a boy) complete the foursome (or did she just have one brother? I am honestly having a hard time remembering . . .) Think Harry, Ron and Hermione, but without personalities. The trio (quatro?) meet a group of witches and there is vague discussion regarding the girl’s missing father, a scientist who had been working on something before disappearing. Too soon after, the neighborhood boy agrees to embark on a dangerous quest to find him. Who is this boy? And who are these witches? They simply show up, as incidentally as Cinderalla’s Fairy God Mother, who could at least sing Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo and demonstrate some fancy animation. What’s even more disconcerting, these three (four) children are sent out alone, to a dangerous planet, where everyone is a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Why these kids and not someone more mature and experienced? No explanation. Why can’t the witches, who possess enormous powers, offer any assistance? No explanation. I’d like to say that the book is at least well written, with some nice passages to smooth out the rough plotting, but I can’t. Even the dialogue is forced and riddled with exposition. Given the subject matter, I’d hoped for some imaginative ideas, and there is a bit of that, like a planet of winged centaurs and a race of furry, multi-armed aliens without eyes; but again, none of it is consequential. The author just drops them in there for no reason, like she rolled a random encounter in a Dungeons and Dragons game and the dice came up centaur. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the author is very clearly a Christian, and while I have no objections to writers using fantasy and Sci-Fi to express their beliefs, there is definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. Brilliant examples of Christian allegory can be found in E.A. Abbott’s Flatland, where God is imagined as a 3-dimensional being in a 2-dimensional world; and in the superbly written Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Even C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, while bludgeoning you over the head with symbolism, handles the subject better. In this book, aliens from across the galaxy “praise the Lord” and make references to Jesus, which makes you wonder how “Our Lord” remains a mystery to people west of the Pacific.

OK, maybe I am being overly critical here. After all, I am not the target audience, and perhaps my daughter would love it. Also, the book was written decades before Harry Potter, before publishers knew books could sell equally well to both children and adults. Then again, Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, also a Newbury Award winner . . . so if you take anything away from my review, it’s this: go read Charlotte’s Web!

UPDATE: As it turns out, the opening line It was a dark and stormy night was not the author’s invention. It was originally penned in 1830 by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. So, unlike Dickens’ and Melville’s famous openings, this looks like a case of outright plagiarism. What’s worse, according to Wikipedia, it is widely regarded as “the literary poster-child for bad story starters.” 

Thelana Character Sheet

ARMOR: 11 (nude)
Bow Sword: 3
Longbow: 3 / 6 range


  • Athleticism—+1 initiative (if lightly armored), Move 4
  • Armor of Flesh*—You endure suffering better than most. *As a racial bonus, add Wisdom bonus to Armor. Clothing and armor negates this ability.
  • Heal: Heal self completely after 1 day in nature without fighting or traveling.
  • Wilderness Survival: Negate penalties of forest travel. Make fire. Find water.
  • Hunter—Reveal hidden monster from 3 spaces or another room. Find food


  • Bow Sword: 3 dmg (melee); 3 dmg / 6 (range)
  • Jade cloak
  • 50’ rope and grappling hook

XP: 0

What’s this? If you’re thinking you’ve stumbled across the wrong blog, don’t worry! Every summer, I take time out from my hectic writing schedule to delve into one of my guilty pleasures: Tabletop Role Playing Games. And by the looks of this article from the New York Times, it appears that I am not alone among fantasy authors who find inspiration in games like Dungeons & Dragons. This year, I thought it’d be fun to marry my Quest Role-Playing Game to the literary world of Aenya. Who knows, perhaps some future gaming session will inspire the next Ilmarin adventure! Using my character building system from Quest, I present my first Aenya based character, Thelana!




These are my rules for advanced combat in Quest for the Talismans and the Quest RPG. You can also add these rules to any d20 gaming system. For more about the Quest Gaming System, choose the RPG link above.
The QUEST RPG motto is “if you can think it, you can roll it.” This mechanic allows for literally infinite possibilities during battle. With this motto in mind, players are encouraged to work with the GM to create action packed scenarios. 
The GM’s Role: As with standard actions, the GM sets the Difficulty of an action in combat, but must also determine the effects of the action and possibly the consequences of failing that action.
There are three types of Combat Actions: Directed Attack Rolls, Combat Action Rolls, and Defensive Actions: Evading, Parrying, Rolling and Absorbing.  
An example of an Attack Roll is rolling the d20 to hit—but players may opt for more interesting attacks by chancing to roll higher numbers; this is called a Directed Attack Roll. Examples of Directed Attack Rolls include: 
  • stun (s); enemy loses 1 round 
  • double damage (dd) 
  • knock prone (p); enemy loses 1 round and -5 ARMOR for that round 
  • blind (b) enemy loses 5 ARMOR permanently 
  • (k) enemy is killed       
For instance, when fighting an orc you could
  • Just hit him! / Penalty: +/- 0 / for Basic damage
  • Aim for his elbow / Penalty -1 / Stun
  • Aim for his kneecap / -2 / Knock prone
  • Aim for his head/ -3 / double damage + stun
  • Stab out his eye / -4 / dd + s + b
  • Decapitate him! / -5 / Kill (instant)
  • Aim for his potion / -3 / Potion falls before he can drink it.
Once the player calls the action, if the hit misses with the penalty, even if it would have hit normally, the attack misses completely. In most cases, attacks to the body deal normal damage including the desired effect. If the damage causes an unexpected kill—such as when rolling the knight’s epic blow—the GM may describe a more dramatic scenario; for instance, rather than wounding the kneecap and knocking the orc prone, the GM could say, “You swing for the leg and drop the orc to the ground. Blood gushes from the stump where its knee used to be.” 
With Combat Action Rolls, the player makes a Difficulty check before the attack roll. Some actions require only that you roll equal to or higher than the Difficulty, while other actions require a competing rolls. For example, if you wish to wrestle an ogre, you must roll higher in Strength than the ogre rolls; such actions are marked with a v. (verses) after the Difficulty. To determine a monster’s Strength bonus, divide its HEALTH by 2: an ogre’s Health is 10 so its Strength bonus is 5.

When creating actions, players should try to think like the character they are playing and not tell the GM what bonuses or penalties the action should do. For example, you could say, “I want to . . .

. . . jump off the wall Difficulty: 12 If you succeed gain: +2 dmg.+reroll initiative If you fail you lose -1 round
and backstab that

Normally, when it’s the enemy’s turn to attack, you rely on your armor or agility to avoid harm—either your shield takes the brunt of the blow or you manage to dive out of the way. This is called an Evasive Action, but in some cases the player may choose more advanced defensive techniques, such as Parrying, Rolling or Absorbing.
To perform a parry, use Agility vs. Strength or Agility vs. Agility. Your weapon must be the same size (or larger) than the thing (weapon/arm/maw etc.) attacking you. A giant’s club or a dragon’s mouth cannot be parried, but an ogre’s mace, while slightly larger than a longsword, can be parried. You are allowed one parry per round for every 3 points of Agility. If you fail the first parry against multiple attackers, you cannot make a second attempt. To perform a parry, you must state your intent to do so before the enemy’s roll. Since you are not avoiding attack, ARMOR is not used in a parry, so the enemy needs only to roll higher than your d20+ Agility roll to do damage. If the attacker tries a special action, apply penalties to their roll.
Steel vs. Flesh: If you parry a limb with a bladed weapon, like a monk’s fist, the monk suffers his own damage. If the damage is significant enough to drop the attacker to 0 Health, the limb is severed.   
Steel vs. Stone: If an attack roll of 20 is parried (possible with Agility Bonus), whichever weapon is weaker, regardless of whether it is attacking or parrying, breaks. For instance, if a steel sword hits with a 20 and a stone club parries it, the club shatters; likewise, if the stone club is parried by the sword, the club still shatters. If both weapons are of equal strength, neither breaks. Weapon strength is based on damage, so a weapon dealing 4 is stronger than one dealing 3, and so forth.
Often, when a monster is too big to parry, the player can opt for a defensive roll. This technique uses the monster’s size to your advantage as you roll under its claw/club/legs, etc; it also becomes crucial against huge monsters with BASH—such as from a giant’s foot or an elder dragon’s tail. For the most part, shields and helmets are useless against BASH, so players must move out of the way or take damage. To do so, roll d20+ Agility vs. the monster’s attack roll.     
In unusual circumstances, players may choose to throw themselves into an attack, using the brunt of their armor to absorb the damage. This action may be called at any time (attack rolls are not made) and can be used only by characters with body armor. Damage is absorbed equal to the ARMOR bonus of the item, so a +3 cuirass absorbs 3 points of damage. The downside to this tactic is that for every point of damage the armor takes exceeding its bonus, it permanently loses 1 point of defense. For instance, a cuirass absorbing a hammer for 4 damage loses 1 ARMOR (target takes 1 damage), becoming +2; if hit again, it becomes +1. Once the armor’s bonus reaches 0, it falls apart, becoming useless. If the cuirass is used to absorb a smaller weapon like a dagger (which deals 1), it will take 3 separate hits before becoming damaged. Damaged armor may be repaired for half its original price.        
A good way to make new skills is to discover them by the Action Rolls you use in game. If, for example, you grow fond of “dive between enemy’s legs to escape” you can make it a skill by purchasing it through XP.
Once an Action Roll becomes a learned skill, you can attempt it without worrying about the effects of Failure. In addition, invented skills add to your Action Bonus. To determine a new skill’s Bonus, divide its Difficulty by 10 (rounding down) and add to the corresponding Type. For example, “jump off the wall and backstab enemy”—let’s call it Wall Jump—would add +1 (12 / 10 = 1.2) to Agility.     
To calculate the XP Cost of a new skill, multiply the Action’s Difficulty by 10. To learn Wall Jump, then, you would need 120 XP. Keep in mind that the GM may limit your skill based on situation (for example, if there is no wall nearby for you to use Wall Jump).     
MAX HEALTH: (Number of points of damage you can lose before dying)
ARMOR: (Other players/monsters must roll this number or above on a d20 to hit you). Armor is calculated using a base score of 8. Bonuses are added from items (such as a helmet) or skills (such as Speed which adds +2). For example, a knight with chainmail +1, a helmet +1 and a kite shield +2 (8 +1 +1 +2) has an Armor of 12. If a better item is purchased, subtract the old bonus before adding the new one. Bonuses do not stack for same type items. The amount of armor you can wear is determined by your Endurance score. With max Endurance +10, Armor tops at 18. Armor also affects Agility (see below).
WEAPON/DMG: (Number of health points you subtract with each successful hit) Endurance determines the types of non-magical weapons you can wield (see below).
STRENGTH: Add this number to your d20 roll when grappling with an enemy. See Advanced Battleoptions. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum amount of Strength a character can have is +10.
WISDOM: Wisdom helps you make good choices and avoid obstacles. In Quest for the Talismans, add this bonus to your Story Space roll. Wisdom also increases your chances of stealing, assassinating, haggling, persuading others, and anything requiring mental acumen. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum Wisdom a character can have is +10.    
ENDURANCE: Your Endurance determines the heaviest armor you can wear and the heaviest weapons you can wield. Armor weight is equal to its bonus and weapon weight to its damage. With Endurance +5, for instance, you can use a weapon that deals a maximum DMG: 5; you can also upgrade your armor up to 5 points for a maximum ARMOR: 13 (or 15 with Skill bonus). The maximum Endurance a character can have is +10.

AGILITY: Add this bonus to jumping, climbing, tight rope walking and anything requiring physical dexterity. ROLL: Make a d20 + Agility vs. attack roll to avoid damage from monsters with BASH, since BASH attacks disregard Armor. For each point of non-magic armor, subtract 1 point from Agility. Minimum Agility +0 / Maximum +10.


Updated 10/08/2015

The QUEST System is all about simplicity, creativity, and imagination. The goal is to maximize fun while minimizing complexity. To start playing, you must first make your own hero (or villain):

Guidelines for Making Your Own Hero (or villain):

  • STEP 1: Who do you want to be? There is no wrong answer—no choice that isn’t available. Want to be a ninja with fire powers? An undead pirate? A fairy like Tinkerbell? Why not?
  • STEP 2: Get creative! Give your character a name, a back story and a quote—something that makes him or her memorable.
  • STEP 3: Get some class. Decide whether you wish to make your own class or use an existing one. Unlike most games, you are limited only by your imagination!
  • STEP 4: Get some skills! Starting with a base of 2000 XP (experience points), purchase Health and Skills. Normally, Health should not exceed 15. You can even make your own skills as long you get approval from your GM.
  • STEP 5: How high can you jump? Add up your Action Bonuses to calculate your four basic Ability Scores: STRENGTH, AGILITY, WISDOM and ENDURANCE
  • STEP 6: Grab your gear! Depending on which game you are playing, ask the GM what weapons you are allowed to start with. Normally, ARMOR should never exceed 15 and starting damage should not exceed 4.


QUEST begins the character building process with skills. After all, people do not choose to learn Kung-Fu because they are agile already—they learn Kung-Fu to become agile. The same logic is applied in QUEST.  If you want to be a great warrior, practice your sword techniques first, then go out into the world and bash some heads.


To advance new or pre-made characters throughout gaming, players need only to keep track of their XP. XP is gained by:

  • Killing a monster = 1 XP per HEALTH, x2 for * or x3 for **
  • As partitioned by GM’s during an RPG session for acts of heroism or creativity.
For every thousand points of XP, your character levels up, at which point you can purchase skills or make new skills. XP can only be lost by spending it on character advancement. Certain skills require lesser abilities or levels to be reached before purchasing its upgrade, or can only be used if certain items (like a shield) are equipped. Advanced skills cannot be purchased at the same time as its lesser component. For example, a player could not obtain both Slide Maneuver and Aerial Maneuver at level 2.