2014 Year End Review

Radia Noora, the Princess of Aenya

Well, folks, this is it, another year gone at the Writer’s Disease. I would like to say this was the year that my dreams came true, that I found a publisher for my work and sold millions, but alas, Fate has yet to smile on me. Like Frodo Baggins, I continue to ascend Mount Apathy, surrounded by naysayers, and worse, friends and family who pretend I have no writing ambitions, that I am, like them, resigned to being less than special. Worse still are those who fawn over Game of Thrones or Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling or the current fad author of the day, never considering that someone in their midst may someday be fawned over in the same way. But I remain hopeful, adamant even, because like Frodo I have my own Samwise Gamgee in David Pasco. I also have Lady Galadriel to lift me from my darkest moments, my wife, Hynde. Lastly, I’d like to thank my beta readers, my Merry and Pippin, Devon Aursland and a teacher from Germany whose name belongs in Middle Earth, Tobias Tholken.

Twenty-fourteen, it seems, was the year of the memoir. I reached out to Felicity Jones and Jordan Blum, founders of Young Naturists America, who premiered my five-part series Least Likely to Become a Nudist, a memoir about my discovering and growing up naturist. This was also the year of the Role Playing Game, with 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons being released, which gave rise to my 3-part series on RPGs and how they’ve inspired over the decades. Most importantly, I started my most ambitious and, I believe, most important literary work, The Princess of Aenya. My beta readers want me to write faster, and my most ardent critic, my wife, even suggested she work for me so I can spend more time on it. So without further ado, I present the best of the Writer’s Disease 2014:

The Princess of Aenya: Check out the first three chapters of my latest Aenya novel.

Altruism, Cracked.com, and the Dangers of Pop Philosophy: Are people essentially selfish? Is every action we take for our own well-being, and conversely, do we only value people for what they can do for us? The writers at Cracked.com seem to think so, but I believe in a little something called, altruism, and here’s why.

Definition: Obliviate: To describe this new world of social media, we need to update our vocabulary. I offer my suggestions for new words that we need, like obliviate, which means to disregard someone or something as if those people or things do not exist.

Least Likely to Become a Nudist: Part one of my five part memoir, about my early childhood, growing up in a strict household and strict Baptist school, and how I was once too embarrassed to shower with other boys my age after P.E. class.

Marrying Sci-Fi and Fantasy: What defines the Sci-Fi genre and how does one separate it from fantasy? To my mind, there can be no fantasy without science. Magic cannot supplant the fundamental laws of physics. Borrowing heavily from Clarke’s Law, part of my goal as a writer is to marry these two genres, which differ only in how the characters in the story understand and perceive the world around them.

Is “Tarzan” Racist?: What started out as a review of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic novel turned into a critique of its titular hero, and of the uglier, and often shocking parts of the story that Disney would have us forget.

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: Part 1 of my 3 part series dedicated to D&D, telling how my fundamentalist Greek Orthodox teacher convinced my mother that my friends and I were worshiping Satan.

SHARE ON FACEBOOK

The Naked Wood Nymph in the Forest of My Mind

When I was young, I think it was after puberty, I had a vision of a young naked girl in the woods. Every boy has some similar fantasy, I’d bet, but this was a powerful, profound experience, something greatly beyond sex, because this girl felt very real to me. It was like a dream bordering on the edge of reality. She was teasing me, this girl, luring me into the dark wooded recesses of my mind. This is how, I am certain, wood nymphs were born, and fairies and mermaids. Imagination can be a powerful thing. It can create entire worlds, and give life to thought. What fascinated me about nymph girl was how wild and unrepressed she was, the spirit of youth and freedom and vitality, the feeling one has when leaving civilization to embark upon some uncharted horizon. And I knew I had to capture her somehow, on paper, in a story. She was urging me to bring her into being, and I’ve been doing just that for twenty years.

Wood nymph girl has gone by many names. She was once Chani, companion to Dynotus, and in my fan-fiction was Teela (albeit a very distorted version). As a young writer, my skills were inadequate and wood nymph girl continued to elude me. But in 1999, Thelana came into a being, in a series of short stories that began with The City by the Sea, and I have been writing about her ever since. After finishing my current novel, I will be writing an e-book novella tentatively titled: Thelana of the Feralwood, partly inspired by Tarzan and the show Naked and Afraid. Every year since 2003, I have had Thelana artwork commissioned, so for 2015 I asked Alexey Lipatov to design a cover. This is what he sent me:

Thelana 2015

   
The remarkable thing about Alexey is that he gives you more than you ask for. I have never worked with an artist who so exceeds my expectations. My request for this piece was for Thelana to be standing in a tree with a spear, looking at a dinosaur, and he sends me something that, quite honestly, I’d love to hang on my wall. What impresses me most are the textures and the shadows. You could just reach out and touch this girl.

The very best art, in my view, tells a story. This is why Frank Frazetta ranks among the finest fantasy artists. His paintings are moments frozen in time, where a lot more is happening beyond the frame, and I feel the same way about this piece. Something is definitely going on here. Who is this girl? What is she doing watching those T-Rexes? Thelana was born out of my mind and lives in my novels, but in a purely visual medium, she comes to life in ways I could never achieve.

DeviantArt is rife with naked warrior girls, few of whom exist for anything but titillation, and even fewer which can be truly called a character. But portraying nudity in an innocent way, in a way that feels natural to the character and the story, is no easy task. In Ages of Aenya, Thelana is said to “wear her skin like a suit of armor.” She is so accustomed to nakedness, that clothing is awkward. Conveying these ideas to an artist is difficult, but Alexey truly grasps the character, and it shows in his work.

There has been much talk on social media regarding sexism. Gamergate critics like Anita Sarkeesian decry video game culture for its sexist stereotypes. Cracked.com lists “The Five Most Ridiculously Sexist Superhero Costumes” based on how skimpy the outfits are. Heroines like Power Girl are criticized in that she shows some cleavage, as though the writers at Cracked never left their offices to visit the beach, or bothered to watch a movie ballroom scene set in the 18th century. But there is a growing trend in feminism that seeks to “take back” women’s bodies. While it is true that the female form has been used to sell sex, and every other product using sex, for decades, by desexualizing women’s bodies, by depicting nudity as natural and normal, as opposed to pornographic and hypersexualized, activists like Felicity Jones and those of the “Free the Nipple” campaign believe women would be viewed less as things and more as people. I have posted images of Thelana to feminist groups on many occasion and have yet to receive a single negative comment. In fact, these are the comments I did receive about Thelana:

 
 

My goal for Thelana is to represent a new standard, a strong role model and feminist icon, and a sexy one at that. And thanks to passionate artists like Alexey Lipatov, wood nymph girl has now come to life like never before.

Be sure to visit Alexey Lipatov’s dA page to see his other great work: lipatov.deviantart.com/

Top TEN "Dungeons & Dragons" Movies

Whether you’re a gamer or a writer, we all need inspiration, and the cinema is a great place to find it. But for me growing up in the eighties, there was a real scarcity of Sci-Fi or fantasy at the theater. Go to the movies today, and there may not be even a single poster about the real world. I can only imagine how depressing it must be for seniors looking for a Casablanca. But if spaceships and aliens were a rarity back then, magic and dragons were almost nonexistent. I remember a time when it was difficult to explain to people the types of stories I wrote, or even what D&D was all about, other than Satan worship. Now I can simply say, “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?” and that clarifies things. But the scarcity of fantasy in the 80’s made me cherish those films, even the bad ones, all the more. It wasn’t until 2001, the year of the fantasy renaissance, when we got both The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and studios discovered what publishers had long known, the horde of treasure that can be mined from the fantasy genre.

And so, with Dungeons & Dragons specifically in mind, I offer my picks for movies that will make you want to pick up that d20:

10. Mazes and Monsters: While technically not fantasy, the movie deals with the gaming phenomenon, dodging a direct D&D reference by calling it by another, albeit blatantly obvious name. Unfortunately, even Hollywood seems to have been taken by the RPG = Satanism/Suicide/Insanity hysteria, as a young Tom Hanks loses his mind and starts to wander the city “casting spells,” something that has never happened to anyone in the history of gaming. Eventually, he ends up in a mental institution, believing he is a wizard. While this may sound laughable today, TSR actually took the criticism seriously enough to tell their readers that the player was not to confuse himself with his character! So while teenagers in the 80’s were drinking and snorting cocaine, the real threat to their lives, according to this movie, is using your imagination! Thanks, Hollywood! As for me, the movie had the opposite effect, making me want to play D&D all the more.


9. Krull: Not a good movie by any standard, Krull was an attempt to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon, borrowing many of the same themes from the Sci-Fi epic. You have your evil overlord (Darth Vader) moving around in a teleporting castle (the Death Star) with his army of faceless soldiers (Storm Troopers); there is also a young hero mentored by an old wizard, who bestows upon him a magic weapon (a spinning blade thingy). But it was also considerably D&D inspired, as the party of heroes, including a fighter, wizard, some thieves and a cyclops, attain items, get “scried” upon, seek advice from a giant spider, and capture “fire horses,” all in an attempt to reach the dungeon/castle and kill the boss monster. SPOILER ALERT: That spinning blade thing turns out to be useless, rendering the entire movie pointless.


8. LadyHawke: This is a great movie, actually my mother’s favorite movie, and she doesn’t even like fantasy. It may have been forgotten because of how unusual it is, in that it is a straight up, old fashioned romantic drama set in a world of magic. Teenage boys could have found it too sappy, and girls may not have thought to look at the genre. The cast is stellar, however, from Mathew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Rutger Hauer (Bladerunner) to a very young, very beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. By day, Hauer is human, while his beloved (Pfeiffer) is a hawk. At night, she is human and he is a wolf. This curse was cast upon them by an evil priest, so that they are “forever together, yet always apart.” Since my wife sleeps around 9:00 PM and I go to bed at 2:00, I sometimes feel like the guy in the movie. D&D elements include a knight with a special, jeweled sword (Hauer), a thief who plays the crucial role of breaking in and out of the castle (Broderick), and the evil spell caster (the Priest).


7. The Princess Bride: If you have not seen this yet, what is your problem? Stop reading and go watch it now! While not straight up D&D, there are enough great RPG moments to warrant its inclusion, including a “giant,” played by Andre the Giant, one of the best sword fights ever put to film, a magic flaming “holocaust” cloak, and a “Fire Swamp” which consists of “lightning sand,” shooting fire traps, and my favorite, ROUS’s (Rodents Of Unusual Size). Best of all, the whole thing is a book being read to a sick child, a kid who, at first, just wants to play video games.

 


6. Legend: Conversely, this may be the worst movie on this list, a film in desperate need of CGI and a much bigger budget. Starring a baby faced Tom Cruise and directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Ridley Scott, of Alien and Gladiator fame, Legend was a confusing mess, Scott’s fantasy Prometheus, but for 1985 it was extremely ambitious, and is to be commended for what it managed to achieve. It’s also one of the more D&D movies on this list, with unicorns, goblins, and of the coolest looking villains of all time, who is, basically, Satan. In fact, he’s the reason I remember the film at all. It’s a movie that makes Satan look awesome, and that’s what D&D is all about. Hail, Satan! Also, did I mention Tom Cruise is in it?


Clash-of-the-titans-1981-poster-25. Clash of the Titans: Never mind that awful remake, the 80’s version is the real deal. I watched this incessantly growing up. It is also one of the last great live actions films to utilize claymation, from legendary monster maker Ray Harryhausen. While the Greek mythological setting is a bit of a departure from the traditional Anglo-Germanic-folklore D&D is typically set in, the movie features enough magic items and monsters for any campaign, including a sword that cuts through marble, a mirror shield, and an invisibility helmet. It also boasts more pages from the Monster Manual than any other movie, with a giant vulture, a satyr, a two-headed dog, a Pegasus, a Medusa, an undead skeleton, and the KRAKEN!


4. Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer: No list of D&D films could be complete without these classics, one of the rare fantasy flicks from the 80’s to be popular (due to sex and muscles), the first of which also launched the career of one Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Barbarian is by far the superior of the two, with an unbeatable soundtrack by Basil Poledouris, you can’t help but feel that the sequel, Destroyer, was some Dungeon Master’s campaign turned into a script. All the elements are here, from your obligatory party members: fighter (barbarian), thief, and wizard, to your ice castle of evil illusionist, to door that can only open via magic, to your horn of demonic summoning. It all culminates, finally, with the birth of a monster god, whom the party must work together to slay. Hell, I want to play this right now!


3. Willow: Say what you will about George Lucas, but to me, he is a great filmmaker. Willow was directed by Ron Howard, adapting a story by the flanneled one, and while it failed to do for fantasy what Star Wars did for Sci-Fi, it’s still a great flick, with fairies, shape shifting sorcerers, magic wands, love potions, seeds that turn things to stone and a two-headed fire breathing “dragon.” Best of all, his dwarves are actually dwarves in real life, which makes one wonder why Peter Jackson couldn’t have done the same. Was Peter Dinklage unavailable? He could have made a great Thorin Oakenshield.

 


FOTR2. The Fellowship of the Ring: What should come as no surprise, the book that inspired D&D makes for the ideal D&D movie. But while Return of the King, with its 11 academy awards, makes for a superior film, the first in the series is the most D&Dish, with its gathering party members and a foray into the Mines of Moria, a dungeon crawl complete with orcs, goblins, and a fire demon! Unlike any other flick on this list, Fellowship proved that fantasy can make for serious cinema. It also ushered in a new era, as movies were no longer limited by special effects. Anything imaginable could be put on celluloid, and RPG nerds the world over could finally show people what the heck they’ve been doing for decades. Once the domain of lonely introverts, fantasy became part of pop culture, and after the superhero became the biggest blockbuster genre, girls started wearing “I Love Nerds” T-shirts.


1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: You just can’t get more D&D than this. Red dragon sitting on a mound of treasure? Check. Dwarves out on a quest? Check. A wizard with a tall hat and staff and a special key? Check. Random encounter with trolls and orcs? Check. Random loot and “+” swords like Glamdring and Goblin Cleaver? Check. Maps with hidden writing that can only be read by the light of a certain moon by a thousand year old elf lord? Check. Escaping an underground lair of raging goblins? Check. A wizard using his newly attained magic sword to make a critical hit against a goblin king? What more could you want? An excellent movie too? Check. Roll a d20!

 

 


Don’t watch this!

 

Dishonorable Mention: Dungeons & Dragons: You might think the most Dungeons & Dragons movie should be a movie actually called Dungeons & Dragons, but you’d be wrong. The movie, starring Jeremy Irons, is so horrendous, it momentarily stunted my imagination. I actually watched it with my friend after playing D&D, and it made us question whether our cherished hobby wasn’t some silly pastime, something for lonely geeks to grow out of. It’s that bad.

  

TOP TEN Reasons Tabletop RPGs are Better than Video Games!

Who needs a PS4 when you’ve got hoop and stick!?!

Getting my nephews to play Dungeons & Dragons is like asking them to play ‘hoop and stick.’ You’d think I was some out of touch grandpa trying to relive the good ol’ days, when soda pop cost a nickel and you could watch Mickey Mouse at the start of any movie, and all they’re thinking about is saving up for the next iteration of Call of Duty. Thing is, I love video games. My first system was an Atari 2600, which was followed by the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super NES, N64, Playstation, Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, Playstaion 2, X-Box, Wii, Wii U, X-Box 360 and Playstation 3, not to mention the ten grand I’ve put down on gaming computers. I enjoy what people today call “RPGs,” from Final Fantasy to Elder Scrolls to Mass Effect. No doubt, you can and should enjoy both, as they offer different forms of entertainment, but stranded on an island with only one thing to do, my game is dice and paper, a real deal tabletop RPG, and here’s why:

10. THEY’RE EDUCATIONAL: I’ve learned many things from video games, the history of WWII from Call of Duty, the physics of racing automobiles from Gran Turismo and city planning from Sim City, but this kind of education is usually the exception and often limited by play mechanics. Call of Duty does little to teach the player the historical aspects that led to the war. Tabletop games, on the other hand, exercise the mind in every academic, from mathematics to creative writing to graphic design. I owe much to D&D for helping my writing career.

9. THEY’RE TANGIBLE: You can touch, smell, and taste. TRPGs deal with real objects: dice, miniatures, paper, and any number of props. Some people even dress up for their gaming sessions. I like to be able to physically give my players the items featured in an adventure. The magic wand? It’s right there, in your hand! Consoles have yet to simulate all 5 senses.

8. THE FUN NEVER ENDS: How many times have you watched the credits roll at the end of a great game and wished there was more? Say you love Halo, and just can’t wait until Halo Six comes out. Great. But eventually, you’ll get the game, marvel at all the new content, and in a couple of weeks you’re back wishing and hoping for another expansion. Some franchises, like Zelda, you might have to wait half a decade for something new. In TRPGs, there is no waiting. Every game is something new.

7. THEY’RE TIMELESS: Let’s face it, we live in a disposal culture. The greatest thing today is garbage the next. That is why I love D&D, because it is essentially the same since the 70’s. The newer editions are just tweaks. Video games rarely live up to the hype, and even if they do, the excitement quickly passes. Donkey Kong is still fun after 30 years, but my daughter treats it more as a curiosity than anything else. In another 30 years, I doubt the teenagers of that time will care about Halo the way the teens of today do. Consequently, I look forward to sharing TRPGs with my children.

6. YOU CAN ALWAYS IMPROVE IT: Every video game has something that just doesn’t work perfectly. The reason for this is simple: everyone’s tastes differ, and programmers can never make us all happy equally. We all wish that one impossible level would go away at the end of such and such game; we’ve all said to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” Well, in a tabletop game, you can! Don’t like the rules to 4th edition D&D? Toss them out. Think the rail gun in Red Faction is too cheap, or the end boss in Metroid Prime too hard, or that Princess Peach should be playable in New Super Mario Bros.? Too bad.

5. SOMETIMES THE HERO FAILS: This might sound like a bad thing, but when victory is assured, it’s meaningless. Will Nathan Drake find the lost city of gold and save his girlfriend? There’s no doubt, and for this reason, there can be no real tension, no genuine excitement. In a TRPG, you’re not always the hero. The universe does not revolve around your character. You are part of a group and must prove your worth, and even then there are never any guarantees. I played Dragon Mountain, a module for D&D, for three months with a friend until my party was obliterated by a red dragon. That was it. The end. More recently, MMORPGs have tried to address this issue, but the problem then becomes the opposite. Your actions are irrelevant. The next big expansion in World of Warcraft isn’t directly related to what YOU did and how you played. Failing a quest in WoW won’t affect the game for the millions of other subscribers.

4. YOU CAN BE ANYTHING: I tire of playing with other people’s ideas, in worlds created in other people’s imaginations. Tabletop games allows me to make the rules, the heroes, everything. Nothing can beat the hero that comes from your own mind! And just among friends, copyright infringement means nothing, so you can literally be anyone, from Conan to Indiana Jones to Homer Simpson.

3. THEY’RE SOCIAL: Never mind social networking. I could care less about the guy in China who’s kicking my ass in Street Fighter; I mean, it’s great that the technology exists to play with people from around the world, but why would I want to do that? I prefer the company of friends and family, face-to-face, across the table. The Internet still can’t replace real, genuine, human interaction.

2. ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES: My nephew, who is new to TRPGs, thought it a good idea to drink a bunch of vials he found in a lab, not even bothering to check what the liquids were. Doubtless, he would not drink whatever chemicals he’d find in my closet. But this is the video game mindset, because you can always respawn or reload with a console. You can die a hundred times in an afternoon without the slightest concern. But in a TRPG, you drink acid, you die, and die for good. Maybe the GM will take pity on you and find a way to revive you, but it will never be as easy as a reset button. It reminds me of a friend who ran a game where one of his players died. The player was distraught for days, until his mom called my friend up to ask, “Why did you kill my son!”

Death used to mean something . . .

1. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN! Computer and video game gamers never realize the narrow parameters set upon them and their imaginations. It’s as if they’ve lived their whole lives in a prison, so they don’t really know they’re imprisoned. As much freedom as The Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft give you, it’s nothing compared to the infinite possibilities you can have in a tabletop game, and the worst part is, people hooked on video games are trained to limit their thinking, imagination and creativity because of it. Often, I find that people with zero gaming experience have an easier time thinking “outside the box.” I remember playing a D&D campaign with a friend who simply could NOT understand what he was “supposed to do.” It never occurred to him that he didn’t have to fight the monster at all to save the girl. Say you like a sandbox adventure like Zelda . . . instead of fighting and killing every goblin in sight, why not subdue one, tie him to a tree, and force him to tell you where the hidden key is? And if he doesn’t listen, maybe you’ll break his knuckles? Of course, you can’t even think about doing something like that, because it isn’t programmed into the game.

There is no wrong way to play a TRPG!