5E D&D Race: Ilmar

Thelana 2016 by Lipatov

An Ilmarin rogue

The ILMAR (plural) or Ilmarin (singular, descriptive) go by many names: savages, barbarians, wild humans. Though few true Ilmar exist, they are viewed by most civilized people as more animal than human. This view is perpetuated by the little that is known of their culture. Due to fear and misconceptions regarding their humanity, Ilmar are often forced into wars or labor camps, or become beggars. A small number become wives, adopting local customs, while keeping their heritage secret.

Ilmar are great survivors, and can make their homes in the harshest of environments. They exceed at hunting, foraging, and making simple tools from the simplest of resources. Due to their primitive natures, Ilmar can go without food and water, and endure extremes climates better than most other races.

 

ILMAR TRAITS:
Ability Scores. Strength and Dexterity increases by 1, Constitution increases by 2, and Charisma decreases by 1.
Primitive Survival. The Ilmar can survive one cycle (ten days) without water and 3 cycles without food, can walk across the most rugged terrain without footwear, and can survive (without clothing) in temperatures close to freezing.
Armor of Flesh. Ilmar abhor clothing. In light, medium or heavy armor, you have Disadvantage on all attack rolls and Dexterity based skill checks. While going completely nude, you have a heightened sense of awareness, adding your Proficiency modifier to Perception checks. Wearing no clothes and carrying no shield, your (natural) base Armor Class is 13.
Alignment. Ilmar tend toward chaotic and neutral alignments.
Size. Ilmar are human sized, weighing between 100 to 180 lbs. and standing between 5′ and 6′ tall, tending toward more muscular and slender physiques.
Speed. Base walking speed is 30 feet.
Languages. The Ilmar speak common and their own unique dialect, but literacy is uncommon.
Preferred Classes. Ilmarin characters are limited to the following classes: barbarians, fighters, monks, rangers and rogues. This is due, primarily, to the setting, in that magic is virtually unknown to Aenya. Monks and rangers draw their power from “spiritual” and “quantum” sources. In a different world, Ilmarin PC’s may choose a spell caster class, but they lose connection to their deity in any other setting, and consequently, any special racial abilities.
Starting EquipmentNone

 

xandrvsnakeman

An Ilmarin barbarian fighting a Yuan-Ti

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES: Once subsumed by other cultures, Ilmar are difficult to distinguish from other humans, aside from their light, almost translucent eyes. Despite evolving in an ideal climate, their skin is thicker than most humans and the soles of their feet can be hard as leather.

HISTORY: The Ilmar are believed the last vestige of proto-human, the earliest humans to have evolved on the planet. According to an inscription found within a Septheran ruin, the first word for human was ‘ilma’, which the Ilmar use to denote their species, as they do not recognize themselves as a separate social group. The proto-human lived peacefully for one hundred thousand to one million years until the arrival of the Septhera c. 10,000 BGM. Finding the dominant species of Aenya defenseless, the Septhera conquered the planet with ease, enslaving all of humanity except for a small population hidden in a region in the mountains of Ukko. There, the proto-human continued to thrive, oblivious to the changes occurring beyond his borders. It was not until 5 BGM that the people in the river valleys of Ukko were discovered by a Zo researcher. Known as Kjus, the researcher became so enamored by their simple way of life, he abandoned his own society to become one of them, naming the people ‘Ilmar’ and the land ‘Ilmarinen,’ meaning ‘land of ilms’ after the unique flower of orange and violet growing in abundance there, or possibly, ‘land of humans’. Kjus taught them of Zo science, history, philosophy and medicine, but made certain to not pollute their way of life with the excesses of his own civilization. Kjus later built a monastery high in the mountains, and before his death, founded the Order of Alashiya, who are also known as the Keepers.

CULTURE AND SOCIETY: Knowing nothing of war, crime, or government, the Ilmar live a simple agrarian life. Since everything in their community is shared, they have no concept of currency or wealth or poverty. As one saying goes, “No man is poor who wants for nothing.” Much of their day is spent farming and gathering, though Ilmar are known to hunt during food shortages. In their leisure time, they enjoy singing, dancing, and conversing. Through song and dance, they relate their myths and their history. The holiest time is the Solstice Night, the longest night of the year, when families throughout the land join to celebrate life, love and creation. It is during this time that boys and girls of a certain age, showing hair about the loins, pair off to jump the sacred bonfire, after which the pair is forever joined. It is believed that during this ceremony, the souls of lovers from past lives find one another again. Contrary to what many believe, the Ilmar do not engage in orgies or fornicate recklessly, but only with those with whom they are joined. When Solstice Night ends, it is expected that the female move into the male household, and by the following year, that she bear him a child. Having many children is regarded the highest honor for women. Despite their duty as mothers, however, females are given greater status than males, since it is the female that has power to create life.

The Ilmar lack many technologies, but are skilled woodsmiths and clay workers. Their artifacts include elaborately carved farming tools, throwing spears, atlatls, and pottery. They also excel in the shaping of trees to produce “living homes.” Giant camphor and oak are hollowed out to make bedrooms and kitchens, though eating, bathing and grooming is typically an outdoor activity. As they are without any concept of crime, the Ilmar typically do not have doors or locks, though partitions may include curtains of bead or bone.

LANGUAGE AND CUSTOM: For the Ilmar, nudity taboos do not exist, and for this reason, they do not typically wear clothing of any kind, nor produce material that may be used for clothing. The Ilmar are not, however, without a sense of style or individuality, and will decorate their bodies with flowers, bones, semi-precious stones like jade or lapis lazuli, and with elaborate mud patterns called henna. Neither sex cuts its hair. Women wear a single braid which can reach down to their ankles, while the men can grow their locks to the middle of the back, either loose or done up in multiple braids.

RELIGION: To the Ilmar, all life is sacred, from the smallest insect to the greatest camphor tree. They make no distinction between human or sentient life and animal or non-sentient (plant) life. All are part of a singular essence known as the Mother Goddess, or Alashiya. The goddess is thought to exist everywhere and in all things, even in non-living matter, such as in the wind, in sunlight, and in the earth. Alashiya is never seen or heard, but can be “sensed” through the skin. According to myth, the Goddess was born of two elder gods, Anu and Eru. At the beginning of time, these primordial deities danced through the astral void, singing to one another and making love continually, birthing new worlds in the process. After Aenya and Alashiya were created, the elder gods moved on.

The Ilmar do not consider dreams separate from reality. Each and every dream is a literal experience. By grinding the ilm flower into a fine powder and drinking it, ritual leaders embark upon purposeful dream journeys across time and space, into other dimensions, and to worlds beyond death.

In death, the Ilmar become one with Alashiya, as they were before birth. The body is marked by a cairn close to home, typically under a tree, which is then absorbed into the soil to become new life. Due to limited medicine and nutrition, the average lifespan for the Ilmar is sixty years.

ILMAR and other races: The Ilmar tend to be loners, in that they are shunned by most other races. Humans and dwarves in particular find their constant state of nakedness off-putting, whereas elves, gnomes and halflings are more accepting. In a party of heroes, an Ilmarin will keep to him or herself, dressing appropriately where the culture demands it. Others may find the Ilmar to be the best of companions, in that they are fiercely loyal allies, trustworthy to a fault. Perhaps more importantly, an Ilmarin has little interest in possessions (rogues steal to survive) rarely partaking in their share of treasure.

ILMARIN NAMES: To foreign ears, the Ilmarin language sounds hard and clipped as they often use conjoined consonances.

Male names include: Xandr, Baldr, Heimdl and Borz.

Female names typically avoid the conjoined consonant and end in an ‘a’. Examples are Thelana, Aliaa, Amina, and Anja.

NOTABLE ILMARIN HEROES: Xandr, Thelana


Starting character sheet:

Featured Image -- 14252Thelana

Strength: 12 +1
Intelligence: 11 +0
Wisdom: 11 +0
Dexterity: 18 +4
Constitution: 17 +3
Charisma: 12 +1

Race: Ilmar
Class: Ranger
Level: 1 (+2)
Armor Class: 17 (nude)
Hit Points: 13
Duel Wield: +6 / 1d8 +4 (short sword) + 1d4 (dagger)
Longbow: +6 / 1d8 +4 (range 150/600)
Alignment: Chaotic Good

Saving Throws: Strength +3, Dexterity +6
Skills: Athletics +3, Nature +2, Perception (nude) +2, Stealth +6
Special: Natural Explorer, Favored Enemy: bogren (goblins), horg (orcs)

Equipment: Short sword, dagger, longbow, quiver, arrows, cloak

BACKSTORY: Thelana is born in the river valleys of Ilmarinen, the middle child in a family of twelve. Her eldest brother, Borz, is sold into slavery when she is very young. As the dark hemisphere continues to creep eastward, the resulting famine forces Thelana into the wild. Her life is spent on the edge of survival, hunting for prey while hiding from predators. Wounded by a cannibalistic half-man, she is rescued by Captain Dantes and taken to a nearby military encampment, where she proves her archery skills and is recruited into the Kratan army. Years pass until, on the Plains of Narth, their forces are decimated by the bogren and horg, and Thelana, torn with longing for the life she knew, abandons the battlefield. In Ilmarinen, she finds the crops and ilm flowers have withered. There is no trace of her family.


 

To learn more about the Ilmar, please check out the Ages of Aenya.

Aenya News Update: 11/29/16

A few months ago, I put out a request for artists for the upcoming 2017 edition of Ages of Aenya. After a bit of vetting, by which we produced the Avian and Horde (below), I settled on the talented Zhengyi Yu.

I chose Zhengyi for his painterly style, which better suits a novel, I feel, than the more cartoony styles of my other, albeit equally talented artists. Mr. Yu also impressed me with his landscapes. When I see a book with some impossible, otherworldly terrain, it draws me in, igniting my imagination, and I hope to capture readers in the same way. More importantly, Zhengyi has been wonderful to work with, being attentive to my needs and more than willing to brainstorm and make changes. If you’re looking for a talented illustrator, look no further! Also, be sure to check out his awesome gallery at Zhengyi Yu

aoa2017cover

Thelana overlooking Hedonia

Here we find Thelana overlooking Hedonia. The massive pyramid temple of Sargonus eclipses the background. Depicting our heroine in her natural state, without triggering any censors, was a challenge. I wanted her in a normal looking pose, not too sexy or bashful, and without any comically placed leaves in the way. And she had to be dynamic, to show her power and fearlessness. She’s naked in a city of thousands and yet she does not feel vulnerable! That being said, Zhengyi and I are working on an alternate cover, with Thelana draped in her trademark jade cloak (hey, she gets cold sometimes). That way, you can read about the Ilmar on the subway without getting any weird looks!

OK, you may be thinking, all this is fine and good, but when can I read it? Glad you asked! As the old adage says, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and while I don’t believe this to be 100% true, story remains the most important thing, seconded only by the quality of the writing. Without those things in place, you can’t hope to sell a million copies, unless of course you’re writing bondage porn.

I’ve spent more than a decade building this world, its history and geography; fleshing out its races and its characters. Nine years alone I spent editing, as I ran a restaurant and helped my wife raise our two kids, but even the best of us need another set of eyes. If I could give myself amnesia, I could do it all myself. But it’s impossible to judge yourself objectively, to judge any story really in a non-biased way. Nobody can. But finding an editor you can trust isn’t easy. An author’s story is their baby. Giving it up, I am forced to wonder, will the editor tear it up for the sake of tearing it up? Will they maintain my voice? Avoid their own biases? This is a legitimate concern for me, as I’ve had professors try to “correct” my work in the most inane ways. One of my teachers actually suggested that the nun in my short story, Anna and the Devil, masturbate. After all, Satan can’t touch you so long as you abstain from carnal thoughts. His PHd, not surprisingly, was in religious studies.

Then I met Ava Coibion. Ava offered me a free sample edit, of my prologue, and we talked over the phone about our favorite writers, literary styles, and the best way to edit without encroaching on the author’s art. I found her to be intelligent and sensitive. And also, she had this to say,

 

Nick,

There are a thousand praises I could sing here, and with your permission, I’d love to at least give my friend Frank Beddor a sample of your novel to review, or perhaps put you in touch directly with him. But for now, here is the edit for Book One. I was determined to complete the work before Thanksgiving, in hope that you might have a little down time to review my suggested changes. In truth, I devoted this last week and a half solely to the completion of the edit, not because we are on a deadline, as I know you aren’t concerned with a timeline on this, but because I simply couldn’t stop! The prose is intelligent, poetic but often nicely spare/concise, and full of emotion. A true pleasure, and even if you don’t take me on for Books 2 and 3, I will read forward on my own because I simply must know what happens next . . .

Let me know what you think of my comments. I do think the final chapter could be split up into 2 or even 3 separate chapters.

All best,

Ava

 

I know I know, mere flattery. And I might be thinking the same thing, if it weren’t for the fact that, all of my beta readers have given me a similar response. Still, it’s great to get this from a professional, who no doubt has to trudge through literary swamps of poor storytelling.

So now, dear reader, you may be itching to get your hands on this bad boy. Well, the next step is working with Ava through the 170+k words, about 500 pages, until every “T” is crossed and “i” is dotted. Then I get to slap Zhengyi’s contribution over top of it, and last but not least, skedaddle on to the printers.

Ages of Aenya should be available sometime in 2017. In the meantime, my wife will be querying my latest effort, The Princess of Aenya, and I will be dutifully pursuing The Children of Aenya, the third book in the Aenya series, partly based on the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I have been playing with my friends and family these past two years. If you’d like to learn more about The Children of Aenya, and the game we are playing, feel free to join us on Facebook at The Hub of All Worlds.

 

 

 

The Witcher 3 vs. D&D

A while back, I wrote a post regarding my preference for tabletop role playing games to video games, and the ten reasons I feel D&D is the real deal. Today, I’d like to address the flaws I find in electronic RPGs like Dragon Age and Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved video games since the NES days. But when I switch from the real thing, with dice and paper, to a console, the effect can be jarring. The most noticeable thing I find is that, with an electronic RPG (let’s call them VRPGs) there is no sense of realism. Now it might be unfair to compare D&D to Diablo, which is little more than a mindless hack n’ slash, so let’s look at the cream of the crop, a game IGN gave a 9.3: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

What I find particularly perplexing about most VRPG’s is the canyon-wide dichotomy between the visuals (and audio) and basic logic. The Witcher is breathtaking in its detail, from the varied plant species to villagers going about their daily chores. Such sights and sounds are difficult, if not impossible, to convey in a dice and paper game. Stirring music and voice acting further enhance the immersive feel, and the end result gives the player the sense of really being there. Tabletop or digital, immersion is a sign of a great RPG, when you feel transported to another reality. So it boggles the mind to see how little attention is given to logic. The contrast is so stark as to pull me out of the experience every time. It screams artificiality. What does it matter that you can count the leaves on every tree, when a pack of wolves runs right past a peasant doing laundry and she doesn’t even notice?

My character, Geralt, is a legendary warrior with a storied past, a monster slayer for hire, a witcher. Villagers and soldiers alike speak to me with reverence and a measure of trepidation. Surely, I am a bad ass, right? Wrong! The first wolf I came across killed me, and it wasn’t even a close fight. I was eviscerated. By a lone wolf. Now, I’ve played enough of these RPGs to understand how they work. I am certain that by the end of the game, I’ll just look at a wolf and it’ll explode in a shower of blood and fur. But here’s the thing: this is not the story the game is telling me. If I had started off as a peasant farmer learning the ropes of swordsmanship, a solitary wolf might be a credible threat, but Geralt the Witcher, bane of monsters everywhere? The same thing happened to me when a random guard caught me looting. He killed me in two hits. TWO!!! This, despite my whacking him for about five minutes, with a two-handed sword no less. If this had been anything like real life, he’d have been on the ground bleeding and bruised, with deep gashes and broken bones. Sure, we have hit points in D&D, but I never imagine my hero just standing there like some invincible deity, taking hit after hit. Now I realize games aren’t meant to simulate life. Nobody wants to role play sleeping 6-8 hours a day, suffering the occasional bout of dysentery, doing menial tasks to pay taxes, having to quit adventuring over a herniated disc, and finally dying of the flu. But the goal of any RPG is to approximate reality enough to suspend disbelief. With my PS4 controller in hand, however, I am constantly being beaten over the head with the fact that THIS IS A GAME! You must level up before you can fight a wolf, never mind what the story says!

Now, after stabbing this damn wolf about a hundred times, my sword breaks. I find this odd. Historically speaking, weapons of iron and bronze broke much more frequently than games and movies let on, but this had less to do with usage and more to do with physics. Whack your gladius hot off the forge against a rock and it’ll shatter. Smack it against a soft furry pelt and you can pass it on to your grandsons. OK. So my sword is broken. This is a serious problem, my being a witcher and all, so how do I fix it? Does anyone in town know a good blacksmith? Well, if this were medieval life, or D&D, I could ask someone. Later in the game, I meet General So-and-So, who needs me to take care of a griffon that is eating his men. But here’s the thing: his men are far more powerful than I am! Which brings to mind Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. The guards in that game kept chasing me through hell—literally hell—over an apple. One, lousy, apple. Tamriel is being overrun by demonic forces, and all anyone cares about is shoplifting, random guards who could, for some reason, kill the entire fighter’s guild. This was a story-breaking design flaw for me, turning Oblivion into the tale of the poor thief (me) fighting to feed himself.

So General So-and-So asks me if I need anything to kill this griffon. Yes, I need my damn sword fixed! But I am forced to watch an irrelevant cut scene instead. And here’s another problem I have. Scripted events. You do as the game dictates, not as you want. When it comes to consoles, I sometimes wonder whether I am actually playing the game or if the game is playing me. More often than not, any sense of control or decision making is illusory. Sure, I can choose which way I run up the hill, but I still need to get up that damned hill. Dragon Age 3 was the worst in this regard. Like playing a train simulator, you’re just stuck on the tracks, going along for the ride. Even in The Witcher, I have no sense of embodying my character. In D&D, I could truly be Geralt, or come as close to it as possible without a holodeck. I could, for instance, decide not to look for Yennefer, get hitched to the barmaid instead. And why the hell am I collecting plants? I am sure they’ll come in handy somehow, otherwise the game wouldn’t let me collect them, and yet this further breaks the illusion of reality. I do things simply because the game lets me do them, which clues me in to the fact that I should be doing them, whether it makes sense or not. Now imagine walking out of your house and grabbing every random thing in sight: sticks, small lilies, dollar weeds, the neighbor’s mail . . . Am I a hero or a hoarding kleptomaniac?

Video RPG’s like Skyrim, Dragon Age and Witcher are my surrogates for the real thing, been playing them since the mid-80’s. Games like Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and Black Crypt for the Commodore Amiga. It’s often a poor substitute, and yet there’s no one who will drop my house at 2:00 in the morning to roll dice, and most of my friends and family think me deluded for preferring pen and paper over billion-pixel graphics. So . . . it’s back to the Witcher for me and, fuck, I just walked off a bridge and died. Time to reload.

bx1

A classic!

 


 

UPDATE! 

OK, so I’ve put over 100 hours of play into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and think I know enough about the game to make a fair assessment, and my original impression stands. While The Witcher 3 serves up an impressive feast for the eyes, it pales in comparison to the genuine sense of adventure you get from a traditional role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons.

Again, the standout feature in The Witcher 3 are the jaw-dropping visuals. Even after a hundred hours, I can’t help but want to stare at it. It’s hard to believe that a team of programmers added that much detail, from a stray cat prowling the streets to kids playing in a field of sunflowers, to a family of geese crossing a dirt path or an old lady sweeping her front porch. But for all its vast beauty, there simply isn’t much to do. As a player, you feel stripped of options, a passive onlooker. Gameplay boils down to two things:  1) Kill something  2) Buy something. Sure, there’s an epic story to explore, but it’s a convoluted mess, like a hundred different authors got together to write one book, with hardly any agreement between them, so what happens in one chapter becomes meaningless in another. For example, I helped elven master smith, Hatori (from Kill Bill, apparently) in exchange for a sword of unparalleled quality. Turns out, when he presented me with this weapon of ultimate craftsmanship, I owned a dozen better swords already. And this leads me to the problem of realism, because while the creators of the game felt it necessary to showcase a hundred different flowers, they failed to make the mechanics of play echo that same realism. Why is it that I still, even at level 36, cannot use a god damn sword made by the village blacksmith? What magic prevents me from just picking it up and swinging it? If the developers didn’t want me having a weapon that deals 500 damage, they should not have put it in the game, or have those weapons sold all over town. It makes me wonder, if the guy who saves the world can’t put on a pair of gloves, who the hell can? Who’s buying all these god level-items? And don’t get me started on the random guards, who are far more powerful than the demonic elf gods invading the world!

None of this would be such a problem if at least I had some agency, some sense that I am making decisions for my character. Geralt is in love with Yennefer, not Triss. If this were Dungeons & Dragons, I would’ve dumped that bitchy sorceress for the sexy red-head without a thought. The Witcher forces you to do things, and in a very confined, particular way. We call this railroading in D&D, and it’s the mark of bad DMing. Last night, I nearly fell asleep playing, I was so bored.

So why play at all, you may ask? Mainly, it gives me something to do, and it’s still more engaging than watching TV. And that really seems to be what the Witcher is, not a game per se, but an interactive show.

Now if you enjoyed the Witcher and you really want to take control of Geralt’s story, here he is in D&D form:

geralt

 

For a Dungeon Master, these games are inspiration, so I also made rules for playing as a Witcher in D&D (you’ll need this to play Geralt!), in this easy to reference PDF. Enjoy!


Witcher Class for D&D 5th Edition

 

 

 

 

D&D and the Fantasy Author

Roleplaying games, and by that I mean “real” roleplaying games, the kind with dice and paper, can be a powerful resource for any writer of fantasy, a great source of ideas and inspiration. My most recent novel, The Princess of Aenya, was inspired by a one-day 4th edition D&D campaign. In the game, my wife played Queen Isadora, a cleric. One of my nephews was a ninja/assassin sent to kill her, and my other nephew her protector, Demacharon. I imagined an enormous stairwell spiraling down a chasmic tower, with arrows raining down on them from all sides. Years later, that exact scene made its way into the first chapter of my novel, except Isadora was now Radia, and the ninja assassin appeared later in the story. Incidentally, Radia and Demacharon would later come upon a monster in a crypt, the tetra-claw beast. I first drew the tetra-claw beast when I was twelve, for a 1st edition campaign, and there it sat in my brain for 30 years, waiting to emerge on the stage of chapter 3 to pounce on my heroes!

The beautiful thing about roleplaying is that it allows you to create without having to worry about being judged. Too often, writers are discouraged by the literary world. Want to write a story about a knight saving a damsel in distress? No way! That’s both cliche and “sexist”. Want to have a ninja teaming up with a robot for a swashbuckling adventure? Not if you want to appeal to older, more jaded readers of “serious” fantasy like Game of Thrones. But in D&D, you can do whatever the hell you want. Write like nobody’s reading. Dream like you’re twelve again. And then, as is often the case, lightning strikes. An idea is born that germinates into something great. All it took for Harry Potter to happen is for JK to board a train.

Sometimes in this hyper-competitive market, we forget just why we read, why we write, and why we play. And the reason, in case you’ve forgotten, is because life is just too short and the world just too small for our human-sized brains. The fantasy enthusiast craves more than one planet to explore, longs to step outside the boundaries and limitations of this one-time existence. This is what novels and RPGs have in common; they are the gateways to something more.

If you’re a gamer, or just curious to read an adventure in a different way (this is where the oft-disregarded second-person narrative thrives) you can download the file below. Whether you’re new to D&D or a seasoned veteran, you may find it useful. And, unlike in the literary world, everyone is free to steal!


 

Heraldo the Great

5th Edition D&D Adventure

DMT and D&D

I’ve been sitting on this post for years. Part of me really didn’t want to write it. And as a non-drug user, I felt unqualified. But the story has been nagging at me, ever since a friend told me about his DMT experience.

Now, I don’t do drugs. Never have. I grew up in the 80’s, with the “Just Say No” campaign, and the message really hit home. Except I took it to the extreme. I avoid anything that might artificially affect my brain in any way. So I abstain from alcohol, and I mean, ZERO alcohol. Haven’t had a sip of Bud Lite in my life. Nothing. Zilch. (OK, maybe whatever’s in Nyquil). My brother spent most of my teenage life trying to convince me otherwise, that I’d never find friends who don’t drink, or end up with a wife who doesn’t drink. Well, jokes on him, because my closest friend doesn’t drink and neither do our wives! By extension, to think that I could ever be pressured into pot or crack cocaine was hilarious. I was beyond peer pressure. Then again, I never felt any real pressure to do drugs. Sure, a few people asked me, but I said “No thanks” and that was it. It got to the point where I often wondered how anyone could end up an addict. Weren’t they forced to watch the same anti-drug videos I did? Now I know better, that drug-use is more often a symptom of depression or trauma or anxiety. But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Working in a restaurant, you’re pretty much surrounded by users. If you’re in your mid-thirties and scrubbing dishes for minimum wage, chances are you made some bad decisions in life, or you just really, really like washing dishes. But here’s the odd thing: a lot of people over the years, including some crack heads, assumed I was an addict. One time, after taking a break outside, an employee asked me, “How was it?” I hadn’t had a hit. But, I am slowly starting to realize, I may have been doing drugs all my life without knowing it.

dmt1

Truth be told, we can’t escape drugs no matter how hard we try. A “drug” is a general term for chemicals, and we’re pretty much made of chemicals. It’s in everything we eat and drink. If you enjoy chocolate, caffeine, or the high that comes from exercise and sex, you’re enjoying the drug-like endorphins produced in your brain. And this brings me to DMT. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you read up on it. The stories are amazing. It’s a hallucinogenic, but far, far more powerful than LSD. One LSD user described his DMT experience as somewhat terrifying, and you would be too, if you’re action figures started talking to you and dancing on your desk. A close friend told me the same thing. To paraphrase, “You don’t realize you’re hallucinating. There’s zero difference between what you know is real and what you are experiencing. Sight, sound, smell … it’s all there, utterly convincing.” And it’s not just seeing some funny things bouncing into your living room. Far from it. When you take a DMT trip, you’re entering another universe. You meet sentient beings, commonly referred to as “machine elves,” and there’s a great sense of time dilation. So what takes only a few minutes in reality might feel like days or weeks by the DMT-clock. OK, Nick, you may be thinking, this guy was probably pulling your leg. So I did my homework, and everything I read confirmed my friend’s story. In his book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris posits that many religious experiences, including visions of life-after death, can be attributed to hallucinogens. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” is just a symptom. Now, this might not make much sense, considering how little the drug is known. Where did Abraham or Moses or Buddha get a hit of this stuff? But here’s the thing: DMT is naturally produced in the brain. The chemical has been associated with dreaming and imagination. When we die, DMT is released from your brain in a torrent, offering powerful, convincing manifestations of the after-life. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, converted to Christianity after being pronounced brain-dead for “a week.” His description of Heaven sounds a lot like an episode of My Little Pony, with lots of colors, flowers and enormous butterflies. But, as Sam Harris points out, Eben’s experience closely mirrors those of DMT users.

I will admit, for a few days after hearing this story, I entertained the idea that maybe—just maybe—DMT acted as a gateway into another world. I truly wanted to believe. Who wouldn’t? Then again, the notion of other dimensions lurking beside our own can get pretty freaky. So I asked my buddy, “Is it real?” No, he didn’t think so. As a philosophy major, logic prevailed. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that we only have one life to live. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, you know this is it. And it’s precisely because of this realization, I believe, people are drawn to imaginative endeavors. It’s our only escape from this mundane, everyday existence. Even if you’re the Dos Equis man, you’re going to want to step into someone else’s shoes, live someone else’s life. Why else do we spend so much time and money on movies, TV shows, books and video games? While there may not be an after-life, we can choose multiple lives within this one, and DMT, or some chemical like it, makes it all possible. After talking to my drug-venturing friend, we both came to the conclusion that the brain is far more powerful than either of us could imagine.

I am not a scientist, and even if I were, I think a lot more research needs to go into creativity and imagination and into how the firing of neurons activates those functions in our brains, but I know from experience how real the mind can make things seem. As a child, I managed to convince myself of some pretty impossible things. I could, at times, see and hear things I knew I’d just made up. It got me to worrying, for some years, whether I was on the verge of schizophrenia. My dreams have always been particularly vivid. I sometimes wake, feeling like I just watched a movie’s worth of content, enough to write a novel. Users of DMT report similar experiences, living lifetimes in the span of minutes, but the information quickly vanishes from memory, just as my dreams fade before I can get to pen and paper.

12642605_973496816031101_7424082251459916552_n

This brings me back to books and the imagination. For much of my life, I have understood the technological drive to make things look and feel real. CGI effects, in movies and in video games, work to push reality away, to give the player the sense of really “being there.” I love what Lucas did with Star Wars, and what Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and Skyrim just looks amazing on PS3. And still, we keep pushing the boundaries, desperate to throw more pixels on the screen to hide the fact that they are just pixels. By the end of this year, we will have affordable VR headsets to further the illusion. And yet, given the opportunity, I’d go with a tabletop game, like D&D, every time. Some people only see the pen and the paper. It never becomes real for them, and in their case, who’d want to sit around a table for eight straight hours rolling dice? But for me, D&D feels more real because my brain makes it real. The brain is, after all, a vastly more powerful computer system. The trick is learning how to activate it, how to bring it to its full potential. Am I suggesting taking a hit of DMT before a game? Hell no. That would be terrifying. But I do think we can learn to exercise that part of our brains—the part that makes the magic—through meditation, as Sam Harris suggests, or by simply turning off our screens and the endless everyday distractions tugging at our senses.

demogorgon

Demogorgon

 

In the Netflix original, Stranger Things, a girl with psychic powers is put into a sensory deprivation tank to focus her abilities. I believe this illustrates something we can all do, to hone the untapped resources of our own minds. Interestingly enough, the show references D&D and a monster called Demogorgon. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure Demogorgon was lurking in my bedroom. That never happened to me playing Diablo or Resident Evil. That’s the power of imagination. Nothing can match it.  It’s why I play, why I read, and why I write.

 

 

 

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

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!

D&D: A Memoir: 3rd, 4th and 5th Editions


So the beastmen have taken off with Celine Botissea. They have her on a spit and the fire is roaring. Soon she’ll be roasted alive, like a human marshmallow. Her only hope is Juraviel, the wizard, but he is at a loss for what to do. The village is enclosed by tall wooden posts, like Jamestown circa the 16th century, and the poor wizard can think of nothing but to knock. Beastmen are bigger and stronger than humans, so when they answer the gate, it quickly dawns on him that there is no hope of killing them, and killing them is the only option that pops into his head. “I just don’t know what I am supposed to do!” he cries in anguish, as the beastmen sharpen their knives and forks inside the camp, preparing to dine on paladin, and the wizard’s friend. Of course, the keyword here is: supposed. It never occurs to Juraviel to do something unexpected, like start a fire, or use a simple spell to impersonate a deity, ala C3PO in Return of the Jedi. Fighting is the only thing that comes to mind, because my friend, Steve, is unaccustomed to this kind of gaming. He has been raised on a steady diet of video games, where options are preprogrammed, and therefore, limited. The infinite possibilities of a true, tabletop RPG are beyond his capacity to grasp. Not to worry, though, with enough prodding from the DM (that’s me) he eventually burns the village down, and as the beastmen run for their lives, Botissea escapes. 


Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

Just when I was 100% certain I would never game again, TSR is bought by a company called Wizards of the Coast, the makers of a very popular card game, Magic: The Gathering. WoC produces a vastly superior form of D&D with 3rd edition, which offers more possibilities than ever before. Monster and character stats share the same format, so it becomes easy to role play just about any creature, including a genie, a sexy female genie I later make for Steve. Also, Armor Class (the number you need to roll to hit the enemy) is a positive number, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than (-10) being good and (+10) being bad. And the shiny new covers, with their faux spell book designs, is just too enticing to pass up. I even mailed a set to Evan, who ended up feeling frustrated by his inability to play.

Me.

With 3rd edition, I wanted to go back to basics. No more superheroes or demon characters or space travelers. Our adventures took a page out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so I was Celine Botissea the paladin (my first female character) while my friend was Juraviel the wizard. I was deep into my second novel at the time, The Dark Age of Enya, which features a race of nudist protagonists, so I also came up with Tezrah, a naked monk. This is when I came to discover that when it comes to RPGs, technology can be a double edged sword. From the Internet, I could steal remarkable, inspiring images of heroes and landscapes to make my childhood self’s jaw drop; but at the same time, a greater number of people were dropping dice in exchange for keyboards. For a lot of people, D&D was simply outdated. Why use your imagination when you can watch the action unfold on your computer? Thing is, I am no stranger to electronic RPGs. I bought my first computer, an AMIGA 500, just to play Dungeon Master. But for me, tabletop games will always remain the real deal. After decades of D&D, World of Warcraft and EverQuest is like role playing Thomas the Train Engine; you are just stuck on the tracks, following a predetermined course. There is no more “open world” than a tabletop game. But show a bunch of dice and graph paper to someone raised on computer games, and they’ll look at you with pity, like your some clueless grandfather reminiscing about “the good ol’ days.” Still, I convinced my friend Steve to give it a shot, and we ranked up to 6th level, and defeated Yog Sothoth, a cleric, psionicist mind flayer. Sadly, it was the last hurrah for Celine and crew, due to a random encounter with a girl named Hynde. She was a human student from the land of Morocco, of neutral good alignment, with a high intelligence, wisdom and charisma score. Also, she had a special magic ability, a charm Greek writers spell, which acted in a 10′ radius, or within visual or auditory range, even from the phone, and it lowered all of my attributes, especially my constitution. So my days of gaming were cut short, only this time, willingly.  


Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

Everyone agrees 4th edition was a disaster. It was so bad, the fans were divided in half, like the great Catholic/Orthodox schism of 1054, and a 3rd edition knock-off was created known as Pathfinder. In an attempt to cater to video gamers, the makers of D&D had attempted to emulate MMORPGs, essentially robbing the game of its most defining quality: infinite possibilities. Now, fighters had a set number of “special” moves they could perform a certain number of times per day, since, just like in real life, once you do something once, the laws of physics prevent you from doing it again until after a short rest. There were many other, technical details I didn’t like, but I bought a whole new set of books regardless. My nephews, Arthur and Fonda, were just about old enough to be introduced to the game, so I bought the older one a starter set for his 10th birthday, which he politely thanked me for, before tossing it in with Battleship, Monopoly and the pair of socks from his aunt, while ogling Soul Calibur IV for his X-Box.

My wife.

We played 4th edition for approximately one hour. My wife was Princess Isadora, Arthur was Demacharon, and my younger nephew, Fonda, was a ninja (he really wanted to be a ninja) named Hadoken. Isadora was the ruler of Mythradanaiil, but her jealous step-brother wanted the throne, hiring Hadoken to assassinate her. Spellbound by her beauty and charm, however, the ninja was unable to carry out his mission, and soon he and Demacharon were fighting an army of archers, down a huge flight of stairs, to save the princess’ life. They made it out of the castle, but we never played after that. Oddly, this tiny adventure turned out to be the most important game of my life, inspiring my current novel, The Princess of Aenya


D&D 5th Edition

Having a mortgage, a restaurant, two kids and literary aspirations, my biggest problem is time. I am always rushing to do things. The days of 1st edition, when my friends and I had 3 months with absolutely nothing to do, seem like a dream. Now, I watch movies and play games only if they’re short, and MMORPGs scare me like doing heroin. But my need to touch a d20 persisted, like an ex-smoker needing a toothpick in place of a cigarette. And yet D&D, I realized, was just too damn complicated to explain and time consuming to play. Then I came home to my seven year old daughter, Jasmine, who was making her own board game. She was inspired my Mario Party, and as I started to help her with it, I realized that by adding a few numbers and dice, I could make a board game for people who love D&D but just don’t have the time. That is how QUEST FOR THE TALISMANS was born. I spent years refining the rules, up to a 5th edition of my own, using D&D mini figures and a greatly simplified combat system. Arthur invited dozens of his friends from high school to play it and we all had a great time. Despite his continued obsession with video games, he enjoyed the social aspect of tabletop gaming. But deep down inside of me, I knew, it just wasn’t the same. The board game was too limiting, and my real love was for creating things, not playing them.

When 5th edition came out, just last month, I was skeptical. Over the years, D&D has become more complex with each new iteration, with more rules to learn, which only served to put off newcomers. What the game desperately needed was streamlining, simplifying, and that was, to my surprise, exactly what the makers of 5th edition did. Here was a game I could introduce to my now ten year old daughter. And who knows, maybe the seed of a new book will come from it. Our first campaign is this Saturday following Thanksgiving. Jasmine is Lilliea, an elf sorceress.  


D&D Infinite Edition

Maybe I really am an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe in a few decades, nobody will be playing tabletop games anymore, except to be nostalgic, the way people still watch plays but secretly wish they were at a movie. Perhaps, with enough computer power, future MMORPGs will find a way to offer near infinite options. As for me, I sometimes dream of the time when I’ll be an aging retiree, somewhere in my seventies, having all the free time in the world. Maybe I’ll be living in a nursing home, or hopefully a nudist resort. That’s when I’ll dig out my fifty year old d20 (I still have it), get a pen and graph paper, and find out what the heck those damn lizard men were doing all those years ago.  

My daughter

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 2nd Edition: Hell Breaks Loose!

mansion800600
Climb up to the roof! What’s the worst that could happen?

By this point, Dr. Van Richten was begging. “Please, please I don’t want to; I’m scared of heights!” But Dr. Van Helsing was insisting, and he was holding the shotgun. Somehow, they needed to learn what was going on in the mansion, and Helsing was not about to barge in through the front door, guns blazing. 

They were supernatural investigators, enemies of the undead, and on many occasion the two of them had slain zombies and werewolves, and even thwarted the plans of princely vampires. But this was a threat like never before, a maniacal doctor hell bent on bringing the dead to life, through science! And yet, how could they be certain what was going on, without evidence? So Helsing continued to insist, rather forcefully, “Just climb up to the third floor window and tell me what you see!” Despite his dread fear of heights and lack of dexterity, Richten acquiesced, slowly beginning the climb. He reached the second floor without much difficulty, but the windows were too dark, and he could see nothing. From the safety of the ground, Helsing urged him on, and Richten, trembling and with vertigo, clamored up to the third story window, and that’s when it happened . . . He slipped. Clawing desperately at empty space with a blood curdling scream, Richten tumbled from the balcony, falling headfirst into the ground. Helsing rushed to his side, to his friend and comrade, but it was too late. Dr. Van Richten was dead, below zero hit points, at which point my friend and I looked at each other, and burst out laughing. What cruel, hilarious irony! Twenty years have passed since we played that game, and one of us will be like, “Hey, remember when Van Richten fell off the roof and died? After he kept saying, ‘Please, please I don’t want to go?'” Hilarity.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition

Mike Wilson

After my long ordeal, losing my best friend, George, to Satan and skateboarding, I was certain my RPG days were over. Sure, I tried some less satanic games, like the Batman RPG, but it was stupid. “Hey, who do you want to be? Batman or Robin? Ooh, we get to fight more thugs!” Then, as a senior in High School, I met Mike Wilson and Tommy VanDyke, who were into comic books and D&D. It was a shock finding other human beings interested in the game, and that even a second edition existed! The rules were slightly different, but for me, D&D had always been about playing pretend with math. Tommy had been the DM, but as his campaign was boring everyone, I quickly took over. Thing is, after my 1st edition days, I lived in fear of losing players, so I decided to go nuts and throw tradition out the window, doing the most outrageous things imaginable. After four years without D&D, I let my players be superheroes. Mike was Wolverine and Tommy was Sabertooth. Soon, five or six kids crowded into my parents’ kitchen, and I was Dr. Strange, a 9th level wizard, while a very annoying sophomore kept muttering, “I’m the Haaaalk!” because he was the Hulk. My mom grumbled something about satanism, but I just blew her off, because I was seventeen. She eventually chalked the whole 1st edition ordeal to, “Well, I guess your Greek teacher was crazy!” It quickly dawned on us, however, that being superheroes wasn’t as fun as we’d thought. We were gods cutting through the toughest monsters with ease.


The Hunt for Demogorgon

There was a baddie in the 1st edition Monster Manual that I always dreamed of killing. This was Demogorgon, Prince of Demons, the ultimate boss monster, with 200 hit points and a -10 armor class (which is, like, a lot, trust me). This guy could rot your arm off just by touching you and make you insane just by looking at you! Also, he had two heads. As a DM, this was to be my magnum opus; I called it the The Hunt for Demogorgon. There was Mike, Tommy, Craig (Hulk kid) and their friends, and with the help of the Greek demi-god, Dynotus; Namor the Submariner (don’t ask); a monk named Akira; and a newly resurrected Sir Marek the Brave, we battled a lich king, a red dragon, and crashed a Demon Convention. It was the most satanic game I had ever run, but we weren’t worshiping Satan; we were kicking his ass and taking names. The final dungeon drove the players insane (literally). I had them going back to the beginning of the campaign (in an illusion) and fighting their future selves. Eventually, Demogorgon fell, and a new demon prince took over, Chernobog (the Slavic god of evil) from Disney’s Fantasia (we watched the film). 

Disney = Satan




Masters of the Universe

We played a few more crazy adventures, including one where we were demons named after heavy metal bands, so I was Metallica and someone else was Megadeth, and another kid insisted on being White Zombie (a demon named zombie?). And we stormed the gates of Heaven, at which point, you could argue, the game was satanic, but again who cares. Then after high school, we went our separate ways, except for Tommy and me. Aside from killing Demogorgon, I’d always wanted to play as my childhood inspiration. I remember asking Mike Von Kreninsky, back when I was 12, whether I could be He-Man, but he scoffed. He-Man was just too powerful. But now? Rules went out the window. I spent a good year recreating the Masters of the Universe universe into D&D, making stats for every character, maps for Eternia, and dungeons for Snake Mountain and the Fright Zone and Castle Grayskull. Tommy played six super powered heroes at the same time! Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, would likely have been spinning in his grave, had he been dead. When Tommy stupidly opened an airlock, and all his characters got sucked into space, I had six more ready to go! He eventually met He-Man to fight Skullgrin, a villain of my own creation, a guy who could give Satan nightmares, who wiped out half the party with the cone of disintegration coming out of his eyes! Of course, Skullgrin was destroyed in the end, because, you know, HE-MAN!

I win!


The Game Grows Up

A serious debate among kids is whether Superman can beat up Batman, or Goku, or any other hero. For whatever reason, boys are obsessed with power, and not the kind involving electric bills. In Marvel’s The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos wants to become the most powerful being in the universe, not the most respected or well loved, only the most powerful, like Sauron in Lord of the Rings. It makes perfect sense when you’re 12. It never really occurred to us to think what, exactly, would someone do with all of that power. This is why, after defeating Skullgrin, there seemed to be nothing left to do, but take on more gods of evil. We didn’t exactly give up D&D, but I remember going through room after room of monsters, bored beyond belief. Here I was, doing what I loved most, and hating every minute of it. Imagine being in the middle of sex and thinking, “Gee, I can’t wait for this to be over.” Eventually, we stopped being friends over something stupid. Maybe it was that Tommy was a horrible DM, and I just couldn’t find a nice way to break it to him. I honestly thought, “This is it, Nick, you did everything you wanted.”

My brother-in-law works for a small college with many students from abroad. Being Greek, he decided to take a poor aspiring graphic designer from Athens under his wing. His name was Evan Kyrou and we were both in our early twenties. At first, we talked video games, because that’s what people do, but the subject turned to RPGs, and he casually mentioned a preference for “the real thing.” I couldn’t believe it, another D&D nut! And like no other friend I had before, he was a creative genius. His style of play focused on story, and only very little on combat, and it quickly dawned on me that power did not matter. What makes The Lord of the Rings interesting isn’t how much of a bad ass Frodo is, but how a simple, unassuming hobbit can find the courage to face overwhelming obstacles at great personal sacrifice. D&D was exciting again, not because we were killing gods, but because we were role playing and not roll playing. My first campaign was based on my novel, The Nomad, in which Evan’s character, Dynotus, searched for his kidnapped wife in a Greek/Arabic setting. Dynotus later traveled to Asia (I used my dad’s National Geographic Book on China for its amazing photos), where he met a gold dragon monk named Akira; defeated the emperor, a red dragon in disguise; and went on to defend Greece against Mongol invaders. 

For my birthday, Evan introduced me to my favorite author, H.P. Lovecraft, and we started playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG, with some minor tweaks to the D&D system. I had him living with the Albertsons (loosely based on my own family), as one by one, each family member died in horrific ways. Evan’s character had to find the murderer, though it turned out to be (spoiler alert!) himself (or was it?). Sanity is a big theme in Lovecraft’s writings, so in a followup adventure, he had to escape from an insane asylum after killing dozens of doctors and nurses (or were they demons?), and as fans of metal, we blasted Metallica and White Zombie during the game. 

Satan is my bitch.

My goal to do everything in D&D didn’t end with modern day hospitals. But where hadn’t we gone? SPACE, that’s where, the final frontier! I made a random solar system generator, using a real astronomy map, so that Evan could explore the universe. He played a female warrior with telekinetic and psychic powers named Marina Lucien, and years later, by some amazing coincidence, Evan (in the real world) met and married a girl named Marina. A planet of snake men went on to inspire The Serpent’s Eye in Ages of Aenya

The best part about playing with Evan was that I enjoyed being the player as much as DMing. His favorite setting was Ravenloft, based on classic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein, and that’s when poor Dr. Van Richten fell to his death, perhaps my most memorable D&D event.    

Sadly, Evan graduated from college, and returned to Greece. I was left alone again, making rules out of boredom for martial arts and for decapitating people (roll a d12 on an ‘effect chart’.) But this time, it really did seem my gaming days were over. Of course, 3rd edition was right around the corner.