Saturday, November 22, 2014

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.




Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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


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 in fighting evil, 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 into tears of laughter. 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? And 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 Demagorgon

There was a baddie in the 1st edition Monster Manual that I always dreamed of killing. This was Demagorgon, 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 Demagorgon. 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, Demagorgon 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.  



   

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 1st Edition


My first D&D book!
Once upon a time . . . there lived an elf named Hektor and a half-orc named Lattice. Hektor and Lattice were strolling through the woods when they came upon a group of lizard men. Lightning streaked the sky, and shortly after it began to rain, but the elf and the half-orc continued to spy on the reptilian gathering. The lizard men were standing over a stone circle set into the ground. One of them came forth holding a staff. He appeared to be a priest of some kind, enacting a ceremony. The circular stone was etched with runes, at the center of which was a hole. Now the wind was gusting and the lightning falling furiously. Hektor, being young and lusting for battle, rushed headlong into the scaly host, as Lattice, rolling his eyes at the predicament he was being drawn into, followed with mace in hand. A few bloody rounds later, all of the lizard men lay dead or dying, and the elf fighter and half-orc cleric victorious. But what was the ceremony all about? Was the staff meant to go into the stone circle, perhaps to open a stairway into some secret dungeon? It was at that point that the Dungeon Master, Michael Von Kreninsky III, got out of the booth, saying that he had to go. "But we only just started!" I complained. "Sorry, I've got a date," he said, leaving my friend and I to wonder what would have happened to Hektor and Lattice had they completed the ritual. It's been almost thirty years now and I am still wondering. 

This was the summer of '87, a primitive time before YouTube, iPhones or DVDs. All we had were Fridays at the movies and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the only thing worth playing was Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson's Punch Out. My friends and I were getting too old for toys and desperately needed something to keep us busy for three months. That's when we met Michael, an eighteen year old college student working for my dad as a pizza cook. He introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, giving me a binder of adventures he had made in the seventies, along with his beat up copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide. I held that book in my hand as if it were magic, because for me at least, it was. Such a book could open pathways to any place and time, allowing us to be anything, do anything. We were bound only by the limits of our imagination. Unfortunately, Michael did not stick around to teach us how to play, so I spent weeks struggling with rules, never realizing how poorly written those seventies books were, or that I was missing some key components like The Player's Handbook.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or 1st Edition

Eventually, my friends and I learned the game. It was me, my friend George Lakiotis, and Mark Carlisimo. We would hang out all day in the back room of my dad's restaurant, drawing maps and rolling dice. I'd always been an imaginative kid, but this was like a powerful hallucinogenic bringing everything in my mind to life, the DMT of games. And I was Sir Marek the Brave, a human fighter, who eventually became the "Nova Knight." 


I drew this in '88, and photoshopped it in 2010.

George was a wizard named Heraldo, who looked a lot like the news pundit, and Mark was the half-orc cleric, Lattice. My first world, I'm ashamed to say, was Nick's Realm. It included wonderfully inventive places like Elf City, Dwarf City and Human City. But we eventually set sail from Nick's Realm to explore other worlds, hacking and slashing our way through countless dungeons and monsters. In Egypt, we suffered the curse of Anubis, after looting his temple. In Greece, we met with Heracles and Bellerophon, from whom Sir Marek earned his magical Spartan-like helmet. In Norway, we helped Thor find a magic jewel that had fallen from his hammer, Mjolnir. There wasn't a mythological setting beyond our reach! Then, as we were preparing to storm the gates of Orcus, Prince of Demons, Sir Marek and Heraldo got into a fight. You see, for the longest time, I had been a jerk to my friend, putting him down for his lack of effort, even though he did manage to DM a lot, including the time Sir Marek killed a red dragon to gain a +4 Sword of Defending. I also tended to insult him when he couldn't find a solution to a puzzle. But the larger problem was that we were growing apart. George only cared for skateboarding and hanging out with his skateboarding buddies. I owned a skateboard, mostly for his sake, and could do a 180 without much difficulty, but George excelled way beyond me, rail sliding down stairwells and ollying small dogs and doing other crazy shit I simply did not have the dexterity for. So, while I wanted to throw dice, he just wanted to gleam the cube.


George had the skills. Me, not so much.

But what really put the nail in Sir Marek's sarcophagus was what would seem today utterly ludicrous, that thing being SATAN. No, I'm not talking about the impossible boss from Ghosts n' Goblins, but the very real Satan, the same guy religious people believe in. 


That's right . . . SATAN!
At the time, my mother was forcing me to take Greek lessons, but when it came to God, my tutor was bat shit crazy. Now it wasn't as if I had no experience with fundamentalism. For eight straight years, I attended a Baptist School, where I was forced to wear ties on Wednesdays and thank God for every damn pencil and eraser I brought to class, and where I was told not to watch He-Man or Transformers because they were satanic. But my Greek teacher took things to Scarlet Letter-levels of insanity. This was a woman who, after the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, told me, in all seriousness, that the astronaut crew were killed for "trying to reach God." 


God's divine punishment. Hey, who's the good god here?

She also refused to attend her own son's wedding when he married outside of the Orthodox Church. So, naturally, when she learned of my gaming habits, she made it her mission to put a stop to it. As far as she was concerned, my friend and I were spending our weekends worshiping Satan. Of course, I could not have cared less what the batty old lady had to say, but my mother took the whole thing seriously. She forbade me from D&D, and what's worse, George's mother caught wind of it and did the same. Despite my attempts to explain RPGs, I could not convince my mother that the game was just a game and nothing to fear. 

Unfortunately, I was still at an impressionable age, and being brainwashed both at school and at home, so that after a while, paranoia started to creep in, and I got to thinking that maybe there was something to this satanic stuff. After all, I'd been taught since kindergarten that demons were real. In retrospect, Dungeons & Dragons posed a threat not to my soul, but to my indoctrination. I mean, the Monster Manual treated demons and devils like any other made up creature. Logic follows that if the unicorn on p. 200 is imaginary, why not Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Plane of Hell, found on p. 10? This was especially challenging to my faith, because I was raised to believe in the Bible, not just the realistic parts, but even the Book of Revelation with its seven headed dragon. If some of it turned out to be fiction, so could all of it . . . and maybe even God was just another deity from Hebrew mythology. But I was far too young, and unprepared, to handle such an existential crisis, and it led me to having nightmares, and to tearing out the pages of demons and devils from my Monster Manual. Sure, it might sound extreme, but this was a different time, when even the media occasionally lost its mind over supernatural nonsense. I remember being in the library with my D&D books, when a strange lady stopped to warn me of the dangers of fantasy. Even journalists, who should have known better, got taken in by the hysteria. According to the article, "The Most Dangerous Game," D&D can lead to suicide! Of course, this cause and effect argument is the oldest in the proverbial book of fallacies. Using the same logic, if you like to eat peanut butter and kill yourself, we can all blame peanuts for suicide. But remember, this was the eighties, long before Doom and Diablo and World of Warcraft, back when parents fretted over everything and anything their kids were doing that they did not understand, so even TSR, the makers of D&D, bowed to the pressure, releasing a 2nd edition without any mention of devils or demons (they went by other names).

Ultimately, I was forced to quit reading and writing and drawing and being creative in so many ways, but religion wasn't entirely to blame; it was also my best friend, who had suddenly grown a conscious. And that was what really infuriated me. This was a guy who never went by the rules, a true rebel without a cause, getting an earring (a big deal at the time), smoking and even stealing his mom's car. But when it came to D&D, he just had to obey. Despite so many happy memories, the game tore our friendship apart. Only later did I realize my role in our falling out, for putting him down all the time. We simply had different ability scores. His was for skateboarding, and mine for writing.

I continued Sir Marek's adventures in my Novel of the Nova Knight series, but my gaming days were over. That was, until, my senior year of high school, and Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.   

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fifty Shades of Grayskull


The original image for "The Grayskull Library"

This is a story of He-Man, erotica, and the early days of Internet fan-fiction, and how I became the most hated person in the Masters of the Universe community, but I am getting ahead of myself here.

It was between 1996 and 1999, a magical time for me. Never in my life did so many people show interest in my fiction. Over one hundred thousand people visited my site, The Grayskull Library, and I was hooked on praise like an addict on heroin. At one point, the fan community was asked to list their favorite stories, and mine took the top three spots, winning 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. This only confirmed what I had believed since the third grade, that I was destined to be an author. But I was a young and idealistic student attending the University of South Florida, pursuing a BA in English and an MA in History, and did not have to worry about restaurants or mortgages or raising children. As far as I knew, my future was golden, and in a few years time my novels would surely be selling all over the country. 

Of course, my first site, Nick's Story Page, did not go over well. It featured original content, including my first novel, The Nomad, but I was still new to the Internet and had yet to realize that nobody would ever find my book unless they already knew about it. This led me into the world of fan-fiction, through which I could connect to readers with similar interests. But for aspiring writers like myself, fan-fiction is a double edged sword. You don't have to come up with your own concept or setting, or even worry about readers liking your characters, but it's a lot like plagiarism, a major sin in the literary world. Of course, it wasn't like my brain wasn't an idea factory. Even as a child, I preferred my own imaginary sandbox. He-Man was strictly for playing "episodes" with my toys. When it came time for pen and paper, heroes born from my imagination, like Red Panther and Dynotus, were the protagonists. Given the dynamics of the Internet, however, I had no choice but to fall into fan-fiction, and even then I often strayed from canon into new territory, to the point that fans sometimes criticized me for writing what was, to them, thinly veiled original content. 

But for someone studying fiction at the collegiate level, my childhood inspiration, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, was flat and 2-dimensional. Anyone familiar with the cartoon will tell you that He-Man's motivation never extended beyond saving the day. He did not know love or regret and he certainly did not think of sex. From the very beginning, my goal with my fan-fiction was to bring my heroes into the real world, to turn them into 3-dimensional beings with all of the emotional nuance and psychological baggage that makes for relatable characters.

The second thing I discovered about the Internet was an interest in erotica, which seemed more prevalent at the time, given that pornography was difficult to come by without a credit card. It was also common for people to seek out the kind of Superman/Wonder Woman "action" unavailable at local comic shops. But just like fan-fiction, writing erotica came with a stigma. While discovering that fan-fic + erotica was a recipe for winning readers, it was also a way to make enemies. For every ten letters praising my work, there was at least one piece of hate mail. To save my reputation, I went by a pseudonym, and for some inexplicable reason, chose the name of my childhood crush, Jennifer Thomas. It didn't matter one bit that my fan-fiction was not attributed to me, since the stories were not entirely original, and could never be published anyway. 

I eventually found that writing erotica, with a focus on sex, was dull. And so I turned my attention to exploring other mature themes, like rape and death and parenting. In a way, I was still practicing, still learning how to write. In time, my He-Man fiction turned into a series of interrelated plot lines that became The Jennifer Thomas Canon, and it was three stories from this canon that won the fiction poll. By 1999, I figured I had enough fans to start my second original novel, The Dark Age of Enya. I planned to advertise it on my website, The Grayskull Library, and other He-Man related sites. Unfortunately, my pseudonym became known, and my prudish enemies found an even bigger ax to grind. I was not only a pornographer, they argued, but I liar. My reputation went down the tubes and nobody from the MOTU community showed any interest in my novel except for one person, David Pasco, who remains a great friend to this day. Afterward, I attended regular fiction forums, where nobody had any problem with erotica, though they did have a problem with fan-fiction, which became a badge of disgrace nearly impossible to live down. It did not matter to the forum trolls that I had shelves of original work and that even my fan-fic was much less "fan" than "fic". 

Time, of course, has a wonderful way of changing perspectives. People are much more open expressing sexuality, and fan-fiction has lost much of its stigma, owing to the fact that many great writers started out the way I did. Most notable is E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, which not only borders on pornography, but started out as Twilight fan-fiction. Publishers finally figured out what I had decades before, fandom + sex = readers. Maybe if I'd bothered to change the names in my Jennifer Thomas canon, I'd be a millionaire today.

After almost two decades and three original books, I finally feel the disgrace of my literary past wearing off. If there is anything truly embarrassing about The Jennifer Thomas Canon today, it's the quality of the writing itself, because I still had much to learn at the time.

She-Ra related erotica doesn't seem so strange anymore. 

If you're interested in my work from twenty years ago, you can find links to the stories below (as I post them), all dated to the time they were written, except for The Amazon (sorry), which I admit to being too terrible to for anyone to ever see! Check back often as fiction is added! 



The Masters of the Universe
Jennifer Thomas Canon

  1. Jitsu’s Revenge
  2. FROSTA
  3. The Krelm
  4. VOODOO
  5. POISONED
  6. RAIN
  7. Quest for the Golden Apples
  8. Lady Death Vs. She-Ra
  9. DECADENCE
  10. The Return of Shokoti
  11. Prince Regan

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lost in the Maze


Before I write this review, I would like to offer my apologies to Mr. James Dashner. You see, I hate to criticize authors. I do not review books to make myself seem more knowledgeable, or my work more favorable, but rather, to explore fiction, why it works and why it doesn't, to have open discussion regarding literature in general. I know what bad press feels like. A scathing review of The Dark Age of Enya nearly drove me to suicide, which is why I normally don't review books other than to praise them. Unfortunately, I painted myself into a corner a few weeks back when I said I would be reviewing The Maze Runner as part of a reading experiment. I suppose I could delete my earlier post and hope nobody notices, but The Maze Runner has sold 3 million copies and recently been turned into a movie, so nothing I say should have any effect on Mr. Dashner's career or the success of his books. I strongly believe that any reviews, mine included, are entirely subjective, and as I am certain that Mr. Dashner is a fine human being, sincerely wish him well in all his endeavors.

OK, with that out of the way, I have to admit that The Maze Runner suffers from many, many problems, things so glaringly obvious, it hurts my brain to think how an editor or publisher managed to miss them. I am talking plot holes to sail the Titanic through. But I am getting ahead of myself here. First, let me address the premise, which had me fascinated and wanting to read this book. A number of boys, called Gladers, are trapped in a giant maze filled with monsters. That's pretty much all you need to know. Simple, to be sure, but sometimes the simplest stories are the best. The book starts off when the hero, Thomas, arrives in the maze via trap door/elevator. Like every other boy, he has no recollection as to who he is, a mystery the book never explains (among others). For two years, these boys have been living in a camp in the center of the maze, without knowing why. The term "runner" refers to the select few chosen to explore and solve this puzzle, which is far more difficult than it at first seems, since the walls change every night, changing the pattern. Runners also have to avoid greavers, ridiculous looking monsters which can best be described as Super Mario Bros. rejects. At sundown, immense doors seal the maze off, the area where the boys live from the outer segments, protecting them from the greavers.

I mean, really, what the hell is that supposed to be?


Now, the first thing to cross my mind when I picked up this book (which has a great movie based cover, btw) was why you could not simply climb the walls. After all, the walls are perfectly vertical and covered in thick vines ideal for climbing, and from the top, the heroes are sure to find an exit, right? Right? Well, halfway through the book, Thomas asks this very question, to which Minho, the top runner, angrily replies, "Don't you think we haven't tried that?" Do giant blades come out to kill anyone who reaches the top? Or lasers? Or something? No explanation is given. This is especially frustrating, since at one point Thomas manages to climb the vines with relative ease, so why the author never bothers to explore this further is beyond me. What's more, the greavers can also climb the walls, except for some reason the doors, which have no tops, offer the Gladers complete protection. Another glaring plot hole: greavers roam the maze day and night, only they are more frequent after sundown. Why they never manage to stroll into camp during the day, when the doors are open, is never explained, nor do any of the characters seem bothered by the possibility, despite living in a constant state of terror.

Of course, if the story is interesting and told well, and if the characters are engaging, plot holes can be overlooked. Unfortunately, everyone in this book is a cardboard cutout from every young adult novel ever written. I cannot think of a single personality trait to define these people. Do they like to sing? Dance? Is one of them gay? They are identifiable only by the role they play in the story; so Alby is the stern leader and Newt his second in command; then there's Minho who is the fastest runner; and the bully who everyone is supposed to hate; and the little boy we are supposed to worry about because he is the youngest; and the girl we care about because she is the only girl, and so on. There is also very little by way of inventiveness. I have argued that a story is only as good as its ideas, so while Harry Potter delights us with magic mirrors and talking portraits and quidditch matches; and The Hobbit surprises us with trolls that turn to stone and maps invisible but by moonlight; with The Maze Runner, you get nothing but what is established in the first few chapters. It's cliche, predictable and unimaginative. At the very least, we could hope for some quality prose, but while you might find the occasional clever metaphor, the writing is mostly dry exposition, without an ounce of subtlety. The author also bludgeons you with melodrama, so there doesn't seem to be a page where Thomas isn't seized with terror or seething with rage or collapsing into a puddle of his own tears. Just look at how he reacts when he gets an idea:


He froze, hit by a dizzy spell; he would've fallen to the floor if he hadn't had the shelves to lead on. An idea had just occurred to him. A horrible, terrible, awful idea. The worst idea in the history of horrible, terrible, awful ideas.

p. 291


Now, unless this paragraph refers to Medea, and the idea is to murder her own children, whatever Thomas is thinking is far from history's, or literature's, most horrible, terrible, awful idea. The result of so many over the top reactions is to basically numb the reader, so that when, in the book's finale, something truly awful does happen to Thomas, you end up feeling nothing for him. Then again, who am I to criticize an author with a legion of fans, 3 million copies sold, and a movie to his credit? 

 

PS: As for my reading experiment, where I attempted to read a book in a day, I ran into a number of problems. The project was interrupted a few times, and I ended up at page 240 of 375. What I learned, at least from this book, was that the accelerated rate did not enhance my enjoyment of the story. However, I found that I was more inclined to finish the novel afterward, which leads me to propose this theory: If you read a book over the course of weeks or months, you are more likely to quit. This makes sense, if you consider how often people will sit through a movie they hate, while hanging up a book they enjoy.