Monday, August 25, 2014

Marrying Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I knew the genre I would be writing in by age six. The year was 1981, and I'd just unboxed my first He-Man action figure. Masters of the Universe was my introduction to all things fantasy and Sci-Fi. With his furry loincloth and rippling muscles and interchangeable sword, ax and shield, He-Man set my imagination ablaze. Even the box art, with its assortment of heroes and villains, opened my young mind to ideas that, at the time, felt almost real. It didn't matter that He-Man was a barbarian hero archetypes and Conan knockoff, or that his world was a mishmash of every fantasy trope from the thirties to the seventies. As far as I knew, He-Man was original. But it was the mini-comic that came with the figure, Battle in the Clouds, that would determine my writing style for decades to come. At first glance, He-Man's home-world, Eternia, appears dark and primitive. Heroes carry swords and axes and live in fanciful, skull-faced castles. There is no technology, nor modern conveniences, to speak of. Then, a single panel would change that perception, when He-Man meets Man-at-Arms, a hero with a high-tech suit of armor. Man-at-Arms introduces He-Man to the Wind Raider. What was clear to me, early on, was how strange and out-of-place this bird-shaped vessel appeared. To He-Man's primitive mind, the Wind Raider was magic.

Fantasy meets Science Fiction in a single image.

To this day, I find it remarkable how creators Donald F. Glut and Alfredo Alcala managed to convey, in just a single panel, a perfect marriage between fantasy and science-fiction. Countless comic book writers, movie producers and novelists have tried to do the same, often with mixed results. Marrying Sci-Fi to fantasy is like trying to stick a round peg into a square hole, a lot more difficult than giving your hero a laser gun and a sword, which the live action Masters of the Universe movie did, with disastrous results. Even the recent, much acclaimed Marvel films struggle to walk the fine line between the two genres. Despite my love for Thor, both in the comics and the original myths, I cannot help but wonder how a hammer---even Mjolnir forged in the heart of a dying star---can be as efficient as a gun. In Thor 2: The Dark World, Odin's guards defend against alien elven invaders with sword and shield, while castle towers blaze with anti-aircraft artillery. It's just one of those gaps in logic I try not to think about, or work hard to rationalize. Perhaps swords in Asgard are ceremonial?

But what makes Sci-Fi and fantasy what it is? Defining these genres determines how one can be made to complement the other, but with regards to definitions, there is much disagreement. Years back, I argued with an agent on a fiction forum over this very issue. She insisted that fantasy is any story with magic in it. But for me, it has everything to do with setting. While there are countless variations on the theme, fantasy was born out of romanticism, with an emphasis on the "mythical past that never was". Give me a story about castles and princesses and dragons, and even without magic, it's fantasy. Conversely, science fiction is often defined as that which deals with "science" which is usually regarded, somehow, as the opposite of magic. Some books even pit the two against each other. But this is a fundamental flaw, a literary straw-man attack on science and on what it represents. When people think Sci-Fi, they think of laser weapons and spacecraft, but these are products of technology, and do not represent the scientific method in any meaningful way.

A world without science, or more specifically, physics, cannot exist. Even cave men relied on it when building fires and carving out spears. Whether Harry Potter and his friends realize it or not, there is more physics happening at Hogwarts than magic. A wand and an incantation may levitate objects, but the force of gravity is what makes those object fall in the first place. If Harry breathes oxygen, metabolizes food, or swings the Sword of Gryffindor, the laws of physics are at work. I realize that, for most readers, physical laws are irrelevant to a fictional story; it just isn't something one needs to think about, but I cannot shut that part of my brain off, nor would I want to. I think Arthur C. Clarke said it best, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," because the secret to marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to recognize that there is no real difference between magic and science, that the difference in genres has everything to do with perspective. I call this Clark's Law. In Sci-Fi, the world can be understood: a lightsaber, according to Professor Michio Kaku, is heated plasma running through a magnetic field, but in fantasy, the same sword is an enchanted blade of fire. This is why Battle in the Clouds was so brilliant all those years ago, because Masters of the Universe exists in a fantasy setting only so far as things like the Wind Raider remain ancient and mysterious and unknowable.

This is not to condemn the purely fantastical or the surreal. Not every story needs to follow logic. I adore Lovecraft, Kafka and Baum (Wizard of Oz) specifically due to their rejection of reason. But when writing from a perspective of realism, it becomes necessary to include physics into the equation (see what I did there?). There is magic in Ages of Aenya, however slight, but even then I am forced to consider the science behind it. When Emma transforms herself into a raven, I have to think long and hard about Newton's Law of Conservation. A raven has considerably less mass than a human, so when she does transform, where does all the extra matter go? And how does she get it back when she turns back into a human? While I don't pretend to know the answer (I chalk it up to Clarke's law), I try to at least give science a nod, because physics must exist in a fictional universe whether an author addresses it or not. No doubt, there will remain legions of readers who hat check their brains at Chapter 1, and there will be authors who cater to those people, but for me, marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to acknowledge they are but two sides of the same speculative coin.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

World Building Aenya

Since Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, world building has become a mainstay of fantasy fiction, gaining a resurgence among budding novelists after the release of the films. I have no doubt that much of the love lavished on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire has a great deal to do with world building. But the phenomena seems unique to the genre. You'll never find gushing praise for world building in the literary, romantic or horror fields. This is what sets Sci-Fi/Fantasy apart, but it can also stigmatize those genres, when story gets lost amid an author's fervor to create a convincing universe. If we look at world building from the perspective of another genre, the glut of details becomes needless exposition. Take Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. While considerable history is provided for the Catholic Church, Brown does not bog his novel down describing the rise of Christianity. Of course, this has more do with the fact that readers know European history. Nevertheless, should aliens want to borrow Brown's book, adding the history of Earth would not improve the story. A good fantasy needs just two things: characters we care about and a plot to invest us. It's basically the same for any story. Whether it's fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror or romance, the fundamentals are the same. Aspects of genre, like world building, are but set dressing.

This being said, world building can be of great value to a novel, if done well and if it enhances the story. Fantasy is about escapism, a way to step out of the mundane, every day world and into another. There are few better experiences than that momentary lapse, if only for a split-second, when you feel transported to a different time and place. For fans of fantasy, if the leaves don't change on the trees, the book is just a book, and you are just sitting on a couch staring at letters. If done properly, world building can be the icing on a cake, but when poorly executed, the world the characters inhabit can often seem hollow, like the cardboard scenery used in old Hollywood films.

So, what makes a fantasy setting believable? There are many factors, and even the best of us stumble. J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of world building, and his Middle Earth the gold standard by which all others are judged, but his setting is not without flaws. Looking strictly at the map, Middle Earth is less of a "world" and more of an island, no bigger than New Zealand. There are only three or four major regions to speak of: Gondor, Mordor and Rohan; the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell; the dwarven mines of Moria and the Shire (a small village). Now before any Tolkien fans send me hate mail, I realize there are many more place names, but with regards to story, these are the hot spots, and it feels rather minuscule. Things start to feel less convincing when you consider Tolkien's mythology, as told in the Silmarillion, where the "sun" and "moon" are described, in literal terms, as fruits fallen from trees.

By now, you may think it best to avoid secondary worlds altogether, and go with what we know. After all, Earth is a convenient backdrop, complete with every historic and geographic element an author could want. But mixing fantasy with the real world comes with its own set of pitfalls. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling balances story, character and setting with finesse, but she paints herself into a corner in her later books. How is it possible that hippogriffs, dragons, giants, and all  manor of magical creatures exist on Earth, yet no scientist ever finds trace of them? I can understand wizards wanting to hide their existence, but hippogriffs? Why go through all the trouble, hiding every fossil, egg shell and nest? Erasing every photograph and video? Just to keep a half eagle, half lion a secret? It's obvious Rowling didn't plan on the success of her books spilling over to the adult market. At least Piers Anthony sets his magical world in a separate dimension. In The Hunger Games, we learn that Panem is made up of what was once the United States, but what the hell happened to the rest of the world? Do they even still exist? After three books, Suzanne Collins leaves us wondering. In Stephen King's The Stand, 99% of the human population is wiped out by the flu, but we learn nothing of the world beyond the U.S.. This might be acceptable if the book dealt with a limited perspective, but when King brings Satan into the mix, and an apocalyptic war, you have to wonder where the fuck Europe went.

For me, the most convincing fictional universes are the ones you cannot see, because they continue to exist off the page. Imagine Earth as a fantasy setting. How many nations, cultures, races, religions and species exist? How infinitely complex is human history? I have visited Greece, France, Spain and Morocco on a number of occasions, but can tell you very little about them. This is what a reader should be, a tourist in the author's world. A believable setting gives the illusion of reality by mirroring it, so that, just like Florida, Fictional Florida can never be explored in its entirety, even if the author writes a hundred books about the same place. Frank Herbert, creator of Dune, manages a convincing interstellar society by referencing things the reader can only guess at, while Michael Ende, author of The Never Ending Story, simply concedes Fantasia has no boundaries. George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, made world building his films' most standout feature by hinting at the enormity of his universe, which has to be enormous considering it involves an entire galaxy, most of which he never shows us.

When Emma retrieves an ancient tome, The Ages of Aenya, she finds that there are simply too many kings and queens, and empires come and gone, to process in a single night of study. Despite this, Aenya has definite, geographic boundaries, because it is based in real world science, thanks in part to the Hayden Planetarium. But while Google Earth can show us a complete picture of our world from a distance, we cannot hope to experience all of it. My intent with Aenya is to mirror the one model of a world that we know. I reveal major landmarks like the One Sea and the Pewter Mountains, and major empires like Hedonia, but there will always be more to find in each new tale, there will always be gaps and an infinite horizon to explore.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

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

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

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

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

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

It did.

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Thelana Character Sheet


LEVEL: 1      
ARMOR: 11 (nude)
Bow Sword: 3
Longbow: 3 / 6 range


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

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

XP: 0


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

Sunday, July 13, 2014


These are my rules for advanced combat in Quest for the Talismans and the Quest RPG. You can also add these rules to any d20 gaming system. For more about the Quest Gaming System, choose the RPG link above.

The QUEST RPG motto is “if you can think it, you can roll it.” This mechanic allows for literally infinite possibilities during battle. With this motto in mind, players are encouraged to work with the GM to create action packed scenarios. 

The GM’s Role: As with standard actions, the GM sets the Difficulty of an action in combat, but must also determine the effects of the action and possibly the consequences of failing that action.

There are three types of Combat Actions: Directed Attack Rolls, Combat Action Rolls, and Defensive Actions: Evading, Parrying, Rolling and Absorbing.  

An example of an Attack Roll is rolling the d20 to hit—but players may opt for more interesting attacks by chancing to roll higher numbers; this is called a Directed Attack Roll. Examples of Directed Attack Rolls include: 
  • stun (s); enemy loses 1 round 
  • double damage (dd) 
  • knock prone (p); enemy loses 1 round and -5 ARMOR for that round 
  • blind (b) enemy loses 5 ARMOR permanently 
  • (k) enemy is killed       
For instance, when fighting an orc you could
  • Just hit him! / Penalty: +/- 0 / for Basic damage
  • Aim for his elbow / Penalty -1 / Stun
  • Aim for his kneecap / -2 / Knock prone
  • Aim for his head/ -3 / double damage + stun
  • Stab out his eye / -4 / dd + s + b
  • Decapitate him! / -5 / Kill (instant)
  • Aim for his potion / -3 / Potion falls before he can drink it.
Once the player calls the action, if the hit misses with the penalty, even if it would have hit normally, the attack misses completely. In most cases, attacks to the body deal normal damage including the desired effect. If the damage causes an unexpected kill—such as when rolling the knight’s epic blow—the GM may describe a more dramatic scenario; for instance, rather than wounding the kneecap and knocking the orc prone, the GM could say, “You swing for the leg and drop the orc to the ground. Blood gushes from the stump where its knee used to be.” 

With Combat Action Rolls, the player makes a Difficulty check before the attack roll. Some actions require only that you roll equal to or higher than the Difficulty, while other actions require a competing rolls. For example, if you wish to wrestle an ogre, you must roll higher in Strength than the ogre rolls; such actions are marked with a v. (verses) after the Difficulty. To determine a monster’s Strength bonus, divide its HEALTH by 2: an ogre’s Health is 10 so its Strength bonus is 5.

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

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

Normally, when it’s the enemy’s turn to attack, you rely on your armor or agility to avoid harm—either your shield takes the brunt of the blow or you manage to dive out of the way. This is called an Evasive Action, but in some cases the player may choose more advanced defensive techniques, such as Parrying, Rolling or Absorbing.

To perform a parry, use Agility vs. Strength or Agility vs. Agility. Your weapon must be the same size (or larger) than the thing (weapon/arm/maw etc.) attacking you. A giant’s club or a dragon’s mouth cannot be parried, but an ogre’s mace, while slightly larger than a longsword, can be parried. You are allowed one parry per round for every 3 points of Agility. If you fail the first parry against multiple attackers, you cannot make a second attempt. To perform a parry, you must state your intent to do so before the enemy’s roll. Since you are not avoiding attack, ARMOR is not used in a parry, so the enemy needs only to roll higher than your d20+ Agility roll to do damage. If the attacker tries a special action, apply penalties to their roll.

Steel vs. Flesh: If you parry a limb with a bladed weapon, like a monk’s fist, the monk suffers his own damage. If the damage is significant enough to drop the attacker to 0 Health, the limb is severed.   

Steel vs. Stone: If an attack roll of 20 is parried (possible with Agility Bonus), whichever weapon is weaker, regardless of whether it is attacking or parrying, breaks. For instance, if a steel sword hits with a 20 and a stone club parries it, the club shatters; likewise, if the stone club is parried by the sword, the club still shatters. If both weapons are of equal strength, neither breaks. Weapon strength is based on damage, so a weapon dealing 4 is stronger than one dealing 3, and so forth.

Often, when a monster is too big to parry, the player can opt for a defensive roll. This technique uses the monster’s size to your advantage as you roll under its claw/club/legs, etc; it also becomes crucial against huge monsters with BASH—such as from a giant’s foot or an elder dragon’s tail. For the most part, shields and helmets are useless against BASH, so players must move out of the way or take damage. To do so, roll d20+ Agility vs. the monster’s attack roll.     

In unusual circumstances, players may choose to throw themselves into an attack, using the brunt of their armor to absorb the damage. This action may be called at any time (attack rolls are not made) and can be used only by characters with body armor. Damage is absorbed equal to the ARMOR bonus of the item, so a +3 cuirass absorbs 3 points of damage. The downside to this tactic is that for every point of damage the armor takes exceeding its bonus, it permanently loses 1 point of defense. For instance, a cuirass absorbing a hammer for 4 damage loses 1 ARMOR (target takes 1 damage), becoming +2; if hit again, it becomes +1. Once the armor’s bonus reaches 0, it falls apart, becoming useless. If the cuirass is used to absorb a smaller weapon like a dagger (which deals 1), it will take 3 separate hits before becoming damaged. Damaged armor may be repaired for half its original price.        


A good way to make new skills is to discover them by the Action Rolls you use in game. If, for example, you grow fond of “dive between enemy’s legs to escape” you can make it a skill by purchasing it through XP.

Once an Action Roll becomes a learned skill, you can attempt it without worrying about the effects of Failure. In addition, invented skills add to your Action Bonus. To determine a new skill’s Bonus, divide its Difficulty by 10 (rounding down) and add to the corresponding Type. For example, “jump off the wall and backstab enemy”—let’s call it Wall Jump—would add +1 (12 / 10 = 1.2) to Agility.     

To calculate the XP Cost of a new skill, multiply the Action’s Difficulty by 10. To learn Wall Jump, then, you would need 120 XP. Keep in mind that the GM may limit your skill based on situation (for example, if there is no wall nearby for you to use Wall Jump).     


MAX HEALTH: (Number of points of damage you can lose before dying)

ARMOR: (Other players/monsters must roll this number or above on a d20 to hit you). Armor is calculated using a base score of 8. Bonuses are added from items (such as a helmet) or skills (such as Speed which adds +2). For example, a knight with chainmail +1, a helmet +1 and a kite shield +2 (8 +1 +1 +2) has an Armor of 12. If a better item is purchased, subtract the old bonus before adding the new one. Bonuses do not stack for same type items. The amount of armor you can wear is determined by your Endurance score. With max Endurance +10, Armor tops at 18. Armor also affects Agility (see below).

WEAPON/DMG: (Number of health points you subtract with each successful hit) Endurance determines the types of non-magical weapons you can wield (see below).

STRENGTH: Add this number to your d20 roll when grappling with an enemy. See Advanced Battle options. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum amount of Strength a character can have is +10.

WISDOM: Wisdom helps you make good choices and avoid obstacles. In Quest for the Talismans, add this bonus to your Story Space roll. Wisdom also increases your chances of stealing, assassinating, haggling, persuading others, and anything requiring mental acumen. This attribute may also come in handy depending on the monster you are fighting. See Sir Marek’s Guide to Monster Hunting. The maximum Wisdom a character can have is +10.    
ENDURANCE: Your Endurance determines the heaviest armor you can wear and the heaviest weapons you can wield. Armor weight is equal to its bonus and weapon weight to its damage. With Endurance +5, for instance, you can use a weapon that deals a maximum DMG: 5; you can also upgrade your armor up to 5 points for a maximum ARMOR: 13 (or 15 with Skill bonus). The maximum Endurance a character can have is +10.

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