Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy & Tabletop RPGs – A Look at the Fundamentals of the Genre

I’ve talked about my strong personal affinity for the Epic Fantasy genre, and why understanding the genre matters when thinking about designing and playing a Tabletop RPG. But all of that begs the question: Just what is Epic Fantasy, anyway?

The easy (and flippant) answer is: “I know it when I see it”. But that’s hardly satisfying.

In fact, as I spent some time thinking about it, there are some features that most if not all examples of Epic Fantasy (with which I am personally familiar) in the body of the literature share in common. What are those common features? And how central are they to the experience of Epic Fantasy?

In my musing on the subject, I came up with over a dozen different genre features. Some of them, I reasoned, are very central to the experience of Epic Fantasy. Some less so. And some are actually red herrings – features that appear common but in fact are not central to the experience at all. This latter category can be confounding, as these features, if present, may lead one to mistake a given work of fiction for a work of Epic Fantasy even when they are not.

Accordingly, I grouped these different features into three buckets, or categories: the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy, the Auxiliary Elements of Epic Fantasy, and the Common Supporting Tropes.

The Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy

These are the genre features – or “Elements” – that I deemed the most critical and defining features. In my game design notes, I wrote:

These are the irreducible core of the genre without which you lose the very heart of the genre. So essential are these that any single element lacking, in whole or in part, almost certainly excludes a story from the corpus of the genre. But while the Fundamental Elements are necessary to define the genre, they are by themselves insufficient.

Now, how true this is in practice may vary in part by the individual’s own personal preferences. But for me, they make up the heart of what I’m after. They are, in summary:

1. Wonder & Magic

This is the first and most obvious element or feature. It’s core to all of the larger Fantasy genre. It’s what defines Fantasy. Somewhere in a story there is that sense of wonder, that magical, mythical beating heart. Find it, and you’ve found your way into a Fantasy story.

While it’s the most irreducible feature of the genre, it may be that it’s also the easiest to capture. From the perspective of writing a TTRPG: is there some system or mechanic or key setting detail that supports the inclusion of the magical, mystical, wonderful world of the impossible? Congratulations: you have a Fantasy!

So my game needs something magical, wondrous, or supernatural. Since it’s a fantasy game, that’s basically a given. But the field is wide open as to what that looks like. Do the players get to dabble in the magic of the world directly, or is everything done indirectly or through NPC intermediaries? This gets to the heart of what the “magic system” looks like. And see: D&D has a magic system – it’s not exactly my favorite magic system ever, but it works. A lot of other fantasy games have gone before me that also have magic systems. Some well-regarded fantasy RPGs notably lack a defined magic system – magic is an alien and mysterious aspect of the world that is beyond the ken of mere mortals.

What makes figuring out what this trait of the game perhaps the most difficult is that what the magic system looks like really is dependent on the setting of the story. But if the game is meant to be setting-agnostic, focused instead on genre as the backbone of the game, then how can magic be addressed directly? It’s a challenge I’ve yet to figure out, honestly. Instead, as I’ve worked on the game, I’ve focused the vast majority of my attention on creating a solid system underlying everything else – everything mundane and non-magical. And yet, if my goal is to have magic and wonder woven into the fiber of the world (and the game system), shouldn’t figuring this out be one of my first priorities?

So in the near-term, figuring out a systematic approach to “magic” that comfortably encompasses “high-magic” and “low-magic” settings, whether “hard-magic” or “soft-magic”. At this stage, I don’t have an answer for that.

What’s more: there’s a lot more to what makes a fantasy story epic than the presence of magic.

2. Secret Lore & the Ancient Past

Not everything is known or, indeed, even knowable about the world. There is a rich and vibrant history to this world, but some of the most important aspects of that history remain, to this day, a mystery waiting to be discovered, apprehended, and as often the case may be, corrected.

Now, honestly, as an element of a game, it seems to me that maybe this feature trades more on the setting than on the mechanics. But let’s think about that, and unpack that assumption. Are there ways to pull in the secrets of the ancient past in a mechanical way? I honestly don’t know yet. But I suspect there’s something there. Maybe it’s just mechanics for how you go about building a setting from scratch. But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s an aspect of the game that I want to explore further as I dive deeper into designing and developing this game.

3. A Moral Landscape

What do I mean by a “moral landscape”? Simply this: that Epic Fantasy is by its nature heavily invested in interrogating questions of morality, ethics, right and wrong, good and evil. Some may do it in a simplistic, black-and-white approach (indeed, that may be the ur-example of this feature of the genre) but modern Epic Fantasy focuses more especially on the areas of gray, on the uncertainty of right and wrong.

Epic Fantasy heroes almost invariably choose the “right” path – from their own perspective. But that path is fraught with danger, peril, and threats to life and limb. And, sometimes they discover that what they believed to be the right path was, in fact, problematic – forcing them to re-calibrate their moral and ethical assumptions and re-navigate the moral landscape of the world to discover the true right path.

The mechanical options here present myriad possibilities. There’s D&D’s relatively simplistic “alignment” system, sure. But more often games these days take a more subtle and more story-driven approach to morality in the game, many with more impactful rules and systems. My own preference, here, is to use a somewhat freeform “Trait” system to allow players to define their own personal moral alignment, ethical priorities, and beliefs – and then to invoke those traits in a back-and-forth, give-and-take mechanical tug-of-war, using those Traits to provide mechanical advantage when appropriate, but just as often or more, to create story complications and material that directly interrogate and invoke those traits, and to provide key milestones to allow players to revise and update their alignment Traits based on changes to their characters’s worldviews.

4. The Main Characters Exemplify Heroic Ideals

This is straightforward enough. Sure, the Main Characters of any good story should be flawed, imperfect, and relatable. But in an Epic Fantasy they are also, in the heart of their hearts, Heroic. Heroism doesn’t mean the characters are flawless beyond reproach. But they have a strong internal sense of right-and-wrong, a powerful moral compass always pointing to what they perceive to be the good, and they follow that compass with purpose and intent.

I can possibly just roll this into the former element, since the two have significant overlaps – so I don’t have any more mechanical musings to add to what I already discussed above.

5. Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope

What it says on the tin: Epic means Epic. Big, important stuff happens. The characters travel across the world in their quest to save it. Many secondary and tertiary characters’s lives are touched by the Main Characters’s actions, most for the better, some for the worse.

Now, if I’m entirely honest, I’ve actually read a few Epic Fantasy’s that have a much more intimate and close focus. So maybe this isn’t a “Fundamental” trait? But it feels Fundamental. Even in those stories where the Epic Fantasy had a more narrow and intimate focus, there were hints of this grand, sweeping scope lying just beyond the boarders of the village, of big things happening which related directly to what the Main Characters were doing. At the end of the day, even when the Main Characters didn’t go globe-trotting, you just know that the ripples from their actions will have macro-scale consequences.

Once again, my instinct is to see this feature as an aspect of the world-building and the way the Players and GM navigate the core conflicts of their individual stories. But, once again, I have this distinctive, unshakable feeling that there’s something more to this element – something that I can and probably should reflect in my game’s mechanics.

6. An Ensemble Cast

Epic Fantasies are often about one or two main characters – the proverbial “Heroes”, the neophytes to adventure who nonetheless have the biggest destinies to fulfill . But those few more central characters are almost invariably surrounded by a large, ensemble cast of supporting characters fulfilling a variety of key story roles. There’s the Hero’s Mentor, for instance, and the Hero’s Guardian (a more experienced character who protects the neophyte Hero until he or she is strong enough to stand on his or her own), and the Hero’s Foil or Jester – and so on.

There are plenty of roles for a good-sized group of Players to fill. But here’s the key: these characters don’t all play the same way. The Guardian is strong, experienced, worldly. In D&D they’d be high-level character, whereas the neophyte Hero starts at a low level. Using D&D’s paradigm of class and level simply won’t work to capture the range of characters that populate an Epic Fantasy story.

Mechanically, you need a way to combine the stronger, more experienced characters like the Mentors and the Guardians together with the Neophytes and the Jesters and others who are relatively “weaker” in the traditional RPG, combat-oriented sense, and to have them all play a role of roughly equal narrative weight in the game. This is one of the key areas where I think I need to spend time thinking about how to model the sort of ensemble cast that I envision filling an Epic Fantasy story translating to a Role-Playing Game experience.

7. Sacrifice & Loss

Saving the world, or whatever other epic task is laid before the heroes of the story, isn’t an easy job. In fact, to succeed the Main Characters will have to make sacrifices. Some of them will not make it to the very end and THAT’S OKAY. That’s part of what makes it “Epic“. Even when we’re not talking about the sacrifice and loss of characters’ lives, there are other sacrifices that may need to be made. A traditional one is the loss of innocence – it’s a loss that most of us members of humanity can directly relate to. But there may be still other, more tangible sacrifices: Losing an object of value. Losing access to privileges. Loss of freedom.

The point is… someone, somewhere along the way will lose something. And that loss itself will propel the story forward. Loss and sacrifice isn’t capricious. Character death is not random. These things serve a greater purpose.

This is another one that I consider supremely important to implement in a mechanical way. But it’s a nut I haven’t quite cracked yet. The simple version of what I imagine is to have players voluntarily make sacrifices at key story moments – voluntarily give up something of value up to and including voluntarily giving up your character’s life, but to have those sacrifices generate new resources or increased effectiveness in proportion to the sacrifice being made, allowing the good guys to triumph over evil because of and not in spite of the sacrifice that was made. But how do you mechanically codify that in a satisfying way?

8. Drawing the Eyes of Gods or Goddesses, Powerful Wizards, Supernatural Beings, or Mighty Kings and Emperors

You can probably file this under “Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope”. The point of differentiation being: even if the main characters aren’t themselves inherently important and powerful people, the things they do will draw the attention of and engage characters – many of them likely to be NPCs – who do have power, authority, or prestige in the world. Or, sometimes, the Main Characters are those mighty kings, savvy generals, powerful wizards. Or sometimes the characters start out as people of little import but transform through the story into those mighty kings and wizards.

The real point is – one size doesn’t fit all, here. Somehow or other, the powerful will make their presence felt in the story. That may be the Main Characters themselves, or others in the periphery who seek to influence or to enjoy the influence of the Main Characters.

It’s also worth pointing out that this particular trait doesn’t boil down as easily as the others to a simple and pithy headline. That’s because what constitutes the “Mighty” and most influential non-player characters in a given game will vary from game to game, potentially even from session to session. In one world the “Gods & Goddesses” may be a distant memory, mythical beings that are no longer followed and who don’t appear to directly interfere with the affairs of mortals. Kings, Emperors, and Wizards may be the extent of the powerful and influential NPCs the main characters will meet. Or the main characters may find themselves drawn into the affairs of the Lords, Ladies, Kings and Queens of Fairyland or a similar supernatural realm. In another story they really will meet the Gods and/or Goddesses who reign over the world directly, whether to petition them for aid or to directly confront them. Or it might be a mix of any and all of the above, or other related events I’ve not personally conceived of.

As I said above: the real point is, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. And yet, without some interaction with those of power and influence in the world, there’s a bit of a hole where the “Epic” in “Epic Fantasy” hasn’t been entirely filled.

Conclusion

And those are, I believe, the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy. But I’m just one person. I can barely contain my curiosity. What do you think? What makes an Epic Fantasy for you? What did I get right? What did I miss or forget? And what did I include that just strikes you as wrong or odd?

That was a lot of ground to cover all at once, so I’m leaving the rest – the Auxiliary Elements and the Common Supporting Tropes – until next time, and thus I’ll complete my portrait of the Epic Fantasy genre, and how I envision translating it into a game.

Writing Month In Review: September 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 3 out of 4

Total Word Count: 1,461 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 365

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 37%

Other Stats: 5 Writing Days

Well that didn’t go quite as planned, now did it?

September was kind of a train wreck in terms of writing consistently. Once again my health – with respect to my tendency to be too physically exhausted by the end of the day – left me struggling to find opportunities to write. I did my level best to put words on the page, but it just didn’t amount to very much. And yet – better I wrote over 1,400 words than I wrote none at all. Got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and all that.

I actually don’t really have much to say about the writing this month. Things kind of hit a slow-down in terms of progressing the story when I stopped writing in the actual book to fill out my background notes with details about the religions and mythologies and beliefs of the different peoples of this world. I did that in part because I planned for the characters to have a brief but enlightening discussion about their comparative religious ideologies.

When I finally got back to the story, that discussion didn’t unfold quite as I’d planned. And that’s okay. The key, I realized, was that the story itself keep moving, and keep readers engaged. And if that means that there’s less “comparative religion” in the story than I’d intended, but the final result keeps up the pace, then so be it. Certainly, I don’t want to bring the story to a halt and bore the readers.

In fact, this discussion was planned to occur at a point in the story where there’s a bit of a lull in the action, immediately after a (hopefully tense and engaging) action set piece. What happened then is the characters who survived the action scene think they’re getting a moment of rest, but I ended up introducing what I hope was a good amount of tension as their religious differences came to the fore.

And that’s where I am, now. Next up: my main character is set to learn more about the other characters, which hopefully drives her to make some crucial decisions.

Until next time! Keep writing, keep reading, keep living!

Sneak Peak: Work-in-Progress of Draft 1 of “The Book of M”

So I had this idea, however unfounded it may be, that the “readership” of this blog (readership in “square quotes” because I know looking at my site statistics that using the word stretches its meaning somewhat) might have some passing interest in what I’m writing – what I’m actually working on. To that fanciful end, I’m going to, occasionally and as time allows, select and share a snippet of the oh-so-very-rough-draft of the code-titled “The Book of M” (I use that code-title because even though I do have an actual working title for the book, it’s not one I’m sold on, so the real title is more than a little TBD).

I expect to dance around the book a bit: by turns sharing more recent work from the book’s second half, on which I’m actively working, and from the book’s first half, most of which I wrote over the past seven years in spurts and starts.

Today’s snippet happens to come from the near the end of the first act (out of an unknown number of total “acts”). So, without further ado, I give you: “The Book of M”:


The center of the bridge was dominated by a large round wooden wheel attached to a chest-height metal column. Captain Valente held to the wheel’s extended spokes with a firm, steady grip. Nearby was another metal pedestal topped with a strange lever hinged to a semi-circle marked with words that felt unfamiliar to Isa.

But her eyes were drawn to the tall, wide, upward-sloping windows that formed the walls at the tip and front half of the wedge.

She was deaf to the chatter of the captain and crewman as she stepped unthinking toward those windows, her mouth agape, and staring out over the endless rolling dunes of yellow-white sands below and up into the cloudless blue skies beyond. To the east and north, short of the horizon, was a range of tree-lined hills.

“It’s…” She could not find words.

“It’s freedom,” Sidalto said.

She glanced at the captain. He gave her a flashing, toothy smile. He nodded toward the expansive view. “Up here, the world is for the taking.”

The Book of M, Scene 22: Above Desert Sands, by Stephen A. Watkins

Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy, Genre Fidelity, and TTRPGs

As I start to reframe this blog – to refresh it and update it more frequently – I wanted to spend some time here talking about my Tabletop Role-Playing Game (commonly abbreviated as “TTRPG”) design efforts, because it’s one of my two major writing efforts. That means I’ll be, in good time, discussing various aspects of the game’s design, my intent for the design, debating different mechanical approaches to achieving my overarching goals, and so on. So welcome to the first entry in my Designer Diary.

Now before I can get into the nitty gritty of game mechanics and how I imagine the game working I’ve got to spend a minute talking about my goals for the game: what I envision the end-product looking like at a high level.

And for me, for this game, that means talking about genre.

Genre isn’t a new topic of discussion here. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I set out on the path of trying to become a writer. But why is genre so important to my game design?

Because, in my view, genre is an irreducible aspect of the play experience in TTRPGs. Mechanics can either support or undermine the genre of the game, and I firmly believe that if you are aiming for a certain experience in play, you have to be cognizant of the genre tropes you are seeking to emulate in play. You have to think about how those tropes can best be represented in play, and how to build up or subvert those tropes, and why you might want to. Which means understanding the genre you’re working in.

But there’s another reason genre is so important to me. There’s one genre in particular that is nearest and dearest to my heart. One genre that speaks to me like no other. One genre that, in my view, has some of the most powerful potential to tell stories that examine and build up the human condition.

Epic Fantasy.

But there’s a problem that I see. There are literally thousands of TTRPGs on the market – everything from the behemoth that is Dungeons & Dragons to free, single-page RPGs and the thousands of games in between. Just peruse the offerings at DriveThruRPG.com if you want to take a gander at the plethora of offerings. What chance do I have in crafting a game that stands out?

No chance, honestly. But that’s not the point of design. For me, the design process itself is rewarding – and it would be even if I ended up with a game that was too similar to any other game on the market. I want to create a game that matches my vision of what a Role-Playing game can be. And that means zeroing in on that genre: Epic Fantasy.

And yet, of these thousands of games I know to exist, few if any manage to capture the essence and tropes of Epic Fantasy in a thoroughly satisfactory way. Granted, I can’t possibly know about every game on the market – thousands is too many for any one soul to meaningfully comb through. Even so, among the many high-profile games with which I am familiar, I find that quintessential Epic Fantasy experience ever elusive. There are games that I believe, if I got a chance to play them, would come very close. (I’d truly love to try out games such as FATE, which may have the flexibility to do Epic Fantasy as well as it does any other genre, Fellowship, which is definitely billed as Tolkienian Epic Fantasy, and Ironsworn, which isn’t Epic Fantasy per se but looks like it has a lot to offer that mirrors the experience I’d want to see in an Epic Fantasy game.) But none (that I know) that have quite everything I want to see in a game. None that match my vision for what an Epic Fantasy game could be, arguably should be. I perceive this gap between the gameplay experience of even those games that I know are aiming firmly at an Epic Fantasy experience, and the ideal Epic Fantasy experience.

I call this gap between what Epic Fantasy embodies in the ideal sense, and the actual play outcomes “Genre Fidelity“. Inasmuch as some games are ostensibly trying to go for the Epic Fantasy experience, or at least market themselves as such – let’s pick on Dungeons & Dragons for a moment shall we? – and the play experience falls short of the ideal, there’s a very low degree of genre fidelity.

Using our example of Dungeons & Dragons, it largely markets itself as the quintessential Epic Fantasy game. (Yes, arguably, they are positioned more as a Swords & Sorcery game, which is a different genre entirely, but in my opinion it’s not really marketed that way.) But when you dive into the mechanics and the kind of play the game supports? It’s a fantasy combat simulator game. Does combat happen in Epic Fantasy? Well, sure, of course it does. But Epic Fantasy isn’t exclusively or even mostly about fighting. It’s about so much more. And none of that “more” is supported by the mechanics of D&D. If, while playing D&D, you happen to get a high-fidelity Epic Fantasy play experience, that’s mostly in spite of the game’s mechanics, and not because of them.

But if Epic Fantasy is so important to me, and the play experience I want to engender so entangled with the genre, what does that mean for me, as a designer?

First and foremost, it means defining what it means to be Epic Fantasy. Which, even for a genre as “prescriptive” as Epic Fantasy, is a tall order.

Next time I’m going to tackle that very question.

Writing Months In Review: May – August 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 11 out of 19

Total Word Count: 15,053 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 792

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 94%

Other Stats: 26 Writing Days

I have not been good about keeping a monthly cadence to my writing updates, have I?

It’s been a on-again, off-again few months, really a roller-coaster ride of writing. Lots of times when I was able to buckle down and really crank out the word count. And lots of times when I succumbed to the various vagaries of health and other such limitations and just… didn’t write. Most of the time… if I didn’t write at least once during the week, it’s because I hit a wall of fatigue in the evening hours when I typically do my writing and JUST. COULD. NOT. STAY. AWAKE. I don’t usually like writing about my health. Maybe it’s because I’m a private person. (I’m an introvert.) And maybe it’s because I prefer to pretend that things are fine. (They aren’t.) But, it is a health issue – among many that I struggle with – and it’s one of the hardest on my writing, not least of which is because it’s been nigh impossible to properly diagnose, and therefore the hardest to treat and manage. In the end, I strongly suspect that some of the medicines I take for other health problems are having a soporific side-effect that has proven extremely difficult to treat and manage. But this isn’t a health blog. It’s a writing blog.

As I write this I’m currently sitting at about 14,200 words for the four-month period of May through August – a mix of writing in the Novel and writing notes and supporting documentation on my RPG game design – and with a few days left to go in the latter month. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get some writing in during these last few sultry days of August.

I’m not overly or unrealistically optimistic, mind you, seeing as that chronic fatigue issue has been especially prevalent of late; but the fatigue comes and goes sometimes without rhyme or reason. It doesn’t generally respond to or correlate with the amount of sleep I get. Instead, it seems to strike at random and over prolonged periods during which I regularly “crash” every evening, having lost any capacity to contemplate any activity other than sleep. Then, just as mysteriously, it’ll clear up for a time and my ability to push through and engage in any activity – not always writing – improves. The good times usually give me an extra hour, maaaaybe two each evening. So, it’s entirely possible that the remaining days of the month will mysteriously turn out better on the fatigue front than it has been lately.

On the bad days, I begin to despair of ever even finishing just this one book, much less the dozens of other ideas I have for novels, short stories, series, and so on. How I reason, can I ever even hope to finish all this work if I can’t stay awake long enough to put in at least some writing time on a regular basis? Never-mind that I ever get even the first thing published in this state. It’s a hard fact. The health problems aren’t going anywhere, and even the doctors are left scratching their heads and shrugging and throwing drugs at the wall to see what sticks and what bounces off.

In my dayjob I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to participate in series of Coaching sessions on building personal resilience. Of course, the first and primary reason for the opportunity is that a resilient and emotionally stable and engaged employee is, in fact, a more productive, creative, and useful worker. But the benefits of personal resilience can have ameliorative and salutary effects in one’s personal life too. Until I get published and writing becomes my actual career (or, at least, a secondary career) my personal life includes writing (and game design!).

Applying the lessons learned (thus far), one of my immediate goals is to be able to identify negative thought patterns that fall under the general umbrella of “Cognitive Distortions”, to label them, and to shift the thought pattern toward a more fact-based foundation. In this case, it goes like this:

My thoughts:

Because of my health problems I can’t write. Because I can’t write now, that means I’ll never finish. If I never finish, I’ll never get published. If I never get published, then I am a failure at the one thing that is most important to me personally (outside of my family). If I fail at that, then I am a failure as a person.

~Me, following the train of thought from it’s impetus to what seems like its logical conclusion.

I can identify and label that thought as a cognitive distortion of the “overgeneralizing”, “all-or-nothing” variety. To reframe it and shift it, I could look at the situation a little more dispassionately, thus:

My health problems are preventing me from writing in this moment. The health problem does not define me, and over time it can be managed, at least some of the time. Maybe it’s not managed today, but tomorrow is a new day. I can still finish this novel, even if it takes me a few more years. And if I finish this novel, I still have a shot at trying to get it published. And even if I never get published, I’ve only ever truly failed if I give up.

~Me, pushing myself to reframe my thoughts despite a very strong inclination to prefer the prior thought pattern as being more consistent with reality.

This is, in fact, an excellent example of what it means to capture and reframe these negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions. In the short term, I don’t know that I really believe the reframed thought. But, with time, it may be enough simply to think it and to repeat it as something of a mantra or an affirmation. By capturing the negative thoughts and forcibly reframing them, regardless of whether I’m feeling it at an emotional level, I hope to train my conscious mind (and, through practice, my unconscious mind) to automatically favor the more positive and edifying trains of thought.

And, because I’m a writer and I think best when I’m writing… I’ll probably be doing some of that here in this blog. I’m putting this out in the open. I may struggle with multiple, often difficult to manage health deficiencies. But that does not define me. It’s legitimately hard to take a positive view sometimes. But I’m counting on being able to change this with practice. Because I need this, for me.

Still to come on this blog: hopefully more positive and edifying reframing of my often negative thought patterns. More learning about resilience. More about my writing: what I’m currently writing, what I plan to write someday, and so on. And more about my game designs. I have plans to share snippets of my first draft work-in-progress on my novel. Snippets of short stories I’ve written. Musings about tabletop game design and game mechanics. And more consistent updates on my writing progress. It’s time I reframe this blog and turn it around from a ghost town overrun by gale-tossed tumbleweeds and build up more clear, more focused picture of me and my writing life. Sometimes with the warts, sometimes with a little cognitive “photoshopping” and reframing. But always the truth. Until next time!

Writing Months in Review: March & April 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 5 out of 8

Total Word Count: 10,407 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 2,390 words (March) vs. 212 (April)

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 239.0% (March) vs. 21.2% (April)

Other Stats: 18 Writing Days

A Tale of Two Writing Months

It was the best of writing months. It was the worst of writing months. It was the epoch of great productivity. It was the epoch of great writer’s block. It’s weird because in the end these two months end up averaging out to something more or less just an edge better than “meh”. Which is to say that despite basically not writing at all for the entire month of April, still come out ahead of my monthly word count goals year-to-date. There’s just one teensy little caveat.

You see, despite writing more than two month’s worth of word count in March… I didn’t write a word of fiction. Nothing in my novel. Nothing in my worldbuilding and background notes. It was all, 100%, game design writing.

That’s just what I felt the desire to write, anyway. I was feeling mildly blocked with the worldbuilding stuff, and the game design stuff was just calling to me fiercely. It was the path of least resistance, and I just ran down that path like an Olympic sprinter. Well, at least, more like an Olympic sprinter than my usual writing speed.

April was another story. Physical exhaustion and other complications set in, and I started to feel blocked with the game design efforts, and I just didn’t have neither the time nor the energy to push through the two blocks. So both works sat fallow for pretty much the whole month.

Things are getting a little better so far in May. And the good news for my novel: I started to find my voice again, and started filling up my worldbuilding notes with more of the details that I’m going to need for the upcoming scenes in the novel. On the other hand, with respect to the game design efforts, I’m still more blocked than not. Plus, it’s at a stage where I need to figure out some game mechanisms and think about the moving parts and how not to make it all so complicated that it’s unplayable. Streamline, streamline, streamline. Still, both efforts have a long, long, long way to go.

I just can’t think about that part. That way lies worry and fretting and depression, and that’s not good for the word count. Sure, yes, it’s going to take me years to finish either or both of these two projects. That’s just reality. But I can’t dwell on it. I just have to keep pushing ahead the best I know how.

So the plan going forward? I want to make meaningful progress on both these projects. But instead of going full steam on one then hitting a block and switching to the other, I’m going to start proactively switching between the two projects periodically. A day or two writing stuff for the novel. A day or two writing stuff for the game. That way I start to feel like I’m making progress on both projects. And that will make me a happy writer.

That’s all there is to say for now. Time to get back to writing.

Writing Month in Review: February 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 4 out of 4

Total Word Count: 3,190 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 798 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 79.8%

Other Stats: 10 Writing Days

February was kind of an odd month. I wrote something every week in February. I wrote on more days total than I did in January. And yet I wrote less in total than I did in January, and fell a bit short of my monthly goal. Looking back on the month, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and what the overarching theme was, but I do have a thought or two about what might have happened to me. I won’t belabor the blog with lurid tales of my health struggles; for certain I’ve mostly been as well as I ever have lately, with one notable exception. Suffice to say that I’ve struggled with aspects of maintaining my wakefulness and energy levels even when I’m otherwise quite well. Which is to say: I was too tired to write much most evenings in February.

The other big theme of February: my mentally switching gears from my novel and backstory drafting to game design stuff. I didn’t intend to lose track of my novel and its backstory. But I guess after you’ve written profiles for some dozen-ish imaginary deities in the story, the mind starts to want to move on to something new. I’m not done with the mythology, cosmology, and religious dogma yet – not by a long shot. But I think I needed a rest from writing the dating profiles of the gods. (“Likes long walks along the firmament of the heavens and conceiving whole galaxies.”)

Which means the latter half of the month, where maybe two-thirds of my writing happened, were almost all spent drafting up stuff related to a long, long, long-gestating tabletop roleplaying game design I’ve been tinkering with. That may not be a great use of my time… I lack a traditional tabletop roleplaying group on whom to test out these design efforts of mine. There are the munchkins, who do love RPGs, but of the more kid-oriented variety. B.T., the elder, has recently started in with D&D with a group of students from school, so there’s that. But I don’t expect to be testing out my “Serious RPG Creation” (tm) on the little guys any time soon.

Speaking of that half-baked RPG idea of mine, well… whadayasay we talk about it a little more. I’m currently code-naming it the “ERA System”, where ERA is an acronym for: “Epic Roleplaying Adventures”. Yes, I know. Super, like, deep and catchy and pithy and all that. It does have a real name, but I’m happy enough calling it “ERA System” in public for the time being.

So what is the ERA System? It’s a beautiful mishmash of RPG game ideas I’ve culled from exposure to a variety of new (to me) and exciting, possibly even cutting-edge RPG concepts that first appeared in a variety of other games but which, to my knowledge, have never before been joined together into a single game. Talking about it in any more concrete terms – to an audience not already familiar with the massive world of RPGs outside of D&D – would require me to do a bit of a dive into the recent-ish history of independently published games. I might try to do so, but not in this post. All you need to know for know: ERA System is being designed with one goal in mind, and that is to emulate as accurately as possible the feel and experience of reading an epic fantasy novel captured in game form. By which I mean, the continuity of literary genre that encapsulates both great-grandfather Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, through and including more modern fare such as the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, and about a hundred other books that I’ve yet to read as my to-read pile grows so precariously large as to utterly engulf me. (Seriously. Check out my Goodreads profile…) The tropes and archetypes of the genre are my guiding light with this project.

Anyway, a part of me knows I need to get back to the novel if I’m going to meet my long-term goals of finishing this behemoth. Another part of me says you have to write what kindles your passion in the moment, what your muse is coaxing out of you presently. In which case: continue working on the game until I get to an impasse and grow sufficiently frustrated, and my longing to write the novel grows ever stronger and I feel drawn back to it. Which could be next week. Or could be in three months.

What do you do, friends? Stay steady, focused, committed, and resolute on a single goal – and a single project – at a time? Or hop from project to project and back again as the muse moves you? I can’t decide for myself which is better.

And besides that, is there any interest, in my meager, anemic following in discussing more of this ERA project and its antecedents to which I’ve alluded?

Sound off in the comments. I commandeth Thee!