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!

Writing Month in Review: January 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 3 out of 5

Total Word Count: 3,985 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 797 words

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 99.6%

Other Stats: 5 Writing Days

Not a bad start to the year, don’t you think? Not actually 100% on goal, but as close as can be! And considering that I can literally count the number of days I wrote in January on one hand… well, I can’t argue with the final numbers for the month.

The truth is, January was actually kind of a sad month for writing. Literally only 5 days out of 31 that passed did I sit down to write! That’s not ideal. It’s only by chance that I managed to be sufficiently productive when I did write to get so close to my goal for the month.

As for what I’m writing: you may recall (if you follow this blog for more than the last five minutes) that I was debating what to do about the next chapter in my book. Well… I made a decision. I decided to put a pause on the book itself to focus my writing and creative attention on some of the back story. Not that I don’t have literally thousands of words worth of back story already. But I’d written literally almost nothing about the gods and goddesses worshipped by these people, which is an incredible oversight on my part, considering that the clash of different religious ideologies is one of the central themes of the book.

Pretty much the entirety of what I wrote in January are descriptions of some of the different gods and goddesses of the major pantheons of this world. Next will come some of the various customs, rites, festivals, rules, social structure and other trappings of religious systems. Stuff that should give the text of the novel some much needed depth and life. And something for the characters to argue about.

That was January. With any luck, I’ll finish this new back story stuff some time in February or March, then get back to the novel proper. But that means sitting down and, you know, writing. With that in mind, I bid you adieu as I get my fingers cracking that keyboard with some more back story!

Writing Year in Review: 2020

Well, it’s another year over, and a new one just begun! That means it’s time to look back at my year in writing, and see how I came out against my goals.

Number of Writing Weeks: 38 out of 52

Total Word Count: 49,892 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 959 words

% of (Adjusted) Annual Word Count Goal: 104%

Other Stats: 86 Actual Writing Days in 2020

Against my original goal for the year of 24,000 words, that’s a pretty amazing trick, isn’t it? Not so amazing that I’m anywhere near finishing my novel, but 2020 was a huge leap forward in that direction. I mean, just look a that beautiful progress bar (in the upper-right-hand panel). It’s OVER 50%! For really reals!

Now… it would be even farther along if November and December hadn’t happened the way they did. What happened in November and December, you may ask?

The Board Game Design bug sort of took over. I ended up spending a large amount of my free-time – time I ordinarily would’ve spent writing my novel – digging my creativity into a board game design project. It’s not my first attempt at designing a board game. It’s not even my first time getting really excited about a board game that I was designing. It’s not even the first time I was nearly convinced this was the one that would go all the way to getting published.

But it is the first time I’ve said it out loud.

And it’s the first time I’ve wanted to start talking about game design out in the open… like… on this blog and everything.

So here we are, at the beginning of a New Year. A time when people traditionally set goals for the year ahead. And I want to take this moment to frame my own goals for 2021. My goals for writing, for game design, and for this blog.

First, I want to start reframing this blog. No more am I “Stephen Watkins, aspiring fantasy author”. Instead, I have become “Stephen Watkins, aspiring fantasy author and habitual game designer“! I’m not a deep-think theorist when it comes to game design. But I expect to discuss my designs more openly going forward – be it board game, role-playing game, or what have you.

Second, my writing goals. I intend for 2021 to be another fully productive year of writing even with the game design thing hovering around here. So I’m going pretty aggressive (for me): all the way to 48,000 words at the outset – be it on my novel, or supporting notes, research, and documentation.

Finally, my game design goals. That one’s seemingly pretty straightforward: get Grimm’s Hollow – the game I’m designing – fully out of my head and into a physical prototype that we can get to the table and actually play and see if I’m onto something. I’ve done a lot of prep work for that… but I’ve yet to get all the way to “physical” yet.

There is one little complication here. Two, actually. BT and VR – or Youngling #1 and Youngling #2. Both of my boys are keenly interested in getting their own game design ideas printed and prototyped and played. And, being the kind of father that I am, I’m bound and determined to help get theirs to the table first. That said: their games are their visions, and it’s a careful line to tread between being a helpful father and accidentally taking over for them. Which is to say: if they want to make this happen, they need to put in some elbow grease too.

Working on these other two game designs constrains the time I can spend on my own game. And that’s okay.

So long as I get my writing done.

So look to this space in the coming weeks and months to hear more – not only about Book of M (which I continue to call thus because it lacks a proper title; I’ve yet to come up with a title I feel attached to), but also about Grimm’s Hollow, and game design more generally. Let’s see where these parallel journeys take us!