March 25, 2008

Research, Research, Research

I’m a pretty big believer in research.

My favorite fiction writers—currently I’m into the scribblings of Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child—are usually good about doing their homework, and it shows in their work. Details and some healthy realism, even in fantasy, spin a web that can ensnare the unsuspecting reader … and once you’ve got them it’s too late.

My little source bookshelf is currently overburdened with reference material, and I’m adding more all the time. Some material has proved elusive, but there are many books about fantasy topics—medieval clothing, castles, etc. All grain for the mill. Most fantasy RPGs are set in a semi-medieval world, so one must pick and choose information, but there is still plenty to be had. Raiding the Barnes & Noble Sale Annex for large picture books on different cultures has become a regular pastime for me.

Often the little details aren’t individually noticeable, but I like to think that together they blend and make for a good final product. My Goodman Games adventure The Scaly God, for instance, incorporated a lot of weird research: research on lizards for the troglodytes, hours of research on caves and natural cavern formations, and castle research including Roman mountainside fortifications. I also studied Gygax’s Giant series (G2 and G3 specifically) in an attempt to give the third level cave layout an “old school” sense of flow.

Again, sometimes you must know when to “push the rules” a bit; real caves are often extremely tight and narrow to the point of claustrophobia—I choose the larger scale tunnels, but I did retain some natural formations and details.

Real life experiences, as I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, also shape my work heavily. I’ve walked through a good number of European medieval-age structures, and a summer spend studying abroad allowed me first-hand visits to Stonehenge and Warwick Castle. Later ramblings got me to Cardiff Castle in Wales and Urquhart Castle at Loch Ness. (And no, I didn’t see Nessie, but I was so knackered by the time I reached the loch that I was half-asleep on the boat! Sadly, Nessie would have had to bit my rump for me to take notice at that point.)
Whitefang Stronghold has a goodly share of those trips in it; I mentally threw several structures into the blender and liked what emerged. (None the Wiser, whose awesome and inspiring work I mention here, did note my lack of proper ceiling support or spiral stair construction in places—I guess engineering isn’t my strong suit! I did find his observation about having arrowslits on a staircase privately ironic—he is totally right, having them there really doesn’t make much sense, yet I put them there after, you guessed it, seeing similarly placed arrowloops in an Italian fortification!) One maze-like section of the third level caves was even inspired by a childhood memory of exploring Injun's Joe's Cave on Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island, of all places!

For me, part of doing the research is that it makes me believe in what I'm writing, and that in turn makes me more passionate about what I'm writing.

Does this research and resulting mental mishmash ultimately bleed into my final product enough to make a real difference? I like to think so.

So … ready to write? Try hitting the books first.

March 04, 2008

Thanks Gary

I am greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Gary Gygax (or EGG or Col_Pladoh, as I think of him). Gary was an icon, and in no small part he was responsible for something huge, more than a hobby and indeed a huge passion for so many of us. One of my longest running friendships began with a short posting on a D&D message board. More recently, a mutual love of the game has brought me into contact with some fellow Goodman Games writers, truly wonderful fellows all. I wouldn’t be on the RPG writing path I am without having read so many great adventures by the master. Sample a bit of Gygax prose from The Temple of Elemental Evil:
The ruins of the Temple’s outer works appear as dark and overgrown mounds of gray rubble and blackish weeds. Skulls and bones of humans and humanoids gleam white here and there amidst the weeds. A grove of some oddly stunted and unhealthy looking usk trees still grows along the northern end of the former Temple compound, and a stump of a tower juts up from the northeast corner of the shattered wall. The leprous gray Temple, however, stands intact, its arched buttresses somehow obscene with their growth of climbing vegetation.

Everything surrounding the place is disgusting. The myriad leering faces and twisting, contorted forms writhing and posturing on every face of the Temple seem to jape at the obscenities they depict. The growth in the compound is rank and noisome. Thorns clutch, burrs stick, and crushed stems either emit foul stench or raise angry weals on exposed flesh. Worst of all, however, is the pervading fear which seems to hang over the whole area—a smothering, clinging, almost tangible cloud of vileness and horror.
Or the Vault of the Drow:
The small “star” nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large “moon” of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermilions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewer’s attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more light mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.
Great, great work.

My only true meeting with Gary, and it was a brief one, took place at Gen Con 1998. I wanted to meet Gygax but was hesitant to approach him on the show floor. Later my friend Mark dragged me into the convention center bar where Gary was enjoying a cold one, and he was happy to sign our Player’s Handbooks. I took the opportunity to solve an old argument:
Me: “How do you pronounce the name of the dark elves, Gary?”

Gary: “Well, I’ve always said ‘drow’ (rhymes with cow) myself,” he saw my pained look and quickly added, “But whatever works for you!”
I lost the argument but was happy as a clam, just the same.

Gary was a gentleman, to coin his phrase, a Gentle Writer, and he will be missed. At the expense of sounding truly geeky, I hope every time those funny dice hit a table somewhere, Gary is smiling somewhere else. If one must have a claim to fame, giving a gift of imagination and enjoyment to millions via your creation and its offspring isn’t a bad one. Not at all.

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