Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Challenge Your Darlings! (Game Master - not murderer)

"Murder your darlings" is something that I've heard is common advice for writers. "Every scene should end in disaster" is another, more recent, phrase I've heard. Whether this is supposed to mean "don't play favorites", " cut unnecessary things regardless of how much you like them", or  "add continuous hardship for the sake of drama", I feel like it misses the point. After reading about the role of dungeon masters in Dungeons and Dragons, and listening to tips on being a dungeon master, I feel that "challenge your darlings" is a more accurate phrase.

The role of a dungeon master/game master, fundamentally speaking, is to make sure that the players have fun. That is what everyone gathers around the table for. Part of this means making sure they are challenged.  If one were to apply "Murder your darlings" to writing a game campaign instead of writing a novel, the result is a brief game session, frustrated players, and an empty table. 

Thus, game masters are supposed to prevent things being too easy or too hard. If the campaign is too easy, the encounters are boring and the players don't feel a sense of achievement or victory. If the campaign is too hard, the encounters can't be overcome and the players don't get to progress through the story, collect loot, gain levels etc.  This can be translated for authors.

Events should be difficult for characters. Enemies should be challenging to overcome. Emotionally harrowing, physically taxing, mentally puzzling; all of these things are good. They are what lead to the sense of satisfaction in victory and sense of sorrow in defeat.  They create page-turning tension. However, one shouldn't go too far.

A game master who wants their players to have fun doesn't throw a trio of beholders at their 1st level characters. It would be decided in a round, game over. Likewise, twisting the story so every victory makes the situation worse creates Darkness Induced Apathy (and likely causes a bag of chips to be thrown at the game master's head). A series of sufficiently powerful threats that are just powerful enough to make failure a real possibility (there's no plot armor in a D&D game) and a progression of events where the adventurers make progress towards a goal but the enemy's victory is always possible, lead to excitement, tension, and thus fun. Similarly, an author doesn't pit their main characters against threats that are too much for them to handle. Naturally, there are exceptions.

A setting and story where life is cheap and the cast of characters is an ensemble rather than a division between main/supporting can lead to continuously new characters, each with their own quirks and point of view on events and the setting. It can compliment an omniscient viewpoint for the narrator, or some other character, who watches these failures and has a plan of some kind that involves them.  If those are the kinds of stories you want to write, go for it. The point is to use the lack-of-challenge deliberately. (There's no challenge if it's impossible).

Instead of being "murdered", the darlings should be challenged. It is challenge that leads to excitement and suspense, and thus to a sense of satisfaction in both victory and defeat, for both readers and players.

I'm still reading the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Manual, so I don't have a review for it yet. However, I have reviews for three other books if you are interested. All of them are from Version 3.5.

Complete Divine -  a guide to using game elements related to the divine (magic, classes, gods themselves etc.)

Heroes of Battle -  a supplement to the Dungeon Master's guide. Yes, I read this one before the main one. It's basically about war campaigns and related elements.

 Player's Manual -  the basics of gameplay and the point of view of the player.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Answering review request: Poisoned Princess

Armen Pogharian asked  me to read his novel "Poisoned Princess". It is a medieval fantasy, and I want to include high fantasy because it is much like a classic Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but it has a small and close scope that is better fitting of low fantasy. It's basically a quest to retrieve a cure for an important political figure.
I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish, before assigning a grade.


There's a somewhat slow start to the main plot. It takes a bit for the princess to be poisoned, and this is a good thing. It provides space for the world to be set-up and characters to be introduced and developed. I also like the event itself, both in being present and how well it is executed; skillful guardians vs devious assassins.

As the story unfolds, the titular poisoning was the assassin's back-up plan rather than their main effort. This strengthens the plot by making the princess' safety a game of cat-and-mouse between the assassins and the warders (who are basically the royal Secret Service). It would have been easy to make this into an excuse plot to justify an adventure but it is developed and better throughout than that.

Even after the princess is successfully poisoned, the assassin doesn't call it done and go home. He spends the rest of the book trying to knife her in her sickbed. This makes for a continuation of the pre-poisoning dynamic with some of the warders while the others go on the quest.

It is a great quest; a quest in the classic epic style. The adventuring party has to travel a considerable distance within a time limit. They encounter everything from bounty hunters to monsters while keeping their mission as secretive as possible. There are many close calls and dangerous encounters, and both are skillfully written by Mr. Pogharian.

The heroes get a couple of lucky breaks that make these encounters easier but so do the villains. I think it evens out. To me, it was never about making things easy for the heroes or artificially giving the villains an edge to stay threatening, but more of a genuinely lucky thing or a matter of foreshadowing.

This is basically a Save-The-Princess storyline, which is one of the oldest in the genre, and I really like it. This is because it is a well-written use of the trope, which I think is more important than being original.

The ending is great. It closes this book's conflict while remaining open to all kinds of new adventures for latter in the series. I respect and admire that kind of planning.


Toran is the story's protagonist (and the hero too).  He is a half-elf barbarian fighter who is good with both the sword and the bow. He joins the warders on the recommendation of his uncle at the start of the story.
While he has significant skill in battle and highly skilled in tracking, this is presented as due to his uncle's elven training and the two halves of his heritage mixing well (barbarian strength and battle lust together with elven senses and speed make a formidable combination). My point is, he is a powerful character without being special in someway. This means he doesn't overtake the story and his teammates are relevant.
He has angst about his heritage, and it causes him some problems, but he manages that and is a stable young man overall. That's another thing I like about this story; engaging characters without Dysfunction Junction.


Adrelle is a human noblewoman, and the handmaiden of the titular princess. She insists on going on the quest to help her friend.
Her Establishing-Character-Moment is a thing of beauty. It firmly and quickly establishes her as a both a Deadpan Snarker and a very clever girl. See, the warders aren't used to people tracking their agents back to their hideout.
There's a twist/secret regarding her character, and I thought I guessed it but I was only half-right. That's yet another thing I like about this story. Despite appearing to be traditional fantasy fare, it still surprised me.


Draham is a fine mixture of Our Dwarves Are All the Same and some personal twists. While he is a short and stocky character of great strength, a wielder of a warhammer and is very proud of his large and bushy beard, he is basically a rogue. Yes, he has numerous disguises, aliases and has sufficient dexterity and speed to convincing play the role of a jester.
He's the senior partner of the adventuring party, the veteran with the two young bucks. He acquits himself very well indeed in both battle and outside of it.

Yuden is the assassin who poisons the princess and then spends the rest of the book trying to make sure she dies. He gets a couple of focus chapters that show how he goes about his work. Because of this, the reader knows more about him then "evil poisoner guy". He is not an evil character, so to speak. He's more like an amoral character. As far as I can see, all this assassinating and sneaking around is just his job, and he gets squeamish when it comes to torture.


I don't recall anything in the way of typos. There might have been one or two near the end.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Poisoned Princess" an A+

This has been a free review request. The author asked for an honest review, so I provided one.

Click here for my next book review( a request like this one): Curses of Scale

Click here for my previous book review (a request like this one): When Hope Calls

I also reviewed Misaligned, which is by the same author.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Answering Review Request: When Hope Calls

David Lui asked me to read his novella "When Hope Calls". It's about a humanitarian office that tries to save a girl from slave traders. It's based on a true story, and given this fact, my grading system of "plot" and "characters" and "polish" feels....inappropriate. So this will be more free-style than usual.

The premise is that Mya, the girl who was kidnapped by slave traders, miraculously (this is the word used in the story itself) has a cell phone on her. The cast tried to pinpoint her location through clues she provides and eavesdropping on her captors. It is a high-emotion, touch-and-go situation with low periods that feel like emotional burnout.

During the periods of rapid activity and tense waiting that occur between calls from Mya, the cast ponders what sort of person kidnaps a child to sell to into a harsh and abusive life, and controls them with fear and violence. The answer they come up with is a person motivated by greed and envy.

When reading reviews from books, I've noticed that it is common to call them "page-turners". In fact, it is so common that I bet someone has said "lots of books are called page-turners, but this one really is!" Maybe it is because the thriller and suspense genres aren't my personally preferred ones, but I don't generally read books that are mean to be finished quickly. This one has the rare distinction from me of being called a page-turner. It is a quick read, with high suspense and tension throughout.

There is a tad of Leaning On the Fourth Wall when one character accuses another of being part of the human trafficking problem because they're not doing anything about it at the moment.

It has a good ending. Regardless of whether or not Mya is rescued, The Adventure Continues.

When the story is over and Mr.Lui returns us to real life, he lists steps the reader can take to combat human trafficking. They are all practical things that the reader can do personally, and not appeals for donations, which I think is nice. It's about spreading awareness of the problem.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "When Hope Calls" a +

This has been a free review request. David Lu asked for an honest review so I provided one.

Click here of my next book review (a request): Poisoned Princess

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): D&D Complete Divine.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons rule book: Complete Divine.

Continuing my recent exposure to and fascination with Dungeons and Dragons, here is another rule book, Complete Divine. This one is focuses in on the divine/spiritual/religious aspects of a possible D&D campaign world. There are lists of prestige classes beyond the standard found in the player's manual, a consolidation of information about deities (I think most, if not all, of these are from the official Greyhawk setting), holy magic items, etc.
So many classes and all of them made distinct; I was surprised just how big the "divinely-empowered" category could be. This is more than just mechanical terms but also how these characters fit within the world of the game itself.
There are sections at the start describing the class in-universe terms and then how they function as part of a setting and then as part of a player's campaign; like bifocal glasses. There are even quotes from or about this class and an illustration that matches the equipment list. It's well-thought out stuff from a lore perspective, and as I have started reading the Dungeon Master's manual, this is just as important in an immersive campaign as stats and rules.
Reading this book made me want to roleplay a Bard who becomes religious by multi-classing to an Evangelist, and then after becoming unsatisfied with only that class (perhaps after acquiring all of its class abilities), switches to Holy Liberator (because they are basically Chaotic Good Paladins, and Bards are always chaotic). 
The list of deities was one of my favorite sections and I found myself flipping to it often, because of the interaction with the alignment of the classes, and also because of the magic item/artifact and spell lists. There is connecting lore for all these sections.
Trickster Eric Novels gives Dungeons and Dragons rule book: Complete Divine an A+
Click here for my thoughts on other D&D manuals: Player's Handbook v 3.5 and Heroes of Battle

Click here for my next book review (a request): When Hope Calls

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): No Game No Life volume 4
Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).