Make yourself useful, mage!

Yesterday Cirsova shared some thoughts on Twitter about a recent post over at Walker’s Retreat (which was in turn a reaction to a post at Dyvers blog).

This led to an interesting thread, if you’re of the sort who delights in this kind of raw nerdom.



A frequent criticism of D&D 3.5e, which is probably a middling version of the game in many senses (and yet like ice cream, each person has a favorite flavor), is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in rules and mechanics. Still, I think it gives a judicious and experienced DM the tools for a rather rich and dynamic game. A handyman may have a 50-piece ratchet/socket set in his toolbox; doesn’t mean he’s got to use it!

I must confess, I’ve never played a magic user. The only game I ever played in as a player gave me a taste of the charisma rogue, which I very much enjoyed.

The comparisons I can draw here are limited. A magic user may be standing in the doorway with his hands in his, uh, robe pockets as his party desperately fights off the goblin raiding party until he’s saved their bacon by expending a precious lightning bolt spell on the ogre boss that’s just rolled up on the exhausted heroes. As a silver-tongued rogue type, at least you’ve still got backstab, and hopefully enough HP and dexterity to help out on the front line for a round or two without getting insta-killed. You may not be a power-hitter, but you can at least do something useful most turns, whether it be culling a damaged bogie or firing off an arrow or two. Hey, at least I got you a flanking bonus!!

Anyway, when we consult our handy actuarial table of action types, we see that a magic user can…actually not really do much at all! My references above to aiding another or intimidating were actually useless advice in this context as they require melee range!

Unfortunately, without magical items or scrolls or maybe potions of some sort, a magic user’s not really got any recourse. Especially if he’s trying to sincerely roleplay his character.

What is one to do?

One branch of the conversation, which kind of circles back to Dyvers’ original post:


And I think that really may be the best solution – sprinkle in some magical goodies for your magic users to hold on to. But it’s up to the DM to anticipate and implement. If you return to some D&D’s source material, namely Dying Earth, you’ve got all manner of magical items for magic users to play around with between casting spells. Remember that in Vance’s stories, most wizards could only memorize a handful of incantations. While spells certainly accounted for an important portion of their overall power, perhaps equally important were the relics and magical artifacts that they were able to accumulate.

These gadgets can range in power, from extremely powerful to amusingly benign – think of Cugel’s “tube of blue concentrate,” which due to its mysterious nature elicited some degree of fear despite maybe just being a can of blue spray paint. These kinds of curios can be a real boon for a DM who doesn’t want to wantonly dish out wands of magic missile or other damage-dealing items, as they provide players with a great chance to get creative and do some quality roleplaying.


It’s also a thought for you fantasy writers. Instead of going with a vanilla wizard character who chants spells and draws runes, why not a codger with a bag full of doodads and magical junk?




Vance and Norton and writing diversely

Over the weekend I dropped a piece at Castalia House comparing one aspect of Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey to a short story by Andre Norton. The long and short of it is that Norton’s use of “mind powers” was a lot more interesting and imaginative and magical than Lanier’s. Though I do give points for the Dragon Ball-esque powering up system of Hiero’s Journey, whereby psions (or at least the protagonist) must actually battle and make strenuous use of their powers in order to seriously “level up.”

Since Saturday, I had a chance to read another of Norton’s shorts, and I was surprised. My readings of Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore’s short fiction have thus far been fairly uniform. By that I mean that Brackett’s writing has generally been very action-oriented and full of dynamic characters and exotic locales. Moore’s got that poetic Howardian flair and a real talent for the blending of fantasy and horror elements (no, I haven’t gotten to her scifi yet, though I know she’s famous for Northwest Smith). So not to write them off as one-trick (both Brackett and Moore are amazing so this is probably not the case), but at least so far I’ve been savoring a steadily-maintained flavor for each.

With Norton, on the other hand, High Sorcery starts off with a very evenly-paced and increasingly exciting tale of a wizard brought somehow to a new land with mages of its own. In “Wizard’s World,” magic seems to be systematic but varied and flexible. It is a product of the mind and primarily illusory, but also quite capable of inflicting physical harm. There are orbs of fire and conjured serpents, and giant magical walls of thorn.

Her second tale, “Through the Needle’s Eye,” is much more subdued and mysterious. The protagonist is not an action-minded hero nor a wily witch, but a girl with a bum leg. One days she wanders into the garden of her neighbor – a tragic, somewhat creepy older woman who like the protagonist is lame (in the ambulatory sense). The old woman winds up being a master seamstress of sorts, and winds up taking the girl under her wing and teaching her to stitch and sew and weave. The story culminates in a startling and magical reveal about the old woman the nature of her gift, which she offers to pass on to her young protege.


I was quite surprised by the difference in the two stories. They read like the works of two very different but both talented writers.

I’ve also gone back to Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series. I didn’t return as quickly as I’d intended, but that’s only due to an overabundance of treasure. It was only recently that I learned this, but Vance was also an author of mystery/thriller books. Armed with this new knowledge, it seems obvious. When you look at the Demon Prince books and also Rhialto the Marvellous, you’ve got SFF with generous infusions of mystery/thriller elements.


Throughout his quest for revenge, protagonist Kirth Gersen more often plays the gumshoe than the fighting man (though he’s adept at both roles). In tracking down his quarries, he must follow leads and unwind various plots and mysteries. In the last of the Dying Earth installments, the titular magician Rhialto is occasionally thrust into a sleuth-like position, forced to fend off unjust accusations or actions taken unfairly against him. Even works like the Gray Prince demonstrate Vance’s skill and proclivity for the expanding mystery and “the big reveal.” Still, when contrasted with his earlier and perhaps most critically-acclaimed Dying Earth stories, we see a different set of mechanisms and story elements on display.

All this is to say – Vance and Norton, to my judgement, were both very skilled at writing good but disparate types of stories.



Inspiration and fear

No one has asked me about my inspirations for writing/blogging, but theoretically it is a question that someone could ask.

I think not many people know that I occasionally write write. That’s probably because (a) I historically haven’t done it very often and (b) I don’t talk to many people about it. My cohort did bring it up on Geek Gab, but that’s about the extent of any organizational dissemination.

I was just thinking about this because of a Twitter thread that wandered into my timeline this morning.

“Suckers – I’m not afraid of writing!” I thought glibly to myself at first. But putting aside the fact that I’m not sure I qualify as a real writer, I think actually this “fear” translates differently for different people.

When writing is literally your job and you’re living and eating off book or story sales, there must be some degree of anxiety. What if the Muse starts playing hard to get? What if I just can’t cut it? Well, guess I’m eating wood pulp.

For my part, and I suspect this isn’t an uncommon sentiment, I experience more of a periodic sense of minor hopelessness; especially since hitting gold with the older SFF authors. I read Howard, Vance, Burroughs, now Brackett, and I think to myself – how in the nine circles am I going to write anything even approaching as good as this?

The answer, I suspect, is by reading and writing. A lot. Well, becoming a big name Scientifiction writer has never been a serious life aspiration for me, so I’m not worrying too much about it. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t “fear” in the same way as others.

Blogging has really been more of a passion, and a more immediately realizable ambition for me. I’ve name-dropped Cirsova’s blog and Jeffro enough times by now that if you’re a regular reader you should be familiar with them as two of my major influences.

(By the way – Jeffro’s Appendix N book is finally out in physical copy. Go have a look!)

Since before that, though, I’ve always appreciated writers who are both technically proficient and mechanically interesting to read. Tycho over at Penny Arcade is one such. He’s obviously a very intelligent individual filled with all kinds of book learnin’. And yet his voice is full of quirk and his writing often drips with a sort of eldritch tang. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but reading his posts makes me want to write.

There’s an old, dead blog called the Sneeze. The Internet has imbued its corpus with a sort of divine incorruptibility. But the guy who ran it – a certain Steve – he was another one who made me want to blog. It’s harder than it looks, being able to write both intelligently and conversationally without coming off as a fucking dunce.

I hope someday to master that skill.




Tor bravely fights wrongthink

Scifi writer Jon Del Arroz left a comment pushing back on one of Tor’s latest pieces, in which women writers are once again incorrectly portrayed as victims of the dreaded Patriarchy.

Hat tip to Jeffro for this one.

In case you’d like to read the article, here’s an archived link. I hope you’re in the mood for a good lamentation that every hero in scifi has a penis. Except when the lead is a woman, like in Rogue One. But even then, there are far too many dongs surrounding our strong womyn!

Also, what happened to great women writers like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Andre Norton, etc? Younger readers today have no idea who they are. The Patriarchy strikes again!

Stricken down in her prime by the Dick Lords.

Except for the fact that this isn’t a gender-specific problem. Many of us in the Pulp Revolution crowd / Appendix N cult have been pointing and shouting about this generation gap for some time now. What happened to Jack Vance? Do young readers today know who Poul Anderson is? Or Lord Dunsany or William Morris? Or Clark Ashton Smith? How about A. Merritt or E.E. “Doc” Smith or Gordon Dickson?


It’s not that women are oppressed and have been memory-holed. It’s that many of the old greats have been forgotten and buried in a mudslide of new crap. I tried to point this out at Tor, but my comment doesn’t seem to have made it past the moderator. Can’t have people challenging your narrative, eh?





Does good SFF require age and experience?

I just finished listening to the latest Geek Gab podcast, with guest Jon Mollison of Seagull Rising. Another good episode – congrats to all involved!

Something Jon said got me thinking. He observed that there are some talented young writers in SFF who are getting caught up in gimmicks and writing tricks and as a result are losing the plot, literally.

I think it’s true that for many contemporary writers, good storytelling is losing out to political and cultural commentary. Strong male heroes are so last century. Good and evil without nuanced, middling gradations are played out, man.

[He asks about the guy he just beat up, who is literally a sworn enemy who wants to kill him]
This is certainly a problem. I’m with you! This is a big reason why I’ve retreated down the Appendix N/ Grant List hole and haven’t had any strong desire to come back up for air.

Jon went on to say that these pre-30 authors don’t have the necessary experience to really sell us on what they’re writing. They don’t have the same juice to put into their works. And to some degree I think he’s right. Age and experience flavor and influence a writer’s stories. Look at Tolkien (as we always seem to). His part in World War I is directly observable in the Lord of the Rings. Mordor pretty much is Verdun.


I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jon’s stuff yet, but it seems clear from what I’ve heard that Jon’s own experience as a father has greatly colored some of his work. And I dig that.

Still, I think we need to be cautious about writing off younger, more life-inexperienced writers, especially those in the vanguard of the pulp revival/revolution. I’m not saying here that Jon is doing so, as it sounds like he’s certainly giving the youngsters a reading and a fair shake. But just as something to chew on for all of us, let’s remember that SFF grandmaster Robert E Howard died at 30. Manly Wade Wellman was in his twenties when he put out his first novel. HP Lovecraft wrote “Dagon” when he was 27 years old.

Now those are some pretty big shoes, and it could very well be that Howard and Lovecraft and Wellman were exceptions to the rule. Still. I’m not entirely convinced that age is nearly as important as talent and imagination.



Part V

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV


Two riders raced through the night on horses commandeered from a nearby plantation, hoof-beats and the laborious breathing of their horses the only sounds. Stars illumined their path, infinite points of light breaking through the pitch that enveloped the world. One of the riders broke the silence, his voice tinged with apprehension:

“What are we to do when we get there Orren? You said you have dealt with the like before, you have a plan?”

“I have dealt with a child of the serpent before, yes.”

“Only once?”

“Yes, once.”

“On your own?”

“No. I was but one shield in my contubernium. We were tasked with cleansing a sacrificial chamber used by the red priests of Xarzhin. Not all survived the horror that waited for us below the ziggurat of bone.”

“…We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

“It’s a possibility, yes. That is not part of my plan, however.”

“That’s encouraging.”

A break in the mountain range they had been following came into view. A dense and unnatural fog poured from the valley. Silence returned as the two men rode to their fates.


They reached their destination as the first rays of the morning light began to glow on the horizon. The horses would go no nearer than several yards from the mouth of the cave. Fearful cries and bulging eyes full of terror signaled to their riders that their service had come to an end.

“We walk from here.” Orren said as he dismounted, armaments in hand.

“My posterior has grown tired of riding anyway.” Berek said with a grin, a grin that gave only the slightest hint of trepidation.

The cave was black like tar, as though all light from the outside was swallowed in it’s inky void. Orren pulled the rune stones from his pouch at the mouth of the cave, they were already glowing much brighter than they had during their encounter with the flayer. He looked at Berek and nodded, then stepped into the darkness. Berek watched for a moment as the light of the stones slowly bobbed and fluttered like a firefly at dusk in Orren’s hands.

“You coming?” the voice of Orren called from the cave.

Berek spit, then unsheathed his sword. He looked back once more in the direction they had come and saw the arc of the sun rise above the land. He nodded and raised his sword at the bringer of the new morning.

“May we meet again.” He said aloud, then turned to begin his descent.


Their way down was winding and steep, their movements slow out of necessity. There was but a single path in the cave, as though burrowed out by some kind of enormous worm. The air was damp…and cold. The deeper they went into the bowels of the earth the colder it became. Vapor could be seen mixing with the omnipresent fog in the glow of the stones when they breathed.

“I’d heard that it was warmer in the belly of the earth, not colder.” Berek whispered, his voice echoing in the dark.

Orren stopped. Then he turned and spoke: “The serpent takes pleasure in the perversion of creation and its laws. Some things that I have past seen, things we will assuredly see this day…they are not meant for our comprehension. There are things ancient in our world; ancient and horrible, conceived before our ancestors first walked. To ponder them is to invite madness. My mind and being is anchored to the Sorra. I trust that alone. Do you have something or someone that might serve to call you back from the precipice of insanity should you find yourself there?”

Berek stood silent for a moment, then grinned in the blue light,“I have the steel in my hand. That is all the aid I require.”

“May it be enough.” replied Orren. He turned, and the two men resumed their descent.

They walked for what seemed like hours, though they had no way of tracking time. Hunger and thirst appeared. Berek began to wonder at their situation, perhaps it would be best to turn around, flee this land. There were kingdoms far to the east that he could sell his martial services to. There are worse fates, like starving to death while shivering in a dark hell like this. 

“Ahead…light.” Orren whispered without looking back.

A faint green glow could be seen ahead, almost imperceptible. Orren put the glowing stones back in their pouch, replacing them in his hand with pike and shield. They moved silently in the dark, the light growing brighter with each step. It was not long until they reached the source of the light and the end of their tunnel.

At the mouth of the tunnel was a kind of torch lashed to a pole with crimson and purple strips of fabric. The torch did not burn, but was covered in a substance that gave off it’s own unnatural light. The torch marked the entrance to an enormous cavern that stretched farther than the eye could see. Below a roof of teeth like stalactites lay an enormous body of water. The water was completely covered with a thin sheet of ice that ended a few yards out from the shore where gentle waves gently lapped. Orren and Berek stood struck with awe as they gazed upon the subterranean sea.

This must stretch the entire length of my homeland.” Berek whispered. Orren offered no reply. His attention had been drawn to that which stood a ways down the shore: a tent made of crimson and purple cloth flanked by two more torches and surrounded by bones. Tiny bones. Human bones.   



Trying to write

My co-bloggers were complaining that I haven’t been writing anything and was just trolling people on Twitter. They were correct.  I was also attempting to write some fiction. I haven’t finished it. What I have so far is below, work in progress. 

She was in the same chair she sat in every night, rocking gently. Her night-black hair flowed down over her slender shoulder, reflecting the light from the candle flickering in the corner. She was beautiful, just as he remembered. A baby lay across her lap sleeping, partially covered by her hair. Her almond eyes were dark and full of mystery, but they radiated love as she looked upon her child. A warm gust from the open window behind her blew her hair across his face and he began to fidget and whimper. She brought him to her breast and began to sing gently:

These words I weave,
For you my love,
A shield so strong
Blessed by the Light

Safe in your dreams
Until morning comes
When you shall awake
And greet the new sun

The infant was quiet now, breathing in rhythm with the rocking of the chair. She lifter her head and saw him. She smiled and opened her mouth to speak.

Orren woke with the rising of the sun. He had made camp near a small grouping of trees clumped next to a stream. They were the only trees as far the eye could see in the green ocean that surrounded him. He gently laid down the shield from under which he slept and sat up. No sounds. No signs of life, just his horse, Alna, and the creaking of his armor. And his thoughts. Always his thoughts. Alna was sipping softly from the stream. She looked up briefly, grunted acknowledgement that her master was awake, and went back to drinking.

This was not the first time he had dreamt of them. He doubted it would be the last, no matter how far he went.
Do not let your thoughts linger on that which you cannot control.
Today he would continue his journey in the direction of the rising sun, the same as he had done the day before, and the day before that, his back always to the wall and the massive gates that separated the wildlands from the place of his birth.

The four stones he had placed around his camp remained unmolested in their original locations. The grass beyond the barrier of the stones was trampled and torn. They only came at night. He knelt next to each stone, whispered a short prayer and sprinkled a bit of water onto each from the ornate flask at his side before picking them up. He wrapped them in a cloth and placed them in the small bag that hung at his side.

The flask would be empty soon. He could always make more. He knew the ritual and his faculties had not diminished despite the distance from the Mountain. He carried out the rest of the morning rites as he had every day since his initiation. A few drops of water from the flask were sprinkled upon his thin metallic armor, helm, and telescopic pike. The words were chanted.

He then moved on to his shield. The shield was woven by the cloistered monks of Allar from a thousand strips of metal, each piece inscribed with words from the high language spoken only at the summit of Sorrakam. The shield was given to him on the day of his anointing. It had been made specifically for him; his name spoken during the blessing ritual carried out as each piece was hammered into place. It was irreplaceable, especially now. He placed the shield upon the grass directly in the sunlight, a few drops of water were sprinkled on each side. Orren knelt down beside it and sat in silence for several minutes. The water evaporated in the sun and he stood up. Time to move on.


His food had almost run out when he reached the base of the mountain range at the other edge of the green sea. He had heard stories of what was beyond. Few ever crossed the mountains, let alone the sea. It was outside the jurisdiction of Sorrakam. Alna snorted and shook her head. There was unease about this place and she could sense it. Dark things dwelt here. She eventually obeyed and began carrying her rider up the narrow path that lead through a valley between two of the mountains.

The jagged peaks watched menacingly over him as he passed through their shadows. The air was cold and damp. Sometimes a wind would blow and carry with it the smell of decay. He kept his pike at hand and his shield across his lap as they made their way. This place was death. He could feel it, could taste it in the back of his throat. Blood and acid. It was then that he heard it, faint at first, just a murmur in the wind. He thought it a spectre or other malevolent entity playing with his spiritual senses. He continued on and the sound become louder, and began to take on human characteristics. The noise was coming from against the far western wall of the valley. He turned Alna and began moving swiftly towards it. If it was a human making that noise, they were surely in need of help. If it was something…else, then best he deal with it.

When he had almost reached the valley wall he dismounted from Alna. He unlocked his pike, held his shield close, and approached. After no more than a few steps he came upon the source of the noise. A bundle of cloth was resting on the cold stone of the valley floor, noise emanating from it. The cloth was a fine silk, colored crimson and purple. A few more paces beyond the bundle the mouth of a cave gaped. The cave was darkness; no light seemed to breached its entrance. He knelt down next to the bundle of cloth and unwrapped it. Inside the cloth was an infant, naked, eyes closed, weeping piteously. The babe’s cheeks were red from crying, but did not seem to be otherwise harmed. Alna approached from behind and leaned over the child. She nuzzled the baby gently and snorted. Orren took out his flask and poured a few drops over the infant. The baby continued to cry and flail her hands and feet as infants are wont to do. He secured his pike and shield on Alna’s saddle and gently picked up the child. Upon being picked up her crying ceased. Orren wrapped her in the cloth for warmth. Until he found a suitable place to have the child cared for she was his ward. Oaths must be upheld. He mounted his horse with the little girl in his lap and continued on through the valley.


It was almost a day’s ride out of the valley. He did not stop except to water his horse and feed the child some paste he had made from his provisions. She would not live much longer without proper food and warmth. The valley opened into a great expanse of dense icy fog. Everything was damp and cold, the sun was but a gray saucer outlined in the haze. Night came and went. He rode on. The baby would cry sometimes when a cold wind blew into her wrappings, but she was growing increasingly silent and still. He whispered to her:

“I did not bring you here just to die in this never ending twilight, but if it be our fates then know that you were not uncared for. They will be waiting at the gates for you.”

He had no sooner finished his words when a light cut through the fog. A farmstead was ahead – some kind of livestock farmer. Alna saw the light and immediately rushed forward with new found strength. They reached the gate of the main house on the land and Orren leapt from Alna, babe in arms. She had begun to turn pale. Her breathing was faint. He slammed his fist against the door and yelled out,

“I have with me a child that needs warmth and food! I know not the traditions of this foreign land, but should you provide us aid I will be forever in your debt. Please…!”

Before Orren could continue the door swung open. A woman stood in the door, arrow notched and pointed directly at her visitor’s heart.

“Let me see the child.”

Orren shifted the child’s bundling to show her face. The woman slowly lowered her bow, and then she wept. Tears fell from her eyes and her shoulders shuddered deep sobs.

Orren stood in the lighted doorway, baby in arms, only darkness and death behind him.

“If you wish me to go, I…”

“No. Come inside. Please. Get her out of the cold.”

They entered, and she locked the door behind them.