Saturday, February 6, 2021

OSR: How to Start Playing D&D The Best (and Easiest) Way!


You stumble upon a host of goblins sifting through mounds of glittering gold coins. Upon the tallest pile stands a silver throne, upon which a helmed horror sits, glaring down at you with glinting eyes. He points his gnarled staff at you and signals his minions to dispose of you. You're outnumbered, bloodied...but should you prevail, the spoils will be great.

...Roll for initiative.

Dungeons and Dragons is more popular than ever. The myriad of live-play shows, accessories, settings, game rules and novelty wares on etsy are a testament to that. And if you're coming into the RPG hobby now, you're absolutely spoiled when it comes to choices. There's the ever-popular 5th Edition, Pathfinder 2nd Edition, All of which provide the Dungeons and Dragons experience on some level,  whether they bear the official name or not.

While a lot of these newer and shiner rulesets have their legions of fans, a growing number of gamers are flocking to indie RPGs which emulate the old-school feel of classic D&D. Due to their accessibility, "Old-School" or OSR games were my intro to D&D and in my personal opinion, they're the best entry point possible to players wishing to check out the tabletop hobby. But before we get into why that is...

What's the OSR, Anyway?

OSR, short for "Old-School Renaissance," is a term for games and materials that emulate the original feel of Dungeons and Dragons. This means extremely simple rules, flexible gameplay, a focus on roleplaying and problem-solving over video game-esque skills, and a focus on house rulings over rules.

So while they're not officially a Dungeons and Dragons-branded product, it's best to think of them as indie "editions" of the game rather than separate things. Even my rulebook says "Basic Fantasy," I refer to my games as "Dungeons and Dragons," because copyright aside, that's just what it is. As such, it's best to think of all the games I list as "Dungeons and Dragons: Swords and Wizardry Edition" or "Dungeons and Dragons: Labyrinth Lord Edition." Because when you get down to it, it's all just different flavors of the same game. 

The original OSR gamers

These games started out as "retro clones," rules that effectively worked as a way to play streamlined and updated variants of Dungeons and Dragons. The most famous of these being OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Swords and Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord. But over time, people began experimenting with these rules, making new games with new mechanics which used the retro-clones as a blueprint to create wildly experimental and fun new ways to play. These range from the sci-fi themed White Star and Stars Without Number, to the gonzo pulp fantasy of Dungeon Crawl Classics and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, to offbeat indie titles and settings like Cha'alt and Troika!

For the most part, I'll be focusing on the easy to play "retro clone" games like Basic Fantasy and Swords & Wizardry. Having purchased both (multiple times in the latter case), I feel confident enough to recommend them, although I've included a few other rules systems, including non-fantasy ones.

But anyway, here's a few of my personal reasons why OSR D&D is the best version of D&D:

The Cost

Look, let's cut to the chase. You're probably not made of money. The coof's been hard on us all, and even if you're reading this in an idyllic, coof-free future (fingers crossed), chances are you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a hobby you're just starting with. What's more, you probably want all the bells and whistles to run a fun, basic game with friends. Dice, a dice tray, a nice DM screen, and decent miniatures.

While Fifth Edition has a free version, it's little more than a "demo," which gates much of the content behind the paywall of physical retail books. And hoo boy, what a paywall it is! If you want to run a game with optimal rulesets (and you should), you're looking at at least 80-90 dollars for a set of three books, plus tax and shipping, plus whatever accessories you want. For me at least, that's kind of ridiculous. Especially since I absolutely refuse to play without miniatures, a dry-erase mat, DM screen, and an arseload of dice (nearly two pounds in my case). 

But with rules such as Basic Fantasy and Swords and Wizardry? Yeah, the buy-in is friggin' free. If you wanted to be super barebones, you could run a full, no-content-gated game of D&D with free rules, free character sheets, and a dice app on your mobile device or laptop. Whereas doing that with Fifth Edition PHB, Monster Manual and DM's Guide means you're plonking down almost a hundred dollars before you can even play like that.

This of course, means you can print out and distribute all the rules you need to your players, with only the cost of ink, paper and whatever binders you have lying around the house. Again, not for gimped "starter editions," but for the full game. And if you really want that premium feel, good news! A Swords and Wizardry physical book is $25 dollars and the Basic Fantasy rulebook is a mere five dollars on Amazon. 

"But hey, that's only one book, don't I need a monster manual or Dungeon Master's Guide," you may be asking. And to that I say, that one book? It's all of them combined. Yes, really. Everything you need to run and play a full-blown game is included in the core rulebooks of the games I mentioned. 

So not only is it way cheaper, it's also easier for newbies to pick up and play. Which brings us to....

Ease of Play

I remember wanting to get into D&D back when Fifth Edition first came out and flipping through the books at a Barnes and Noble. I couldn't make heads or tails of it all, shelved it for a while before checking out Swords and Wizardry a few months later. While a few rules like THAC0 were hard to wrap my head around, the Ascending Armor Class made it easier. And the simple approach to classes, spells and the game in general made it easier for me to figure things out. 

...Which isn't to say 5e is super difficult or anything (it wouldn't be anywhere near as popular if it wasn't), but for someone with zero experience playing tabletop games more complex than Monopoly, the simplicity of most OSR games is a huge plus. Basic Fantasy in particular is so easy to run, that as the Amazon page claims, "it's simple enough for children in perhaps second or third grade to play, yet still having enough depth for adults as well." Meaning literally anyone can pick it up and start playing, even if they have zero knowledge of RPG mechanics.

For newbies with more experience playing video games or even reading things like LitRPG books, Swords and Wizardry might be a better choice. And yet it's still light enough for anyone to modify and tweak the game as they see fit. The same can be said of most OSR games. There's a wonderful amount of leeway you have, with most OSR games using essentially interchangeable rules, making it a sort of rosetta stone for game design. 

So even if you are a more seasoned RPG veteran, the ease of rules means DM prep and homebrew are easier to implement. Which is why so many RPG veterans swear by OSR rules. It's the best of both words, simultaneously hardcore and so newbie-friendly it's almost stupid. 

Wealth of Content

To be fair, this one's kind of subjective, but it's a biggie for me and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Like I said before, OSR games range from classic fantasy, to sci-fi, to superheroes, WWII, post apoc and complete and utter acid trips like Cha'alt

To date, I've never seen anything approaching this level of creativity in any of the official Dungeons and Dragons settings by Wizards of the Coast. And it's this wildly experimental punk rock edge that gives the OSR movement its signature feel. When I wrote about the death of mainstream nerd culture a couple years back, I brought up the OSR as a positive example of nerd culture done right. A largely DIY movement made by and for fans with independent creators and gamers at the forefront.

Granted, most people will be just fine playing epic fantasy or sword and sorcery campaigns, and the official Dungeons and Dragons settings are awesome to run games in. But therein lies the beauty of OSR's simplicity. Want to run a game in Ravnica, Eberron or Ravenloft? Thanks to the simple rules, converting settings from 5E to OSR is a snap. Plus, you can run all kinds of older modules like Ravenloft and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks pretty much out the box with OSR rules. And when you mix it with OSR games like Operation White Box, you can have incredibly fun mash-ups like a platoon of World War II soldiers crawling through Castle Ravenloft.

But if hundreds of  sourcebooks across compatible OSR rulesets, 5E and original D&D books weren't enough for you, there's all kinds of free content for your games across a newtork of blogs devoted to bringing you new ways to play. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but I've provided a list of free resources below if you want to dive into the OSR proper.


When looking at core rulebooks, you have a few options. If this is you or your fellow players' first stab at role-playing games or complex board games, I recommend Basic Fantasy. You can get it for free as a PDF, or in softcover form on Amazon. Alternatively, you can check out Swords and Wizardry White Box for a more stripped-down and even older-school variant of those rules. It's not my thing, but some people swear by it. Again, you can get that for free, or buy it at cost on Amazon.

On the other hand, if you've played D&D 5th Edition, complex board games or CRPGs like Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age or Pathfinder Kingmaker, your rulebook of choice is either Swords and Wizardry, or if you're looking for a more "grounded" campaign, Low Fantasy Gaming. Both options have free PDFs on DriveThruRPG, and physical editions (you can get the Swords and Wizardry one on Frog God's site)

And lastly, if you're an old fart looking to relive the glory days of AD&D but haven't played in a while, or if you just want the "crunchiest" option for your OSR game, then Advanced Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC are some of your best choices. The latter is what many consider to be the "OG" of these retro-clones, but is relatively dry compared to newer books. 

Also, a few honorable mentions for non-fantasy games if that's what you'd prefer for your intro (or re-intro) to the hobby. For the sci-fi fans, White Star is a simple yet deep variant of Swords and Wizardry which trends towards fun, Star Wars-style Space Opera. If you're looking for Lovecraftian horror, then Eldritch Tales is your game. And finally, if pulp fiction and historical games are your thing, then there's a few good ones to choose from, but Raiders! is a fun Indiana Jones-themed ruleset that plays well with fantasy supplements and bestiaries. 


While kind of obligatory, it can't be overstated just how awesome Tomb of the Serpent Kings by Skerples is. Because of how basic the presentation is, it's fairly easy to introduce into any campaign, even the non-fantasy ones. You wouldn't even need to change anything for a Lovecraftian or Pulp-style game, as it's already got that Indiana Jones vibe. And if you're running a sci-fi themed game with White Star, simply make the serpent-men aliens, replace any mention of "magic" with "ancient technology," and change the succubus NPC into a hologram or alien ghost or something.

For further fantasy adventures, Dragonsfoot has a list of free AD&D modules you can print and play right at home. Basic Fantasy also has modules available for free or very cheap. So if you want new adventures after running TOTSK, these would be the first places to go. 

Also, I'll be doing a post rounding up the best places to buy dice, screens, and miniatures, as well as free alternatives. So I'll post that here for all you new or returning hobbyists. But for any new player, any of the core rulebooks plus Serpent Kings, plus a free dice-rolling app for mobile (Google, Apple, Amazon and F-Droid all have them) should suffice if you just want to take the OSR for a test drive.

Lastly, if you're a totally new player to tabletop RPGs, here's a few Youtube channels and videos I strongly recommend!

OSR Channels:
Questing Beast: What is the DnD Old School Renaissance? (OSR) (  <<< START HERE)
Dungeon Craft

D&D General Channels:
Negative Legend: What Happened to Dungeons and Dragons (basically a history lesson of classic and new editions)
Taking 20
Wyloch's Armory (Crafting)
BlackMagicCrafts (Crafting)
So feel free to check these out and keep an eye peeled for any other channels with similar content. Questing Beast and Negative Legend's videos are the best intros to the hobby in general (though ignore NL's advice about Adventurer's League, as it doesn't apply to OSR), and Dungeon Craft in particular is a great primer on the OSR mentality for running and playing games (even when he uses other rulesets). 

I hope you enjoy these rules, materials and resources and wish you all the best in your new adventures. May your rolls be good and your XP generous!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Introducing Warglaive: The Grimdark Pulp Webnovel

So back in December of 2020, I finally achieved a lifelong dream of mine. I became the published author of a fantasy novel. I've been planning it for a while (the art on this site's banner was an early book cover for the first attempt) but it's finally a reality.

The novel isn't quite finished. It might not be for many years, as it's a serial. It's not something you'll find on Amazon, nor at your local bookstore. Though I intended to release it on the usual outlets, after some thought I decided to release it as web novel. I feel like web fiction is going to blow up in the next few years as it has overseas -- the recent purchase of Wattpad by companies like Naver is proof of this, and it seemed like a neat trend to jump onto. 

However, the story I'm telling is a bit different than many of those stories. While most web fiction deals with stories of people trapped in video games, superheroes or epic fantasy, my story is much stranger. I drew more from Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, with more of a dark, sword and sorcery-inspired world with a horror edge. While it owes some props to other media that tends to inspire web fiction authors (I'd be lying if I said the fight weren't a bit anime inspired), you've also got a bit of Conan, Thundarr, The Twilight Zone and The X-Files along with the usual D&D stuff.

I have no idea if it'll pay off or not, but that's kind of the fun of gambling, isn't it?

So what is Warglaive?

For untold centuries, the world of Ryve has been ruled by dark and terrible powers. Dark sorcerer-kings worship alien entities in blasphemous temples. Half-machine gods grind human flesh in maws of gears and blades. And beings far darker and crueler still, watch beyond the twinkling stars upon the unsuspecting mortal realms.

A lowly slave, Argos never once dreamed of defying such powers. But when a chance encounter with the wizard Uriah frees him from his bonds, Argos finds himself entwined in the wizard’s perilous quest. One which if successful, could rewrite civilization itself. But as Argos soon learns, such ambitions come at a dangerous price. Demons, wizards, half-mad killers and eldritch nightmares seek to stop Uriah’s crusade at any cost. In order to survive, Argos must become a hero and protect his new companion…

Or die trying.

If that sounds eclectic, that's kind of what I'm going for. It's meant to be a weird, wild ride reminiscent of a time in pulp fiction when genre had no set rules. Also fun fact: the logo was designed by the same artist who designed Emperor's. So heavy metal's kind of in the story's DNA.

How do I get started?

You can read the novel for free at It's in its early stages now, and the first arc is about halfway done as of now. As this is a living, evolving project, your feedback is more important than oxygen for me. So don't be shy, leave a comment, follow and join the discord! And if you really like it you can join my cult Patreon and support my eldritch endeavors All the links are at the top of the website.

Will there be an ebook/print version?

Absolutely, though I plan on trying something differnet with those formats. Since the website is essentially a free ebook, I've set up a patreon where users can make a monthly donation to help support the project. However, I will be going back and re-releasing ebooks in omnibus format on several platforms, including my own website. 

However, I'm also looking into something a bit different -- printable "zine editions" of the story arcs available for a low price. While there will be other formats such as POD available, I wanted to make a physical edition that was cheap easy to get. As someone who's on the computer a lot, I prefer physical media and know many feel the same way. So I'm currently putting together a file that can be made into an easy-to-DIY, printable "issue" that allows you to read Warglaive like a paperback print book. And while it may not be the same as a nice hardback, making these is actually pretty fun, and they're totally readable, about the size of an Amazon POD book.

Again, kind of a weird idea but trust me when I say they're cool and I have cool ideas for them. Plus, the first zine format volume will be free, so what have you got to loose?

Anyway, that's about the long and short of it, and I sincerely hope you enjoy my weird fantasy venture. I try and upload around Friday-Saturday, but the best way to stay on top of things is to join the Discord.

So if that all sounds good, please check out my work (seriously, it's free and I don't bite) and happy reading!

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

New Year, New Beginnings


2020 was...a year.

I honestly struggled to come up with anything to post in 2020 because frankly, talking about the death of nerd culture and the evolution of the SFF genre seemed a bit well...misplaced during a global pandemic. And on top of that, 2020 was an especially bad year for me health-wise. Right as I started to get my wellbeing on the right track, I got hit by nearly everything. Everything from dental issues to stuff requiring extensive bloodwork...and to top it all off, I had no insurance at the time.

That, and Nurgle Claus gave me the coof as a final parting gift. I'm better now, but yeah. Probably my worst Christmas ever. 

Suffice to say, I wasn't really in the mood for blog posts. However, 2020 was also a time of great reflection for me. I made a serious effort to connect with the classics, and discovered ideas such as neoplatonism in the process. I studied up on everyone from Plato himself, to Artistolte, Gemistus Pletho, Lao Tzu Jung and many more philosophical and spiritual figures. 

In a way, I feel the last year was a metamorphosis for many people. It made us question who we really are, what we truly value, and what sort of world we want to build in the future. It made me realize how fortunate we are to have the communications technology we do. Without the internet and apps like Zoom and Discord, we'd probably be a lot worse off than we are now. 

I took my health quite seriously, and have made sure regular intake of Vitamin C and D are a part of my diet (and should be yours). I kicked refined sugar and in the process, lost so much weight I've actually been turned down when ID'd due to looking like a totally different person. I pretty much had to get rid of my entire wardrobe and as a result, decided it was finally time to buy some band tees. Before 2020 I had been pretty shy outwardly about my love of heavy metal. But now? If it's not freezing cold and snowing outside, I'm wearing something that shows my love of music or retro monster movies. And while it's a minor and seemingly irrelevant detail, for me it's kind of huge to be more open about the stuff I like, and to stop worrying what other people think.

In short, I changed quite a lot. Hopefully for the better. And looking forward towards 2021, I'm planning on doing what I can to make 2021 a brighter year in whatever ways I can. Hopefully I'm not the only one.

And despite all the ugliness of 2020, I'm pleased to say it's the year  became a published author. More on that in the next post. But for now I bid you farewell, and pray that the lessons you learned in the last, troubling year are ones you'll carry forth to make your world a better place. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review: Along the Razor's Edge by Rob J. Hayes

This book is fantasic. It belongs in that category of fantasy books you'd recommend even to people who say they hate  fantasy "because it's just elves and sh*t." If you have one of those at work, or in your family or anywhere else where they snicker at your bookshelf or Kindle list, you just give ''em one of these. Because for the life of me I cannot think of the last book where fantasy themes and raw, human emotional drama were this intertwined. You simply couldn't tell a story with characters like this without magic. Yet at the same time, none of this feels generic or cribbed from the broader fantasy landscape. One or two terms are shared, but like Mistborn, it feels like its own thing. And that's something I think new and seasoned readers alike will really appreciate here.

The story itself follows Eska, a young Sourcerer (the spelling's important) who's trapped in a subterranean prison complex known as The Pit. Though she had magical powers at one point, her Sources (see?) were removed, rendering her abilities inert. However, as she's the narrator, we also get gimpses of what she was able to do, as well as what she might do in the future. And while I won't spoil any of that, it's fairly safe to say she's both slightly unreliable and probably done some really wild stuff. And the way the chapters shift between the story at hand and memories of the past creates an almost GRRM multiple POV style. Except the different "characters" are all Eska, just at different points in her life. The characters feel raw and visceral. There's no glossing over some very screwed-up actions, thoughts and events. At the same time, this isn't cheap, Halloween-store "just add blood and guts and cynicism" grimdark. Rather, it's an exploration into a character's dark psyche, the relationship between her powers and her psychology, and the dark, almost Lovecraftian ways that manifests in the narrative. 

And honestly? It hits a lot of the same buttons Berserk did for me, in that it feels like a typical dark fantasy story and then goes to some REALLY interesting character-driven places. And while I'm not quite sure it's Berserk-tier storytelling yet, it's off to a really good start and could easily get there if the ending's anything to go by. And if you know me, that's HIGH praise.

So yeah, pre-order this one.

Full disclaimer: The ARC was provided to me by Rob for beta reading purposes. I decided to review it further on here because it's really that good. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Year Ends and Ry'leh Draws Near, Curl Up by the Fire and Have a Beer

So...yeah. An update, and I really didn't know what to title it, so there.

Earlier this year I mentioned I was working on 2 books, one an epic flintlock fantasy and the other a sword-and-planet inspired swashbuckling adventure. The former is a big (and I mean BIG) project, and I'm about halfway done with it as of now. As far as that goes, slow and steady wins the race. Expect an update on that next year.

As for the latter, I finished it. Final draft and everything. However, after discussing some of the final details with some beta readers, I've decided that I'm trunking the novel. While I don't think it's a bad novel, it's also not great. It just kind of missed that Krabby Patty Secret Formula, and while Chris Fox is absolutely right about "young novels," I also want to launch with my best foot forward. And faced with doing yet another rewrite of this book or starting from scratch, I decided it would be best to start from scratch.

Because I have a REALLY BAD HABIT of talking about projects while they're WIP, here's a New Years' resolution for all 'yall. NOT A PEEP UNTIL THIS SH*T'S DONE. All I'll say is, if you like the idea of that sort of old 1800s-Sci-Fi-turned-Fantasy concept, my current treatment's got some of that fun stuff.

Wait, was that a peep? Whatever, It's not New Years' yet, so it doesn't count.

There's also something else I'm working on that, due to a self-imposed NDA, I can't say anything about. But it's gonna be big. And I have super high hopes for it.

Anyway, have a very merry Christmas, and don't drink too much nog. Because the nog is mine. All of it. Every last drop.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Slow Yet Inevitable Death of Nerd Culture and What Comes After

I've been thinking about "nerd culture" and what that means as of late. Both to me personally and in the wider culture. And the more I think about it, the more I feel it's fundamentally broken as a concept.

But that begs the question, what really IS "nerd culture" in the rapidly approaching new decade? Is it just an appreciation for Sci-fi and Fantasy media? Perhaps it was at one point, but it seems those things have lost their stigma in the wider culture. It's no longer "weird" to like spaceships or wizards or video games and japanese cartoons. Hell, even Dungeons & Dragons, the supposed holy grail of basement-dwelling geekazoids, is a mainstream hobby now. One enjoyed by everyone from deployed soldiers to basically everyone else. So if all that's mainstream, then just what in the hell is nerdy in our current year? Well in the words of Red Letter Media's Nerd Crew, it's "don't ask questions just consume product, then get excited for next products."

 Don't believe me? Head on over to Collider or Geek and Sundry or any other "nerd culture" channel on Youtube. You'll be met with images of merchandise stacked upon merchandise. Funko Pops and Legos and a whole assortment of branded tat, all blended together in a horrid mass. People freaking out and crying over a mass-produced movie made by the Walt Disney Corporation. Teeming crowds all paying for flights and hotels to watch a trailer for a multimedia franchise they'll buy tickets to anyway. In other words, naked consumerism at its very worst.

It wasn't always like this though. While much of it was before my time, Nerd Culture was once largely defined by a sort of hobby attitude, one which glorified the active participation of its fans over everything else. Being a fantasy geek meant painting your minis, running your games, writing short pastiches to Robert E. Howard or physically going to renaissance faires. Sci-fi had zines and anthologies, fan magazines, costumes, and of course, a focus on actual science. Being into these hobbies often meant you picked up real-world skills, stuff you could take outside the fantastical and into real life. Many are the stories of MIT alumni who started as starry-eyed youths watching Star Trek, or history buffs  who found their profession through the tomes of Middle-Earth. Fascinations such as these are healthy and have even contributed towards real historical and scientific research (HEMA for example, has thrived in large part due to SFF fans). But today's "nerd culture" is a wholly different beast. One that, like many of our social media services, is increasingly controlled and less about personal expression.

What was once driven largely by fans and independent artists has slowly been taken over by large multimedia corporations. You need only look at Comic-Con, which is little more than an expensive trade show at this point. Yes, you have cosplay and artists' alleys and the like, but bit by bit they've been overshadowed by the massive WARNER BROTHERS logo towering over them like the Eye of Sauron. And even when big companies owned the properties of old-school nerddom, the focus of these fan gatherings and of the culture at large was fans and creators. And while that hasn't been wholly snuffed out, the media companies are doing their absolute damnest to make sure they're the focus of modern-day nerd culture. One example that stuck out to me are the various "lifestyle" shows that Marvel Entertainment's been putting out, such as "Eat the Universe" and this unboxing video literally uploaded by the Funko channel. The former is the sort of content that should be made by fans, while the latter is basically a naked commercial to go buy their stuff. And when you look at that and the other "nerd culture" content out there (be it sponsored or directly uploaded by the company) the message is very clear. "We make the content. You consume."

And again, this isn't some boomerific "back in MY day things were better," rant. I didn't exist back in those days, and much of my knowledge comes from documentaries and articles from back in the 60's, 70's and early 80's. But looking back, I can't help but feel that we lost something crucial. And that in order for SFF fandom to truly thrive, it has to cast off the nasty larval cocoon of mass market blandness, and return to its specialized, hobby-focused origins. And because the internet is a thing, there's already a few areas of SFF fiction and gaming where this mentality not only survives, but thrives. And they are in my opinion, the best of genre entertainment at the moment.

If you're familiar with tabletop games, you may have heard of "OSR" Dungeons & Dragons. Essentially, these are games which use the mechanics of original or first edition D&D, but remix or utilize them in unique and awesome ways. For example, "Gangbusters" by Mark Hunt is a two-fisted 1920s pulp action game where you fight crime. "Stars Without Number" lets you embark on a hard sci-fi journey, and Lion and Dragon delivers medieval fantasy with painstaking historical accuracy. All of these games are mechanically compatible with early D&D and its retro-clones, meaning you can mix and match elements from them if you so choose. If you really wanted to run a 1920s sci-fi bootlegging campaign with wizards and dragons, there's no reason you can't. If you wanted to publish a game inspired by Christian fantasy a la Narnia, or a setting themed around gay vampire hunters, there is literally no one who can stop you. Anyone can publish just about anything via print on demand/PDF gamebooks on DriveThruRPG. Everyone who plays these games houserules them, and even casual players will inevitably share said rules on their blogs or social media, making them creators as well. When you become a part of this hobby you're not just a passive consumer, but an active content creator on some level.

Honestly? I like this approach a hell of a lot better than whatever Disney's doing these days. And it's one of the reasons that as a writer, I've become so adamant about self-published fantasy and sci-fi fiction. Like the OSR games, anyone can put out anything on the web. And contributing or reading makes you part of a wider hobby with specialized sub-communities. It becomes less about slavishly buying corporate bric-a-brac, and more about a general love of a genre. Also, most indie SFF entertainment has a seriously low barrier of entry -- Amazon books start at $0.99, and many OSR role-playing games are cheap or even free. So if you're low on cash or don't want to invest a ton up front, you can buy in for cheap and support the creators further if you enjoy their products.

This isn't to say I think all movies or large corporate products and companies are terrible, mind you. It's largely thanks to Amazon that indie fiction's had such a huge boom after all. But over time, I've really soured "nerd culture" as is currently doled out by our corporate overlords. I'm honestly not sure what you'd even call this emerging creator-driven genre hobby culture, yet I feel it's the future for us dissatisfied nerds. It's got a much broader appeal than the geekdom of old, yet it still has a specialized focus that makes being part of the "club" something special. Zines, anthology magazines, print on demand and digital are amazing tools inspired by the old ways. But thanks to the internet, you don't need to be a wargamer in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1967 to be part of "the club." All you need to do is find an online group on Facebook or Discord or MeWe, or just buy and/or download the book or game and share it with your friends. The future I thin,isn't "nerd culture," but creator culture. One that takes advantage of the mianstream appeal of corporatized modern geek media, but steers it towards a creator-driven, hobby-centered culture. One where it doesn't matter whether you're a guy or a gal, jock or nerd, black, white, jew, asian, martian or telepathic siamese cat. Just that you have an interest in the given hobby and are willing to contribute to the proverbial potluck.

And hell, maybe this is just me having been weaned on moddable PC games and creator-driven web content like Youtube, the SCP Foundation and various podcasts. When you place the onus on fans, readers or gamers to be co-creators of a sort, wonderful things happen. And going back to PC games, it's why games like TF2 are still alive after ten years while literally hundreds of shiner, newer games sit at bargain bins with dead multiplayer servers. The top-down approach to content creation is awful and it's gripping nerd culture more and more every year like a giant anaconda. And at some point, I feel the Hollywood film and multimedia wing of it's gonna collapse under its own weight. At least, that's what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg said, and they're kind of okay filmmakers, I guess. Not like they made one of my favorite things ever or anything.

Anyway, that's my rant. I have a few more, including one where I'll expand a bit more on the different between Hobby and Lifestyle fandoms, and why I think the former is superior in just about every conceivable way. But for now, that's enough geek culture griping for one day I guess.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In Defense of the Fantasy Genre: Don't Apologize for the Mythic

So Booktuber and all around awesome guy Daniel Greene (who I've previously interviewed) released a video echoing some opinions I've held for awhile. I'd strongly encourage you check it out yourself, but the basic gist is  as follows. Despite the huge rise in acceptance of the SFF genre, there's this obnoxious insistence in the mainstream that fantasy "isn't serious fiction" and that serious works of the genre succeed in spite of, and not because of their genre.

The example he gives is the upcoming Netflix Witcher series, which the VFX superviser claimed "leaned more towards horror than fantasy." In the interview with Games Radar, Julian Parry claimed:

"...We're definitely taking the fantasy out. I can honestly say we're not fantastical. I mean, it's fantastical but in a grounded horror sense. For example, with Striga (a woman cursed to live as a monster) that's one gnarly-looking thing. That's very unpleasant!"

...Which of course, implies that horror isn't somehow fantastical, and that stuff like Van Helsing or Friday the 13th are more "grounded." Or at least, that's what I got from it. Elsewhere, you'll often hear people praise series like Game of Thrones for being "more of a historical drama," or even that fantasy fiction in general is just narrow and childish compared to Sci-fi. Which, if you know your literary history, is quite the statement given the latter's hammy pulp roots. Even the recent surge of D&D podcasts (Critical Role, Adventure Zone, etc) don't exactly take their settings seriously, as if doing so would somehow be sillier.

Now before I go further, let me stress that I love ALL these genres almost equally. To me, Fantasy, Sci-fi and Horror are canvases upon which all kinds of stories can be told. There's tropey but fun fare, more "serious" and experimental works, emerging new genres, and absolute tripe like the Gor series.

But Fantasy in particular, is a genre whose importance lies in the Mythic. While Sci-fi examines science and our relationship to it, Fantasy similarly explores our myths, religions and culture. It's a wide net which encompasses everything from alternate history to the weird and dreamlike. Most importantly, it serves to either enforce or deconstruct our cultural archetypes, asking questions like what it truly means to be heroic, or what defines us as human in a world we can't fully comprehend. It also serves as a gateway to the past, allowing us to examine the good and ill of the past in a speculative capacity. More importantly, it allows us to carry the torch of our ancestral myths and legends into the modern age, re-interpreting and remixing them before passing them on to the next generation of readers and storytellers.

Would it be fair to call the Bagvad Gita, Journey to the West or Song of Roland narrow and childish? Few if any would claim so, yet that's precisely the sort of storytelling people think of when they say fantasy. Even the most cliche of Dungeons and Dragons staples have deep roots stretching across multiple cultures and traditions. And just like Sci-fi, it's not just limited to those tropes. Pulp fantasy, weird fantasy, grimdark, slipstream, magical realism, fantasy of manners and even literary all diverge from the standard settings and themes commonly assigned to the genre. Which isn't to say every work of fantasy has merit. But to say the gene itself is lacking, or requires another genre to "legitimize" it  really isn't fair. So why then, does this misconception persist?

There's a lot of reasons, but a few stuck out to me in particular. On the more general side, I think most people (sadly) associate Sci-fi and Fantasy with blockbuster movies instead of literature. And for whatever reason, Science Fiction took hold of the silver screen in a way Fantasy never could. Blade Runner, E.T., Close Encounters, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are but a small portion of successful and well-loved science fiction films. But fantasy? Ask anyone on the street what their favorite fantasy movie is, and their choices will either be Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or a Disney Princess movie. And while it pains me to say it, most people would rather watch a movie than read a book, especially large, multi-volume epics like The Wheel of Time.

Less obvious but still notable is the assertion that Fantasy is a "reactionary" genre. One which holds onto ugly, morally regressive ideas and brings nothing new to the table. To these charming sorts, I have but one thing to say. If you think standing up to evil, facing tyrants and exploring our shared human heritage is "reactionary," then you can keep your "progress." That being said, not all these sorts of criticisms are without some merit, and there's certainly old ideas ideas we can do without (Monarchy and slavery being two examples). It's fortunate then, that Fantasy's as adept at critiquing the past as it is romanticizing it. Michael Moorcock's fiction is a scathing critique of Tolkien's traditionalism, and other authors like Ursula LeGuin is another author who's critiqued various ideas through the lends of fantasy. I've personally used Fantasy as a means of exploring the horrors of unchecked power and dismantling the trope of the "noble king" in shorts I've written.

Like all genres, there's room here for all kinds of storytelling, ranging from the most hackneyed, awful stuff imaginable, to the greatest works of literature. The fact that the sword and planet subgenre of science fiction contains both Book of the New Sun (arguably the best work of SFF ever written) and the aforementioned Gor novels (arguably some of the worst) proves there's no such thing as a "good" or "bad" category. And even if fantasy were equivalent to crayons while other genres were oil paints, amazing works of art have been made with crayons. So I think it's safe to say that it's not Fantasy itself that's a "Problem," but how we perceive it in the culture. There's so much more to the genre than Tolkien pastiche and Disney movies. And if we were broaden our horizons and recognize the diverse array of mythic influences out there, perhaps that perception could change over time.

Friday, July 12, 2019

"In The Mouth of Madness" is My New Favorite Movie

Do You read Sutter Cane? 

Lovecraftian horror, a mad author, psychological thrills and the cinematography of John Carpenter. These are all things I like a lot. So much so that I'm honestly a bit shocked it took so long for me to see this thing. But after Red Letter Media did a video on it, I finally decided to rent it on Youtube and see how it was. And honestly? It rocked my socks.

Admittedly, much of that boils down to personal interests. I've been a diehard Lovecraft fan since my edgelord teenage years, I love horror movies and I'm a writer. Movies about books in general are also something I really, really like, because I kind of like books. And while I'm not the biggest Stephen King fan (barring Misery and Salem's Lot), I really dig the old-school aesthetic of his 80's covers.  Also, while it never directly name-drops the Mythos proper, the influence of Lovecraft's work can be felt in the themes, references and characterization that run throughout the whole movie. It's cosmic horror done right, which is a damned rarity outside of books and gaming for some weird reason.

That said, there's some hiccups here and there, such as a slow third act and a major character who ends up becoming little more than a spooky prop towards the middle of the film. It also has a somewhat cheesy atmosphere that attempts to meld Lovecraft's darksome dreams with King's tamer brand of horror. And while I'm glad to say it leans far more on the former than the latter, it lacks the gothic austerity and breathless dread H.P.'s best material has. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that while the soul of Madness is thoroughly Lovecraft, the tone and aesthetics often borrow more from Stephen King films like Christine and the 90's IT. And while I really dug it, it's by no means a replacement for a proper Call of Cthulhu or Whisperer in Darkness adaptation. Also at times, I almost felt a bit of Tales from the Crypt in there too, which I don't mind at all given I've pretty much watched every episode of that.

If you like all that stuff, you're in for a ride. But if the thought of cheese on your horror hotdog makes you retch, maybe skip this one. I thought it was a damn good psychological thriller, but I know a lot of people think this movie's garbo, so I think you kind of need to be a certain type of viewer to really like it. The kind who watched TNT Monstervision, or eagerly awaits James Rolfe's Monster Madness around Halloween.

Also you get to see Sam Neill have an existential freakout over the color blue. So you know, there's that.

I've purposely avoided mentioning any characters or major plot threads, because it's best to go into this thing blind. If cheesy horror's not for you then...I dunno, maybe give Snowpiercer a watch? Never seen that one, so I've no idea how good a suggestion that was. But hey, if you do like cheesy John Carpenter horror flicks, Lovecraft and King, then I thoroughly recommend it. 4/4 stars from me.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Rise of Independent SFF Marches On

The more I post about this stuff, the more I feel like a broken record and yet, I feel it's truly worth mentioning just how far indie books are going in recent years.

Recently, Rob J. Hayes of Best Laid Plans fame got picked up for a Warhammer 40k short, and his latest book Herald is being represented by the John Jarrold literary agency. SPFBO finalist Devin Madson is being represented by literary agent Julie Crisp. Both are fantastic authors and I highly recommend their work and wish them the best with their trad books.

This isn't to suggest that indie books aren't "real books" until picked up by trad publishers, however. Rather, it shows just how influential the indie market is in genre lit, to the point where major sellers in the space occasionally cross over into the ivory castle of traditional publishing. There are of course, great authors like Chris Fox, Will Wight, Daniel Arenson, Andrew Rowe and Bryce Connors, who all sell amazing numbers (like, hundreds of dollars per day on one book numbers) and work just fine in indie. In fact, they're doing better than most midlisters and on par or better than some trad bestsellers.

In my recent interview with SPFBO '18 finalist Steven Mckinnon, I briefly touched upon the growing influence of Eastern European, Chinese and Japanese webnovels and fantasy fiction. Stuff like LitRPG and the Witcher series. Isekai novels like Re:Zero, Shield Hero and Overlord.  Xianxia and Progression novels from Taiwan and China. And while I'm not saying that the western fantasy lit market is 100% influenced by foreign works, it's hard not to see the creeping influence of games, webnovels and anime, even in major releases like Kings of the Wyld. It's not just thematically either, as I see growing parallels between foreign book publishers who often pick up webnovels, and our own Amazon indies turned trad writers. If this continues being a trend, it's entirely possible some of these indie books could end up as streaming shows or even animated features here in the US. Given how fantasy TV series seem to be in high production demand right now, it's not entirely out of the question that Sufficiently Advanced Magic ends up on Netflix.

The latter is of course, just spitballing. Indie or trad, publishing's a volatile industry, so it's hard to say exactly where things go from here. Despite this, I'm certain that as long as people are making cool stories and indie IPs, cool stuff will follow in some form or another.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

#SPFBO Interview: Steven McKinnon, Author of Raincatcher's Ballad

With the winner of SPFBO '18 recently announced, I feel now's the perfect time to take a second look at last year's finalists and get the inside scoop on their books! Ranging from YA to satire to high fantasy, there's a real range of stories and a phenomenal cast of authors who've made the cut. For our first guest, I'd like to welcome Steven McKinnin, author of the airship-focused, high-flying fantasy novel Raincatcher's Ballad!

MARTIN: Glad to have you on, Steve! So first things first, the introduction. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your fiction?

STEVEN: Hello! I live in Glasgow and work as an Advising Support Administrator within the School of Law at the University of Glasgow. I’ve been writing in some way or another since forever, at first trying (and failing) to emulate Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. My first book, Boldly Going Nowhere, is a creative non-fiction title about my attempts at online dating and confronting my own mental illness.…It’s funnier than it sounds. (I didn’t know it at the time, but I have a form of OCD called “Pure O”).

My most recent effort is Symphony of the Wind, the first volume of The Raincatcher’s Ballad (and its companion prequel novella, The Fury Yet To Come.) Fantasy is my favourite genre, especially fantasy with a bit of grit, so after writing a personal story and injecting a lot of humour into it, I wanted to go in the other direction and tell something huge, sprawling and action-packed – something similar to the kind of books I read and the kind of movies I rush to the cinema for.

MARTIN: Raincatcher's Ballad is a series that's both epic in scope, and seemingly inspired by Steampunk. It heavily features airships, pirates, and a lot of other stuff not commonly seen in the typical medieval fare. So what inspired your setting? Cogs and goggles, Final Fantasy, or something else entirely?

STEVEN: You’ve hit the nail on the head with Final Fantasy! I didn’t set out to write a Steampunk novel, purely because I don’t know much about the sub-genre. I don’t think of it as Steampunk, I consider it Epic Fantasy, but if people want to refer to it as Steampunk, then I have no problem with that!

I’d say computer games inspired the setting more than anything else. I enjoy the Final Fantasy games where technology stands alongside magic – I liked the worlds where swords and guns co-exist, and where industry thrives but monsters are never far away. There’s a line on the blurb of the PlayStation One UK version of Final Fantasy VII that always struck a chord with me: “An intense adventure where science and sorcery collide!” I liked that a lot.

The Uncharted games are also an influence, especially with the character Tyson Gallows. I love the popcorn action-adventure tone of those games, but I wanted to up the grit and darkness, whilst still keeping the edge-of-your-seat, skin-of-your-teeth feeling that those games thrust upon the player.
MARTIN: Two of my favorite things about fantasy books are the unique magic systems, locations and monsters. These can often be the most iconic parts of a book or series, such as allomancy in Mistborn, or the trollocs and myrddraal from The Wheel of Time. So what unique elements like these can we expect in Raincatcher?

STEVEN: Agreed! I think Brandon Sanderson really broke the mould with allomancy, that’s probably the coolest magic system in all of Fantasy!

I think the world is the most iconic element in The Raincatcher’s Ballad book(s). While we see more of the world in subsequent books, Symphonytakes place in Dalthea, a small kingdom that happens to have particularly potent ignicite reserves. Ignicite is the foremost source of fuel in the world, and it’s led to all sorts of possibilities. Naturally, the powerful in society haven’t all harnessed ignicite’s potential for the purposes of good…

So that kick-started an industrial revolution, resulting in fewer people believing in the Gods and institutions like the Mages’ Guild fading from significance. Some events of the past have slipped into myth – and if magic does indeed exist, then perhaps the secret is separating truth from fiction…
Going back to the setting, I liked the idea of an area of the world that was tough to inhabit, and that no-one would even bother trying to, if it wasn’t for the presence of a naturally-regenerating resource and source of income. So, the entire kingdom was built during an ignicite “gold rush”, luring people from across the world.

So that’s the background of the city, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” from Star Wars (and the movie Casablanca) set the tone for what Dalthea is like now. I like the melting pot dynamic in Casablanca, where exiles from different backgrounds and cultures dwell in a paranoid and potentially hostile environment during World War 2. If you don’t belong anywhere, you belong there.

MARTIN: Right now the Fantasy genre's exploding on indie platforms. As this Forbes article from last year states, "genre is king on indie platforms." So how are you setting yourself apart from the crowd?

STEVEN: I guess the short answer is I’m not – at least, I don’t intentionally look at what other indie fantasy writers are doing and think “How can I do something different?”. I don’t know, maybe I should be. I’m not great at writing to market – I write the stories I want to write, then ask myself: How can I make this book the best it can possibly be? How do I improve as a writer?

While I hope my books offer something unique, I really enjoy being part of the crowd of indie Fantasy authors – albeit as a small fish in a large pond! It’s encouraging that genre fiction is booming on indie platforms – they’re the books I enjoy reading the most, and readers only benefit from as much choice is possible. It might be a crowded market, but the way I see it, there’s always going to be more books than anyone can possibly read in their lifetime, so just focus on making yours the best it can be.

MARTIN: Earlier you mentioned Final Fantasy as an inspiration, which is something that recent breakout star Nicholas Eames has also claimed. Not too long ago I did a breakdown of an anime series called Rising of the Shield Hero, which I picked as an example of both japanese fantasy and LitRPGs. In it, I suggested that western perceptions of fantasy (especially among the latter half of Millenials and the emerging Gen Z) are increasingly being shaped not by Tolkien and Howard -- but by distinctly Japanese and even Polish and/or Russian media. As an author, do you feel these sorts of stories also influence your work? And where do you see the future of the genre going in the following years?

STEVEN: Great question. I think because I’m quite visual when I work, I lean more towards movies, games and TV shows when I think of the kind of feeling or emotion I’m trying to evoke. (That’s not to say I’m not influenced by books, too – I absolutely am, and reading trumps other forms of media in so many ways.) I’ve only played a handful of Japanese RPG games – and only Final Fantasy ones at that – so I’m probably still primarily influenced by Western media.

Sticking to computer games, Uncharted is a big influence on The Raincatcher’s Ballad. That series’ protagonist, Nathan Drake, has been criticized for being an everyman, loveable-rogue archetype who reels of jokes and one-liners – whilst slaughtering hundreds of people throughout the course of the game. I’m not sure how much I buy into that particular criticism, but I was interested in writing this archetype, but have him be more damaged from his life- and war-time experiences. And that’s how Tyson Gallows, one of Symphony of the Wind’s protagonists, was born!

MARTIN: Aside from video games and fantasy novels, what other elements (especially unconventional ones!) inspired your works? Were there any particular life experiences or trips that made you want to write a story about airships?

STEVEN: I can’t say I’ve ever been on a trip that inspired me to write about airships, but music influences my writing - specifically the songs and stories of Iron Maiden. They have a massive, 18-minute epic song called Empire of the Clouds, which is about an airship disaster (the R101). The song puts the human emotion in the heart of it, the ambition and the sorrow. (The title of the Raincatcher’s Ballad prequel story, The Fury Yet To Come, takes its name from a lyric in this song.)
Being a working class lad from Glasgow has influenced much of the world in Symphony of the Wind. The Raincatchers toil and labour for the greater good and put in hard graft, all the while exchanging banter to make the shift go easier, which I think is a universal experience – I’ve worked jobs that required early starts, long hours and a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s the people working alongside you that make it more bearable. I hope that sense of camaraderie is apparent in the writing.

MARTIN: I've talked a lot about settings and inspirations, but let's talk characters for a bit! You mentioned Tyson Gallows being one of Symphony's protagonists, but what about the other POV characters? How'd you come up with them and (without spoilers) do you have a favorite, and why?

STEVEN: Haha, is it too much of a cop-out to say they’re all my favourite?

I came up with Gallows and Damien through my experiences with mental illness, such as the intrusive thoughts that come with “Pure O” OCD. I wanted to write “strong” male characters who were also vulnerable in some pretty serious ways, or whose internal struggles negatively impacted their day to day life.

For Fitz, Tiera and Veronica, I wanted characters who still struggle, but who’ve made their peace with their role in the world and realise that things could be much, much worse. (Which, of course, invariably happens.)

MARTIN: Last question! Let's say you got transported to a fantasy world in mere seconds. There's no way back, and you have a wealth of knowledge from the real world you can bring to this new place. What do you do?

STEVEN: Honestly? I’d probably dick around with people and fashion myself as some kind of genius trickster-god for my own amusement.

Interested in some swashbuckling action? Then head on over to Steven's Amazon page to check out Raincatcher's Ballad and other books! And if you've already read his works, consider leaving a Goodreads review if you haven't already. Also, please consider liking and sharing this post on social media. Every share helps me get the word out about writing, authors and other topics related to genre writing!

Artist Spotlight: Travis Anderson


(Originally Posted on March 9, 2019)

So recently I revealed the cover art for my upcoming book. That art was done by Travis Anderson, an artist who's worked on many projects, including the Dragobourne TCG, SYFY's Deadly Class,  and the VR title Gadgeteer, which you can grab here on Steam.  He's also the lead artist at indie board game studio Tabula, creators of the card game Volfyirion.

I chose Travis due to his stunning and strange art, which blends the fantastical, alien and dreamlike into something truly unique. Because of the eclectic gene mix I was looking for, I felt he was the perfect artist to bring Argos to life for the cover for City of Tombs.

Book Reveal: Warglaive Volume 1: The City of Tombs


A couple months back, I mentioned I was working on two books to be released this year. The first one I revealed was The Shrouded Emperor, an epic flintlock fantasy book I'm aiming for a Q4 2019 release. However, I also mentioned a then-unnamed sword & sorcery novel that I'd be releasing earlier this year. And I'm very excited to announce the title and concept of said series today.
So without further ado...allow me to introduce Warglaive Volume 1: The City of Tombs!
Warglaive is a fantasy series inspired by sword and sorcery pulps, tabletop RPGs and retro sci-fi books. I wanted to evoke that feeling readers in the 1920s first felt when cracking open Weird Tales for the first time. That sense of swashbuckling action, dramatic twists and the discovery of strange and wonderful new worlds. At the same time, I wanted to update the formula for 2019, focusing on world-building, magic systems, and more character-driven storytelling. As well newer fantasy elements such as "progression" storytelling a la Andre Rowe.

Betrayed and marked as a sacrifice, Argos awakens in a long-forgotten city miles beneath the world's surface. Braving gore-stained horrors, forbidden sorcery and daemonic machines, the warrior soon finds others like him who've been marked as offering for the Lord of the Deep. With not only his life, but the lives of his newfound allies at stake, Argos must rise and become the hero he's always aspired to be, or die trying. But in these dark and perilous depths, one question remains...
What can mortal men do against the hunger of a god?
A dark, sci-fantasy story inspired by classic Sword & Sorcery pulps, City of Tombs marks the first action-packed volume in the strange and savage world of WARGLAIVE.
That would be Argos, a “professional hero” who travels across the world of Ryve, fighting villains and slaying monsters for the right price. The problem? He's essentially a noblebright character in a grimdark setting of corrupt emperors, cosmic horrors and ancient snake-cults. In this world, there's no such thing as heroes...but that not exactly stopping Argos from trying!

WARGLAIVE VOLUME 1: THE CITY OF TOMBS marks the first installment in my new sword-and-sorcery progression fantasy series. These “volumes” will be short, serialized works released in between my bigger books like Shrouded. Expect updates on the book in the coming weeks, as I work on the last couple drafts before the official launch.

In the mean time, I'll be writing a bit about Sword and Socrery as a genre, balancing "classic pulp" with "new fantasy," and the influences behind the book. This has been a setting I've been dying to share, and one that I hope both seasoned and new fans of Sci-fi and Fantasy will come to enjoy.

ARTSTREAM - A Sneak Preview of My New Book's Cover by Artist Travis Anderson

(Originally Posted on March 9, 2019)

Just a heads-up, folks. Artist Travis Anderson is live streaming the creation process of my sword-and-sorcery novel's cover art. I'll be revealing the title and synopsis very soon, but for now, here's a sneak peek at what's to come!