Tag Archives: fiction

Warhammer Quest, Blackstone Fortress – Hero Quest in Space or More?

Blackstone Fortress is the latest adventure board game to come from Games Workshop set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, Warhammer 40K to most nerds. It is labelled as Warhammer Quest. For those you in your thirties this will take you back to the glory days of heroic ineptitude – the golden age of adventure. For everyone else, it’s the latest in the Warhammer Quest Series. Alongside Blackstone Fortress in the Warhammer Quest series are Silver Tower (currently discontinued) and Shadows of Hammerhal both of which are set in GW’s fantasy setting, Age of Sigmar. All of these games follow similar game styles and mechanics, so if you’ve played one you should be able to pick up the others with relative ease.

Blackstone Fortress promises exploration and adventure in the grim darkness of the 41st Millenium, a vast void of horror and terror.

It delivers.

With character choices ranging from outlawed Artificial Intelligence robot, rogue trader and Imperial Navigator to fanatic, Ratling snipers (who are twins) and alien hunters, there should be something for anyone who has an interest in grim and gritty science fiction.

A few of you older players out there who have not ventured in table top adventure games in some time may be thinking ‘is this just Hero Quest in the modern era of gaming?’ I think it’s a fair and realistic question. So is it just Hero Quest in space? Well yes, at least in concept.

The Goal

The whole point of Blackstone Fortress is to find your way into the Hidden Vault, deep inside the drifting hulk of the mysterious Blackstone Fortress. To do this, players need to discover clues during their expeditions. These clues will lead to special scenarios called Strongholds, which will eventually lead to the hidden vault. Even when a stronghold attack can be mounted, the players still need to get to them, with a 4 card expedition, purely of combat – more of this later. Getting to the hidden vault will take a lot of gaming hours, but I am certain that it will be a challenge and a worthy one at that!

In the game fluff, the Blackstone Fortress learns and adapts after each incursion of adventurers. Legacy cards add to the danger in this aspect, increasing the threat level for some monsters, such as the Spindle Drone. They up the ante during the expeditions. Once in play they stay and generally add flair and layers of danger to the expeditions. Once there are no more legacy cards in left in play, you’ve run out of time, and lose the game, no matter where you’re up to!

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with the character ships, two varieties of the Grav-lifts and the Leader token.

Let’s take a look at the goods first though…

Manufacturing Quality

The important bit to most gamers and war-gamers: are the miniatures any good? Yes. The miniatures are amazing and better still, they clip together – no glue required. You just need something to cut them from the plastic sprue. This took me a couple of hours whilst watching a series on Netflix so anyone with more experience may get it done in half that time.

The miniatures are constructed in such a way that they appear seamless, which took a bit of jigsaw magic to see how they fitted together – but as previously mentioned, no glue is required, so you can take your time. The same great GW quality of miniature manufacture is found throughout. I think my Kill Team just got bigger too – the models are in hot demand, check out ebay if you don’t believe me.

The game tiles are a really thick and good quality card. They pop out easily, which reduces tearing of the precious printed sides. They’re double sided but unlike Imperial Assault by Fantasy Flight, there’s not a million small pieces to get lost or confused with. The game counters are all pretty unique, with the majority of them being wound tokens (which are double sided for critical wounds). The rest are for game effects and inspiration points, which I’ll mention later on.

There are three rule-books.

Don’t despair.

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop Games Workshop
Five books from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress. One is fluff, one of rules for Warhammer 40K and the other three are for game play.

Each one is written chronologically for each section of the game as you progress. They are written to the usual standard for GW, guiding you through in simple steps. The terminology may be a little different if you haven’t tried GW games before, so take your time. If you are familiar with any of the GW games, such as Warhammer 40K or Age of Sigmar, you’ll find the turn sequence and rounds familiar.

Once you have the turn sequence in your mind, it’s pretty straight forward from there. There is a bit of juggling with the game on the first play through, as you consult different books to figure out when you can heal or how to carry out certain actions. This is a minor point, however it does highlight the importance of reading through the rules before the gaming session!

Blackstone Fortress is split into two game sections by exploration cards; challenges and combats, which are drawn randomly from the Exploration card deck. The exploration deck is large, 36 cards, so it should always be a different combination. You randomly pick 4 challenge cards and 4 combat cards which make up the Exploration deck for the Expedition. When combined, these are like a campaign story arc. These are shuffled and placed on the Precipice board, which is like the character staging area.

There are 18 cards each for both challenges and combats (36 cards in total). By drawing 4 of each randomly, you’re looking at 1 in 18 chance of drawing the same cards each time you create the exploration deck. The chances of drawing the same 8 cards are something like a 1 in 105,000 chance, by my shoddy calculations. That’s a lot of gaming before statistically you get the same play-through.

Challenges

The challenges are narrative encounters which do not make use of models and board pieces. They are usually a way of grabbing gear and tech (treasure, clues to future explorations), usually by causing damage to assailants. They include short narrative pieces such as ‘Get them all!’ where the players are required to inflict as much damage as they can to a fleeing group of hostiles – anyone who can deal 4 or more wound gets to draw a card from the discovery deck. Simples.

On a balancing note, these may be to help characters build up with less risk than combats or offer special cards for future explorations.

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with two of the character ships, the Destiny dice, Exploration cards and Discovery cards.

Combat Setup

Combats involve board pieces and miniatures and are the biggest portion of the game. Each combat exploration card shows how the map tiles are set up so anyone can setup the board while others are chasing through the rules books or determine where the bad guys and monsters are placed. They also mark where certain mission specific specials may be placed.

Keeping track of the game during combat is achieved with the Initiative tracker. The players get the option to attempt to help each other by swapping places with allies or attempting to swap their place with the enemy to get the drop on them. This all happens in the Initiative phase, followed by the Gambit phase. The Gambit phase can be costly as an action dice has to be spent, followed by an ability roll to determine success. These mechanics help to really bring the tension to the game, forcing the players to plan ahead. The players feel the pressure when the cards are redrawn each round, as their plans will likely need to change.

Hostiles and bad guys are drawn from the Encounter cards deck and placed in the starting positions according to the combat exploration card, which are given a specific place on the board and the tracker. The number of hostiles on a card are determined by where on the tracker they are, for example, you may get 2 drones on position 1, or 4 on position 2. Hostiles gain reinforcements each turn and are spawned on their turn in the Initiative track with a roll of a 20 sided dice, called the Blackstone Dice (which is black and looks like a stone if you’re not familiar with 20 sided dice). This adds threat, because even if all the bad guys are dead, they can keep re-spawning as happened with our test games!

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The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

Hostiles in the game are given over to an AI system, where they react depending on a dice roll. It is not completely random, as each action they are given depends on a set few variables which allows them to act organically. Each set of rules for the monsters appears on very handy cards, giving you everything you need to know in a single place. So much easier than consulting multiple books!

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop. The reverse side shows how the AI results on a dice roll.

Hostiles are terrifying in their own specific ways; if they’re not ripping you to ribbons with frenzied claw attacks they’re punching through your armour and ignoring your save rolls with shocking power! Case in point, UR-025 (or Mr Robot man to you and I) is a heavy duty fighter, with a better chance of rolling saves against wounds, with an added re-roll too – then he gets hit by a Negavolt Cultist and suddenly he has no armour saves. Surprises await those unprepared!

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
Game tiles for Games Workshops Blackstone Fortress. Double sided and durable for all your grim and gritty science fiction adventures in the hopeless voids of Warhammer 40K!

Characters in the Game

At the start of each combat round Characters are allocated action dice, regular six sided dice. The dice are stored on their character card with whatever score they rolled. These dice are used / spent on actions which require a set number on one or more of those dice. Moving require a dice with a score of 1 or more, other actions may require 4 or more on a dice etc. There are standard actions and character specific actions, which are found on the character cards, usually weapon actions.

Explore with caution. When you are wounded the dice you roll at the start of each round are blocked, covered by wound markers, meaning the potential number of actions you can make are severely impaired! Fear not however, each round an extra pool of destiny dice are rolled which any one can use – but the power of the warp means that any duplicate scores on these dice are removed, so you better roll fresh to get the most out of destiny! A lot of dice multiples came up during our game, causing tension and nail biting in equal measure.

A second type of dice rolls are attribute dice which are used to evade damage, carry out special tasks and try to recover wounds. There are wounds and then there are critical wounds – wounds can be recovered during the combat part of the game, whereas critical wounds require a trip back to your ship to try and heal. As with Warhammer Quest back in the golden age, however, there’s always a chance something may not heal fully…

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
The Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

The dice rolls are easy to interpret: you either fail, succeed or critically succeed. Each of the ability dice (6, 8 and 12 sided dice) are colour coded to match the information on the character sheets. These dice rolls are not always friendly, you can feel like the end of times can result from a failed roll. On the plus side, there’s very few calculations as in some GW games – just check to see how many symbols you rolled and away you go. GW have followed Fantasy Flight in this – so don’t lose those dice! Otherwise you could end up paying for more specialist dice in the future…

Toward the end of the combat sections, characters need to escape by summoning the escape lift, usually under duress. There’s no way out otherwise! When the remaining characters get to the escape lift, they have to decide to carry on fighting the growing horde, or to head back to their ships to lick their wounds. Heading back restarts the exploration so if you really need to finish you’re gonna find it hard to do!

When a character kills a number of monsters on their turn, they can roll the Blackstone Dice to see if they gain Inspiration points, where they are required to roll under the wounds they caused on a 20-sided dice. Inspiration points are used to re-roll some dice throughout the game, usually the activation dice at the start of the round, or give flip your character card over to increase their effectiveness. A bit like leveling up!

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The ‘Inspired’ Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

At the end of each round of the game, in combat or otherwise, a leadership token passes around the table, allowing each player to call the shots in equal measure (with a discussion, of course).

First Impressions & Thoughts

In a single evening gaming session, including learning how to play the game, we managed to get through 1 challenge and 2 combats. Assuming we don’t have to relearn the game, we could probably manage drawing 4 of the Exploration cards, which equates to half an Expedition. At this rate, in theory, we could spend hundreds of hours playing this game. So unlike Hero Quest, there is a seemingly limitless combination of events from challenges, combats and encounter (monster) cards. There’s probably scope for fan made or self made encounters too, let’s watch the internet pensively for these.

The game has a very nostalgic feel to it, similar to previous board games from GW decades ago. The hostile creatures are just as deadly as you’d expect, in their own ways. Players without prior knowledge will make mistakes which make the game intense and ups the challenge rating greatly. In this way, very much like Hero Quest!

The open form and random generation of each Expedition is a similar mechanic used by other games and it works just as well in Blackstone Fortress. It will take some serious play testing to get through all of the different combinations. In our initial play-through we had four players and one person acting as the games master. We felt this worked best for our first game so we could focus on the different parts of the game – just like in Hero Quest! You can play this game solo or without a games master, as the monsters follow an AI system, meaning all you need to do is move the pieces around and roll the dice.

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop
Dice, lots of six-sided dice, with the special ability dice, from 6, 8 & 12-sided dice. The 20-sided dice is the Blackstone dice…

What we did wrong…

We went wrong in some parts, missing the exploration round which would have made the combat a little easier if we had rolled on the event table. Although, the table isn’t all good – sometimes it can go horribly wrong… So it’s not all bad!

Why did we miss this section? It’s right at the end of the combat book, and there’s a lot in some sections. As we frenziedly played through the rounds we completely missed it! No one said nerds were thorough. So be sure to have all books to hand and refer to them often.

Value Ratio

It is a thorough and playable game. It has the same high quality of most Games Workshop products, but you will pay through the nose for it if you don’t shop around. I was lucky, I found an ebay seller with about 20% off the RRP, I then applied a free 10% discount from ebay to get it even cheaper.

If bought from a third party retailer the price becomes a little more affordable for a game of this type. The miniatures are worth a heavy bit of gold. The card tiles are sturdy. Even the box is sturdy (I mean, it has to be, it’s a heavy one). You get all the dice you need.

Edit: This may look like a silly thing to say, but £95 is a hefty price tag for any board game. Shop around, GW will get their money, so it helps smaller businesses if you go through them!

Since this is a complete game (£95.00), there’s no expansions as far as we know, and given the replay ability of expeditions is very high, it is feasible to play over a hundred games. Maybe even twice that. So you’re looking at about £0.5 – £1 per game. Let’s be conservative and say each full expedition takes 4 hours. You’re looking at £0.25 to £0.50 per hour of play. That’s really good money for a game that should be different each time. You’re snacks will cost you more to eat!

In Conclusion

The Feels – a dark, desperate setting with mechanics that fit those feelings. Thrilling, because when you do score a critical roll it feels like the cosmos is backing you up – any other time it’s trying to eat you!

No silly measuring distances, just count the hexes. Can you draw a straight line from the centre of a hex to the hex your target is standing in? Then you have line of sight, roll your dice. It’s that easy.

Edit: Downsides include what some players have described as ‘chaff’ play. This means that a few players think the amount of combats that are required to complete the game can get a bit samey. GW, do we need to go through quite so much to complete the game? On a personal level, I think it’s important to understand that the fighting during the combat sections are not about clearing the board – it is about surviving the battle and gathering the clues before time runs out. Perhaps GW could do with giving us more information on the bigger picture of the game earlier on.

So is it like Hero Quest? Yeah I think it is, it certainly has that heroic quality to it, and I’m sure it will one day be one of those nostalgic games we all reminisce about.

If you’ve got any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear them! you can find us on our discord server.

You can get a few more articles by us on other Games Workshop products here or here.

Enjoy!

 

*Edited 24/12/18 to reflect some feedback from our gaming group and affiliates.

 

Literary Devices Part 4 – Dialogue techniques and capturing fictional realism

NaNoWriMo started today! Hu-rarrgh! So let’s get down to business, because I know for a fact you’re just taking a break from smashing today’s word goal, and research counts, right?

Today we’ll be looking at dialogue and how dialogue not only gives your characters depth and well, character, but also helps you advance the plot of your story.

I’m going to split this episode into two sections; literal advice on dialogue and then characterisation, which is a deeper and heavier topic which I will touch on.  I won’t cover grammar here because that is a lesson all of its own, but I’ll include some links for you to look at.

Dialogue is the verbal interaction between two or more characters which your reader is privy to. If the character is talking alone, we call it a monologue. Both of these are useful as writing techniques and I’ll cover a few interesting ideas soon. First, I want to show you an example of how dialogue can work:

“What are we watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“Amazing.”
“We could watch Indiana Jones if you’d like?” she said.
“Nah, Star Wars. With popcorn.”

This is pretty basic dialogue, it’s OK but it doesn’t really make for good reading and frankly, its dull. I’ll rewrite this section and you can see for yourself how a little conflict can really give it more energy and readability.

“What are watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“That shit, again?”
“We haven’t watched any Star Wars since Sunday night,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. And the Sunday before that and the one before that! Don’t you ever try something new, Sarah?”

This rewrite has conflict, unlike the original draft. It’s pretty mundane stuff but actually gives a little bit of purpose to the dialogue – we learn more about the characters in the same amount of text without really having to change much. Dialogue is plot, plot is confrontation, confrontation is dramatic and therefore entertaining to read. If your dialogue does not advance the plot or aids in creating your character, remove it. It isn’t helping.

So, onto the juicy stuff.

Part One – Literary Tactics on Dialogue

Organics

The primary rule here is that fictional dialogue of any sort is not directly transposed from real-life dialogue. It doesn’t work, because when we talk naturally we interrupt ourselves with filler noises while we think or sigh and make gestures with our bodies. With this in mind, keep your dialogue concise, meaning you should cut it right back to the essentials only. If there is no character advancement or plot work going on, get rid of it as it doesn’t make for good reading.

While we’re at it – we don’t always use social niceties when we talk. I am forever just shouting a colleagues name, sometimes getting it wrong on purpose. It’s also not organic to greet someone formally every time they come into the room to talk. This leads nicely into using incomplete or cut back sentences. Rather than ask:

“Do you want to drink some beer with me?”

We would simply say:

“Want a beer?”

It is implied that by asking about the possession of beer, you’re likely to share it.

Tags and Vacuum Speech

Tags are really simple devices to break up the dialogue. In real life we don’t just face each other and speak blandly forwards, often we are pausing or watching the other person for reactions. Stephen King makes it very clear that simply using the word said is more than enough of a tag to help the reader keep up with the dialogue. He said, she said, or using the character name sparingly is enough of a tag to help the conversation flow.

Be careful with tags though, as they can easily become overused and distract the reader with a speedy battle of paddle war. To get around this, using descriptive tags can alter the pace of your dialogue. Descriptive tags are little actions which we all do when we talk; preparing food, typing away at a computer desk or lighting a cigarette. These descriptions give a sense of life and purpose to the characters. Caution though, avoid adverbs (usually ending in the suffix ‘ly’) such as frighteningly. Rather, describe these actions and emotions with the characters reactions.

Line Punch

Another easy little device is to alter the length of lines in your dialogue. Shortening lines in a dialogue adds some punch into the conversation by allowing the reader to break or rest for a brief moment. Overextending the reader is usually a result of boring, lengthy lines of dialogue which feel faked.

If one character is talking with lengthy lines and the responses are single words or short and sharp lines, we may assume that the second character is being evasive or unhelpful.

Tension can also be built up as dialogue lines become shorter, suggesting the conversation is reaching a climax where neither character is prepared to talk further, possibly resulting in conflict.

Part 2 – Characterisation & Dialogue

Collins English Dictionary describes characterisation as:

“Characterization is the way an author or an actor describes or shows what a character is like.”

The key words here are describes and shows. As with any writing devices, it is always preferred to show the reader rather than tell them (especially when it comes to exposition). For this reason you must consider your character in detail and then use their dialogue or monologue to effectively portray who they are. This is tricky, but with some background notes you should be able to overcome dry dialogue. The following are not in any particular order of importance.

Emotional conventions are habits learned from background and upbringing. They will add life and realism to your characters with proper use. In some cases however it is always best to avoid stereotypes, even mild ones, as these may seem trite.

books on bookshelves

Education

Education is an important consideration. Educated people behave differently from those with a poor or no education. Characters are likely to appear less aggressive (although appearances can be deceptive) with an education, avoiding direct confrontation and possess a wider vocabulary than others while likely to use correct grammar. Educated characters are also likely to use literary devices like rhetoric to convey their meaning and intent. Conversely, those with a poor education are more likely to use colloquialisms and repeat themselves..

Gender (Stereotypes)

Gender in dialogue only really refers to the stereotypes. Generally female dialogue is considered to be wandering and generally less competitive with a focus on establishing common ground, than male dialogue. This doesn’t mean your female character has to be these things, of course not. However it does highlight how readers perceive female dialogue to be. Finally, it is considered to be widely accepted for a women to be more emotional in public, whereas men are often ridiculed or treated with a measure of discomfort for showing strong emotions in public. Play around with these ideas, and be happy with how much you include in your dialogue. Stereotypes can be ignored!

Family & Religious Background

Every family is unique with its little quirks and traditions and sometimes religious practices plays into those quirks. Where family promotes its own habits of emotion, religion often has social constraints and these will help define your character and their dialogue. Usually a strong religious background will prevent cussing or taking a deities name in vain. A character with strict parents, for example a stern military figure, may remain taciturn and stoic during most of the dialogue and may struggle with showing emotions. Those with a formal upbringing are less likely to interrupt others and use formal titles when addressing figures of authority. Think about where your character has come from and who they are forming a dialogue with.

three women wearing turbands

Ethnicity

Ethnicity is a tricky element of a character. As mentioned previously, it is best to avoid stereotypes, but then again, they exist. Ethnicity tends to be tied closely with the previous sections of characterisation. Consider for a moment a high powered business man standing before a board of shareholders. Chances are you imagined a white caucasian man in a suit. Now imagine this business man has received news of the death of a friend, does he; break down in tears or does he clench his jaw, finish the meeting and go home to his den and drink whiskey in stony silence?

Consider a street vendor who sells food receiving the same news, surrounded by his community and friends. Is he more likely to break down in tears than the previous example? Likely, yes. In some cultures it is perfectly acceptable for anyone to drop to the floor in tears, or wail freely. The point we’re trying to make here is that emotion and dialogue are connected, and different ethnicity’s will react to strong emotion or sudden change with different responses. Linking back to education, you may find that the business man will respond to grief with definite terms and phrases, whereas the street vendor is likely to repeat themselves and stammer, vocalising their dismay openly and sporadically.

Circumstances

Circumstances alter our dialogue drastically and are strongly linked to the timing of the characters dialogue. Consider the following lines:

“An hour into our night patrol and suddenly we’re taking fire, tracer rounds lighting up the ridge dead ahead. A storm of bullets was tearing our position up and I had trouble shouting out call signs – I had to check for injured but I couldn’t move my damn lips!”

This is an example of character describing a previous incident. When reflecting, people tend to focus on giving the reader a sense of backstory and details which had likely been soaked in subconsciously. If the action was taking place in real time, either through a flashback or direct descriptions the dialogue would be very different. Keep the context, cut the dialogue right back to something simple, your character probably doesn’t have time to think of a full sentence:

“Taking fire, find cover!”

Or in our previous example, no dialogue at all. Sometimes silence is enough for the reader to get the idea.

Concluding this episode

Some of the best advice you can get is to break the rules, play with your dialogue and proof it many times. If you’re not happy with, move on and come back to it. If you’re unsure, read out the lines as if you were acting and see if the dialogue for each character sounds different enough to be real.

Here’s a nice link for grammar in dialogue. It’s nicely worded, but be aware that dialects of English, such as UK and US English will have a few different ideas. Personally I think if you stick to one type you’ll be fine!

Finally, if you can get a copy, this is the best book I’ve seen out there for UK grammar.

J.D Ferris, CC

Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems

Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce

NaNoWriMo Day 1: Unexpected Lessons.

The first day is done. Well, there’s plenty of daylight left but I powered through last night and got to my word count by about 4AM. It was nice to feel so motivated, so I kept telling myself that I could write this piece afterwards to document my experience, which got me to the end. You have to find ways of justifying the effort to yourself, especially if you have problems with motivation like me. We’re getting there.

I had the bare bones of my story in my mind and some scant notes, but I didn’t really know how I was going to flesh out the character development. So that was my goal going into it, using the narrative ideas I’d come up with as a vehicle to develop those ideas, I found that not knowing myself really helped me present those ideas to the reader in a cogent way, and by the end of the first 1680 words, I found that I knew who my protagonist was, what she cared about and developed her relationships with her parents.

It’s quite amazing what you can get done when you sit down, have a plan, and put the work in.

I hope this article format is interesting. If anyone has any questions or wants to talk about their NaNoWriMo experience, I’d be happy to start a dialogue.

Our Discord Server: https://discord.gg/PGj8yYS

Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner and I bet you’ve got loads of ideas ready to go – you just need to start writing. But have you considered the literary devices you could use to add style and flare to your work?

Don’t worry if you haven’t, we’ve picked a few out for this week and we’re going to share them with you in a really easy way to understand. We’ll pick a few more as the days go by, so check back to learn more as you go.

It’s a great little break to read – and totally guilt free, since we’re all learning!

Let’s begin!

abstract anatomy art blur

Anthropomorphism (and personification)

This one is an odd concept, but straight forward. Anthropomorphism is when you give human qualities or traits to non-human creatures, objects or events.

Anthro comes from the study of humans and morphism means to change or develop.

Anthropomorphism is very similar to personification, which gives human characteristics to objects or creatures – except that anthropomorphism is used to make those things appear or seem to be human.

Here are some reading examples to help you identify anthropomorphism:

Animal Farm (Orwell) uses animals for political satire and statements in a way that seems friendly and safe. It conveys his messages without being threatening to the reader, in the way that a news article or science journal might.

This form of literary device gets a lot of use in children’s books, cartoons and animations. My favorite example of this is Redwall (Jacques) which uses animals as humans to create a story which is endearing to adults and children, and plays out the story in a safe medium for children to digest.

boy child clouds kid

Bildungsroman

Weird name, right? Bildung is old German for learning or experience, and roman means novel. Hope that clears it up! This form of literary device is more a style of writing. Usually the content of this form of writing is focused on a young protagonist growing or developing to adulthood, in which experiences may alter the outlook of the protagonist either morally, intellectually or physically. It does not have to be focused on the young however, and pretty much sums up every protagonist story ever written.

I’ve got two examples for you; A Christmas Carol (Dickens), where Scrooge goes from being a terrible old miser to realising that he can provide a positive impact on people’s lives – if he could just give up his old ways.

If you have time to watch it, the TV series A Game of Thrones is filled with bildungsroman themes; Jaime Lannister being a popular one; the guy is pretty much a rich, stuck up, entitled prick who is happy to kick a boy out a window, until he loses his hand – not great for the perfect swordsman! As time goes by, Jamie realises that his worth in the world is limited and goes through some drastic moral changes.

brown and white bear plush toy
No pain, no gain, huh, Ted?

Consonance

Another one people get confused with, mainly due to similar literary devices being very close in nature. Consonance uses the same consonant repeatedly, usually at the end of a word, in a series of words, for example; my luck sucks or no pain no gain. Consonance must not be confused with alliteration, which uses vowels in the same way, usually for the first letter of words. Consonance is also different in that it uses the sound of a letter rather than the actually letter, such as; no knocking now.

Why do we use consonance? It’s used a lot in poetry to create a hypnotic beat to the rhythm of a piece, apparently our brains enjoy this sort of thing!

Double Entendre

This is usually a figure of speech or phrase with a double meaning. The first meaning may be obvious whereas the second meaning is likely to be risque, overtly informal or generally inappropriate. They’re great devices for discrete insults or witty remarks or as humour in a manner much like innuendo.

A reading example follows my favourite story as a child; In The Odyssey (Homer) Odysseus, when capture by the cyclops, calls himself Nobody. When the cyclops is blinded by Odysseus and he escapes with his soldiers, the cyclops shouts out for help ‘Nobody has blinded me, Nobody is going to kill me!’ Of course, no allies for the cyclops came to help, since no one was there to hurt him!

That about sums up our writing advice for today, check back soon for more insights into creative writing techniques, or sign up to our newsletter for updates as we publish more articles. We hope we’ve been some help!

Good luck with NaNoWriMo!

J.D Ferris, CC

Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems

Literary Devices Part 4 – Dialogue techniques and capturing fictional realism

Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce

NaNoWriMo Prep: You Can Do It.

The month has gone by in a blur, our anticipation peaks as all the carefully collected and fleshed out notes (Ha!) are ready to come together to provide a much needed shove when we finally tick over to November first.

My technique has been to come up with an idea, write about two pages of notes, then let the rest of my ideas bounce around my head until I know exactly where I’m going with the story for the first few chapters. As a writer I’m definitely more of a “fly by the seat of my pants” type instead of meticulously planning everything out. When I get into the zone, I tend to just link the main plot points together with prose that tends to just flow out.

I don’t care about names, or the facts of my world, or even if I introduce a character only to forget about them five pages on. This thing is going to be about getting your thoughts onto the page any way you can. If you find yourself staring at the page for any extended amount of time, then stand up, get some fresh air, eat, do something different to bring you out of that frame of mind because you’ll soon feel defeated. If you do take a break, then be sure to come back to it in the same day or you’ll feel awful the next day with more to do and it won’t be long before you’ll hate the process.

If you get through the first week and you’ve hit most of your targets then you’ll feel fantastic and I think that is the point at which you’ll know if you’ve cracked it. But always remember your story, when you’re not writing, write notes about the plot points you’ve introduced and where they could go. You want to be able to look back on your novella and think “That’s pretty clever” at least once or twice.

You can do this. The biggest problem is finding free time. If anyone demands you leave your cave in the middle of writing, or tries to organise some event on a day you need to knuckle down and get some writing done, then either tell them that you’re trying to become the next best selling author or bring your laptop and be prepared to get dirty looks from some people as you sit in the cinema typing your manuscript.

Be the writer you want to be. Part-time writers are no writers at all. You need to sacrifice yourself to some degree to make this happen. And yes, I am mostly writing this for myself, I just hope it resonates with some of you, because I’m nervous and scared and hope it’s good. Even confident people struggle with stuff like this. You can do it though, I believe in you.

Author of “Emilia The Witch” for NaNoWriMo,

J.A.Steadman.

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

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What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

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In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC

The Name’s Fiction, Pulp Fiction – why we owe cheap fiction of the past a debt for the glorious genres we love today

Say ‘Pulp Fiction’ and most people think of Tarantino’s 1994 cult movie – the violence, the disgust, the horror of it all. Little will they know however of it’s working title; Black Mask, or what that even means. I’ll tell you what it means, but first let’s look more at what the true pulp fiction was.

According to dictionary.com the definition of pulp fiction is:

“Fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp.”

Pretty simple really, no set genre, not set style just cheaper printing and sensational content. But there is a history here and it’s quite cool – younger generations will have no idea what it was all about. Until now.

The pulps as they were also known as were counter to the slicks, glossy well made magazines for richer audiences. Despite the Americanisms, pulp fictions claim descendants from earlier styles and formats of literature; the penny dreadfuls of Britain and dime novels of the US. From these simple fiction papers came some powerful genres; those of us who love horror, fantasy and science fiction owe a lot to the pulp literature of the past – before the rise of those genres we only had pulps. And what a legacy to share.

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Despite their massive popularity of the time, it was never easy for early authors to become accepted writers; some famous authors of fantasy, such as Robert E. Howard never truly made it big in their lifetime, posthumous success becoming more common. Even Lovecraft, who spawned an entire sub-genre of cosmic horror by himself only managed to gather a few dollars for much of his extensive work, which are now more popular than ever across all forms of media from literature, film and game platforms of all kinds.

Indeed, many famous authors began or boosted their careers with pulp fiction stories: Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain even H.G Wells, the father of science fiction.

Pulp fiction covered everything from gritty westerns, dark crime thrillers, exotic fantasy and exceptional science fiction; all of which fell under weird fiction or some sort or other. But these weird tales grew into genres of their own, providing us with film noir and sword & sorcery, among others.

It wasn’t all great though. Often pulp magazines portrayed highly sexualised women in peril, a dashing hero nearby to risk his life in an attempt to rescue such a damsel – I’m not sure that sort of cover art would stand up in modern times, with good reason given the rise of equality since the 1950’s and the sexual liberation of women in the 60’s.

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Yesterday’s Sunrise

The rise of pulp fiction and its earlier descendants came primarily from financial reasons: the price. Quite simply, it was affordable fiction in a time before the internet, computers and films. It was your only escape that wasn’t the theatre, alcohol or underage pregnancy. You may be forgiven for wondering why the appeal seems to be lost in modern times.

Yet, at the height of pulp fiction there were millions of copies printed monthly, with some publishers boasting more than 300 pulp titles at a time, some from as early as the 1920s. The market truly was booming. The sensation didn’t stop in the US; the UK had its own share of pulp fiction, appealing to the young and the poor. You didn’t talk about which celebrity was fumbling their way through a dance-off, you talked about the characters and the situations of the latest pulp fiction. You probably had more in depth conversations about it too.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, IF Worlds of Science Fiction, and Unknown were all leading the market in Britain, spanning decades (with artwork a little less sexualised, although still present).

Inevitable Fall

It was not to last however. In Britain and most of Europe, the succession of two world wars left a shortage of paper material, forcing publishers to reduce the size of their prints and limit their publications to several times a year. What was monthly was now quarterly and this had a knock-on effect for the industry, which we are still suffering from now: it is hard for new writers to be read.

Not being noticed forced some authors into writing novels instead and a reduction in sales meant that publishing houses had to be picky about who they took on and what they published. Prime content became everything. It all started to feel very ‘safe’ and perhaps stale.

The effect is still felt somewhat today in that it is still incredibly hard to become a published author and make a living from it. Sure, as a consumer the content we have is better but the ideas are not as fresh, daring or fringe-worthy. And lets only mention briefly that now everything comes in the form of a trilogy of trilogies. Finding a single story novella is pretty hard in the bookshops of today!

Even self publishing is hard, at least to make your goal financially viable.

Gone is the golden age of the pulp writer.

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Dost the Embers Stir?

Let’s be clear and honest though; reading a short story is fun! It doesn’t take an age, it is valuable time with oneself and is usually cheap – no huge investment. You can buy a small novella for less than £5 and that’s all you need – no TV or monitor, no subscription to Netflix or Amazon, nothing electrical at all (unless you’re reading at night).

But perhaps the best news of all is that there’s still hope. Hope that with the rise of online pulp houses like ThePulp.net and New Pulp Press who sell e-fiction for as little as $3-$6, there’s still a place to hide away from the world and live the life of your favourite (anti) heroes.

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So back to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; the working title, Black Mask was a US pulp magazine in the 1920s covering dark, gritty and corrupt crime stories. There was plenty of gore, violence and sex to fuel the 1994 movie, summing up the Tarantino’s tastes nicely.

So we’re going to have a go at bringing you some pulp fiction of our own, with a blog to run alongside it with our notes, plans and sketches to give you an idea of how much shit we put ourselves through! (I may have had a drink or two of Port).

Opening Lines from stories of the last century – why you should master them!

“Frank; what can be more self-inspiring than the opening lines of your own novel?” – I’m not sure I cracked this first time, but here’s how your opening lines can be great if you’re willing to learn from the some of the classical heroes of literature.

All the best first lines in literature are vivid, granting us a clear image which kicks starts the story in a tone that carries us forward.

But how do they do it? What sort of ideas can you use to inject a fist full of Bruce Lee punchiness to your opening lines? Well I’ve got some ideas for you, with examples from my favourite fiction authors in horror, fantasy and adventure fiction, proving that one hundred year old ideas can still be used across genres and in modern writing.

What is a perfect opening line?

The perfect opening lines need to grab us, they need to open their broad arms and tell us that we’re to expect something more, warm arms that wrap around us and make us cosy up to the fact that we’re going on a journey. They may not need to set the tone of the whole story, but they need to grab us and either draw us in with succulent words or punch us in the face and toss us into the inferno.

Your ABCs

Some simple tips for your opening lines:

The most basic step is to name a character. Naming someone makes aspects of the content real for us from the moment we start reading. Got that Frank?

Now that we have named that fellow, it helps to see what they’re doing. Creating an action provides us with the sense of motion of going forward, even if it’s the most mundane action in the world like breathing. Frank, put that coffee down and come over here.

Next, we’re going to dabble in a bit of emotion, ideally something we can all relate to. Since we’re all humans (I guess you may not be?) we all feel, and we want to be sympathetic with the character. Sit down Frank and wipe that stupid grin from your face.

Combining these elements may not give the best or most exciting opening, but many great authors use the same ideas and ramp them up to a magnitude of thousand. We’re going to take a look at how writers tackle their opening lines, some modern and some from nearly a hundred years ago!

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Here’s a classic example from The Pool of the Black One by Robert Howard, original author of the Conan tales circa 1920s:

“Sancha, once of Kordova, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine fringed silk spread on the carrack’s poop-deck.”

In this grandiose opening line, we get a name, a title of sorts then an action followed by a second action and so on. I love this opening line because we get so much in one sentence that there’s no question who we are looking at; a woman with a mysterious background who is at ease and likely familiar with the finer things in life, probably a pirate!

But what if you want to set the tone in more depth?

To really highlight a sense of foreboding some authors use a hindsight perspective. This hindsight gives the reader a sense of time passed and already conjures notions in our mind that we’re to expect more. This perspective makes us ask questions without really giving us enough details. We simply want more. I draw your attention to Herbert West – Reanimator by Lovecraft, from the same era as Robert Howard:

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in collage and in other life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

This is a classic opening from Lovecraft which crunches familiar ideas together in a great juxtaposition; ‘friend in collage and other life’ and ‘extreme terror’ are not usual bedfellows. When I first read this line I was a little stunned – what happened to these two friends to invoke such terror?

Lovecraft’s voice here is very formal, we’re probably reading a journal or a confession, but also remarkably relaxed, as if the author has come to terms with whatever happened and reflects on past deeds.

Lovecraft also states these things as facts.

Simple facts, or even complex ones can hammer home the nature of your story. One of the strangest factual opening lines I’ve read, for its mundanity, comes from Dennis Wheatley’s The Forbidden Territory:

“The Duke de Reichleau and Mr Simon Aron had gone in to dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.”

Wheatley’s opening line gives us the very simplest of tips mentioned earlier; names and actions. What strikes interest here, other than the mundanity is the fact that there’s a gap in the timescale. Most of us wouldn’t question a two-hour gap for eating, but in this post-war era the inference is that something went on; a long discussion perhaps, or an unexpected guest. It makes us question what happened and is the simplest pull into a story.

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Being Vague

Running the same theme of factual storytelling, Anne Rice, a vivid writer with a clean voice started Tales of the Body Thief with these very simple lines:

“The Vampire Lestat here. I have a story to tell you. It’s about something that happened to me.”

If the reader is familiar with Rice, Lestat is an old Vampire with several hundred years under his belt. Lestat’s informal voice comes from his adaptation to the modern world, like we’re supposed to know him. Indeed, this isn’t the first Lestat novel but it captures Lestat’s lazy and disregarding nature of mortals (which he desperately wants to recapture). So, Rice gives us a name but there’s no action! This is fine, because in a very blatant but well executed introduction, we know there’s a story to tell here. Again, the hindsight perspective works nicely to draw us in.

One last example of using unknown past circumstances comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World one of many Wheel of Time books:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened.”

Simple questions arise. More vague, check out the opening line to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

You can’t really get more vague – if this was Face Book I’d expect a lot of typical ‘U ok Hon’ type responses, but this is literature and we like vague; it makes us want to know; why?

What about real Action?

Hitting the reader with real, hardcore action works well in adventure style literature and can be as simple as the following, from Shadows in the Moonlight, another one of Howard’s classic sword & sorcery:

“A swift crashing of horses through tall reed; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”

Here we are told very little, but the imagination is fired up; why are the horses crashing through a reed bed? I suspect there’s water so it’s hard work for horse and rider so must be important. Who or what fell heavily? Who cried out in desperation? Chances are this is the result of conflict, perhaps someone has escaped or is being chased? Less than fifteen words and we’re right into the action and already asking questions.

What about using the unusual?

Unusual openings are a great way to confuse and entice readers, but they must be concise so as to avoid convoluted circles which can lose your audience. I’ll draw from Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu) and Howard (Shadows of Zamboula) for two examples.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Here Lovecraft poses a statement with a hint of reflection. What contents of the human mind are we trying to correlate? The vague hints at something deep can start the mind turning! From Howard:

“Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Here Howard makes it very clear that there’s an element of danger, whether we believe the statement or not. The fact that it is spoken word and not narrative drops us into a place of uncertainties; who do we trust, the opinion of the speaker or the fact of a statement? We also have a name and a location – the ABC’s at work. The undertone of emotion (peril, danger or horror) tempts us with the thrill of a something we should probably avoid but can’t help but read – we’re all insects buzzing closer to that blue light in a day dream. speaking of dreams, Lovecraft’s The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”

Here Lovecraft is suggesting there is a place that is a literal door to dreams. It implies more than the normal world without having to explain with exposition what on earth is going to happen. It is unusual but also includes elements of naming and action (in the loss of something) as well as giving us a snippet of description for Mr Carter. Added to this, we ask the question: how did the character get into this?

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Finally, formality

As mentioned before, Rice uses Lestat’s voice to bring us in close enough to get bitten by giving the vampire an informal tone. We’re expecting perhaps blood and violence right away, instead we’re given a friendly talking to, perhaps imagined on the TV screen or the phone.

The narrators voice can also be twisted to formality or otherwise to give us some perspective, allowing to see more story without literally writing it in. Another great example from Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model:

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot – plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this.”

Here we’re being pulled into why the narrator struggles with underground transport, but we don’t really know why, and in true Lovecraftian style we’re pulled slowly and inexorably to the climax of the horror – things lurk – which the narrator never wishes to comprehend again, but we’re going to read about it and understand why.

Not Quite the beginning

A second point of interest is that Lovecraft didn’t start right at the beginning of Pickman’s Model. Rather, he started just after the beginning of the conversation between the narrator and Eliot. Yet another great way to make your start interesting. Some of the previous examples do this too – we’re trying to draw our reader in. Ever heard the phrase ‘What’s in the box!?’ well that’s what we’re tapping into when we start not quite at the beginning.

Where does the learning come in?

We’ve pointed out some great opening lines and investigated what makes them good. To get into practice of creating great opening lines you should probably consider these last few bits of advice:

  • Write your opening lines last – no one wrote a great opening line first time. Much like any other aspect of writing, you’ll probably need to plan your writing rather than trying to create the best opening line right away.
  • Read lots of great opening lines, even if you don’t read all of the book. If you have access to books, jot down a few opening lines each day and dissect them like you’re a pathologist of words. You’ll soon start to see what makes great opening lines and not. Goosebumps are a good sign!
  • If in doubt, try, try again. You’ll not this get this right first time, maybe not even second or third time. Get advice from friends and fellow authors (this bit can be hard for closet writers!) Feedback is key, as you’ll not be buying your own book!

Now that you’ve got a better idea about what makes a great introduction or opening line, have another go yourself, even if you’re nowhere near finishing your novel or story. It can be self-inspiring and refreshing to have a go.

Go forth and kindle those flaming juices of imagination!

I’m going to start on my opening line for this article…

J.D Ferris, CC

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC