Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: an interview with Michael J. Ward

Posted by Randolph Carter on May 26, 2011

Michael J. Ward is the author of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow. In this interview we talk about his extensive gaming background, what sets his book apart from other traditional gamebooks, and what his plans are for the future of the DestinyQuest series. Enjoy.

For more information, visit the DestinyQuest website.

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For those unfamiliar with gamebooks, could you take a minute and explain what DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is?

DestinyQuest is an epic fantasy adventure where you play the hero. The story is written in a ‘choose your own adventure’ format so, as a reader, you are given various choices to make at key moments of the story, and asked to decide what happens next. You then turn to the corresponding page to discover the outcome of your choice. Basically, it’s an interactive game in a book.

And so what would you say sets DestinyQuest apart from the rest in this genre?

Gamebooks haven’t really moved on all that much. They rose to prominence in the eighties with the Fighting Fantasy series, when Dungeons & Dragons was also very popular as a table top role-playing game. Fighting Fantasy was really seeking to capture that table top experience in a book. Most gamebooks since have stuck to that model, with varying degrees of success.

With DestinyQuest, I wasn’t setting out to write a gamebook in that mould. Which might sound odd. I didn’t have a eureka moment and go ‘You know what, a gamebook is what is missing from my life’. Instead, I was drawing off my computer RPG experiences. Being something of an MMO addict, I wondered why no one had tried to capture a experience like ‘World of Warcraft’ in a book – to give the sense of being in a world where you make the decisions, but you’re also ‘levelling up’ and fighting monsters and getting loot.

Once I’d roughed out my ideas, I realised that DestinyQuest was indeed a ‘gamebook’ – but a gamebook written for a completely new generation, one which was used to playing computer and console games, and probably more inclined to pick up a controller or a mouse than sit and read a book. There was my challenge really – to make something relevant to the gamers of today; something they could understand and identify with.

And then convince them that rolling a bunch of D6 is cool and hip. Yep, quite a challenge.

I take it there will be more books in the DestinyQuest series?

I have plans for seven books at the present time. Whether they ever see the light of day really depends on the market. I’m already committed to doing a second book (well, I guess I have to, as the first one has ‘Book 1’ emblazoned on the cover!) but after that it’s down to sales. At the present time, DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow is a self-published title, but I hope that a larger publisher might descend like a guardian angel, and help me to promote and develop the series further.

Why did you decide to go down the self-publishing route with the first book?

It was frustration, more than anything. My agent had taken the book around publishers and we’d met with a fair bit of interest – but due to tightening purse strings, I think publishers saw it as too much of a gamble to take on in our current gloomy economic climate. After all, why take a gamble when you’ve got another two-hundred Twilight clones to get out the door, right? 😉

In all seriousness, I think it came down to the fact that publishers saw the whole ‘gamebook’ thing as over – or something that can only exist on a digital platform. I think they missed the point of what I was trying to do with DestinyQuest, which was to get people away from their monitors and television screens – experiencing something interactive and game-like, but also promoting reading and using one’s imagination. Call me crazy…

I’m hoping the continued success of DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow will encourage publishers to be less dismissive of gamebooks as a genre. When you’ve got a readership from ten-year-olds to people in their seventies (I kid you not!), I feel that is pretty compelling evidence to suggest that the market is out there and it is very strong.

From what I’ve read your second offering will be even more ambitious. Could you talk a little bit about what we can expect with subsequent volumes?

There is a tendency with sequels to over-egg the omelette. You’ve only got to look at most film franchises to see that subsequent films in a series rarely live up to the first; usually because they are trying to do what the first one did but just throw more, more, more at it!

Well, it is always a risk, but DQ2 is very much fitting into the ‘more, more, more’ mould; however my challenge is to make the new additions fit seamlessly into the story/game system without overwhelming new players or turning away the existing fan base.

Certainly, on a basic level, I’ll be fine-tuning the paths (warrior, rogue and mage) so that they play more differently than they do now. Warriors will be more hard-hitting in combat – generating more damage dice, rogues will have greater opportunities to modify existing dice rolls and influence outcomes – and mages will get access to powers that can throw up more dangerous combos and damage bursts, but with potential trade offs. I want the game experience to feel quite dynamically different, based on the path you have chosen.

The story in DQ2 is probably a little darker in tone and more involved than the first – but I certainly want to keep the fun elements there too. On top of that, you will also have more ‘advanced’ challenges for experienced players, which includes the co-op game play feature, where heroes can team up to take down epic boss monsters.

I’ll admit, at one point in my life I considered it a source of pride that I had never seen E.T. However, after reading about your own experience with the film, I’m rethinking that a bit. This was your initial exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, right? What was that experience like?

I think today’s cinema audiences are more demanding of their movies – they seem to want ever more complex story-telling experiences, with special effects bombarding their senses (well, with 3D… I guess quite literally). I can understand why some people might consider a cheesy film about a kid finding an alien and helping it to ‘…go home’ as a little saccharine for today’s tastes. But what

Spielberg did with that film, which is pretty damn skilful as both a director and a writer, is to make you care for a puppet. I mean, if you don’t cry buckets over that film then you’ve got a heart of stone!

Sorry, I digress. Forget the alien – even though he is cute. What made this film memorable for me was the scene at the start when Elliot, his brother and his mates are playing Dungeon & Dragons. I’d heard of the game and seen some of the lead miniatures – I didn’t really know what it was, but I was certainly intrigued and wanted to know more. Then I saw the scene in ET and that was pretty much it. Seeing the wooden maze, the miniatures of the heroes and monsters, listening to some of the geeky talk, I was sold.

Although, when I found out that you had to buy all the miniatures separately… oh boy, that can destroy a kid. But I got over it – and D&D proved the start of a very long and rewarding hobby – and I’m sure Games Workshop (with their countless board games and war games) ended up doing very well out of me, thank you very much.

Going back a bit, what has your own gaming experience been like?

Well, I became a regular at my local Games Workshop – this was back in the day when they were ‘nice chaps’ and actually sold third-party products as well as their own; so it was the one-stop shop for all your gaming needs. I must have bought and played nearly all of their board games – each one superbly designed. Stand out titles for me included Battlecars (remember the god awful computer version?), The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (of course!), Block Mania and Blood Royale.

And then there was Talisman. Possibly one of the greatest board games ever. That ate up a lot of hours, believe me.

I dabbled with table-top RPGs but it was always such a pain to find people who a) knew what a RPG was, b) knew the rules for your games system or c) weren’t likely to beat the living daylights out of you for being ‘you know, a bit strange’. Setting up and playing games was more time consuming than the actual playing (I think I was just unlucky). So, that is why I was always more inclined to play computer games – which rapidly took over my ‘hobby time’. From the earliest days of the Spectrum 48K through to today, I’ve played most RPGs, FPS and RTS titles. There is nothing better than cracking open those boxes, loading up the game for the first time and jumping in. Usually, disappointment arrives shortly after – but occasionally you come across a few gems that remind you why you still invest time and money in the hobby.

You’ve mentioned on your site that you have been an avid MMO player for many years now. Would you mind talking about this?

I’m probably like a lot of people in that I discovered online gaming through my love of Warcraft. I played the original RTS titles more hours than could ever be deemed sensible (Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos still remains one of my favourite games of all time) and the idea that I could now take one of these characters into an online world was just too compelling to pass up. On top of that, I love the style and art direction of Warcraft; turning that into a 3D game world… who wouldn’t want to experience that? Well, as we now know, about 11 million people. If that isn’t the greatest gaming achievement in history then I don’t know what is.

Before then, I always viewed the whole ‘online thing’ as something a bit scary. I mean, why on earth would I want to play and interact with other people when I spend most of my time ‘getting away’ from other people so that I can game? It never made sense… until World of Warcraft made it completely make sense. It was a good while before I got into the whole ‘guild and raiding scene’, but once that happened, the game pretty much took over my life.

At one point, I was playing World of Warcraft 40-50 hours a week. I have an obsessive-compulsive personality, so throw me into a world where you’re given a thousand ‘carrot on a stick’ opportunities for grinding and raiding, then I really didn’t stand much of a chance. I don’t ever regret spending that amount of time on the game; I have fantastic memories of that time – mostly 40- man raid nights – where, as a guild, we had great camaraderie and enmity for one another and what we wanted to achieve… I don’t think I’ll ever experience that level of shared commitment again in gaming or indeed any other medium.

Good things always come to an end. For me it started when World of Warcraft launched its first expansion ‘The Burning Crusade’ and broke up pretty much 95% of guilds on our server (the raiding limit was changed from 40 players to 10 and 25). A lot of really good players and friends left at that time. Like most obsessive Warcrafters, I’ve stuck at the game until Cataclysm, but it has never been the same. To be honest, the format is looking a little dated and tired now anyway – it needs a new direction; it needs to recapture the spirit and innovation of the original.

So, I’ve naturally dabbled in other MMOs, looking for a similar fix. Out of those that I have tried, the Lord of the Rings MMO is probably one of the best in my mind. Turbine did a fantastic job of translating the look and feel of the books… Which is exactly what I had been hoping for, with Warhammer Online. You can’t really get a more detailed and distinctive franchise, steeped in lore and great characters. That MMO should have been the next Warcraft, but for me (and I think a lot of others) it was something of a big disappointment. Age of Conan also.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

None, it might surprise you to hear. That’s really a time issue for me at the moment, but also boils down to the fact that there is nothing out there at the moment that feels innovative and new, or I haven’t already played until my eyes bleed.

There are a spate of new MMOs on the way and I am certainly intrigued by some of these titles. In particular, Guild Wars 2. I like their design approach – the whole idea of immersing you in a world where you feel you have an impact on what is happening around you; something that feels more organic. Warhammer Online tried it with the public quests but they were a bit of a disaster, in my opinion. It sounds like Guild Wars 2 might have cracked it – I’m really excited to experience what they have come up with.

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself as much as possible into the story of the game you are playing?

It depends how well written it is and how it is integrated into the game. Let’s take World of Warcraft as an example. I love the game, I love the lore – but really, because the story is presented in such a fragmented way, and often you really just want to get a quest done and move on, there is a tendency to click through quest text and never read it – or scan it in a couple of seconds. As gamers, I don’t believe we want to sit through reams of text. It breaks the flow.

It also happens a lot in RPGs and point-and-click titles (such as Dungeon Siege, Titan Quest, Diablo), where you’ve been slashing and blasting your way through countless mobs, your adrenaline is pumping, you are desperate for a bigger challenge and some better loot and…. <wham> you are hit with a faceless, expressionless npc who seems intent on reciting the whole of War and Peace to you, providing some convoluted reason why his cousins half-sister’s mother needs you to help save the world… again. Inevitably, after a while, you are going to hit the <skip> button.

This, as you might have guessed, is a real bugbear for me. Storytelling should be seamless – it should flow with the gameplay. I think games like Dragon Age and Oblivion do it very well (although there can be a tendency for the whole ‘War and Peace’ scenario to rear its head again – but at least you have voice actors instead of text windows). This is something I am very conscious of when writing DestinyQuest. I don’t believe players/readers want to read pages and pages of background text. If a story is told well, then you shouldn’t be pulled out of the experience. Think of it like screenplay writing; you might get the occasional ‘exposition scene’ in a movie but on the whole, the story is delivered through the main character’s actions – it is all told on the fly. That is why I think First Person games have the most potential for telling a great story; one where you feel it and experience it rather than being told it. Which is also why I do a /facepalm on occasion, when I play a FPS and the story is just so damn awful. You think, what a wasted opportunity. (And yes, Crysis 2 I am looking at you.)

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Most definitely. I think gaming helps you to see scenes more viscerally; gives you the ability to imagine action in more inventive ways. And of course, DestinyQuest wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the countless hours I have poured into playing computer games; it was that experience – of playing a game – that I wanted to capture in the book.

Gaming also helps you to think about stories in a non-linear way – to explore the idea that readers don’t have to have the same experience going from A to B; that stories can be tailored to the personality and choices of the reader. I think, as technology develops and the potential for ‘interactive books’ expands and becomes mainstream, more writers will be approaching books as ‘non-linear experiences’. Imagine reading the latest P.D James, Robert Ludlum or John Grisham novel, for example, but instead of reading how the crime was solved or how the protagonist escaped a certain situation, it is the reader themselves who is helping to influence events and make important judgement calls – becoming more involved in the story; the environment. That could be pretty cool, if it was done well.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

I think if there was ‘grind’ then you just wouldn’t do it – as there are certainly easier ways of making a living! You’re also talking to someone who really knows the true painful meaning of the word ‘grinding’ when it comes to MMOs and computer RPGs. Back in the day, I do remember running Stratholm (both sides), Upper Blackrock Spire and Scholomance (in World of Warcraft) about 50+ times each for my Shadowcraft armour set. The drop rates on some of those items were just so bad… and man, I became obsessive about getting them. I do remember going to bed at 4 or 5 am some mornings, having done dungeon runs all evening/night with nothing to show for it. Argh. But then, when you finally get your drops (I remember the darn Shadowcraft spaulders taking forever to drop for me), the sense of elation was just… geek joy.

But then, like all things – you are focused on the next challenge. And the amusing thing is, then I got massively into raiding, and got my nightstalker armour set in a 1/10 of the time it took me to get the dungeon set. So, really, those hundreds and hundreds of hours were ultimately for nothing. But good fun all the same. (I have to tell myself that, it’s part of the therapy…)

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

This probably relates to the above in that, when it comes to grinding in MMOs I know pain and I know dedication. I remember working on getting gold for my first epic riding mount (a swift stormsabre, if anyone is interested) – again this is back in vanilla WoW before everyone had about 100,000 gold and epics coming out of their eyeballs. I would put on my headphones, listen to some music and just spend hours farming mobs. To the point that I got reported several times by other players for being a BOT (an automated program used by gold farmers).

There was some crazy guy who /whispered me saying he had reported me: ‘You’ve been here like everyday; you’re here all the time. You’re a bot!! Good luck getting your account back, loser!’ (or something along those lines. He probably threw in a few rude words and a lot of misspellings too).

I replied back going ‘Are you crazy? This is me – this is what I do!’ He just didn’t seem to believe I wasn’t an illegal automated program. Until, of course, I duelled him, pwned him and then /danced on his corpse. Then he got the message.

That was actually a fine moment.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I wish I had more time to play games. I really don’t know where time goes – and I wonder if it is something to do with age. As you get older, time (or your perception of it) just seems to move so much faster. It makes me wonder just how I was able to spend so much time on MMOs in the past.  Perhaps it is all about priorities and those priorities are constantly shifting.

Michael J. Ward showing us his "game on!" face.

When I’m not writing or planning DestinyQuest, then escape for me is watching a good movie. I’ve always been an avid cinema-goer and DVD obsessive. I tend to watch a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, but also enjoy most other genres too.

Of course, I also like reading – but I’m a slow reader, which is a constant source of amusement to my girlfriend who can read about four books a week. Sometimes it can take me about four-six months to get through a book. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Occasionally, I stumble on a book that has me so engrossed, I’ll burn through it in a few days. But those are pretty rare.

Oh, I forgot to add computer gaming to that, but that is a given right? 😉

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Sure. I guess I should never pass up the chance for a shameless plug! So, if you like computer games or you like table-top gaming – hell, even if you just live for grinding – then go buy DestinyQuest.

It might not get you all the way to Valhalla but hey… there’s gaming heaven in them there pages!  Game on!

(Did I really just say ‘Game on!’? That’s a shootable offense, no really…)

Thank you very much, Michael. Best of luck to you with DestinyQuest. Also, I’d like to thank Marty for featuring Michael’s book on his most excellent blog, Bullet Points.

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Reading the text: an interview with A. R. Rotruck

Posted by Randolph Carter on April 6, 2011

Amie Rose Rotruck is the author of Bronze Dragon Codex, one of the titles in Wizards of the Coast’s Dragon Codices series.  Her latest book, How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire and Other Hands-on Activities for Monster Hunters, was also published by WotC and is now available.  I got the chance to ask her some questions about her writing and gaming experiences, what’s she’s up to now, and what she enjoys doing these days.  Hope you enjoy it.

For more information about the author, please checkout her website.

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I must admit, How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire and Other Hands-on Activities for Monster Hunters is one of the coolest and most original ideas I’ve seen for a children’s book in a long time. Would you mind describing what the book is about, how you came up with the concept for it, and how it ended up at Wizards of the Coast?

I wish I could take credit for coming up with the concept, but alas, I can’t. I was approached by Nina Hess, an editor at Mirrorstone, about doing a book that would be The Dangerous Book for Boys meets Dragonology. I’d worked with Mirrorstone before on Bronze Dragon Codex and they thought I might be a good fit for this new book. I was absolutely over the moon about coming up with a proposal for the book, as I’m both a fantasy fan and craft addict. I thought of the book as a scouting guide for wizards and dug out my old Girl Scout Manual, as well as numerous craft books and The Dangerous book series. I sent in a proposal, which was accepted, and then I started writing it.

YWH ended up being a field guide to monsters with activities, games, and recipes that related to the monsters described in each chapter. There were also items about things that a monster-hunter would need to know, such as how to make a shelter or a lantern. I also threw some D&D basics in there, such as how to make a map and what type of people you want in your monster-hunting party.

Who did you have in mind when writing the book?

Myself at age 11. I would have LOVED a book when I was a kid. I was always going out in the woods behind my house and playing fantasy games in my head and I liked making things for my adventures, such as carrying pouches and wands. I would have loved a book that talked about making supplies for a fantasy world, but I had to content myself with some scout guides and books on colonial and Native American crafts. I hope that this book will reach young fantasy fans who enjoy pretending outside as well as indoors.

The book has a definite RPG vibe to it. How intentional was that?

I didn’t set out to have RPG tips in it, but I found that writing it as a scouting guide for a wizard naturally lent itself to that. For example, mapmaking is a skill that scouts learn in this world, so it made sense that wizards would need to know it too. From there it was a short leap to tweak the mapmaking section to easily translate to RPGs. It was a nice bonus and fit what Mirrorstone wanted with the book anyway.

You also “assisted” R.D. Henham in writing Bronze Dragon Codex. Would you mind talking a little bit about this book as well?

Bronze Dragon Codex is set in the Dragonlance world of Krynn. After I sent a writing sample to Mirrorstone, they asked me to come up with a proposal for a dragon-centric book from one of the characters from the Dragonlance: the New Adventures Series. I found Tatelyn, a girl in Dragonspell by Jeff Sampson. Her brother was killed by a zombie copper dragon that was raised by an evil sorceress. Since Tatelyn was so young at the time, I thought she could end up having a deep prejudice against all dragons, including the good metallic dragons. It was a short leap to pair her with a dragon who hated humans and see what would happen when they were forced to work together.

R.D. Henham takes the credit for the Dragon Codex books, but in reality they are written by the assistant scribes. It’s a fun job, even though the workplace is drafty and overrun with evil dragons these days.

You’ve mentioned that you were voted most likely to be eaten by a dragon in high school. Would you care to explain this?

I’ve been a dragon lover for a very long time, always reading and writing about them, and my classmates knew it. My school had some rather off-the-wall “most likelys” (one of my best friends was voted “most likely to adopt a British accent”), but I think mine was the absolute best and most fitting. I thought for sure that this would come true when researching Bronze Dragon Codex, but fortunately I’m still here.

Were you a big reader as a child? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Very much so. I was a big fantasy fan, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain was my favorite series, and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn remains to this day my favorite book of all time. I also liked Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the Narnia books, A Wrinkle in Time and the sequels. I was out of college by the time Harry Potter arrived on the scene, but I know I would have loved those too; I certainly love them as an adult! I also was fond of what my one friend calls “little farm girl stories,” like the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books and I’m currently re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, another favorite. I also was a fan of the Dragonlance books, so I’m very thrilled that I broke into the publishing world by writing one of them!

I’ve heard you’re a pretty slow reader. How long does it generally take you to finish an average length novel?

Hee, very funny. I’m actually quite a fast reader, which I assume you gleaned from my website. My claim to fame is reading the final Harry Potter book in a 2.5 hours (12:30 – 3 AM the day it was released). If I can read straight through, I can read a YA fantasy novel (I don’t often read adult novels) such as Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty or Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments books in 2-4 hours. It usually takes me longer, though, as these days I only read a bit before I go to sleep. I also usually am reading at least three books at a time, so I’ll read a chapter or two of one, then switch to another.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I’m a gamer dabbler. I’ve played some pen and paper RPGs over the years, and always enjoy a good board game, but months can go by without me gaming. Best RPG experiences I had were a few years ago when I’d get together with friends from two states and we’d spend the whole weekend gaming. Schedules unfortunately started getting in the way, so we’ve only been doing shorter and less complicated games lately.

I also like computer games, but I tend to like the simpler ones, such as the Lego Harry Potter and Indiana Jones games. My coordination is horrible, so I’m not a fan of games that require quick reflexes. I like watching them when people play, though, because some of the storylines are quite fascinating.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds?

Never been, actually, unless you count Frontierville on Facebook. I spend so much time working on computer between regular work (I’m an electrical engineer in my other job) and writing that I try to stay away from the computer for recreation.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

I think any writer, especially fantasy writers, would benefit from gaming. It forces you to think through a story in mundane terms that are easy to overlook, such as how long it takes to get from point A to point B on an adventure. There’s also some acting involved in RPGs, and I think some acting experience, specifically improv, is also beneficial. It teaches you how to get inside a story rather than hovering over it. In my case, gaming also really helped because I ended up writing two books that were aimed at a gaming crowd and it was good to know the market.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

I wouldn’t call it a grind, because I enjoy it, but I do a lot of scheduling when I’m involved in a project, especially ones with deadlines like Bronze and YWH. I start with the dates by which I’m supposed to deliver a project, and figure out how much I need to write every day to get a finished draft, and then have time to revise it. I love making spreadsheets so I can track my writing process.

When I’m working on other stories that I hope to market upon completion, I try to do the same thing, but it’s harder to keep at it. I’m a BIG fan of deadlines; for some reason they spark creativity!

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

The “ah ha!” moments. I LOVE working with a plot and then something just clicking into place. Finding the plot for Bronze when I met Tatelyn, for example, was an “ah ha!” moment. There were also plenty as I worked on different monsters and tried to find just the right activity to pair with each monster. Recently a friend suggested that I change the main character of a book I’m working on to male, as there aren’t many male protagonists in YA fantasy. I went with it, not because I wanted to make the book more marketable (although that would be a nice bonus!), but because it fit the story so much better that I was having “ah ha!” moments all over the place. That’s my latest writing project; changing the gender of my main character as I revise that story.

When do you find time to write?

Right now I’m trying to figure that out. My daughter was born about a week before Young Wizards Handbook came out and since then it’s been difficult to find writing time; been difficult just to figure out regular work time! But I’m starting to get back to it, I usually prefer having a bit of time after my husband gets home and can watch her to write before dinner. Sometimes I’m able to manage some writing time if she’s asleep, but that’s usually taken up with other, less fun chores.

BEFORE my daughter, I would try to write every day if I was immersed in a project. The key was in some advice I heard Stephen King give once: never a day without a line. If you just write one line a day, that keeps your mind in the story. Last year I was shooting for a page a day. Didn’t always get it in, but I did get a rough draft of a book finished between February and August.

How do you tend to escape these days?

A. R. Rotruck

Reading, of course. I love re-reading old favorites like the books I mentioned above, plus I’ve been reading Carrie Jones, Lisa Manchev, Maggie Stiefvater and all the wonderful YA fantasy that’s out there these days. Most recent book I bought that I’m reading is Carrie Ryan’s “The Dark and Hollow Places.” I’m also reading a lot of picture books to my daughter, which is so much fun!

I’m also a fan of crafts; I love crocheting mainly because it’s easy to do in front of the TV (another form of escape; but I find it difficult to just watch and do nothing). TV’s another good escape, especially because there’s so much good fantasy out there now. My current favorites are True Blood, Supernatural, both the British and US Being Human, and I’m really looking forward to Game of Thrones. I also like good action/crime/dramas like Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Castle, Justified and Dexter. Survivor and anything with Gordon Ramsay are my guilty pleasures.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Read. Read a lot. Write. Write a lot. Try to write every day if you can, if only a sentence or two. Play. Don’t feel guilty about hobbies other than writing, you never know when they’ll turn into research for a book.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Keep playing and imagining. Outdoors is probably better for your physically, but both are excellent for you mentally. Just have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously. If your DM suddenly throws a blue knitted hat with snowflakes on it on the table, grab it and put it on, both in real life and in the game (this actually happened in a game my husband was DM-ing. Turned out to be a hat that could talk to the wearer and ended up being the funniest plot I ever ran across in a game).

And last but not least, when was the last time you rolled a twenty-sided die?

Last summer, before baby was born. Been far too long. 😦 I found a pattern for a crocheted twenty-sided die so when I get around to making that, that’ll probably be the next time I roll one!

Thank you, Amie.  Enjoy your little one and best of luck on your future writing endevors.

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One shot: an interview with James Maliszewski

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 11, 2011

James Maliszewski is the prolific author of the “little-known” blog, Grognardia, which just happens to be a wonderful tribute to the RPG hobby. Here we discuss his blog, his humble gaming origins, his preference for knives, and what’s going on in his gaming world these days.

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Would you mind explaining what Grognardia happens to be about?

Grognardia is about “the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying,” as it says on its masthead, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that it’s about old school RPGs, with “old school” in this case generally meaning games written, published, and played before about 1984 or so, as well as some later games that were written based on similar principles as those earlier games.

How did you get started on this project?

Like most gamers my age, I entered the hobby playing D&D, which I played more or less continuously from 1979 till sometime in the early 90s, when I finally decided that I’d had enough and moved on to other games. For me, the 1990s were an awful time for D&D, when the game had strayed very far away from being what first attracted me to the hobby in the first place. So I spent much of that decade casting about for other RPGs that I hoped might bring me the same pleasure that D&D and older games had previously. Along the way, I found several I enjoyed for a time, but none of them “stuck,” if you know what I mean and I soon found myself more an observer of the hobby than an actual participant in it.

Had it not been for the release of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, I might have continued on in that way, or perhaps even drifted away from the hobby entirely. But 3e reignited my love affair with D&D and I played it quite intensely for about six years. It was at that time that I began to find WotC’s revision of the game increasingly at odds with my interests. 3e is a solid design but a very complex and rules-heavy one, as well as one more concerned with mechanical “balance” than matters to me. So, by 2006, I once again started to cast about for an alternative, eventually coming across various online old school communities, such as Dragonsfoot, the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, and, especially, Finarvyn’s Original D&D Discussion forums.

Connecting with the gamers in those communities reminded me of how much fun I’d had with the games I’d first played way back when. Rather than searching for a new game that might give me as much enjoyment as those older games had, why not just play the older games? It seems like an obvious thing in retrospect, but, believe me, it seemed like a radical concept at the time. Before long, I found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, you can go home again and I was spending far too much time thinking about and creating material for OD&D and other old school games. It was then that I decided to take the plunge and start up a blog where I could share the fruits of my newfound creativity.

That’s more or less how Grognardia was born.

I’m sure you get this a lot, but would you care to explain where the name Grognardia comes from?

“Grognard” is a French word meaning roughly “grumbler” and was reputedly an affectionate name given by Napoleon Bonaparte to his Old Guard, who were extremely loyal to him but also complained a lot about their living conditions. Back in the early 70s, John Young, who was the editor of Strategy & Tactics, a wargames magazine published by SPI, started referring to older wargamers as grognards, because, like the Old Guard, they’d been around a long time and they complained a lot, especially about some of the newer wargames coming out at the time. Perhaps because roleplaying grew out of wargaming, in time the term also came to be used to describe old school roleplayers as well, particularly those who dislike later editions of any game they played. The term is generally not used affectionately, but I still thought it’d be amusing to name my blog about old school gaming Grognardia.

So, if I met you at a cocktail party and started gushing on and on about how much I loved 4th edition D&D, would you stick a fork in me?

No — I favor knives for dealing with fans of 4th Edition.

More seriously, my answer is still no. I don’t have any love for 4th Edition, for a variety of reasons, but, if someone gets enjoyment out of the game, more power to him. We all have our preferences when it comes to our entertainments and there’s rarely any purpose in trying to argue that someone else’s preferences are wrong or somehow mistaken, even if they’re not ones you personally enjoy. Life’s too short to pick fights over roleplaying games.

Best I can tell, you are approaching 2,000 posts now with your blog and that’s in under 3 years. How have you managed to keep this pace up?

Assuming I keep up my current pace, yes, I should reach 2,000 posts very soon. Keeping up the pace is, frankly, pretty easy. I’ve been involved in the hobby for over 30 years, so I have literally a lifetime of experiences to mine for ideas. Then there are my regular features, such as the Pulp Fantasy Library and retrospectives on old school gaming products, as well as interviews, reviews, session reports from my ongoing OD&D campaign, and more. So, I’m rarely at a loss for topics, which helps me immeasurably in maintaining a regular schedule of posting. Plus, I just love what I’m writing about; it’s amazing how little effort it takes to write when you’re passionate about the subject matter.

Do you see blogging as just a hobby or perhaps something more?

It’s mostly a hobby. And, while I am the co-owner of a small RPG company called Rogue Games, through which I’ve published my sci-fi RPG, Thousand Suns, and an old school fantasy adventure, The Cursed Chateau, I try very hard not to use Grognardia as a platform for making money beyond the small change I occasionally get from my tip button (which I then use to buy old school products I really like). Lots of people mistakenly think I intend the blog to be a stepping stone to something more, but it’s not; it’s just a place where I can write everyday and share my thoughts on some topics near and dear to my heart. Now, it’s true, I’ve often attracted a fair bit of attention from outside roleplaying circles because of Grognardia, such as mentions in the L.A. Times and National Review Online, among others, and I do appreciate the kudos. However, that’s never been the driving force behind my blogging. I do this because I enjoy and I’ll continue so long as it continues to be fun.

Would you care to share a particularly enjoyable experience related to your blog?

Truthfully, there are too many to mention. I get a lot of emails from people who used to game and then, like many, fell away from the hobby as they entered adulthood. Then they stumbled on Grognardia and found their interest in roleplaying rekindled by some post or other that I wrote. I’ve heard from parents who were inspired to introduce their kids to RPGs and teachers who’ve done the same with their students, as well as from game designers who thanked me for speaking so highly of something they’d done in the past. Grognardia has really brought me a lot of satisfaction over the last three years and has brought me into contact with many, many people who share my love for older RPGs and the culture that surrounds them. It’s been a terrific experience.

How about one you’d care to forget?

Of course, but, fortunately, I’ve forgotten them.

Going back a bit, how were you introduced to the hobby and what was that experience like?

As I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to the hobby in late 1979. In August of that year, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared and early speculation suggested that his love of Dungeons & Dragons had something to do with it, though that later proved to be untrue. My father read a lot of newspaper articles about the disappearance and he was always talking about this “weird game.” So, my mother, thinking my father would like to see a copy of the game, bought one for him — the “Blue Book” version edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes. As it turned out, my father had no interest in the game itself and so the boxed set sat in my upstairs linen closet for several months.

That Christmas, a friend of mine received a boardgame called Dungeon! as a present. It was a very simple game about dungeon exploration and everyone in our gang of friends simply adored it, especially the creatures it included as adversaries, like black puddings and green slimes. Playing it reminded me of that “weird game” my mother had bought for my father in the summer and so I went home and opened it up, immersing myself in the 48-page rulebook it contained. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, because there was no board or pieces inside the box. There weren’t even any dice, since this was one of the sets that included laminated chits!

Still, I was incredibly intrigued by this game and my friends and I tried to play it as best we could. That’s when one of my friends’ older brother saw us and started laughing at us, since we were “doing it wrong.” He then took it upon himself to teach us “the right way” to play and we were grateful. After all, my friend’s brother spent a lot of his time yelling at us and generally behaving like a surly teenager toward us. That he was actually teaching us how to play this game he and his high school buddies played made it feel like we were being initiated into a secret society, which, in a way, we were. Back then, D&D — and roleplaying in general — was still a new and unusual thing and, while RPGs were rapdily entering public consciousness as a fad, they weren’t quite there yet in early 1980 and so we took some pride in being early adopters.

That experience was a powerful one for me and my friends. You have to remember that, in the late 70s and early 80s, personal computers and the Internet were still far in the future for most people. Our communal entertainments were mostly boardgames, sports, and various kinds of “make believe” activities. So, when we first encountered roleplaying games, it was like a revelation to us, especially when we found out that adults played this game too. My D&D boxed set even included the words “the original adult fantasy role-playing game” on its cover, which had a profound impact on us. D&D taught us that it was OK to hold on to your childhood fantasies as we grew older, a lesson hit home even more strongly when a friend’s father would act as Dungeon Master for us on occasion. I can’t stress enough how positive my early experiences of the hobby were, which probably explains why I’m still roleplaying three decades later.

After a friend’s older brother introduced me to D&D the summer after 7th grade, I fell in love with the game and played with a static group of  friends through most of high school. At some point girls and trying to act cool entered the picture and unfortunately my D&D days were numbered. I still look back on those days with great fondness. I’ve even tried to pick up the dice again on occasion, but it’s just not the same anymore.  The magic eludes me. How have you managed this and continue playing RPGs to this day? What’s the secret?

I’m not sure I have a “secret” other than simply playing and doing so as regularly as possible. I’m lucky, I guess, in that I have a corps of regular players whom I’ve known for a long time and a very tolerant family who lets us get together in our dining room to play. Even when I was most disenchanted with the hobby back in the 90s, I never completely fell away from it. Roleplaying has been a part of my life for so long that it’s hard to imagine not doing it. I’ve never felt any pressure to distance myself from the hobby, even when most of my friends were no longer interested in it, so that’s likely to have been a big factor in my ability to keep playing after all these years. If I didn’t have a steady crew of gamer friends with whom to play, I suspect I might well have abandoned it at some point too.

Would you say your passion for the hobby has had its ups and downs over the years?

Absolutely! As I mentioned previously, the 1990s were a low point in my passion for and involvement in the hobby. A combination of my getting older, being busy with graduate school, and, from my perspective anyway, a noticeable decline in the quality of the games I most enjoyed, all had a negative effect on me. Ironically, this largely coincides with the time during which I was most professionally involved as a writer of RPG materials. I worked as a freelance writer for a lot of different companies throughout the 90s and, while I’m still proud of a lot of what I wrote, I note with some embarrassment that very little of it was informed by actual play of the games involved. I still write, as I mentioned earlier, but it’s much more strongly connected to actual play, which I think makes for better, more useful gaming materials.

So, yes, the 1990s were a decidedly low point for me in terms of my interest in the hobby as an actual player, especially when compared to the 1980s. The turn of the century, though, and the reinvigoration of Dungeons & Dragons under Wizards of the Coast proved to be the perfect antidote to my gaming doldrums. My current gaming group started together in early 2000, when I was able to get an advance copy of Third Edition, which we played more or less non-stop through 2006 or thereabouts. Eventually, we all grew rather tired of Third Edition and found its complexities increasingly not to our taste. We might well have abandoned D&D entirely if it hadn’t been for my rediscovery of the versions I played as a younger man. That’s the great thing about tabletop roleplaying: these games never go out of date. That’s why my friends and I can enjoy ourselves with a game published in 1974

Has this passion rubbed off at all on any of your family?

Yes and no. My wife and my 11 year-old daughter have dabbled in roleplaying games after being introduced to them through me. They both have terrific imaginations and a keen interest in fantasy. but I don’t think either of them has yet found the “perfect” game that complements their personalities and interests. My daughter was briefly involved in my OD&D campaign, playing a young magic-user. She eventually stopped playing, though, because she found the danger-filled, swords-and-sorcery inspired nature of the sessions a bit too tense for her. My wife has played in a handful of brief, character-focused campaigns but hasn’t actively roleplayed in some time. So, I’d say they’re both very open to the idea of gaming.

My 8 year-old son, on the other hand, hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in the hobby. He likes looking at and playing with my miniatures and dungeon tiles, but that’s largely the extent of his interest. Of course, he was a very enthusiastic player in the Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game that I ran for the family a couple of years ago, so, again, I think he’s open to the idea of gaming. I try not to push my hobby on others, including my family. My feeling is that, if they’re interested in what they see me do at the dining room table with my friends, they’ll come and ask me more about it. And if they don’t, that’s fine by me too.

When and where do you find time to game these days?

These days I play in a theoretically weekly OD&D campaign at my home. I say “theoretically” because, real life being what it is — my regular players are all adults — we sometimes don’t meet every week. On average it’s been about once every other week, but we try to meet as often as possible.

As blasphemous as it may sound, I manage to scratch what roleplaying itches I get these days by immersing myself in MMORPGs. From what I understand, you’re not exactly a stranger to the genre. Would you care to talk a bit about your experience with World of Warcraft and how for someone who is known for championing “old school” RPGs, that might not have been the easiest thing to admit on your blog?

I don’t fully understand why so many tabletop roleplayers have an animus against computer games and MMORPGs in particular. Perhaps it’s because they feel that these entertainments have “stolen” their audience and reduced their hobby to a shadow of its former size in terms of popularity. For myself, I see computer gaming generally and MMOs in particular as a totally different, though clearly related, hobby to tabletop gaming. That’s why it baffles me a bit when it’s suggested, as you do, that there’s something odd about a fan of one hobby also enjoying the other. From my perspective, my enjoyment of World of Warcraft is no different than a bibliophile’s enjoyment of movies; there’s no reason I can’t like both.

Now, that said, I think it’s important to note, in my experience anyway, there’s not a heck of a lot of roleplaying going on in computer “RPGs” or MMORPGs. Certainly, these games can be extremely immersive and they often present extremely well-crafted stories that are quite diverting. However, they can’t compare to even a mediocre tabletop gaming session when it comes to interactivity and improvisation, two elements of what I most enjoy about tabletop roleplaying. Consequently, despite their popularity, I honestly don’t think there’s a lot that tabletop RPG design can learn from computer games or MMOs. The media are, in my view, too different from one another. What makes a good computer game or MMO will not make a good tabletop RPG and vice versa.

So, while I can understand why tabletop designers might be envious of, say, World of Warcraft’s immense worldwide subscriber base — and the profits that go with it — I think it’s a mistake to see reproducing them in analog form as a pathway to success. To my mind, what tabletop RPG companies need to do is twofold. First, they need to accept that the 80s are long gone and, barring some totally unpredictable shift in popular culture, the days of a tabletop RPG selling as well as they did back then are never coming back. Second, they need to play to the strengths of the tabletop medium rather than aping those of computer games and MMOs. Tabletop games are open-ended, flexible, and player-driven, things that no computer can reproduce. As much as I enjoy computer games with some degree of player choice, like, say, Mass Effect, they offer only a fraction of what a tabletop RPGs offer me, which is why I’d never abandon tabletop for a purely virtual experience.

Outside the realm of RPGs are there any other kinds of games you enjoy playing and would feel safe mentioning here?

James Maliszewski. He says he’s a knife man, but I’m getting some mixed signals here.

Besides MMOs and other video games — I especially enjoy playing shooters with my friends — I enjoy boardgames, some of which I play with my children. Labyrinth, Blokus, and the LEGO-based Pirate Code are all favorites of ours. I’m very fond of Risk and Risk 2210 A.D. and Diplomacy is a game I dearly love, though I haven’t played in quite some time, unfortunately. I wish I could say I’m a “real” wargamer, but I’m not and never have been. This applies to miniatures wargaming as well.

What advice would you give someone who was interested in playing an RPG but had never been exposed to them before?

Therein lies a big problem for the hobby: if you haven’t been exposed to RPGs before, chances are you never will be. Gone are the days when tabletop gaming was a big fad and it was possible to go into any book or toy store and pick up a copy of a wide variety of roleplaying games. Fortunately, all you really need is someone else who’s already roleplaying, which is not much different than it was in the glory days of the hobby. In fact, I remain convinced that the best way to get into roleplaying is to be introduced to it by someone who already plays it.

I differ from a lot of people in that I don’t think what the hobby really needs is a good introductory roleplaying game available in every book and toy store, though that’d certainly be great. Rather, I think what we need are more gamers who are willing to share their hobby with interested newcomers. So, if you’re someone with little experience of RPGs who wants to learn more, I can’t think of a better way to do so than to seek out people still actively involved in the hobby. Rulebooks and intro sets and websites can only get you so far; what’s really needed is face-to-face interaction with people actively involved in the hobby.

And last but certainly not least, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided die? I’m guessing it’s been a while, so if you need some time to think about that, go right ahead.

A while? Hardly. Given that I’ve had a regular OD&D campaign going since January 2009, odds are good I’ve rolled more than a few D20s in any given week.

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One shot: an interview with Alberos

Posted by Randolph Carter on February 11, 2011

Alberos, or Eric for short, is responsible for the excellent Lord of the Rings Online podcast, LOTROCast.  Here he discusses his background in gaming, what he enjoys about podcasting and the LotRO community, and a personal tragedy that recently struck his family.

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For those who don’t know, would you mind explaining what LOTROCast is, how you happened to get involved with it, and what you’re now trying to achieve with it?

LOTROCast is a Lord of the Rings Online themed podcast. I typically cover LOTRO and LOTR themed news, talk about what I’ve done in game and then focus on one or two LOTRO themed topics. I try to put out an episode every 2 weeks. In between episodes I write a blog which, while hosted on the my.lotro website, tends to be about MMO topics in general. As part of LOTROCast I will do the occasional LORECast which focuses on the history and lore behind the game. I’m currently working on a series of LORECasts about the races of Middle-earth.

So, what is it about Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) that sets it apart from the countless other MMOs out there and has you blogging and podcasting quite enthusiastically about it?

I think what really excites me about LOTRO is the storyline and the graphics. The gameplay (controls, combat, skill systems) really isn’t much different from what you see in games like WoW or City of Heroes or others. However the storyline, and how Turbine has written around the established story, is really captivating. Unlike some of the Playstation or Xbox games that came out when the LOTR movies were first released, in LOTRO you don’t play as a member of the Fellowship. You play as a member of the Free Peoples (Freeps for short) and your questing takes you to places only alluded to in Tolkien’s writing. You will occasionally cross paths with the Fellowship, especially once you reach Rivendell, but you are really living your own part of the story.

In addition, the game is very visually appealing. The Shire, where the Hobbits live, is stunning and looks like it was pulled right out of the movies. The designers really spent a lot of time giving each zone its own look and feel. I don’t think any other game I’ve played inspires the kind of enthusiasm or dislike for specific areas that LOTRO does.

Was LotRO your first MMO? If not, what was and what was that experience like?

LOTRO was not my first MMO. I started my MMO experience with World of Warcraft. I’ve always been a gamer, both paper and electronically, but WoW and later LOTRO really redefined the experience for me. It was amazing to be wandering this virtual world full of real people who were pursuing their own quests and story lines. I think we’ve all at one point or another had the thought that our real world would be some much more exciting with magic or space ships or whatever….MMOs have made that wish come true
in a way.

Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?

I think there were two distinct moments that stick out in my mind. The first was the first time I leveled in WoW. I had rolled a Dwarf Paladin and was in the Dwarf starting area killing mobs when suddenly this light explodes around my toon and the level sound went off…I was hooked.

I think the other “wow” moment was a PvP experience I had in WoW. I was in Strangle Thorn Vale with my elven hunter when I stumbled across a Horde Druid named Naturelord. He and I spent probably an hour killing each other. Sometimes I’d get the drop on him and the next time he’d get me. It was incredibly fun and really brought the excitement of facing off against a real person.

What happens to be your gaming background?

Alberos in real life

Like I said I am a long time gamer. Like most I started with D&D and then branched out to other pen & paper games like Star Trek, Shadow Run, Amber, Heroes Unlimited. I also played some Magic: The Gathering, but wasn’t really that into it. I also played a lot of Risk and Warhammer. My gaming then jumped into computers. I really enjoyed some of the original D&D games like Pool of Radiance and the Ice Wind Dale Trilogy.

Right before I started playing WoW and LOTRO, I was playing the Never Winter Nights series and Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I really liked that first person perspective and that sparked my interest in trying MMOs.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

Yes, on the PC I am a big Total War fan. I really enjoy playing Rome Total War and Medieval Total War. I also played the Battle for Middle Earth games.

I also like First Person Shooters on the X-Box. Currently I am playing Halo Reach and Modern Warfare 2.

What games are you currently playing?

For MMOs I’m splitting time between LOTRO, WoW and City of Heroes. LOTROs my main game, but I’ve got friends on WoW and COH so I have a night where that’s what I’m playing.

In short bursts, I play Halo Reach and Modern Warfare 2 on the X-Box. I’ll also admit I’m currently playing Star Wars Legos. It’s a cute game and doesn’t require a whole lot of brain power.

Would you mind sharing a particularly enjoyable gaming experience from your past?

That’s a hard one. I’ve had lots of great experiences. I think what I’ve enjoyed the most is the camaraderie that you get with games like LOTRO and WoW as well as pen and paper games. I remember many nights getting together to play D&D and ended up just hanging out with friends, drinking beer and goofing around. Similarly when playing some of the MMOs with my real life friends, well get on and run an instance, but we’ll have more fun talking about what we’re drinking, complaining about work and making “That’s what she said” jokes.

Do you see blogging and podcasting as just a hobby or perhaps something more?

Right now its just a hobby. I really enjoy LOTRO and the world of MMOs in general.  I think the communities that develop around the games are really interesting and I like being an active member of the community. Plus, as you can probably tell from my lengthy answers, I like sharing my experiences and thoughts on stuff.

What do you find particularly pleasurable about blogging and podcasting?

I think it’s the connection to the community. There are a lot of LOTRO podcasters and bloggers and we’re all supportive of one another. Merric and Goldenstar at Casual Stroll to Mordor gave me some great advice when I took LOTROCast over from Moormur.  Lunna the Burg was in the Amistad Del Otro kinship on Arkenstone and I’ll post links to her videos on the blog so others can see her great work. It’s a really good environment.

Are you pleased with what you’ve achieved so far with LOTROCast?

Esteldin is lovely in the spring

For the most part. I think the format of the show is solid and I think people enjoy it.  I’d like to do a better job of polishing the show. I need to work on bumpers between segments and slowing down how fast I talk. I’d also like to keep the website fresh with a redesign every 3-4 months, but that gets hard with all the things going on in real life.

I’d also like to get more listener interaction. Either with more show note comments or better yet, recorded segments. I’d love to have a Crafting segment or a PvMP segment or something like that. Maybe a tip of the week type thing.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

I probably would have taken a more active role in the community earlier. I’ve been playing MMOs for over four years but only podcasting and blogging for the last year and a half.

I can certainly understand you not wanting to talk about this, but on a recent podcast you mentioned a personal tragedy your family experienced this past summer.  Would you care to talk about it here?

Sure. My wife of 13 years passed away from Lung Cancer this past summer. My wife battled this terrible disease for 3 and a half years before she died. She wasn’t a smoker and she didn’t grow up around smokers, so the diagnosis was a complete surprise. We went through multiple rounds of chemo and radiation, but Lung Cancer is one of the most aggressive and lethal types. She passed away peacefully at the hospital surrounded by family.

The LOTRO community, as well as all my real life friends and family, were very supportive following her death. Many of my listeners and those in the community wanted to help so I have links to the American Lung Association on the website so they could donate to fight this terrible disease.

Again, I’m very sorry to hear this.  You have my condolences.

Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with? Now’s your chance.

First, thank you for the interview. It was a lot of fun looking back over my gaming history. I’d also like to thank my listeners and the LOTRO community for being so supportive.

For those who’d like to start listening you can find LOTROCast on iTunes, the Zune Market Place or at You can also visit the show website at and follow me on twitter @lotrocast. You can send me emails at .

Thank you, Alberos.  Best of luck with the podcast and other future endeavors.

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Reading the text: an interview with Patrick Doud

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 14, 2011

Poet and first-time novelist Patrick Doud is the author of The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin, the first book in The Winnitok Tales series. In this interview we discuss some of Patrick’s writing, reading and gaming experiences and find out just how ancient he is (which unfortunately isn’t as ancient as me).

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Your first novel, The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin, is an epic fantasy which was published in 2010. What was that experience like for you?

It was a long, slow trawl writing the book, finding a publisher for the book, and bringing the book to print, so it felt good when it was finally done. It was also good to be able to turn my attention more fully to the next one. (Ogin is the first book in a series called The Winnitok Tales. The second book’s title is The Mornith War, and it comes out in May.)

Could you take a minute and explain what the story is about?

Ogin begins with an unknown power snatching up thirteen-year-old Elwood Pitch and dropping him in an alternate universe. In this other world he makes some friends, and from them learns of a lost demigod that might be able to help him return home. Naturally, locating the missing immortal requires a magic turtle shell (the Eye of Ogin) that might be found in a vast swamp ruled by a frog demon. Elwood and his friends go looking for the Eye.

Among other things, Elwood discovers there are unforeseen consequences to traveling between worlds. In the second book, which is set three years after the first, those consequences begin to play out.

The book is being marketed as young adult fiction. Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing it?

When it started I thought I wanted to write a book for children, but as the story grew that impulse became an unwelcome constraint. I abandoned it. Still, Elwood Pitch is a teenager, and I can see the sense in categorizing The Winnitok Tales as young adult.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Yes, I did read a lot when I was a kid. I remember being deeply involved with The Great Brain books and the Little House books. Then, when I was seven or eight, I came across a copy of Ozma of Oz at school. I’ve been partial to books about other worlds ever since.

This is not your first published work though. Would you mind explaining what else you’ve published in the past?

Three little books of (mostly) oblique poetry were published in the nineties. Two of them, Girding the Ghost and The Man in Green, were done by the wonderful Lee Chapman, editor and publisher of First Intensity.

Did you find moving from poetry to prose to be a difficult transition?

Yes, extended prose narrative was tough after years of poetry. But as far as practice goes, the two have more in common than not. For me at least.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I’ve always loved games. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, and we grew up playing all kinds of games. My brothers invented turn-based rules for toy soldier battles using dice and a ruler. We had a fair amount of Britains LTD soldiers and many, many HO scale … Creating settings for these games, forts and terrain, was one of the most fun aspects for me. We also played a lot of Stratego and Risk. And Battleship. When Atari came along we had a lot of fights over getting a turn.

When I was around ten or eleven–1978 or ’79–a friend’s older brother introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons. (This older brother also had a computer, on which he let us play Zork. We never got very far.) My friend and I were too young to play D&D with the older guys, but we managed to glean a sense of the game from their talk. I recall fantasising endlessly about the very idea of D&D before I ever played it. I borrowed a copy of Tunnels & Trolls from someone at school, and soon got my own copy of the D&D Blue Book. I spent a lot more time poring over these and designing dungeons than I did actually playing. Like so many others, I stopped playing altogether shortly after beginning high school. Whether this was because I was no longer interested, or thanks to nasty social pressures, or both, I can’t remember.

I played a lot of chess in college and a lot of 8 ball in the years after college. I still love those games, though I almost never play them anymore.

In the late nineties I fell into the clutches of pc video games. I still haven’t escaped. My favorite games combine FP perspective with RPG elements. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series (Ukrainian games based on the great Tarkovsky film, which was based on the scifi novella Roadside Picnic) does this very well, and is one of my favorites. I also love the Thief series. I like open game worlds: lots of choices, lots to explore. Not that I have to have it that way. Another favorite is the first Bioshock, which makes up for its linear, more limited world with delectable visuals and sounds (“atmosphere”).

Would you say your gaming background has had any effect on you as a writer?

I would say that. Most recently, while I was writing The Mornith War and wanting inspiration, I thought a lot about that golden age I just mentioned: the late seventies. It was such a rich period for my imagination. An uncle introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien, the first Star Wars film came out, I discovered D&D… all within a relatively short period of time. While I was writing the latest book and thinking of those days, wanting to steal some of that magic and bring it back to the present, James Maliszewski’s “old school” RPG blog Grognardia was a reliable resource. Many, many posts helped me to reconnect with that time, and to retrieve memories that had been lost. I should thank him.

I’m not insinuating that you are a nerd, but if you were ever to aspire to become one, is there something from your past you wouldn’t mind sharing that would help in establishing you some nerd cred?

Something from my past…. Well, a while ago I got this letter from a gentleman called Randolph Carter asking me to do an interview….

Oh my…if that had been me, I would have shut down my computer and promptly drank myself into oblivion. Fortunately for us, that’s not what you did.  Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Oh yes, there is grind. There are many days when I am uninspired, depressed, lazy … and the blank page/screen is as discouraging as a thousand miles of tundra to be crossed. The only way to get through those kinds of days is to keep writing–to grind away.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

When the thing I need is granted me; when the story or the poem shows me the way forward.

When do you find time to write?

While my four-year-old is at preschool. He takes a dim view of anything having my attention that is not him.

 How do you tend to escape these days?

Armchair swordsman, Patrick Doud

I find lobbing a flash bomb then crouching in an alcove where my visibility gem shows black to be very

effective. Also, Miyazaki films. Depends on the situation.

You wake up to a world where The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin has been made into a pen & paper RPG. What character and/or class would you play and why?

It’s difficult to choose, but I’ll say a wolf truan scout. To be something other than human, and walk around in the woods a lot.

And last but definitely not least, when was the last time you rolled a twenty-sided die?

It must have been sometime in the eighties. Yikes, I’m ancient.

Thank you, Patrick. Best of luck to you on your future writing.

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One shot: an interview with Az(aroth)

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 7, 2011

Azaroth, or Az as he tends to go by these days, is what you might call a champion of Ultima Online.  Playing the game since launch, he eventually became disenchanted with the state of the game and decided to do something about it–mainly to create his own independent rules server, In Por Ylem, and make a go of that. Here he discusses a bit about his gaming background, his thoughts on UO, and what he’s strived to accomplish with In Por Ylem.

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Please take a minute and describe what your blog is about.

Ultima Online, Ultima Online and only Ultima Online. I think people get angry when I talk about anything else. I’ve attempted to talk about sports, politics, even just other MMOs. They don’t like that.

Perhaps I’d try to describe it as “game design”, which I feel is much more respectable than just “UO greyshards and why I feel they’re really neat.”

Would you mind talking a little bit about your gaming background?

I started with the old consoles. Atari and NES, Sega Gensis, Super Nintendo and so on. During the early console wars I sided squarely with Nintendo until they betrayed me with the N64.

I played a lot of PC games as well. Specifically I remember my true introduction to RPGs on the PC as the early King’s Quest series. My first LAN party shooter experience was Duke Nukem 3D – also very awesome.

Is this too much detail?

Not at all.

We haven’t even gotten to my years playing AD&D yet, or my foray into Warhammer that was extremely expensive but never really took.

Though I did find quite a bit of enjoyment in painting the miniatures.

…. and I just realized I’m a massive nerd.

I’d say then you’re in pretty good company here.  What happened to be your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

If we’re talking specifically about MMOs and not just “online games”, it’d have to be Ultima Online.

After waiting a short six to eight weeks for my box to arrive, plus about forty five minutes to get past the “Verifying Account…” screen, then another few seconds between each step (which I had no cause to think was anything but completely normal)… I was greeted by a more experienced player who gave me two pieces of magical leather armour. Unsure of what these did exactly, but quite certain they made me something near (if not totally) invincible – I trotted out of town and was promptly attacked by a naked fellow wielding a dagger and sporting a fashionable bone helm and cape combination.

Luckily, I killed him. Unluckily this only served to further the notion that I was quite likely one of the strongest players in the game. I was later slain by a deer.

Since those first unexplainably magical (and unimaginably laggy) first few steps into Ultima Online, I’ve been in love for well over a decade now.

Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?

There’s no doubt it was the simple fact that the other dudes running around my screen in this online world were all real people. It was 1997 and, believe it or not, that was very impressive at the time by itself.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

At the moment – rarely. I try to find a little time for PC and console gaming, but tabletop gaming is unfortunately a thing of the past for me.

When I’m busy with something, I typically can’t rationalize too much gaming. I’m very likely to try out the new Star Wars MMO when it launches, however.

Of course I said that about Star Trek Online and never followed through. So who knows.

Ultima Online is a game I would imagine the majority of current MMO players have probably never heard of, let alone experienced. What are they missing out on? And perhaps, what are current MMOs not providing that UO once did?

Is this my chance to sell Ultima Online to people? Yikes, that’s a big job.

I couldn’t possibly gush enough over what UO is in a paragraph or two.

I think a lot of people get stuck on its age. I’d say to them that age isn’t really relevant in MMORPGs … especially not right now. When I did IPY, UO was as old as World of Warcraft is today, and people thought UO was a fossil.

I don’t see 10+ million people being too concerned about how dusty and awful WoW is just because of its age, or even because the graphics are a bit dated. If it’s good, if it’s fun, then age can very easily be disregarded in this genre.

Ultima Online is also 2D, sure, but so are many popular web and Facebook games with millions of users. I’d argue that UO’s 2D graphics are incredibly classic and far more enjoyable and carefully crafted than those of most 2D games nowadays.

So yeah, it’s a fantastic game and while there are some things that could be done to bring it into the present, good MMOs are good MMOs. In fact, I think a 3D game will probably always age worse than a quality 2D one.

As far as what UO is?

It was always more about an experience in a virtual world than it was about hacking and slashing foozles. Sure, it had that… but it certainly wasn’t what made the game special.

UO was designed as a place that everyone could find a home. The great part of UO became the community, because it was a melting pot of players and play styles. You could bash monsters, you could PvP, build a house, sail the ocean, search for treasure sunken or buried, collect rare items, learn to cook, blacksmith, be a carpenter, a thief that steals from other players. You can walk into a dungeon, tame a dragon, and walk out using it to slay your enemies. Set up your own shop in your own house on a road outside of town, or… whatever.

The possibilities presented are nearly endless, and that’s the special part. You’re aren’t locked in to a specific path of advancement through the game that millions have followed almost exactly before you. Out of the massive list of skills presented, you can build your character how you want, progress how you want, and play however you want, and really leave a mark on a world that’s truly open and endlessly enjoyable.

Even now, but most especially when MMORPGs were brand new… UO was fertile ground for fun and whacky adventures of any kind. With so much freedom, the content is the world and the players – not just the quest line and the scripted raid boss.

Really, the game is just fun if you’re into online RPGs and you want something a little different. It provides meaningful, unique experiences in a living, breathing world. And that’s what it provides that other MMORPGs don’t.

You’ve provided your thoughts on the final days of UO and your own project In Por Ylem, but it appears there is a new IPY project in the works. Would you mind talking a little bit about that and your own blog, Azaroth?

In Por Ylem was a free UO server I ran back in 2003/2004. The goal was to recreate the “good old days” of UO, and I’d say that we succeeded. We were by several leaps and bounds the largest free UO shard in history. We even got featured in real, honest to goodness print magazines.

The server was as large and as active as any EA shard at the time, and probably larger and more active than any of them these days.

… and really, it was created only with spare time, a disregard for profit, and a love of the game. This was small, amateur operation that simply made a few changes to modernize the classic ruleset a bit, and succeeded wildly because of the love that exists in the gaming community for oldschool UO.

Of course online games must evolve – even though they typically go down paths that aren’t going to please everyone. UO was a game for everyone (I always say that the design of the game was absolute genius for the time period – truly the only time period in MMO gaming that your players WERE the MMO market, no matter what type of player they were – it was broad, and it appealed a little bit to everyone), so people are understandably extremely divided by the changes that have been made in the last ten years.

Change is always necessary though. Classic UO, as fantastic as it is or was, needs to be brought into the present somehow if it is to be revived. As much as everyone loves UO circa 1997-2000 or so, if nothing had changed in all this time, EA would have a population of about fifteen or sixteen paying customers.

Even the most hardcore of classic ruleset advocates would have likely stopped playing out of boredom by now. As fantastic as any online game is, it always needs to move forward or people will drift away out of boredom. What we’re trying to do is move forward with IPY in a way that fixes the big problems, adds some fun where the game lacks it, and in the end create a sustainable version of the classic ruleset.

While running the first incarnation of IPY, you can imagine I learned quite a few things about why and where a classic UO ruleset fails. The main problem is that it does… and in today’s environment, somewhat spectacularly.

Obviously I’m not a huge fan of the changes made to EA’s version of the game. That’s probably clear. So while player killing and griefing were very large problems on IPY (probably bigger problems than they ever were in the early days of UO), our solution isn’t a PK switch or Trammel or any of that nonsense. What we’re doing is putting the power to police the game world in the hands of the players.

Yes, that rascally old “Player Justice” that nobody ever seemed to get right. You might of course laugh at this – but we’re of the opinion that if you take the power to police player killing and concentrate it in the hands of a minority of power users, providing incentives for them to focus on hunting down evil doers and good tools to do the job, it really just might work.

Ultima Online

So what we’d like to do with this new version of IPY is fix those problems to the best of our abilities so as to prevent classic UO from kerploding (as it tends to do) while also keeping the oldschool experience intact. The world, the gameplay, the skills, the spells… everything is the same. But we’ve added an expansion pack worth of new game systems that address old problems without being in your face or intruding on your experience with classic UO, which is of course the main draw and main feature.

My blog is a good place to read about the new features, and if you want the quick, flashy version there’s a slideshow up on the IPY website.
And so, where does the name “Azaroth” come from? That name sounds sort of familiar. It reminds me of…oh never mind.
Ahem. Yes, well. Believe it or not, I thought the name to be quite original and clever when I came up with it well over a decade ago. Now I really just go by “Az” online. I’ve been muscled out.
Thank you Az, and best of luck with the next incarnation of In Por Ylem.

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Reading the text: an interview with Katie MacAlister

Posted by Randolph Carter on December 9, 2010

Katie MacAlister is the author of over 30 novels primarily of the paranormal romance variety. During her downtime she happens to play a little-know online game called World of Warcraft.  Here she discusses her writing, her background in gaming, what her experience with WoW has been like, and why it is she continues to play to this day.

For more information on Katie and her work, check out here website and blog.

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For those out there who don’t know your published work, would you mind giving us a little background on what it is you write?

I write a variety of romantic fiction and mysteries, predominately paranormal-oriented, so you can expect to find vampires, dragons in human form, necromancers, Viking ghosts, and a whole slew of other beings in my books. I even have liches, although mine differ quite a bit from the Blizzard version.

It’s hard for me to believe, but I have more than thirty books out now. My books are regulars on the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and USA Today lists, and are published in a variety of countries and formats.

From the FAQ section of your website you mention being hopelessly addicted to World of Warcraft.  I’d say you’re in good company here.  Would you mind describing when you first started playing the game and how that all came about?

I started WOWing almost six years ago when a friend mentioned a new MMO he’d just started playing. I wasn’t big on fantasy games, but decided to give it a try, and immediately made a holy priest. Ah, the joys of leveling a holy priest in Vanilla WOW…those were the days. 🙂

What tends to be your playing style these days?

Right now, my toons are in a bit of a holding pattern waiting for the expansion. As a rule, I tend to be a casual player, so I’m not going to go nuts trying to level as fast as I can. I prefer to enjoy the journey and enjoy the content as I toddle my way to the level cap.

I hit a major burnout session earlier this summer after getting Loremaster on my priest, and pretty much was content to simply run with my weekly raid group. Since I have something like nine 80s, I knew that I’d go insane if I tried to level them all in Cataclysm, so I decided to narrow the leveling field to three: two healers and a DPS.

I’ve just moved my resto shammy who I intend to level to a new server, and joined a guild that I am greatly enjoying—Riders of Gilead on Ysera—so that will be pretty much my main focus. I hope to raid with my healer once we’re all settled and 85, but I’ll never really be anything but a casual raider.

Is your husband also a gamer?

He isn’t, amazingly enough. I kind of wish he was, so I could lure him to a PVP server and gank him at will whenever he irritates me. Wait, I probably shouldn’t have admitted that in public…

What was your gaming experience like prior to WoW (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

My online gaming experience was limited to one MMORPG: Puzzle Pirates. I never played consoles, played only Sim City and related Sims as computer games, and never got into board games or paper RPGs.

Sometimes, I feel a bit left out when I hear guildies talking about their Warcraft III days, or Everquest romps, or even Mario whoozits, but I’m happy with just being a WOW geek.

Many of the authors I’ve interviewed view gaming as a potential threat to their productivity as a writer. As someone who games, how have you managed to reconcile these two activities in your life?

Far from being a threat to my productivity, it’s a boon; my WOW time is my reward for getting my daily wad o’ writing done. When I’m on deadline—which honestly seems like it’s most of the time—I don’t let myself play until I’ve completed the daily word count that lets me write a book in a comfortable amount of time (usually two months).

So if I’m really Jonesing for some WOW, it serves as an incentive for me to get my work done first, then I can loll around the rest of the day and play to my heart’s content.

From a romance writer’s standpoint, what do you think of the writing that has gone into World of Warcraft?

This has nothing to do with the writing, but the female armor models…the art guys seriously need some girlfriends. That’s all I’m sayin’. 🙂

The romance writer in me appreciates the ebb and flow of characterization, the bad boy villains who everyone loves to hate, the characters who may seem to be good (or bad) and turn out to have unexpected depths, and the big story arcs that contain smaller, easier resolved arcs.

There have been a few things that I’ve disagreed with (I dislike the manufactured feel to antagonism between Horde and Alliance, since it seems to me that there are other ways for that to manifest itself), but on the whole, I feel the characterization and storylines are pretty good, and the level at which players can immerse themselves in the story is improving with each expansion. 

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself as much as possible into the story of the game?

Oh yes, I love the immersive facets. The only thing I thought needed punching up were the romance novels you could get by pick-pocketing. Every time my rogue picked one up, I wanted to drop Blizzard a note and offer to write them some new excerpts. 🙂

It’s the little things like that and the flavor text on items that gives me great enjoyment. I particularly like some of the text on vendor trash, since they can be very amusing.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your time in World of Warcraft?

I’ll tell you one of my most embarrassing stories…when I was a brand new player with a level 17 priest, someone mentioned the Barrens to me as being an area in which I could safely quest. I had no idea how to get there, and ended up swimming up the coast from Theramore. It took forever, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there any other way (no, it never occurred to me to simply run west through Dustwallow). Once I was in Ratchet, I was horrified to see a couple of Horde hunters there.

I’d heard about PVP, you see, and knew that Horde players could kill innocent little level 17 noob priests, and had no idea what to do to get out of there other than to swim back down to the safety of Theramore. I didn’t realize that one had to be flagged, or on a PVP server in order to be gankable, no, I just figured they were there with the sole purpose of killing me.

So I started for the docks, intending on making the long swim back to Theramore, or at least far enough that they two hunters would lose interest in me, at which point I could sneak back. Alas, the hunters must have been waiting for a ship, because they followed me to the dock. I, of course, was convinced it was me they were following with nefarious intentions on their Horde minds, and panicked. I bolted past them, spamming heals on myself in case they started whacking at me as I ran by.

I didn’t stop running until I was lost in the wilds of the Barrens. It took me a long, long time to recover from my scare and near miss—two Hordies! I could have been killed!—and was just congratulating myself on my cunning plan to escape them when I wandered into Crossroads, and was promptly slaughtered by guards.

It took a long, long time before I ever went back to the Barrens again.

As a successful romance author, do you feel the need to play down the fact that you enjoy playing an online role-playing game?

Naw, I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I’m a huge WOW geek. Luckily, many of my readers are just as geeky, so they put up with my squeals of delight when I yammer on about a new achievement or mount.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Katie MacAlister

Not really, no. Gaming for me is brain candy time, when I can reward my muse for all her hard work by letting her frolic in adventures where she doesn’t have to think up lore and characters and details like that. It’s probably one reason why I don’t participate in RP servers or events—RP is basically what I do for a living, so I try to get away from that in my play time.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

One thing I keep reminding myself whenever I get in a snit over something is that it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. If I find myself kicking my feet and grumbling because I have to go grind rep for something, or annoyed with a guildy, or damning my long run of single-digit /rolls, then I know it’s time to do something else. I don’t mind working for goals in the game, but if something becomes tedious, then it’s time for either a break, or to do something else in the game.

Then again, that pretty much applies to life, too, huh? 🙂

Thank you, Katie.

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Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Lance “UndeadViking” Myxter

Posted by Randolph Carter on November 24, 2010

There’s no doubting Lance Myxter is an avid board gamer and that he’s passionate about the hobby. He is perhaps best known in the gaming community as UndeadViking on BoardGameGeek and for the series of board game video reviews he has been posting there. I managed to ask him some questions about his gaming background, what it is he enjoys about board gaming and what goes into making his video reviews.  Enjoy.

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I’m curious to know what your gaming background happens to be. Would you mind shedding some light on your gaming past (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

UndeadViking in action

As far back as I can remember, games of some sort were part of my life. My parent’s got divorced when I was very young and neither of them were very financially stable after they separated. Instead of going out and doing something that cost money, we played a lot of card games – your standard stuff, Kings in the Corner, Crazy Eights, Old Maid – things that were easy to grasp but fun for little kids. I hate to admit that I played about 1000 games of WAR with my sister and enjoyed every single one. We used to combine 4 or 5 decks of cards and have these epic long contests that caused no end to arguments and hurt feelings when one person was declared the victor.

I fondly remember being at my Dad’s house one Saturday afternoon when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and he decided he was going to teach me how to play poker. We played 5 card draw and 7 card stud and we used a big coffee jar of pennies as our “chips”. I remember him teaching me about the different hands and him getting frustrated when I thought all red cards was the same as a flush. Regardless to any dismay he might have had, our games of poker became a standard occurrence whenever we got together, and years later I got to return the favor, when I became an avid Hold ‘Em player and I got to teach him how to play that brand of gambling instead of just watching it on television.

As far as early boardgames that I played, a few stand out. I really like the game of Life, probably because you got to drive those cool little cars around the board, over those green mountains and around the little white buildings. I greatly enjoyed Clue because of the deduction strategies that were part of the game, and my sister got a copy of Mastermind when I was 10 or so, and I think we probably played that about 100 times one summer alone. I am proud to mention that I was smart enough to get a copy of Survive when I was younger (I knew it was something special even then) but not smart enough to actually keep track of it and still have it in my collection. Thankfully, the reprint comes out soon, so it is only a matter of time before it is in my hands once again. Careers and Payday also are memorable. I liked the banking aspect of Payday, and Careers was neat because you got to pick your own winning strategy, instead of being told what it was by the game.

I had an Atari 2600 pretty much as soon as it came out. I remember being absolutely fascinated by it and I still own my original today. The graphics and games are laughable now when you see what kids are playing nowadays. I remember having to ride my bike to the local arcade so I could play video games at a quarter a pop. I would save up my allowance for that Saturday afternoon when me and my friends would head out to throw our money away at electronic goodness. It is a little mind blowing for me to think that all of the games that used to be in a giant arcade can now be played on my computer in front of me with a few dozen ROMS and an emulator. I remember buying books on how to PLAY video arcade games, meaning not only was I putting the money in the games to play them, I was going out and paying money for books to hopefully teach me how to play them better. However, the first time I beat Dragon’s Lair and had the entire arcade cheering me on, it was worth it!

When I was in my early teens, I finally got my first computer, a Commodore 64. I played games on that constantly, with Ultima IV and Bard’s Tale being especially memorable. I don’t know how many nights I stayed up late, well after my mother and step-father had gone to bed, my room illuminated by the game playing out on my TV. Really great stuff, and great memories. It helped that all of my friends were playing the same games, so every day at school we would talk about what we had played the night before. Looking back, I realize that I grew up during the beginnings of the video game world we live in today – and when you think about that, it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.

However, what was probably the biggest and most dramatic change to my gaming life happened when I was about 10 years old (I think) and I was playing some Atari game and my older brother came home and started talking to me about the awesome new game that he had played over at a friend’s house. He said that he and his friends were adventurers and that they had gone off searching in a dungeon for a lost amulet that a princess had lost. They fought goblins, ogres, and giant spiders while exploring deeper and deeper. Eventually they found the amulet, but it was guarded by a sleeping dragon. They tried to sneak in and steal it but the dragon woke up and they had to run or they would have been killed.

Fascinated, I asked him what the name of the game cartridge was, and my brother got a look of disdain on his face and said “It isn’t a video game dummy, it’s called Dungeons & Dragons and you play it with dice and paper.” Luckily, he took the time to explain the game even further to me, and soon I was completely lost in the idea of this game and I absolutely had to have it. Of course this was the late 70’s, so you couldn’t just log on to the internet and buy a few books off of Amazon – I had to track this stuff down somehow.

I of course did no leg work at all and begged my mother to find them for me. She ended up ordering them through a catalog at JC Penney’s of all places, and a few weeks later I had my very first ever Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. I remember being blown away by everything as I tried to absorb what I was reading. I think I was 10 at the time, so you can imagine my dismay as I was trying to decipher the rules of the game. Eventually, I figured out most of what was going on (and I was able to order my first set of dice – I really wish I still had those) and I took my brother through an adventure I had made. I don’t remember anything about it, other than I did well enough that I became the DM for my brother and his friends shortly afterwards, which was pretty cool really, being 10 years old and telling a bunch of teenagers that they were getting eaten by dragons was very empowering.

Eventually, I got my own gaming group that I played D&D with all the time. In high school we played almost every weekend, though some of us managed to get girlfriends so our free time was restricted a bit. My college years tapered off though, since we all scattered around the country going to school. When we came home for the holidays we would hook up here and there, but for the most part my gaming centered around the Nintendo and not much else. After college, we all reconnected and started having epicly long campaigns, lasting years at a time. We played D&D about 3 or 4 times a week – it was probably the zenith of my gaming life – 23 years old, no girlfriend or wife, no kids, just a job and a ton of spare time.

At some point, my gaming started to taper off. I don’t really have an explanation for it. I think it had a lot to do with all of us growing up in some way or another, plus a couple of my friends went off and got married and “settled down”. We went from playing two or three times a week, to once every two weeks, then maybe once a month, and then nothing. What really revitalized my gaming life would have to be, and I am almost loathe to admit this, the release of 3rd edition D&D. We all got excited, and we immediately dove into RPG’s again.

Finally, boardgames came back into my life around this point. We had always played Talisman from time to time but it was never a steady thing. I had read about many other boardgames and even lurked on a couple of times, but had not taken the plunge. Then, when I was living with my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and we were expecting our daughter to come along in about 6 months or so, I finally decided I was going to pick up a game that I had read about a lot – Arkham Horror. I bought it off of eBay and was immediately stunned by the complexity of it. I invited my gaming group over (all guys I went to high school with – I am extremely luck in this regard) and we gave it a spin. We had a blast even though we failed and the world was destroyed and I never looked back.

Now I have a stupidly huge collection of games, both board and role playing. They currently sit on 4 or 5 book shelves in my basement. Gaming and things related to gaming have been a part of my life for so long, it is just second nature to me. I really don’t realize the amount of time I devote to it, but when someone points it out to me, I am really stunned by the observation when I let it sink in.

With the wide variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why do you happen to play board games?

Well to begin with, the reason I started playing boardgames was merely the fact that I didn’t have to devote a ton of time to preparation like I did with role playing games. I should mention at this point that I am usually the DM or GM for the RPG’s our group plays, so the creation of the plot, the world, the NPC’s, and so forth is all up to me. I am not complaining mind you – I love doing it – but after I moved in with my girlfriend and we were getting ready to have a family, I didn’t have time to sit in front of a computer, making another 6 level dungeon to entertain my friends. You can set up even the most complex boardgame in less than 10 minutes (once you know what you are doing) and just take off running.

Once I became a dad and we bought a house, I was finally able to get a rhythm to my life and I was able to get back in the world of RPG’s, but I still played boardgames, mostly for the variety, but ultimately because they are ridiculously fun. Look, unless you are from Germany, you probably cut your teeth on games like Battleship, Connect 4, and of course, everyone’s whipping boy, Monopoly. Most people, at one point in their life, really enjoyed playing boardgames, but when they think of them now, they only remember them as being a child’s toy.

If you took that random person, and sat them in front of something like Carcassonne or Catan, they are going to be apprehensive at first, but the vast majority of them are going to have a good time playing it, and some of them are even going to investigate the hobby further.

Now not everyone is going to buy 500 games and start making videos of themselves raving about the newest release, but I think people are just wired into the idea of enjoyable competition that a boardgame offers them. It is a chance to sit down, relax, let your mind concentrate on a single thing, and enjoy the company of a few friends. Have a beer or a glass of wine if that is your thing. In between turns, talk about the latest movie you saw, or complain about your job. Argue about the ending to Battlestar Galactica and why you think it sucked. Give each other hell about losing/winning the game, but most of all, enjoy your time with people you like.

That’s why I like boardgames the most. It is a reason for me and a group of my really good friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company for a few hours. You don’t have to do a bunch of bookkeeping like you do for role playing games, and you don’t really have to prepare – you can just sit down and go and have a great time.

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

Oh man, this really isn’t a fair question, since my compass switches up so much and so often. When I first got into the hobby, I was an “Ameritrash” fan through and through – games with high end components, heavy theme, dice rolling, lots of luck and chaos to go along with whatever strategy they could cram in as well. Arkham Horror is a real good example – so is Talisman or Battlestar Galactica. Those games are just full of fun and excitement. Sure, there isn’t much to them (at least when compared to some of the more deep games out there) but the games know that and they don’t care. They are about having an awesome idea, presenting it to you in a way that is fast and easy to comprehend, and getting you through the next few hours while you have a blast.

Later on I started diversifying and I began playing the “Euros” – and despite my trepidation I had a really good time. It is a different kind of fun to be sure – I mean you aren’t blasting aliens, or slicing up goblins, or fighting Cthulhu, instead you are trading shares in a shipping company or running a power plant, or tending your farm in the middle ages – but it is still fun!

When it comes right down to it, I play games to have a good time, and I will always give a game at least one try unless I can tell from the get go that it is a complete mess. I think that if you just pass by a game because you think it doesn’t fit your niche without giving it a go through, you are just hurting yourself by not allowing yourself the chance to play something that might surprise you. I wish we didn’t have classifications for games, but we do, and unfortunately the vast majority of people are pretty close minded about what they think is a good game and what is bad and that taints their perception. I must admit, I would be lying if I didn’t so this myself.

To answer your question though, right now, I am enjoying games that make me think and are heavy on player interaction. Too many games out there have you sit down and just race the people at the table to make the best possible victory point engine before the game is over. I want to be able to purposefully mess with you to screw up your plans. I want to be able to try and outthink my opponents and have them directly affected by that, and not just give me a bunch of points. I like games that have a negotiation element to them, because then the game becomes all about exerting your will on your opponents. One of the finest compliments I ever got was during a game of Battlestar Galactica, when my buddy Craig said “I can’t believe anything you say, even if you are human, because you have everyone wrapped around your finger every time we play this game!”.

If you held me down and made me tell you a few games that I love, a short list would be Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica, pretty much anything by Stefan Feld and Bruno Faidutti, and most recently, Dominant Species. Alien Frontiers is another relatively new game that is very fun and exciting. Most of my friends are big time Dominion players, and I enjoy that, but I would rather be playing Gosu or Glory to Rome if I was going to play a card game.

My all time favorite game though? Poker – hands down. There is nothing, nothing, like the feeling of playing Hold ‘Em at a table of complete strangers, trying to outwit them for their money. I had my bachelor party in Las Vegas a while ago and I sat down at the 1-2 No limit tables for hours on end and had a ridiculously good time, and not just because I won quite a bit of money. There is nothing like trying to decide if your cards are good enough to put several hundred dollars behind them. Win or lose, that is the most pure gaming feeling I ever experience.

Who do you tend to play with these days and how often do you play?

I am lucky that my wife is not only stunningly beautiful and a wonderful friend, she also lets me have my gaming buddies over at my house every Saturday afternoon. We alternate between playing my Pathfinder campaign (ongoing for almost two years now) and boardgames.

I am also very lucky in the fact that I have had the same core group of gamers in my life for about two decades now. The same five or six guys have been getting together like clockwork on a regular schedule, enjoying each others company for years. We half jokingly tell each other that we need to plan on retiring to the same nursing home so we can continue playing D&D when we get to our 70’s, and you know what? I bet you we will do it, as long as our wives allow it to happen.

Plus, twice a year, Becca allows me to have about a dozen plus people over at the house all weekend for a mini gaming convention at my house. We start playing at noon on Friday and don’t stop until Sunday night. Probably the most fun I have gaming all year.

On off days, I sometimes convince Becca to play a few games with me, and of course my little daughter Rilyn is always interested in playing a game with me whenever she can. One of the greatest days of my life was when she came back from my game shelf, clutching my copy of Ticket to Ride and yelling “Dad! Play this with me!”. It was so cute I could even forgive the fact that she had picked a horrible game. We ended up just pushing the trains up and down the board, matching the colors, and counting them. I will remember that afternoon forever – I look forward to the day when she gets a little older and I can start playing Talisman with her.

Do you happen to collect board games? If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

A "few" of Lance's games

Define collect. Do I buy a lot of boardgames? Yeah I do, but I play them all, or at least I try. I mean I have 4 bookshelves full of them – around 500 or so – but I don’t really think of it as collecting them. I always considered collecting as something where people are buying something and then putting them in a display case or something. Certainly, I have a few games in my collection that are worth some money, but I would never consider just putting them up on a shelf and keeping them in pristine condition. Games are for cracking open and playing, not doing that just seems like a crime against the creation of the game in general.

For awhile there, my collection as getting out of hand. Now I realize some people would still think 500 or so games is still a lot, and it is, but I had dozens of games that I owned just to own, not to play. I was picking them up off of auctions, trades, large gaming orders, and so forth. I bought games that I knew I would never play, but I did it anyway just because I wanted to own it. Eventually I ended up selling a huge chunk of them, around 125 games or so, and it was very liberating. I cleared some space off my shelf, had some cash in my pocket, and felt better about the whole deal.

Honestly, I could sell another 100 or so games, and I should, but I can’t pull the trigger on some of the stuff I own. For example, I own Tide of Iron and 2 or 3 expansions for it. I have played the base game once – once. I own Descent and 2 or 3 expansions for that. Played the base game maybe 4 or 5 times and then never again. I am never going to play those games, but I just cannot bring myself to sell them for the $150-$200 I could probably get for the whole lot of them because I think “well maybe I will play them some time”. It is a form of madness I suppose, but I at least I recognize that I am nuts.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Definitely. I play a lot of games on my computer to pass the time – I am a huge fan of Team Fortress 2 and I am a pretty good Demo Man if I can brag for a bit. Currently I am playing Civilization 5 to death, and that is simply one of the best games I have ever played. Now if Diablo III can just come out, I might be able to die a happy man!

I played World of Warcraft for way too many years as well. I ended up quitting shortly after the first expansion came out because they altered the game too much for me, but I had a small amount of nerd bragging rights when I was on the second ever Horde guild to ever kill Nefarian AND I was the first rogue to ever complete his Tier 2 armor set on my server. Yay! Go me!

I own a Wii that is fun to dink around with, and I just recently finally got a hold of a PS3 which is cool because all of the older games are only $20 and they are a lot of fun. I am playing GTA 4 right now, which might be completely old school to a lot of you, but it is new to me and a lot of fun.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Excuse me for saying this, but I find that question to be a bit ridiculous. I read a lot – and by a lot I mean like 5 or 6 books a month. I read pretty much anything – if it entertains me I will give it my time. Do you think I feel guilty for reading a piece of fantasy garbage like Orcs (very good read by the way) after I just got done reading an in depth historical piece of non fiction about the civil war? Hell no.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

No, no, no, a thousand times no.

Play what you want to play, read what you want to read, and watch what you want to watch. I will walk through the family room and Becca will be completely entranced by whatever trash happens to be on MTV at the time. My mother watches American Idol religiously. Do I fault them for it? No, because it is what they like, and it makes them happy. I don’t hang out in the room with them mind you, but I am not going to make fun of them for it.

Too many people get caught up in what they think they should be doing with their free time instead of just doing what they enjoy. If someone tried to tell me that I was stupid for playing ModNation Racers or that I was lame for watching late night Adult Swim cartoons, I would probably just laugh in their face.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic media, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

That’s an interesting question that I don’t really have an answer for. Do I think it is in danger? Not really. Boardgames have been around for so long and they really have stood the test of time. Now, do I think they will remain as popular? Probably not. I think board games, at least the main stream stuff, will slowly but surely move towards an electronic/board hybrid – you can even see it now on the shelves. The game has to have something that lights up or contains a pre-set sampling of noises or voices that get repeated 100 times as you play the game. Maybe they need that to interest the kids, and good for them I guess, but I will tell you this. When I was growing up, my copy of Battleship didn’t need batteries.

However, the more hard core hobby of boardgames will remain the same or even get more popular. As long as there are that core group of people that are willing to pick up the latest offering from Knizia or Wallace, boardgames are not going to go anywhere. Look at D&D’s resurgence lately. I absolutely detest 4th edition D&D, but you cannot deny that it is popular and had brought a lot new games back into the fold.

Gaming is doing well as a whole though, and as long as people like to sit down and play something, boardgames will be a part of peoples lives. Sure, they might get more popular and less popular as time goes by, but everything is cyclical.

I’ve really enjoyed your board game review videos. I sincerely hope you continue with them. Truth be told, I’ve actually made a couple of purchase decisions based on your reviews. I’m sure there’s a question coming here somewhere… Would you mind discussing a little about what goes into making these reviews and are you planning on producing more?

Well thanks for the compliment, but all fake humility aside, I really don’t think I am doing that good of a job at what I am doing. I look at some of the other people who are making videos, and I am completely blown away by what they do.

Take a look at Tom Vasel and see everything that he has done. For better or worse, he has defined the genre of board game video reviews. He and Scott Nicholson were the two people that really inspired me to start making video in the first place. The care and ingenuity that goes into every single Scott’s Stuff video makes them instant classics. I really can’t flatter Scott’s videos enough.

Some of the other people pumping out videos right now need to be mentioned as well. Drakkenstrike’s HD component overviews, which are more reviews than an overview truth be told, are extremely well produced mini movies. The UFBRT videos are simply amazing and laugh out loud funny. The Castelli reviews have a simple charm all their own. However, all of these people I have mentioned have something in common – they all make better looking and better edited videos than I do.

I will let you in on a secret – I have a really crappy camera that barely does the job with what I try and accomplish. I use the cheapest video editing software I could find that still makes a passable product. I don’t really have a script or anything to follow when I make one of my little videos. I know the generic ideas that I want to touch on, and I know what I want to say, but before I sit down at my table with the box in my hands, I have no idea what is going to happen.

This is a bit counter productive of course, since I will make an entire video, hate every bit of it, and then go and do it again a few hours later. My most recent review, Dominant Species, I did that about 4 times before I got something that I thought was ok.

I don’t do anything flashy, I don’t have an animated intro, or theme music, I just hit record, sit down, and let fly. I get a pretty good response to what I am doing, so I must be doing something right, but I do hope to improve on my results.

For starters, I want to get a hold of a decent camera at some point. I don’t need to spend a thousand bucks on it or anything like that, but something decent would be nice. It would also be good if I could get a hold of some decent lighting too. Sometimes I won’t do a review on a certain day because the sky is overcast and I am not getting enough light in my dining room!

Someday, I will also have to splurge for some good video editing software too. I have been researching it and have my eye on Sony Vegas, but that is quite the investment as well, and to put it simply, I would rather spend the money on games. I also need to bite the bullet and finally get a website to embed my videos on. It is all well and good to post them on BGG, but I would like to have my own spot on the net where they can reside, and people can find me and give me their thoughts somewhere other than there. Problem is that I have so much going on with my life, I really don’t have the time to maintain a site.

There are a few things I don’t like about doing reviews. While getting the occasional free game from a company for review purposes (this has happened to me maybe five times total) I do feel the pressure to get reviews done and out for those games quickly, and when I can’t get a good feel for the game after a handful of plays, I don’t know what I should do. Do I make a review and go with my gut, or should I wait another week or so, get a few more plays in, and then record my thoughts? I always do the latter, but I feel bad for the company that is waiting for my review.

And while I am on the subject of free games for reviews, I personally feel that every single person who reviews games who in turn gets a free copy should divulge that information in every single review that they do that falls under that description. I don’t understand why anyone would not mention it. To not do so just seems less than genuine to me. I am not comdemning anyone for not doing this – who am I tell to them what to do? – but it is just my feelings on the matter.

As for my reviews, I will continue to do them until they aren’t fun anymore, and then I will stop. Luckily, I really enjoy the whole process, and the comments, questions, and even the people who say I am wrong make it enjoyable. I always subscribe to my reviews and try to respond to any and all questions that might be asked of me. I don’t ever want to be so busy I can’t respond to someone who took the time contact me, regardless of their reason.

What advice would you give to someone who hadn’t played D&D or touched a twenty-sided die in decades but wanted to see what was out there either as a table top RPG or board game?

Well for starters, find a couple of people near you that are interested in trying to start up gaming with you. If you can find a local gaming shop, you could go there and inquire if they have any gaming nights available to the public. Undoubtedly, you probably know someone already, or if you are in a relationship, you have someone in your life that is going to be willing to give it a shot with you.

If you have a gaming shop near you, go in and ask for advice. Tell them what you are interested in playing, and ask for suggestions. They should be willing to help you out, after all they are after your money. If you are like me, and you don’t have a local gaming store, log onto BGG, set up an account, and head over to the new user area of the forums and ask away. Lots of good people just wait for people to post in that section and they WILL answer your questions, probably better than anyone at a gaming store will.

Ultimately, you will just need to dive in. Pick up a game that interests you, give the rules a read, and play. If you are already geared towards gaming, it should be the beginning of a rewarding and exciting hobby to take part in.

Any final words of wisdom you’d like to leave us with?

Gaming or otherwise?

Lance playing with daughter (and meeting his match)

I guess the only real words of wisdom I will ever give anyone about anything is just be a good person. Talk to your mother at least once a week if not more. Do the same for your grandparents. Call your dad too – he likes to hear from you. Give your kids a hug every chance you get. Before posting some spiteful mean comment on the internet, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to that person if they were in front of you. Donate to charities, whether it is money or time it will make you feel better about yourself. If you aren’t allergic, own a dog – studies show they help people live longer. The next time some moron cuts you off in traffic, just let it go instead of letting it work you up. Tell your partner that you love them and mean it. Don’t hate anyone, it is wasted energy on someone who isn’t worth it. Remember to laugh out loud and laugh a lot. Remind yourself that the best revenge is living well. Take pleasure in your friends and make sure they know you care about them – that’s a tough thing to do as a guy, but try anyway. Dance like nobody is watching you. Remember to take a good half hour or more every day to just do nothing but sit there and daydream. Try and read a good book at least once a month.

Most of all – just treat each and every person you meet like you would want to be treated. I know that in our cynical and sarcastic world it is so easy to treat people with indifference instead of kindness, but just TRY and do it. The more you pull it off, the easier it will get.

Oh, and if you should ever see me at a gaming convention, or at some other place in your travels, by all means come up and talk to me. I love meeting new people.

Go out and enjoy your life – you only get one trip so make it worth your while.

Thank you very much, Lance.

Thank you! I really enjoyed myself.

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Reading the text: an interview with Janice Hardy (pt. 2)

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 25, 2010

Here is another interview I did with Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars trilogy.  Her second book in the series, Blue Fire, has just been published and she’s currently in promotion mode.  I was happy to be one of the stops on her impressive blog tour.

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Last time we crossed paths you had just published your first book, The Shifter, which also happened to be the first book in The Healing Wars trilogy.  It appears now the second book, Blue Fire, has just been published.  Would you mind explaining what this latest entry happens to be about?

The story picks up a month after The Shifter ends. Nya and her friends are on the run, hiding from soldiers and the Duke’s trackers, and they realize the best way to stay safe is to leave Geveg. They get out, but not in the way they’d hoped and wind up in the enemy city of Baseer. Nya discovers that the Baseeri aren’t any better off than her people, and she gets pulled into the growing rebellion there. 

And where are you with the final book in the series?

It’s complete and with my editor, and I expect to get my revision letter to start on edits any day now.

You also have a story included in the recently published anthology, Eight Against Reality.  Would you mind giving us a synopsis of this tale and how you found yourself included here?

It’s called Man’s Best Enemy, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic Atlanta after a viral outbreak kills off most of the county. Mutant dogs now rule the cities, and people are struggling to survive. The hero, Shawna, is a teen girl who steps in to take her brother’s place when he falls ill and can’t hunt the dogs anymore. And then of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong.

The anthology is a collection of stories by my critique group. We self published it as a marketing piece, and something fun to do. Almost everyone in the group is published (novels or short stories) and we thought it would be cool to have something we all contributed to.

Are there any other writing projects you’re currently working on that you wouldn’t mind telling us about?

I’m in the very early pre-planning stages for my next project, a YA fantasy about an undercover teen spy. I hope to start that one in January, but it’ll depend on when Shifter 3 is finished.

In your infinite spare time, what games are you playing these days (from the plugged in our even unplugged variety)?

Just finished Settlers 7, and I’m eagerly awaiting Fable 3 (I’ll have to fight my husband for the controller). I’m currently playing Civilization 5 — when I have time. It’s been very busy with the new release. I still play WoW on occasion, and have gotten addicted to the card game Munchkin. I’m not sure which is more fun — playing or just reading the cards.

Are there any online games that have their hooks in you, or at the very least, you’ve got your eye on?

Nothing grabbing me at the moment, but I’m looking forward to DC Universe. The preview trailer looked amazing, and I hope the game is just as good. I could really use a new MMO to dive into.

Last time you provided us with a wonderful story from your EverQuest days. Would you happen to have another gaming anecdote up your sleeve you wouldn’t mind sharing?

Let’s see… I think all my best stories are from my EQ days. One night, we were with the guild doing a raid in Howling Stones. I was playing my enchanter, and the guild was trying really hard to get me this beautiful green robe off one of the bosses there. We’d been at it a while, and were in between spawns medding up and taking a much needed break.

Our tank had to log out for a minute to fix a glitch. My husband came up with the great idea for everyone to run around the corner and hide so when the tank came back, he’d be all alone in a room about to pop nasty skeletons and undead. I think we even had to clear the hallway to do it, so we were rushing to kill off the baddies before he could reboot.

We make it and the tank logs back in practically seconds later. It’s quiet, then we see…”uh guys? Helllllooo? Where’d everybody go!” We all come charging around the corner and for just a second he thinks he’s being mobbed by a train. He was about ready to kill us. I wish we’d had Vent back then, because hearing him actually call out for everyone would have been hysterical. 

He eventually forgave us. And I got my new robe! Even if our tank kept pretending to loot it just to get back at me. But we kinda earned that.

Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with? 

Blue Fire is in stores now, and the paperback of book one, The Shifter, is also out. You can order both through my website or visit any bookstore on or offline.  You can even read an excerpt from book one here.

Thank you, Janice.

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Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Matt Drake

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 14, 2010

Matt Drake is the author of the board game blog, Drake’s Flames.  Not exactly one to mince words, Matt discusses his blog, the board gaming hobby, his life-long affair with it, and the variety of gaming he tends to enjoy these days.  This interview reads like one big Hallmark greeting card.  Enjoy.

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Would you mind describing what your blog, Drake’s Flames, happens to be about?

I started writing game reviews around 2000, mostly because a friend of mine was scoring free White Wolf splat books for writing crappy reviews for, and I figured that if he could do it, I could. After a few years of grinding out reviews for scraps, I thought writing for a print rag would make me legit, so I wrote for Knucklebones Magazine for the entire time they were in business.

But the thing I discovered as I was writing for money was that it sucked to have an editor (though I’m sure some of my readers would maintain that I could use one now, especially the anal-retentive jackholes at BoardGameGeek who come down with bouts of chronic constipation every time I use the word ‘retarded’). I wanted to write my way, no holds barred, entertaining and readable and a little bit crass. There are enough dry, mechanical, antiseptic reviews out there already. I wanted to have something fun.

So that’s what I did with Drake’s Flames. Granted, my kind of fun includes whiskey, fistfights and women of low moral character, but I like it, and if nobody else does, well, there’s no gun to their head. I figured that if there were people out there like me, at least a few people would follow along and we could have fun together.

That was three years ago. I’m still having fun. Sometimes I write about other stuff I’ve done, like playing paintball or visiting a botanical garden, and sometimes I just rant about things that irritate me. I try like hell to update three times a week, and I review a lot of games. I don’t always get them for free, and there’s a good-sized stack of publishers who hang up if I call them (don’t call a game a transvestite if you’re not ready to get a little bit blacklisted). But as long as I’m still having fun, I don’t see a reason not to do it.  And I am having fun.

With the huge variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why board games?

Board games are fun. You can hang out with your friends, stretch the ol’ brainpower, and sometimes play out a story. There are thousands of games to choose from, so unless you have the mental acuity of a carrier pigeon, you can find something you’ll enjoy. Of course, just because I like board games doesn’t mean that’s all I play. I play traditional card games, sports every now and then, bar games, video games, and even the occasional roleplaying game. I like everything. So why play board games? Hell, why not?

What was your introduction to the genre?

My old man was a gamer from way back. I have been playing games since before I can remember. I learned how to play chess before I finished first grade (though I didn’t beat my dad until I was in junior high). I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like games. I cut my teeth on Risk and Space Invaders. My introduction to games started before I learned how to walk.

Would you say there was a pivotal moment or perhaps a game that turned you into a board game enthusiast?

No, there wasn’t one single event, outside being born to a family that played a lot of games. We played Canasta and poker and Monopoly, and I picked up all the wacky hobby-style games I could get my hands on. I used to play wargames with my old man when I was in high school. No one thing made me a game nerd. It would take a lynchpin event to make me give it up, though.

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

I once got a few hundred game nerds riled up when I said that real men play games where people die, but just because it made some people a little menstrual doesn’t mean it’s not true. I like games that recreate violence, though my favorites are dungeon crawls. These aren’t always fantasy games, either – Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel had cybernetic commandos storming demon HQ with machine guns, and Space Hulk is all about a team of armored marines taking on hideous aliens in a derelict starship. But games like HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest are definitely ripped right out of a bad D&D novel, with orcs and wizards and very angry barbarians, and those are some of my all-time favorites. You get to kill a ludicrous number of bad guys, and tell a story at the same time (though it does tend to be a rather short and brutal story).

Of course, the games I just mentioned are out of print and hard to find, but there are still people making cool dungeon crawlers. Incursion has Nazi zombies in an underground lab, and Claustrophobia brings back the demons with a very non-standard hunt through the tunnels of Hell. In Last Night on Earth, the dungeon is the whole town, and you spend the game battling the mindless walking dead in a game that plays out like a B-rated zombie movie. You can score all of those right now, and if you shop at the right stores, you can get them way below retail.

Who do you tend to play with and how often do you play?

I have two teenage kids and a wife, and we break out games all the time. We’ll spend one night taking turns playing console games (my wife is playing Fable II, my daughter likes Animal Crossing, and my son and I are playing Midnight Club: LA). Then the next night we’ll break out Defenders of the Realm or Dominion or whatever else we’re enjoying at the time, and spend a couple hours completely unplugged (unless I get an email on my Blackberry or my daughter is busy texting her friends).

I also have a group that meets every Saturday, created for the exclusive purpose of helping me play the games I have to review. One really good friend is my go-to guy for two-player games, but everyone in the group is a really good sport. We have played some absolutely horrible games, and aside from the profanity you might expect when playing a game so ugly and boring that you would rather have a colonoscopy than play another turn, everybody just takes it in stride.

Do you happen to collect board games? If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

Well, I have a lot of games, but I don’t exactly collect them. They show up at my house and I play them, and then they stay there because I don’t get around to donating them to the Boys & Girls Club until I start having to store them under the sofa. I probably have a few hundred games in my office right now, but that’s just because I haven’t purged in a while. I don’t collect games, exactly. I just keep the ones I like.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Supplementing is kind of an odd choice of words. It sounds like I take a regular dose of board games, and sometimes use video games as a suppository. It’s not like that at all. I play whatever I want. I like board games, and I like collectible card games, and roleplaying games, and basketball and baseball and video games. In fact, I’ve reviewed several video games for Drake’s Flames, including GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption.  If I had to choose one kind of game over all the others, I would find the guy making me choose and punch him in the kidney until he peed blood. Then I would play whatever the hell I want.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Why on Earth would I feel guilty? It’s not like I’m cheating on board games. If I start banging hookers, I’ll feel guilty for cheating on my wife, but games don’t give a crap. You can’t hurt a game’s feelings. Play what you like, and if anyone gives you grief for it, tell him to blow a goat.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

There’s no reason I can imagine why anyone would have to choose one form of entertainment over another, unless one is wicked expensive or illegal. Like, if your ideal good time is an eight-ball and Swedish twins charging $1000 a night in a motel that charges by the hour, that might be a good reason to stick with board games. But if I want to spend Saturday playing in a softball league, Saturday night sniping chumps in Halo, and Sunday afternoon playing Cosmic Encounter with my family, I can’t see a downside.

If you were surrounded by a group of diehard video gamers at a cocktail party and they discovered your board gaming tendencies, what would you tell them about the genre in its defense as you were dangled head first over the balcony?

I would say, “If my Blackberry falls out of my shirt pocket and breaks, one of you assholes is going to take a beating.” Then I would tell them to mind their own business.  That, or they could come out on Saturday and play a game with me. I don’t defend board gaming because I don’t see a reason I should. I don’t like watching football, but it doesn’t mean I have a problem with grown-ass men who paint their faces and throw bowls of popcorn when overpaid, felonious strangers in shoulder pads manage to catch a pigskin on television. If that’s their bag, it’s none of my business.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic games, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

a flaming Matt Drake

I’m not saying board games are as good as sex, but for the sake of argument, let’s say people all over the world suddenly have free access to USB-connected vibrators that interact with their online porn. Would the human race suddenly quit having sex? No! It just means there would be a jump in the sale of water-based lube and antibacterial soap. People don’t quit doing what they like just because there’s something else they like.

There are literally hundreds of board games released every year. Just counting releases from the top ten publishers, you’re looking at a steady release schedule of 10-20 games a month, and if you add in the small press entrepreneurs and the up-and-comers, that number more than doubles. GenCon and BGG Con attract larger crowds every year, and both feature an astounding number of board games. The hobby isn’t in any danger.  Board games are fun. Just because you like playing Final Fantasy MCXXXVII doesn’t mean you can’t still get a kick out of a game of Agricola.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to give the board gaming hobby a try?

Most of America already plays board games. Try and find someone who never played Monopoly, or Sorry, or Risk. Everybody knows Chutes & Ladders or Candyland, even though both of those are horrible games. If someone really wants to try board games, they probably already have. Find some games and play them. That’s a good place to start.



Matt tends to speak his mind.

With his knack for colorful language and countless sexual references, Grinding to Valhalla should benefit quite nicely from increased traffic due to keyword searching.


Matt tends to speak his mind.

Not for those who don’t enjoy whiskey, fistfights and woman of low moral character.

If you’re easily offended and made it this far, chances are you’ve already read the entire interview and are scarred for life.

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