Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pre-writing for National Novel Writing Month 2014, Part 3

Note: I plan on publishing this as it's written through or some other platform, so if you want to be surprised, this is your cue to leave.


I have occasional problems with keeping characterization consistent, especially if I don't start with a clear idea in my head about who they are. This is an attempt to pin everyone in place before the story starts, in order from most important to least important.


Henry is a dark wizard, the adopted son of two dark wizards who tried to sacrifice him before deciding that they just couldn't do it. At the heart of his character is the question about how to be good, and the distinction between "dark" and "evil". His primary motivation is in trying to find his birth parents, which is really a proxy for discovering his place in the world, which turns out to be as a dark wizard of sorts, just how he was raised - dark, but not evil. He is one of the two primary characters.

Physical Description: Henry has curly blonde hair that he's constantly messing with and light blue eyes. He has a slender build, in part because he doesn't do much in the way of physical exercise (before acquiring a magical sword, that is). He has thin, deft fingers. He has a slightly crooked nose. He tends to move quickly, when he sets his mind to doing something. In a fight, he relies more on speed than brute strength, though also uses magic more than either of those. He tends to wear simple clothing, and has an affection for straps and pockets to keep his possessions with him.

Personality: Henry is smart and inquisitive. He's sometimes too boundlessly energetic for his own good. He tries his best to do what's right, but that's not always so clear. He tends to think things through and then follow his plans. His primary fault is a desire for acceptance and love, and a certain bluntness that people can find off-putting. His primary fear is being abandoned.


Sofia is a princess, the youngest child of the king. She was the subject of a prophecy when she was young that has seemingly doomed her.

Physical Description: Sofia has long red hair that she tucks behind her ears and dark green eyes. She has skinny legs, and stands taller than most girls her age. She has a smattering of freckles across her cheeks. She walks with purpose wherever she goes, and acts as though she'd deliberated on what she's doing even if she's making things up on the fly. In a fight, she'll stand at the back with a bow and arrow, but if she's in the thick of it, she'll go for fearless attacks at vulnerable places. She tends to wear light, breezy dresses, and goes barefoot whenever possible.

Personality: Sofia is brave and kind. She is taken by whims, which she tends to follow as though it were the only natural thing to do. She can be stubborn and brash, but she has a kind heart. Her primary fault is being insecure about her position in the royal hierarchy. Her primary fear is dark magic, but she has a distrust of magic in general.

Omake and Hirrush

Omake and Hirrush are Henry's adoptive parents. The story begins as they're about to sacrifice a baby (which is more played for laughs than horror). I haven't quite decided what it is that they hoped to accomplish by sacrificing him, but it needs to have been something that you could almost believe is worth it - maybe some piece of complex magic that will ensure health and prosperity for everyone in their section of the kingdom. By the time the story proper starts (when Henry is a teenager and ready to set off into the world) they have come to accept that they aren't willing to ever make that kind of sacrifice.

Physical Description: Omake is a large bear of a man with a thick black beard and thinning hair. Hirrush is thin and lanky. Their days of wearing dark robes are long past them, and they mostly wear workmanlike clothes that are good for doing the duties around the farm. Though they aren't proper farmers, they do care for a number of animals, and have a large garden. They both tend to smell earthy - Omake like wood, and Hirrush like animal furs.

Personality: Omake and Hirrush have balanced against each other in terms of personality. Omake is the optimist of the two of them, while Hirrush is the designated pessimist. Omake is the talker, while Hirrush tends to stay silent. Hirrush is more likely to be cautious and paranoid, where Omake tends to take more risks and assume the best of people.


Rowan is Sofia's brother, and the primary antagonist, though this isn't revealed until perhaps halfway through the book. I'm slightly worried about not setting up this conflict early on, so maybe he'll get a few viewpoint chapters as breathers every once and a while, to set up his turn and the primary plot in the second half of the book.

Physical Description: Rowan has a slender build and the same red hair as Sofia, though his is cropped short. Though he doesn't know it until later on, he is only her half-brother, which I suppose means that their mother (long departed) must have had red hair for the common genetics. He has small eyes, and a languorous demeanor. His naturally pale skin is made moreso by his tendency to stay inside and bury his nose in books. He wears half-moon spectacles that get discarded once he's used dark magic to correct his vision. Later on, he begins to transform himself with dark magics and becomes more powerful and fearsome.

Personality: Rowan is quiet and introspective. In a lot of ways, he's a mirror of Henry. He never had the love of his father, and his mother died fairly early in his life. Though he doesn't know it, he's a bastard born of the king's brother and the king's wife, and this has caused a good amount of tension in his relationship with the king (actually his uncle, not his father). Rowan has a strong desire to prove himself, which never seems to go quite right. He has a strong sense of inferiority that stems from watching his older brother. Because he's bookish and inquisitive, most of his efforts at proving himself revolve around intellectual pursuits, which never really please anyone. He comes to legitimately believe that he could do a better job running the kingdom (and he possibly even has a point, though I'm not entirely sure what problems the kingdom might have - maybe stagnation).

The Hunting Party

These are the secondary antagonists though the early part of the book. They consist of: Constance, a 90-year-old Foresworn Sister tasked with tracking down Henry, Miriam, a much younger Foresworn Sister who gets roped along into tracking down Henry after he comes to her orphanage, as she's the only one that knows what he looks like, and Ventor, a High Rector tasked with bringing the wayward princess back the capital. They don't start out together, but end up as travelling companions after running into each other and realizing that the two must be traveling together (which I think might be the end of the first act).

Constance is a old woman, short and stooped with grey hair and wrinkled skin. She also happens to be the single most powerful denialist known to Donkerk, though you wouldn't know it to look at her. She could punch straight through solid steel, catch a sword in her bare hands, and make a running jump of a hundred feet. For these incredible powers, she has taken a vow of silence, a vow of chastity, a vow of poverty, a vow of purity, and a vow of austerity, all of which she's kept faithfully since the age of 12. She is solid and unyielding, and stern insofar as her silence allow her to be. She speaks mostly in gestures and facial expressions.

Miriam came to the Foresworn Sisters late by their standards, at the age of seventeen, just a few years ago. She has taken the vow of purity and the vow of austerity, which marks her as a lesser Sister. She works at the orphanage that Henry was taken from, which is how she ends up mixed up in all this business. Because she hasn't taken the vow of silence, she often serves as the voice for the higher Sisters within her area. She has few of the powers that come with denialism, both because of how short of a time it's been since she took the oaths, and because she has taken few of the vows. She is thicker around the waist, and keeps her brown hair back in elaborate braids. In terms of personality, she is friendly and kind, but more tentative and indecisive than perhaps she should be, and defers to others too often.

Ventor is a member of the High Rectory, and tall man with an imposing musculature and a thick mustache who is bound more tightly with oaths than nearly anyone else in the whole of Donkerk. The most important of these is the oath of fealty to the King of Donkerk, which compels him to obey commands given by the King. Ventor is slightly unhinged, a man of great passions that he keeps tightly restrained. He wears a sacred armor given to him by the Rectory which he never removes, and which wicks away sweat and obviates any need for removal, which makes him far more formidable and has allowed him to take on more oaths than he would otherwise be able to. He doesn't eat, but he still feels hunger. He doesn't drink, but he still feels thirst.


By far the weakest part of the current plotting is the part between where Henry and Sofia meet up and head north, and the part where the crown teleports to her and they head south. I'll hopefully have put together a psuedocode version of the story by the time November rolls around, but right now I'm thinking that Henry is going to find his birth parents and Sofia is trying to make her life a little less magical - that, or she wants to become part of the Foresworn Sisters in order to avoid part of the prophecy about her. That's the most likely place that an important secondary character would be introduced.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pre-writing for National Novel Writing Month 2014, Part 2

Note: I plan on publishing this as it's written through or some other platform, so if you want to be surprised, this is your cue to leave.


I love magic, mostly because I love things that break the universe in various ways. Magic is a fairly difficult thing to get right though. Sanderson's first law of magic is "An author's ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic." Because both of the main characters of this story will be magic users, a fair amount of the conflict will be solved through magic, which means that this is something that needs to be pinned down now in pre-writing so that I don't bumble into problems during NaNo. Ideally, every aspect of the magic systems is a Chekov's gun that gets fired in the final act, where every trick is used and the story completes its circle. In the kingdom of Donkerk, where the story takes place, there are several varieties of magic. What follows is, in part, a design doc for me to consult when I need to remember something while writing.


The world is filled with spirits. While some small fraction of them take a physical form, it's generally accepted that for every one that's seen there are a thousand that are invisible and intangible. The physical spirits generally get divided into house spirits, which live in houses or buildings (generally one for each), and animal spirits, which live in the woods or fields. House spirits usually cobble themselves together from discarded or broken things around the house, while animal spirits usually take some variation on an animal, or some combination of animals. With that said, the spirits are wildly varied, and any time you might try to make a rule about what spirits are like, you'd also have to add a string of caveats and exceptions. The people of Donkerk generally have a copacetic relationship with the spirits. Having a house spirit is considered a boon, and killing an animal spirit is deeply taboo (mostly because they tend to come back angry).

A person with a deep connection to the spirits is called a spirit caller. While almost none of the spirits can speak, a spirit caller has a certain empathy with the spirits which allows them befriend the spirits and to soothe the troubled ones. Sofia, the female lead, is a spirit caller, though she is only distantly aware of it where the story starts. In times of need, she can call on the aid of the spirits, but they don't like to be called to do too much. In terms of setting up Chekov's guns for the finale, Sofia will meet and befriend a number of spirits that will help in the final showdown - their abilities and natures will be shown along the way.


This is the variety of magic that's all about giving up one thing for another. It's my take on goats and chickens being sacrificed in a pentacle of blood under the light of black candles. One of the major planned themes of the book is that "dark is not evil". Killing a chicken to cure a woman's infertility is dark, but it's not evil, and much of the taboo around this form of magic is simply superstition.

The power of a sacrifice is dependent on how much value there is in the thing that's being sacrificed, though of course "value" is rather subjective. Many books have been written on the nature of these trades, and if you were approaching the subject from the position of a modern man, you would probably have trading tables and exchange rates with all the variances calculated in. The dark mages of Donkerk instead consult a large number of tomes which tell them the circumstances that affect the power of a sacrifice, as well as dubious lists of information about what might be pulled from a sacrifice.

Generally speaking, sacrifice is tiered. Plants are worth less than animals, which are in turn worth less than humans. Material objects can also be sacrificed, with raw materials being worth less than finished goods - a lump of metal is worth less than a dagger, which is in turn worth less than a jeweled dagger crafted by a master. The simplest forms of sacrifism involve simply breaking or ruining a thing as part of the exchange, while more complex and powerful forms of the magic require a proper ritual to make the barter. Permanent sacrifices are worth much, much more than temporary ones - a lock of hair or a clipping of a nail produces a very small effect, where a sacrifice of bone or a life has the absolute greatest effect.

The effects of sacrifism fall into a number of categories (which are only loose descriptions that blur around the edges). The most important of these is warding, which is a protective magic. The smallest of wards can be done with a lock of hair, and will only hold a door shut for a few good pushes, while the largest of wards could completely lock away an acre of woods from sight, sound, and physical trespass at the cost of the lives of a hundred innocents. Wards can block all manner of things, and are highly useful to that purpose.

The second large class of sacrificial magic is bodily modification. Usually, this means healing wounds, fixing afflictions, or extending the life of the dark wizard. However, there are also much more evil uses of this class of trade, such as creating monsters out of animals or even people. There are also weirder applications, like replacing your arms with tentacles or lining your back with bone spurs. The thing to keep in mind is that sacrifism is all about trades, which means that you might be able to make a favorable arrangement, but you're unlikely to get out more than you put in (though you can use outside materials in order to make these trades).


The world is divided into three realms. The Physical Realm is where the animals, plants, and the bodies of people are located. The Spiritual Realm is where the spirits live when they haven't taken a corporeal form. The Mental Realm is where minds live. While the Spiritual Realm is barred to all but the most powerful of spirit callers, the Mental Realm is fairly easy for someone with a little knowledge and some small amount of skill to get to.

The Mental Realm is not really a place per se - it's more an interconnected set of cognitive spaces. Each is, essentially, a memory palace taken to the extreme and made very literal. Every person has their own mental domain, which reflects their psyche in different ways, and changes as their mind changes (attachments are made, memories are formed, skills are acquired, etc.). The exact shape and character of the mentis locus (which is probably-not-correct-Latin for "place of the mind") vary from person to person. For some, it's a small, cramped place in the middle of an indistinct city, while for others, it's a secluded glen. The size of the domain varies wildly, though the more there is to the mind in question, the more room is needed for all of the representational objects.

Accessing the mentis locus takes some training and focus, but it gets easier with practice. Access to the locus can greatly improve memory if the mentalist gains a familiarity with where representational objects are within his mind. It can also be used for self-awareness, such as examining feelings or connections. Though mental modification is dangerous, and the locus is an imprecise place, some mentalists use access to their locus to force changes in the makeup of their mind, usually in the hopes of self-improvement. Making actual changes through physical force is difficult, and takes an extraordinary amount of will, and the easier way is to change your mind through more conventional means with the locus as an aid. With more training, you can inhabit the locus and the Physical Realm at the same time with divided attention, so that you can take advantage of being able to see inside your mind while at the same time carrying on a conversation.

It is also possible to invade another person's locus in order to make changes to it, though this takes an extraordinary amount of willpower and skill. It gets much easier if you can deliver one of a variety of poisons (or drugs) to your target in order to weaken the natural barriers around their locus, but the most powerful of mentalists can do it naturally - and at the very highest tiers, can even do it without their target knowing that an intrusion is being made. Once inside someone's locus, you can almost all of the things that you can do within your own locus, though the abstract nature of the Mental Realm along with the unfamiliar surroundings makes this quite difficult. In theory, anything is possible when you have access to a person's locus, from removing memories, to altering their interpersonal connections, to changing their emotions, but these things take varying levels of training, power, and natural talent.


Denialism is the other side of the coin of sacrifism. Where sacrifism revolves around seeking out a trade with the spirits, denialism revolves around attracting spirits to you. Sacrifists make a ritual (if only a simple one) in exchange for some boon, but denialists make a ritual (usually not so simple) with the understanding that if they continue through with certain restrictions they will be granted a boon. Sacrifice is like buying something, where denial is like taking out a loan.

In Donkerk, the denialists almost all belong to the Foresworn Sisters or the High Rectory. The form of denial that they usually take is mental in nature; they voluntarily restrict themselves from speech, from decadence, from violence, from sex, from alcohol, from autonomy, or some similar thing. The only thing keeping them from breaking these formalized oaths is the fact that they would lose the powers granted to them. A denialist pact can be broken at any moment, and breaking one breaks all of them. Denialist powers take a long time to grab hold, usually on the order of a year, but they grow in power the longer any given oath has been in place. For that reason, the oldest denialists are the most powerful, and the denialist organizations tend to take in children instead of fully grown adults. Denial is more powerful the higher the cost to you, meaning that abstaining from your favorite things gives you more power for your oath. Because of that, the most powerful denialist have very intense personalities, since a denialist that was indifferent to the world would be giving up relatively little with their oath (and at the same time, that type of person would probably be more likely to break their oath).

The boons granted by denialism vary somewhat from person to person, mostly because they're granted by spirits that cling to the denialist on the strengths and durations of their oaths. The simplest effects are enhanced strength, speed, and durability, which make denialists into superior warriors. There are other effects beyond those though, which tend to be more individual and customized to the denialist in question. Because (from a writing perspective) the denialists are mostly going to be secondary characters, I feel a lot less pressure to define the extent of these, but right now I'm thinking that they will mostly be fantasy-flavored superhero powers like telekinesis, teleportation, and flight. Because the denialists don't get granted any additional abilities over the course of the story (which takes place over too little time for them to gain more power), instead I think they'll stay circumspect in their use of powers and not bust them out until appropriately awesome moments.

Magic Items

Magic items are, for the most part, a physical instantiation of a spirit. Normally, spirits live in the Spiritual Realm and only have the barest contact with the physical. When they take form as a house spirit or an animal spirit, they've halfway bridged the gap between the two. When they form into a magical item, they've taken the final step towards physicality, and this is one of the only ways that a spirit can truly be ended - either of its own choice, or through the willful force of a powerful spirit caller.

Like the spirits themselves, items are wholly unique, and each follows its own logic. These are magic items that are magical, and each magical item that a person comes across should have its own block of text to describe its appearance and effects. The Crown of Donkerk sits atop the head of the rightful ruler of the kingdom, can't be lost, stolen, or broken, and confers an astounding control over the wearer's voice. The Sword of a Thousand Forms flickers and changes in combat, taking the shape that its wielder most needs to parry, stab, or cut. Some are smaller, and more subtle - a coin that turns up heads five times out of six, a locket that lets the wearer find the nearest body of water, or a length of rope that makes powerful knots and can carry ten times as much weight as it should. Sometimes these abilities are predicated on what type of item it is, but just as often you'll find a scissors that causes plants to grow faster or a blanket that freshens the air of whatever room it's in.

Other Magics

There are magics beyond those possessed by the main characters, any beyond those which have an impact on the story. To the south, on a series of islands in the Juniper Ocean, the eloists are granted spiritual powers by engaging in an enormous, yearly tournament. To the northwest, the Caliphate of Carcer practices a different form of denialism which involves the binding of the body and wrapping of the eyes. There are the rare and powerful elementalists, who seem to draw raw power from the Spiritual Realm, the trahiists that can temporarily pull objects from their locus into the Physical Realm, and the dream-walkers of the Scour. The world needs to be larger than the story, both to open up the possibility of a sequel, and to keep it from feeling claustrophobic (as it only takes place in a single kingdom). These other magics are only alluded to though, so they only need token mention.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Pre-writing for National Novel Writing Month 2014, Part 1

I've done National Novel Writing Month for the past few years, which results in a lot of writing but not much that's usable. I'm totally fine with that, since writing is a muscle that you have to build up over time, and this coming November I plan to take the challenge again. In the hopes of producing something that's actually usable, this year I intend to do a fair amount of planning, world-building, and character work ahead of time so that I end up with something a little more structured.


Note: I plan on publishing this as it's written through or some other platform, so if you want to be surprised, this is your cue to leave.

I'm planning to follow Dan Harmon's Story Circle and do a pretty linear narrative with relatively few viewpoints and two main characters. So, with that in mind, here's a plot breakdown.

1. A character is in a zone of comfort.

The first protagonist is Henry, a boy who's sixteen for the majority of the novel. The opening chapters detail him being raised by two dark wizards and a friendly witch, and serves to get some of the exposition out of the way. The second protagonist is Sofia, a princess who's sixteen for the majority of the novel. The opening chapters detail her being bossed around by her little brothers, walked around with the house spirit, and eventually getting kidnapped at the age of five (by Henry's parents).

2. Something ain't quite right

Henry is a gifted dark wizard with a whole bunch of prophecies swirling around him. He wants to know his real parents, and while he loves his fathers, wants to go off and have an adventure. Sofia doesn't particularly like being a princess, especially with the restrictions placed on her, and so has decided to see whether the Foresworn Sisters would be a good place for her to go.

3. Crossing the threshold

Henry gets the call to adventure in some way; another prophecy manifests, or an orphan runs away to the farm where they live, or just decides to run away. He goes to the orphanage that he was taken from, looks up his file, and then runs away when the Sister cottons on to the fact that he was the orphan that disappeared so many years ago. As he runs away, he bumps into Sofia, and follows her on an adventure (in part because he's smitten with her). (This threshold needs work - it should ideally be a transformative moment for both of them. Maybe for Sofia it's a dalliance with magic? Not wholly decided on whether Henry recognizes her from his childhood, but she for sure doesn't recognize him.)

4. The Road of Trials

They pair up and travel north, to where they both have business. Henry is searching out his birth parents, while Sofia is searching out magic (though she doesn't quite know it). There are a number of different types of magic within the world, and we get a taste of all of them. Naturally, the Sisters are chasing down Henry (since he's the child of prophecy) while the royal guard is chasing down Sofia (who is a princess on the lam). Eventually both of these subplots are resolved, and the pair make a clean getaway, having other adventures along the way and picking up new skills.

5. Meeting with the Goddess

Henry and Sofia have their idyllic time together. They fall in love all along the Road of Trials, but here they both feel it keenly - a throbbing, teenaged love that can scarcely be contained by their hearts. An unspecified amount of time has passed, perhaps a year. Just as things are going merrily along, the magical crown of Donkerk plops down on Sofia's head, marking her as the new Queen of Donkerk. Given that she has two older brothers and her father was alive and well when she last saw him, this is cause for alarm, and the pair decide to sneak back to the capital in order to find out what has happened.

6. Meet Your Maker

The villain behind the happenings has been revealed; it's Sofia's brother, an illegitimate prince of Donkerk. He arranged for his father and brother to die, thinking that the crown would pass to him (and not knowing that he was really a bastard). This is the reverse Road of Trails, and things happen more quickly as Sofia and Henry use their newfound powers in order to infiltrate the capital. Tensions are thick between them, especially since Sofia's brother seems to have transformed himself into (or revealed as) a dark wizard. They both get beaten, hard, and barely escape with their lives. Maybe one of them gets captured.

7.  Bringing It Home

Sofia and Henry (or possibly only one of them if there's been a capture) return to the farm where Henry's parents live in order to get help from them. Sofia attunes herself to her magical side. Henry finds a new reading to the prophecies that have dominated his life, or possibly finally learns the truth about his birth parents - some mundane truth rather than something world-shaking. They gather up what they need, and make a second assault on the capital.

8. Master of Both Worlds

This is the final showdown. The full wealth of magics are interacting with each other here, and new and powerful abilities are put on display. Dark (but not evil) wizards fight alongside paladins that move with lightning speed. There's a final showdown, with a monologue from the heroes, and in the end, when the villain has been defeated, they get married and Henry becomes the King of Donkerk. There are (possibly literal) fireworks.

In sum, Sofia's character arc is that she's afraid of being different and feels trapped, but eventually finds herself and uses that newfound power and freedom to win the day. Henry's character arc is that he feels like he has to hide who he really is, and feels a lack of love in his life, but eventually finds that love (and later acceptance) in Sofia, and through her, the rest of the kingdom.

And that's Part 1. More on this later as I continue to organize my thoughts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Charting Advantage and Disadvantage in D&D 5th Edition

There are a lot of things that I really like about 5th edition, and one of those things is advantage and disadvantage. In D&D, the primary conflict resolution mechanic is the rolling of a twenty-sided die. Roll the d20, and see if you hit some target number. Modifiers to that roll (and to the target number) reflect how good you are at that task and how difficult that task is. In previous editions, that was more or less all there was - you got a modifier for being behind soft cover, lost some modifiers for being caught unaware, and so on and so forth. 5th edition changes this, by introducing advantage and disadvantage.

  • If you have advantage, roll two d20s and take the higher of the two.
  • If you have disadvantage, roll two d20s and take the lower of the two.
Many of the modifiers have been thrown out in favor of this mechanic, in part so that there's less math involved. But what does this do to the numbers?

The Numbers

First off, it's important to note that advantage is not strictly better than a numerical bonus. If your target number is really high or really low, you're probably better off with the +2 (the default modifier for anything). In almost all other circumstances though, advantage is the bigger bonus. On the other hand, disadvantage also has a much bigger impact, and if you're not doing something that's trivial or impossible, it's the equivalent of a -4 to -5 negative modifier.

I've always lamented the fact that D&D lacks probability curves, which are one of the few things that dice are really good at generating. This helps to make the odds of success and failure more realistic.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Odds of surviving unconsciousness in D&D 5th Edition

So the new edition of D&D came out today, or at least the Basic Rules, which is more than enough to begin actually playing. When you get hit for enough damage to knock you down to 0 hp, you need to make death saving throws.
  1. If you roll a 20, you are back to 1hp
  2. If you roll a 19-10, you have one success. Three of these and you become stable.
  3. If you roll a 9-2, you have one failure. Three of these and you become dead.
  4. If you roll a 1, it counts as two failures.
There are no modifiers to these rolls at all, so it's just a matter of straightforward probability. There are a total of nine different ways to live:
  1. Roll two successes, then roll a natural 20 or a third success
  2. Roll two successes and a failure in any order, then roll a natural 20 or a third success
  3. Roll a natural 20
  4. Roll two successes and two failures in any order, then roll a natural 20 or a third success
  5. Roll a success, then roll a natural 20
  6. Roll a failure, then roll a natural 20
  7. Roll a success and a failure in any order, then roll a natural 20
  8. Roll two failures, then roll a natural 20
  9. Roll two successes and a natural 1 in any order, then roll a natural 20 or a third success
  10. Roll a success and two failures, then roll a natural 20
  11. Roll a natural 1, then roll a natural 20
  12. Roll a success and a natural 1 in any order, then roll a natural 20
You may be thinking that this order seems a bit strange, but it's actually in roughly the order of probabilities.
  1. One way to do this, 13.75%
  2. Three ways to do this, 5.5% each, for a total of 16.5%
  3. One way to do this, 5%
  4. Six ways to do this, 2.2% each, for a total of 13.2%
  5. One way to do this, 2.5%
  6. One way to do this, 2%
  7. Two ways to do this, 1% each, for a total of 2%
  8. One way to do this, 0.8%
  9. Three ways to do this, 0.69% each, for a total of 2.06%
  10. Three ways to do this, 0.4% each, for a total of 1.2%
  11. One way to do this, 0.25%
  12. Two ways to do this, 0.13% each, for a total of 0.25%
Add all of those probabilities together, and you get the probability that you will survive falling unconscious in 5th edition; 59.51%. (Note: And numbers that seem off above are because everything was rounded to the nearest hundredth of a percent for this post, but the calculations of the numbers were done in Excel.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

State of My Various Writing Projects, Pt. 2

That this subject needs a part two is surely proof something - either self-doubt or my inability to stay engaged with something for very long. Here are the other things sitting in my various Google Docs folders:

The Time Detectives

I love time travel. It's one of my favorite fictional concepts. The elevator pitch is that in the near-future time travel has become excessively commonplace. The original version of this was written the very first year I did NaNo, which was in 2010. It stunk, mostly because I fell into the trap of writing more and more viewpoint characters every time I decided to end a scene. In the end, there was the soldier who went touring with his pet robot, the detective who was trying to solve a murder, the writer who was coming back from a colony on Mars, the junkie whose time travel get-rich-quick scheme had fallen through, the teenage girl who'd gone back in time to save her father, the young guy whose plans to travel back to Edo Japan had been dashed, and probably one or two others. All that in about 36,000 words - or about a third of a regular novel (I didn't win that year either). I believe that I had recently read The Stand by Stephen King, and heard that his method of writing it was to simply end every chapter on a cliffhanger and then introduce a new character. Perhaps I'd only read part of that book, because now I see it as a very flawed piece of writing.

There was far too much going on. I still liked the worldbuilding I had done though - I liked extrapolating from a relatively simple concept and charting out all of the changes that it made in the world - and so decided to take the single thread that I'd liked best and try to turn that into its own thing. The title of that is Detective Jones and the Murder that Wasn't, which I really like as a title. It's sitting at 8,000 words and probably won't be touched again until I've binged on some detective stories. I stopped right about when I realized that I was writing in a genre that I don't actually read, namely a mystery novel. Worse, I was playing with the standard format, which I think you really don't want to do when you don't have the background knowledge. The plot is pretty simple - the title protagonist is trying to solve a murder that hasn't happened yet. It's just a matter of the twists and turns that the plot takes in getting to its resolution. Since I've basically admitted ignorance on this subject (and haven't worked on this one for nine months now) it's questionable whether I'll ever get back to it. In the meantime, I've written some short fiction in the setting with the same characters in order to get more of a feel for it.

Robot, Wizard, Vampire

I wrote 20,000 words of this in March and then more or less haven't looked back. Someone on Facebook had said that including these three things in the same setting violated some principle of world-building, and I disagreed and then started writing this. The premise is that there have been two secret societies in the world for a long time, fighting a secret war with each other, until eventually the vampires find a cure for their sunlight problem and take over the world. The story begins about three years later, when a trio of young wizards have managed to create a robot through a combination of technology and magic. Also, the whole thing is set during the 1970s in New York City.

At the time, I was thinking that it was just trashy enough to work. Wizards, robots, and vampires all fighting together? So long as you could get past the initial hurdle of suspension of disbelief inherent in the first chapter (wherein a member of the Sanguine Senate is staked through the heart by a robot forged from arcane knowledge) it would offer plenty of awesomeness. This one actually has a decent outline - something I've been trying to do more often - but eventually I realized that I hadn't nailed down the magic system enough, and really needed to do that before I continued on. That more or less stalled me out, because I didn't really find the magic system to be all that fun. It was supposed to be a perfect match for making robots, but just ... I don't know. Even talking about it now I lose enthusiasm. I guess the proper thing to do would be to write out what magic can and cannot do and then go back to it. The plot has enough twists and turns to be interesting. and it's got a vaguely young adult feel to it - though I'm sure it's a little more ultra-violent than it would be if I were actually on contract to write that book.

Oh, and two of the three teenage wizards are William (Gates) and Steve (Jobs), which is never spelled out in the text but what I thought was a neat easter egg.

Dark Tidings

I wrote a first chapter for this, which I really loved, and two other scenes, which I also really loved, but I'm having a lot of trouble making more of it. The first chapter shows two dark wizards on the eve of a full moon, getting ready to sacrifice a child they stole from an orphanage and finding that he's simply too cute. Eventually they end up raising him. It's a fantasy comedy.

The big problem here is that I'm really not that funny. I don't think that I can do a comedy, since when I look at something like Terry Pratchett I see that there's something funny on nearly every page. That seems like it would take a hugely disproportionate amount of effort on my part to emulate. The worldbuilding for the setting is fantastic and I think lends a lot of humor to the proceedings, but I'm not sure that I can actually write comedy - just as I'm not sure that I can write mystery. Drama seems to be much more my thing.

I do work on this one only when I'm feeling funny, which is not a particularly good way to build up the "being funny when you're not feeling funny" muscle. It's also resulted in a scattering of chapters all over the place without connective tissue. The plot follows the young boy who was raised by the dark wizards as he tries to find his place in the world. He meets (and falls in love with) a princess, and there's a bunch of prophecy, mistaken identity, and things of that nature throughout. Also battle nuns. It sits at around 15,000 words.

Mostly I wish that someone else would write what's in my head so I could read it.

Pax Arcana

This is another bit of fantasy. There's a large cabal of extremely powerful wizards who exert control over the entire world, and have maintained a peace for hundreds of years. Magic in this setting is extremely powerful but takes an enormous toll, and so the cabal keeps its position mostly through the sacrifice of its individual members. This was a case of me inventing a magic system first and writing a story second - something that I really love to do, since extrapolation from some baseline is a thing that I really like.

This story was actually started twice. The first time, it was a single person's viewpoint, a childhood as told through the eyes of a wizard who had given up many of his memories to fuel his magic. I liked that, but felt that it moved a bit too slow, and besides that the story wasn't really about the wizard, it was about the falling apart of the long peace that the wizards have maintained. You can't use up five chapters on mage school and a discovery of magical talent if none of that plays into the plot. So I rewrote it to feature some more viewpoint characters, with the chapters of the wizard growing up as flashback chapters. My biggest problem was that I didn't (and still don't) know where the plot is going. A wizard defects, and another wizard is sent to chase him. Both are damaged creatures, with much of themselves given up to fuel the magic. I know it ends with the cabal either destroyed or utterly changed, but I don't know how it gets there.


There are others, of course, things that don't have their own folders, or things that I just started writing with no clear end in mind. Everything else is below ten thousand words, which is about the point where I say to myself "alright, I'm serious about this one". There's the one where a small group of adventurers travel to more and more magical lands as their journey continues. There's on that involves the wizards in charge of wiping memories from the muggles and maintaining the Masquerade - something that may no longer be possible with the advent of the home video recorder. There's floating islands and robots that write novels and all manner of half-finished thoughts that make it a paragraph or two before petering out.

I really do need to learn how to finish things, but I think my biggest hurdle right now is the lack of feedback.

Friday, May 16, 2014

State of My Various Writing Projects

I like to write, but I have a problem with starting new projects and not finishing them. It's not that I lose interest, it's more that I write and write until my head gets all turned around and I have no idea whether what I've just written is any good. Sometimes I'll know just how to edit things in order to get them to a better place, but it's always difficult for me to work on a project that I'm second-guessing myself on. Here is a post-mortem of the various projects that I've got sitting in folders, most of which are in half-completed states. I would call it a post-mortem, but I don't consider most of these projects to be dead.

The Timewise Tales

This was NaNoWriMo 2013, and is currently the closest thing I've ever gotten to writing a full book. Right now it's sitting at just under 90,000 words, which is of a publishable length. The building action and climax have all been written, and the only thing that remains is to write another chapter or two that wraps things up. Most of the falling action is already in place, actually. The story is about time travel, and uses the "stable time loop" version of it; history is set in place, and immutable. There are three principle point-of-view characters. Issah is a scholar who is more or less unhappy with the hand that fate has tossed him, as he learns early on that he'll lose one of his eyes and there's nothing that he can do about it. Wendel is the son of a cobbler who spends much of the book having adventures and seeking out his lost love, Ellebeth. Ellebeth gets caught up in a time storm early on and her story is more or less an exploration of that concept.

So here's one of the big problems I have - I always have to start my description with "So there's this thing called a time storm that rearranges people and places in a timewise fashion. When it hits a city, it leaves behind a jumble of buildings and a group of people who are mutually unintelligible owing to a difference in language, from which follow plagues and chaos." That's much more of a mouthful than I really want to give before even getting to the plot of the book. All three main characters get caught up in one of these time storms, Ellebeth and Wendel get separated, Wendel and Issah discover they have a limited ability to walk through time, and then the rest of the book is about Wendel working against time itself to get back to his lady love, Issah trying to live happily while knowing with certainty that things will turn out poorly for himself, and Ellebeth forging her own fate in a destroyed city. But I can't really explain that without first explaining that there is this thing called a time storm, and that's a problem because I worry that people's eyes glaze over before I've even gotten to any of the characters.

Here's one of the other big problems I have - two of the three characters don't do a whole lot. Ellebeth forges ahead and rises to a position of power in the melded city left behind by a time storm, and that's all fine because she's learning and growing as a person. Wendel is just trying to get back to her - that's his primary motivation in life, and what he spends years doing, in sort of a deconstruction of going to incredible length for true love, but since the winds of fate are against him, there's not a lot for him to do. He comes across this ballad written about his search for Ellebeth, and tries to do everything in it, which takes up the bulk of his action, but I worry that he's lacking in actual agency, since he learns early on that he won't see Ellebeth for a decade or more - it's like he's going through the motions. And Issah doesn't want much more in life than to read books and learn things, but he's fated not to by his own nature. So for Issah and Wendel, I worry that they're not following proper character arcs, and that their involvement with time removes some of the aspects of proper characterization from them. They both behave in very human ways, but I'm not sure that it's clear that it's building anywhere.

The beginning needs to be reworked some, to more properly set up the principle characters, and I need to go back and edit for continuity because everything wraps in on itself in paradoxical ways. But there's a good chance that after some proper distance I'll come back to this one and edit it into something that works properly as a book, which I could sell to an agent. I really wish it had a better elevator pitch.

The Wayward Souls

Detective Jan-Fong dies, and two hundred years later his soul gets put into a new body so that he can help solve the attempted murder of the king.

See? That's a proper elevator pitch. It has a hook, and the whole plot is set up. You know from just that sentence that the book is probably going to end when the murder of the king is solved. That's one of the things that I like a lot about this one. It's sitting at 46,000 words right now, with the plot on its way to conclusion with a few twists and turns left, but I think that when finished it will be much, much more marketable that The Timewise Tales.

The book takes place in a Chinese-inspired fantasy setting of my own design where the soul is a clearly visible small white thing that pops out of your mouth when you die and dissipates into the air in a few minutes unless stored in a glass bottle. It's a fish-out-of-water story in a lot of ways, since in the two hundred years that Jan-Fong has been dead there have been two different revolutions within the Golden Empire, and huge advances in technology. The Golden Empire is undergoing a sort of an industrial revolution fueled by crushed up souls, and the technology to take a soul out of a body without inducing death is a new one, along with the ability to put a soul into a new body. Further complicating matters is that Jan-Fong is thought of by most people as the greatest detective to have ever lived, owing to the fact that a popular series of thirty-four books were written about him after his death. He's good, but he's not the Sherlock Holmes that he's been described as. His partner is Alana, a female detective who is more or less assigned to him as a punishment. The body that Jan-Fong wears used to belong to her lover, before he was desouled for crimes against the crown. She's his guide through the world that he finds himself in, though she cares much more about getting things done than baby-sitting him.

Anyway, there wasn't actually an attempt on the king's life - his soul was stolen. Much of the book is given over to the attempt to track down the assassin who stole it and to figure out all the conflicting plots in play. I like the world, and I think the plot is pretty sound, but I'm stalled out at a certain point and don't know whether it's due to writer's block or because it's just a hard thing to write. This is one that I've picked up and set down a number of times. The current chapter I'm writing (and the half-chapter leading up to it) have gone through a half-dozen revisions. I think eventually I'll get it. Some of the early stuff needs to be rewritten, and I think I'll shift around some of the events so that there's more of a dramatic impact, but this is definitely a project with some promise that's on hiatus.

The Gift and the Burden

Some people are born with the Gift, the ability to cast magic by saying certain words. Around the age of ten, if you have the Gift you get a fever, go unconscious for a week, and then wake up with pitch black eyes and lines of black all over your body. From there, you become one of the ruling class and get sent off to mage school. Davian and Kessler are childhood friends - Kessler is enthusiastic about magic, but Davian is the one who ends up having the Gift. The story is told through their alternating viewpoints.

This is my most active project right now. It's at 52,000 words, and I add another thousand or so whenever I work on it - about three or four times a week, I would guess. I started it sometime in mid-February, so it's been moving along at a fair clip for some time now. It's the only one that's in no way stalled, though I can already identify the issues that would cause me to lose faith.

Kessler eventually gets work as a researcher, trying to find new spells, and due in part to his brilliance (and a bit of luck) discovers a new spell, and from there things snowball until he finds the source of magic and more or less becomes the fantasy equivalent of the inventor of the atomic bomb. Davian goes to mage school and eventually joins up with the war as a battle caster. Each is an exploration of power in their own way - Kessler is in the underclass due to not having the Gift, while Davian is at the bottom of the Gifted power structure and arguably in a worse position.

Originally, this book was going to be divided into three different parts. The first part would follow Davian and Kessler and chart the discovery of a new type of spell-casting, the second part would follow their grandchildren in the world that more or less results from Kessler's discoveries, and the third part would follow their grandchildren's grandchildren. This was all laid out in a /r/worldbuilding competition submission that I did some time ago. The Davian and Kessler part just kept expanding though, so I think if I finish it, it will be the first of a planned trilogy.

Originally, the plot was going to more or less be like Forrest Gump. Davian and Kessler were going to experience every major event of their era. Davian would see everything dark and Kessler would see everything light, and in that way they would mirror Jenny and Forrest. I've always liked the idea of doing that in a fantasy (or otherwise constructed) setting. But along the way, Kessler ended up having more agency, and becoming more of a parallel to a software engineer than I'd originally planned. Davian is still a very important person that gets thrust into world-changing situations, but I'm not sure how much I like him like that since the symmetry is gone.

To Be Continued

Would you believe that this is only a partial list of my writing projects that are sitting in folders somewhere? I'll make a part two to this blog post tomorrow night. If you have any interest in reading any of these, just shoot me an e-mail. This is a very appropriate post given the title of my blog, since I am pretty sure that talking about your own writing is one of those things that gets me enthusiastic but bores other people to tears.