Over the Table: House Rules for Heroes

Confession: I’m still a relatively new GM, all things considered. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs on and off for about 15 years, but previous to last year, had only run a one shot Shadowrun game and a Dragon Age campaign that fell apart after two sessions. For each of these, I was woefully unprepared for what was needed from me. Perhaps this is why I now swing the other way and tend to go a bit overboard with preparation when possible.

Regardless of my experience level, I’ve learned a lot very quickly and I think there are some rules that every GM should aim to follow. The most important of which is this:

Allow your players to be the hero of their own story.


“Hero” is a loose word here because there are evil campaigns that can be fun and there are plenty of anti-heroes out there that can do both good and bad in the same breath. I think a lot of this comes down to player agency and letting them feel like they have the power to make a difference in the world in which they’re playing. They should be able to make choices in their own arcs as well as change the environment/NPCs’ lives as they move through their journey. Actions should have consequences, good and bad, and these should play out in the players’ views as often as possible.

Without a sense of agency, players will quickly become frustrated. If they feel like they’re being railroaded from place to place, they won’t feel like they have the power to play on their own terms. If you trick or trap them too often, they won’t trust you as a storyteller and, once that trust is broken, it is hard to repair.

Let your players explore, let them problem solve, let them play. Be ready to have your plans ruined as they find solutions to what you give them in unpredictable ways. Create a dynamic environment for them to explore, which changes when they interact with them as well as changing around them as they focus on other things. Give their choices and actions consequences, which can aid or hinder their quests.

And please take a lesson from me: don’t let your villains monologue too much. Maybe a little, but keep that in check. Trust me.


Too Many Goodbyes (and a hello)

“When someone leaves your life, those exits are not made equal. Some are beautiful and poetic and satisfying. Others are abrupt and unfair.” – Griffin McElroy

I lost a beloved pet last week. It was sudden and a terrible surprise. It hasn’t even been a year since my mother passed nor two years since a traumatic incident and a divorce. I know I’m made of tough stuff, forged from steel at this point, but I sure could use a brief respite from tragedy.

Still, the universe is a funny place. I’m not a believer in design or fate and I don’t think that things happen for a reason (apart from basic cause-and-effect-based consequences). And yet, I also believe that sometimes animals come into our lives when we most need them and when they most need us. This is especially true of rescue animals; ask anyone who works with or fosters pets. Sometimes you end up saving one another.

Meet Mai Tai

This is Mai Tai, the newest resident of Deidre’s House for Wayward birds. She’s a cinnamon green cheek conure, about two years old. And I say “she” with no certainty of her sex; everyone else at the rescue called her “she” and I don’t see any need to change that; it’s no matter to me and I’ll know for sure only if she ever lays an egg. She’s had a hard life for someone so young. She was seized from some people squatting in Maryland with nine birds, ended up in shelter, was adopted out, then returned to the shelter. From there, I think she was picked up with the other conures by Phoenix Landing, vetted (she’s healthy, though her blood work suggested she was stressed – and no wonder), and has been through two more families before coming to me this past Sunday.

She deserves love and stability, as do all creatures, and I hope that I can give it to her. For now, I’m fostering her, which could be temporary – but if she’s a good match for me and my life, I’ll consider adopting her and being her forever home. I don’t want to make any rash decisions based solely on heartbreak, but I do also want to save every bird that I can.

Elevator Pitches

So let’s say you’re at a writing conference and you board an elevator. The doors are closing and, at the last second, someone shoves their hand between them and says, “Wait! Hold the elevator!” As the doors slowly part, a familiar face is revealed: it’s a really well-known agent or publisher who you’d love to work with. They board, make polite eye contact, push their floor button, and face forward.


You somehow manage to be cool and not sweat or blurt out, “UHHH YOU’RE AWESOME” and, instead, realize you have about thirty seconds tops to try and make an impression with this person. This is your elevator pitch.


Now, you don’t have to give it in an elevator – this is just the nickname given to an extremely tight pitch/summary of what makes your project really special. There’s a lot to do in a very short space, so it has to be truly fantastic and needs to address a few key points to really be successful:

  • Situation
  • Protagonist
  • Their objective
  • Setting
  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict/stakes
  • Opponent

You’ve got about four sentences to nail this down. It’s no easy feat, but it can be done.

I’ll use the great example that KM Weiland (of Outlining Your Novel fame) uses to actually illustrate how to outline, but see how well this works as a tiny, compact pitch:

Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.

Hopefully you can see that this is less of a summary and more of a brief setup that shows why the project is interesting and gets readers wanting to know more.

And here is my own elevator pitch for my project (the one I’m rewriting now for Novel in Six). It hits most of the points that Weiland suggests and also gives a taste of the sort of dark humor and tone that I try to incorporate into the manuscript:

Wilder Blood is a story about a girl and her dog. And by “girl,” I mean “trained demon hunter” and by “dog,” I of course mean “loyal hellhound bound to human form.” Scarlett “Red” Wilder (protagonist) has been raised to do one thing and do it well: hunt and kill monsters and keep them secret from the world at large. With her hellhound, Caleb, she investigates a string of missing persons (situation) tied to demonic activity (opponent) in DC’s nightlife scene (setting). Weaving through the dark underbelly of the city, they take a supernaturally attuned waitress under their protection and together risk life and limb (stakes) to locate and eliminate a demon nest (objective).

You might notice I’m missing an inciting incident. Well, that’s partly because I’m having  a hard time identifying exactly what that is in the story. We come in and meet the protagonists while their investigation is already underway and the first chapter opens with a fight that is only tangentially related to the plot at large. This is something I may need to address in my rewrite. The inciting incident/tragedy may not be personal enough for there to be a hook.

Let’s just say that I have work to do.

On Endings

Griffin McElroy, a (possibly inadvertent) font of wisdom, said it so well: “exits are not made equal.” This, too, is true of endings. They are not all the same; some are satisfying and many are not. Some leave unanswered questions in a way that engages us and makes us think while others just leave us wanting.

I am now faced with an ending that has been about a year in the making. I first conceived my mini-campaign, The Scion Chronicles, in early spring of 2017 while driving home to visit my father and dying mother. Turning on the voice recording app on my phone and just brainstorming out loud on a somber drive was a welcome distraction. I spat out the outline of the first three chapters during one long bout of traffic on I-95 and then clung to the idea with a sort of manic hope that I could make something of it.

A month or two later, I brought some beers over to a friend’s house and spend the evening with him and fiancee before asking him for a favor: could I run a game in the tabletop system that he and some friends had designed a few years back? He was more than happy to help me with any rules questions and we were both excited for him to get to be a player in the world that he’d lovingly built.

I’d say we (five of us including myself) played every month to month-and-a-half thanks to some irregular schedules, but we still never let the game fall by the wayside. I’ve been in too many gaming groups that died because it was too hard to get everyone to the table regularly – but this was, luckily, not fated to go gentle into that good night of gaming oblivion.

In a little over a week, I’m running the final chapter in my game. As with every chapter, I am more than a little nervous to put myself out there and orchestrate an enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling evening for my friends. The GM of any game is no stranger to this kind of pressure. As the day of the game grows closer, I feel it very keenly. I think I’m as prepared as I can be for the final confrontation and an epilogue for my players, but as with any game, you never really know how things are going to go in any given session.

And that’s part of the magic, isn’t it? The collaborative storytelling? It’s such a powerful shared experience to have with a group of people and being the one to facilitate it this time around has changed me and changed the way I think about narrative fiction.

Our group has already discussed moving on to a new game and a new campaign when this one is over. I’ll only be playing this time, which is more than a little bittersweet. I won’t be feeling that heavy pressure in my chest, screaming at me to make sure everything is perfect, but I daresay I’ll miss GMing something I’ve spent so much time crafting. At the same time, I’m more than ready to hand the reins over to someone else. For now.

Beerily To and Fro

I love beer. This is no secret. To me, it’s in the same boat as baking: an exciting combination of chemistry and food. There’s something adventurous about the sheer variety of beers out there and, with the craft beer movement being as large as it is, the quality and selection of brews has never been better than it is today. Domestic or imported, there’s so much to choose from.

My side project, Beerily Thus, updates weekly with beer reviews and the occasional tidbit about beer culture or a little glimpse of the science that makes beer… beer! It’s a fun little mission, which gets me to continually seek out beers that I’ve never tried before. It keeps me out of a rut and takes me to bars or bottle shops that I might not have checked out otherwise. Just one unique beer a week isn’t a huge ask, time-wise, and it keeps me exploring.

I actually recently worked through a massive backlog of beers that I’d tried and taken notes on, but had to write up reviews for… and now I actually need to get back to a routine of one or two beers each week. Oops? Maybe once the oppressive cold and misery of winter starts to let up a bit, I’ll even go out a little more to try new beers instead of just hiding in the house while it gets dark too early.

Wherever this path leads me, I’ll be happy to have something tasty to drink on the way there.


I’m about to embark on massively rewriting my contemporary fantasy manuscript for the Novel in Six project. I’ve never done anything like this before, having only rewritten short fiction, and doing more than just a pass where I tweak a few things is intimidating. So I’ve been reading a little about the process and have come away with a few mantras, ready to hit the ground running.

Editing an English language document

  1. None of this was a waste of time. Not a word of what you’ve written before was useless; every word was needed to get to where you are now and to discover the story in the first place. Even cut words have their value as they were used to explore and uncover character, plot, and setting.
  2. Trust your instincts. If you think that something needs to be changed, you’re probably right. Don’t overthink it. Go with your gut. Is something not working? Just get in there and start fixing it.
  3. Take a break. It’s okay to get frustrated and need to walk away sometimes. Go make tea, go work out, go for a drive, go make dinner, go take a night off. It’s all part of the process. Just get ready to buckle down again ASAP.
  4. Set realistic goals. This is where Ni6 really comes in handy for me. I’ll be setting weekly writing goals for myself and striving to meet them in order to stay on target. My goal is roughly 70,000 words, many complete rewrites, some re-purposed from the current draft.
  5. No draft is perfect. This is especially true of the current draft. The sooner you accept that it needs work and can be improved, the easier it will be to let go of scenes that just aren’t working.
  6. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The old adage works here, too. Just because you’re cutting something from this draft doesn’t mean it might not come in handy in some future project. Hang onto those gems that just aren’t working here; you might be able to use them somewhere else.

Speculative Fiction Reading Recommendations

There is, I think, a bit of a misconception about who reads and who writes speculative fiction. Because of the roles of gatekeepers in the larger publishing houses, many of the people being published and seeing a lot of widespread success are white cis men. But they’re not the only ones writing incredible books and they’re definitely not the only ones reading SFF.


Martha Wells‘ tweet inspired me to build a list of some of my recent favorites, many of which are by women, POC, and trans folx. There are some cis het white men on here, but not in any dominating percentage.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman I first heard about this book from the author on a panel at DragonCon several years ago. I was lured in by the aesthetic of the old west mixed with some magic and superstition. The main character, Isobel, decides to leave the only home she’s ever known and work for the Devil in territories west of the Mississippi. She learns the ways of lies and magic as she trains to become the left hand of the Devil.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 edited by Joseph Adams and Charles Yu Some of the authors included are E. Lily Yu, Nisi Shawl, Jeremiah Tolbert, A. Merc Rustad, Leigh Bardugo, and N.K. Jemisin.

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells A mystery unfolds around a band of scientists on a distant planet, who have hired the titular Murderbot for security. We see things from her delightfully dry perspective and we learn she has hacked her own systems to have agency and also to watch a lot of tv.

Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by K.M. Szpara K.M. is someone I know from area genre writing conferences and, in addition to being a great dresser, he has assembled a wonderful collection of spec fic. Some is by trans authors, some is about transgender characters, and some examines gender, identity, and transformation through the lens of fantasy or the far future.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin Set in an ever-moving, ever-shifting, ever-quaking continent which is mockingly called The Stillness, we follow three women who have the greatly feared power to move and shape the earth with their minds. The book opens with the end of the world and only gets more incredible from there.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie This is, I confess, still only on my To Read list. I have heard so many wonderful things about this distant future SF novel, not to mention that it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders This Hugo-winning novelette follows two people who can see the future as they fight through and for their relationship. Judy can see every possible branching future while Doug only sees one possible outcome of all events. The story examines themes of free will versus determinism with wonderful, enchanting dialogue.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy Hard to classify, I’d call this novella a naturalistic punk fantasy, featuring a community of anarchists, a vengeful nature spirit, and action that moves at breakneck speed (in the good way). It is haunting and vivid and more than a little creepy. A wonderful quick read.