Tag Archives: RPG

New release: Out of Their Depth, by M.R. Cook

This new fantasy novel is now available in print and e-book. I was developmental and substantive editor.

I had known Mike very long ago, but we had not been in touch for most of our adult lives. We reconnected through a mutual friend from those old days who had also sought writing guidance. They had been part of a long-running fantasy role-playing game (akin to D&D) and were both writing stories based upon their gaming adventures.

Before you judge, know this: the unfolding of any RPG campaign is in essence a story writing itself. It always begins with characters in conflict; always with external forces, and sometimes with each other. Some of it is slapstick, for it is a proven impossibility to form any RPG gaming group without at least including one total gonzo. I was in one group where a player played a necromancer (magician who communicates with and animates the dead). His day job? Funeral director.

There are, of course, IP issues with using mutually generated creative content in a for-profit book. Mike has handled it the way I would do were I to write one: by sharing royalties through written agreements. Just in case you were also thinking of writing stories about your RPG campaign, yes, that is a valid method. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is essential legal protection. Don’t accept “Oh, I don’t mind, just go ahead.” Explain to them that fair is fair and you appreciate their contribution. One can also explain that this will give them a reason to promote the book, if one desires.

Out of Their Depth began life as a novella and evolved into a ms about double the basic novel length. That’s not to say that it is too long; my assessment is that the original story was too much to contain within novella or basic novel length constraints. Its evolution involved great strides in character development, for a typical RPG adventure story can have several protagonists depending on how the author chooses to emphasize and POV them. Mike has gone with a method in which I’d estimate 40% of the book is from the main character’s perspective, but his four comrades divided up the remainder of the time. He has done so very effectively.

As a writer, Mike’s greatest natural talent is descriptive verbiage. Where I didn’t persuade him to dial it back–thus, where I felt it paid its way–this talent goes on full display in the novel. His wartime experiences add a grittiness and realism to scenes and discussion of combat. One talent–or more correctly, one acquired knowledge set that adds great flavor–is Mike’s plentiful vocabulary of now-obsolete medieval terms. I am not, shall we say, accustomed to having to look up many English words unless I’m reading something very technical. (One of my sidelines is technical editing. That doesn’t appear on my credit list for multiple reasons, beginning with NDAs.) By the time the novella morphed into a novel, I’d headed for the dictionary a dozen times. I now can define terms like ‘culet,’ ‘oculus,’ ‘assart,’ and many more.

Since a temple is very prominent in the novel, I wonder how Mike managed to avoid the term ‘narthex.’ He may take that as a challenge. It’s the front sort of reception area of a Lutheran church, as I should know, having been marched to Lutheran churches at parental insistence until I finally realized that I was an exhibit rather than a youngster, and if I exhibited embarrassing behavior, I would no longer be subjected to attendance.

Another aspect Mike has handled well is gender. Most novice writers do not portray the opposite gender well. Though many try, it’s not an easy thing. I hammer on it especially with male clients, because in case they do not know this, they had better learn it: women tend to do more reading than men, and most will readily notice non-credible or derogatory female portrayals. They’re perfectly fine with a variety of female roles, attitudes, and ethical levels, but they will groan and tire when faced with characters and reactions that ring false. On the upside, when women like what they see, they vote for it with loyal pocketbooks. If a male fiction writer wants to succeed, he needs to learn to see and paint the world through her eyes. The story contains several strong yet diverse women, all with important roles to play; in fact, the toughest fighter in the protagonist’s party is a scarred, well-armored (no chainmail bikinis here), blocky ex-sergeant who provides most of their combat leadership. I feel confident that readers will conclude that Mike gets it on gender.

In fact, Mike Cook might be one of the most coachable writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Ever want to know how I size up a client’s potential? About half of it is by coachability. The other half is by the quality of questions asked. Mike was always a bright, articulate guy, and he hasn’t wasted the past three decades. A good client challenges me with great questions. Mike wanted to understand the logic behind my guidance, and where I did not volunteer it (I normally try), he sought it point blank.

This is very healthy, because I ought to have reasons for everything I advise, and it’s well within a client’s rights to want to understand the reasoning. An editor who cannot stand to be challenged in this way does not plan to teach. An editor who does not plan to teach is more or less hoarding knowledge. I do not believe knowledge workers benefit from hoarding knowledge. If your work is to share your knowledge, then its generous sharing will not only give good value but also signals that you aren’t in danger of running short on knowledges.

(Side note: early in my editing days, I had a client named Shannon D. Jackson who asked the best questions. Even better than Mike’s, because any time questions came up, she would ask me: “What questions should I be asking?” When asked that, it opens the floodgates for me to volunteer everything useful I can think of. She ended up with an outstanding parenting book.)

Mike placed quality and reader experience above all. He engaged artists. He hired a proofreader whose results proved very disappointing; so disappointing that I took the unprecedented step of doing it myself. I can’t ever take money to proofread my own edited work, but I can volunteer to do it simply to assure that justice is done. If there are still any typos, this time I am to blame. Even at the end, he was addressing potential loose ends in the storyline. The overall result of the process is a satisfying story by an author with great writing ability, a refreshing sense for physics and realism, and who progressed as much during the project as anyone I’ve known.

Writing as M.R. Cook, Mike has applied himself with as much diligence as any author with whom I have worked.

So, after a great deal of effort and time invested, it is with pleasure I announce his first novel.

What D&D meant

Dungeons & Dragons, the original fantasy role-playing game, came out in 1974. I played it off and on for thirty-five years through four major revisions. Unless you’re that old and played the game in its early days, you may not fully apprehend its impact. Someone had better explain that while some of us are still alive.

In what we may call B.D. (Before D&D), there were two species of games. The casual species included party games like Monopoly, Risk, Life, Clue, Parcheesi and such. They were not meant to be realistic; they were just for fun, could be learned in minutes and finished in an half an evening. The serious species included strategy boardgames, mostly by Avalon Hill, Simulations Publications, Game Designers’ Workshop, and so on: mostly focused on accurate historical simulations and hypothetical wars. If you wanted to know how the Warsaw Pact might have done against NATO, or felt that Auchinleck and Montgomery were boobs, or imagined how the Canadian Civil War might go, they could help you explore. Their research was generally of high quality. The rulebooks were voluminous, but for those who put in the time and wanted to spend several weekends refighting Gettysburg at regimental level, they had you covered.

My own first experiences with B.D. games were the former as a child, then the latter in about 1975. Historical and hypothetical simulation games may have saved me from going completely mad in a small lumber town. They would, in 1981, send me to college with at least the fundamentals of an education in military history. But they weren’t the only external force that contributed to my teen sanity.

In 1974, the original D&D first came out. The publisher was a firm from Wisconsin called Tactical Studies Rules, better known as TSR. Think on that for a minute, what it says: “We publish rules. That’s it. The rest is on you. Invent the milieu yourself. Tell the story you wish, and act it out with players who do as they do.” It was a fantasy role-playing game (RPG). The most important rule, and the one that defined D&D, was a simple one: the rules were for guidance only. They were not definitive. The game referee/world creator, aka the Dungeon Master (DM), had carte blanche to change some or all of the rules at will. If players tried something not covered in the rules, the DM had jurisdiction and final say as to how that was resolved.

Suddenly, the imagination was the limit. Digest this, those of you who never knew a world without role-playing games. “Hello, Ms. DM. I would like to play as a member of this race, which has this specific character class that mixes the magic-user with the druid. Can I do this?” DM: “Write it up, with all the spells and so forth, and I’ll take a look.” Rules? Those were for the grognards who spent whole weekends refighting the Battle of the Bulge. The rules were what the DM said they were. She could invent new monsters, worlds, races, types of characters. The game was breeding future fantasy authors by the dozens.

We had never had this before. That’s why D&D was so revolutionary. It came out and said: “Play the game the way you like. If you like your DM, play in her game. If not, well, keep looking.” It unleashed thousands of youthful imaginations. Of course, society called us freaks, weirdos, Satanists (D&D had demons and devils; never mind that most players considered them enemies, not allies). Like most teen fashions, it was considered the Sure Downfall of Society. Our 1950s-raised parents had little idea what to make of it. To them, games were like Monopoly. However, if it kept their weird intellectual kids from smoking dope and getting pregnant, it had merits. Most sighed and didn’t worry about the havoc that evangelicals suggested D&D might wreak upon our youthful brains. Was it for nerds? Clearly. Anti-social nerds? Please. Let’s drive a stake through the heart of that ridiculous charge while we’re at this. D&D was social at its core, a group activity. It could not be played solitaire. It was not mainstream social, but it was social without question. It just wasn’t the sort of social that the yuppies, jocks and so forth expected of us. It brought us together with our own kind. It showed that we weren’t fundamentally anti-social; we just failed to adore the popular kids. We were social among people with whom we considered it worthwhile to socialize.

Of course, D&D inspired many other RPG concepts. Games took us to space, to dystopian post-apocalyptic eras, to the age of sail, and wherever else we might want to imagine. We grew up. We got jobs. We had kids, most of us. Many of us left RPGs behind, though some stayed with them. Those born after 1970 never knew a world without D&D, just as they would not know college without the personal computer, just as those born after 1900 knew no world without the automobile and aircraft.

Some of us knew the world before and after D&D, and experienced the revolutionary open-ended creativity that its arrival spawned. Our lives would never be the same. To grasp this is to grasp the effect of D&D on a twelve-year-old brain. Imagine being an artist with only graphite pencils and notebook paper, and suddenly being handed oil paints and canvas. Imagine making homebrew movies with old Super 8 cameras and a film splicer, then getting a modern camcorder and video editing computer. That’s the magnitude. That’s what it was like.

Of late, D&D has schismed into two versions. In essence, the owners tried to hand players a game that didn’t feel like their good old D&D. Players mainly rejected it, hewing to a competing version. Consider: it is surviving even the complete mismanagement of its owner, in some form, nearly forty years gone.

I can only imagine what the teens of the fifties and sixties did without the change in options my generation experienced thanks to Dungeons & Dragons. Those of the eighties take it for granted, something that was always there, like the telephone for me. We were privileged to watch the veil of possibility lift and drop away, and told to use our imaginations. And one day, the last of us will be gone.

Someone had to tell how it was. Otherwise, social history will lie, told by people who never felt the experience–and will get away with it, warping perception and memory. As I approach the boundary of half a century of life, that life has taught me that most of us live to see history lie about our times. Are you in your twenties? When you are my age, you will watch them lie about your times, too. By then I will be gone, so if anyone is to tell the truth, it will fall to you.

I seek no homages for us. Hey, if anyone should do homage, it’s us to Gary Gygax, who was the prime inventor of the game insofar as I’m aware. He, and those he played the game with, lifted that veil. All I ask is that the kids don’t take RPGs wholly for granted, as if they were always with us. They weren’t. Weird intellectuals were thus trapped in their own minds, forced to seek some other outlet.

None had the impact of D&D.