Apr 112014


I have a rule against tearing down other people’s creations in public. I appreciate the hard work that any creator puts into their work, and I prefer to encourage that rather than crush their dreams in front of others. Even bestselling authors are people—I count several as friends—and just because someone’s successful doesn’t mean insults don’t hurt them.

I make an exception for Monopoly. This is arguably the world’s bestselling game, stacking up numbers beyond even those of Grand Theft Auto, Magic: The Gathering, or World of Warcraft. But the creators behind it are all long gone, so I can’t hurt their feelings.

And it’s absolutely awful.

Monopoly was created back in 1902 by Elizabeth Magie. She called it The Landlord Game, and she designed it to teach people about certain economic theories. Legendary attorney Charles Darrow (a heater salesman, not the famed attorney Clarence Darrow*) turned it into Monopoly and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935. (Parker Brothers later purchased the rights from Magie as well, something Darrow never did, claiming the game was his own invention.) Eventually Hasbro bought Parker Brothers, and it’s been publishing Monopoly ever since.

It’s a classic game that gets by on sharp marketing and the fact that it’s become a staple in most households in America. Friends of mine at Hasbro, though, have told me that their research shows that most of their mass-market games are purchased by middle-aged and older women between Thanksgiving and the end of the year as holiday gifts for children. They are played—get this—an average of less than once.

After playing Monopoly, perhaps you can see why. It’s a game that has what game designers call a snowball effect. This happens when being in the lead gives you bonuses beyond simply being the leader. That means that those who are in the lead tend to build up larger and larger leads, snowballing their advantages until they win.

This is why in most games of Monopoly you know who’s going to win within the first fifteen minutes. And then you have to spend the next four hours watching them pound their opponents into paste.

In this sense, it models the way the US economy works pretty well. Magie hit her design aims out of the park.

This is not, however, fun for anyone at the table. Even most winners get bored after a while.

Many modern games have what game designers call a catchup feature. This gives players who are behind an advantage over the leaders, and it helps ensure that everyone has a stake in the game’s results right up until the end. Sure, a skilled player will likely have an advantage over the others, but it’s not insurmountable. Everyone gets to feel involved and engaged.

They get to have fun. And most of them never go back to Monopoly again.

Friends at Hasbro have confessed to me that they don’t care for Monopoly much either, but it’s a bestselling icon they can’t let languish. Good people work on the game still, and they love games too. They put out new versions of it every year, and some of them are far better than the original.

They often argue that the game isn’t nearly as bad if you play it by the actual rules, the ones that used to be printed on the inside of the box’s lid. It doesn’t make it a better game, necessarily, but it’s faster at least. The house rules most people use, though—like grabbing all the money in the center of the board if you land on Free Parking—make it worse.

Players tossed these rules in to see if they could improve the game—we’re all amateur designers in this sense—but they do little if anything to solve the snowball effect. They strive to give players more chances to take the lead, but all they really accomplish is to make a bad game longer. What should be a two-hour ordeal turns into a four-hour death march with the exact same results.

Last month, Hasbro launched a debate on Facebook that allowed fans of the game to argue about the best house rules. About a week ago, they declared five of them the winners and promised to publish a version of the game that contains these rules. The Free Parking rule made the cut, of course, but none of them—not one—does anything to improve the game.

I’m sure Hasbro knows this. The purpose of the debate wasn’t to improve the game but to put it in headlines around the nation. It did a great job at that.

Just do yourself and the kids you know a favor. Don’t buy it.

There are so many better board games out there. Hasbro makes some of them—including Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons—and you can find much more at your friendly local games store, ranging from Settlers of Catan to Takenoko to Munchkin and beyond. You can find them on TableTopWil Wheaton’s fantastic web show, which is raising funds for a third season right now—or at a games convention like Gen Con too. 

Sit down with your friends. Roll some dice. Draw some cards. Try them out. Find games you can love rather than endure.

Put a stop to that snowball. You’ll have a ball doing it.

* Hat tip to Allen Varney for pointing out I’d conflated Clarence and Charles Darrow. 

Apr 112014

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 9.28.20 AMYesterday I was notified that I’ve been selected to attend the 2014 Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. It’s a week-long summer science camp for established writers, held at the University of Wyoming, with the aim of giving such folks a solid grounding in real science so we can go write inspiring things about the stars. They only accept 12 to 15 people each year, and other than getting myself to Denver for a ride to Laramie, it’s free, including room and board.

When I was a geektastic kid, I used to attend the Summer Science Institute at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. I had a great experience there and met some people I still count as friends to this day, thirty years later. So, I have high expectations for this wonderful weekend in Wyoming, and I’m honored and thrilled to be going.

I’ve added that to my Appearances page, along with a number of other notable events. I’ll be at C2E2 in Chicago in a couple weeks, and then I’m off to the brand-new Nexus Game Fair in Milwaukee in June. I head out to Launch Pad in July, and August is packed, starting with Gen Con, my absolute favorite time of the year. The week after that, I’ll be at Geek.Kon in Madison, Wisconsin, and then I’m off to GrandCon in Grand Rapids in September.

On top of that, Odyssey Con announced last week that I’ll be one of their guests of honor in 2015, along with Jonathan Maberry and Heather Brewer. Again, see the Appearances page for details.

I hope to see you on the road!


Apr 032014

core_booksLast year, my pal Tony Lee of Timeout Diversions ran a Kickstarter to launch a new edition of Sovereign Stone, a tabletop roleplaying game set in a world created by fantasy art legend Larry Elmore. Larry had a lot of fantastic help with the earlier editions, including rules from Don Perrin and novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This time around, the world of Loerem (an anagram of Elmore, of course) is being converted over to the popular Pathfinder rules, which promises to bring it to an even wider audience.

As part of the Kickstarter, Tony asked me to write a story as a stretch goal. When the drive cracked $20,000, that signed me up. I turned in “A Night at the Temple” back in January, and it went out to the backers shortly after that.

Today, Tony’s posted the story on the Timeout Diversions website, and you can download it as a PDF for free. I had a ball stomping around in Larry’s playground, and I think it shines through. I hope you enjoy it!

Apr 022014

AMonster-Academy-3D-covers I mentioned back on February 19, me and a dozen and a half other authors joined up once again under the auspices of the amazing Ari Marmell to run a multi-author contest called Crossing the Streams. We did this back in 2012, and after taking a year off, Ari spearheaded the effort once more, to a rousing success. The contest ended on March 19, but I’ve been too overwhelmed with work and family stuff to do much about it—until now.

(You may have noticed a drop-off in posts on this site that coincided with that period. There are lots of details to share, but the big one was driving my entire family—all seven of us—out to Las Vegas for the GAMA Trade Show. We had a fantastic trip and stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way back home. But we capped it off with a 29.5-hour drive straight through the night to get back in time for the kids to make it to school the next day.

Soooo, I was a bit tired. But anyhow!)

As you might recall, to enter my contest, you had to tell me who your favorite monster was and why he might wind up in detention, much as you might find in my latest novel, Monster Academy: I Will Not Eat People. I picked my favorite out of the many excellent entries, which included such creatures as Godzilla, Hedorah, the Weeping Angels, Sully (from Monsters, Inc.), dragons, and even the Cookie Monster. I picked one winner at random and one whose entry best tickled me. The random prize went to Jesse Rodriguez.

The winning entry came from Mike Castiglia, which you can read below. Both he and Jess will get autographed hardcover copies of Monster Academy: I Will Not Eat People, just as soon as I can get more copies from the printer. The mega-grand prize also went to Karl Kloeden, who was drawn randomly from all the entries in every one of the Crossing the Streams contests.

Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to everyone who entered and gave me so many great laughs throughout the month!

Day 1: I’ve decided to keep this journal as the rest of my friends and I explore this “dungeon.”  Locals say a strange and deadly beast lives within, but likely it’s just more kobolds. The wizard is once again complaining about having to go into dirty and dank areas.  What did you think would happen you signed up to go on quests for the greater good?

Day 3: Sure enough, we found Kobolds, but there was something strange about them.  They all seemed to be fleeing from the cave system, which is much larger than we initially thought. Kozek the Ranger says there are other tracks in the system as well, something with large paw prints, like a big cat.  Great: kobolds, a whiny wizard, and an oversized house cat.

Day 7: We’ve been down here nearly a week.  Sadly we lost the Bard along the way.  We told her to knock off the singing, but it wasn’t until the trolls happened upon us that she learned we were right. We managed to burn one to a crispy bit, but the other two were too much, and we had to run. Barely escaped.

Day 9: Haven’t seen much in the way of living creatures, though Kozek still picks up tracks now and again. The odd thing is that they aren’t consistent, like this thing is moving around. Perhaps a flying cat? I’m starting to feel like we are being watched.

Day 12: Kozek didn’t make it after our first encounter with the “cat.” Turns out the darned thing wasn’t a cat at all, but some kind of teleporting creature. The wizard called it an ethereal something-or-other. It’s down to myself, the wizard, and Amalia the Priestess of Gaia. Not sure how we’ll get out of here.

Day 13: Turns out these things are decent trackers in their own right. “Ethereal filcher” Grandal called it. Too bad he lost his spellbook in the last encounter. Supplies are dwindling. Wishing we had decided to skip this dungeon in favor of gambling at the Red Dragon Inn.

Day 15: After moving constantly, we’ve been pushed into what seems to be a dead end. Grandal used the last of his scrolls and then went missing. Amalia and I assume the worst. If I were a betting man, I’d roll dice that this adventure shouldn’t have gone this way.

Day 16: Amalia managed to put up a barrier and has made food to sustain us. It’s a waiting game at this point. Her mole friends tell her we are not far from the surface and if we can make a break we can still make the surface. Of course, now I can’t find my magical sword or shield.  Some fighter I am. A good night’s rest and then we make a break.

Day 17: It’s morning and we are preparing to go. If you are reading this, hopefully it’s because I made it out, otherwise you may be in for a similar fate.  Here goes nothing….

I put a couple of monsters into this little journal entry, but the obvious detainee is the ethereal filcher. The kobolds were likely sent to detention for pulling pranks on the Professor of Planar History, the trolls for destroying the school’s furnance (they face expulsion too)—something about Trolls not liking fire.  It’s the ethereal filcher that takes the cake. With a Jaunt ability, he is known to come and go from school, but the staff has always had a hard time catching him—until the newest headmaster found a way to ward the school and prevent teleportations IN and OUT of the school. He is now in detention for two attempts to leave school grounds unauthorized, as well as for a week’s worth of truancy. 

Mar 112014

Friends-Like-These-Cover-1Shotguns & Sorcery started out as an idea I had for a new setting for a fantasy roleplaying game. Back in 2001, I licensed the concept to Mongoose Publishing in a sweet deal that would have seen me writing an entire line of d20 (Dungeons & Dragons-compatible) books.

And then my wife became pregnant with quadruplets. (Yeah, I know. Writers. We always have one excuse or another.)

I shelved the project at that point, and I didn’t come back to it for an entire decade. That’s when Robin Laws asked me for a story for his new set of anthologies exploring his theory about the iconic hero: The New Hero 1 & 2. Having had Shotguns & Sorcery knocking around in the back of my head for too long, it finally burst out onto the page, and “Friends Like These” is what I scraped together from the spatter it left behind. It first appeared in The New Hero 2 back in 2012.

I had such a good time with this story that I returned to the setting for “Goblintown Justice,” which appeared in Marc Tassin’s Carnage & Consequences anthology. That story actually came out before “Friends Like These,” so for most people “Goblintown Justice” introduced them to the world of Dragon City.

While I was still waiting for the story to come out, I had this insane idea that I wanted to write a dozen short novels, one for each month. I called the project 12 for ’12, and I broke the books up into four trilogies and ran a Kickstarter drive for each. The second of those trilogies became the novels Hard Times in Dragon City, Bad Times in Dragon City, and End Times in Dragon Cityeach of which tell the continuing stories of ex-adventurer Max Gibson and the dragon-run city he calls home. 

If you wanted to see how the adventures of Max Gibson and his friends started out, though, you had to track down a copy of The New Hero 2. Now, for the first time, you can buy it all on its own, for the low price of just 99¢.

[I'm trying an experiment with this story by making it available exclusively for the Kindle for now. Amazon gives all sorts of perks to stories that set up camp solely under their tent. While I'm a big believer in the long-term health of a diverse marketplace for my work, which is why I sell all the rest of my stories through a number of different shops, I still want to play around with those tools a bit, and this gives me the chance to do that on a small basis. I'll try to let you know what I figure out.]

So, tell your friends and neighbors! Come on in and get the sharp little story that started it all!

Mar 112014

Marvel 2014 CoverBack in 2008, I revised the Marvel Encyclopedia for DK Publishing. That meant taking the original version of a book written by Tom DeFalco, Peter Sanderson, Tom Brevoort, Michael Teitelbaum, Daniel Wallace, and Andrew Darling—and revamping and updating most of the entries. I also wrote a slew of new material for the book and nearly melted a keyboard trying to get it all ready to help celebrate Marvel’s 70th anniversary in 2009. We just made it.

Fast forward five years, and it’s the same thing all over again, only this time we’re pushing to have it ready in time for Marvel’s 75th anniversary instead. It sounds like a simple enough assignment: read five years of Marvel comics and update each entry that needs it once again. Add more pages for the most popular characters on top of that, and throw in a bit of perspective while you’re at it.

Sure, there are worse assignments than having to read five years worth of comics in a few months, but wow, Marvel puts dozens of comics every month. That quickly adds up to stacks of reading you wouldn’t want collapsing on you for fear of having the life crushed out of you. Still, it’s a fantastic and fun universe, and I’m always grateful to be able to spend some time in it, especially when it has a purpose like this.

One of the great delights of going to visit Disney Studios last month was seeing the last edition of the book in a couple different spots. For one, it was on sale in the Disney gift shop right there on the premises, and I even signed a copy for one of my fellow bloggers.

Better yet, my friend Dave Wallach spotted a copy on the shelves of the Disney Archives. When I was in there later, listening to recordings of P. L. Travers discussing Mary Poppins with the Sherman brothers, I looked over and spotted the book sitting right behind the main desk in the room, right at eye level for the woman sitting there. I mentioned it to the man giving the presentation, and he was pleased to tell me they’d gotten a lot of great use out of the book over the years.

The brand-new 2014 edition of the Marvel Encyclopedia isn’t supposed to be out until St. Patrick’s Day, but it looks like most retailers already jumped the gun. There’s no reason to wait politely yourself, so get yourself down to your local bookstore, and grab yourself a copy. If you love Marvel Comics, you’ll love this book too—maybe as much as I loved working on it.

Mar 072014

IMG_4565Last month, Corrina Lawson of Geek Dad/Geek Mom had to drop out of a planned junket to Disney Studios. I wound up going in her place and had a wonderful time. Not only did I get a guided tour of the inside of both the Disney Animation Studios and Disney Toon Studios—both of which are normally closed to the public—I also managed to find some time to see some old friends and to make a bunch of new ones.

Disney brought me and a couple dozen other mom and dad bloggers out to show us around so we’d write about some of their creations. This includes Frozen, Saving Mr. Banks, and Pirate Fairy (an upcoming Tinkerbell direct-to-video movie), among other things. My first post about the trip went up over at GeekDad.com today, and it covers the roundtable interview I did with the directors, writer, and producer of the Oscar-winning Frozen. 

My first day there, I managed to grab lunch with John Rogers (of Leverage fame). I hadn’t seen him in person for a few years, and it was great to catch up with a Hollywood-style lunch. That night, I had dinner with all the other bloggers, and we all hit it off famously. Later, I joined Dave Wallach (of DadAllDay.com) for a drink, along with Mark Staufer and Bryan Erwin of the excellent podcast Dadsaster.

Dave wrote a way-too-kind post about me when he got back home, and I’d like to return the favor. I know a lot of great, funny guys, and Dave’s at the top of the list. He’s as generous with his time and his wisdom as he is with his humor, and he lights up like the dawn over Lakeshore Drive when he talks about his wife and kids.

Despite all that he’s humble and personable as can be. It wasn’t until a couple days into the trip that he let drop the fact that he’d played football for the University of Wisconsin his freshman year in college, before a knee injury sidelined him. He’s produced more reality TV shows than I’ve had the chance to watch. And on top of all that, he’s a damn fine writer too.

Inspired by the trip and the bloggers we met, Dave set up a new Facebook group called DAM (Dads and Moms) Bloggers. If you’re one of those sorts yourself, be sure to jump on over and join us.

I’ll have a number of posts to follow this up and show you inside the studios and the trip. Join me for the first installment today, and I’ll let you know when the other bits arrive too.

Mar 042014

reddit-alienAs you might recall, I’m running a month-long contest here as part of the multi-author Crossing the Streams mega-contest of DOOOOOM! (In which said doom involves the ability to win dozens of autographed books from some of the best genre writers around.)

As part of that, a bunch of us Crossing the Streams authors are taking part in an AMA at Reddit. That’s an “Ask Me Anything” forum at Reddit.com. Stop on by and ask me anything you’d like, and you can also drill the rest of the crew with the same questions. The answerers include Paul S. Kemp, Richard Lee Byers, Joshua Palmatier, Marsheila Rockwell, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, Betsy Dornbusch, Dave Gross, Wendy N. Wagner, James L. Sutter, Erik Scott de Bie, Erin M. Evans, Howard Andrew Jones, Jeff Salyards, Erin Hoffman, and our ringmaster Ari Marmell.

The AMA lasts for roughly a day, so get those questions in fast. The answers will be preserved forever. (In which case, forever equals the age of the internet, which is all of 8,247 days as I write this.



Mar 042014

Friends-Like-These-Cover-1There’s a long history behind the Shotguns & Sorcery setting. It started out as a setting for a tabletop roleplaying game that I never got around to writing (because quadruplets), and it eventually became the world I used for the second of my 12 for ’12 Kickstarters. Those stories filled a doorstop of an omnibus, and I’ve been giving away the story “Goblintown Justice” for free to go along with them ever since I launched that Kickstarter. (You can still grab it here.)

I originally resurrected the world, though, for Robin Laws’s The New Hero 2 anthology, and because of that Stone Skin Press had the exclusive rights to the story for a while. Despite that, with Robin’s permission, I included the story in the omnibus my Kickstarter backers received. To get your hands on it, though, you had to either grab The New Hero 2—which I recommend, as it’s full of great stories—or travel back in time to back the Shotguns & Sorcery Kickstarter.

Until now.

I’m going to release that first story—called “Friends Like These”—as an ebook next week. It’ll set you back all of 99¢. Until then, take a gander at the cover I whipped up for it, which features the dragonfire drinks that our hero Max Gibson likes tossing back so well.

If you enjoyed Hard Times in Dragon City, Bad Times in Dragon City, or End Times in Dragon Citythis is your chance to finally see where it all began. 

Mar 042014

51RcgPtO1XL._SL300_Over the past several months, Audible has not only been releasing books from Angry Robot—including my Amortals, which I wrote about yesterday—but also several novels from Wizards of the Coast. In that number, we can now count all three of the novels I wrote in the Lost Mark Trilogy. These were some of the first novels written for Eberron, the Dungeons & Dragons world designed by my pal Keith Baker, and they were also the first big, thick fantasy novels I ever had published. 

The three books, in order:

  1. Marked for Death
  2. The Road to Death
  3. The Queen of Death

You can also get Marked for Death, The Road to Deathand The Queen of Death on Amazon. The first two have been released as ebooks there too, and I suspect the third should be along in good time.

Claire Christie narrated each of the books. She’s done great work for other writers too, including Heather Graham and David Brin. Go listen in.