Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Importance of A Writing Critique

Last night I was expecting some hard love on the chapter of Ark I submitted to my Writer's Circle (pictured here).  After all these years, I still get a bit anxious ahead of receiving feedback from my peers on what I've written, whether it's fiction or RPG. And yet I keep being part of one, because of course, not doing it would be far worse.
Bruce, Torah, Sarah, Peter

Why? Several reasons. Here are a few.

Critiques force at least one more revision. Of course, I'm always doing a little polishing, but there's always one more chance to get a chapter or piece in shape right before you send it off for your critiquers to apply their hairy eyeballs. You'll still end up doing a second draft later on (if you're writing a larger piece). But this doesn't hurt.

Critiques grant you a wider perspective. I try to encompass the perspective of my characters, but in the end, I'm just one person. What my characters think—and how I portray their internal thoughts—is probably a bit narrow by definition. Having other people bring their perspective allows you to open up details or smooth over tripping points that I just figured was common knowledge or that I read past without 

Critiques provide accountability. I'm always looking for mechanisms that encourage me to keep to my deadlines (e.g. the recent creation of my Patreon!). A writing group can provide another impetus to keep moving forward. Because, let's face it, it's awkward if you've gone five months without writing anything and there's nothing to critique. In a group, there's subtle pressure—friendly, one hopes—to get back to your keyboard and write.

Oh, and what about the group's reaction to that chapter? Well, dear readers, they had their issues, but of course, these are all issues I am now going to fix, and make the chapter better.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Chapter One, Ark of Broken Dreams

Photo by Adam Bixby on Unsplash
My Patreon has been active for a full week!

(If you missed my last post, TL;DR - I need deadlines to keep me honest about the two novels I've started but failed to finish in the absence of someone having expectations that I'll ever finish.)

So, it's time I roll out a perk reserved for Collaborators, Co-Conspirators, and those on the RPG Consultant tier—a full chapter of a novel in progress. w00t!

Chapter 1 of The Ark of Broken Dreams:

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Bruce Launches a Patreon!

Guess what? I’m writing another novel. Wahoo! Two novels, actually, but it’s taking a lot more time than I’m used to. What gives?

In the past, and with the aid of deadlines imposed by my previous publishers, I've published 10 novels. 
Shelf of previous novels
Without a deadline imposed on me, I've finished… 0 novels (though I've started two).

See the problem? I've got the aforementioned 2 novels I'd like to complete, but it's easy to let my RPG-writing day job take up all my "writing spoons" without a novel-writing deadline to motivate me to make mental space for both.

WHICH IS WHY PATREON COULD BE JUST THE TICKET! (Ahem.) Please consider joining me. I'm always looking for a good accomplice, collaborator, or co-conspirator.

In addition to other Patreon perks for my patrons, I’ll be providing excerpts from in-progress novel chapters, short stories, and game design work, as well as occasional thoughts and strategies on writing fiction and RPGs. Most perks will be for patrons. But not always. In fact, this being my launch day, I face the prospect of getting the word out to anyone who might want to lend a hand. So, I’m sharing this excerpt widely! (And you’d have my thanks if you helped me spread it around a bit, too!)

Excerpt The Ark Of Broken Dreams:

The shadowy stairs and a man who wasn’t there dissolved as I opened my eyes. Bird song and dawn light feathered the pine canopy overhead. My hammock swayed a bit, probably momentum left over from a bit of unconscious thrashing. Realization calmed my quick breaths and thudding heart. My shaky laughter filled the campsite. 

Across from the dead campfire in her own hammock, Shiela Gilbert watched me, her head poking from the top of her sleeping bag. “Why so happy?”

I smiled, actually glad to see her for once. “I just had a nightmare that scared the living shit out of me. I’m laughing because it wasn’t real.”

Her mouth quirked as she considered. “Hmm. Haven’t had one of those for awhile.”

Field geologist Shiela Gilbert was a no-nonsense achiever with little tolerance for ephemeral “crap,” as she called it. Things like the interests and concerns of other people, for instance. Or whatever nonsense they dreamed about at night. What got her excited was the discovery of new mineral deposits, stratification, subduction zone maps, and other things geological. Otherwise, she tended to tune others out.

“I still get bad dreams,” I admitted. “From time to time.” Though not usually ones so real. The dream reminded me of when I was a kid and stayed up late watching Creature Feature. A habit that had inevitably led to nightmares: blood stains on the floor that wouldn’t come out, mud men that pulled you underground to some unspeakable fate, and dead faces staring in through second story windows.

Although the nightmare I’d just had was completely new. I’d been watching something called “DEVILTRY” on tv. The show’s title had animated, then slithered right out of the screen into the real world, morphing into a sort of demonic dragon-thing. Whose teeth, though made of letters, were horrifyingly sharp. I ran, only to come face to face with something on the stairs.

You know those specks that sometimes float on the surface of your eyes? The little phantom dots, floating around that you can never quite focus on? That’s what the man coming down the stairs was made of. 

Yeah, like I said. A bad dream.

Thanks for reading! Please check out my Patreon at

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Top Ten Best Books, As Self-Selected By Their Author

A few people have asked me to identify, out all the material I've worked on and or written, my top ten favorites. Ok, that's a fair question. But it's a hard one. Not so hard as picking just one favorite, which is probably, "Whatever I'm currently working on!" Still, it requires me to take a little time to think about it. My credits bibliography has grown a long tail over the last 25 years, so can I possibly pick just ten? Maybe. As an exercise in self-reflection...

So alright. This is my stab at choosing the ten favorite books that I've written myself, in no particular order (other than from most recent to oldest). Plus a little curation to go with each. This is a blog, after all!

Numenera Discovery and Numenera Destiny, MCG 2018. Working on these books, and Numenera Destiny, in particular, was a monumental effort. Coincidence I went to the hospital the day after turning over my contribution? Probably, but it makes a good story. Given Numenera's central place in the MCG product offering, and how much I love science fantasy, this choice picked itself. How can't you love a setting set a billion years in Earth's future? (Obviously, this is the second edition of an earlier book I had nothing to do with; but this one adds an entirely new volume, which I was very much a part of, as was the entire MCG team, a group of harder-working, talented, and kinder people I've rarely known.)

Jade Colossus: Ruins of the Prior Worlds, MCG 2017. My love of dungeon crawling goes back to dungeon geomorphs of 1E fame and the random dungeon generator in the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide. In many ways, Jade Colossus is a love letter to that system in the first DMG, because it debuted the Ruin Mapping System, which is 40+ pages of crazy random dungeon generation fun (and it's what we based our new Ruin Deck on, too). NOTE: A 5E conversion guide for Jade Colossus is going to be made thanks to our Arcana of the Ancients campaign!

Art: Lie Setiawan
Gods of the Fall, MCG 2016. What can I say, I poured my heart and soul into this, and I was blessed with a new artist to the MCG stable, Lie Setiawan; and a graphic designer/art director Bear Weiter, both of whom brought this book to life in a way I could have hardly hoped for. Combined with my message of "take a broken world and try to fix it" (as newborn gods in a fantasy world where the old gods all died out in a catastrophic event) definitely stars on this list.

I had a somewhat lighter schedule in the two months leading up to writing this book, which allowed me some time to really think about what I wanted to say, and better yet, brainstorm with the MCG design team as well as my amazing partner, Torah Cottrill, who really helped me define what a true catastrophe in heaven might look like. To learn more about Gods of the Fall, check out this Gods Of The Fall FAQ.

Art: Matthew Stawicki
The Strange, MCG 2014. I left wizards to write a science fiction novel where I could explore another explanation for the Fermi Paradox using the accelerating expansion of the universe as an underlying clue. What's dark energy? Well, some say it's a realm known as the Strange...

Things didn't go exactly to plan because my friend Monte asked me about it, then suggested we write a game for it together. Which we did, launching two entire MCG game lines, the first being The Strange! (Which in turn set the stage for the Cypher System itself, building off Numenera.) It took a little while, but the novel that launched it all was finally published, too...

Lo and behold Myth of the Maker.

D&D 5E, WOTC 2014. D&D RULES! (I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to be directly employed by TSR and then WOTC for ~18 years writing mostly D&D.) A lot of transition occurred at Wizards during the very long development period of this fabulous project. And after putting several years into it, I ultimately left a year before publication. Obviously, the D&D design team hit it out of the park, and I'm lucky to have been part of it for as long as I was.

Sword of the Gods, WOTC 2011. Though this two-book duology (Sword of the Gods and Spinner of Lies) faced several publisher-and-market-related issues resulting in them being my poorest-selling books out of all the numerous Forgotten Realms novels I'd previously published (noted in the side-bar to the right under "My Novels and Short Stories"), the duology also represents my best novel writing work at that time. They benefited from all the previous years of mentorship and editing advice lavished on me by Wizards' novel publishing department, especially my editor Susan Morris. That department was dissolved just as I was finishing the first book and starting the second (hinting at those issues I mentioned). But despite it all, these are probably my favorite novels... though see my thoughts about The Strange (and Myth of the Maker) above. Though, hey, call out to Darkvision, ya'll.

Expanded Psionics Handbook, WOTC, 2004. I love psionics so hard my car vanity license plate is PSIONIC and it has been since October 2004 when I got a Prius (which I still drive today). I also wrote an earlier Psionics Handbook for 3E, but this expanded edition really brought the rule system forward in a meaty way that lots of people really enjoyed. I know I did.

Art: Todd Lockwood
The Sunless Citadel, WOTC 2000. So many hours of thought went into planning this one, up to and including the name itself (which came to me on a long road trip), the nature of the threat at the center, and all the many and varied kinds of encounters that would go into it. At one point, 3E designer Jonathan Tweet asked me if I would please change the name of my new evil plant creature from twig-wight to something else, because by his lights, "wight" meant undead. Made sense; I called them twig-blights instead (an even more fitting name). And hey, look, DMDavid has it noted as a favorite, too!

(I'd count the follow-on modules I wrote for this adventure path as part of the evolving narrative that started in Sunless Citadel, which is Heart of Nightfang Spire and Bastion of Broken Souls.)

Return to the Tomb of Horrors, TSR, 1998. You know how I got handed this plum of an opportunity? Because everyone else's schedule was full, and that's how things happened at TSR back in the day. Well, I recognized that opportunity was knocking, and I spent every waking hour imagining how this would play out. Though it all sort of crystallized when I sketched out the overall shape of the adventure on a legal pad: Necromancer outer shell, original tomb, mouth/gate leads to a cursed city of sleep, and there to the negative energy plane and the fittingly titled Fortress of Conclusion.

Art: Jeff Easley
Gates of Firestorm Peak, TSR 1996. The one that started it all, baby! I've talked a lot about this over the years, most recently here on my blog. Plus, external validation (on a top 10 list here) is always nice! Though lots of people never really realized it, this was supposed to be a "Player's Option" adventure, using special rules that the bulk of D&D players probably didn't have. So, I adopted an adventure format that was aimed primarily at anyone who had regular D&D rules, plus a few additional considerations for those using D&D Player's Option material for each encounter. That ended up working really well. Most of the people who bought and played this didn't use Player's Option rules. The few bullet points appended at the end of each entry for Player's Option aficionados didn't bother anyone.

Late Mention: (The following book was published after I wrote this article).
The Stars Are Fire, MCG 2019. Since working at MCG, I've written a huge number of gamebooks. A few of them are more "special" to me, including The Strange, Gods of the Fall, and now this new book, The Stars Are Fire. This sourcebook allowed me to explore my lifelong love of science fiction, and give homage to my special appreciation for hard science fiction, too. I included all kinds of resources for GMs wanting to run a science fiction RPG one-shot or campaign, and given that it's a 224 page book, those resources are extensive.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

My Norwescon 2019 Panel Schedule

Hey, I'll be at Norwescon starting tomorrow. If you can stop by one day, come by and say hi! My schedule (the panels I'll be on) is something like so:

Charlatanry and Chicanery: GMing on the Fly
2:00pm - 3:00pm @ Cascade 9
Jaym Gates (M), Bruce R. Cordell, Crystal Frasier

Fantastical Beasts and How to Write Them
3:00pm - 4:00pm @ Cascade 9
Bruce R. Cordell (M), Mary Robinette Kowal

What are RolePlaying Games and Where Do I Start?
10:00am - 11:00am @ Cascade 11
Bruce R. Cordell (M), Dylan Templar

Stepping Behind the Screen: Overcoming GM Anxiety
6:00pm - 7:00pm @ Cascade 9
Bruce R. Cordell (M), Kiva Maginn, Lee Moyer, Christen N. Sowards

Technology at the Gaming Table
4:00pm - 5:00pm @ Cascade 5 & 6
Gabriel de los Angeles (M), Bruce R. Cordell, Matthew Moore

Working in Games Real Talk
6:00pm - 7:00pm @ Cascade 7 & 8
Bruce R. Cordell (M), Crystal Frasier, Kiva Maginn, Christen N. Sowards

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

My D&D Selfie

I wasn't sure what pic to use for my #DnDSelfie until I came across this picture, which is sorta perfect, given both my smartphone cover and situation: this was taken in 2013 right after the office party Batgirl threw for me when I left my 18 year career with Wizards/TSR and Dungeons and Dragons behind to try something new.

D&D Selfie 2013

And yeah, the #DnDSelfie tag awesomely demonstrates that the stereotype of #DnD players as socially incompetent male nerds is TIRED and OVER. Huzzah! That said, I just rewatched the SNL clip. I gotta say, I admire the passion & joy these guys have; they got no fucks to give about conforming

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Wonderful and Terrible: The Medical System in the US of A

The medical system in the US is wonderful—I got "science fiction" non-invasive treatment over a year ago for blood clots in my lungs, making a full-recovery in days, if not hours.

And the medical system in the US is terrible—I just got another bill for my treatment from over a year ago; apparently, even though I went to an in-network hospital approved by my insurance company, one of the doctors who saw me is "out-of-network."

So the US medical system can apparently "balance bill" me the full amount charged by that doctor. Over a year later (no bill previously sent.) After I've been making monthly payments over the previous year on my in-network high-deductible out-of-pocket bill.

I mean, I'm glad I'm alive. I can't bitch too much. But holy shit we need some reform and we need it now.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Origin of the Far Realm in D&D

Cover art by Jeff Easly.
I was hired by TSR in 1995. Within a month, I was tasked to "Write a D&D adventure that supports all our new Player's Option materials." Oh, and one that would have a couple double-sided poster maps and lots of punch-out creature tokens. The only other thing already established was the name: The Gates Of Firestorm Peak. (A title suggested by Roger Moore, I believe)

Prior to this, my writing CV was a few sections in a Spacemaster supplement, and probably a hundred new creatures in a Rolemaster bestiary. (Oh, and thousands of lines of code, including lots of descriptive elements, in various MUDs and MUSHes). But I was up for the challenge!

Though I was slightly worried that creating a Player's Option D&D adventure would pigeon-hole the material too narrowly. So I adopted an adventure format that was aimed primarily at anyone who had regular D&D rules, plus a few additional considerations for those using D&D Player's Option material for each encounter. That ended up working really well. Most of the people who bought and played this didn't use Player's Option rules. The few bullet points appended at the end of each entry for Player's Option aficionados didn't bother anyone.

Which is to say, I was freed from having to focus on the rules, meaning I could design an adventure that was exciting to play, within an all-new environment that was a fusion of regular fantasy tropes with concepts a bit further afield: Lovecraftian concepts combined with Lamarkian ones, in particular.

Cover art by Fred Fields.
Somewhere in that stew of things becoming weirder and weirder as I designed toward the center of the mountain, the Vast Gate came into being. Crafted by Elder Elves during a previous epoch for exploration, it was eventually hidden away when they realized that their portal leading to a place outside of time had worked all too well. The place beyond time was the Far Realm, and to the sensibilities of those from a dimension of just three spatial and one temporal dimension, it was a place of horror.

My next project, The Illithiad, allowed me to further flesh out my notion of the Far Realm, and what better creatures to do that with than illithids? So in the lore text, I floated the rumor of how an ancient magical craft capable of traveling outside of time, crewed by sorcerers, found its own way beyond the edges of the cosmos, encountering the Far Realm for mere moments, before falling back into regular space and time. Humans on the craft were normal at first, but each and every one of them was soon revealed as being infected by an illithid larva, thus forming the first illithids a long, long time ago.

Over almost twenty years of design work, I continued to scatter bits and pieces of the Far Realm into D&D. The culmination of it all, at least for me, was my Abolethic Sovereignty Trilogy which brings the Far Realm front and center by the trilogy's end. Elves once again had a part to play, primarily by my half-elf protagonist Raidon Kane who battled both personal and cosmic horrors, as well as an ancient clan of elves in watchtowers all along the border of reality, guarding against incursion from a realm not their own.