How D&D Became a Youth Lesson in Morals, Politics, and Team-Building

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I don’t, and never have, made any attempt to hide the fact that I am a HUGE “geek.” I read comic books, obsess over Doctor Who, own some rather nice Lord of the Rings replicas, and play…Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a little known fact that playing Dungeons & Dragons is what led several people to becoming human marshmallows during the Salem witch trials. The 1950s McCarthyism was not about rooting out “communists,” it was about exposing people who played Dungeons & Dragons. The crash at Roswell? A major Dungeons & Dragons cover up conspiracy. Nobody could know that top military brass played Dungeons & Dragons and that there were prototype d20s on the defense budget.

It was never “cool” to play Dungeons & Dragons. There was (is?) a stigma attached. Pfffttttt……..whatever.

Dungeons & Dragons is what got me writing stories in the first place. I remember being a 12-yr-old, listening to a handful of teenagers collaboratively telling stories, taking on the role of their own unique character, making choices, responding to the Dungeonmaster’s narrative, rolling dice and responding to the results. They were sitting around a picnic table in some Pittsburgh suburbia backyard, but their minds were far, far away. I listened, rapt, eyes wide – I was there, with them, in some place both magical and wondrous. There was a dank, decrepit tomb, and skeletal warriors with rusted scimitars and mildewed shreds of clothing and armor. There were wizards casting spells and warriors fighting through the undead horde. These kids were creating a story…together. It was oral storytelling at its best. It was synonymous with early man sitting around the fire and sharing folklore. It was enchanting. It fired so many imagination synapses at once that I was hooked…addicted. I wanted to not only live in those fantasy worlds, I wanted to create my own tales, let loose my imagination through the art of storytelling – I wanted to tell stories.

diceSo, fast forward – 30 years later. I still play, I always have. Sure, it’s waned a bit in recent years with schedules and workloads and such, but it’s never gone away. My boys have finally reached the age, where they can begin to play. And THEY approached me, “Dad, can we play Dungeons & Dragons?” My heart might have skipped a few beats. My boys were asking me to play Dungeons & Dragons. You have to understand, as much as I push reading, getting fresh air, limited screen time, unplugging (I don’t even own a TV in my apartment), it’s a major struggle to get them off the electronics. It’s our society, it’s the world we live in – kids are growing up with buttons to push and screens to stare at. But D&D offers them a chance to use paper, pencil, some dice and their imagination. No electronics, no screens. AND…as a writer, it was going to help my kids learn to actively share in storytelling. We could create stories together. As someone who thrives on imagination and creativity, it is an opportunity to help them feed that part of their young minds.

While I expected the game to be a gateway to creativity, and an opportunity for shared storytelling, I never expected what occurred during our first weekend of playing. On Friday night, we made characters. Shane (13) created a Dark Elf rogue (going so far as to Google the Dark Elf language and create his own name using two different Dark Elf words – this was an allowable use of screen time). Logan (10 going on 40), a human wizard, and Sawyer (7 – young, but don’t want to exclude him), a half-orc ranger. They ate chips and Doritos and drank root beer, it was like Geek Nirvana. Then we began the adventure: They were hired on by the council of merchants of the village of “Ravenswood” to discover what had happened to the logging camp a day north, and see if there was any truth to the North Woods being haunted. The first encounter of the first night involved a few traps and a lone goblin scout. They were getting their feet wet.

I was not prepared for the next day. After finding the logging camp and defeating the remaining goblins and their hobgoblin overlord, things got interesting.

1. From the moment of finding the logging camp, to the end of the battle, Shane and Logan argued over the proper tactics for approaching the camp in the first place.

Shane: “I’m going to walk into the clearing. Is there hay in the wagon? I’m going to search the wagon.”

Logan: “I’m following.”

Shane: “No you’re not.”

Logan: “Yes I am.”

Shane: “Stop following me. You’re going to give me away.”

Logan: “No I’m not. You’re walking in the open. I’m going too.”

Argue, argue, argue. You’re stupid. No, you’re stupid. You got us shot with arrows. No, you got yourself shot with arrows for walking right out in the open. argue, argue, argue.

2. Concerning the two wounded goblins that surrendered to them: An intense moral argument erupted about what to do with them.

Shane: “I’m going to make them our slaves.”

Logan: “No! Slavery is wrong. We are not taking them as our slaves.”

Sawyer: “Put them in a sack!”

Shane: “Yes, we are. They deserve it. They shot us with arrows.”

Logan: “We are not. That means they’ll get mistreated. Slaves get mistreated. We’re not doing that.”

Sawyer: “Put them in a sack!”

Shane: “Yes, we are.”

Logan: “No, we are not.”

Sawyer: “Sack!!”

This went on for about 15 minutes or so…

3. Which led to the next argument…about politics:

Logan: “You don’t get to make all the decisions.”

Shane: “I’m smarter than you. I know more.”

Logan: “No, my character has a higher intelligence than you. Besides, we should all have an equal say.”

Shane: “So, you think everyone gets to share equally? That’s communism. I’m not being a communist.”

Logan: “No. I’m saying we all get a vote. Majority decides. That’s a democracy.”

This political argument lasted another 15 minutes. Sawyer just ate chips.

4. Working on team-building skills:

The bleed over of who gets to call the shots, led to how they make decisions, led to what to do with the goblin’s equipment. For whatever reason, Shane and Logan insisted on arguing over who got the goblin’s scimitar and who got the short bow. They already had decent equipment and this was, after all, just crappy goblin weaponry. Nothing exciting. Nevertheless, the great goblin equipment debate ensued.

While it was frustrating at the time, and we had to pause the adventure and put the books and dice away lest they kill each other, I realized how awesome what had just transpired was. Arguments aside, my kids were engaging in a healthy debate about morals and politics. They were discussing and figuring out how to work as a team. They were engaging their imagination and taking on the role of their own character, collaboratively telling a story. All of this around some fictional goblins, some polyhedron dice, an original scenario and some character stats on a piece of paper. They were unplugged, excited and engaged. And despite their differences, they wanted (they want) more.

Dungeons & Dragons, and role-playing games like it, offer kids and adults alike an opportunity to really stretch their mind in a multitude of healthy ways. It is such a wonderful tool that it saddens me to think of the stigma attached to it – the trepidation with which adults approach the mere mention of the name. D&D is a wonderful, rich, imaginative tool just waiting to teach, inspire and exercise our minds. Give it a try – you’ll be wandering through fantastic worlds in search of adventure before you know it. Returning is optional. ;)

P.S. – The fate of the goblins is yet to be decided.

-jpm

The 777 Throwdown

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So there I was, minding my own business…pounding keys, smoke pouring from my fingertips when SLADDAP! Heather Demetrios comes strolling across my Twitter feed and slaps me across the cheek with a fish, or a gauntlet, or a canoe oar, it doesn’t really matter. What DOES matter is that I’ve been challenged. Challenged to put up or…I don’t really know what the alternatives are. But this is a challenge, right? One writer challenging another writer. And EVERYBODY else is doing it. In fact they’re all doing it right now. They were challenged and posted like 6 seconds later. Don’t these people have jobs? (Says the guy on his laptop, on his couch, at 3:53 p.m.). Kidding, friends :)

So what’s this challenge? 777 refers to the first full seven lines from page 7, (starting 7 lines down), of your current work in progress. It may also refer to the challenge of doing 777 push-ups in a row, but I am going to elect to go with the first choice of the 777 challenges as my current record is already 775 push-ups and I don’t want to show off by hitting 777.

Anyway, here it is, from my middle-grade work in progress, Russell Sprout: Mind Over Matter. Russell is a 5th-grader at Arthur J. Weevilnoggin Elementary. He’s in a pitched battle against his arch nemesis, Benjamin Franklin Gruber, for first place in the annual science fair. It’s a battle of the brains with a real, full size, robot on the line and the title of “Best Brain.” However, things take a crazy turn when Russell inadvertently drinks his father’s super secret formula and can suddenly make those figments of his imagination very, very real.

So, here it is, 7 lines, from 7 lines down, on page 7, of Russell Sprout: Mind Over Matter:

“Have a good-” said Mom. But Russell was already hopping down the steps, the front door swinging shut behind him. “-day.”
“Come on, Dad,” said Bheane, violin case in hand. She popped her earbuds in. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Darwin?” said Mom.
“Yes?” He absentmindedly slipped the bottled orange liquid into his pocket, grabbed his briefcase off the table, and bit into a pickle. “These are fantastic pickles.”
“Please stop keeping your work in the refrigerator.”

I challenge the following writers: RL Saunders, Jim Hill, LoriGoe, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin and Tom Birdseye.

Take Your Creativity On A Treasure Hunt

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So, I’m in the process of moving into my own place, a new place, a place in need of your used kitchen appliances and unwanted Tupperware. You know, the kinds of things that a guy moving into his own apartment doesn’t necessarily have in his back pocket (not that anyone has these things in their back pocket, because..that’s just…a blender? In your back pocket? That’s just…that would be extremely uncomfortable..and impractical…and potentially impossible. Enough! Figurative back pocket blenders! Ah, that’s better).

But don’t get me wrong, this is not a cry for your cast off, cast iron cooking skillet (but if you’re offering…). No, this is a blog about what an incredibly rich land of story potential and creative opportunity flea markets, auctions, and yard sales are. You see, in my pursuit of outfitting my new place, a place we shall henceforth refer to as THE DEATH STAR! No…..MORDOR!! No…the TARDIS? No….a place we shall henceforth refer to as “Joe’s Place” or “The House of Joe” and occasionally as “the Magnificent Joe Empire” I have been visiting markets and yard sales and such. Those places are absolutely awesome for writers to wander through!! I’ve taken to calling my market treks as “treasure hunting expeditions” because of what you find within and how it relates to writing. So here are my four main points for why flea markets and yard sales are treasure troves waiting for the intrepid writer:

1. Objects as potential stories: You never know WHAT you are going to find while wandering through the market. What’s that old adage? One person’s trash is another persondollhead‘s treasure? There are so many interesting objects just crying out to spark the catalyst of a story. In fact, I once wrote an entire short story about a monkey skull I’d seen at a yard sale! Yes, there was a…no, I don’t know why…no, I did not buy the monkey skull. But wander through, see what grabs your attention and then think about why it did. Was it odd? Scary? Funny? Unique? Start asking yourself questions, ask “what if,” let your imagination start creating a history behind the object. For example, what’s the deal with this creepy doll head I saw? Who did it belong to? Why is it smiling (what does it know that we don’t)? Where’s the rest of the doll? What might that doll have seen? Or take this set of samurai Samuraiswords. They belonged to the seller’s deceased brother. My mind starts going into weird places, like, was his brother slain in battle? Fighting ninjas? Monsters? Monstrous ninjas? Was his brother deceased when he took up the swords? Was he a zombie samurai!? Or maybe they were a family heirloom. Maybe his family served the Shogun of Japan. Maybe those were the Shogun’s swords! Maybe his brother was a crime fighter, or a time traveller, or a thief who had taken them from the home of the descendants of a famous samurai and now they were going to come looking for the swords and they were going to break into “The House of Joe” to get them (because that’s where they’re going) and I’d have to fight them off with the cast iron skillet that I don’t have!

2. Objects as character items: So, you’re trying to get into your character a little more, trying to really understand their personality, make them deeper, more believable. HooflampWhat kinds of objects might they put in their home, or what kinds of objects define them? You can tell a lot about a person by the things he/she might surround themselves with. Maybe Jimbo, your trailer-living private eye and off-season game warden, needs himself a new lamp. Maybe he just won himself a few bucks on a scratch off lottery ticket and he’s got his eyes all set on a new lamp. The kind of lamp the fellas are gonna be jealous of when they come by for bean dip and poker. You know the one, that deer hoof lamp on display in the window at Marshall’s Department Store. Take a walk through the market, see if you can find something that has your character’s name all over it.

3. Object histories as stories: Sometimes you find stories behind the object itself. These are sometimes touching, sometimes beautiful, sometimes remarkable, sad, or scary. Part of the fun of treasure hunting through the markets is talking to the sellers and finding out what they’re selling, and why, and where it came from. Sometimes the stories stand on their own, or sometimes they’re ripe to be tweaked, twisted, and elaborated on. Like my new Hemingway-esque photo (9)trunk/coffee table…this was hand-carved in Italy. An American soldier bought it while stationed overseas. After he passed away, his belongings were collected and placed into a storage unit. The seller bought the unit and everything that came with it, to include papers and letters…letters to a son he’d had with a woman from overseas, a son he’d never spoken to. Stories, people…they’re all around us.

4. Objects spark description: You’ve got this creepy neighbor character that happens to dress up as a clown and do kids’ birthday parties, but you’re not quite sure what kind of clown look you want. Sure, you could Google clown pics and surf the web, or you could get out, get some fresh air, and find that almost every market happens to have at least one person selling a creepy clown picture. Bam! Reference material, fresh air, and the creeps! Really, why are there so many clown paintings? And who hangs these things in their house?

IMG_3594  clown2

 

So there you have it, four reasons why flea markets and yard sales are so great for writers. Go on, get out there, feed your creativity…and who knows, maybe you’ll come home with a story idea AND a deer hoof lamp (NO, I did NOT buy the deer hoof lamp).

Happy writing, friends!

-jpm

My ALS #IceBucketChallenge Response

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So, my friend, Amy (A.S.) King has so generously slapped me with the icy cold gauntlet of the #IceBucketChallenge. If you are somehow unaware of what this is, it is a fun (and chilly) way to help fight against ALS. You take the challenge, donate what you can, and help spread the word. Plus, you get to watch people dump ice cold water over their heads, on the interwebs. If you don’t accept the challenge, you’re supposed to donate your soul (kidding), and you get called out over the web, and people everywhere will snigger and laugh behind your back and call you names that you have never even heard of. Really though, it’s a good cause, a silly challenge, and an opportunity for a spot of interwebs fun.

Read here for more details: http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge.html

Anywho, as I was saying, A.S. King Tweet-called me out and so, in gentlemanly fashion, I pick up the gauntlet and respond via this video: Click HERE.

 

And, I further challenge my wunderbar literary agent, Linda Epstein, and the extremely talented and hilarious writer, R.L. Saunders, to step up and accept the glove of frigid H2O buffoonery with which I have tauntingly slapped them.

 

Must Have the Precious

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Maybe it was the irregular sleep chart patterns. Maybe it was finding that everyone around me was simply breathing too loudly, or too close to me, or that their eyelids made noises when they moved. Maybe it was the incessant pacing, or the growling, or the muttering, or the fact that I answered anyone who dared speak to me in some angry, eldritch language. Or that my eyes were red, or that I was hovering eighteen inches off the floor, shooting lightning bolts from my eyes….

I mean, really, it could have been any one of those things. One of those things that told me…you’ve been away from the words too long

gollum

He didn’t write today

Because that’s just it. As writers, we crave the story. We need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or chisel to tablet (and if that’s you, you may seriously want to consider upgrading your routine). We need to pour out the words. We need to greet that page or screen (no, stop it, stone tablet writer…I’m not mentioning you. You just need to get with the times). We need to create. In short we need to write, and we need to write frequently. Ideally, every day, even if you can only find the time to get a few words down. A few is better than zero. We NEED to WRITE.

Yes, yeah, I know, I know….life, and jobs, and kids, and raising chickens, and commuting, and cooking, and fatigue and back alley games of ultimate backgammon. Dude, I get it. Life happens. It happens to all of us. And I’m writing this post to let you know that when you turn into a monster, that it’s ok. That it’s NORMAL. You’re a writer. It happens to all of us. It’s an occupational hazard (to everyone around us).

I’m writing this because after two days of zero words and then one where I produced less than I would have liked, I began to feel the symptoms (see paragraph 1). Then I realized, by Neptune’s beard,  we’re like Tolkien’s Gollum, from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! Our writing is our Precious!

“We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.” – Gollum

When we are writing and producing, we are clutching our Precious; happy and content and singing weird songs to ourselves in dank caves. What? You don’t? When something steals our time, or life intrudes, or the word count does not add up to much at the end of the week, we may find ourselves running amok, shrieking “They stole it from us! Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!” We grow irritable, confused, anxious, and prone to levitating, speaking in alien tongues and shooting lightning bolts from glowing red eyes.

Don’t shoot lightning bolts from glowing red eyes. Get writing.

WCCI’ve joined Jessica Cooper in holding ourselves accountable by keeping a weekly tally and then posting a pic of it on Twitter #WCC (Word Count Club). Basically you list each date Sun-Sat, with the number next to it, and then a weekly total. Even zeros. That’s right, big ‘ol goose eggs are a helluva a kick in the [deleted for family content’s sake]. Seeing three days of zeros is enough to light an inferno under your posterior. There’s no prize, just a visual look at what you’re doing, public accountability, and the admiration and/or commiseration of your fellow writers. So, I’m hoping you’ll join us in Tweeting your #WCC pics.

Hold on to your Precious, my friends….because the Hobbits of life will try and take it from you.

Go To The Mountain

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photo (8)

Image courtesy of Heather Demetrios

What does that even mean? Guy disappears from his blog for a month and comes back with cryptic messages about going to some mountain? Well, I’m about to tell you what that means and what it might mean for you. My own journey towards that mountain has taken me away from the interwebs for a bit and, as the universe is so keen  to do, this metaphor has cropped up in Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech and in my friend, Heather Demetrios‘s, Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture.

Go to the Mountain. In Gaiman’s speech, he explains that he imagined where he wanted to be (an author, making good books, able to make a living from his stories, etc.) was a mountain. A distant mountain. It was his goal. Furthermore, he says “…I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”  He explains that he said no to writing jobs (editorial, magazines, etc) that might have paid more money, because at the time it would have taken him away from the mountain. Had they come earlier in his career, he might have taken them (because they’d be closer than he was at the time to the mountain).

This is an absolutely wonderful metaphor. What is your mountain? What is your goal? And are you making decisions to reach that mountain? Will you be like Thorin and the dwarves of Erabor, striving to claim what is yours? Sorry, couldn’t resist an opportunity to throw in a Tolkien analogy.

No one is going to just swoop down from the summit and give you what you want. You have to take strides. You have to leave the comforts of your Shire (now I’m on a Tolkien roll, see what you’ve done?). You have to keep the summit in sight and move ever on and on, choosing those paths that will lead you closer to what you want.

You have to make decisions and you have to move forward. You do…IF you want it bad enough. For each of us, those decisions, those paths, may be very different. It may mean the jobs you take (or do not), the places you live (or do not), the social events you decline, the extraneous activities you cut out, or the sleep you do not get. That journey towards the mountain may mean vast changes for some, and small changes for others. It may mean a change in the people in your life. It may mean surrounding yourself with friends who truly support and encourage and share similar goals and beliefs. It may mean changes in relationships. It may mean a complete life change, an absolute shaking of your personal tree. For some, the decisions may be easy. For others, it may require much more difficult and/or complicated decisions. Easy or hard, minor or major, you make those decisions so that you can move forward, step after step after step, journeying towards that mountain. And that journey can be wonderful, exciting, and full of discovery, life, and love.

Just like our characters, we must move forward to achieve our desires, to reach our goals, to grow and change. We must go to the mountain.

Ask yourself, are you moving towards the mountain, or have you wandered off the path? Are the decisions you make taking you towards your dreams? Are your sights truly set on the mountain? And what does that mean? What ARE your goals? What sits atop that mountainous, snow-capped summit?

I hope you get there, and that you find what you are looking for. In the meantime, keep moving forward.

Go to the Mountain.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

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Everyone is tattooed!

Ok, maybe not “everyone,” but it seems like the majority of people I know, or see, or meet, have at least one tattoo. Age, profession, social class…it doesn’t matter. There are octogenarians getting their first ink; doctors with half-sleeves; Kindergarten teachers with their ribs done. Tattoos are not just for pirates, bikers, rebels, or criminals any more (in truth, tattoos existed as social, religious, and cultural marks long before they became the mark of the rogue or outsider, but that is another story).

I went to the indoor water park the other day and couldn’t help but notice the amount of ink walking around; older men and women, younger men and women, moms, dads, artsy looking folk, or conservative slant…it didn’t matter. There was a lot of ink. As a writer, I observe and record, keeping an eye out for potential story and/or character material. I like to watch and listen for details. So, I pay special attention to what I see. In this instance, people’s tattoos.

Names, and dates, and portraits, and entire scenes; characters and symbols and song lyrics. Each tattoo was unique to that person. I was in getting some of my own work done last week and I askedtattoo one of the guys if anyone still pulled “flash” (pre-drawn pieces of art available as tattoos) off the wall. Not many people do anymore. It’s just like some unspoken tattoo parlor code that you simply must display flash for customers or else your ink dries up and your tattoo machines stop working. But most people come in with custom ideas, or art, and work with the tattoo artist to create ink unique to them. Maybe it’s their grandmother’s picture, or a tribute to a friend who has died. Maybe it’s a passage from a book, or a symbol of what drives them (like a whisk for a chef or something). Whatever it is, it’s meaningful to them; it says something. Because they have something to say and they want to display it on their body, FOREVER, to let the world know/see.

They have a story to tell and they want to share it. Like writers, they have something important enough to say that they are willing to put it out there, to expose themselves, to make a permanent mark.

Writing is the same. Our stories are our ink. Our books are our bodies. Once you publish, post, send, distribute, or share your work, it’s out there; you are exposing yourself. You are displaying something, by choice; something you feel is important enough to share with the world.

We all have stories to tell. As writers, we shouldn’t just be pulling “flash” off the wall. Make it meaningful. Make it count. Make it your own.

We all have stories to tell. What is yours?