The Epistolary Character

There is something curious about the art of letter writing. A letter is not quite a tall tale, as its contents are as real as ink can ever get, yet neither is it an essay, for it tells its own sort of story, and not merely another’s. A letter is neither a missive though one might take it for that by the definition in the thesaurus. A missive seeks only to relay a message, which, though a letter does as well, it does so incidental to its prime purpose (or as I see it – feel free to disagree, and I’ll put on my best hat and tie to answer the argument.)

A letter is an accidental autobiography. It is not quite a testimony as one might give in court, and it certainly isn’t a memoir (I’ve long thought that word rank with self-absorption), yet the story is very much your own – but also someone else’s. In the case of the now ubiquitous and somewhat oxymoronic ‘open-letter’ that can be the story of a great many individuals. I stretch my definition here, as I have always believed a letter in its truest nature is always a private affair, meaningful only to those whom it concerns.

A letter is the story not only of its author, but also of its recipient. In how someone conducts themselves in a letter, you see not only the paths of their logic and feelings, but also of their perceptions of their partner. In the lines of a letter you can see a cerebral and calculating mind at once madly in love with the subject of his affections, or a passionate spirit cooled by heartbreak and loneliness, or the supreme disconnection of one so consumed with the craft of his message that he has left out its heart, and quite accidentally put something else in its place.

The heart of a letter is a hard thing to nail down, much like a certain physicist’s cat – yet when it is found, the soul of a thoughtfully written letter is so much more evocative and descriptive of a relationship than any number of adjectives and prose. And while you might put this to use in your own letters (though in this digital age we are rarely given to such extravagances as personalized, emotive communication), my concern with this subject is in fiction.

You have your brilliant band of misfits for your novel, whether it be an adventure through the forests of Moravia or a harrowing journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or just an exceptionally interesting walk to the Circle-K (though this article is written with the longer form and epic scale in mind, you may have opportunity to apply it to the short and mundane as well). You have written out their relationships, you know how the little rascals should behave towards one another, think of one another, treat one another – and yet something doesn’t click. You struggle, as I have, to make the changes in their relationship seem realistic. You find it difficult to engineer the situations which lead to them demonstrating their feelings so that you don’t have to narrate them.

Write a letter between them. Take on the eyes and pen of one of your characters, and compose their thoughts to the other. There are few means more intimate of seeing your story’s world through your character’s eyes – and seeing your other characters. It is as close one can step into a relationship without being in one (or stalking them in the night, which I do not advise.) Even without integrating it into your finished work, this is a useful exercise for character development, particularly when it would seem odd to conduct an interview – while it may be quite easy to interview your average young hero or heroine, brimming with optimism and good-will, it’s quite the challenge to interview a power-hungry, kinslaying baroness without seeing her personality entirely out of its natural environment.

The mechanism of the letter, delivered and undelivered, can be a powerful way to speak your character’s thoughts aloud – but itself can be taken for just another form of thought-narration, if presented merely as the character is writing them. Recall that letters are not the story of the individual alone, but of the relationship between individuals. If you intend to use the epistle within your story, it must be presented through the eyes of its recipient (intended or not! A third party reading a letter meant for another is an ancient plot device as old as intrigue.) If you present a letter as seen by its writer, it is no different than a diary entry – which can be precisely what you intend. Diaries, although not covered here, can fill a similar function when presented as read by another character in the story – advancing and changing a relationship through the revelation of intimate secrets. Interviews can again do the same, though the value there is less in what is said and more in what is not said. Both worthy subjects for a further treatise.

To summarize, the letter is an ancient form, and not merely one reserved for the practical conveyance of information. The Apostles great letters contain not only the explicit wisdom of the Holy Spirit speaking through them, nor merely a historical record of the churches then, but a priceless look at how the leaders of the early church felt towards and cared for the congregations under their care, and how those congregations responded. The letters of leaders both great and terrible speak volumes to their official and their personal relations – Hitler the Fuhrer is very different from Hitler the Starving Artist. In just the same way, your characters will conduct themselves very differently in public and in private, in the spoken word and in the written word, and in that difference you can capture the essence of how that individual views himself and everyone else.

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Keramidian

A land without rain, a kingdom built where the sea drained away, its capitol sitting upon the docks of a bone-dry port, a palace built from a warehouse of the giants who were struck from the Earth by the might of the Destroyer.

Its farms grow green-gray, basted by glassy dust and watered with the condensate of the Fissures – moisture traps which capture the steam rising from the underground aquifers underneath the Keramidian, boiled by the interminable sun which is interrupted only by the Storm Plagues.

Coming from the east, from deep within the Glasslands, the rainless clouds bring hails of blade-sand and lightning, burning away the brittle land into glass, foot by foot, and mile by mile.

A kingdom which once covered a thousand miles from the Salt Barrens to the Whistling Wall of the Eastern Keramidian has now shriveled to three hundred miles, its borders marked by the Stelae, the copper lightning rods which hold back the Plague of Storms. Yet in spite of the gold and men thrown at these fragile devices of sorcery and science, the Glasslands grow ever wider, and more crops fail every year as the sun strips the life from the waterless soil. In these bleak times of sun, sorrow, and shadow, who shall deliver Keramidia?

Who shall deliver us?

Half-Lucidity: Getting into Character

Actors, singers, dungeon masters, and roleplayers all talk about getting into character, stressing how vital it is to the quality of the performance / game to have good roleplaying. And we know what it is, or at least what it looks like, just by intuition. But how does one get there, without years and years of practice or innate talent (or psychopathic manipulation)?

The answer is (not-entirely) simple: what would your character do, and why?

Roleplaying will come more naturally if you understand your character’s background and why their personality has turned out the way it has. This requires some more effort on the development side, but will reward you with increased immersion. It’s one thing to have your character obsessively collect puppies and paint them sky blue. It’s funny a few times, but after a while, with no apparent reason for it, it can quickly become a mere annoyance.

But what if he had a strong reason? Strange as it may be, what if his reason for painting puppies is because he’s secretly part of a doomsday cult that believes the world will end under an invasion of blue dogs, and he is setting up the end of the world by painting the dogs blue and indoctrinating them into hyper-aggressive dog soldiers when no one else is looking? Not only is it more interesting and possibly generating its own involved storyline, it’s also freaking hilarious, and evolves from slapstick to an inside joke.

Here’s my example:

Jenny has decided (or been coerced by her impatient and demanding DM) to expand her horizons and roleplay someone besides the standard-issue lithe, manipulative rogue type. So, she goes with a gruff male fighter named Jeff, because she wants to use the line from 22 Jump Street. But her DM isn’t satisfied with that. ‘What’s his personality like? Why is he a fighter? Why is he going out to save his village?’

Now, the easy way out is to make him a gruff mercenary who is (naturally) grizzled by his years of experience, and is saving the world for dimes and dames. But such a character is so cliched it’s difficult to play him well without spending an exhaustive amount of time developing the history of an already matured character.

So Jenny makes Jeff a nervous, withdrawn momma’s boy. And before her DM can pester her again, she preempts him and thinks about why he might be this way, and how on earth such an individual would become an adventurer.

“Jeff was never really any good at anything. He was always middle of the back, and never stood out. He wasn’t really that strong, or smart, or clever or talented. The only thing that others ever noticed about him was that he was always there, rain or snow, sleet or hail. He knew he would never stand out here, and he feared the loneliness of growing old without someone beside him or real friends. So though he’s not really brave, strong, smart, or any adjective that would indicate a hero, he’s got a heart of gold and a will of iron, and no matter how many times you knock him down, he’ll get back up, again and again. The strongest warriors are those that don’t quit. And though he hasn’t received a lot of love from his village, and has little to keep him from leaving, he wants to be the hero. He wants to save the day. And he wants something to matter enough to him that he’d die for it. Realizing that nothing will matter that much if he doesn’t try, he’s decided to risk it all, do or die to be reborn a hero.”

Jenny’s DM stares at her, and slowly begins to grin.


More important than mannerisms, accents, quirks or oddities, knowing why your character is risking his or her life is the most important part of roleplaying in D&D, and roleplaying in general. Embedding yourself in the character’s desires and emotions will allow you to more easily perform their associated verbal tics and make player decisions that feel like they really matter. From this proceeds a story that makes more sense, requires less DM prodding, feels freer, more organic, and much more entertaining.

Quirks are just icing on the cake (very much appreciated and iced cake is preferable to plain cake).

P.S. Doing young or inexperienced character with a fairly shallow background is actually better for roleplaying than some guy who’s had decades of experience and taken every sort of blow a man can take. Those young characters can still have traumatic events that define them, but their youth and relative inexperience means that the adventures they undertake can still leave a mark on their still impressionable minds. Plus, the younger the character, the less time you have to cover when making your background.

No Context #2: And Now For Something Completely Different

Have you ever gone out on a rescue mission for the most uncomfortably designed sex-robot who was kidnapped by psychotic drugged-out desert bandits, only to be lured into an ambush of animatronic suicide teddy bears engaged in a dangerous game of landmine frisbee, then upon acquiring and taming the sex-robot, whose circuit boards have all been replaced with cheese pizza, been roped into performing in a concert for the king of the raiders by a giant mutant lizard thing with claws the size of your forearm, playing a giant electric guitar made out of a 40mm anti-aircraft gun, while also protecting him from assassins in the middle of the mosh-pit concert while he rocks out the hardest anyone has in ages, killing several dozen audience members with his guitar cannon, and instead of being rewarded with money, been showered with dozens of copies of his newest album?

Continue reading No Context #2: And Now For Something Completely Different

D&D Story #1: No Context

Saturdays are great. Particularly when not taking your ADHD meds.

Contained within Landsknecht of 4/2/2016 are events various such as multiple electrocutions, a satanist cult, attempted assassination, a very unconvincing viking, a vampire, and an explosive tampon.

Read on only if you have an appreciation for the puerile, the crass, and the absurd.

Continue reading D&D Story #1: No Context

It’s Been a While, so Here’s a Game!

Something I didn’t make clear in my previous D&D centered posts is my absurd and self-flagellating obsession with modding. Tabletop games, that is, not computer games (which at this stage still overwhelms my capacity for code lingo.)

I find D&D a flawed system— but only in the same sense of a large hunk of unsmelted iron oxide. With a forge, hours of labor, a few watts of electricity for computer power, and the anvil of my desk (using my forehead as the hammer), I can make nearly any imaginable creation from it.

Continue reading It’s Been a While, so Here’s a Game!

Day Six: How Cramping Doesn’t Cramp You

Shame upon me, I’m late!

In spending an evening listening to remixes of the glorious compositions of the underestimated Ennio Morricone, I entirely forgot to put up a post last night. Which, really, isn’t that big a deal.

But principles matter.

And that’s why I adhere to realism in my roleplay.

No, not for its own sake, to accurately model fencing manuals of the late fifteenth century and paint a stark lithograph of a fight in armored harness. At the end of the day, it’s still a game, not training for a post-apocalyptic scenario in which your local SCA group must band together to defend the town against mutants and zombified football hooligans.

Continue reading Day Six: How Cramping Doesn’t Cramp You

Day One (?): It’s the Players that Make the Play

Okay, first real post.

Now that we’ve made an acquaintance of each other (if we haven’t PM me for an intimate, sensual, and mentally disturbed personalized Acquaintance-Maker 9000), here goes:

The Case Against Heroes: Storytelling in Roleplay and Writing

Heroes just aren’t that fun to GM for.

This is not a belittlement of players, nor of the heroic narrative. It’s a commentary on what makes a truly fascinating hero, as far as writers, dungeon masters, and role-players are concerned, condensed into three neat points, and probably leaving out a lot of other details (I need more than one post, alright?)

In a good campaign, regardless of what plot the DM may have laid out, it is ultimately the players’ characters who tell the story. At least, I assume that’s what a good campaign is because my players are still with me, and I’ve come to accept that whatever story I write down is not the one that will be told.

With that said, the player characters do not necessarily tell a good story. The DM may not have a better one either. In fact, separate, without communication, it is virtually impossible to create a quality story. It might create some occasional eye-roll worthy moments or the odd burst of laughter as a random passerby is mugged for his kidneys, but characters disjointed from setting can’t tell a story that can touch (a subject for another blogpost in itself.)

When it comes time for a new setting and to ask my players to roll up new characters, I’ve noticed they tend towards the epic scale of character origins. The example I’ll use here is with a Pathfinder campaign I homebrewed in a vaguely Asian setting called Saichu, a low fantasy feudal JapanChina with some Scottish elves and giant lizard men (called Syntar in setting) tacked on for flavor. I began preparations for it about a month in advance, my players having the same time to stew on their characters.

What we got was a former bodyguard to the empress of the Syntar turned bounty hunter, a possessed sorceress whose father was a retinue man of the shogun, an initiate demon-hunting monk of a long forgotten order dedicated to fighting the god of chaos (and talkative crows), a crackshot yakuza assassin cancer patient (an example of everything that can go wrong with dice-rolled stats), and a drunken samurai with serious daddy / brother / mommy / relative issues.

Though taken as a sum this should have been an amazing combination, it quickly became a train wreck of a campaign. Players tried to murder each other on at least three occasions, someone tried to debate trickle-down economics with a samurai lord, and the Syntar kept kicking people through doors. Not only was the balance of combat destroyed, but the story itself failed to progress meaningfully, in large part because the characters were already too developed. Not by levels or power, but by their stories. With so many vastly different objectives and no particular reason to work together nor common background, the group lost cohesion, and stumbled sluggishly from one DM-suggested objective to another.

This mess was in large part my fault. Because I had failed to effectively communicate the idea of ‘progressing’ characters to my players and had failed to coordinate their character creation, the campaign limped on for six sessions before they caused an apocalyptic flood while attending a communist musical.

Was it a boring campaign? No, not by any stretch. That result depends on what you, whether player or DM, want out of a campaign. If you’re just here for a bloody good time, then there is no reason not to indulge in ridiculously overblown characters and frequent overreaction; i.e., trolling.

But if you are intending to tell a serious story in which your characters undergo meaningful change, and exit the plot with some profound internal insight, then the characters must also fit the setting.

At any rate, this is a complex topic, best discussed in multiple parts, and preferably without Charles Barkley yelling at me from the next room over.