Bryan Russell wrote in with an email that quite amused me. It was his answers to The Fantasy Novelist's Exam. He's given permission for me to reprint his email here. Needless to say, he failed the exam, but at least he failed it with a flourish.
Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
Well, there's a lot of sheep tending, does that count?
Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
Does an orphaned son of a King and a goddess count? He finds out EVENTUALLY, after all.
Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn't know it?
Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
How did they know my villain was called Supreme Badguy?
Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
Well, two worlds...
How about one that will destroy it?
Only the Supreme Badguy's world, so that doesn't really count.
Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about "The One" who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
Some of the good guys actually die! So they're not saved.
Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
Well, how else can you tell the reader about the character who is a god in disguise?
Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
You're giving everything away.
Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
He was the King, resurrected! How did you know?
Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
Only two of the kings are like that.
Does "a forgetful wizard" describe any of the characters in your novel?
Only three of them. But one had a spell cast on him to make him so!
How about "a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior"?
Does he have my manuscript? He stole that line from me! That's plagiarism.
How about "a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons"?
Why would he give away the plot details? There would be no suspense then!
Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?
Don't all girls do that?
Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
Well, they have love scenes, too.
Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
No. My heroine is an Amazon.
Would "a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword" aptly describe any of your female characters?
Only the not nice ones.
Would "a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan" aptly describe any of your female characters?
I told you she was an Amazon.
Is any character in your novel best described as "a dour dwarf"?
He's not ALWAYS dour.
How about "a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage"?
He WAS torn, but now he's okay.
Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
They used to be enemies, but they patched things up.
Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
Well, short people are funny, aren't they?
Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
People actually fish from ships?
Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
What's a hay baler?
Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like "The Blasted Lands" or "The Forest of Fear" or "The Desert of Desolation" or absolutely anything "of Doom"?
Does the Baneful Place of Destruction and Death count? (That's where the Supreme Badguy lives.)
Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you've read the entire book, if even then?
Isn't that the point of a prologue?
Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
It's the first book in a set of three trilogies! And then I'm going to do a prequel.
How about a quintet or a decalogue?
3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = .... s***.
Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
Does that include New Jersey?
Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you're still many sequels away from finishing your "story"?
Well, obviously. There's still nine books left.
Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
I already told you that.
Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
It is Robert Jordan, but only because I legally changed it after reading Lord of Chaos.
Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
I combined two role-playing groups!
Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
How else would they get there?
Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
Aren't they called hyphens?
Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
Syllables... isn't that an STD? I don't have stuff like that in my book.
Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named "Tim Umber" and "Belthusalanthalus al'Grinsok"?
Well, they have different parents. And FYI, you spelled the name wrong.
Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
No, it contains all of them.
How about "orken" or "dwerrows"?
Do you have a race prefixed by "half-"?
Semi-Elves and Semi-Orcs sounded funny.
At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
Well, the mines weren't THAT old.
Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
How else would I know who won?
Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
My characters were all from my RPG. I told you that already, weren't you listening?
Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
Where else would they have the brawls?
Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don't?
Of course I do. My RPG told me all about it.
Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
Well, how else would they get to the Baneful Place of Destruction and Death?
Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won't break the plot?
Well, it would have ruined everything if he'd told them.
Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as "fireball" or "lightning bolt"?
They have to shout out the word "Fireball" or "Lightning Bolt" to make the spell work.
Do you ever use the term "mana" in your novel?
Yes. What's your point?
Do you ever use the term "plate mail" in your novel?
Yes, but it's usually called "magical plate mail."
Heaven help you, do you ever use the term "hit points" in your novel?
How else would the reader know that the character is wounded, or close to death?
Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
The same as any other colour of paint, right?
Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
Well, if they're injured too badly they obviously can't. I mean, that's only logical.
Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?
It was two barmaids.
Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
He has magic arrows that return when he shoots them. He has twenty of them. Sometimes he shoots so fast they're all in the air at the same time!
Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
Well, it was more of a slash, really.
Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
How else are they gonna kill them?
Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more?
My character's sword weighs 80 pounds. (He's very strong, though.)
Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
What would be the point if he doesn't get the girl?
Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
It's a serious book.
Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
Duh, it's a magical dagger. Sheesh.
Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
Well, you need one for each organ, right? So that's at least, like, three.
Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an "on the road" meal?
Well, sorreee! I'm not a cook, I'm a writer!
Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
No. It's casks of mead.
Do you think that "mead" is just a fancy name for "beer"?
Well, I don't think barbarians would drink wine! I mean, grow up.
Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
I didn't think they really needed religion. It just made things confusing.
Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves' guild?
Only just. The Beggars Guild is right up there too.
Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
Well, a slap on the wrist wouldn't show that he's BAD!
Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?
Well, they needed some diversion after the battles.
Is "common" the official language of your world?
Hey, that's a good thing to call it! Thanks.
Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
Well, old people weren't as clever as my characters.
Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
I resent that.
Read that question again and answer truthfully.
I truthfully resent that.
First things first. A reader by the name of Julia Houston has written a wonderful science fiction version of one of our humor featurettes, the Fantasy Novelist's Exam. I thought I'd draw some extra attention to it by pointing it out here. Give it a read.
Beyond that, an update on the state of the site is probably long overdue. Five months ago, Stephen Keller and I debuted All Movie Talk, a weekly podcast about movies. The weekly schedule is a demanding pace, because every segment of every episode requires not just the recording time, which is the small piece, but research time beforehand and editing time afterwards, plus the time writing up the posts that accompany each episode. As time has worn on, I've gotten more lax about the editing process, but that's strangely not very helpful at speeding the process.
Still, it's a rewarding undertaking, and I realized shortly after we started that I'd needed a change of pace from the usual sort of RinkWorks development that I do. It fired up my creative side again and got me moving on something productive, and, perhaps more importantly for you folks, something that gets added to the site on a regular basis that's worth coming back to.
At first -- actually, for the first four months of its five month run so far -- the development time has been so demanding, that I've had to put all other projects on hold. Obviously that's an unsustainable situation, and I was concerned we'd have to cut back. But for the last month, now that our development procedure is fairly streamlined, I've been trying to figure out how to get back into the swing of my normal RinkWorks content development, and that's been pretty successful so far. It's frustrating in the short term, because it's all stuff behind the scenes, but let me update you on what I've been tinkering with.
Primarily, I've brought the next Role-Player's Vault project off the backburner. It had lain dormant for almost a year, but for the last three or four weeks, I've been able to do substantial development work on it nearly every day. My momentum on it is back, and I'm ecstatic to be able to see the project coming together again. Some of the problematic issues that have hung over my head for the last one or two years have been resolved. The further I get into it, the harder it is to pull myself away from playtesting, because in fact the game is becoming playable enough that it's fun to play, and not just a walk through a construction site.
I don't want to talk much about the specifics of the game this early, but suffice it to say that it is orders of magnitude more complex than the Murkon games, while also being easier to play. Of particular note, nobody, not even the most directionally-challenged player, will have any difficulty navigating the world. You might not know where something is, but unlike the Murkon games, where it's easy to become disoriented (although usually this is only for the first level or two), you'll always know where you are and how to get back to where you've been.
Beyond that, much of the increased complexity is in the details. The Murkon games had 100 monsters types, plus a few bosses. This game will have a few thousand. The Murkon games had a bit over 200 items. This game will have an essentially unlimited number. The Murkon games had ten fixed dungeon levels. This game has randomly generated levels -- generated according to any of several distinct algorithms that produce different types of geography -- so that the number of places to explore is limitless. As a result of all these things and more, each run-through of the game should be a totally unique experience.
It's hard to know when I'll be done. Much of that depends on whether I can sustain my creative energy for it straight through to the end, or if I'll need to take an extended break and work on another project for a while instead. I have such a project: a logistically complicated Adventure Games Live game that I'm roughly half done with. I'm excited about that one, too, but I think it would be nice to finish the role-playing game before I pick that up again. We'll see.
Where I am now is a rather critical point in the development of the game. There are two basic parts to a role-playing game of this sort. There's the infrastructure and the world. The infrastructure is the mechanics, the engine. Can I move around in the game? Can I fight things and cast spells and trade equipment? Do all the mechanical pieces work? All the hows of a game. This part of the game is very close to completion, which is why I say, above, that it's becoming very playable.
The other part is the whats -- what races and professions and stats do I have? What levels and traps and items and monsters? That's not complicated from a mechanical perspective. None of these things are processes. They just are. But balancing the gameplay makes this an incredibly difficult step as well. The monsters you meet need to be of an appropriate difficulty level, or the game becomes too easy or impossibly hard. The rate at which you accrue experience points must be just right, so the game isn't frustratingly long, or so quick you don't have time to explore and accrue loot before you're all-powerful. The strengths of equipment, spells, and traps, the costs of items and services, and the availability of treasure all must be carefully calibrated to make a satisfying, well-balanced game.
That's probably the easier of the two halves to code, but it's also the most scary for me -- in part, because I've barely started it, and I'm not sure how finicky it's going to be. But I'm almost at the point where I can start to do that in earnest, and the process of playtesting the game from start to finish, tweaking numbers as I go, will also afford huge opportunities to find bugs in the infrastructure and discover usability issues that I can resolve by streamlining the interface. You can plan a game for weeks on end, but you can't account for everything, and you never know exactly how it's going to go until you actually sit down and try it out.
This project is a great testament to that lesson. This game, believe it or not, was conceived in 1995, some 12 years ago. I hadn't started actual development on it until shortly after the release of Murkon's Vengeance, but I'd written copious notes on how I wanted the game to be. Turns out, aside from the one very basic idea that the whole game is based on (a particular common characteristic of characters, monsters, and the geography that players must be strategic about), the game is already unrecognizable as a descendant of those original notes.
And the work continues.