Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Writer With A Ragged Quill

This is an extremely long one, so please indulge me on this.

Nearly two years ago, I sat down to compose my first post for the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. At that time, I was also undergoing a series of very profound and completely life-altering changes. It was a tumultuous time for me, more so than anything else I’ve ever experienced. A very wise man, one whom I cannot ever repay for his guidance, suggested that I needed to find something which would bring me great pleasure and keep my mind and hands busy during that period. After re-examining my past exploits, I concluded that, out of all my former pastimes, role-playing was both the one I enjoyed the most and the cheapest to resume. So, after dabbling with 3.5 and discovering it wasn’t for me, I started looking around for something I could better identify with and enjoy. This search led me to the Old School Renaissance, the Original Dungeons & Dragons Discussion forum, and the handful of blogs up and running then.

I spent a great deal of time becoming acquainted with the OSR blogosphere during those early months and was very excited by what I was reading. The whole DIY attitude that fueled the OSR reminded me of my previous experiences with the punk rock music scene in the late 80s and early 90s. I wanted very much to become involved with and contribute my own part to this exciting phenomenon, but it wasn’t until two of my creations won some small recognition over at James Maliszewski’s Grognardia that I thought some people might be interested in what else I had brewing. And thus, the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope was born.

For many, many months, the SoTPR served as my personal design workbook and place to hash out theory and wax philosophically about a game that—although I had a great deal of love for and was desperate to return to—I wasn’t actually playing. Since I had no face-to-face audience to share my creations with around the game table, this blog became my way of showing off exactly how cool I thought I was and what nifty ideas I had waiting to unleash upon my forever nebulous and eternally potential gaming group. It was my sole creative outlet. This, however, was about to change.

About this time, I plunked down the cash for the first two issues of Fight On! I read—devoured actually—each issue with a hunger that I had not felt since reading Dragon back in the 1980s. This little fanzine had more great ideas and cool adventures in its pages than the largest WotC splat book I’d ever read. I simply had to have more, but I wasn’t sure if my beleaguered finances could afford to splurge on each and every issue as they came out. That’s when I realized that if I started sending in articles and they were accepted, they’d have to send me a free contributor’s issue in return. This seemed to be the perfect scheme to me. After all, I was already writing article-length posts on the Society for nothing in return.

My first Fight On! piece, a cleaned up version of my Random Rooms post, was accepted and before long I became a somewhat regular contributor to its pages. As of the most recent issue, I’ve got articles in four of the nine issues of the magazine. It was during this time that I was asked to submit pieces to both Silver Gryphon Monthly and the first Open Game Table anthology, which further expanded my published appearances beyond this little corner of the blogosphere.

Then came "The Dungeon Alphabet" and my life changed to an extent I never even imagined.

What I intended to be an almost throw-away piece designed to let me take a weeklong break from blogging turned out to have sequoia-like legs. First, Knockspell came—ahem—knocking, asking for the right to reprint it in their inaugural issue, to which I gladly agreed. Almost immediately after I told Matt Finch that it could appear there, Goodman Games approached me with the idea of turning it into a book. Like just about every other referee, I’ve always harbored ambitions of writing a role-playing book and plunged into the task of turning five blog posts into a 32 page book with abandon.

As that book began to develop, I would occasionally get updates from Goodman. When I learned that they had wrangled some of the artists who illustrated the D&D of my youth, I was delighted. When I learned Erol Otus was doing the cover, I was gobsmacked, shocked, delirious, and giddy. This was simply too much to believe for my first professional book. (As an aside, the fact that Otus said in an interview with Jeff Rients in Fight On! #9 that one of the recent pieces that he’s most happy with includes “’A is for Altar’ in Michael Curtis’ The Dungeon Alphabet” meaning that he has some inkling of who I am, is one of the most surreal experiences of my life so far. And I’ve held hands with a bear.)

The Dungeon Alphabet would go on to be one of the best reviewed products that Goodman Games ever released and the fact that the first printing sold out in less than three months is something I remain extremely proud off. However, lest anyone think that success has gone to my head, I’m well aware that the popularity of the book has much to do with the astounding artists who appear within its pages—for which I’m eternally thankful for their efforts. But no matter which way you calculate such matters, The Dungeon Alphabet has opened doors that I didn’t know existed and brought me a modicum of fame in a tiny little pond.

In one of those moments that makes you wonder if there really is some sort of cosmic intelligence at the rudder of our lives, I delivered the final manuscript for the Alphabet to Goodman at the time that Sham and Chgowiz started fooling around with the One Page Dungeon concept. One of the original purposes of this blog was to help me identify my referee bad habits and the fact that I often got too detailed when writing adventures was one of them. When I caught a glimpse of the One Page Dungeon, the light bulb went off in my head and I saw the perfect way to teach myself how to trim the fat from my game notes. I asked Sham and Chgowiz if I could play along and they agreed. This would be the start of a partnership that has continued with various degrees of intensity right up to the present day.

As a way to take the One Page out for a test drive, I whipped up one quadrant of a dungeon and stocked it with kobolds, orcs, and a big lizard. During that process, the backstory of this nameless dungeon started to reveal itself to me as if it had been lurking in my subconscious all along. When, from out of nowhere, the lines “These doomed souls are condemned to the earth. Without the possibility of pardon or parole, they will spend the rest of their days in a vast stone hell of their own construction” popped into my head, this place named itself: Stonehell Dungeon was born.

Although Stonehell started as a series of occasional PDFs available for free on this blog, I knew I wanted to do more. Thankfully, both Chgowiz and Sham indulged my desire and helped me bring it to life. The result of course was Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Hall, a book that I produced with absolutely no idea of what I was doing. And, as with The Dungeon Alphabet, the response that book has received and the praise it has garnered has left me astounded. When I began writing it with the intent to sell it on Lulu, I thought that I’d be extremely lucky to move fifty copies of it in both print and PDF. As of last count, the book has sold more than three hundred copies—a number that is quite impressive with limited exposure, almost no advertizing, and a potential audience of questionable size.

My own work on the One Page Dungeon led to me participating in the 2009 One Page Dungeon Contest as a judge. That experience taught me a lot about what exactly goes into a contest and I was shocked by both the quantity and quality of the submissions. And while I walked away from the judging panel with nothing but good memories and good will towards my fellow judges, it was not something I was eager to repeat. When the 2010 contest came around, I had to decline for my own reasons.

Looking back on the past two years, I simply cannot believe how much my life has changed. The opportunities I’ve been awarded and the responses my efforts have generated are just so far beyond what I dreamed of when I wrote a simple little post entitled “Saha” back in August of 2008 that it seems like that was another life. And, in many ways, it was.

I have gone from having just one tiny little creative outlet to numerous ones. In the year yet to come, I’m putting the final touches on one product while ramping up to do another one, preparing to embark once again into the bowels of Stonehell Dungeon to finish that series, sketching out a level of dungeon for Otherworld Miniatures’ line of Labyrinth Lord boxed sets, and contributing to yet another project. I have tentative plans for 2011 as well. On top of all this, I’m running an actual face-to-face role-playing campaign and I’m looking to start another one so I can scratch other itches.

With all that has occurred and all which is to come, something simply has to give. I have no doubts that by now you’ve gathered that this blog is going to have to be that thing.

Wait, wait! It’s not as bad as it seems!

I’m not putting an end to the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. I'm merely stepping away for awhile and not completely at that either. I’m well aware that these are the oft-said final words of many a blog and I can’t completely assure you that this won’t be the case here, but it is not my intention.

But, no matter which way you slice it, I think that the posts from the last few weeks, if not months, have been of much lesser quality than previous ones. I feel as if I’ve been phoning it in a lot recently and the substance has been lacking. This doesn’t surprise me because all the content that I’d normally be writing posts about is going into my writing projects and my regular campaign. That simply leaves nothing for the blog. And, now that I’m actually running a game, I find that I have no desire to write about gaming philosophy at all. Raggi nailed it right on the head when he wrote that it seems like the only people devoting blogs to gaming philosophy are the ones not actually doing any gaming. I’m no longer in that camp but I certainly remember when I was. I can’t throw stones and I can’t say I’ll never be without a regular campaign ever again, but it’s not a period I want to relive.

I still enjoy blogging and it is my intent to continue to do so. I just don’t want to write about swords & sorcery and dungeons & dragons for a little while. If I want to keep my “for print” projects at the level I’ve grown accustomed to, I need to husband the energies spent on those subjects and find a way to continue to replenish the creative stockpot.

My plan is to cease doing regular posts here at the Society for the foreseeable future. It will not go completely dark, but those posts that do appear will likely be regulated to updates about my projects and other such developments. Once I’ve had some time to complete my outstanding tasks, I’ll reexamine whether I’m prepared to start blogging here again. If I’m not, I’ll wait a little longer.

In the meanwhile, the Archive of the Rotted Moon will continue to be updated with stuff generated by my Labyrinth Lord campaign, so I’m not really leaving the world of fantasy blogging behind. But, since this material will be generated organically through actual play, it doesn’t require me to think deep thoughts and worry about what I’m going to write about each week, which is a big step towards maintaining both my sanity and my love of the game.

Nor will I be leaving the open design notebook method of blogging behind completely either. A few months ago, I announced that I had started up a side blog called Secret Antiquities. It was going to be my blog away from blog, a place where I could write about my love for obscure and weird history, sinister little towns, and historical horror. I’ve not had the chance to keep that site up, but it is my intent to start dipping my feet into the murky waters of historical horror in preparation for my 2011 projects. In addition to writing about Lovecraftian horrors, I’ll be toying with several other ideas and topics that would simply be out of place here at the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. But don’t be surprised if I turn my eye towards fantasy as well...just not necessarily fantasy recognizable as D&D or its various retro clones. If you like what I do, please join me over there. You may see a side of me you’ve never experienced before and an enthusiasm which has been long lacking around these parts. Things will be starting up in earnest after I take a week or two off to relax and recuperate, so set your bookmarks and update your feeds now so you’ll not miss the next exciting chapter of offbeat writings from my fevered brow.

Before I leave this blog for awhile, I’d like to reiterate how grateful I am to all of you who’ve embraced that which I’ve created. Despite the success I’ve had (and I hope you’ll forgive me for recapping it in this post which is an almost boastful recounting of my accomplishments), I’ve never thought of myself as anything other than just a gamer with a little talent who got incredibly lucky. Every piece of fan mail I get or praise I read online blows my mind. Whenever my name is mentioned in the same breath as those other bloggers, writers, and designers whom I idolized when I returned to gaming, I can’t believe my luck. All I wanted to do with this blog was make a small contribution to this old school revival; it seems that I’ve indeed achieved that goal. Hopefully, my future projects will continue to build on what I’ve done so far and they will do their part to encourage our forward momentum as a fellowship of writers, designers, artists, fan, and gamers dedicated to preserving and expanding on a unique and historical methodology of gaming.

This is not goodbye, merely a “Be seeing you.”



taichara said...

Have an awesome time with your projects; we'll still be lurking about for you :3

Marcelo Paschoalin said...

We all need some time all alone with our own projects. Bloggins is a fun activity, not a job, and writing books is far more rewarding than random blog posts.
And, in fact, I'd rather have another book of yours in my hands than reading more blog posts. ;-)

Anthony Emmel said...

Heh, I wish I could blog better myself; I just have so much going on IRL that I can only find the time to skim other people's work and throw out a few comments here and there!

Just set it on the back burner with a "hold" temp! :)

Jim said...

Best of luck to you. Will be following your projects with interest. Enjoy it!

Matt said...

Congrats - I can't think of a better reason (successful writing) to step away from the blog. I look forward to the next installment of Stonehell.

Jay said...

Michael, your blog has been one I have always enjoyed. I appreciate that your enthusiasm for the hobby and your creativity as well as the fact that you seem to be a stand up guy (this last post is as much a sign of that, as any that have come before).

Good luck and I look forward to reading your other blogs and following your latest exploits.

James said...

Best wishes! I'm looking forward to the second Stonehell installment, as well as seeing your other projects come to fruition. See you when you return.

BaronVonJ said...

Fare thee well, brother.
OD&D saved me, too. I've been an artist all my life and turned it into a job. A job, that even though is creative, doesn't always let me flex those creative muscles I used so much in the past. Enter Labyrinth Lord. I started by gathering some old friends from my early D&D games, along with my kids. Being a DM again, opened up my mind, and I decided to blog their adventures and world, and vowed to do illustrations along the way. The result:
You and the other OD&D bloggers have been and inspiration! Good Luck again!

Pallando said...

Best wishes Mike. your stuff is amazing, and your sense of humor has always enhanced your posts. I hope you find a nice restful place in Stone Creek to write and reflect. I am sure Col. Moabdi wishes you all the best as well.

Adam Thornton said...

You once went on a walk, paw-in-paw with a bear?

Was it just to keep up its spirits?

Please say yes.


Vanadorn said...

Not surprised Mike and very happy to hear this.

Keep on keeping on, Zoltan.

See you soon


Mark said...

I've enjoyed your writing Michael and look forward to seeing more of it, in whatever form, in the future.

Michael Curtis said...

You once went on a walk, paw-in-paw with a bear? Was it just to keep up its spirits?


Rick Marshall said...

We're proud of you, Michael. It's been a pleasure following your journey. As much as we enjoy your blog, we're all going to agree with you that the work it helped launch you into has to come first. I'd say keep up the good work, but I know you will, and we'll be there to enjoy it with you.

Look at you, achieving liftoff. You're flying, brother!

Andreas Davour said...

I understand you. While I have not managed to get a writing career going, I have experienced a similar lack in energies after I've put what I've got into my professional life. Sometimes you have to take stock of your resources.

Your blog have been a source of joy for me (and a long string of visitors to my blog) so I have to see you back.

May your projects all be merry and bring you happiness. I'll keep reading the "other" blog while this one rests.

John Fiala said...

I love the Dungeon Alphabet, and I'm similarly gobsmacked at the art inside. Still, you did a good job with the content, and don't think you didn't.

Take your time - I look forward to what you come up with next!