Aeryn’s Archives: Vault of the Dragon Kings

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about the projects I’ve written and worked on over my professional career, from fiction to RPGs to tabletop war-gaming stuff. I’ll try to add insights into how the project came together and maybe an amusing anecdote or two. Anyway, with over 400 writing, editing, and development credits, we could be at this a while, but I’ll try to restrict my posts to the more interesting projects. 🙂

Let’s kick things off with my very first professional job in the tabletop gaming industry way back in 2005: Dungeon Crawl Classics #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings. 

For the uninitiated, what you have here is a module or adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. This is not an adventure produced by the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons,  Wizards of the Coast, but a third party product created under license by Goodman Games. The lead writer on this one was Jason Little, and my role was as a stat editor and monster creator (I was credited under Stat Blocks & Creature Development and Additional Writing & Development). This essentially means I checked a lot of math and created some monsters for the adventure. That’s not the interesting part of this gig, though. How I got it is.

When Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons (often just called 3E) back in 2000, they created a version of the game that was more versatile than any before it. The rules let you build characters and monsters in a clearly defined way that allowed for endless customization. In addition, they opened up the game to third party publishers to produce material through something called the Open Gaming License (or OGL). I won’t go into the specifics because it’s mostly a bunch of math and legalese and stuff, but this new system sparked a creative fire in me. So I started making monsters, mostly by taking existing D&D critters and upgrading them with the new rules system. I also wrote little backstories for my creations and posted them on a popular Dungeons & Dragons message board. In some ways it was similar to fan fiction, though the OGL made it more commercially viable. (I also actually wrote fan fiction, but that’s a story for another day).

My creations earned me a small following from D&D players who frequented that message boards, and a few of those folks turned out to be publishers as well. One of them, Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, liked what he saw and reached out to see if I’d be willing to work on a module in his very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics series. Needless to say I was thrilled for the opportunity, and thus began my career in tabletop gaming. Better yet, it also started a great professional relationship that’s lasted nearly fifteen years, and I still do the occasional job for Goodman Games to this day.

Oh, for you old school gamers, you might recognize the cover artist on this one. Yep, that’s a piece by the incomparable Erol Otus.

If you’d like to check out this module up close and personal, it’s still available through Goodman Games via the link below (or the giant cover illustration above):

DCC #30: Vault of the Dragon Kings

NYCM Round 2: The Dread Scotsman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge at the urging of some of my writer pals. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

I didn’t do particularly well in the contest, and I did not make the semi-finals. What are you gonna do? Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts and the stories I wrote with them.

Round 2

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Location: A ship’s cabin
  • Object: A black and white photo

Like “No Guns, No Knives,” the story for “The Dread Scotsman” came pretty quick, maybe too quick. You can read it below.


The Dread Scotsman

“There she is, sir,” Sergeant Pennyworth said and lowered his spyglass.

Lieutenant Nigel Armstrong peered over the gunwales of The Eagle at the ship speeding toward them. The HMS Saber flew the Union Jack but was no longer part of the British Navy, nor was its captain, formerly Commander Angus MacLeod, now known as The Dread Scotsman.

“Ready the men,” Nigel said.

Pennyworth turned and signaled to the Royal Marines hidden among the crew of The Eagle. Nigel’s unit had been loaned out to the whaling vessel after The Dread Scotsman had murdered the crews of three others and the Crown had finally chosen to intercede.

The marines took their positions while The Eagle’s crew, many of them casting terrified glances at the approaching pirate vessel, went about their business. Nigel had assured The Eagle’s captain, Arthur Hayes, two dozen marines were more than a match for MacLeod’s crew, now composed primarily of criminals from Barbados and St. Lucia.

Watching The Saber barrel in, Nigel hoped his promise to Captain Hayes hadn’t been bravado, and his hands slipped to the hilt of his cutlass and the butt of his pistol. He longed for a rifle, but long guns would reveal their presence too soon.

The Saber carried cannons, but Macleod wouldn’t use them. A whaling ship like The Eagle was too fat a prize. No, this would be a boarding action, up close and brutal.

The Saber came alongside The Eagle, its gunwales swarming with men clutching knives, sabers, and pistols. MacLeod was among them, towering over the tallest of his men, his red hair and beard like a bloody wreath around his head. He clenched an archaic Scottish backsword in one massive fist and a double-barreled pistol in the other. Around his neck hung a string of silver plates, daguerreotypes portraying his many victims in their final moments. The ghoulish trophies were courtesy of one Alistair Coke, a naturalist and photographer who’d had the profound misfortune to be aboard the first whaling vessel MacLeod had taken.

The battle began with smoke and thunder as the pirates unleashed a fusillade of pistol fire. Nigel threw himself to the deck, as did the marines behind him. They had orders to wait until the pirates were on board to reveal their presence. MacLeod might turn tail if he knew he faced experienced soldiers and not a ship full of terrified whalers.

At the thud of boots on The Eagle’s deck Nigel sprang to his feet, weapons in hand. He shot the nearest pirate through the throat, parried a saber thrust from another, then split the man’s skull with his cutlass.

The rest of his marines joined the fray. All were skilled combatants, and they slashed and blasted their way through the pirates with grim efficiency. Smoke and screams filled the air, and a dozen of MacLeod’s men lay dead in moments. None of this deterred the Dread Scotsman. He wielded his backsword like a barbarian warlord, smashing aside his opponents’ blades, then running them through or cracking their skulls with the butt of his pistol. As he fought, the daguerreotypes around his neck made a terrible staccato clatter, like metal teeth gnashing together.

Nigel needed to get MacLeod’s attention. He cut down a pirate, grabbed the man’s pistol, and fired. From thirty feet away his chances of hitting the Scotsman were slim, but luck was with him, and the ball grazed MacLeod’s cheek. With a bellow of surprise and outrage, the Scotsman whirled toward Nigel.

Good, Nigel thought and moved toward the nearest hatch. It led down to the captain’s cabin. Across the deck, MacLeod surged in Nigel’s direction, smashing marines out of his way with blows from his pistol butt or whirling cuts from his sword.

Nigel fled down the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest. He was a skilled swordsman, but MacLeod’s strength and size were advantages not easily overcome, at least not where the Scotsman had room to swing his larger blade.

The captain’s cabin was small, ten feet by ten feet, an ideal battleground for a man armed with a shorter cutlass . . .

MacLeod thundered down the steps behind Nigel. His eyes blazed with wrath, and he threw a wide sweeping cut, his blade humming through the air like a swarm of angry bees. Nigel stopped the backsword with a stiff parry, but the shock of the brute’s attack nearly ripped the cutlass from his hand. He wouldn’t last long trading blows with MacLeod.

The Scotsman, sensing his victory, grinned, exposing a mouthful of crooked yellowed teeth. “Are ye ready for your portrait, Lieutenant,” he said, his brogue thick and menacing.

“Only if you’ll comb my hair, you overstuffed haggis,” Nigel replied.

MacLeod roared and launched an overhand strike that would have split his foe from nose to navel had it landed. Instead, the tip of the Scotsman’s sword plowed into the low ceiling and stuck. It was what Nigel had been waiting for. He lunged, a thrust his fencing master at the academy would have lauded, and drove a foot of steel through MacLeod’s right eye. The tip of Nigel’s blade burst from the back of the Scotsman’s skull, and MacLeod toppled over backward and crashed to the floor, his daguerreotypes clattering like a death rattle.

Sergeant Pennyworth came down the steps a heartbeat later. When he saw MacLeod’s corpse he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the lord, sir. I was sure that beastly Scotsman had done for you.”

Nigel offered the sergeant a shaky smile. “Not today. How’d we fare?” The gunfire and sounds of battle had faded from above.

“Six dead on our side, but we killed thirty of theirs at least. The rest have laid down their arms.”

Nigel nodded and considered the Dread Scotsman’s corpse at his feet. “Sergeant, find that Alistair Coke fellow if he’s still alive, the naturalist and photographer MacLeod had aboard. I think there’s one last image he might like to capture.”


The toughest part of the prompt for me was the black and white photo because action/adventure immediately took my mind to pirates, and I just couldn’t shake the idea in the limited time I had to write. I also made it harder on myself by essentially writing historical fiction, which requires a level of research that’s hard to pull off in this kind of timeframe. My biggest hurdle was simply that photos and most folks’ idea of pirates are usually separated by at least a century, so I had a real challenge. I fudged a little (okay, a lot) and used an early form of photography (daguerreotypes) and set the story in the 1840s where sailing vessels were still a thing. The story won’t hold up to any kind of real historical scrutiny, of course, but I had fun with it.

I think “The Dread Scotsman” is a better story than “No Guns, No Knives,” though it still has issues (historical accuracy notwithstanding). The reviewers mostly liked it, but they pointed out what is likely the story’s biggest weakness. The stakes for Nigel and his marines aren’t clearly defined. They need to feel and express more peril, and their fate, should they fail to defeat the Dread Scotsman, needs to be explored a bit more. Now, there’s likely room to do that with this story and still keep it at flash length, and I might even consider submitting it somewhere IF there were a market for action/adventure stories. I scoured Duotrope and found exactly one that would take a story like this. So “The Dread Scotsman” becomes blog fodder, and I’m okay with that.

Submission Spotlight: Regional Preferences

Today we’re talking once again about potentially unexpected elements of submission guidelines. As always, you should read the guidelines completely and carefully every time you submit a story. These articles simply highlight the many reasons why. This Submission Spotlight focuses on regional preferences and how they could affect you if you live outside a market’s targeted region.

1) If you live there, you can submit here. Sometimes a regional preferences is so focused, a publisher will not accept ANY submission outside of that region.

[Publisher] is looking for original science fiction and speculative fiction from New Zealand, Australian, and Pacific writers. This means that (for now) you can only submit to [publisher] if you are a citizen of New Zealand, Australia, or the Pacific, or if you are a resident of these areas.

Pretty straightforward, right? If you don’t live in that part of the world, don’t send them a story. Markets with these restrictions are generally pretty easy to spot and usually have this part of the guidelines right at the very top (but not always). In addition, market databases like Duotrope will mark a publisher like this with a limited demographic warning at the top of their entry.

2) Limited seating. Some publishers that focus on a specific region might allow submission from outside that region, but can only publish a small percentage of them. There’s often a very good reason for this, such as:

Our mandate is to give our readers the best SF we can find, regardless of the author’s nationality, and we have published authors from Canada, the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, South America, and more. In order to qualify for grants, we do have to maintain 80% Canadian content.

This market must publish mostly Canadian authors to qualify for grants, which no doubt keeps them in business and publishing (a good thing). They’re open and upfront about the restriction, and if you live outside of Canada, it’s something to take into consideration. Should you submit to a market like this if you’re outside of their region? Absolutely. If you’re story is good enough, you always have a chance.

3) Small window. Other markets with a regional preference may choose to publish authors from outside their region but might give them a shorter window to submit. Like this:

Submissions from Australian and New Zealand writers: 1 February – 30 September

Submissions from anyone anywhere: 1 August – 30 September

This market gives authors from their part of the world a big window in which to submit (eight months) and authors outside of that region a much smaller window (two months). This seems to me a pretty equitable way to do things. If you’re not from Australian and New Zealand, you simply treat this publisher like any other with a short annual submission window.


As I said in the opening, always read the guidelines completely and carefully. There’s no good reason to miss something like a regional preference (or anything else, for that matter). Most publishers are going to put something like this right at the top of the guidelines, and, as previously mentioned, market databases like Duotrope often note a market’s preferences in their entry.

Know of any other way publishers handle regional preferences? Tell me about it in the comments.

Submission Statement: October 2019

Finally getting one of these out in a timely manner. Here are my submission endeavors (and results) from October.

October 2019 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 6
  • Rejections: 8
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1

I’m still behind on my goal to reach 100 subs for the year. I’m sitting at 69 at the moment, which means I need to slam out 15 subs in November and December to hit 100. I think that’s pretty unlikely at this point, and I’ll end up somewhere in the high eighties (maybe). With 14 acceptances, I’m still within striking distance of last year’s number of 19, so it’d be nice to hit or exceed that, even if I don’t reach 100 total subs.

Rejections

Eight rejections this month.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 1
  • No-Response Rejection: 1

Mostly form rejection in October, with one rare no-response rejection. The personal rejection was a shortlist rejection and is worth taking a look at. See below:

Spotlight Rejection

This is one of those useful rejections that can sometimes highlight the idea that “good stories get rejected too.”

Dear Aeryn,

[story title] made it through to our final round of consideration, but unfortunately it was not a good fit for us at this time.  We wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it elsewhere.

Thank you for thinking of us at [publisher]. We hope you’ll consider sending us more of your stories in the future.

This was a shortlist rejection, the story’s third. I know this one will eventually get published, but I just have to find the right fit. I know “right fit” can seem like a platitude, but I think it is one of the most common reason stories get rejected, especially good ones. It could be a wrong fit for the issue, the market, or they’ve simply published something similar recently. Hell, it could also be that you’re good story was passed over for better ones. Sometimes the competition is fierce. So, if you get a shortlist rejection like this, send that story out again right away (I did).

Acceptances

One acceptance this month, and it was a good one. Here’s the acceptance letter. You’ll note I’m revealing the publisher here. That’s simply because I asked and received permission from the publisher to announce the sale.

Thank you for sending us “The Back-Off”. The editors were impressed with the story, and we are pleased to offer to purchase the rights to use your work in an upcoming issue of On Spec Magazine. If the work is still available, kindly let us know with a brief note to [email address].

You will be sent a standard contract offer in due course, and we’ll let you know the next steps in the process.

I’ll be straight with you. I didn’t expect this acceptance. I mean, I don’t usually expect an acceptance, but there are certainly times when I feel I’ve got a better shot than other. Here, I thought I had no shot. And that, friends, is why you should never, ever, ever self-reject, no matter how much you think a market won’t be interested in your work. Send it anyway because you never know. Anyway, this story had been rejected a fair amount, but it kept getting these nice personal rejections. The problem generally was the story wasn’t horror enough for the horror markets or fantasy enough for the fantasy markets, so I finally got wise and sent it somewhere that published speculative fiction in a broad sense. That, uh, worked. 🙂

Publications

One publication this month from one of my favorite markets, The Arcanist. The story, “Small Evil,” took second place in their Monster Flash contest, and you can read (or listen to) it below:


And that was my October. Tell me about yours.

Futures: A Point of Honor

I have a new story out today called A Point of Honor published as a chapbook by Radix Media as part of their Futures series. It’s a near-future sci-fi piece I’m pretty excited about, and you can check it out (and purchase it if you’re so inclined) right here.

The United States has instituted archaic dueling codes overseen by a government agency called the Bureau of Honorable Affairs. Victims of slander and libel, among other crimes, can force their tormentors to face them in state-sanctioned combat. Jacob Mayweather is challenged to a duel by a man he has never met. The accusation is for a considerable crime, and Jacob must choose whether he will fight or be blacklisted as a duel dodger.

Here’s a little background on the story (no spoilers), mostly because unlike a lot of what I write I have clear memory of where this idea came from. I was reading book called The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall (highly recommended) which is about “an English professor who trains in the sport of mixed martial arts and explores the science and history behind the violence of men” when the idea came to me. In his book, Jonathan Gottschall discusses the history of dueling and the the social ramifications around it.

One aspect of dueling that really stuck with me was that refusing a duel was sometimes considered worse than the possibility of dying in one because of the effect it could have on a person’s social standing. They might be labeled a coward and whatever accusation they levied against the challenger would be viewed as false simply because they chose not to fight. That whole concept of the social structure around a duel fascinated me, and I wondered what that might look like in the modern (or near future) world. What slights and insults (and through which mediums) might push people in a world driven by technology to seek a duel to the death to restore their social standing? How would the government handle or sanction it? What consequences would there be for refusing a duel in the digital age? And, of course, who might seek to profit on such a thing. 

This nifty in-world poster that Radix Media created for the chapbook gives a little more insight into the story.


So, head on over to Radix Media and check out A Point of Honor, and while you’re there check out the other books in the Futures series (below).

2019 Acceptance Rate Check-In

With 2019 three quarters of the way through, let’s see how I’m doing with regards to submissions and rate of acceptance. In this post I’m gonna run the numbers for the year to date and compare it with the numbers for all the years I’ve tracked my submissions through Duotrope. Before I get to the numbers, let me first tell you about my methodology. The acceptance rate is calculated with the following formula: total acceptances/(total submissions – pending subs and withdrawals). Obviously, the pending subs only applies to the current year. Additionally, these numbers only count short stories I’ve sent to various genre markets and contests. It does not count any of my contract work for Privateer Press or when I’m invited to submit a story to a market or basically anything that more or less guarantees publication.

Note, 2019 looks a little weird, mostly because of how Dutrope tracks certain things (and because a few of my submission went to publishers not in their database). In other words, the 2019 numbers are very close, but not perfect (though we’re talking fractions of a percentage when it comes to acceptance rates). When I do my end-of-year calculations, I’ll sit down and figure out where the discrepancies are and publish a final, correct 2019 accounting.

Okay, with all that out of the way, here’s eight years of submissions:

Year Subs Reject L/N/W Accept Acc %
2012 6 5 1 0 0%
2013 16 14 2 0 0%
2014 38 29 4 5 15%
2015 46 37 2 7 16%
2016 53 43 2 8 16%
2017 73 64 4 5 7%
2018 120 100 4 19 16%
2019* 55 42 0 11 22%
Total 407 334 19 55 14%

*year to date

I always aim for a 10% acceptance rate. If I get above that, awesome. If I dip below it, as I did in 2017, then I am a sad writer. Luckily, it looks like 2017 was more anomaly than trend and things got back on track in 2018 and look pretty solid for 2019. Full disclosure here. Three of the acceptances for 2019 were part of a #vss365 Twitter anthology, and they were not submitted in the usual sense. They were chosen from microfiction I’d posted on Twitter during the “submission window.” If you remove those three acceptances, then my acceptance percentage for 2019 is 16% (which seems to be about my average).

That 15 to 20 percent mark seems to be where I live for the most part, and I’m okay with that. Of course, I’d like to crack more professional markets, as more than half of my publications in the last three years or so have been at least semi-pro (though a bit more token this year). Not that I’m complaining, mind you, just that I’d love to see my name in certain publications. I’m sure most of you can guess which ones. 😉

In short, 2019 is going okay. I’d like to have submitted more, and though I’m still hoping to hit 100 submissions, at this rate I’ll be closer to 80. That’s not terrible, of course, and if I can keep up the submission rate, maybe I’ll get close to 2018’s acceptance numbers.


How’s your 2019 submissions going so far? Tell me about it in the comments.

Get Your Hooks In: Even More Fun With First Lines

For a while now I’ve been revisiting my published stories specifically to look at the first line and determine if it’s the kind of line that immediately hooks the reader. Once again, this is because of an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. It’s a great little piece where King looks at the first lines from his novels to see if they qualify as “hookers.” That’s apparently old publisher slang for a first lines that grab a reader’s attention.

So let’s look at some of my recently published stories and see if I’m getting better, worse, or just treading water with my first lines. I’ll give you a link to the story if it’s free to read online, then the first line, and an excuse, er, I mean an explanation of why it’s a good or not so good.

1. “The Thing That Came With the Storm” published by The Molotov Cocktail

I’ve burned all the furniture and every scrap of paper in the house.

Pretty good. Like a lot of interesting first lines, I think it gets the reader asking questions. In this case, that question is why is he doing that? That’s the kind of thing that usually keeps a reader reading. Grade: B+

2. “Big Problems” published by Jersey Devil Press

Gorrus crawled on his hands and knees, squeezing through the narrow halls of his house.

Meh. This is one that gets a whole lot better when paired with the second sentence. His bedroom was the only room that could accommodate a giant’s frame because he’d knocked down the walls of the adjoining rooms. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that you should focus on the first paragraph as a hook, and this is one that probably supports that argument. Grade: C+ (B with second line)

3. “Paint Eater” published by The Arcanist

Ajay tossed the empty can of black Krylon on the ground and stepped back.

Yeah, bleh. I have a good paragraph to open this story, but this first sentence is kinda boring. The black Krylon is, I guess, mildly interesting just because you don’t read those words together very often and it tells you something about the story. Still, not awesome.  Grade: C-

4. “Far Shores and Ancient Graves” published by New Myths

Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Grace smiled, hoping the stuffy looking British archaeologist had a sense of humor.

Not terrible (a little cliche maybe). This one gives you a little character note from the get-go, but it’s not exactly knock-your-socks-off. British archaeologist gives a hint at what the story might be about, but I’d say this one is just okay. Grade: B-

5. “Old as the Trees” published by Ellipsis Zine

Simon stood next to an ocean of waist-high weeds, their thin yellow stalks so densely packed you’d have to walk on top of them rather than through them.

I like this one. There’s some good imagery here, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot. This is a horror story, and if I’d been able to inject something ominous into this first line it would really sing. As it is, it’s not bad, but not great. Grade: B

6. “Time Waits for One Man” published by Factor Four Magazine

Okay, so you’re immortal?” Nadine set her iPhone on the table and pressed record.

Here we go. This is a good one. I love starting a story with dialog when I can, and I think it works here. The question “Okay, so you’re immortal?” is pretty interesting, I think, and I believe most folks would want to keep reading (the whole point of a good first line). Grade: A

7. “Beyond the Block” published by Tales from the Magician’s Skull

My cell is not far from the executioner’s square, and the headsman is already at work.

Another solid first line. This one tells you a lot in a short space. You immediately know the narrator is in some kind of trouble and there’s the threat he’ll get his head chopped off. That’s pretty good. It’s not the best of the bunch, but well above average. Grade: A-


As usual, these grades are super subjective, and your mileage may vary. A lot. Ultimately, all these stories were published, and the question, as always, is did the first line help or hurt the story’s chances? This is not scientific or anything, but I will say the stories in this batch with better first lines were rejected fewer times or even sold on their first attempt. There are, of course, other factors at play. I’ve sold to a number of these markets more than once or even a lot, so the editor might give me the benefit of the doubt and read past a boring first line (bless them). Or, it’s entirely possible that some editors don’t really care about the first line and read every story start to finish and judge it in its entirety (also, bless them). Who knows? But it remains a fun little exercise. 🙂

Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.