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

It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 5: Tough Charity

Time for another installment of It Came From My Hard Drive. These are short, high-fantasy vignettes I wrote for Goodman Games around ten years ago. They were used to introduce chapters in various RPG supplements I was working on at the time. This one comes from a book called Hero’s Handbook: Tieflings. If you haven’t been playing Dungeons & Dragons for most of your adult life, you’re likely wondering what the hell a tiefling is. Short answer: tieflings are folks who have a demon or a devil somewhere in their family lineage. In this book, we took the approach that every tiefling is descended from a powerful devil associated with one of the seven deadly sins. The idea is that a tiefling character would try to overcome the temptations and urges of their infernal blood and work toward becoming heroes.

Anyay, this short vignette introduces the chapter about tieflings descended from Mammon, the devil of greed.

Tough Charity

Tarro emptied the coin purse into his hand, curling six long fingers around the platinum coins. One hundred eighty gold pieces, he counted the gold equivalent of the platinum in his head. It took me thirty-four days to accumulate this money. The tiefling stared across Dhavosin’s main road to the squat temple of Elyr. A white-robed priest stood outside the plain brick walls with a wooden collection tray, entreating passersby to donate to the church. The money Tarro held in his hand, earned from adventuring, would feed and clothe the children and other destitute souls within the temple for most of the year. He scratched a spot between his horns, a spot that bore the invisible mark of Mammon, the great devil whose blood and avaricious nature were part of his being.

“Come on, lad,” Rodren said beside him. The stocky dwarven warrior was two feet shorter than Tarro but half again as wide. His ruddy, bearded face beamed up at the tiefling, his eyes full of pride and hope for his devil-tainted companion. “All you have to do is walk over there, put the money in the collection tray, and you’re done. It’s that easy.”

Tarro set off across the street, his dwarven companion in tow. “Are you sure this temple will use these funds appropriately?” he asked.

Rodren chuckled. “Tarro, it’s a temple of Elyr, the god of charity. “I don’t think the priests are like to run down to the nearest brothel with it.”

Tarro frowned but could think of nothing that would contradict Rodren’s appraisal of Elyr’s clergy.

The Elyran priest saw them coming, and his eyes widened in alarm. It wasn’t every day a tiefling warlock and a dwarven warrior paid a visit to the poor house. “My good sirs,” the priest said and bowed, his voice trembling. “Blessings of Elyr upon you.”

“Good day to you, your Holiness,” Rodren said, using a title meant for a high priest on what was obviously a simple lay cleric. “My friend has an offering he’d like to make.”

“Oh?” the priest said and cast a critical eye on the horned, scaly tiefling standing in front of him, grimacing, as if in pain. “Elyr is always glad to accept charity . . . from anyone.”

Tarro grunted in reply and glanced at the collection tray. Eight copper pennies and two silver stars rested on its worn surface, not nearly enough to feed the orphans and other poor folk who lived in the temple. He thrust his hand out, causing the priest to jerk back, likely expecting some dire enchantment from the black-robed tiefling.

“Here,” Tarro said through clenched teeth and opened his fist. Platinum coins fell onto the collection tray with a clatter.

The priest’s eyes grew huge and round at the sight of the money. “Elyr bless you, my son! What would possess you to part with so much?”

Tarro opened his mouth to reply, but Rodren answered for him. “Don’t mind the horns and scales, your Holiness. Tarro’s a good sort, and he likes to give back now and then. It’s good for the soul. Right, Tarro?”

“Absolutely.” Tarro said, unable to look away from the mound of platinum on the collection tray. Finally, he smiled up at the Elyran priest, flashing a mouthful of crooked fangs. “Can I get a receipt?”

If you’d like to check out the other vignette’s in this series, click here:

  1. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 1 – The High Road
  2. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 2 – The Challenge
  3. It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 3 – A Red Night
  4. It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 4 – A Pointed Education

Tales from the Editor’s Skull – Interview with Howard Jones

Goodman Games is about to unleash a brand-new sword-and-sorcery magazine on the world called Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The first issue is filled with old-school pulpy goodness written by authors who know the genre well (including yours truly). I recently spoke with Howard Jones, the editor-in-chief of Goodman Games’ latest venture, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the magazine and the current Kickstarter campaign to support it.

1) Okay, give us the skinny on Tales from the Magician’s Skull. The elevator pitch if you will.

It’s a magazine dedicated to old-school sword-and-sorcery. Not pastiche, not homage, but new fiction about new characters in new worlds, inspired by the great old ground-breaking stuff. That means there’s forward momentum and inventive world building and dark sorcery and darker deeds and heroes wandering where brave men fear to tread.

2) Tells us a bit about your background as a writer and editor. How did you get involved with the project?

I’ve written a historical fantasy series set in ancient Arabia for St. Martin’s, four Pathfinder novels, and a slew of short stories. A new fantasy series from me will be dropping (again from St. Martin’s) next summer. I grew up reading and loving the kind of fiction this magazine emulates, fantasizing and dreaming what it would have been like to edit for one of the great old pulp magazines, so this is a dream come true.

Long before I was a published author I was an in-house editor for Macmillan Computer Publishing, breaking into fiction editing when I assembled eight volumes of swashbuckling historicals by Harold Lamb. And I was the Managing Editor for a sword-and-sorcery e-zine, Flashing Swords, and then, near the end of its run, Black Gate Magazine. I met Joseph Goodman when I was reviewing role-playing supplements he’d published for Goodman Games, and one year at GenCon I dropped by his booth to hand him my first published novel.

In short, over the course of a few years, we came to admire and appreciate the work the other was doing.

3) How did you and Goodman land on sword and sorcery for Tales from the Magician’s Skull? What about that genre interests you?

We’re both drawn by the sense of the adventure and the pacing. There’s little to no navel gazing. It’s all about the story. And while there IS darkness and dread, most of the time the tales aren’t drowning in it. These are typically tales with heroics and death-defying action. In earlier fiction there are fewer conventions about what magic looks like or what elves are or other issues that have become so codified some have a hard time breaking out of the mold. We love that.

There are tombs and treasure and strange enchantments, bizarre and curious locations, and protagonists desperate to get in or out of such places, sometimes in pursuit of lofty goals but more often simply to live another day.

4) Who are the writers in the first issue? And, uh, how did they get so damn lucky?

Here’s a funny thing. It started out as Joseph Goodman asking me if I wanted to contribute a story to the Goodman Games 2017 GenCon magazine. He’d asked me for one for the 2016 mag, and I said yes both times. Shortly after receiving the one for 2017, though, he wondered if maybe I knew some other sword-and-sorcery writers. Well, most of my writer friends are sword-and-sorcery writers, so that was easy.

He kept asking for a few more, and before we knew it, there were more than enough for an entire magazine. When Joseph proposed that, I lobbied to become its editor.

Because the whole thing grew organically, we tapped people we knew well who could exactly get the sword-and-sorcery vibe we were after. For issue two we’re reaching a little further afield but  still working for the same feel.

As for who’s within, there’s you and me! Then there’s Chris Willrich, best known for his Gaunt and Bone sword-and-sorcery tales and books, which are a well-known secret amongst modern sword-and-sorcery fans. He penned a new one about his characters. And James Enge, perhaps the breakout writer from Black Gate, who’s drafted a new adventure starring Morlock the Maker. There’s Bill Ward, who wrote a tale of dark conspiracy in an Asian-inspired fantasy coastal setting. And Clint Werner, well-known Warhammer author, who gave us a creepy Hammer-horror infused sword-and-sorcery tale, and John C. Hocking, probably best known as the author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus, but more recently known for his tales of the archivist, writing a dark, punchy adventure set in that character’s world.

If you want to know more, the Kickstarter gives you thumbnail synopses of each story!

5) So besides awesome tales of sword and sorcery, what else can we expect from Tales from the Magician’s Skull?

Well, there’s horror and suspense as well, which are important components of the genre, and I think you’ll see an occasional tale with those features more primary than secondary. But within the magazine you’ll find some great artwork, and maps to lost places within the stories, and then an appendix that presents the monsters and challenges in Dungeon Crawl Classics game statistics, in case you want to bring any of the events to life at your own game table.

6) I know a lot of my readers are dying to know the answer to this next question. Will the magazine be opened up to unsolicited submissions at some point? If so, tell us a little about what Editor-in-chief Howard Jones looks for in a story.

To know what I look for in a story, check out the first two issues, and read yourself some great old sword-and-sorcery, like the Conan stories, or the early Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stuff (particularly from the Swords Against Death collection) or practically anything from Leigh Brackett. We don’t plan on publishing space opera, as she often wrote, but her sense of color and pacing is definitely something to model off of.

We do plan on opening to submissions, eventually. But it’s likely to be a few issues yet. First we want to establish the magazine and build up a reader base, which is challenging enough without adding slush reading on top of it!

7) How and where can folks support this awesome project?

Not only can you drop by the Kickstarter campaign and pledge for an e-copy or physical copy of the magazine (or maybe even join our secret society) you can help spread the word. I’m tremendously pleased that we met our funding goal in the first day. But I’m also certain  there are many more sword-and-sorcery fans out there. Surely they must number in the thousands. Help us reach them! Spread the word. We love this fiction and want to share it!

Howard lives in a lonely tower in Indiana with a wicked and beautiful enchantress. When not running his small farm or spending time with his gifted children, he can be found hunched over a laptop, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted moors. His books have been acclaimed by well-known mortal critics. Sometimes he edits short stories for magazines and he once anthologized the work of historical writer Harold Lamb. He knows karate. Yah!

It Came From My Hard Drive! Part 2 – The Challenge

Here’s another tidbit from ancient history, back from the days when I was working full-time as an RPG designer/writer/editor for Goodman Games. Like the first vignette in this series, “The High Road,” this one comes from an unpublished manuscript for a player-oriented supplement for 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Also, like the previous entry, this tiny tale is meant to introduce a new rules system for the game in a narrative fashion (the crunchy bits came directly after the vignette).

This one is called “The Challenge,” and, like the “The High Road,” it’s high-fantasy, sword & sorcery type stuff. Oh, and like the last one, this one is in a first draft-ish kind of way.

The Challenge 

Karog brought the axe down with a satisfied grunt. His victim’s head came away from his neck in a warm, red spray, and Karog kicked the twitching corpse off the butcher’s block he’d been using as a makeshift executioner’s slab. Two of his men hurried forward to drag the body away.

The half-orc wiped blood from his face and breastplate and offered a tusk-filled smile to the remaining townsfolk of Harvest Tide, herded together before him and staring in open-mouthed horror at the carnage in their town square. His men stood behind the crowd, weapons drawn, faces and armor caked in the blood and soot of their conquest.

They’d ridden into Harvest Tide at dawn, drawn by rumors of an adventurer who had retired in the village with fabulous wealth. There had been little resistance, and Karog and his twenty followers had looted and slaughtered for a full day, but they had not found the treasure they sought.

“Right,” Karog said. “That’s fourteen of you sorry sons of whores dead by my axe because you fools won’t tell me where the treasure is hidden. Will it take fourteen more?” Karog grinned; nothing made him feel more alive than murder. “Or, if one you is brave enough to step on out here and stop me …” He let his last statement sink in–the absurdity of one of these bumpkins actually fighting him was just too rich. “I thought not,” Karog said after moments of silence. “Okay, Yarl, bring me the mayor—“

“What assurances do we have your men will leave us in peace once you are defeated?” a voice called out.

Karog’s yellow eyes narrowed. “Which of you dead men said that?” he said, searching the crowd of frightened faces for the speaker.

“I did.” A slim figure moved through the crowd and into the blood-soaked square.

Karog threw his head back and laughed. The elven man stood just under six feet in height–tall for an elf–and wore a simple leather kilt and a rough spun shirt. His feet were bare, and he was unarmed.

“I am Eodain,” the elven man said. “If I defeat you here, now, will your men leave this town?”

“Defeat me with what?!” A chorus of derisive laughter burst from Karog’s men; laughter tinged with greedy anticipation of more bloodshed. “I’ll tell you what, Eodain,” Karog said after the laughter had subsided. “If you defeat me, my men will leave Harvest Tide like a herd of gentle lambs.” He looked around at the band of thugs and cutthroats that followed him. “Right, men?” More laughter.

“Swear upon Nygor, and I’ll believe you,” Eodain said softly, his emerald eyes boring into Karog’s.

The half-orc reflexively grasped the holy symbol of his god where it dangled from an iron chain around his neck. The joy he had felt moments before drained away, leaving only cold, murderous anger. A promise made to Nygor the Nightbringer, the bloody god he and his gang of bandits followed, was the only thing that would hold them to their word. The fact that Eodain had known that poked holes of white-hot rage in the thin veil of Karog’s self-control.

Karog’s men had grown silent at the request. Invoking the Nightbringer’s name was no mean thing, and all of them, Karog included, feared the deity’s wrath. “Very well,” Karog said between clenched teeth. “I swear upon the wings of Nygor my men will leave this village in peace if you defeat me.”

“Good enough,” Eodain said. “Let us begin.”

“Gladly.” Karog surged forward, axe in a two-handed grip. He meant to end the life of his unarmed, unarmored opponent with one brutal strike.

Eodain had other things in mind.

Karog had never seen anyone move so fast. His opponent whirled away from his blow with a liquid grace, letting the axe flash through the empty air where his neck and head had been a heartbeat earlier. Missing with the heavy strike caused Karog to lose his balance and stumble forward. He was a veteran of a hundred battles, though, and he regained his footing swiftly and turned to deliver another strike with his axe.

This time Eodain did not move away. The elf shout out a lithe, muscular arm and caught Karog’s axe by the haft as it descended, halting the blow with bewildering strength. Then, Karog’s opponent, whom he outweighed by nearly two hundred pounds, punched him in the face.

It was like being struck with a battering ram. Karog’s bones and teeth shattered like glass beneath the impact, and the rough cobblestones felt like a father bed in comparison as he crashed down upon them, stunned and bleeding. He struggled to suck air through his pulped nose and mouth, and only his bubbling breath broke the silence that had bloomed around him. Above, the stoic face of Eodain loomed, his thin lips set in a slight frown. The elf held something shiny between his fingers.

“This is what you seek, Karog,” Eodain said and tossed the single gold piece onto the half-orc’s breastplate. “My treasure.”

Karog fought down a tide of frantic laughter and tried to move, but a sharp pain at the base of his skull and the spreading numbness throughout his body told him Eodain’s strike had done much worse than break a few teeth.

“Quickly,” Karog whispered as Eodain again loomed over him, this time with his own axe in both fists–fists Karog now saw were little more than clubs of callus and scars.

“Gladly,” Eodain said and brought the axe down.

It Came from My Hard Drive! Part 1 – The High Road

I’ve been working in the tabletop gaming industry for over ten years. In that time, I’ve written more RPG adventures, supplements, and bits of game-related fiction than I can easily count. While most of that stuff was published in one form or another, some of it never saw the light of day. I have entire manuscripts for 100-page RPG supplements collecting digital dust on my hard drive, and I found a few recently I thought I might share. Well, parts of them anyway.

One of the publishers I used to work for was Goodman Games, a great company run by a great guy, Joseph Goodman. They’re doing some awesome stuff right now with their Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and I most definitely urge you to check them out. Anyway, around 2009, I wrote or co-wrote a bunch of player-centric Dungeons & Dragons supplements for Goodman Games. Two of them were never published, and they included a bunch of short fiction vignettes I’ve always liked. With Joseph Goodman’s kind permission, I’m going to post some of them here.

These really are vignettes, not full stories, and they were meant to introduce a gaming concept (usually a new class option for players of 4E D&D). They’re also what you’d call high, epic fantasy. Oh, and these are kind of first draft-y, so, you know, cut me some slack.

Here’s the first one.

The High Road

Tarnak snorted in irritation when he saw the two dwarven warriors standing in the middle of the road, blocking his path. Both were armed with short-hafted battleaxes and wore sturdy coats of riveted mail. Each dwarf also carried a heavy wooden shield nearly as tall as the warrior behind it.

“This is King Ivar’s road, beast,” one of the dwarven warriors called out. “Your kind has no business on it.”

Tarnak wasn’t overly surprised at the dwarves’ reaction. He was a minotaur and that meant ‘monster’ to most. No matter he had served in the dwarf king Ivar Stonehammer’s armies as an auxiliary field commander. No matter he had personally led the charge that shattered Azagar Bloodfist’s goblin horde in the Battle of Ivory Plateau, assuring victory for the dwarven monarch whose name was now used to reinforce dwarven bigotry.

He set the head of his poleaxe on the ground, letting the haft rest against his shoulder. He took his hands off the weapon and held them out, palms up. “I understand your concern, and your dedication to protecting the road is admirable,” he said. Tarnak had learned long ago those who showed him the most prejudice expected a violent response from his kind, a stereotype he was not about to enforce. “I have papers from the court of your noble king proving I am his servant. Will you let me show them to you?”

Both dwarves scowled but said nothing. This was not the response they had expected . . . or wanted.

Tarnak took advantage of the dwarves’ silence and dug into his pouch for the writ of passage bearing King Ivar’s personal seal. “I promise, if you give me a moment, I can prove—”

“We’re not interested in your forgeries, beast,” one warriors said. He was the older of the two, his beard long, braided, and streaked with gray.

Tarnak stopped looking for the writ. “You would bar passage to a servant of your king on simple bigotry?”

The older dwarf’s face twisted into an ugly frown. “If bigotry means keeping the likes of you off roads used by decent folk, then aye, I’m a bigot,” he said and shifted his shield into a more comfortable and battle-ready position. “The only way you get by the two of us, ghrakha” – the dwarven word for ‘animal’ was not lost on Tarnak ­– “is with an axe between your horns.”

Tarnak sighed and lifted his poleaxe from the ground. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

The elder dwarf smiled and turned to his companion. “Uthar, let me show how you how to deal with a big lummox like this.”

“Take him down, Borgrim,” the younger dwarf said, grinning.

“Oh, this is exactly what I want, beast,” the dwarf named Borgrim said and started forward, axe held high, shield tucked beneath his bearded chin.

Tarnak let the dwarf advance and took his poleaxe in a fighting grip, one hand below the axe head and the other on the worn haft some two feet below that. He spread his legs and let the weight of his body settle evenly over his stance.

Borgrim’s advance turned into a charge, and he dropped his axe low to his side, where he could more easily strike at his opponent’s legs–classic dwarven fighting technique. The stout race had been battling creatures bigger than themselves for millennia, and every dwarven warrior had learned that ogres, trolls, and minotaurs were easier to dispatch when cut down to a more manageable height. But Tarnak had been fighting alongside dwarves for years, and he was well versed in their battle strategies. He took a step back and whipped his poleaxe up over his head, letting both hands slide to the end of the weapon’s haft, then he brought the axe down with every ounce of strength he possessed.

Tarnak’s great reach allowed his blow to strike first, halting his opponent’s advance for a crucial second as the dwarf caught the axe head on his shield. Borgrim had likely anticipated the attack, but he had underestimated the power behind it.  Tarnak’s poleaxe smashed through the dwarf’s shield with a loud crack of splintered wood, then it parted the mail between Borgrim’s head and shoulder, cut through the thick padded gambeson he wore beneath it, and finally plowed a ragged swath through his body, lodging in his breastbone with a hollow, metallic thump.

Borgrim remained standing, his weapon dangling from nerveless fingers, eyes as big as saucers, Tarnak’s axe still buried in his body—it was all that was keeping him upright. Tarnak put a hoof on the dwarf’s chest and ripped his axe free. Blood sprayed from the hideous wound, splattering Tarnak’s face and tunic. Borgrim toppled forward onto the shattered ruin of his shield, dead before he hit the ground.

The remaining dwarf looked on, mouth agape, his weapon forgotten at his side. Tarnak advanced, his axe still red and dripping.

“P-please don’t kill me,” the dwarf said as Tarnak approached. He dropped his axe and shield in the middle of the road.

The minotaur bent down and pushed his horned head close to the young dwarf’s bearded face. He was barely more than an adolescent. “Uthar is it?”

The dwarf nodded, tears brimming in his eyes.

“I will tell you something, so you may learn from this day,” Tarnak said. “All the wood and iron in the world cannot stop a minotaur’s axe at full swing.” He straightened, towering over the young dwarf. “Sometimes you need to get out of the way.”