13 Reasons Why Your D&D Setting Sucks

This setting's dad can beat up your setting's dad.

This setting’s dad can beat up your setting’s dad.

If you’re a Dungeon Master who’s tired of killing your players with boredom or your friends are deserting you for a DM with better worldbuilding skills you’ve come to the right place. I have here for your viewing pleasure a multi-part post of some common problems with D&D settings.Today we’ll talk about the common problems found in D&D towns and cities, why they’re problems and what you can do fix them. Think you’re ready for this?

Strap on your battlegear, grab your weapons, grit your teeth, and put your warface on. We’re going to learn!

13 Reasons Why Your D&D Setting Sucks

  1. You Didn’t Do Any Research


You think just because this is fantasy you don’t have to do research? By trying to make everything up you’ve lost all sense of validity in your setting. Nothing about it feels real. Even in a completely made up world, full of made up stuff you still need those little bits of reality to give it substance.

If you’d bothered to Google it, you’d know that swords aren’t made that way, that there were actually food preservation methods and that a crossbow doesn’t fire off bolts like a machine gun. Instead you’ve thrust your players into a world that has no backbone to it, it’s just floating globby translucent jellyfish fantasy.

Do your research, stop assuming you know stuff.

  1. You Don’t Understand How Awful Medieval Cities Were

    Stop making your cities these medieval cultural utopias complete with mary singing men and women spending their days at the tavern. Medieval Communes, especially larger ones, were absolutely disgusting. Cities were horrifically overcroweded, had rampant disease and had families who were lucky to have a hard moldy piece of bread to eat let alone a huge succulent boar.

    These cities were rampant with air and water pollution to the point where people were literally living in their own filth and choking with the ever-present threat of death. Even if fantasy was at one time a romanticized version of medieval times, its your duty as a DM to make your cities as shitty as possible, both literally and metaphorically.

  1. All the Towns and Cities are the Same but with Different Names

I mean at least this town has a car.

I mean at least this town has a car.

Every city your party passes through should feel different. Maybe it’s similar in certain ways, maybe the layout borrows from one another but it should feel unique from all the others. Philadelphia looks and feels like a completely different city than Los Angeles. Even small towns have their own distinct nature that can’t be replicated. Put some thought into each town they pass through, or each city they enter. Every city should have a personality and a life pulse all its own. Using the same damn town and pasting different names over it is not acceptable.

  1. It Feels Like There are Only Six People in your Massive City

17th Century London. Population: 5

17th Century London. Population: 5

Your party enters what you’re calling a massive city, hell it might even be the kingdom’s capital. Even in medieval times these cities could house fifty, a hundred… even two hundred thousand people. I should feel claustrophobic from all the overpopulation. I should feel like there’s a hundred thousand people in this massive city not just the six that are somewhat relevant to the story.

A massive city is more than just the innkeeper, a blacksmith, a butcher, and the guy who works the docks. So please, take some time to populate your city otherwise stick to the small deserted towns on the outskirts of the kingdom and leave the urban areas to people who can plan it better.

  1. There are Only Inkeepers, Blacksmiths, Butchers and Bakers in your City


For added authenticity townspeople should be bad at ladders

And while your at it, populate it with some variety will ya. A bustling city is bound to have more than just those four professions, otherwise the entire place would crumble. Now these might be the only ones that are immediately relevant to the game but I’d better get the sense that your fantasy medieval city has jewelers, masons, ropemakers, fishmongers, woodcarvers, booksellers etc. etc.

And if you really wanted to go the extra mile you’d do some research into these professions during that time period. Learn how shoes were made, what jobs were done by the working class and what jobs were learned professions. Put yourself in the times, they didn’t know what you know and industries were often built around ignorance. Keep that in mind as you look through this list of medieval professions.

  1. Person-Who-Knows-Thing-That-The-Party-Needs-to-Know is Always Conveniently at the Tavern Whenever the Party Visits



Need to locate a gem that’s been lost for thousands of years? There’s a guy at the Tavern who has a map to it. Is there an ancient dragon guarded by a mystical spell? There’s a guy at the Tavern who can make a weapon that will destroy the spell. Need an ancient tome that no mortal has ever lied eyes on? There’s a guy at the Tavern who has a copy of it. Need directions to a mad wizard’s cave? There’s a guy at the Tavern who knows the way there. Foot rub? Guy at the Tavern. Taxes? Guy at the Tavern. Marital problems? Guy at the Tavern.

Stop it. Stop conveniently placing NPCs that have exactly what the party needs. Leave convenience to the grocery stores and give your players a real challenge.

  1. Everyone is a Template


You know the drill. The party goes to talk to “The Innkeeper” or they happen upon “The Blacksmith”. Seriously, they’re people too. The Innkeeper is more than just their job and I’m sure they’re offended by being called “The Innkeeper”. These are people who have unique interests, motivations, passions and personalities.

Trying to use template archetypes in place of real character development is just lazy. Want a better setting? Put some thought into every NPC the party comes across, no two blacksmiths are alike. Learn to appreciate the subtle differences and nuances that make your NPCs unique from all the others.

  1. Your Small Towns and Massive Cities Function Exactly the Same


If you have a massive city it should feel fundamentally different than if the party is passing through a small town. People are going to behave different, layout is going to be different, available technology, protection, resources, and knowledge is going to be different. Pay attention to where you’re taking your party. If your million person floating elven city feels exactly the same as the five person town in the middle of WhoTheHellKnowsWhere then there’s some problems.

  1. Everybody Sounds like an NPC

Some of us lucky enough to have a writing department at our disposal

Some of us are lucky enough to have a writing department at our disposal.

I get it, dialogue is hard. Improvised dialogue is extra hard. Seriously, though please put some more effort into how your NPCs sound. If they sound canned, rehearsed or pretty much like a group of first graders doing a play about thanksgiving then there’s just all kind of problems here. Also, stop being so blatantly obvious about the clues you give your party. Try to be a bit more natural with your speech.

  1. Your Infrastructure Makes No Sense


This is a way more complex topic than I want to get into for this article but basically there should be some logic to the facilities that help run your towns and cities. How does the town get water? How do they grow crops? Basically how in the world does the city survive given the technology available to them? Speaking of which…

  1. Your Technology is Inconsistent


By now you should realize that fantasy isn’t completely devoid of reality. Technology is a common problem especially with games that try to blur the line of different era’s technology. That saying, “pfft it’s fantasy and there’s magic I don’t need to explain anything” is childish and lazy on your part.

Think about how the introduction of different technologies completely change our way of life and how we’ve tended to adapt around them. Technological innovation has complex, and far reaching consequences. Think about that before you start mixing technology from completely different eras.

  1. You Ignored How Climate and Geography Influence Industry


Since most D&D settings take place in a pseudo-medieval era it makes sense that your town or city is going to be limited to their locations geography and climate. If your climate is mountainous and frigid year-round your party isn’t going to be trying to stop the rampant strawberry thief. (Unless they’re magial berries or this is an especially awful strawberry thief in which case you should probably just pity him and at least pretend to try).

If I’m entering a small town nestled in midst of a massive forest I shouldn’t be seeing a fish Mongerer trying to sell me fish that only survive in the ocean. Chances are if a guy in the middle of the forest is trying to sell you great white shark meat he’s a con artist, has rancid great white shark meat or is magic. Your city’s geography and climate are going to influence what industries are going to flourish there, keep that in mind.

13. You Forgot that Europe Wasn’t The Only Place in the World 


There are soooo many eurocentric fantasy settings out there and D&D is no exception. Everyone who is even remotely aware of the fantasy genre has seen, read, heard, written or played in a fantasy setting that was based heavily off of medieval europe. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This may come as a shock to you but there are other places in the world. Learn history. Learn about the people, the lands, the changes and the mindsets that shaped different time periods and different places. Then gobble them up for inspiration.

When was the last time you played a D&D game where the setting was influenced by the Yuan empire? the Umayyad Caliphate? the early Ottoman Empire? the Mongol Empire? Hell you could even be especially innovative and draw inspiration for your setting from your own hometown. I’m just saying there are more inspirations for a setting than 12th century Europe. Expand your horizons goddammit.

So now you know some things that will make your D&D towns and cities really click with players. Your cities will have more substance to them, more authenticity and the fantastical aspects in turn will feel that much more fantastic because they’re grounded in a slightly more logical, and your game now has a sophisticated aspect to it. Go ahead and give these a try for your next D&D game and see if the setting doesn’t come alive for you.


Songs Nobody Can Hear


Describing a song nobody can hear is one of the oddest challenges a writer can face. Usually when a writer is tasked with describing something they can tackle our basic senses. They can describe how wet leaves smell, how a burger tasted, how a blast of snow felt on your face, or the bang of a gun. So where’s the difficulty when it comes to music? Isn’t it just a matter of appealing to a reader’s senses? Not exactly.

The previous examples reveal an interesting point about descriptions in general. They all deal with direct reference to our senses. With the wet leaves example, it triggers our memories of what wet leaves smell like. An author can basically instill the memory of wet leaves and so as you’re reading you get some indication of the smell. It really boils down to a matter of triggering a memory.


Inhale Deeply

But what about if the reader hasn’t experienced the thing the author is talking about?

Take a sword fight for instance. Two characters are in a furious battle and at one point one of the character slashes the other across the chest. Chances are the reader has never been slashed by a sword themselves so the author can’t really rely on a reader’s memories of being slashed by a sword. Instead he relies on comparisons, associations that don’t necessarily rely on direct links, but rather what being cut by a sword is similar to. We’ve all been cut, and we’ve all felt the sting that accompanies it, writers can draw on that experience even if the reader has never been sliced by a sword specifically.


Yes, like that

With these two things, memory triggers and association, writers have quite an arsenal at their disposal when it comes to describing things. We can describe incredibly complex and even intangible things in this manner and it’s really impressive at times. Through the power of words we can have a reader feel, smell, taste, and touch things that may not even exist at all.

Still though, this doesn’t seem to cover writing music scenes. There’s something missing there from our formula. So what’s the problem?

The trouble with writing about music is that it can’t rely on memory or association. Unless the writing mentions a specific song or an artist, chances are we can’t really rely on a reader’s memory to know what the music is supposed to sound like. After all if the song is from the author’s own imagination it’s hard to draw on the reader’s memory since, unless you’re a skilled telepath, you’re the only person who knows what the song is supposed to sound like.

What about association though? Surely we can say it sounds like something right? Can’t we just say that it sounds like a cross between the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? Sure… If a comparison like that would make sense in your story. After all it’d be weird for a writer to describe the music at a king’s court to sound like a “ Bob Dylan tune with a touch of Judas Priest.” Because making analogies to things that don’t exist in the setting of the story is just… strange. Hilarious sure, but really awkward.

Okay, if not for direct comparison maybe we can rely on more basic sound description? We can describe what a heavy metal song sounds like; screeching and grinding guitars, growling vocals, beating thunderous drums etc. etc. But the trick here is that no matter how well I describe the song we’re all going to have drastically different interpretations of what that sounds like.

But isn’t that just a matter of human perspective in general? You know that whole, “there’s no way of communicating what red is and there’s no way of knowing if the red we see is the same as what others see” deal? Its interesting for sure but somehow civilization hasn’t collapsed into a frenzied madness whenever we say, “that’s a red balloon”

The End of Civilization

The End of Civilization

With colors especially even if our perceptions of the color differ slightly there’s enough overlap in our perspectives that we’ve come to an agreement that the balloon is red.  Basically, there’s enough agreement on what “red” is that we’re willing to accept that red is what red is. Music on the other hand is a bit more complex.

The thing with sound association is that there’s so much room to move around in. Sound descriptions when it comes to music can invoke radically different interpretations between readers much more than just than just a red balloon. Sure we all have some agreed upon notion of what “bang” “pop” “fizzle” “crack” and “splat” sound like, but music can’t be accurately described just by sprouting off onomatopoeia. With that in mind it’s easy to see that writing music scenes is more than just getting the description of the sound right.

Music scenes have to make the reader imagine a song they’ve never heard before. Go ahead and try to describe a song that doesn’t exist to a friend without making a comparison, singing, dancing, playing an instrument or doing anything else except talking about it. Chances are they’ll stare at you confused and bewildered as they slowly inch their way towards the door.

So what’s a writer to do? After all music is important, otherwise it wouldn’t be included in the first place. The important thing here is to realize that the point of music is to set a mood, to invoke a feeling. In the end it doesn’t really matter if six different readers imagine the song different ways. What matters is that they set a similar mood, aid in establishing a scene and invoke a similar feeling.


…or maybe it’s more than that

At times its best to let your reader decide how to feel about a particular piece, since leaving it up to your reader can give your scene flexibility. Other times its best to directly state how it should make them feel by describing a character’s reaction to it. Maybe they dance wildly, maybe they gasp in awe, or maybe they hold their hands over their ears and pray for the end of their torture.

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Sometimes music can be used as a cruel tool of misdirection. Maybe there’s a light, classical even whimsical melody being played at a dinner party while the murdered slips behind the duchess and slits her throat. In this case, the music can make the murder feel that much more uncomfortable. Because a vicious act is now associated with a rather light feeling. Uncomfortable yet?

Music is often seen as the tool of television, video and er… music. Rarely is it seen as a weapon for print mediums. No other medium can establish subtext, invoke a feeling or portray thought as effectively as the written word can. That doesn’t stop with writing a scene with music. Music isn’t a weakness for writers, its just another tool in their arsenal.

And then there's the rest of the arsenal

And then there’s the rest of the arsenal

So what do you think? What makes a scene with music effective? Who does it well? How can we do it better? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Comic Book Supervillains: Victims of Consequence


Villains are notoriously hard to write, and perhaps none more so than comic book Supervillains. Suffering from the larger problem of consequence negation, villains have gone from threatening antagonist to monthly punching bags. Even world-shakers and cosmic level threats lose their luster after getting their butt’s kicked for almost 50 years. 

This is one of the biggest pitfalls comic book writers are forced to navigate around. How do you establish any real sense of danger or urgency without breaking the cardinal rule of the comic book industry: Don’t Kill the Money. After all, who’s going to make the villain that kills Spider-Man?



Nobody at Marvel is going to kill Spider-Man and yes I mean actually kill him. No going back in time, no alternate time lines, no dreams, no warped reality, no “this is just one possible future”, no clones, no “dude pretending to be spider-man”. I’m talking straight up, Peter Parker, Spider-Man Earth 616 completely and utterly and permanently dead. The villain who pulls that off is going to hold a  place in every comic fan’s heart as… The villain that ended their favorite series. That writer would need to be able to justify killing off Marvel’s poster-boy, and flagship character that has in turn generated billions of dollars for the company. It’s just a stupid move from a business stand-point.

Protected by consequence-immunity and legacy, it’s really not fair for super-villains. How are they supposed to stand a chance against an enemy who is completely immune to death? How do you create a sense of danger and panic in your foes when your latest world conquest is brushed aside so effortlessly? We have villains who have been around for over 40 years who have a track record of being defeated for just as long and we’re still looking to our writers to create danger for our protagonist.


Do writers need to keep rehashing Dr. Doom’s master plans for readers who have the full knowledge and certainty that whatever Victor does it’s just going to fail anyways? Even if we’re going to introduce an entirely new villain (note that all of your favorite supervillains are at least 30 years old)  and invest in them as a recurrent characters, they’re eventually going to go through the same cycle and ultimately face the same fate. Even if their debut does something heart-stopping and incredibly wicked they all meet the same destiny of being used over and over again until their appearance generates little more than a sarcastic, “oh no, what are they going to do now…”

Don’t get me wrong. Certain writers have taken this restriction and have done incredibly innovative takes on the villain. They recognize that super-villains are much more than just “the bad guy” They have written them with a level of sympathy and have blurred the fine line of morality far more than anyone gives them credit for.

Furthermore, writers know that mortality is a jagged mountain face that no one can really climb but simply hope to hang there for a few moments. With that in mind, they’ve had to substitute “death” for other forms of danger; other ways to invoke urgency and fear in their readers. Some have done this by killing off family members, friends, and innocent bystanders. Others have done this by attacking the hero’s mental state or appealing to their vices. In many ways the restrictive nature of the medium has prompted writers to push the genre to incredible depths. There’s no denying that over the years comic writers have managed to maintain our fear, and our sense of danger in super-villains despite all this.


No other form of writing calls on its creators to write compelling canonical storylines for anywhere near the amount of time, or consistency. While there have been series in other mediums that have run for decades, none of them are held to the same standards of established story arc, strict character guidelines, frequency and fan backlash like comics. We’re looking for that never-ending story.

I think that’s part of what makes comic books so compelling. They appeal to a childlike reassurance that “everything is going to be okay, your hero will be there for you.” Questions of quality and craft aside, could we really stomach removing the “immortal and invincible” complex that protects our heroes? That’s precisely what writers need to do if they want villains that don’t eventually become a diminishing and irrelevant threat.

Writers have the monumental and often times paradoxical job of making everything new but staying exactly the same. And that’s one of the issues with villains. Honestly, I want to keep seeing Magneto, the Joker, Lex Luthor etc. etc. for years and years to come but I’m also bored to death of them. I want to see new villains, but at the same time I’d much rather read a comic with Magneto doing his thing than “New Super Badguy” that I’ve never heard of or really care about. I want there to be lasting consequence… but I don’t want there to be lasting consequence. Good luck trying to make me happy comic writers.


What do you think? How do you feel about comic book villains today? Do writers need to step up their game in writing compelling, interesting and threatening villains or do they have it right? What are some examples of villains that you believe have transcended this problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Horror is Hard


With Halloween right around the corner, I find myself wondering a bit about horror. For all the movies, television series and games that have come out in recent years I’ve noticed that the horror genre in its written form is falling behind. As a piece of the speculative fiction trio, why has horror fallen to the wayside? Everyday science fiction and fantasy novels are finding spots on best sellers list and have rapidly growing fan bases, while more visual mediums have dominated horror. So what’s the deal here?

Writing horror for any medium is a challenge but the difficulty with printed mediums is primarily rooted in our culture. Television, films and even video games have cemented their superiority in a visual context and when it comes to bloody, gore-fest jump-scares, novels can’t really provide that kind of “instant-horror” we’ve grown accustomed to. Without the benefit of a visual component print mediums have to make up for it by appealing to a creeping psychological terror and warped perspective that is a challenge to keep up with for hundreds of pages. It doesn’t help that instant gratification turns modern day society’s gears.


Think about the tempo of a horror film for instance. We set the mood, things get a little uncomfortable, then they get scary, then they get terrifying and then they end. All within the scope of two hours. Within those two hours so much of the story is padded by sinister music, violently graphic imagery and screaming that we forget what we’re even watching, we just know that this is scary and we love it.

What about the tempo of a horror novel? There is a sort of constant rise and fall of calm, and terror. Horror novels have to really dig their hooks in because they’re competing with a culture that insists that nothing frightens it. Horror novelist must transcend our goldfish level attention span and keep their reader hooked for what could be fifty pages of calm before anything really “scary” happens. That’s one of the real difficulties with horror, there’s not really a way to capture the “in your face, gut wrenching” feeling that we associate with the genre.

Instant culture, and our obsession with the visual can’t carry the full weight of the blame however. A lot of the challenge in horror is that supernatural monsters just aren’t scary anymore. It’s more difficult to scare people with the fantastical, the imagined or the supernatural than it was years ago. We’ve come to terms with the fact that reality and humanity are scarier than any vampire, mummy, werewolf or zombie.


It’s come to a point where we’ve exhausted vampires and zombies from so many different angles that we approach them with what amounts to satirical riffing; a tell-tale sign that we’ve conquered our fear of “classic” monsters. As a society we’ve done something similar to what Harry Potter and Co. did with the boggart: We’ve been exposed to monsters of every variety and then learned to make them laughable. We’ve made such things amusing and ridiculous. The challenge of horror writing is pushing past that.


Horror novelist need to rely on subtle psychological overtones that don’t necessarily “frighten” the reader but makes them uncomfortable. Way back when, authors like Edgar Allan Poe or even if we go back a bit further to Christopher Marlowe were masters at this sort of thing. But they were of a very different time, and in many respects a completely different world. It’s hard to capture that  feeling of terror that grows more after the fact as opposed to movies which seek to scare “in the moment”. Writing horror becomes a challenge of who can be the most disturbing; who can keep the reader up at night wondering.

Still though, literature isn’t completely defenseless. It has the benefit of subtext, inner thoughts and a more intimate portrayal of psychological terror than any other mediums. And to be fair because the medium can be so restrictive at times it’s made being a strong writer an absolute necessity with horror. Furthermore, if we look at short stories we see a way for horror writing to find its place in instant-culture. I think writers recognize that horror needs to be jump-started again, and in many respects the literary landscape is ripe with the opportunity to push those boundaries.

What do you think? Where does horror need to go from here? What is the genre missing? Why has horror lost ground while the other two pillars of speculative fiction have seen a surge of popularity and constant evolution? Why is it more compelling to push the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy than in the horror genre? Let me know what you think in the comment section below and tell me your favorite horror novel from the last 10 years.

D&D Acting: A 12 Step Guide to a Better Game Night

Often times Dungeons and Dragons sessions can feel stale and boring if players don’t feel engaged with the story. Without some kind of player-story investment the game loses the effect of its more profound moments. As a DM you may have spent weeks planning out a final epic battle between the players and an ancient black dragon but if the players don’t become invested in the story, killing the dragon might produce little more than a “whelp… that happened.” While of course some of this burden falls on the DM’s ability to create an engaging, interactive world for his players in the first place, often times players can improve a session simply by improving their role-playing or more to the point their acting skills.

This doesn’t mean that players are required to take the game more seriously or that the game can no longer be fun or comedic, it simply means that players with better acting skills can submerge themselves into the story for a more rewarding playing experience. Think about your last D&D session. Did it feel like you were going on an adventure? Or did it feel like you were sitting around a kitchen table rolling dice without any real connection to what those rolls meant?

Improving your acting skills will help the role-playing (read:  the collaborative storytelling part) of the game feel much much better. As a DM you’ll appreciate your players engaging in the world you spent so much time creating and it’s much easier to lead a story if you feel like a player is involved and as a player you’ll reap the benefits of playing in a game you actually give a shit about.

Just like anything though, improving your acting skills may take some time. It’s not about getting it right or giving an Oscar winning performance every Thursday it’s more about dipping your toes and testing out the waters. So if you’re looking to have a more engaging and rewarding Dungeons & Dragons experience I present to you 12 starter tips to improve your acting skills:
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Write Talk: Ramblings About Story Building Part 1

Note: There’s simply too much talk about with Story Building to make it a single blog post. With that in mind I would like to introduce to you to Mystic Potluck’s first multi-part post. Please Enjoy Rambling about Story Building Part 1

Getting a story just right is a difficult task for any writer. There’s no way to shake it, building a story is tough. Even the most solid writers wrack their brains and pull out their hair trying to make the story just “right”. It’s not just a simple matter of checking A, B, and C and it’s not about simply about cutting a scene or two. There’s more to it than that.  It’s an organic process that calls for a meticulous attention to detail. So how do we go about improving our story building skills?

Don't Let This Become your Story Building

Don’t Let This Become your Story Building

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we all understand what a story is. At its barest form a story is a telling of events. However, simply telling the viewer random events is a good way to have things thrown at you. So if you’re into having things thrown at you feel free to blurt out random events to your heart’s content.

As for those of you who like your face more when it’s not being hit by shoes, smelly fish or smelly shoe wearing fish our discussion of story needs to go deeper. Let’s back out for a minute and talk about plot. Plot is the tangible, outlineable occurrences within the story.  Remember in elementary school when you learned about the “plot diagram”? Well grab your glue sticks, juice boxes and packed lunches because we’re going back to 4th grade. Take a look at the plot diagram below and venture into PlotDiagramia

Look carefully or you may miss the giant mountain in the background

If you look very carefully you can see a huge fucking mountain in the background. 

As we begin our journey through PlotDiagramia we first come to Exposition which introduces the setting and characters, and sets the mood of the story. Next the Rising Action is the series of conflicts in the story that lead to the climax or the big moment of the story. Moving up to the Climax is the place where the plot heads towards resolution; it’s the event that the Rising Action led up to. As we continue down the slopes of Mt. PlotDiagram (no doubt greeting the native PlotDiagramians and tasting exquisite PlotDiagramish food), we come to the Falling Action. The Falling Action is what happens as a result of the Climax. The final stop on our tour will be the resolution, often known as the “ending”

Now that we have a better understanding of the barebones mechanics of plot, let’s expand on it. Think of the story of your favorite book, game, comic, TV show, movie play… whatever, and while there’s an overreaching story arc you’ll notice that often times there are several arcs within the larger plot. The arcs are the organs within your story body.  They are the threads that make up your story sweatshirt.

Phil: How long are you going to keep up these terrible analogies?

Oh come on now, that one wasn’t so bad was it?

Norman: What in the world is a story sweatshirt?

It’s you know… A uh…

Norman: A sweatshirt made out of story?

Yep, just like that.

Yep, just like that.


Norman:  Sometimes I just don’t know about you

Phil: I think it’s time we took over

But I—

Norman: Shush! No where were we?

Norman: …

Norman: Ah yes, Arcs. While you may have some difficulty in grasping this concept of arcs being contained within the overreaching plot it may help to simplify things a bit. We’ll take a look at an example. The story is that Phil and I lost our luggage at the airport when we went to Ireland.

Phil: That was not my fault

Norman: That’s not really relevant here…

Phil: I’m just saying. It’s not my fault that a certain Irish ga—businessman has similar tastes in luggage.

Norman: I don’t know why you’re so worried about it.  I mean we don’t actually exist

Phil: Tell that to his brass knuckled goons

Norman: Good point


Are you guys going to do this for the whole article? We have a lot to talk about here.

Norman: Keep it down in there!

Norman: Taking a look at our example, the plot is about how Phil and I decide to take a trip to Ireland, lose our luggage on the way and then get it back when the authorities raid an Irish mobster’s base of operation. It’s a fairly simple, straight-forward story. However, as writers you’ll no doubt want something a little more complex, a little more engaging if you will.

Phil: I think it’s plenty complex already

Norman: What do you mean? It’s a simple problem-solution story there’s no complexity here

Phil: Well sure if you only look at it from our perspective. But what happened to that nice Irish businessman as a result of us having his stuff? What about the raid itself? Every person there had their own story.

Norman: Ah that’s a good point. True that every character’s perspective is going to bring something slightly different to the table, but bringing up those other considerations is a great way to explain arcs. While the plot would still be focused on our actually losing and regaining possession of the luggage, the stories contained within this over reaching story are the arcs. They might deal with our contacting the authorities or when Phil got the sandwich while he was supposed to be watching our luggage.

Phil: Hey!

Norman: It’s harder to see them in a simple story like this one but in more complex stories they’re easier to point out. Hey you, you want to take over now? It’s about time for you to talk about the next concept and I’m overdue for a nap

Sure thing.

Phil: Don’t worry I’ll stick around and entertain your readers.

Gee, thanks

So we have an idea of what story is. Now, how do we go about creating a story? Despite what many people may think writing a story isn’t just a matter of typing everything that’s already in your head and just like that you have a story. Rather creating a story is something that may start with a central idea but will develop and evolve over time. Finished works are the result of an idea being morphed, manipulated and evolved through maybe a hundred different stages; we don’t get to see the starting story, just the result of all the hard-work.

However whether it’s you, Brandon Sanderson, Grant Morrison or Joss Whedon a story has to start with an idea. The idea is what you tell people when they ask you what your story is about. That being said the idea will evolve over time. As writers our job is to expand on this idea by asking questions, playing the what-if game, and exploring conflicts surrounding the idea.

Norman: I’m sorry, the what if game?

Well sure, it’s where you take your basic story idea and brainstorm ideas by asking yourself “what if this happened or what if this character did this? What would happen if this event happened differently?”

Norman: So… Brainstorming?

I thought making it a game would be more fun for people.

Norman: Brainstorming is more than enough fun for everyone.

Well regardless of what you want to call it, it’s important to work with your idea and not to give up on it too easily. Even the most complex, mind-boggling, cerebral stories had to start somewhere. What separates good writers, however, is their ability to explore their idea, expand on it and fit it into a story.

Goddammit! Get in there you sonovabitch!

Goddammit! Get in there you sonovabitch!

After you have your idea, you can start to story build. How do we go about that? Well the first step is to find out your preferred story building method. For this I refer to legendary fantasy author George R. R. Martin creator of the Song of Ice and Fire series who provided a fantastic analogy that explained that writers fall somewhere along a spectrum between what he calls architects and gardeners. An architect plans out every little detail before they even type the first words. The walls, floor, and ceiling are all accounted for, measurements are made and the structural components of the story are already in place. The writing itself would be like decorating the already established structure. Meanwhile, gardeners like to grow their stories organically. They begin writing often with little to no pre-planning.  They plant the seeds of the story and simply watch it grow, all the while being careful to trim and maintain the story so it doesn’t get unruly.

There are of course, drawbacks and benefits to each method. For instance one positive aspect for the architect writers is that it’s easier to keep a story organized; planning ahead of time means you’re less likely to write yourself into a hole. A drawback to this is that the writing process can feel stale and some writers may feel trapped by these rigid guidelines. Conversely, gardeners enjoy the ability to evolve their story over time in what ultimately becomes a more freeing and unrestrained practice; it’s the story building method for those of you who like to just go with the flow

Phil: I love going with the flow

The problem is that you try to go with everyone’s flow simultaneously

Phil: Don’t you judge me

No judgement here. Of course most people don’t belong firmly in one camp or the other but instead just kind of float about along a spectrum which is for the best since they can get the best of both worlds. Finding out where you lie on the spectrum and figuring out if you lean more towards the architect method or the gardener method may take a little bit of time and some good old fashioned trial and error.

Phil do you have anything even remotely relevant to add?

Phil: Ehh, people need to learn how to feel the story. You know?

Surprisingly, yes. A lot of story building is just going to be instinct. Unfortunately there’s no checklist we can give you to tell what makes for a good story and what doesn’t. If, however, you develop a critical eye and learn to assess your story with the mindset of making it better then it’ll be easier to develop that feel for what works and what doesn’t. However, that’ll be another topic for Write Talk. For right now let’s go back to building a story.

Building a story is going to be a little bit different for everybody but if you remember the basic components of a story, arcs within arcs and expand out from an idea then you’re story construction will go much more smoothly.  After that, you’re kind of on your own. You’re the one who has to write this story and writing isn’t about following a set of directions.

Unless you're in Ms. Gionavich's class. Then for the love god follow the directions. Its for your own safety.

Unless you’re in Ms. Gionavich’s class. Then for the love god follow the directions. Its for your own safety.

That being said, I can at least give you a few tips that I’ve picked up along the years.  While writing things out beforehand may not be your style, it’s a great way to keep your story organized. Of course, you can still maintain that flow of thought, organic story evolution by keeping the outline brief; think of it as a reference guide in case you ever get lost. Secondly, if you’re a more visual person writing your plot out on notecards is a great way to see the plot and make adjustments later on.  A final piece of advice is to start with the ending. This might seem strange but often times writers will have their “big scene” in mind and writing becomes a matter of figuring out how to get the story to that point. As a bonus this is a great way of cutting out unnecessary exposition since it allows you to start as close to the ending as possible.

With these tips in hand you can go about creating your story, remember though as complex as your story may get you can still refer to the basic plot diagram for guidance. Furthermore, keep in mind that stories contain mini-arcs within the main-arc but the arcs still follow the basic formula of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and transition/resolution.

I would love to keep going on and on but unfortunately we are out of time.

Norman: Time has no meaning here.

Don’t think that was just a little melodramatic?

Norman: *shrug*

I’ve kept you  for too long my dear reader and thus we must part ways for now. Do no fret and please no tears. On part 2 of in my Story Building Ramblings we’ll talk about the story creation process in more detail, what to consider when editing your story and some other tips to help those of you who are stuck coming up with ideas. Until next time and I hope you enjoyed this installment of Write Talk

Table Kickers: Hard Wyred

On this week’s Table Kickers I’ll be taking a look at the upcoming humorous, action-packed cyberpunk comic written by Erik Bitmanis, Illustrated by Joshua Suarez and Gwenelle Daligault and lettered by Jaime Me:  Hard Wyred.


We all know the unwritten cardinal rule of criticizing a piece of art before giving it a chance; don’t judge a book by its cover. However, I must confess that I totally judged this comic by its cover and I’m not sorry for it at all. We’ll get to the comic’s premise in just a moment but just take a moment to look at that cover.


Look at it.

I love the rough, almost grunge-like feel the cover has. The distorted perspective of the top with a messy kitchen blending into what looks like upside down skyscrapers that appear to be crumbling is cool and works really well. Plus if you look closely of the character in the center you’ll see a reflection of a man in a trench coat and a gun. The artwork, just on the cover is creative, thought provoking and the more you look at it the more things you’ll notice, which in turn leads to more questions.

That being said, it gets even cooler knowing the premise of the story. While not a lot has been revealed Hard Wyred takes place in the near future where people are able to upload their subconscious to an online profile. What this basically means is that all of your dreams come true, but of course what happens is that everyone else’s dreams come true as well. What results is a virtual reality online world where people’s online persona comes true. And everyone thinks that’s totally great.

Except for our hero: Sam Wyerznowski. Sam isn’t too happy about this new technology and he’s basically being dragged into the future kicking and screaming. He wants nothing to do with this cyber world, but ironically his job had him going in and out of the program constantly. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), he was forced into an early retirement. Sounds like things had gone Sam’s way.

Unfortunately, Sam’s old employer, Ms. Teller, was attacked by an unknown enemy. Now Ms. Teller is forced to call on Sam’s help (though she’d definitely prefer not to.) Sam is plunged back into the world where people’s wildest fantasies and internet personas are a reality and what he finds is a conspiracy much larger than he could ever imagine.

As a new publication the Hard Wyred team has kept a secret on the details of the plot and not much is known beyond the brief synopses located on their Official Kickstarter Page and their website. Luckily for us we have access to a six-page preview: Which you can see right here. 

First off I love the tone of the comic so far. It manages to be witty and satirical without being a complete joke. It’s thought provoking but still pretty funny (I especially the dialogue between Sam and the uploading program); it’s a nice break from the usual brooding, ultra-violent, super serious grim fests that have become popular lately.

Plus Sam as a character interests me already. I’m already wondering why he’s so against this cyber world. What happened to him during his previous employment that forced his early retirement? What does he know about the place that we don’t? Beyond that though I think he’s an interesting character just in terms of his contrasting body image, it’s an interesting look at self-perception and body image fantasy.

It’s hard to judge which direction Hard Wyred is going in but I hope that the team continues to capture that weaving of hilarity and thought provoking undertones. They have something unique here in the way Sam is coming off as being something of an anti-hero but kind of not. Instead of the usual, dark brooding angry anti-hero Sam is a much more fun character but he’s certainly not happy about his new job. I’m hoping Hard Wyred remains light and whimsical throughout its run and that it doesn’t lose its philosophical flair either.

However, this project needs your help. There are so many great projects like Hard Wyred that never see the light of day because they don’t have the funds or the recognition they so rightly deserve in order to make them a reality. Let’s make Hard Wyred happen friends. If you would like to support Hard Wyred head on over to their Official Kick Starter Page and if you aren’t financially able to support this project I’m sure the team would greatly appreciate you telling your friends about this awesome project.


               Every week Mystic Potluck will spotlight a KickStarter project that I feel deserves more recognition. There are a lot of great, interesting projects that never come to fruition simply because they don’t get the funding or the attention that they deserve. Table Kicker is my way of trying to help make more of these awesome projects a reality.