The Narrative Appeal of Board Games

Mansions of Madness BoxesThe first time I got really “into” board games was in 2003. I received Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition on Christmas Eve, and I made my Dad play it with me that night on my Pap Pap’s dining room table. Over the next several years, I warred with my family while the One Ring marched its way across the board to Mount Doom and the game’s end. We kept track of our battles with little pieces of notebook paper that calculated points for the winners (18 of these survive to this day). These sometimes also collected little notes from the game, such as, “I wish to destroy Don because of his betrayal,” and “I only fought three battles in this war and won through intimidation.” This game was fun for many reasons, but the biggest one, for me, was the narrative. Yes, Risk games may not have a traditional narrative in the vein of some games today (which I’ll get to later), but in our Risk: Lord of the Rings games we built our narratives throughout our ongoing conquests.

Initially, the game served a different narrative purpose for me. It was a vehicle that allowed me to replay the epic battles of Middle-earth. After that, I created new conflicts across Tolkien’s maps by putting different spins on the existing tales. What if good’s last stand against evil took place in the Shire instead of Minas Tirith? What if Sauron’s forces overran the southern defenses? These were just some of the questions I tried to answer via Risk. My fascination with board games has always been in their ability to create and tell stories.

I was first introduced to the new wave of board games around 2013. I’d just graduated from college, and I found myself back in my hometown. Me and two of my friends went in on buying a game called Mansions of Madness. It sounded interesting because I’d read and enjoyed Lovecraft intermittently since high school, and the game put you in a Lovecraftian world. One person played the role of a keeper (storyteller/master of monsters) while the other players were investigators (who tried to survive long enough to figure out what was going on in the narrative). After playing through many of the scenarios that came in the box, I even created one of my own. Unfortunately, the game had an insanely long set up time, and I moved out of town for work in 2014.

Fast forward to 2016. I’m enrolled in my first semester at Seton Hill University, and I discover the Game Table Café in Mechanicsburg, PA. Through the Game Table, my fiancée and I meet up with two amazing friends for the first time due to our shared love of Game of Thrones: The Board Game. This game, much like Risk: Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, lets you recreate the war for the Iron Throne portrayed in the Song of Ice and Fire novels. Not long after that, I discovered Mansions of Madness Second Edition. In this updated version of the original game, the keeper is replaced by an app which allows everyone to play through a story together. This was a huge leap forward for me, and I went gonzo for this game. I’ve bought every expansion to date, and I’ve spent hours upon hours playing it.

Fantasy Flight, the publisher of Mansions, is a company that knows how to take advantage of narratives for its board games. It produces games based on Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as various others, but I’m most drawn to the Arkham Horror Files (of which Mansions of Madness is part) because I love horror, specifically Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror. While other board games use the Lovecraft theme to great effect, the Arkham Horror Files are special because Fantasy Flight has built its own connected universe using their characters and the Cthulhu Mythos. If you play any of their Arkham Horror File games, there is a crossover between the gameplay, characters, settings, and monsters. It creates an immersive narrative experience, and many of their games directly feature narrative as a gameplay component. Progression in the board (or card) game leads to revelations in the tale you and your fellow players are participating in. It’s a great formula.

As a writer, I am actively inspired by board games such as Mansions of Madness. I use the feelings and narrative surprises to fuel my own twisted tales. However, it’s not just horror writers who can gain some inspiration by playing a good board game. There are games that allow you to immerse yourself in practically any kind of world. Writers can colonize Mars, run breweries, build their careers as stage magicians. Take advantage of this fun way to jumpstart your imagination as an author. Just don’t start neglecting the writing for the board gaming.

Stay Froggy,
Jeremiah

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Jeremiah and his fiancee post-graduationIt feels like there is just too much to say about my final Residency at Seton Hill, but I will endeavor to complete the recaps I started in June of 2016. My three years in the program went faster then I could have imagined. Each semester built my skills and confidence as a writer. Now, I feel ready to charge into the publishing world with my mystical lightning sword drawn high. Before I do that, here’s what I learned over the course of my time mastering writing about popular fiction.

When you first arrive at Seton Hill, make sure you give yourself extra time to navigate to your destination. You will get lost…repeatedly. I found at least one new area on every trip to campus, but somehow, I never got around to hunting down our taxidermized mascot. Don’t be like me. Seek out the magical stuffed Griffin. He probably has much wisdom to impart.

Don’t dread everything. Public speaking sucks, but you’ll never be put in a room with people rooting for you to fail. Everyone will be super nice and encouraging. Even when you get stuck listening to the rare person who doesn’t dig your work, you’ll still have other positive people providing feedback too. The teaching module and thesis defense are the two biggest sources of dread in the program, but neither is anywhere near as scary as it seems from afar.

A note on defending your thesis, if you rehearse reading your story for days, weeks, and months, be sure to practice thanking your significant other (in my case a wonderful fiancée) to their face. If you don’t, you run the risk of breaking down into tears as I did. It’s hard to get people to listen to your commanding authorial voice after you’ve just struggled to avoid a full-fledged tear fest at the lectern. Other than that speed bump, I loved the entire thesis defense. It was amazingly cool to get to answer questions about the story I’ve been writing for years.

The actual graduation flies by even faster than the rest of the time in the program. The entire ceremony seemed to occur in the blink of an eye. One second, I was eating lunch with my classmates, the next I was driving home through a nasty mix of snow and salt. In order to push through the winter slog, I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to be home with my cat, Strider. When I finally arrived safely at my apartment, Strider demanded food with a vocal me-yowl. Isn’t that cat-typical?

Oh, I didn’t even get to mention that I learned a ton of new stuff during this final residency. I took a worldbuilding class with NY Times Bestseller Kevin Hearne. He showed us how to make fantasy maps from the earth’s crust up. Timons Esaias also demonstrated the appropriate ways to use various weapons, defend castles, and write about wars. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but you’d be here all day if I detailed everything I did during this residency.
While this may be the end of my Seton Hill blog, it’s just the beginning of my writing career. I’ve got two stories out for publishing consideration at the moment, and I just helped launch New Pulp Tales. I also plan to continue building this site up with new posts soon. So be sure to check back in, and sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t already.

Before I conclude this blog, I must offer a heartfelt thanks to everyone I interacted with at Seton Hill. My teachers were all amazing. My classmates were all fantastic. I’d re-enroll in Seton Hill and start over tomorrow if I could. If you’ve ever considered trying to hone your writing skills, I can’t say enough good things about what this program will do for you.

Farewell for Now

Jeremiah Dylan Cook

Feels Tasty

The sound of a drip awoke me, but my eyes only opened slightly. I could move them around, but the rest of my body remained inert. I hated these episodes. I’d dealt with sleep paralysis intermittently for as long as I could remember. It felt like being trapped somewhere between a dream and the waking world. At the edge of my vision, illuminated in bright red light on my bedside table, I could just make out the time as one forty-three. I didn’t have to be up until seven, but I’d happily get up now if I could move.

There were three more drips, in rapid succession, but when I surveyed the room, I couldn’t determine their source. The television on my dresser was off, I wasn’t aware of any leaky areas in my apartment, and my fiancée was out of town for the weekend, visiting her parents. There was another drip, and this time the direction seemed more definite. I turned my eyes to the window. The Venetian blinds almost completely obscured the view outside. We tried to keep them closed because we lived in a first-floor apartment next to the complex’s parking lot. No one wants to deal with nosey neighbors. Before heading to bed, I’d left the blinds up a tiny bit to see what the weather would be doing in the morning. The forecast said a big spring snowstorm had a fifty percent chance of burying the area. There was the drip again, but now it sounded more like a peck. Maybe a bird was perching on the windowsill? I looked at the gap, exposed by the open blinds.

A shadowy figure leered in at me with bright yellow eyes. It tapped on the glass with a freakishly long, ink-colored finger.

I screamed, but my enfeebled body only produced a low whimper. My heart rate tripled. I tried to close my eyes, but I couldn’t make them shut in my current state. All I wanted to do was dash out of bed and lock myself in the windowless bathroom, where it wouldn’t see me. I could hear my own breath coming out faster. There was another tap on the glass. I tried to ignore it by looking at my clock and focusing on the familiarity of it, but my heart maintained it’s jarring pace. If only I could get a deep breath, I might be able to calm down and make sense of the thing outside my window. I’m probably just hallucinating. I’d heard stories from other people who saw shadow figures when they went through sleep paralysis. I hadn’t ever seen one before, but there was a first time for everything. It must be a product of my dream addled mind. I took my eyes off the clock and looked back at the window.

The figure remained. Its yellow eyes contained a murky ring of red inside them. It’s not there. I’m just trapped in a half dream. As if in response to my realization, the thing stopped tapping. Its eyes seemed to lock onto mine. I started to look away, but it revealed a smile filled with skeletal fingers where teeth should have been. The fingers emerged from the mouth and began opening and closing, like someone demonstrating an explosion with their hands. Each movement of the fingers resulted in a horrendous cracking sound as the joints moved. It began to leave, and its midnight black body vanished from view. How long until my heart’s palpitations sent me into cardiac arrest? It had to be a dream, a fucked-up piece of my subconscious given form. Another sound made me pause mid-thought. Was that my front door rattling?

I shot up in bed, freed from my nightmare at last. Gasps came to me rapidly as my body finally enabled me to physically manifest the panic I’d been feeling. My hands shook as I raised them to my sweat-drenched hair.

“Just a dream,” I said.

A loud creek filled my apartment. It was the sound of my bedroom door slowly opening. A burst of frigid air rushed at me. I heard cracking joints and looked up to see the thing from my dream staring at me. It stood on the threshold. Behind it, I could see my front entrance smashed to pieces. Inky sludge trailed where it had walked in.

It flew forward, like a gust of smoke, and the fingers of its mouth were on my face before I could react. I struggled to pull it off, but its slimy skin burned my hands. I screamed into the thing’s mouth but felt my cry muffled by a gritty tasting appendage. My body instinctively tried to puke it out, and I leaped off the bed, but the skeletal fingers only dug deeper into my flesh. I tried to breathe through my nose, but I felt myself starting to grow faint. Was this how I died? I fought back up to my feet. All at once the fingers released their grip on my face, and the thing removed itself from my throat. It flew backward, to the doorway, as fast as it had assaulted me. A coal colored arm stuck out of its mouth, surrounded by bony digits. In the arm’s hand, I saw a bloody red pulp. My mind struggled to make sense of it. Then I saw the grotesque crimson heap pulse, squirting out gore, and my brain filled in the sound of its beat. I felt blood welling up in my mouth as a terrible pain emanated from my chest. The thing’s hand began squishing the organ in its grip, and then the entire arm retracted inside the body.

From somewhere deep in the thing’s mouth, I heard a gurgling voice say, “Feels Tasty.”

End

My First Public Reading

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones. This past Saturday was an extremely eventful one for me as a writer. I delivered my first public reading. The video above captures the full recitation of my tale, Feeding Time, complete with an oddly noisy air-conditioner near the story’s climax.

Overall, it was a great experience, and I am honored that the Ligonier Valley Writers picked my flash fiction work as the winner. While at the event, I also got to meet and listen to the other talented writers who entered the contest. Each story contained its own uniquely fascinating elements.

Finally, I wanted to thank everyone who made the trip out to support me. There are a few people who deserve special mention.  The first two are my father and step-mother, who recorded the video above. The next are two of my Seton Hill writing mentors, Jason Jack Miller and Heidi Ruby Miller, they even brought a very cool Seton Hill alum with them for the fun. Fourth is my fiancée’s best friend who tagged along with all the shenanigans this past weekend. Lastly, my wonderful fiancée herself. She never fails to support, and read, the crazy things I spew out of my brain onto a page.