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

The End Is Near

The End is NearThese little residency recaps are getting harder to do the farther I get into Seton Hill’s Writing in Popular Fiction Program. All I want to do is tinker with my novel or craft a new short story. Speaking of, I have one that’s been accepted for publication in a small-press magazine. When it’s released, I will be sure to share access to the tale everywhere I can.

My fifth residency in the program is now over. It tore through my life like a tornado. By the end, I was thanking Cthulhu for my survival. Each residency has gone by faster than the last one. If you enter the program, you should prepare for that eventuality with the appropriate time dampening technology. It’s too late for me to salvage this past residency, but it’s not too late for you to salvage your future one.

That said, I managed to retain a few awesome lessons despite the residency’s speed. Most painfully, I learned that you should apply sunscreen when driving from Greensburg to Camp Hill. I arrived home in a sun-soaked delirium with cooked skin. Less painfully, I learned that the New Pulp genre is as cool as Old Pulp, where H.P. Lovecraft rose from. Heidi Ruby Miller taught a great class on the subject. I also learned, from Jason Jack Miller, that Folk remains a pretty great source for the creation of new fiction. On my third day of the Residency, I got a fantastic crash course on sending out novel queries from a real-life publishing agent, Ms. Rachel Ekstrom Courage. Lastly, I received a spookily good lesson on the Five Senses of Dread from Dr. Michael Arnzen. On top of those modules, I got to take part in a variety of workshops with dozens of talented writers of multiple genres. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that I got to listen to two entertaining and enlightening talks from romance author Beverly Jenkins.

Now, with all that said, I didn’t just occupy my time learning while I attended classes. I also got to convey the lesson I spent the last part of my Teaching Popular Fiction class preparing. Thanks to fellow writer Dana Jackson, I even managed to do so with the inclusion of a YouTube clip I wanted to show (Seton Hill’s technology infrastructure is made for Macs, and I own a PC). My lesson on How to Write a Satisfying Ending came out fine, if a little fast due to my nerves. I still wish I could have delivered the lesson earlier in the residency, but the schedule disagreed with me. Either way, I made it through the class and the week. If I can finish editing one hundred and thirty-six pages and respond to my mentor’s feedback, I will be graduating during my next trip to Seton Hill in January. That’s something I wasn’t even sure would happen at the beginning of 2017. What a difference a year, combined with a huge amount of hard work, makes.

Until Next Time,
-J.D. Cook

The Road Goes Ever On

The Road Goes Ever On

Isn’t it unbelievable how fast time passes? In January of last year, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish my second novel. Now I’ve got a three hundred and fifteen-page fantasy epic that consists of 95,831 words.

My thesis novel is tentatively titled, The Swords of Fellowship, and I am immensely proud to have finished the rough draft. My mentors and critique partners have offered encouragement, support, and help the entire way. In nineteen months enrolled in Seton Hill’s Writing in Popular Fiction Program I’ve learned more about writing than I had in my previous twenty-six years of life.

I’ve also been able to network with some incredibly talented, friendly, and interesting writers because of the Writing Residencies. This past January, I met young adult writer Gretchen McNeil. She wowed me with her insanely cool story concepts and life story. I’m looking forward to downloading a copy of Relic, a novel she wrote partially inspired by my favorite horror film, the Thing. It will be a perfect book to read since I just got a copy of the Thing board game for Christmas.

Back in the June Residency, I got to meet Hank Phillippi Ryan. She’s an Emmy Award Winning Investigative Reporter turned mystery novelist. I’m planning to reach out to her regarding a Lovecraftian story I’m writing with a female reporter as the protagonist. Every speaker we’ve gotten to hear at our residencies has been outstanding thus far.

In the coming semester, I’m going to be learning about how to teach creative writing. This is a subject I am almost as excited about as writing itself. I can’t wait to learn how to pass on the lessons I’ve learned. Although, I am a little sad that I won’t be reading genre books for my class this semester, as in past ones. Last semester, I read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, which quickly became one of my favorite fantasy stories. I also got to read terrific books like A Wrinkle in Time and Nine Princes in Amber.

Before joining this program, I’d never been able to submit my stories to magazines, ezines, or podcasts, aside from some stuff used in my college newspaper. Now I’ve sent my second short horror story out for possible publication. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Hopefully, I’ll be able to update this site with more exciting news over the next year.

Until Next Time,
-J.D. Cook

The Semester of Madness

Grave of Lovecraft

My second semester is a dead dragon, laying slain in my rearview window. That’s not to say the battle wasn’t fierce. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d be continuing in the program. My writing has improved, but it’s been a slow process. I still have a long way to go, even if my thesis novel is at 159 pages. That said I celebrated a milestone this semester.

I received my first rejection letter. While this might not seem like such a good thing, it is. There was a time where I had no idea how to go about submitting work for publication. The Writing in Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill has given me an endless number of places to send my work. It’s also eliminated my fear of rejection. Well, it’s at least lessened it considerably. Right after I got my first rejection, I sent out my story for publication with another online magazine.

Aside from writing, I also got to read more terrific books this semester. My favorite was N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. It’s just a delightful read, and I highly recommend checking it out. Along with that, I got to check out The Three Body Problem, Every Anxious Wave, The Goblin Emperor, The Martian, and The Eterna Files. They were all enjoyable Science Fiction and Fantasy reads. Yet, it was horror that consumed my mind this semester.

Back in High School, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It was an enthralling and creepy read. After that, I devoured any of his stories I found. Then time passed, as it usually does, and it wasn’t until college that Lovecraft came back into my consciousness. This was because my friends and I discovered the board game Mansions of Madness. Once again, I descended into his entertaining mythos. This past semester I heard his call again, but this time it was a bit more literal.

While at work I found many of his best stories on Spotify, and I was able to listen to them when my workload was light. I also received the board game Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu for Christmas from my amazing fiancée. The cherry on top of my most recent Lovecraft obsession was getting to visit him in person. No, I’m not mad. I took a trip to Providence Rhode Island to see a friend, and while I was there, I stopped by his grave. We also checked out the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences store, as well as some local Lovecraft spots. It was a great trip. Anyway, the Lovecraft fever is still going strong as I just bought Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition.

My second semester in this program wasn’t a cake walk, but I felt more confident than during my first. Just knowing how the program operated was a major help because I could better budget my time. Something that is not always easy with a full-time job, a fiancée, friends, and a black cat. Now I am eagerly awaiting my third residency with a healthy dose of cautious optimism.

Until Next Time,
-J.D. Cook