Poem: The Days


These are the days

when fire falls

and water rises.

These are the days

when heaven yawns

and earth topples.

These are the days

when the wind screams

and thunder roars.

These are the days

I remember

what might have been.

FLASH FICTION: Hooked on a Feeling

Hooked on a Feeling

By Alexandra Erin


I used to eat my feelings.

It was mostly just a thing to do. I did it because I was bored, or lonely, or scared. Never because I was hungry. Yo don’t get any nourishent from a feeling. They don’t fill you up at all. They hollow you out, at least when you’re eating your own.

So I would be anxious about something, or nothing, or everything, and I’d eat it. The anxiety. Or whatever. And then I’d feel ashamed about it, and I’d eat that, too. Sometimes I’d be surprised how easily it worked, but never for long. Surprise tastes better than shame, much better.

Before long, I never felt anything except for the things I felt about never feeling anything, and I never felt those for long. Every day I got a smaller on the inside, a little fainter around the edges. Feelings aren’t very substantial on their own, but they add up over time, and over time I was chipping away at the core of who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t know how to react to anything, how to respond to people or situations, because all my emotional cues had been chewed away into ragged little splintery stubs, like fingernails that have been bitten off one time too many.

I couldn’t stop, even if I’d felt any desire to. I had been doing it for too long. Even if I couldn’t live on emotion, it fed something inside me. I wasn’t exactly afraid to stop, but then, I wasn’t afraid of anything.

I didn’t know what to do about my growing state of disaffection, and I didn’t care. The people in my life did, though, the ones who hadn’t slid off me or been pushed away. They cared so much, it was painful to be around them. Briefly, anyway. But I can only eat so much pain, and it was getting to be a problem.

So I don’t eat my feelings anymore. I’ve found a better way, and now no one cares what I do.

At least, not for long.

5th Editon Bard Option: College of the Dancing Flame

Hey, folks! The friendly wizards who live up the coast have recently opened a venue for selling material relating to the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, called the DMs Guild. Though you can well imagine this is exactly the sort of opportunity I’ve been waiting for, this happened while I was out of town, and so I’ve spent many a distracted moment brainstorming content to brew up when I got home.

Today I put some of those plans into action and I have begun working on a supplement that adds character options revolving mostly (though not entirely) around the element of fire. My goal is to have 1 or 2 new character subclasses for every class that I can do so without it being forced, and so far that’s everyone except the Fighter, Rogue, and Ranger (and I have some rough ideas for them), along with other character options such as new spells, feats, racial subtypes, etc.

You who read my blog know that character classes are not just interchangeable bags of abstract mechanics with some flavor text appended to them. I believe the designers of 5E did a wonderful job of making characters whose abilities are governed by rules that strongly suggest a desired flavor. In creating my heroes of flame, I’m taking care to do the same. Fire is not just a damage type, after all. It has a primal power and mystique all its own. It’s an ancient source of terror and the thing we use to beat back terrors. It symbolizes both the holy spirit and the flames of perdition.

To whet the appetite and illustrate my general approach, I’d like to share one of the two Bardic Colleges I’ve created, the College of the Dancing Flame. I believe this falls under the category of “short promotional previews” that are allowed by the DMs Guild terms.

Flame Dancers have abilities that allow them to interfere with attacks on their allies while daring enemies to attack them. Their tendency to laugh in the face of danger emphasizes the unstable nature of fire, as they don’t really have the AC or HP of most classes that take the “tank” style. In their favor, they do have a version of the Unarmored Defense feature that uses their primary ability (the existing Monk and Barbarian ones both use a secondary ability, though Monks have the advantage of their primary ability already being factored in).

The Flame Dancer also show one of the hallmarks of this collection, which is characters who focus on two types of damage. I mean, that’s the main problem with elemental-themed characters: they are hopeless when out of their element. Flame Dancers use both fire and psychic damage (psychic damage being the medium used for taunting spells and attacks). Some of the abilities below may be reworked (and in particular, streamlined) before final publication.

The other Bardic College, not featured in this preview, is the College of Fire and Ice. It’s a spellcasting-focused one that is like a blend of the College of Lore and the Wizard tradition of Evocation, albeit with a more narrow focus than either of them.

Other highlights from the collection include a Fire and Infernal domain for Clerics along with a variant “Gentle Light” domain, Pyromancer and Elementalist traditions for the Wizard, fiery new totems for the Barbarian and a whole new Raging Inferno path, Everlasting Flame Oath for Paladins, and more.


The Dancing Flame option provides another way to weave weapons and magic together, focusing on mobility, defense, and the ability to draw enemies in to attack you. Flame Dancers (as members of that college are called) play a dangerous game with their taunts as they are far more fragile than the typical front-line warrior, but have the advantage of relying on a single ability for attack, defense, and magic.

Unarmored Defense

Starting at level 3 when you join this college, you have an Armor Class of 10 plus your Dexterity modifier plus your Charisma modifier when you are wearing no armor and not using a shield.

Flagrant Finesse

Also at 3rd level, you gain the ability to use your Charisma in place of your Dexterity when making a weapon attack with a ranged or finesse weapon. When doing so, the damage inflicted becomes psychic or fire (your choice when you attack).

Once per turn as a bonus action when you hit an enemy with a weapon attack with a ranged or finesse weapon, you may choose to taunt them. An enemy who is so taunted has disadvantage to attack any creature other than you until the end of your next turn. A creature can only be subjected to one taunt at a time, with new ones superseding the previous one. Creatures who cannot be charmed are immune to this effect.

Burning Retort

Also at level 3, when an enemy makes an attack roll against a creature that has a Bardic Inspiration die from you, the targeted creature can roll that die and choose to inflict that much fire or psychic damage against the attacking enemy. If the enemy is not immune to the damage or to being frightened, it gains disadvantage on all attacks made against the creature that used the die until the end of its next turn, including the attack that triggered this. The creature can decide to use the die in this fashion before or after the initial attack roll is made, but only before the result has been announced.

Blazing Web of Song and Steel

Starting at level 6, whenever an enemy you can see makes an attack against another creature or casts a spell that targets one or more of your allies that you can see but not you, as a reaction you can either cast a spell with a casting time of 1 action that targets only the triggering enemy or an ally targeted by the triggering attack or spell, or make an attack using a ranged or finesse weapon against the triggering enemy.

Your reaction is processed before the triggering attack or spell is completed. If you inflicted fire or psychic damage against the enemy as part of the reaction, the enemy gains disadvantage on its attack roll for the attack or your ally gains advantage on any saving throw against the spell (as applicable).

A creature does not trigger this feature when attacking or casting spells against other characters who also possess it.

Blaze of Glory

At level 14, during your turn you may choose to blaze with energy as a bonus action. When you do so, you immediately regain one expended Bardic Inspiration die, and can spend 1 or more of your bard Hit Dice to regain HP.

The other effects of this ability last while you concentrate on it (as you would a spell) for up to one minute. You emit bright light in a 20 foot radius, and dim light for a further 20 feet. You have resistance to fire and psychic damage and cannot be frightened or charmed. On your turn, you may either dash, dodge, disengage, make a weapon attack with a ranged or finesse weapon, or cast a bard cantrip with a casting time of 1 action as a bonus action. You also have advantage on any Dexterity (Acrobatics) or Strength (Athletics) checks you make (except for checks made to swim). You cannot hide while in this state. Any attempt to do so ends the effect.

Once you have used this feature, you cannot use it again until you complete a long rest.


TotD: Clutterscale Peak


By Alexandra Erin

The enormous cavern was empty, or at least as empty as a place can be when there is a dragon inside it.

The brave adventurer stared in shocked horror and amazement not at the twenty-ton scaly beast but at the bare floors that were not piled high with gold, the vacant nooks and crannies that absolutely were not overflowing with precious jewels the size of their fists and heaps of coins, the crevasses that were definitely not brimming with ancient chalices and silver goblets and bejeweled swords that were maybe magical but certainly valuable.

“Wh… where did it all go?” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

“All what?” the dragon answered anyway, in what would have been a soft voice had it emanated from a smaller instrument.

“The… the treasure,” the adventurer said. “Your hoard!”

“Oh, wow, that’s a harsh word,” the dragon said. “I never thought of myself as a hoarder. But, I mean, I guess it’s fair. I mean, it started out simply enough, just collecting shiny things because they caught my eye, and then it just turned a thing I did, and then… well, I hate to say it, but it became what I was. I didn’t own anything, it owned me.”

“But what did you do with it all?”

“I gave it up. It was just stuff, you know? Look how much more room I have. You know, I couldn’t even roll over before. And even before the piles got that high, there was nowhere for me to sleep that wasn’t on top of something. It was ghastly.”

“Don’t dragons like sleeping on top of coins?”

“Would you?”

“But dragons love gold!”

“I’m getting a kind of a vibe from you that tells me you do, too, but I doubt you’d bed down on it if you had a chance.”

“Enough, wyrm!” the adventurer said, drawing his sword. “You will tell me what you did with your treasure!”

“Oh, no, please!” the dragon said, cringing and shielding its eyes with its taloned forepaws. “Put it away!”

“I see you have heard the legend of my sword, aptly called Drakeslayer,” the adventurer said.

“No, no, it’s just… it’s so shiny, and I’m still, you know what they say about old habits…”

“I’m giving you to the count of three,” the adventurer said, taking a step forward. “One… two…”

“Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take one little sword,” the dragon said.

TotD: Greeting Rituals of the Terminally Shy (Flash)


By Alexandra Erin



There is a peculiar kind of greeting that awkward, shy people who don’t know one another give to each other. It is not done intentionally, but incidentally, in that moment when we glance across the aisle or at the person sitting next to us to size them up, quickly and discreetly, to assess their threat level and determine what, if anything, is expected of us.

We know that like some strange quantum phenomenon, the act of looking at a stranger might change the situation, but forewarned is forearmed, so we take our chances. We are already rehearsing our lines and planning our exit strategy in our minds, trying to remember what feel in our face means a smile, in case we’re called on to assemble one at a moment’s notice.

Then we see the other person, looking at us in the same way, the same furtive glance, the same bright fear in their eyes, and for a brief moment we are like a single organism sharing one full-body slump of relief, and then we go back to our books or podcasts or just the worlds we keep inside our heads.

Internally, we sound the all clear. The doomsday clock rolls back another hour. We return to Defcon 5. Well, Defcon 4. Maybe 3. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for… what, we’re not sure, exactly.

Someone probably knows, but we’re afraid to ask. We pay it, though. If we don’t, someone might come around asking why we haven’t.

Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum

There is a known bug in the human psyche, called the “quantifiability fallacy” or sometimes the “metrical fallacy”: we overestimate the importance of things that can be measured. The easier they are to measure, the more important we assume they are. And because the easily-measured metrics are the easiest things to test for and to brag about, their perceived importance just reinforces itself over time.

This problem crops up in how we handle just about everything: health care, corporate finance, sports, governance, even our military strategies and priorities. Everywhere you go and everything you do, people want to see numbers, numbers, numbers. Hard numbers, big numbers. This kind of thinking pervades pretty much every important aspect of modern life, but perhaps none as important as the fine art of pretending to be an Elf Bard rifling through the pockets of dead kobolds for spare change.

Yes, friends. For today’s Thing of the Day, you get a blog post about the dungeons and the dragons. This will actually be the first installment in a semi-regular feature, an ad hoc column I am calling “Spherical Goblins”, short for “Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum”. Some people who stand at the right nerdy intersection might understand that title immediately, as will people who pay attention to my twitter ramblings.

For everyone else, this post will explain it.

There is a joke—a whole species of them—about physicists solving some problem like doubling a dairy farm’s milk production, but then revealing that their solution only works “for spherical cows in a vacuum”. This references the fact that physicists often simplify the problems they’re dealing with by making assumptions that eliminate complications.

This brings me to the nature of what is often called “theorycrafting” in D&D, as it currently exists, as it applies to min-maxing or character optimization.

The concept of min-maxing is not a new one. You make a character who is only deficient in ways you can ignore and work around or just don’t care about, and strongest where it will have the most impact, or where it’s most important to you.

Min-maxing works best in games that let you gain more power in one area by taking a weakness in another, which are mostly freeform point-based games. It’s a form of metagaming (playing the game of gaming the game system itself, essentially) and it’s not terrible, in moderation and in and of itself.

Even at its worst—especially at its worst—it relies on assumptions like “I can ignore this area and focus on that one because the first area won’t come up.”

If you mess with those assumptions, the whole thing falls apart. A good DM can work with min-maxing to keep its effectiveness to a reasonable level. Of course, a good DM will also let players who just want to be awesome be awesome, also at a reasonable level. You very rarely want to actually match the players meta for meta, though that’s a subject for another column.

So min-maxing, in and of itself, is fine.

The current breed of “theorycrafting” that often surrounds it, though, is another story.

I talked at the top about the metrical fallacy: if we can measure it, it matters. Characters in D&D, particularly in any 21st century edition, can do all kinds of fabulous and fascinating things: talk to animals, change their appearance, create illusions, communicate telepathically, and… of course… they can kill things like goblins.

So, if you have a Gnome Ranger who can talk to small animals, produce minor illusions, and has a variety of survival skills and nature spells, and who can kill goblins with a magic mark and bow attack and a Human Warlock who can communicate telepathically and bring people to their knees with a word and change their appearance at will and who can kill goblins with a curse and a blast of eldritch power, and you have to compare which one is better, how do you do it?

It’s hard to put a value on most of their respective abilities, much less compare them to each other. The one thing they can both do is kill goblins, and as luck would have it, their ability to do so is already reduced to raw numbers! We can figure out their damage output adjusted for hit rate to get their damage per round, and settle the question once and for all of who is better at killing goblins.

At that point, you might feel like we’re one step closer to being able to compare them, or that we know who is better at one thing in one situation… but for those who are invested in creating a character who is objectively the best, that’s the whole comparison. When you know who does the most damage, you have your answer.

I mean, you can get more complicated, and many do. You can drag in how much damage each character can themselves avoid, mitigate, or heal in order to figure out who will stay alive the longest while killing goblins, but that’s still just a facet of how good they are at goblin-killing.

So that’s the goblins. Why are they spherical and in a vacuum?

Our theoretical goblins are spherical in the sense that we assume everything about them is simple. None of them are using unusual tactics or equipment, or exhibiting unusual behavior. Every turn they behave in a straightforward fashion that conforms exactly to whatever our game theorists think they should do.

And they are in a vacuum in the sense that we assume there is nothing interesting about the environment or situation in which they are fought. There is no terrain or ambient condition or external event that has any impact on anything.

The reason we keep to these assumptions is that if we don’t, it becomes harder to make the comparison between characters. If the battlefield is hard to navigate, the Warlock’s ability to teleport might give them an advantage over characters who can’t. If the battle is happening at a long distance, the range of the bow vs. the blast matters. If the goblins are riding mounts and using hit and run tactics, the question might become who is better at controlling them and pinning them down.

Given a certain set of circumstances, we can decide which set of abilities is more valuable in that circumstances. But we can’t compare their overall objective value without knowing not only which one is more valuable in each and every possible circumstance, but how much more valuable, and how likely that scenario is.

It is impossible to do so, which means it is infinitely hard to measure the objective value of anything other than direct killing (or not-being-killed) power.

And, that stubborn, blinkered thinking fallaciously insist that things that are hard to measure don’t matter as much as things that are easy to measure.

So the only thing that really matters is how good a character is at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum.

It doesn’t matter how clever a character is, unless that cleverness comes with damage dice attached. It doesn’t matter how charming they are, or how much many fantastical magical things they can do… except for the ones that do damage. Anything about a character that isn’t the thing that kills the most goblins the fastest in ideal circumstances is just stuff, just fluff… nothing that counts, nothing to concern yourself with, nothing to worry about.

This is the kind of thinking that I abhor, and that I think is toxic and corrosive to the hobby when it’s treated not as fun thought experiments but is handed down to the new and unsure as the way the game is supposed to be played, the way it must be played. In this semi-recurring blog feature, I’m going to be directly countering this kind of thinking with advice to both DMs and players about other ways to approach character creation, the game rules, and running games.

Sometimes I’ll be taking on the fallacious credos and sacred cows that are promulgated by the spherical goblin theorists. Other times I’ll take a more positive approach, offering good advice without any particular point to refute. In either case I’ll be sharing the wisdom of someone who has been playing D&D since the 1980s across multiple editions and through multiple media.


TotD: Regional Wit (Prose Poem)


By Alexandra Erin



This was the year winter came late. It rolled into class fifteen minutes after the bell with a red Starbucks cup, avoiding eye contact and mumbling excuses about El Niño in the general direction of Ned Stark.

Four days after Christmas, our first hint of white was a fog bank, crystallized and made golden in the phosphorescent glare of the parking lot street lamps outside Ollie’s Bargain Outlet and the K-Mart, two stores now trapped in amber like some great primeval insects.

Well, not that great. I mean, it’s just the K-Mart and Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

I don’t miss the cold, I miss the feel of it. I miss the certainty of the seasons, even if it was never all that certain to begin with. I’ve seen more white Easters, Thanksgivings, and Halloweens than Christmases. I’m from Nebraska, where they say “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Except they say that everywhere. It’s like the one where the state bird is the mosquito and the state tree is the traffic cone. If you want to see something truly universal in this life, you have to look at regional wit.

I think if I counted the minutes I’ve spent waiting for something to change, I’d waste a lot more minutes in the process and a lot fewer in the future. That only really works for the weather, and maybe traffic signals.

I love the way the night sky looks when it snows in the city, when the light turns to amber and the sky to amethyst. Omaha becomes a fairy kingdom in the snow, and the First National Tower the enchanted palace at the center of it, one blazing column of light flying up into infinity. Every other night of the year I hate the wasteful, star-blotting excess of energy we pour out into space, but when it snows, when the snow hangs in the air in thick, feather-light clumps, I love it.

There’s nothing like that here, but then, there’s nothing like there here. That’s the point of different places, as near as I can tell. The jokes don’t change much. Mostly it’s the view that does, or maybe the person seeing it.

This was the year winter came late. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes.

SW:TFA – 6 Big Clues To Rey’s Identity

Okay, folks. This one is under a cut for spoilers for a highly anticipated movie that came out last week. If you don’t want to read key plot details for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, give this one a pass until you do. For everyone else, click through to read more (or click back on the original article link if you’re seeing this crossposted somewhere).

Continue reading

TotD: Back In The Stacks (Flash Fiction)

Back In The Stacks

By Alexandra Erin



Curling our fingers tightly around the hilts and hafts of our weapons, we slunk our way down the row of bookshelves, stopping at the end to peer around the summer reading display there.

“Hold on,” Tommy said. She adjusted her helmet, which kept slipping down over her eyes. It was still too big for her in her third year of hunting. “Okay, I’m good.”

“Shh,” Penelope hissed, much louder than Tommy had spoken. I jumped, and we all glared at her. “Well, we don’t want Ms. Alperstein to hear! She’ll kick us out!”

“Why would she kick us out?” Tommy asked.

“For talking,” Penelope said.

“You’re allowed to talk in libraries,” I said.

“Then why do they have signs everywhere saying to be quiet because people are studying?” Penelope asked.

“Because people are studying,” I said. “Do you want to catch a dragon or not?”

“Of course I want to catch a dragon, that’s why I’m here!” Penelope said.

“Kids, please keep it down back there!” Ms. Alperstein said, from out of sight at the front of the library.

“Then keep it down, like she said, or you’ll scare it away,” I said. “Come on.”

We weaved our way deeper into the stacks, eyes always searching for the tell-tale signs of the book dragon’s passage.

Books left upside down or with their spine turned inwards might have been a dragon’s handiwork, but only if they fit into certain subtle patterns. The dragon would move move in a fittingly serpentine pattern as it scampered sinuously across the shelves, its claws slipping into the cracks between the books for grip.

When the dragon moved from the shelves to the floor, some of the shiny flecks in the tiles would be missing. They would grow back, of course, in a day or two. They always would. This was part of how you knew the trail was recent.

“What’s that?” Tommy asked, pointing upwards. There was a rustling among the paper stand-up snowflakes on top of the shelf. We saw a golden tail flick briefly into view, and then vanish just as quickly.

“I think it’s heading for periodicals,” Penelope said.

“Split up!” Tommy said, and we did.

Ten minutes later, we were kicked out of the library, not so much for talking as for running, making big clanging clattery noises when we dropped our weapons in surprise when the dragon reared up and readied its confetti breath, and for having axes and swords in the library in the first place.

“Honestly, every year,” Ms. Alperstein said to me while waiting for my mother. “You’ve never caught one yet, but every year you try this. I ask you, why?”

“They always hoard the best stories!”




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TotD: Last Night (Poem)


By Alexandra Erin

(Inspired by a writing prompt found here: http://poetryprompts.tumblr.com/post/129936319141/prompt )

We sat and watched the stars come out,

then watched them go away.

They fell down one by one

as the sky turned dusty gray.

The end had come, we knew at last

we’d reached the final scene,

unraveling the final thread

from one last fatal skein.

Nothing we lost mattered

as much as you to me.

The night is gone, the world is done.

There’s nothing left to see.


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