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Friday, July 6, 2018

Life Lessons From The TV Series Smallville

Growing up, I was a huge Superman fan — just as I’ve long been a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes in general. So, when Smallville aired for the first time in 2001, I should’ve been glued to the TV. But…I wasn’t. For whatever reason, I ignored the series for years. And then, sometime in 2004 or 2005 (I can’t remember exactly when), I started renting DVDs from Season 1. (This was before online streaming took off). And I was hooked. I binge-watched my way through the first few seasons, finally catching up to where Smallville actually was. I’ve been a fan ever since.

For those who may not know, Smallville was a TV series about Clark Kent before he became Superman. It starred Tom Welling and ran from 2001 until 2011. The series starts with Clark as a high school freshman and continues forward as he discovers, understands, and develops his abilities. It’s a great concept, though it requires some suspended disbelief to accept Tom Welling, at the time in his mid-twenties, as a 9th grader. The series follows Clark through high school, then college, and then his early career as an entry-level reporter for The Daily Planet. While the series does a halfway decent job keeping Clark and his friends oriented to high school in the first few seasons, the whole college thing is almost ignored. One wonders, in fact, if Clark ever attended any classes!

Some of my readers may not appreciate superheroes or science fiction as much as I do, but Smallville contained some great life lessons that should resonate with all of us. Like just about anything, you have to be discerning. And for the discerning viewer, there were some terrific gems of wisdom — some wonderful life lessons — in this Superman origin TV series.

As a Christian (and those of you who don’t share my faith may want to skip this paragraph), I obviously can’t endorse all the content of every episode. It starts off as a moderately kid-friendly show, but as the series progresses, it gets more “adult.” Some episodes get a little racy, with revealing outfits, lots of drinking, and some characters engaging in casual sex. Some Christians will understandably want to avoid any such content. Others will see it as merely reflective of society overall and look past the objectionable parts to enjoy the good aspects of the program.

I would simply caution you to be discerning and to (as always) make entertainment choices that would not cause anyone (including yourself) to stumble into sin. Speaking for myself, when it comes to entertainment choices, I balance things out on a proverbial scale. And, in my judgment, the good outweighs the bad with Smallville, but I respect those who may come to a different conclusion.

Either way, few can argue that TV shows (as well as movies and books) sometimes contain some inspiring moments or meaningful lessons. And that’s certainly the case with Smallville. So…without further ado, here are some powerful life lessons from Smallville:

“The suit doesn’t make the hero.” -Clark Kent, Season 10, Episode 18 “Booster”

While Clark is trying to keep his identity under wraps and his alter ego’s image (at this point, as “the Blur”) well managed, he comes face-to-face with a flashy, camera-loving superhero named Booster Gold. The episode juxtaposes Clark’s choice to shun the limelight with Booster’s hunger for it. Clark actually begins to diminish his reputation as (well) Clark by transforming himself back into a mild-mannered, socially awkward, and utterly forgettable bystander. By contrast, Metropolis’ newest arrival seeks all the glory he can achieve and presents himself as the city’s new savior (and the Blur’s replacement).

As the episode progresses, Clark learns that Booster came from the future thanks to a Legionnaire’s ring, which he probably stole.  And then Booster messes up a rescue which accidentally leads to an uncontrollable monster threatening the city. And it’s Clark who must pick up the pieces and make things right.

The episode provides a solid lesson in humility, patience, and character. And Clark gets to explain that suits, costumes, and public relations campaigns don’t make heroes. As he explains, “A hero is made in the moment, by the choices that he makes and the reasons that he makes them.”

“Pain is part of anyone’s journey…you can’t escape it.” -Raya, Season 6, Episode 6 “Fallout”

During the Smallville series, Clark (as well as his cousin and a couple friends) spend some time in the Phantom Zone, a lawless and nightmarish abode where Krypton exiled its criminals. In this episode, one of Clark’s friends, Raya, escapes to Earth and comes to visit him. Unfortunately, she isn’t the only one who came to Earth. An evil spirit escapes the Phantom Zone with her and soon inhabits the body of a street kid and comes looking for revenge.

I won’t elaborate any more or risk giving spoilers, but Raya says something in the course of the episode that rings true for all of us. Pain is indeed part of life’s journey. And, try as we might, we can’t escape it. Not in this life. How we deal with that pain fashions and reveals our character.

“Call me crazy, but I’ve always been a firm believer that beauty-it’s on the inside.” -Lois Lane, Season 4, Episode 3 “Fa├žade”

This episode explores what it means to be cool, attractive, and popular – things teenagers (and many adults) wrestle with a lot. Against his father’s wishes, Clark tries out for the high school football team, while a former acne-ridden teenage girl returns from summer break looking fabulous. Her secret? Plastic surgery with a little Kryptonite mixed in.

As one who struggled with acne as a teen and with self-esteem issues for many of my teen and young adult years, I can relate to this episode. And I agree with the lessons it tries to convey. Resorting to desperate, dangerous, or unhealthy measures may give you a temporary boost in confidence or even enhance (for a season) your appearance, but they risk damaging you and others at a level far deeper and of much greater significance.

When it comes to looks, talent, and abilities, people come in all shapes and sizes. But everyone, regardless of appearance or personality, can be something special and make a unique, positive, and meaningful difference in the lives of those around them. To do this, we must pay more attention to what’s on the inside than what’s on the outside.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” -Zod, Season 9, Episode 3 “Rabid”

Sometimes, the bad guys have the best lines. And sometimes, at least when it comes to specific things said, the bad guys are correct. This is one of those times. Zod reminds us that the truth will eventually come to light.

The episode features zombies. That’s right, zombies. Someone in the Smallville writing room must’ve said: “Hey, we need zombies. What could be cooler than Superman vs. zombies?” That’s probably how we got “Rabid” as a Smallville episode.

A virus is unleashed on Metropolis turning its residents, including our beloved Lois Lane, into an out-of-control, rabid zombie. It’s up to Clark to (once again) save the day. Which, of course, he does. Sorry for the spoiler, but back to the lesson…

The truth is something that people will often try to hide from, deny, avoid, or redefine. We see this in the news all the time. We see it in the entertainment world. We see it on social media. We see it in our families. We see it in ourselves. We often don’t like the truth. We often, to steal Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth.” But…the truth is always there. It’s objective. It’s persistent. And it must eventually be confronted.

Smallville is a great show. I wish they’d do a sequel show called Metropolis with Tom Welling playing as our hero Superman, but this is unlikely given the CW’s current-running Supergirl (which features a different actor for Superman) and the movie franchise which started with Man of Steel and continued with Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. Still, whenever I get a little nostalgic for Welling’s Clark Kent, I can always fire up an old episode of Smallville and enjoy it. And, with some episodes, I can also learn some important life lessons.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Freedom is Not a Fantasy

On this 4th of July 2018, allow me to break from our traditional fantasy-oriented blog posts and book reviews and wish everyone a Happy Independence Day. Freedom in the United States of America is not a fantasy, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Founders who laid out the foundations of our great nation and the many veterans over the years who have defended it.

Happy Birthday, America!


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Stories That Go Deep and Make You Think: My Interview With GameLit Author Stan Faryna

Stan Faryna is an author, blogger, gamer, entrepreneur, technology expert, and an online strategist. As an author, Stan has become known in the emerging sub-genre of gamelit or litrpg. His debut novella Francesco Augustine Bernadone: A Brief History of Tomorrows has been reviewed on this blog.

His stories have drawn praise for their depth and thought-provoking nature. "His stories go deep," writes Yomar Lopez, founder of a community of techno-geeks called Geeky Antics. "Stan makes me think," writes a fan on Facebook. He does that in an immersive context of a dystopian world, life-like characters with vivid problems and pain, and Christian hope. A recurring theme across his writing is right out of the bible: Love never fails.

Brian Tubbs (BT): Stan, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Stan Faryna (SF): Thank you for honoring me with your kind words and attention, Brian.

BT: As Yomar Lopez says in his review, your stories go deep. Tell us about that. 

SF: Yomar (aka @yogizilla) was very kind (and I loved doing Dr. Who podcasts with him), but I do hope that I take the intrepid reader, deep. Deep as into self-knowledge, hope, and life. Of course, I want the reader to enjoy a great and compelling story, but I also want that story to encourage them to ask themselves (and live out) the big questions.
  • Who am I? 
  • What can I legitimately hope for in this life? 
  • What should I be doing to make that hope happen?
Beyond God, it doesn't get more real than that. Of course, the key to any kind of meaningful answer is love. Love strongly.

That love is the answer should be obvious to the good woman. And to the good man. But good is not where the world is and most of us fail to love. Too often, we fail.

What do you think? What is possible and likely without love?

BT: Tell us what got you started writing fiction?

SF: I suspect that my writing is staged by my experience which must include reading. C.S. Lewis, himself, believed that reading is key to writing and, more importantly, that good reading is essential to good writing. 

My father taught me how to read at a young age. Maybe, four or five. By nine, I had read most of his science fiction books - Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov among them. I don't think I understood everything I had read in those early years, but it fed my young imagination. 

I believe my father also introduced me to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, I preferred comic books and TV superheroes - The Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, The Amazing Spiderman, Adam West's Batman, and George Reeve's Superman

But the story that seems to have spoken most to me (in childhood) was Homer's Odyssey. That epic poem of Odysseus’s ten-year journey to return home after the Trojan war is an epic, romantic and difficult journey of self-awareness, discovery, and hope. 

My own life, it would turn out, is not a very different story.  

Fast forward. I'm almost 40 years old and a novel is overdue. As Milan Kundera explains in his The Art of the Novel, what defines a novel most is that it asks important, eternal, and urgent questions. He gives us the example of Don Quixote by Miquel Cervantes; it asks whether virtue is still relevant. 

My own heart tells me that it is. That virtue is necessary for the good life. So I must ask, what is virtue. 

Such questions seem better placed in fiction. Or science fiction. Because we can be more honest with ourselves in that context. That's why I'm writing fiction.

Of course, fiction is not the only kind of writing that I do. Or that I have done. Business plans, proposals and corporate communications. Op-eds and blog posts. Book reviews and marketing copy. Thank you notes, personal correspondence and consolations.

A good writer should know how to write to a variety of purposes. passions, and necessities.     
If you are a writer, do try.
   
BT: Tell us about GameLit or LitRPG. What's it all about?

SF: GameLit and LitRPG is science fiction, fantasy or some combination that is plotted like a computer or table top role playing game a la Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft. Its roots go back to the stories of players relating the adventures and backstories of their player characters. Though these stories initially developed a market among Russian and Eastern European readers as LitRPG, a market for this sub-genre evolved in the West over the last ten years. 

Beyond the debates and legalities, the apparent difference between LitRPG and GameLit is that LitRPG strongly emphasizes the mechanics of character progression and game play - too often at the expense of a meaningful theme, plot, story structure, depth of character, setting, and style. None of which dampens the enthusiasm of the general LitRPG reader. Some would unkindly suggest this problematic reflects the lack of maturity (and humanity) of the anti-social and loveless gamer. 

A popular example of LitRPG is Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online series. On the other hand, an example of GameLit is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

BT: Your latest project is part of an anthology of novellas and short stories in the gamelit subgenre. In fact, the pack is titled GameLit: Expansion Pack. How did you get involved in that project?"

SF: Being a gamer myself and having a concept of a game that I would like to develop, I began an epic, romantic story about a gamer. The concept of a massively multi-player, post-apocalyptic game, Jacob's Trouble, came to me in the late 90s. I began writing the story in 2006 as a way to define the story, world and mechanics of the game. For the purpose of a business plan. That story, however, became something more. An exercise in love.

Fast forward to 2016 when I released my novella, Francesco Augustine Bernadone. It's about an aging man who enters the game, Jacob's Trouble, in hopes of making enough money to pay for experimental medical treatment needed by his dying wife. 

As I scrambled to figure out some of the marketing mechanics behind book sales, LitRPG seemed like a good sub-genre market for my story. It wasn't. Some complain that LitRPG is more sewer than anything that might be mistaken for literature. On the other hand, GameLit stories are more about the writing. The game is more of an element of the story than a substitute for a story - or so I hope!

GameLit, however, is a new market and time will tell if it will grow large enough to sustain the authors that want to write and sell to it. R.M. Mulder believes in GameLit and he's done a lot to develop the concept, sub-genre, and community. He's also the mastermind behind the GameLit Expansion Pack and an upcoming GameLit magazine. He gave me a space to do my thing and I'm grateful to him. 

BT: Tell us about your story 'Why No One Likes You.'

SF: Magda is a thirty something woman looking for a good time in a popular online game. As a new player, she's got to figure out the general mechanics of game play and her place in this new world. None of which come easy for Magda because she's narcissistic, anti-social, and impulsive. Worse, her reputation and character becomes a topic of public conversation and condemnation.

Magda's predicament reminds me of the problematic of people who pull up roots and go somewhere new to start over, but they can't leave themselves behind and, therefore, they bring their old troubles with them.

Unfortunately, online shaming, bullying and negativity is a thing. Real people are destroyed by it. Often for sake of a single, thoughtless comment or statement. As a result, some end up killing themselves. That's a horrible tragedy. Others lose their jobs. Some don't get hired. Online reputation is that serious. It's a thing I wanted to consider through her story.

I also wanted to explore rejection and how character, personality and intelligence contribute to one's existential predicaments.

How do you manage your online reputation? 

Hopefully, with love and humility.

BT: You were kind enough to invite me to join the next one, so thank you. And I look forward to being a part of that project with you.

SF: I'm excited for you. For your newly embarked odyssey in writing. For the stories you will bring. I'm confident you are going to bring an intelligent and substantial voice to the subgenre. I've enjoyed more than a few of your sermons. 

Intelligence, substance, and sincerity is increasingly lacking across genres and media. We need your finger on the dam.

Consider it an exercise in love and hope.

Check out GameLit Expansion Pack over at Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a review after picking up a copy. 


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Why I Love Watching, Reading, and Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: Blame my Father

Most of you know me as a Christian and as a pastor, but not all of you know that I'm a fan of fantasy and science fiction. You can blame my father for that.

As I write this, we’re heading into Father’s Day Weekend 2018. And I’m thinking of my late father, Edward Tubbs. One of the many things we did as a father and son was come up with stories together and create our own games. We both loved history, science fiction, and fantasy. And I have many fond memories dreaming up various story ideas and making up our own games - and then playing them.

In one particular game, we had medieval soldiers, castles, dragons, and wizards. I remember it well. We’d dream up the rules, play out our game to see if the rules worked, and tweak things as we went along. And on a least a couple occasions, when I’d start winning, Dad would want to change the rules. :-).

My dad raised me to believe in God, love Jesus, and respect the Bible as God’s word. And it frankly irritates me that some Christians would think we were doing something “demonic” or “sinful” in those harmless father-son games because, in at least a couple of them, we had wizards and dragons! Or because Dad tried to get me to read The Lord of the Rings books (and I sadly never did -- but I love the movies! :-) ).

And yet many Christians are indeed that way. And would indeed say those things.

I still remember when the first Star Wars movie came out. I loved it! My dad loved it! It was something that he and I bonded over. He took me to every one of the original trilogy movies. And he and Mom bought me some of the Star Wars comics when they came out. And I remember taking one of those comics to school one day (I went to a private Christian school) and being told by my teacher that Star Wars was “of the devil.”

Of the devil? Seriously!?

My dad was helping me celebrate something that was "of the devil"?!

For my third grade mind, that just did not compute. And, honestly, it doesn't compute for my 48 year old mind either.

As I explained in my article “Christianity and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature,” (which you can read here), I love reading about dragons, monsters, wizards, Jedi, sword fights, epic battles, and more. I have for years. And...

Yes, I’m a Christian (and a pastor, no less).

That's right. I'm an evangelical, Bible-believing, Christ-loving, Baptist pastor AND I enjoy fantasy and science fiction.
  • I read fantasy and science fiction. 
  • I watch fantasy and science fiction. 
  • And I even write about fantasy and science fiction. (Hence, this blog). 
  • And I'm working on my own fantasy and science fiction stories.
Not all Christians will understand or appreciate my "entangling" myself with sci-fi and fantasy entertainment, but let me reiterate: Even though I enjoy fantasy and science fiction, I still...
  • Love Jesus.
  • Believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.
  • Am fully devoted to my Christian faith.
Perhaps you see an inconsistency or problem there, but I respectfully do not.

And neither did my father.

The Bible certainly condemns “mediums,” “necromancers,” and “sorcerers” (see Leviticus and Revelation). But these passages very specifically refer to individuals consorting with actual witches and demons. These passages are not talking about Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or even the main protagonist in I Dream of Jeannie.

It’s important that Christians exercise some discernment, and it troubles me when Christians have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction to things without taking the time to understand those things.

If you’re going to judge a fictional depiction of magic, it’s important to at least understand that fictional depiction. You don’t just look on the surface and say “Magic? Sin!” What’s the SOURCE of the magic in the story?  THAT is important, because THAT is why the Bible condemns those who were engaged in sorcery in Bible times. Their source of power was demonic. And thus the Bible understandably and rightly condemns them.

If a work of fiction glorifies or celebrates Satan or demons as a source of power....stay away. But this is not the case with Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, I Dream of Jeannie, or The Wizard of Oz.

Frankly (and please don't brand me a heretic here, my fellow Christian), it's not even the case with Harry Potter either. (Picture me ducking to avoid incoming objects). Contrary to what some uninformed, yet quite vocal, Christians have to say, Harry Potter does not glorify Satanism or the worship of demons.

This doesn't mean I fully endorse Harry Potter. I do not. While most of Harry Potter is fictional, fanciful, and completely harmless, there are nevertheless some actual occult practices woven into the story, which should obviously raise serious concerns for Christians. For a more complete examination of that, I refer you to Marcia Montenegro's review of Harry Potter.

Marcia is the founder and head of a wonderful ministry called "Christian Answers for the New Age." I don't agree with Marcia on everything, and I know she won't agree with all of what I wrote in "Christians and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?" And she probably won't approve of my writing fantasy stories either. Nevertheless...

Unlike many in the Christian community who have a knee-jerk, judgmental reaction against all things fantasy, Marcia is thoughtful, reasonable, and informed. She has a lot of great information to offer the discerning Christian. And she makes excellent points about the Potter movie and book franchise. And as a former astrologer and New Age practitioner (and now Christian missionary), her expertise on such matters is worthy of attention and respect.

I appreciate those Christians who take a cautious (even if, at times, overly cautious) view of entertainment that deals with wizards and other magic-wielders. And if YOU feel God is leading you not to read or watch science fiction and fantasy at all, I respect that. I do.

By all means... Obey God.

But I hope you will respect people like my dad and me who did not believe God was leading us to avoid all fantasy and science fiction. I hope you can respect that we made different choices. Not that we endorsed all entertainment choices, and certainly not all fantasy entertainment. That's not what I'm saying and it's not what my father taught me. Rather, I believe a Christian can and should exercise discernment. And that is what I'm defending.

Discernment.

It was, after all, the late (and indeed legendary) J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote: "Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased." Fantasy fiction is not inherently corrupt or sinful, but like anything, it can become so. This is why discernment is key.

Let me repeat: Fantasy, in and of itself, is not sinful. It is simply a part of the human imagination - something that should be encouraged. For as Tolkien himself wrote: "Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."

God bless you. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

An Interview With LitRPG Writer Apollos Thorne

Apollos Thorne is the bestselling author of several LitRPG novels, including Codename: Freedom - Survive Week One, Codename: Freedom - The Goblin Siege, and Underwold: Level Up or Die. I had the privilege of interviewing Apollos at the time his first Codename: Freedom title was released. This interview, conducted back in July 2017, is being republished on this blog for your reading pleasure.

July 2017 Interview with Apollos Thorne, author of Codename: Freedom series

Brian Tubbs (BT): “Your book Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One releases TODAY. I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s in the LitRPG genre. For the benefit of some of my blog readers, can you explain what LitRPG is all about?”

Apollos Thorne (AT): Sure. That is probably the hardest question to answer that I get asked all the time. Tron is a good example. The main character is sucked into a digital world. Although a lot of authors use virtual reality because it’s becoming more and more of a reality. The only difference is that once you are sucked into this world you are able to level up to grow stronger. Just like in the common Role Playing Game. The progression of the characters is usually a major characteristic of the genre.

Another aspect that isn’t talked about as often, but is almost always present, is the competition between other players or people also stuck in the same situation you are. Not only is there the opportunity to level up and grow stronger, but to compete against others. The trailer for Jumanji 2, which just dropped on YouTube, is also a good example.

BT: “What got you interested in LitRPG as a genre?”

AT: I grew up playing games, especially role-playing games. It was always the story of these games the fascinated me. The sense of progression from leveling you character and growing stronger is also something I think really captures the imagination of guys in particular. I think it is a perfect genre to tell coming of age stories. There is also the exploration of future technology that has my inner geek dancing.

BT: “On your blog, you say you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Can you tell us what you most appreciate about them?”

AT: I will start with Tolkien, just because he was the cornerstone for the modern fantasy genre; especially epic fantasy. Even though I am a minimalist in my own writing when it comes to descriptions, to read Tolkien is to enter a new world. He is also a great example of what mankind is able to do with the imagination God has given us. C.S. Lewis is probably a bigger inspiration because of how he was able to mold his Chronicles of Narnia universe into something entertaining to all, but also more directly honoring to God. Also, I was able to start Lewis’s series earlier in life and stay interested.

BT: “You’re a Christian who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role-playing games, and LitRPG. As you know, some Christians are uncomfortable with these things. What would you say to someone who is sincere in their faith and who also enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role playing games, and so forth?”

AT: First of all, listen to your conscience. For anyone that is a new Christian… do not do anything that you are uncomfortable with just because another Christian has found liberty in that area.

I was converted while in the process of getting a film degree, so understanding where I stood in this area was something I had to figure out fast. Where you stand on any form of entertainment is probably one of the first things you will struggle with as well since it is so readily available in our culture. Don’t rush the process as God renews your mind through His word and wise counsel.

With that out of the way, fiction, regardless of the medium, is fiction, not reality. That distinction is very important. Understanding it is entertainment makes it possible to take something like Harry Potter and discern what is good and wrong about it. Yes, some people believe in witchcraft, or even take the made-up magic of Harry Potter and practice it as if it is real. They have not discerned reality.

As you grow in knowledge of Scripture and experience the philosophies of the fiction, and characters within, the idols of their hearts, and also the good and noble things in the story will become easier to spot. Self-sacrifice, heroism, love, compassion, mercy and redemption are all things that even unbelievers can understand to a certain extent and appreciate. Remember that man is totally depraved, not utterly depraved. Meaning we are naturally sinners, but by God’s grace no one is as bad as they could be. We are also created in God’s image. That makes mankind fascinating, even in his fallen state.

Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is probably the most prolific reader I have ever encountered. Not only does he study every topic under the sun, but he also reads fiction. Now he doesn’t give recommendations, but he has helped solidify certain aspects of different forms of media in my mind. Reading, like nothing else, allows you to experience a story in an extremely intimate way and delve into the heart and mind of the characters, almost experiencing what they are experiencing and takes you on the journey with them. The emotions it can cause are evidence of that.

BT: “By the way, your first name is Apollos – the same name as one of the Apostle Paul’s ministry colleagues in the New Testament. Is that just a coincidence? or did your parents have the Apollos of the Bible in mind?”

AT: That is exactly where I got the name! A man of eloquent speech. I tease that my last name Thorne comes from Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Meaning for every ounce of eloquence He gave me to tell a story, He made sure to level the playing field. Actually the last name just sounded cool.

BT: “Tell us about your book.”

AT: Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One is the first book in what I plan to be a long running series of nine or more books. I wish they broke up nicely into trilogies, but I don’t see that happening. It is a coming of age tale where Lucius, named after the Lucius in Acts, is raised in a world where virtual, mixed and augmented reality have completely taken over everyday life.

His father is a software developer and created an artificial intelligence (AI) bot named Destiny to basically raise him in his place. She is more than that though. She is a constant voice in his head to help him develop to become the best he can be in whatever it is he so desires. Destiny is much more advanced than the regular AI bot and Lucius’s father is rather disappointed he uses her to pursue becoming a professional gamer.

Gaming at this point in time has become as big as professional sports are today, if not bigger. With enough followers you can catch the eye of sponsors and get huge contracts. Lucius is selected to enter a yearlong virtual reality experiment that is really a training simulator, "Codename: Freedom," designed to transform normal people into super soldiers. He enters Freedom to hopefully push his semi-pro status to the next level.

The leveling system isn’t like what is common in LitRPGs. It is based off of military grade Mixed Reality tech. When they level up, they can improve their senses to grow their ability of sight, hearing and smell. All combat is based off of their real world ability. Since both gamers and athletes are chosen to participate this causes some extra drama when the two different worlds clash.

I have to stop now or I’ll give too much away.

BT: “How long did it take for you to write it?”

AT: I started this one in October of 2015.

BT: “How accessible is this story for people who may be uncomfortable with profanity, sexual content, and so forth?”

AT: There is no profanity or sexual content at all for starters. I usually use fillers that are cleaner, like “cyborg snot" for cursing. Something that is cleaner, and more humorous than cringe-worthy. That doesn’t mean I do not touch on mature topics. One of the biggest trials Lucius has to deal with is the 100% pain in Codename: Freedom. Even if pain doesn’t come paired with death, having to wait hours as you suffer through it before your body recovers is not a light topic.

If in the future there is sexual content, then I will imply and not describe it. I have never run into a book where I thought it was necessary to tell the story. Now certain genres are based upon that, but I am not writing for any of those genres.

Also, Codename: Freedom is an action novel. There is violence, but I don’t do gore. That is sometimes a fine line, but I only explain certain events if they are required to explain a tactic and that tactic is impacting the mindset of the character.

Drinking. This is something that is done in Codename: Freedom. I have tried to do it tactfully, but everyone is of age. Secondly, it is not praised. A drunk person is thoroughly mocked in Book One as example. Also, one of the ways it is used is to numb pain while people are suffering from an injury because they have found nothing else that works.

BT: “Have you always wanted to be a writer?”

AT: I have always like the idea, and in college I wanted to pursue it. It wasn’t until after college and I was married that I just started to do it for a hobby that things became series. I put up the rough draft of Codename: Freedom on RoyalRoadL.com and got 500k views. After that it seemed silly not to pursue it.

BT: “With LitRPG, you not only have to deal with plot and characters, but also with creating a game world and dealing with game mechanics, character stats, and so forth. Did you design the game before you wrote the book?”

AT: Yes. I also have a second series with a completely different game system coming out hopefully in 2-3 months. This is an aspect I get a kick out of. It’s the gamer in me. Growing up playing games is good for something I guess.

BT: “I’m assuming you plan to follow up with Book Two** at some point. Do you have the series all laid out? Or are you letting things unfold as you go???

AT: A little bit of both. The overall plot over the nine or more books is already outlined. The individual books are only partially outlined. Besides book two that is already written, each individual book I experience for the first time while I’m writing it. There are a few major scenes I have probably already imagined, but other than that the characters do what they want. Lol.

I wanted to thank you Brian for the opportunity and showing the LitRPG genre some love. I hope you continue to enjoy the genre!

**Note: Since this interview was originally conducted, Book Two has now released. Look for it on Amazon at Apollos Thorne's author page

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Interview With Fantasy LitRPG Writer Adam Horne, Author of Unwritten Rules

Adam Horne’s Unwritten Rules is a fantasy LitRPG novel available on Amazon Kindle (free if you have Kindle Unlimited). Last year, I read the book and wrote a review (published originally on a different blog - recently republished here). And I reached out to the author with a few questions, and he was kind to get right back to me. With his permission, I’m posting the interview below.

BT: I really enjoyed Unwritten Rules. How did you discover the LitRPG genre and what made you decide to write in it?

AH: I read Ready Player One. And by read, I mean I put it on my Amazon wishlist, ignored it for 3 years, then rediscovered it and wished I’d picked it up when I first saw it. From there it wasn’t hard to find links to similar books, and I tried several different series, including The Land, Awaken Online, Caverns and Creatures, and some translations of the Russian books. I’d played RPGs, both tabletop and video games, for over 20 years, and I’d also just finished writing my second book, which was a young adult science fiction novel. I wanted to work on something new and LitRPG was a perfect fit for my interests both as a game player and a writer, so I began outlining the story that became Unwritten Rules.

BT: The main character is a disabled young man struggling with depression and looking to find a purpose in life. There are some who may think the novel insinuates that disabled individuals need a virtual reality game to give them purpose. I know this isn’t your intent, but wanted to ask if you could comment on that.

AH: Sure. I always looked at Kevin’s condition as having less to do with his physical circumstances and more to do with his outlook in the aftermath of the car crash. At any point, he could have worked with his new limitations to create a purpose in his life. He had a motorized wheelchair that would have given him the mobility needed to socialize or hold a job, and he had parents and friends willing to support him in his goals. He just needed to make the decision for himself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when suffering from depression. What Kevin needed most in his life was a way to feel like he was contributing, and that could have been done in any number of ways: a job, volunteering, outreach programs to mentor other people with disabilities. That’s what I saw as his purpose, and the game was the perfect tool to help him achieve it.

BT: How did you go about this aspect of developing Kevin as your protagonist?

I don’t have a disability like Kevin’s, so I’ve had to research quite a bit in order to write it. The psychology behind how people change after a traumatizing event kind of surprised me. Many people in Kevin’s situation report that after they come to terms with what happened to them, they feel a deep sense of gratitude for things they used to take for granted. They’re happier afterwards and wouldn’t trade the sense of well-being they’ve discovered for going back to the person they were before. I plan to include more about how playing the game helps Kevin regain some of the physical mobility he lost and how it affects him emotionally and psychologically as well. Hopefully my writing skills are up to the challenge of handling it in a way that is sympathetic towards people with disabilities.

BT: With LitRPG, you’re not just dealing with characters and plot, you have to immerse them in a believable game world and track their progression through that game world. Did you design the game before you wrote the story?

AH: I did a lot of design work before I started writing. I wanted my characters to overcome their problems through strategy rather than being overpowered, something I see a bit too often in LitRPG stories. I felt the more I knew about the game and how it played, the better I would be able to write the story. I knew the skills and powers, leveling system, character classes, death mechanics, and all the ways the AI worked in the background before beginning chapter one. I had to make some changes as I went along, but having all that figured out in advance meant I could focus more on the storytelling as I wrote.

BT: How did you track character stats?

AH: I use a program called Scrivener to help with my writing. It lets me add notes to each chapter, so I kept track of stats that way. Honestly I could have been a lot more diligent about tracking and showing stats, but I tend to concentrate more on the story. When I read LitRPG, I usually skip over the points when an author shows the entire character sheet anyway, especially if they’ve already been individually reporting when skills and attributes increase. I plan to be more diligent in reporting those values in the next book.

BT: I’m sure many readers (like me) want to know when we can expect Book Two. 

AH: At the moment, I can’t say when book two will be ready. It took approximately four months to write Unwritten Rules, but I’m hoping I can work faster this time since the game world has been established. The outline is mostly done, and I intend to release chapters on a weekly basis on Royal Road once I start writing. If you want to include a link to the story page, I will be updating it with information as the book progresses.

BT: Thank you for your time, Adam. I know my blog readers will appreciate this interview. Blessings to you and your efforts.

AH: Thank you for including my book in your blog, and I am glad you enjoyed it.


Monday, May 21, 2018

A Janitor Becomes King: My Review of Adam Drake's LitRPG Series Kingdom

Robert Barron is a widower and night-shift janitor. Still grieving the loss of his wife, the 52-year old cares only about his grown daughter, Anika, and wants to keep the rest of his life as free of stress as possible. And that’s why he traded in the corporate life in favor of cleaning office buildings. With little to no professional ambition left, Rob just wants to live in peace and enjoy as much time with his daughter as he can. Unfortunately for Rob, unseen forces have other plans for him. And the night-shift janitor finds himself running (and defending) a kingdom!

Simple and straightforward, Adam Drake’s Kingdom series is yet another contribution to the increasingly popular LitRPG genre (aka GameLit genre). A subset of fantasy and science fiction, LitRPG is all about following a character or set of characters as they progress through a virtual reality game setting.

Drake’s Kingdom series isn’t as heavy into the game mechanics as some other LitRPG novels, and his stories are much shorter. I've been able to zoom through each book of the series (at least those thus far released) rather quickly. While not necessarily superficial, the Kingdom series is not deep. The stories are straightforward. Most of it is hack-and-slash with some hand-wringing and angst thrown in for good measure. The books could also use some additional editing. There were several typographical errors and spelling issues. But the premise is compelling (if highly unbelievable) and I do care about the main character. And that’s what has kept me going through this series.

Most LitRPG stories follow a young protagonist who is a talented, experienced gamer in real life. Not so with Kingdom. Drake’s protagonist, Rob, is older and much less experienced as a gamer. And this is seen numerous times as Rob makes quite a few rookie mistakes.

This is not a Christian fantasy series. That of course is no problem for many of my readers, but since a large portion of my reading audience identifies as Christian, I feel I should point this out. That Kingdom isn’t Christian is made clear by the language, by an early description of the main character’s attitude toward religion, and by the polytheistic nature of the game world. And while the latter would normally be taken with a grain of salt (we are talking about fantasy after all), the premise of the series itself is still not fully defined - at least not so far. Is the game world real? Is it man made? It’s clearly a game, given its mechanics, but it somehow is more than just a game. For one, it had the ability – via its “gods” – to reach into the real world and abduct Rob. For my own part, I can easily suspend disbelief and not take fantasy stories like this seriously. But some of my Christian readers may have a different perspective. Aside from a little language, though, the stories are fairly clean.

Some have criticized Drake's Kingdom books for being "hack writing" (and I'm sure some litrpg / gamelit aficionados will criticize me for including it on this list), but the truth is.... I've enjoyed this series despite Kingdom‘s shortcomings. I've read all four parts (Levels 1-4) so far, and can't wait until Kingdom: Level Five. And I’m looking forward to the next installment.

If you’re a part of Kindle Unlimited and like LitRPG, I encourage you to give the Kingdom series a try.