Category Archives: games

February comes at you fast

Okay, blog time. When did I last write a post? One week ago? Two?

…four? On like the last day of January?

Huh.

I guess that’s how blogging works when you have increasingly less and less to say or enlighten people about.

So fine! We’re in End-of-Month-Summary-Purgatory, and perhaps one day we will make our way out of it, like jailbreaking ghosts escaping Spirit Prison to at last drink ecto-cooler in the Spirit Paradise hot tub.

Seems legit.

Query-go-round

Most of what I’ve been doing this month, and for the last several months, is talking with agents, and by ‘talking with’ I mean ‘getting form rejection emails from’. That’s not the most encouraging or motivating of things, but I keep at it. I’ve had a few more personal rejections, which are useful and worthwhile, and there are still a couple of people reading manuscripts and considering Raven’s Blood.

Do I have any tips for querying? Nothing particularly earth-shattering. I wrote a standard query email with an intro, flavourful high-concept pitch for the book and a super-short bio, and I fine-tune it for every agent I approach. (And based on recent feedback, I include a note that the book uses British punctuation and spelling, so any oddities are probably because I’m foreign, not because I don’t know how quotes work.) I keep a spreadsheet of names, agencies, what they’re after and how to submit, which I follow to the letter, and I keep track of when things go out and when they come back. As for where I find agents to contact, I’m drawing info from the usual places – AgentQuery, Writer’s Digest, WritersMarket etc – and keeping 6-7 queries going at a time.

Most of all, I’m polite. I thank them for their time and attention when I get in contact, and don’t take it personally when they knock me back. (Which doesn’t really seem like rocket surgery – but still, you’d be surprised how some people get this wrong.) I’m not crawly or fawning or whatever, just pleasant and polite – and while that won’t get me special treatment, it won’t hurt if/when I come back to those agents with a new project.

Just as soon as I find a home for this one.

13th Age goodies

What’s 13th Age? It’s a role-playing game that is pretty much like 4E D&D but different in ways that don’t really merit a huge amount of wordcount right now. It’s pretty cool.

What’s also cool is The Forgotten Monk, Greg Stolze’s 13th Age novel that he kickstarted back in early 2015. It’s the story of an amnesiac kung-fu fantasy detective getting into fights with ghosts, demons and hags in an attempt to learn his backstory and understand mortal morality. It’s a damn fine adventure novel, and well worth a read even if you’re not into RPGs but like books about magic and superkicks and gnome shenanigans.

What’s also, also cool (and the point of this ramble) is that the stretch goals for the Kickstarter were free short stories about some of the minor characters in the novel, written by gaming luminaries Jonathan Tweet, Ron Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and I DUNNO SOME RANDOM ASSCLOWN yours truly.

For whatever reason, these stories were written ages back but not released – but now they are! And they’re free! And you don’t need to have read the book or played the game to make sense of them! WHAT A FREAKIN’ DEAL!

If that sounds tempting to you, there are links to download all four stories (in various digital formats) over at Greg’s Kickstarter page, no purchase or login required. Mine is called ‘Imperial Business’ and features a character named Sergeant Dovestrom, who may well be the biggest douchebag in The Forgotten Monk (which is saying something). It’s a little bit action, a little bit horror, a little bit fantasy; it’s kind of like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ except it’s about an unpleasant soldier and a flying murderlion and the sparks that fly when they meet.

…that probably makes it sound more romantic than it really is. Sorry.

Other gaming news

Speaking of roleplaying games, man, I sure am doing a lot of that right now. Probably too much, let’s be honest.

My urban fantasy game (the one I talked about last time) is kicking along, with two sessions of drama and running through sewers and negotiating with demons – all the traditional stuff. One player is moving to Canada to write video games about space ninjas, so there’s some rethinking and tweaking in the near future – but so far, everyone’s having a good time.

On the side, I’m also running a short InSpectres game that is turning out even sillier than expected (these ghostbusters also run a pizza restaurant and their cases all seem to involve CHUDs), and organising self-contained Fiasco games in local shops/bars at the end of every month. And now I’ve signed up to play a game of 5E D&D. Which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, even though my heart will always belong to 4E.

But really. Something’s gotta give at some point. I’m starting to dream about dice. And, more pertinently, not getting enough work done.

Congrats to my friends with work ethics

There are people who have been getting work done, though, and I’m proud to call some of them friend, acquaintance, Tweep or at least person-I-keep-meeting-in-festival-bars. So I want to take a moment to call some folks out for being awesome:

  • Alan Baxter, Kirstyn McDermott, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Kim Wilkins and favourite-blog-commentator Dave Versace for their shortlist nominations in this year’s Aurealis Awards for Australian spec-fic.
  • Jay Kristoff (again) and Justine Larbalestier, who are on the longlist for the YA Inky Awards.
  • Peter Ball and the QWC team for getting this year’s GenreCon up and running already! This time I promise not to hog the karaoke mike.

These are good folks. Y’all should read their stuff.

Finally, this month’s excuses for not writing enough of Obituarist 3

  • I was super-busy at work
  • And I had work travel as well
  • It was hot
  • I was tired
  • New baby (not mine, but nearby)
  • Anne Gracie got me drunk
  • Trump
  • Turnbull
  • Rain of fire and frogs
  • END TIMES?!?!?!
  • Mediocre Playstation games
  • *sigh* I’m just not, like, feeling it, you know?
  • I’ve lost so much blood
  • [insert image of coffee mug saying World’s Worst Everything]

Now, March. I turn 46 in a couple of weeks.

Let’s see if I can finish something before I hit 47.

World-building is a hell of a drug

I get distracted easily.

Don’t even try to pretend it’s not true.

So when I want to focus on writing, one of the first things I need to do is pare away my distractions. I’m not much of a TV guy, but I either stop watching or limit myself to watching in lull periods, like the two episodes of Young Justice I allow myself on Saturday mornings. Video games are my crack, so I make sure not to have any hanging over my head that can suck me in for hours on end; right now, all I have in the PS4 is Bloodborne, and I can only play that for maybe 30 minutes before becoming so stressed and upset that I can’t continue. Social engagements and beer… well, those are important to me, but as a project gets more and more pressing, those things gradually drop down the priority list.

And then there are roleplaying games.

Sigh.

I started a new RPG campaign this month, one I plan to run every two weeks, because I am a goddamn idiot.

Shadows of New Jerusalem is an urban fantasy campaign that I’m hoping to run for the rest of 2017. (Maybe into 2018, if my players are keen.) This is a concept I’ve actually talked about before on the blog, way back in… jesus shit, back in 2013. (although it’s morphed a lot since then.)

My original plan for the game was an ‘anthology’ game using the Chronicles of Darkness setting, but I gave up on that after some of 2016’s games didn’t pan out so well. I felt that I wanted a game with very strong player buy-in and minimal upfront reading/effort – which suggested a much more collaborative approach was needed.

So I got a group together, pitched a basic concept (urban fantasy, Fate system) and we went around coming up with ideas about what we did and didn’t want to see in the game, as per the whiteboard below. After some more back and forth, we had a rough sketch of a game about a family of dodgy artefact merchants, scavenging for mystic items and doing deals with otherworldly forces, along with some initial plot hooks and NPC names.

There’s plenty of conceptual and tonal fodder there, and it didn’t take me long to put together some ideas that would be enough to launch a game and run with, developing them as we play.

But then the high kicks in.

Hey, maybe I should define what non-mortal magic can and can’t do. Or pin down some location interconnections. Oh man, I should definitely stat out half-a-dozen NPCs and creatures for each faction so that I have someone/thing to hand whenever the need arises! How about I create specific Photoshop filters and processes, then make like 50 individual pieces of character and setting art!

And obviously I need to write aaaaalllllll that stuff down so that it makes sense to someone who isn’t me!

This urge to fill in all the gaps ahead of the game, to nail down every possible option so that I have what I need at all times… it’s a powerful urge, and it’s utterly wrong-headed. Especially in a game where a lot of that detail is either a) unimportant, or b) supposed to be created collaboratively with my players.

Making stuff is great – if it gets used.

Making stuff for its own sake? That’s just another distraction.

It’s the same for me and writing. I know there are authors who do tonnes of worldbuilding ahead of time, and use their rock-solid grasp on their setting as the framework for choosing and shaping their stories, and I respect that. But I don’t understand it.

For me, story is something that comes together through decisions and in-the-moment choices, rather than through planning. If a story needs a distinct world, I’ll do a little rough work at the start, but not a lot – you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of my notes and planning for both Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist books here on the blog over the last couple of years. The bare minimum I need to know what things look and sound like in chapter 1, and then make it up as I go along.

When I get sidelined by worldbuilding, I’m not actually telling/making stories. I have a bad habit of forgetting that when it comes to games, but I’m trying to keep it under control. I’m just grateful that when it comes to writing – arguably the space where things need to be more coherent and polished at the start, I know – I’m mostly able to ignore that urge and just charge headlong at things like a loon.

Mostly.

The Obituarist III continues apace – slowly than I would like, yes, but I’m on it.

And if you’re interested in seeing whether the Shadow family will outwit the Butcher Bishop and the schemes of Valentine, you can follow our New Jerusalem game over on Obsidian Portal. 

It’ll be cool. I promise.

All the wide world round

(Pardon the downtime between posts; I’ve been working on a proofreading job with a tight deadline.)

So yeah, professional wrestling. We’ve established that I love like it a lot; now how best to express that love like? Watching wrestling on TV/the internet is the obvious answer, and I’ve been doing just that lately. Watching live shows is fun too, and there’s a lucha libre and burlesque show happening next week (oh, Melbourne) that I want to catch. Doing it myself… well, no, because I’m old and my knees dislocate if you look at them hard.

But there’s one other way to experience wrestling, in a way, and that’s by pretending to be a wrestler. Which brings us to the World Wide Wrestling roleplaying game.

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I wrote a while back about the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs, and World Wide Wrestling (or WWW) is one of the most interesting of that suite. I’ve just started running a short campaign, which is turning out to be very silly; it’s all aliens, werewolves and time travellers brawling in a cursed RSL. Gameplay writeups are on Obsidian Portal, with GMing notes on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt, if that sort of thing interests you.

But this isn’t a gaming blog, it’s a writing blog. So if we’re primarily interested in action storytelling, what kind of thought fodder does WWW provide?

Understand your tools

As with other PtbA games, WWW provides the GM with a set of agendas to keep in mind throughout play, principles to refer to when developing scenes and moves to make that keep gameplay moving. These are the core tools for the GM, and the GM is meant to use only these tools (although WWW is more forgiving on this than some related games), because they’re designed to produce a satisfying game for all players.

I won’t go on about these things in detail (I did that last time), but WWW‘s suite of gameplay tools are very strong because they clearly and effectively emphasise the nature of professional wrestling stories, conflicts and shows. But even then, they’re unlikely to do that if you just pick moves at random, or apply principles without considering why they say what they do. You need to look at wrestling, look at the tool, consider the connection and understand why it’s valuable to ‘make the world seem constructed but frail’, or how sticking a microphone in a wrestler’s face opens opportunities to demonstrate character.

WWW doesn’t set a terribly high bar for understanding, and it explains what it can, but it makes it clear that you need to do a little conceptual work to get the most of your tools, just as you do in the larger world of writing and story creation.

Embrace your genre

I’ve seen a few wrestling RPGs over the years, and almost all of them focused heavily or exclusively on the kayfabe side of things – you played a wrestler, your opponents were other wrestlers, and the mechanics existed to explore matches in blow-by-blow detail. But that’s only part of the wrestling genre, and that focus excludes a lot of what gives in-ring action flavour and meaning.

WWW is broader than this; it embraces the metatextual tension between the reality and the fiction of wrestling, and uses both worlds as a setting for play. As I said to my players, it’s a game where you spend 50% of your time in the ring as The Rock, 40% of it backstage as The Rock, and 10% of it as Dwayne Johnson organising cross-promotion efforts between the wrestling promotion and the film studio for your new movie.

Most genres aren’t neat, simple things; they’re tracts of conceptual space with fuzzy borders and idiosyncratic corners. A lot of stories land in one part of that space and try to maintain control over the local narrative environment, and there’s nothing wrong with that (other than being a fairly iffy metaphor). But there’s also fun in embracing the other aspects, taking in the less straightforward ideas and exploring the tension between seemingly incompatible genre concepts, just as WWW does with reality vs kayfabe.

Remember your audience

Roleplaying is usually a private affair, experienced only by the half-dozen or so folks at the table. (Yeah, I know ‘actual play’ videos and podcasts have become a thing, but I’m not counting those because I don’t like ’em.) WWW asks players to bend that assumption and act as if their characters are trying to entertain a viewing audience – one that loves in-ring action, watches backstage interactions and enjoys the metatext of breaking kayfabe. Every part of play is aimed at that audience – especially matches, which operate by narrating interesting, engaging sequences rather than rolling dice to see if you manage to hit with your five-star frogsplash.

Writing is also an act aimed at an audience, whether a large body of readers or just the author his/herself. It’s a creative act that functions by communicating ideas to an audience, and the audience has to read the text to understand what’s going on. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that readers still need a little exposition or explanation here and there to provide context, or that they won’t be able to fully understand a scene because they don’t have your knowledge of backstory.

WWW reminds me that I have to play to an audience when I write, even if I don’t necessarily know who that audience will be; it also reminds me that maybe I should try to work that out, and what that audience might want, before I finish the story.

Is it silly to hold a game about grappling and smacktalk up like it’s On Writing? Well, a bit. But you gather your rosebuds where you may, and I think the mark of a strong game – or film, or book, or interpretive dance sequence – is that it makes you think about your own work, even if just for a minute or two.

Anyway, World Wide Wrestling is pretty fun. I’m running the next session of my game in a few hours; let’s see if El Gastro can solve The Mystery of the Haunted RSL while also dropping some piledrivers onto Ned Kelly.

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

I have a new day job! Next week I return to the world of educational publishing, which seems to be my eternal niche now, and start making textbooks again. I’m looking forward to it; three months of freelancing, dogwalking and not-doing-enough-novel-writing was plenty, thank you.

What will this do to my writing output and blogging schedule?

Well, it can hardly make it worse, can it?

Post-stocktake audit

Hey folks!

So last update was a bit downbeat, even if I tried to look on the positive at the end. (I’m a regular Pollyanna like that.)

Things haven’t substantially changed since then, but my mood is better and I’m even more inclined to accentuate the positive. So on that note, and because I can’t think of anything too substantial to talk about this week, let’s talk about some Things What Are Pretty Good.

Freelance work

I’m getting a fair bit of it! And people have actually started paying their invoices this week, which is awfully nice.

I also worked last Saturday at the election, spending the day issuing declaration ballots at a local polling centre. That was kind of fun and interesting for a large part of the day – you get to chat to people and get a feel for their character when you’re asking them where they live and finding their voting papers. Once the polls closed and we had to spend almost seven freakin’ hours reconciling paperwork, counting votes and sorting the gigantic Senate ballots into messy piles (above the line, below the line, informal, drawings of penises and angry screeds)… that part was less fun. And very tiring, which is why I didn’t post anything last weekend.

I have stories I could share about that experience, but I think I’m legally prohibited from doing so publicly. If you see me in person, buy me a beer and I’ll explain to you how awful democracy is, and why it took a week to work out a government.

Writing work

Still not a huge amount of progress on this lately, since overlapping freelance gigs have taken up a lot of my headspace, and I gotta make that cheddar somehow. Still, I’ve been working on tweaking the dialogue in Raven’s Blood to make it a little less archaic for some of the characters. I was trying to invoke a bit of Elizabethan manner and idiosyncrasy in the characters’ speech patterns (especially swearing), but on reflection it’s more important to keep dialogue accessible and immediate, at least for the viewpoint characters. (Plus it lets me show immediate contrasts between them and more mannered, formal characters.)

Once I do the dialogue revision, the next thing is to get this book in the hands of a few agents and go the hard sell on the series. I’ve been researching appropriate agents for this kind of work, and I’m pulling together a query letter and book/series pitches into a package. Soon I’ll be releasing it into the wild – or at least emailing the names in my spreadsheet.

Yeah, I got a spreadsheet. That’s how you know I’m serious.

Books

I’m still trying to improve my reading practice and schedule reading time; some days I’m better at it than others.

Right now I’m most of the way through The Squared Circle, David Shoemaker’s history of professional wrestling in the 20th century. Specifically, looking at that history through stories of dead wrestlers. That sounds grim, and it is terribly sad in places, but Shoemaker’s writing is both intelligent and compassionate; he uses the stories of the dead to show how they shaped (and still shape) the land of the living.

There are also piledrivers.

I’ve also been reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, a really fascinating writing guide that focuses more on inspiring and shaping imagination than it does on rules of grammar, plot construction or time management. (Although those are in there too.) Beautifully illustrated, engaging written and at times appallingly irritating, I don’t agree with everything in it but I want to keep reading it. Sadly it’s back at the library now, but I’m going to overcome my cheapskate impulses once I get another freelance cheque and buy it (along with Vandermeer’s more prosaic Booklife, which is about effective practice) for some sustained deep reading.

Music

I just keep listening to Grimes’ Art Angels over and over again.

You know how it is.

Games

I’m about to start running a short game of the World Wide Wrestling RPG, as I continue falling back into the world of pro wrestling I left a decade ago. However, this game is set in a haunted RSL, with wrestlers that include a werewolf, a glitter-addicted alien and a puppy summoner, so I think it will be less tragic than mid-00s WWE.

I’ve also been playing a bit of Pillars of Eternity, a CRPG that I’ve been wanting to play for a while and that was finally on sale. It’s a modern game in its own setting that reuses the style (and most of the systems) of old D&D CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. It’s an interesting one, and there’s a lot to like in its plotting and development; it’s a great lesson in how to draw multiple stories, characters and situations out of a tight set of consistent themes and motifs. It’s also a great lesson in how execution can undercut mood, and how catering to the whims of 70 000 Kickstarter patrons can damage both story and gameplay.

Hmm. Might write more about it when I finish. Probably in a few months.

MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

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Um, I mean… the local wildlife is kinda weird in this suburb.

So anyhoo, that’s what I’m up to.

Check back soon and see whether I have anything interesting to say.

It’s gotta happen eventually.

Apocalypse now

As we all know, I’m a big ol’ nerd (you knew that, right?) as well as a sporadic and undisciplined writer. In the past I’ve blogged – oh man, it was almost 18 months ago – about particular roleplaying games that writers could get useful ideas and inspiration from.

Well, it’s that time again – but this time I want to talk about one game. Which is also an entire family of unrelated games from different creators and companies. And it’s a collection of games that presents a really powerful set of story-creation tools that are just as useful for prose as for punching mutants.

That game is Apocalypse World, created by Vincent Baker, which went on to spawn dozens of ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games.

Apocalypse-World-_bn39089

These games share a lot of the same core mechanics and systems, but that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. Instead, I want to look at the specific set of GMing tools the games also share. The GM (generally) never rolls dice in PbtA games, but they also don’t just make up results on a whim. Instead, there are non-mechanical story-creation imperatives that the GM uses to make decisions and determine outcomes – imperatives that can also be applied for writing fiction.

Agendas

Your creative agendas in a PbtA game are the big-picture ideas you keep in mind during the whole process – from setting up the campaign and coming up with story ideas to setting every scene and winding up every session. As Dungeon World puts it, these are ‘the things you aim to do at all times’. In that game, which is heroic fantasy in the D&D mold, the agenda is:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

153464Meanwhile, in the political urban fantasy game Urban Shadows, the agenda is:

  • Make the city feel political and dark
  • Keep the characters’ lives out of control and evolving
  • Play to find out what happens.

(‘Play to find out what happens’ is a key rule in PbtA games; it’s an admonition against scripting or pre-planning, in favour of setting up situations and seeing how they shake out. Which is great fun for gaming, but less relevant to writing. Mostly.)

When writing fiction, you need to keep a similar agenda in mind – the high-concept knot of tone, theme, story, setting and character that makes your story work. In some ways it just boils down to ‘Create an interesting setting and populate it with interesting characters who have interesting lives’ (where the value of ‘interesting’ depends on a variety of genre, theme and tone markers, plus your own unique takes).

That seems really obvious – and it is. But really obvious things are worth remembering, because sometimes they fade into background noise and get lost. When a story slows down or stops moving, when characters become comfortable and stop changing, when world details stop being colourful and just become sensible – that’s when you need to come back to that agenda and remind yourself of the fundamental goals.

Principles

Running a game is all about coming up with ideas, and principles are the criteria you use to weigh up ideas and see if they fit. When running a PbtA game, the GM is responsible for setting and starting the majority of scenes; their principles are the guidelines they consult to see if those scenes are right for this game.

tremulus is a PtbA game about Lovecraftian horror, and its principles are guides like:

  • Introduce the strange, the weird, and the alien at every opportunity.
  • Look through a cracked lens of madness.
  • Ask provocative questions. Build upon the answers.
  • Successes should be bittersweet at best, with rewards few and far between.

Meanwhile, the remarkably awesome World Wide Wrestling game has principles that include:

  • Explain the audience reaction
  • Describe everything as larger than life
  • Use a real-world cause for a kayfabe effect; use a kayfabe cause for a real-world effect
  • Book for maximum drama

(‘Kayfabe’ means ‘treating wrestling as real’, sort of. It’s complex.)

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Fundamentally, then, principles are the tools that help you distinguish between different games – that let you say ‘this is a horror scene, this is a wrestling scene’ and have that be more that just talking about set dressing.

While agendas are big-picture, principles are middle-picture; they’re the elements of theme and tone that establish your story in its genre while also acting as its unique points of difference. When you’re writing your story, you need to ask yourself every now and then: ‘Does this fit? Is this right for my world, my characters, my tone?’ Because sometimes we get that great idea that we try to fit it, but it won’t line up with everything else, and we waste time and energy until finally giving up on it. Keeping principles close to mind/hand won’t stop those ideas coming, but might help you get past them and stay on thematic track.

Moves

Finally, moves are the actions and outcomes the GM takes within scenes – the tools they use to decide what happens when the player rolls badly, or looks across the table for an idea of where things are going. Principles are set-up; moves are follow-through.

night_witches_cover-683x1024Night Witches is a historical game about female Polish bomber pilots in WWII (and it’s amazing). Its moves include:

  • Bring their gender into it
  • Bring a threat to bear
  • Put them somewhere they don’t want to be
  • Doubt them and demand discipline

While in the superhero adventures of Worlds in Peril, some GM moves are:

  • Show a downside to their character, appearance, equipment or power
  • Encourage creative use of powers
  • Change the environment
  • Introduce a new faction or type of enemy

There’s crossover there, of course, because moves are dramatic turns and progressions in the story, and things like ‘change location’ makes sense in any dramatic story. But the spin you put on each move, in accordance with agenda and principle, makes the difference, as do the unique moves for each games. For a story about defying gender roles, putting gender front and centre underlines the entire thing, while supers stories are full of ‘these aliens were actually being controlled by Dr Doom all along!’ type twists.

When you’re writing, moves are… do I even need to explain it? These are the little-picture building blocks of plot and character; the things that keep stories moving, twisting and changing. Agendas shape; principles guide; moves act. Moves are what makes stories go.

So what do I do with these?

Am I saying you should come up with agendas, principles and moves for your novel? Am I saying you should write these things down and consult them as you write? Am I saying you should codify every tool in your kit?

No, I’m not. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things either.

What I think is that it can be worth thinking about what makes your story your story. What’s the point of your story? What are the themes? What’s the tone? What kind of characters fit into it, and what kind of things could happen to them? It can be easy to think of what doesn’t work – hmm, maybe I won’t put an extended car-chase and bloody shootout into my Regency romance – but we don’t always articulate and define the story-space that we do want to work in. Thinking about agendas, principles and moves – purpose, themes, story elements – ahead of time can help with that, and so can writing them down and sticking them above your desk if you’re that way inclined.

I’m trying out the wall-sticking route at the moment. And trying to define my story-space before I get too deep into it. It might work, it might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Which games?

If you want to take a closer look at a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – well, I reckon that’s an excellent idea. You might get a stronger grasp on these concepts than you can from my ramblings – and even better, you might find a game you want to play.

The obvious choice is Apocalypse World itself, especially as the Kickstarter campaign for the 2nd edition just went live this week (and helped prompt this blog post). That said, it’s not the game I’d recommend – partly because you won’t be able to get the finished game until September, partly because I find Vincent Baker’s authorial voice incredibly irritating. (He’s a great designer, but I have to push myself to read his work because it pisses me off so often.)

Fortunately, there’s a massive family of PbtA games that build on Baker’s ideas with their own voices and visions. Not all of them are great, let’s be honest, but the best of them are brilliant. The standouts include:

  • Night Witches (war, gender politics and nightly desperation)
  • Monsterhearts (young supernaturals in transgressive love/lust)
  • World Wide Wrestling (who thought a wresting game would be this damn good)
  • Urban Shadows (the talking-plotting-scheming kind of urban horror/fantasy)
  • Monster of the Week (the shooty-punchy-splodey kind of urban horror/fantasy)

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Plus a bunch of others that are really good. Look around. You’ll find something.

Right, that’s 1500 words on nerd tools for storytelling.

Does this mean the long blog drought of 2015/16 has finally broken?

Ask again next week. The Magic 8-Ball remains unclear.

Tony Toni Tone

Okay, first up, sorry for going several weeks without a blog post – especially after saying at the start of the year that I was going to try harder about that.

Secondly, the reason that I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been – shock horror – writing. Specifically a kind of writing that I haven’t done in several years. Yes, I’m writing me some RPGs!

Specifically, I’m writing one of several Pathfinder adventures set in the pirate city of Freeport, a city I helped flesh out in Green Ronin’s Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, to tie into the massive new Pathfinder sourcebook Freeport – The City of Adventure.

I haven’t done any RPG writing for years, thought I’d left behind me, but was drawn back into thanks to, well, being asked. The Green Ronin guys are good people, I’m working with some amazing writers and it’s a property that I have a bit of emotional attachment to. So I’m trying to put together the best piratical-fantasy-horror adventure I can, and it’s taking some time and effort.

But that’s not what I want to write about tonight. I want to write about being ambushed by assumptions about tone.

See, I’m not a Pathfinder guy. I used to play 3.5E, but that was a long time ago, and for the last few years my fantasy adventure gaming has all been 4E, plus reading a lot of Dungeon World, 13th Age and Fate. So when I sat down to create the encounters in this adventure, that was the paradigm I had in mind and the style I went for.

Guess what? Totally didn’t work.

In 4E D&D – and yes, it’s a nerdy night tonight, apologies if this is all gibberish to you – this is the model for an ‘average’ encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • An equal number of enemies of the same level as the PCs
  • Minimal attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with meaningful obstacles and possibly some situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of flashy attacks but not that many ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits

Meanwhile, this is a fairly standard Pathfinder encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • One enemy with a CR that matches the PCs’ level
  • Notable attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with no or few meaningful obstacles and situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits but (somewhat) fewer flashy attacks (at lower levels, anyway)

So I would try to put together what I thought would be a straightforward encounter, like the PCs fighting a zombie sea devil press gang inside a burning gunpowder factory (not an actual spoiler) and then realise it was a complete TPK slaughterhouse. More importantly, I’d realise that it didn’t feel right in the grander scale – that even if the heroes survived, that encounter would feel out of place compared to what followed, as well as leaving them so banged up and short on resources that they’d all succumb to Queen Hagfish’s octopus buccaneers right away (also not a spoiler, although damn, maybe I should be writing that plot instead).

And some things are more subtle. For instance, 4E NPCs aren’t built like PCs, so you can give them any abilities or qualities you like (although you should try to balance them) and the game just rolls along. Pathfinder NPCs are built like PCs, and you generally need to both define them in meticulous detail and be able to justify – both mechanically and from a story perspective – any deviation from the player-accessible pool of options. 4E games involve encountering a lot of unique entities; Pathfinder games involve encountering a lot of people who are just like you, and may be worth robbing for that +1 sword they’re showing off. All of which changes the tenor (and mechanical impact) of scenes and relationships.

None of this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and I’m not here for a D&D edition war. What this boils down to is that I had to stop working and think things through from the beginning, and take my ideas  in a different and more appropriate direction for how this story was meant to work. You could call this a genre or sub-genre distinction, but that’s a blunt and clumsy tool and not helpful. Whether heroes are fighting one guy or five, throwing infinite fire bolts or drawing charges from a wand of magic missile, using encounter powers or 3/day spell-like abilities, it’s all still ‘heroic fantasy’, and the difference between that and ‘high fantasy’ or even ‘sword and sorcery fantasy’ are truthfully kind of minor.

No, for me this was all about tone; whether the style of encounters, plotlines and interactions I wanted to produce were right for the overall story I’d been asked to create.

Tone is partially about language and voice – horror stories work because they use spooky words and gloomy images – but that’s the only mechanism, and more importantly that’s a mechanism of story-telling and not story construction (and RPG adventure writing is all about you constructing and someone else telling). When you get into the meat  of building a story, I think tone relies on two major building blocks:

  • Situation: Is an appropriate fight scene a one-on-one battle or a struggle against overwhelming odds? Do the heroes get a chance to plan or are they just suddenly thrown into chaos and riot? Can they draw upon reliable and effective resources (magic, weapons, tools etc) or are their resources capricious and difficult to use? Is the location as important/distinctive as those within it? Does this scene make sense?
  • Outcome: Who wins a five-against-one fight – can a hero prevail against overwhelming odds, or a team prevail against a crazy-powerful uber-baddie? Who wins a five-on-five fight? Did magic provide an I-WIN button or was it just one element in determining the victor? Is the winner scratched and bruised or bleeding from wounds that could be fatal? What happens next?

(And of course, those situations and outcomes don’t have to be all about fighting; I just frame it that way ‘cos I like stories about punching. Social situations, clever heists, romantic moments, times of introspection, hotsexytimes – the principle applies across the board.) And this is true whether you’re creating a playground for 3-5 players to randomly set fire to things, or writing a 90K novel about young badgers in love.

So when setting a tone for your story – oh yeah, here’s the point of this post after 1000 words about pirate orc wizards – these are the two questions you need ask when setting scenes – ‘is this something that makes sense in my story?’ and ‘did that end in a way that makes sense in my story?’. As long as you can say yes to both of those, you’re golden.

Now, if you want to stay golden, you either need to stay tonally consistent for the duration of the narrative, or clearly signpost the degree to which the tone is changing as the story progresses, but that’s a post for another night. Maybe. Look, my deadline is in three weeks and I need to iron all the kinks out of this adventure before the heroes have to blow up a haunted house in order to stop Cthulhu from plundering Davy Jones’ Locker.

Or something like that.

Anyway kids, eat right, stay in school, back soon.

Dragon Age Inquisition – the storytelling do’s and don’ts

By this stage of my life, people should know better than to give me video games for Christmas, and I should know better than to ask for them.

But we all do things against our better judgement, and that’s why I spent most of the last two months slouched on the mezzanine, playing the absolute shit out of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I should have been writing regular blog posts, or indeed books.

On the other hand, playing DAI for so long – more than 100 hours! – made me think an awful lot about what worked, what didn’t, which parts of its epic storyline were compelling and which made me want to drink bleach. And so, much as I did with Arkham City and Guild Wars II (at length), I’d like to look at the game from a writing perspective, and turn my timewasting into a set of storytelling lessons.

This is how I justify my life, and the wasting thereof. Please indulge me.

(WARNING: Spoilers! Not a huge amount, but some!)

Screw with expectations, but then live up to them

Dragon Age: Origins amassed a massive body of fans (myself included) who loved its story and characters; DA2 had problems, but still built on that foundation and set up a situation that the new game needed to follow up. So DAI launched with many ideas about what it should be and what it should include – and then struck its own balance between those preconceived ideas and desires and a variety of new concepts and content, taking the franchise in new directions (some of which are successful). Take the same attitude to your writing – don’t be hidebound by what readers think you’re going to write, but surprise them by striking out in a new direction while still writing with the same craft and level of polish. Readers may think they want The Comfortable Further Adventures of X, but they’re really attracted to your voice and skill; give them more of that, while fucking with expectations, and they will (hopefully) love you for it.

Wherever you set your stakes, make them matter

DAI is filled with adventures large and small, some of which feel urgent and engaging and some of which do not. The ones that work have genuine consequences and payoffs – expressed in character/story terms – while the ones that don’t just give you better equipment and no-one discusses them again. The first lot of quests are the ones that stay with me and made the game interesting; the second are already forgotten. So too with your own plotlines; stakes need to engage the reader on a personal level, not just be a way of making your character collect plot tokens or better equipment for the important scenes.

Endings need to matter as well

The end of your story is the payoff of everything that’s gone before, and it needs to connect up with everything that’s gone before. It needs to have impact, it needs to be engaging, it needs interaction and choices and it needs to encompass the themes you’ve established. More to the point, it needs to be more than an uncomplicated two-stage boss fight that you win by just hitting one guy over and over again with your best attacks, followed by an unsatisfying denouement.

Someone please travel back in time and explain this to the DAI development team.

Worldbuilding needs to be a sometimes food

Writers love worldbuilding, and readers/players love the feeling that they’re engaged in an almost-real place. But you can convey that feeling with a light touch, and by dropping details into scenes so that readers take them on board almost without noticing. Or, like DAI, you can have chunk after chunk of exposition scattered around the narrative space, communicated in books, letters, paintings, mosaics, conversations and dream sequences, so that you have to stop engaging with the story/game in order to read them.

I’m sure there are people who love this level of detail, for whom learning about the world of Thedas is the entire point of the game. I’m just saying that they’re wrong. And as writers, those are not the readers you need to be serving.

Go for killer, not filler

Inquisition positions your character as someone of immense importance, a world-changer who is the only hope of stopping the apocalypse. It also asks you to collect hunks of iron, pick flowers, kill assorted bandits and generally piss-fart around the world doing micro-errands in true MMO style. The result is a massive disjunct between how you’re supposed to see yourself and how you actually behave, and a whole lot of boring crap to do over that 100+ hours of playtime. Do not do this in your fiction! Do not make characters perform meaningless or boring-to-the-reader tasks just because they’re ‘realistic’ or the connective tissue you think is needed between the interesting bits! If you write scenes that are engaging and meaningful, you can bridge them with a paragraph or a handwave; better that than a scene where your hero slowly hunts and butchers mountain goats to make blankets for a bunch of people that she never talks to again.

It always comes back to character

People focus on NPCs and relationships as the selling points of BioWare games, and that’s because they’re (mostly) the strongest and most engaging part. DAI is no different, and the game is at its best when you’re connecting with those characters, exploring their stories and deciding how your priorities align with theirs. The character mix isn’t as strong as in the two previous games – there are too many NPCs, some of whom (well, mostly Sera) are boring or terrible – but there are many good characters who will draw you in. In prose, you need to make readers care about your characters, their relationships and their journeys; do that  and the story and worldbuilding can almost take care of itself.

So don’t run out of character stuff

I played DAI for nearly 110 hours. The first 70-odd hours were (on the whole) terrific, because I punched monsters and explored the Deep Roads and made swords AND THEN I went and told my special digital friends about it. We laughed, we cried, we kicked evil in the dick; it was great. And then I hit the point where they had nothing new to say; where every NPC had reached the end of their personal story and arc.

And I still had 25+ hours of game to play.

They were boring.

Without character hooks, without interplay, without an emotional payoff that you can attach a face to, your story (probably) just ain’t that interesting. It’s a string of events and situations that don’t matter to the people in them – and that means it doesn’t matter to the reader. So don’t keep the plot going if there isn’t any character-meaningful story going along with it; wrap it up then and there.

Good villains are hard to write

Inquisition‘s villain is kind of rubbish, but I can’t give BioWare too much stick for that. It’s easy to write a bad guy who rants and raves and puts into play a poorly-thought out plan that doesn’t really make any sense. I know, I’ve done it (currently rewriting it). Going beyond that is difficult; you have to give your villain a personality people can connect with but still want to see defeated, you have to let them appear multiple times and engage with characters to build up their mystique, and you have to make their nefarious plan hang together at the end and be more than ‘he turns up and punches EVERYONE’.

Alternatively, he should be Doctor Doom. Who is the opposite of so many of those things, but still AMAZEBALLS.

Maybe next game.

So is good romance

The first Dragon Age game treated romance as a vending machine where you constantly gave NPCs presents and said nice things until sex fell out and you got a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DA2 made you wait for specific opportunities – I call them sex windows – to flirt with NPCs, but every NPC was totally into you so you could pick one and just mash the heart option until you were rewarded with a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DAI continues with the sex window mechanic, but gives NPCs specific sexualities and preferences, so you can in fact waste the entire game trying to chat someone up until she reveals at the 60-hour mark that she’s not into girls and now it’s too late to sex someone else and DAMNIT I JUST LOST THE GAME no cutscene for me.

What I’m trying to say is that writing a believable, engaging romance is hard. It probably looks more like the DAI version than the other two. But it’s still hard. And no, not ‘hard’ in a dirty way. For god’s sake, grow up.

Moral choices are more interesting than strategic choices

Dragon Age Origins was full of difficult moral choices, many of which boiled down to ‘do the right thing and suffer a penalty, or do something terrible and get a bonus’. It was simplistic and overdone, but by god it worked; that and the chance to sex up Morrigan/Alastair were the big drawcards of the game. Inquisition’s choices, on the other hand, mostly defaults to ‘choose one kind of benefit or a different kind of benefit’, with moral choices being either peripheral or non-existent. And I’m sure there is a kind of reader who would prefer that, who is not interested in messy stuff about feelings and ethics and consequences and more interested in effective tactics and strategies for taking down the Big Bad in the faster, smoothest and least difficult way.

Do not write books for these people. Trust me.

Never be afraid to go for a hit of real emotion

Video games tend to be a shallow and simplistic medium in many ways, and DAI is no different; running around the Hinterlands setting fire to bandits is not deep. But there’s a moment about 1/3 of the way in, at a point where everything has gone wrong and a group of people come together to find some kind of way to endure and continue… it gave me chills. Hell, it nearly made me cry. It was lightning in a bottle, nothing else in the game mattered like that and it won’t work when I play it again – but I will remember that moment for years, will remember it long after I forget the boss fight at the end oh shit I already forgot that bit.

You can do that. You can aim for that. You can write that moment when everything MATTERS. And if you can do that even once in a story, your story will fucking own. So aim for that and give it everything you’ve got.

Do not dress your main character in beige pyjamas while they’re running around a castle or talking with people about important stuff

Just don’t.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this, damnit.

Games for writers

I like games.

This comes as no surprise, I know; it’s about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I’ve written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill.

Anyway, GenCon (the annual giant gamer nerd-prom) was last weekend, and to mark it there’s been an RPGaDay hashtag and commentary program doing the rounds. (I’ve been posting notes on my Google + account, if that is a thing that might interest you.) Games have been on my mind, but so has writing – and it occurred to me that while I’ve made general comments about games (specifically RPGs) being good resources for writers, I’ve not ever spelled out which games might help with that.

WAIT NO LONGER

Here, then, are five games that set out to do very particular things and help create or facilitate very particular kinds of stories, and that do that in a way that can directly translate into key lessons for writers. You should check them out – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re generally pretty cheap and they can do good things for your brain and your words.

Spark

Spark is a toolkit for creating and running games that focus on a core set of themes. Players and GM collaborate on outlining a world/setting and three broad themes (Beliefs), such as ‘Everyone has a price’ or ‘You are your culture’, that are expressed through it and its various factions. Characters have their own Beliefs that align with or challenge those setting Beliefs, along with a handful of broad stats and skills.

Play revolves around collaboratively setting up scenes with three components – a Platform (situation), a Tilt (something that pushes PCs to engage with the situation) and a Question (what is to be solved/discovered). The aim is to create a Question that challenges a setting Belief and that pushes the PCs into conflict – with factions, with each other and with their own Beliefs – in order to follow their own agendas.

Writing lesson: Stories have subtext, subtext is driven by theme, and theme can be embedded in every scene and external plot driver. Push characters to question those beliefs, and to engage directly with theme, and you can create rich, complex stories.

My Life With Master

The default setting of My Life With Master is 19th-century Europe, where a scheming Master sends his twisted minions out to prey upon local villagers for unspeakable purposes – and you play the minions, forced and cajoled into escalating monstrousness. Characters have only two stats, Self-Loathing (how much you hate yourself for obeying your Master) and Weariness (the degree to which you’re given up resisting), along with a pair of unique, non-numerical strengths and weaknesses.

Play has a specific rhythm that builds up inexorably over time. The Master applies increasing emotional pressure on his minions, forcing them to terrorise the villagers – but also giving them opportunities to make connections and friends. The stakes escalate and the minions do worse and worse things to those they wish to love until one of them overcomes control and stands up to the Master. Which doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, mind you.

Writing lesson: Internal conflicts can as powerful as external ones, especially if that conflict turns into action. A character who doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway, who tries to free themselves from control (whether they succeed or fail), can be fascinating.

Monsterhearts

Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monsterhearts trims that down and sexes it up to create a game about supernatural powers and teenage passions. Players choose a ‘playbook’ for a particular archetype, from vampire and werewolf to clique leader or misunderstood teen, and quickly finetune it with abilities and benefits. They then connect characters together with ‘Strings’, knots of emotional connection to help them influence (or be influenced by) each other.

What happens in a game of Monsterhearts? Teenagers fall in love, have sex, meddle with the occult and end up doing terrible things in the name of desire. To get what they want – each other – PCs have to use up their Strings and create new ones. Anything meaningful requires a roll, and failure (and sometimes success) enacts a heavy price. And at some point, PCs are bound to lose control and lash out at those around them, possibly supernaturally, only to regret it later.

Writing lesson: Desire, fear, love, hate, passion… these things can be as much of a plot driver as any kind of external situation or control. Characters who act from emotion push stories forward, as much with their mistakes as their successes, and you can find great drama in the aftermath.

Fiasco

I’ve talked about Fiasco before, but that’s because it’s great – a toolkit for making Coen Brothers/Breaking Bad/plan-gone-wrong stories in almost any genre. Using a ‘playset’ of ideas based on a broad story or setting concept, such as ‘small town news channel’ or ‘1930s transatlantic ocean liner’, players quickly sketch out characters, their relationships and three or more elements attached to those relationships – a Place, an Object and a Need.

Players then take turns to create scenes, either framing one around their character or deciding on the outcomes, and assigning white/black (good/bad) dice around the table. At the midpoint, players roll dice to introduce a twist and then continue. While the Place and Object play important roles, it’s the Need (and the Relationship connected to it) that drive play to the bitter, tally-up-your-dice-and-roll-’em, most-of-you-are-fucked-now end.

Writing lesson: Some pundits say there are only 20 stories, or 12, or seven, or three. But if you want to get really reductive, there’s only one – what will you do to get what you want? Boil everything down to that one question, then write up from there, and you get a gut-punch narrative.

Microscope

While all those other games are about character, Microscope is something completely different – a game about history and the big picture. Players choose a concept, such as ‘an ancient empire rises and falls’, pick a beginning and an end for the timeline, and collaborate on setting and tone elements like ‘magic exists’, ‘magic doesn’t exist’, ‘aliens’, ‘robots’ or whatever. No character creation; no GM.

Players then take turns to create sub-Periods within the timeline, to populate Periods with key Events or to suggest Scenes for Events. You can jump around in time freely, adding Periods at any point. Once some groundwork is laid, players can zoom in to play out a Scene in detail or discuss an event, picking out specific elements (Legacies) to colour and influence the next round of establishment, until you can stitch a convincing narrative line from the timeline’s start to its end.

Writing lesson: Not everything is about character, and some stories are bigger than people. But if you pick a point and zoom in, you can crystallise all that scope into something we can connect to, something with a face, and through that create something grand that feels convincing.

In other news, we have an apartment, we move at the end of the week, we’re packing and spending all the money we can spare on the process.

Good times. Good times.

Please send bourbon and all your drugs.

What’s the Storium, morning glorium?

If you’re on Twitter, Kickstarter or probably every other site online, you’ve probably heard about Storium – it made a big crowdfunding splash back in April/May, raising like a quarter of a million dollars and drawing in an astounding number of writers, artists and game designers to create content.

If you somehow managed to miss all of that… well. Storium is an online storytelling game, as the above logo indicates – although it’s one where ‘game’ plays a very distant second fiddle to ‘storytelling’. It’s primarily a platform for collaborative writing, where contributors use prompts to guide their efforts and work towards building a coherent story. There are RPG-like elements in there, such as one contributor being a ‘Narrator’ that directs the group effort and the prompts being measured out using virtual cards, but they’re pretty light, and a like-minded group could probably ignore all that if desired and just use the clean, intuitive online platform to write-jam-party together.

I’ve been a Storium playtester since last year, through the Alpha test (which was quite different) and the Beta into what is now the… I think it’s the open Beta? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve been using it for a while, and currently have two games/stories on the hop – Zero Zero One, a cyberpunk story about memory husking and treacherous corporations, and Ravenloft Redux, an experiment in turning a old location-based D&D adventure into a more narrative experience. And those games are a lot of fun; they don’t replace roleplaying for me, but they’re an enjoyable aside.

Enjoyable and educational. Because Storium is also a concrete demonstration of some key principles of writing, and I’d like to look now at five things using it has borne home for me.

Plot is character

In Storium, every player (other than the Narrator) controls a single character, designed once the stage has been set and the context/setting/genre decided. Characters are sketched lightly using prompt cards – a central concept with Strengths, Weaknesses and Suplots attached to it. Backgrounds can be added/written to your heart’s content, but aren’t necessary. Once play starts, the Narrator sets a scene with a situation or event and then the players write their characters’ actions and responses, with (some) freedom to also write the way the scene changes as a result. Players write back-and-forth, possibly with occasional extra inputs from the Narrator, until things are resolved and the scene ends.

The key point here is that every scene revolves around these characters – what they feel, what they say and (especially) what they do. If you set up a scene and no-one acts, then nothing happens – all you have is a dead screen. There’s no option for a scene without characters – I mean, you can write it, but only by ignoring all the structure that’s set-up. Importantly, Narrators don’t have characters (well, not in the same way) and can’t write a scene that just involves other people doing stuff – they have to open it up and let the main characters drive the story.

The stuff around characters matters too

Most of Storium’s stretch goals were about bringing in well-known creators to make worlds – sets of prompt cards and the story concepts attached to them – and Narrators can create their own from scratch as well. In addition to their base cards, characters can pick up Goals and Assets to help define them, while Narrators have sets of Place, Character and Obstacle cards. (The full Storium release, due later in the year, also promises other non-card world material, such as opening scenes, setting data dumps and so on.) As play progresses, more of these cards come into play to sketch out the world and reflect the story.

Call it a world, a setting, a context – stories have to happen somewhere, not against a blank backdrop. Characters may drive the story, but the story is better if they drive through interesting scenery . A bland set of setting elements don’t have to damage a story – you can do a lot with stock elements, especially if you tweak them here and there – but a rich, vivid set gives it real colour and flavour. Maybe too much flavour – you have to be careful not to overload things and pull the spotlight off the characters. (Storium gets the balance pretty right, but I do wonder how much fun some of these heavily-defined worlds will be to work with.) Keep the focus on the character, but make sure what’s outside the spotlight throws up fascinating shadows.

Conflict drives story

Storium players have their characters and associated cards, so what does the Narrator have? She has Challenges – the Character and Obstacle cards, each of which is given a numerical rating when put into play. That number is the amount of player cards that have to be played on that challenge before it’s met in some way. Scenes end when all the challenges are met – and once players write their moves to demonstrate how those elements of the character impact the challenge. With limits on how many and what types of cards can be played by each character in each scene, there are lots of ways in which challenges can be met and scenes can unfold.

You can pitch a scene where characters just talk to each other, and for some people I’m sure that’s fun – but nothing actually happens until the main characters rise to meet conflicts, either pitting themselves against other characters or against situational dangers and problems. Conflicts bring the drama, the tension, the uncertainty – even if it’s uncertainty about how characters will overcome them (and the price they pay in doing so) rather than whether they overcome them. A story without conflict is a squashed doughnut, edible but unappetising – or possibly an inappropriate metaphor that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, they suck. Don’t write them.

Failure is as interesting as success

Depending on the cards that are played on it, every challenge has a Strong, Weak or Neutral outcome – and players, not the Narrator, write the Strong and Weak outcomes. The player of the last card gets to decide how their character has met the challenge and what that means – whether they get what they want or not and how that impacts the rest of the scene, the next challenge and the rest of the characters. Narrators write neutral outcomes, which tend to maintain the status quo or have a smaller, more ambiguous impact on the story – they’re serviceable, but they’re not as much fun as writing it yourself.

The single smartest thing in Storium may be the way challenges are handled. Letting players write both good and bad outcomes is inspired – because the story remains focused on them, even if things aren’t going their way. Narrators get to shape this to an extent by suggesting strong/weak outcomes for each challenge card – and the best pre-written ones all give broad suggestions, with weak/failure outcomes that keep the story going but introduce complications, rather than grinding things to a halt. It’s glorious stuff; it means that failures are fascinating, maybe even more so than successes, and both are much more engaging than neutral coasting.

Storium

Pacing is hard

How many challenges should you use in a scene? Is one 6-point challenge easier or harder than two 3-point challenges? Is it better to conserve your Strengths or to alternate them with Weaknesses? How often should the Narrator hand out Asset and Goal cards? Are Asset and Goal cards worth playing? These are the questions that really affect the pace and flow of play/story, and Storium doesn’t give a lot of guidance on the best way to answer them – so pacing is a really tricky beast, especially on a platform where players might go days or weeks between moves. It’s the roughest part of the product, and I hope they give more clarity once the full release goes live.

Just as every Storium game is its own beast and needs its own unique practices to keep things interesting and moving, so does your writing. Your pacing and flow issues might not relate to card play, but they’re still there and they’ll probably never go away. You just gotta try different things until you find something that works – and it might work differently in the next project.

Well, I wrote a lot more on that topic that I’d planned. That either means it’s super interesting or that I get carried away – you decide.

Anyway, in summary: Storium’s pretty cool. And like any platform that you can use for telling stories, there are things that are unique to it and things that might be applicable elsewhere. If you get a chance, dive in and give it a try; it’s fun in and of itself, and you might learn something. Or you might not. I mean, pulling apart the progress of a Storium game won’t fix your novel – but fuck it, try it, it probably can’t hurt.

Probably.

Beware the ides of May

I know I said I would take time off after finishing the foundation draft of Raven’s Blood, and I have. More or less.

But May has had other ideas, and in fact it’s been a bit hectic down on the ranch this last while. Some of that hecticness has been respectable and productive, and some of it has involved the kind of aggressive, determined sloth that accomplishes nothing but leaves you nonetheless exhausted.

…holy shit, that is a really scary-looking aggressive sloth. Calm the fuck down, man. Have a burrito or something.

Anyway, in lieu of a more substantive post – that may come next weekend, once I regrow some updates – here’s a swag of updates, links and disconnected bits. Which is pretty much like the rest of the internet, I guess.

Continuum X is in two weeks! The programme is out now, and you’ll find that I am speaking on a number of panels, as if I had something to say rather than just being some random yahoo off the street. Those are:

  • Remembering Iain Banks
  • It’s All Been Done: Writing in the Age of TV Tropes
  • Modern Roleplaying

Those are all on Monday 9 June, the last day of the con, so come along to hear my too-rapid ramblings after you’ve had your fill of everything and everyone else. On the other days, look for me in the local bars, especially if they’re karaoke bars; I have a feeling some of the GenreCon crowd and I are going to want to belt out ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ over a couple of tequilas.

As we all know, when I’m not writing I’m slacking off playing games, and I felt I deserved to play something  after April’s efforts. So I borrowed Batman: Arkham Origins from a co-worker, and thanks to some time off caused by mild food poisoning (yay) I was able to play it all the way through over a couple of weeks.

And I kinda liked it! I played Arkham City a few years back, and you may recall that while I enjoyed the gameplay I thought the story and tone was aaaaallll over the shop, and that the constant misogyny just ground all the joy out of playing. Well, Origins avoids the worst of that; it has a clear, consistent direction and it knows where to draw the storytelling line to keep everything hanging together. The core storyline – Batman fights a horde of assassins in the course of one night while early in his career – stays the course, while the side adventures never drift too far away from that in mood. (And it avoids misogyny largely by having no female characters to speak off, but that’s sadly predictable.) There’s even an honest-to-god character arc.

Of course it’s still overly grimdark to the point of being goofy, Batman is a violent thug and everything in Gotham is on fire ALL THE TIME, but that seems to be the established norm for this character now. While the addition of more detective-oriented plot bits is welcome, they all boil down to [push button to have Alfred identify murderer for you], the end-game is anti-climatic, and it runs into the problem all prequels do in that it has to try to foreshadow everything that comes later.

But still. Pretty fun. Definitely worth the nothing I paid for it.

In other gaming, I finished my other ongoing RPG campaign, the extremely intermittent Weird-West game Tribulation. We were a long time getting to the end, but I think it was worth it.

It was a strange ending, though, one that took in time travel and paradoxes, and pushed those to the point of rewriting everything that had gone before. That’s a hard road for a story to follow, and it’s made me think a fair bit about the nature of stories like that, the need for foreshadowing (and how to make that work), and whether you can end a story with ‘this story didn’t happen’ while still making it satisfying for the audience for whom it did.

Hmm. More thoughts on that later, perhaps – especially once I see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which looks to be trying to pull off something similar. Hopefully their special effects budget is bigger than mine. Although will they have as many Dr Who references? Probably not, he said smugly.

My dog continues to be pretty freakin’ cute.

The Emerging Writers Festival starts this week! I’m not involved in it this year, but if I get organised I’ll be heading off to various events and seeing how many friendly faces I recognise. If you’re headed that way, let me know what you’re going to and maybe we can have a play date. Come on, motivate me; don’t let me slack off.

Speaking of writing, the first couple of alpha-reader reviews have come back on Raven’s Blood, and they’re pretty positive. I think. I haven’t really looked at them; I’m trying to keep that book out of my head entirely for a while until I’m ready to rewrite.

In the meantime, I just finished a short story for an anthology that… actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet. But it’s an odd little piece that was fun to write; let’s hope the editor likes it.

And then next week, to kick off June, I begin work on the next book, for which I can finally reveal the title:

 

The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data

 

Yes, the continuing adventures of Kendall Barker, um, continue. Come back to the poorly-swept streets of Port Virtue for another tale of death, social media and spreadsheet abuse! There’ll be thrills! Spills! Returning characters! New characters! Poor life choices! Swearing! And some bits that I hope take readers by surprise.

The plan is to write this novella throughout June, aiming for a total of around 24 000 words by the start of July ready to hand over to test readers and my editor. (Who I also have to hire again, along with my cover designer.) I found a good rhythm with the first novella, punching out one 1000-odd word chapter each night; if I can get that vibe again I should easily be able to hit the deadline while still taking time off a few nights each week for nerding and bourbon.

And once that’s done, it’ll be time for Raven’s Blood rewrites.

This momentum is probably good.

I may need defibrillation by August.