Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I received word last week that a story that I had submitted is going to be included in an anthology! This will be my first paid writing project.

I’ll share details about the anthology as soon as it is clear that I should. What I can share is the process, as several people have asked me about it.

My assumption has always been that we should write the stories that we want, and then find a way to get those stories to our audiences. That simple description is based on the probably flawed assumption that we only have one story to tell (at a time).

The Cloudless Admiral

My first attempt to get a story published was by sending a story to Broken Eye Books, for their Ghost in the Cogs anthology of steampunk ghost stories. This was a bit out of my realm of experience, as it was the first short story that I ever tried to sell to someone, and I’m not a steampunk reader. That is, there are probably underlying conventions to the steampunk genre that I am simply unaware of.

In that case, I envisioned a story that literally matched the call, that is a ghost story that involved an airship. I invented some intriguing characters and placed them at the scene, and then did terrible things to them. In the background, I tried to weave tidbits suggesting an alt. history backstory. I had to cut the story short to fit with in the parameters of the call for submissions, and eliminated an entire character.

Lastly, I had my wife and two of our friends edit the manuscript, and then made the suggested edits. After formatting the story to match the formatting guidelines of the publisher, I sent it off. Alas, they did not choose to accept the story, and referred me to another publication that was looking for similar stories.

What I Learned

Writing can be fun. A hard part about the empty page is that there are too many choices. Each choice seems dire, in that, right now, maybe I have only one story that could succeed critically, and if I deviate from the mysterious path, I’ll wander from the road to readers. But that is hogwash, reading the above should be as clear to you as to me while writing it.

When writing to match specified criteria, you have guidelines. It has to be a tale that can reasonably be described as fitting in the steampunk genre, and it has to have ghosts or similar supernatural elements.

The page then focusses down to a manageable size. Ideas come spilling forth, the skeletons of potential characters dance in your mind’s eye. Like a potter, you begin to shape the clay into a mold, turning the story into the vague form required. The rest is the art and is unchanged from writing ‘what you want to write’.

Round 2

The second submittal was a similar process. This time I knew more about the genre and could write freely without worrying that I was missing important genre conventions. The anthology has a comedic element, and I knew that I was on the right track because I giggled throughout the writing process. I then let is sit for a few weeks and edited it, my wife providing valuable feedback as my beta reader on the last day that submissions were to be accepted. Once again, I followed the publishers guidelines for how they wanted submissions formatted, and sent it off.

This second story was significantly less work than the first. Partly is that it was half the length of the first, but partly because I was ‘write what you know’-ing.

A few months later, I got an email stating that my story had survived the initial culling, and then last week, work came in that my story had been chosen. A contract was included, which I reviewed, signed and returned. Voila!

Random Plot Generator

There are such things, Google it. And then write a story with that plot. Okay, random sometimes ends up looking nonsensical, but the challenge is intriguing. A story that you can hold in your mind, start to finish, without planning, may end up being obvious to the reader, or rather, predictable’s unpopular cousin, boring. That may be what drives pantsers, people who prefer to write where the story goes rather than preplanning the outcome; the fear that plotting will eliminate the magic. If anything about the process of submitting short stories has taught me, is that I am much more comfortable knowing what I need to write, rather than trying to figure out what I should write. The story will attend to itself.

I have more years than this one planned, so I needed worry about writing my one and only novel the first time.

Writing, writing vs writing

Posted: January 9, 2016 in Uncategorized

One of the purposes I had for creating this blog was to write more.  As such, I have certainly succeeded and failed.  That is, I haven’t written as much bloggedy stuff as I intended, but the amount of writing that I have done has exploded.

My typical writing revolves around the needs of gameplay.  Writing detailed character backgrounds for PCs that I play (rare) and writing exposition and background, plot arcs and dialogue snippets for RPGs that I’m currently running (often).  Occasionally, I get the bug to write down a series of plot points for some future project, and inevitably stash them away in my slush pile of ‘things I might use later’.

Writing in this style is awesome without being difficult. The creative process, i.e., brainstorming, made manifest without having to worry about grammar, narrative structure, or oxford commas. However, it is ultimately less than ultimately fulfilling, in that there is a satisfaction to be gained by rounding out a story, by finishing a story.

So, with the inspiration of close friends who are publishing their own novels, I have stopped resisting the urge to write. In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and wrote over 50,000 words in one potential novel. I’ve also written and submitted two short stories for publication (one rejected, the other so far surviving rejection).

The failure can only be considered in relation to this blog, which has languished for 4 months or so. It is not my intention to abandon it.

In the writerly vein, I would like to discuss my process so far in attempting my first novel. Actually my second… my first was abandoned nearly 20 years ago, after succumbing to one of the first DO NOTs of writer advice – do no attempt to edit your work until you’ve finished the first draft. The danger is that you become engrossed in minor details that distract you and get you second guessing your design. I still have 65 pages somewhere, that I may return to one day.

Aware of this prior failure, I approached this project differently.

(EDITING NOTE: After publishing this, I noticed that WordPress has weak sub-bullet abilities, and automatically reformatted the sub-bullets to be whole numbers instead of simple bulletpoints. I’ll leave it as it is, but… weak.)

  1. Groundwork. Before attempting to write the story, I decided what I wanted from the story.
    • I wanted to write a story about why the greek myths stopped being written. Something must have happened to the gods.
    • I decided that there would be 4 main characters, and I spent some time planning their motivations, emotions, backgrounds, and responses to stimuli.
    • I reviewed Joseph Conrad’s Heroes Journey, and mapped a rough idea of how such applied to each of the main characters.
    • I decided on a theme for the novel, and jotted some notes on how to represent that theme.
    • I reviewed the setting in detail, Mycenaean Greece – culture, technology, political organization, the greek gods, etc.
    • I plotted the story in bullet point form, so I knew what had to happen for the ending to occur.
    • I wrote a scene involving two of the main characters, in order to organically explore what I wanted to write and how I wanted to portray them. This scene was not duplicated in the novel, it was merely an exercise, but the characters first came to life in that piece.
  2. NaNoWriMo. I wrote nearly everyday, writing as much as 6,000 words on some days, staying ahead of the goal the whole time. The goal with NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 in the 30 days of November, which is about 1,667 words per day. I wrote 5,000 the first day, and tried to average 2,000 for each successive day. However, as I neared the end, I had exhausted my plot and wrote an ending to the story that was very satisfying to my vision. This false sense of closure confused me, and I took nearly a week off, before realizing that I had another major plot that I could add in. The last 12,000 words happened very quickly, and I finished a couple of days early.
  3. Pre-editing. After NaNoWriMo ended, I quickly jotted down notes on what I would need to do next.
    • I decided that I needed to research the territory of Mycenae more completely, and then edit the place names used in the events to make sense.
    • I needed to research how I handled magic more completely, and then make an editing pass – magic has rules, make sure that they are followed. I spent a great deal of time on this, researching the magic system I had adopted and fleshing out the rules that I wished to employ.
    • Review tension between the characters – characters that get along are uninteresting. Make sure that the tensions between them remain present in each scene.
    • Edit for theme – make a pass through the novel for theme – the central theme should be peppered in each scene.
  4. Outlining book 2. It became clear to me that the tale would not be told fully in the first novel. A much grander story emerged during the planning process. So I outlined book 2 (cannibal horror). In fact, as my second attempt at outlining, I was much more pleased with the results of outline 2. I wrote the major notes in numbered bullets, and then I added sub-bullets to represent minor notes that would occur between the major story points. I then fleshed these out until I had every potential scene described briefly.
  5. This is where I am now. I have a few more things that I would like to do before I start editing the novel. These include:
    • outline book 3 (African steampunk)
    • outline book 4 (urban fantasy)
    • outline the last book (hard sci fi)
    • do a scene outline for book 1, like I described in 4. above. Then I would like to notate the scene outline for the character arcs (including parts of the heroes journey).
    • once I’ve finalized my scene order, then I will write any missing scenes, or edit scenes with an altered scope. Lastly, I will perform the editing passes that I need, first for continuity, then character tension, and finally for theme and tone.
  6. Then, I’m going to NaNoWriMo twice this year. I really want to write my first draft of my cannibal horror story (probably in April), and we’ll see if my outlining for book 3 generates a similar vision that I am compelled to execute in November.

So there you go. What else have I been doing writerly wise? I did begin to outline a story I’m tentatively calling Dragon Angels. I wrote in depth character explorations, plotted the story out, and then realized that what I had written would make an awesome RPG campaign. More to come on that, heh heh. What I’m undecided, is if a) I should write the story, and then see if the player characters make the same choices or if the story gets told to a different ending, or b) I should just outline the story, and use it as background for the campaign.

Because RPGs are about collective story telling, I’m hesitant to write this story in too much detailed – there is a fine line in RPGs where the game master is just telling a story to the players, versus allowing the story to organically evolve from the players choices and desires. Maybe that’s not a fine line at all, but it is an easy one to cross. All roads lead to Rome, you know.

So that’s where I’m at today. Still running 2 or 3 campaigns, playing in another. Writing has markedly increased, just not here. So I think that this blog has been a success (I am writing more) even if the success isn’t reflected in the blog itself. Writing is a habit, and a mantra I have been telling myself over the past few years as I contemplated whether or not I would ever call myself a writer is: “Writer’s write“. Right?

MMOs and RPGs

Posted: August 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

It’s no accident that my last post was more than 5 weeks ago. I resubscribed to World of Warcraft to try out the last expansion, Warlords of Draenor. I have to say that I have enjoyed it more than the last two expansions, and spend several hours a day to that end, hours that were previously dedicated to Twitter, GamersPlane.com, and this blog.

I play MMORPGs somewhat obsessively, particularly WoW which I’ve played off and on since 2007, but I’m aware of this OCD-like tendency, so I don’t keep the subscriptions running for long. As soon as the fun curve starts to dip down, I cancel and give it a few months or a year before returning.

What occurs to me is … are MMORPGs really RPGs? I’m sure that several publicly available definitions will claim such, with sufficiently shallow definitions. But, are we really ‘playing a role’? Are we immersed?

Stylistically, MMORPGs often are skinned with High Fantasy or Sci Fi settings, and use random number generators to resolve conflicts, so they so seem very similar to RPGs.

Take Monopoly. You play it as if you were some kind of mogul or real estate tycoon, and acquire property, charge rent, and attempt to own everything, at which point victory or loss is determined. There are even Fantasy and Sci Fi skins of Monopoly. But you don’t immerse yourself in the fictional world of Monopoly. You don’t make choices based upon ‘what would your character do’ versus ‘what should you do tactically’.

Isn’t WoW the same? You make choices, yes, but not as a character. I don’t choose options based upon what my character would feel that he/she should do, but instead, I make choices to progress the characters along measureable paths, such as acquiring currency, or advancing skills, or gaining levels, or replacing gear with higher quality.

Here we stray into the gray area of roleplaying… are you really roleplaying if you aren’t immersed in the setting, or if you are really just playing as yourself. My wife and I both felt that in the times when we really got involved in miniature combat, our PCs became staler and we slowly drifted away from immersion and roleplaying into the tactical boardgame side of the hobby.

So there, are MMORPGs really like RPGs, or are they more akin to tactical boardgames?

Theory

There is no United Nations agreement or Geneva Convention on what constitutes a roleplaying game. There is no tax implications or professional body that certifies what is and isn’t a roleplaying game. As such, existing public sources such as Wikipedia are more inclusive in their nature rather than definitive. Wikipedia, for example, states that MMORPGs are RPGs, but trading card games and wargames are not. Why? How is this defined? Is every MMORPG automatically grandfathered into that, even if it’s really just Farmville?

If we want to re-examine the premise (or to be precise re-re-examine as I’m sure that The Forge and other RPG theory sites have discussed this), let us examine what delineates two popular games, Monopoly from Dungeons & Dragons. According to Wikipedia’s lame definition, Monopoly is a RPG because it “is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setiing”. My character might be a Shoe, and the board of Monopoly is clearly fictional. Now, calling my shoe a character may worth being challenged. After all, apart from the acquisition of wealth and property, the character doesn’t develop. But that is just a way of keeping score. The same is true of a World of Warcraft toon, in that it’s gear, skills and wealth may develop, but that is just how we keep score.

However, the acquisition of more stuff allows your WoW character to do new stuff, new abilities are unlocked, new actions become possible. You character does change. Having more money and property in Monopoly does allow you to do new things, too, for example you can’t build houses until you own a set of linked properties.

In Dungeons & Dragons, however, the possibility exists that your character can develop based solely upon your portrayal of the character, that is, you can roleplay and have it be persistent and meaningful in the game. Games like Dragon Age are clearly RPGs in that they allow your dialog choices to influence future events in the game. In WoW, you simply choose to Accept or Deny quests, but there is no character, no personality being evoked by the player.

I’m sure that there are MMORPGs that allow for actual roleplaying as we would define it in tabletop RPG terms. WoW and other games even have RP (roleplaying) servers where immersion is nominally required by the guilds that operate on those servers. In these circumstances, RP elements are attempted to be grafted onto what is otherwise and engaging but non-roleplaying experience.

And to be fair, I’m sure that many gaming groups blur the very definition of roleplaying but playing almost entirely as a tactical, combat game with little or no focus on character personalities and emerging histories rather than the rote overcoming of obstacles.

In the end, I don’t interact with other players in WoW as if we are immersed. Instead, we talk as players would over headsets in Call of Duty, or on reddit. That is, we converse as players not as characters. Because of this, for me, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, EVE Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, TERA, Perfect World, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, etc., have never been roleplaying games. Just games.

Day 21 – Favourite Dragon Colour/Type

I guess that I am most interested in the Silver Dragons. They spend most of their lives in human or elven form, which makes them great NPCs. They are also not overly aggressive in combating evil in the world, but instead just protect those elves and humans that they are living among – unless asked for help. It’s good when your powerful NPCs don’t automatically try to solve all of the parties problems for them.

Day 22 – Favourite Monster Overall

I would have to say dragons in general. Because I tend to run and play in low level campaigns, dragons make very seldom make appearances in the game. I would love to run a draco-centric game some time, where dragons are a key part of the player’s world. Whether this is like Dragons of Pern, where the player characters are dragon riders waging war against an unforgiving enemy, or the PCs themselves are dragons, I think it would be a lot of fun. It’s difficult keeping suitable conflicts for such powerful characters, but someday it will happen.

Day 23 – Least Favourite Monster Overall

I would like to say that I don’t like Skeletons, because they visually don’t make sense to me, and their implementation in D&D is so different than in most fiction and movies. However, I do use skeletons in D&D, so they can’t be my least favourite. I flipped through the 3.5 Monster Manual, and the only thing that jumped out at me was the Tarrasque. I’ve never used a Tarrasque or encountered one in a game. To me, they are intended to be a nearly unstoppable threat, but their form is uninteresting. If I were going to put something in the game that was such a legendary creature, I would call it a god, or a rare dragon, or anything else that evoked… something… in the players minds, other than “hmm, that’s going to be a tough fight”. Any the abilities are just so dickish, like they were designed by a petulant teenager DM whose players were walking through all the other uninteresting threats that they encountered.

Day 24 – Favourite Energy Type

Acid. Horrific, painful, with creeping residual effects, acid has a great character. Be it the uber-acid of the Xenomorphs in the Alien movies, or the idea of acid raining from the sky, acid is so visceral and threatening.

Day 25 – Favourite Magic Item

I like the Quaal’s tokens. Rather than just utility type effects, they’re super evocative of magic that you could imagine as being in a fantasy novel, rather than just duplicating some D&D character effect.

Day 26 – Favourite Nonmagic Item

Spiked platemail. So cool. I’ve tried to build a character that fought with the spiked armour, hugging peeps to the pain!

Day 27 – A character you want to play in the future

I’ve wanted to play a warlock-turned paladin for a while. Chained to a past and a dark, unforgiving former master, while trying to do what’s right. It’s really a fantasy version of Ghost Rider, but it seems compelling. Another paladin variant that I’ve wanted was a paladin who has sinned, has had his powers stricken, and must atone.

Day 28 – A character you will never play ever again

This ‘challenge’ can be interpreted in a few ways. A character that I’ll never have the opportunity to play again versus a character that I would never choose to play again given the opportunity. Also, is this meant to be a character build or a specific character. I’ll choose the latter since I rarely have to chance to replay characters. I wouldn’t play Kasuma/Kakita/Daigotsu Li again as I found her to be unsatisfying. A healing focused Water Shugenja of the Kitsu school (Oriental Adventures, D&D 3.0, set in Rokugan, the setting of the Legend of the Five Rings), I had designed her to be a support character, with a rich and interesting backstory. I chafed all along at the restraints that I imposed on myself. Every step of the way, every level gained, I sought to find a way to make her effective in some way. Instead, I followed a courtier’s path. She was too lawful, torn between a desire to heal people and to be an icon of courtly behaviour.

Day 29 – What is the number you always to seem to roll on a d20

3

Day 30 – Best DM you’ve had

With the caveat that the best DM doesn’t necessarily mean favourite? Ha ha. I would have to say Tracey. While the character that I played (Daigotsu Li from Day 28) was unsatisfying, that was entirely my doing. She put a fantastic amount of work into plot and NPCs, and it showed in the game, and that made the game itself very moving.

Roleplaying Without a Net

Posted: April 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

The following is based upon a Facebook post:

I started a Changeling: The Lost campaign recently, and none of us had played nWoD before. I had the whole party think about their concepts and rough backstories, and then we roleplayed for a few hours. At the end of the night, we made characters. This is a very story driven game, rather than a dungeon slog. Jae’s approach is great for story-driven sessions and I encourage such. In fact, I would prefer that my players spend less time with the books when making PCs in a new game. Let’s sketch them out and go – we’ll fill in the blanks as we learn the system together.

After posting, I realized that I wanted to explore this in more depth.

Because I’m obsessive, when I start playing a new game, my inclination is to game the f#$% out of the system, to find every loophole imaginable and figure out how to drive a truck through them all. So I read the rules, Google over-the-top builds, and then ignore it all and build the flawed character that I want. See, I don’t want to min/max, but I do want to know how the game really works for context of the character.

In the excellent game Feng Shui, by Atlas Games, there is advice that you should initially consider just quickie building characters and then play. After the first session, go back and change the characters. After all, what better way to learn the game then to play it and see what works and what flounders. However, if players create a character while feeling that their choices will be irreversible, then they naturally will be inclined to try and avoid errors. This risk-aversion lengthens the character creation process.

Step 1 – Change Anything That Wouldn’t Cause a Ret-Conning

  • Retcon = Retroactive Continuity

Following the advice articulated in Feng Shui, I began to apply the advice to other games. In D&D, after playing for a session, a player may come to realize that a particular feat, spell, or ability didn’t work the way they thought, and may request changing the feat. I applied a general rule that if a character aspect hadn’t entered the game, then there was no harm in changing it – if it hadn’t entered the game, there was nothing to retcon.

Step 2 – Change Anything That Doesn’t Change the Core Concept

In Vampire: The Masquerade, my players made their characters knowing that they could be revised, and it went relatively quickly. After playing for a couple sessions, two players realized that their characters didn’t have the skills to use some of their disciplines, so we changed that.

Step 3 – Change Anything

In a recent D&D 3.5 game, a young player became enraptured with the Pathfinder Psionics book that he had purchased, so I gave my permission to Retcon his half-elf sorcerer as a half-elf psionicist wilder – this wasn’t replacing a character, this was re-imagining the existing character. The PC kept the same name, the same Background (which we hacked from 5e), and the same skills. While I tend to be more lenient with younger or less experienced players, I think that I would be open to similar re-imagings for other characters.

It is a choice – does it break immersion if the character begins to act differently? Does it break immersion to replace a character that a player has found unappealing? There is a middle ground of course, working with the player to improve their experience, but I contend that dogmatically requiring that past choices be inviolable is overly rigid.

Immersion does not trump enjoyment. <== That right there, is where I will leave it.

Sucking at Fantasy

Posted: April 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

I get really excited about fantasy roleplaying. Try to keep that in mind while reading the following critique of fantasy roleplaying:

“I would like to roleplay a centaur knight, no a vampire riding a unicorn who jousts with dragons above cities filled with zombies.” Uhhhh, okay, that sounds like great fantasy, but how would you play that in a game like Dungeons & Dragons? Answer: a splat book full of house rules.

Here is the problem. In most fantasy RPGs, balance is hardcoded into the game. Sure, you might be able to optimize a character to be better at some stuff than other character builds, but all characters are fairly equal. Where traditional, high power curve fantasy game systems fall apart is the matching of threats to weird characters. It requires high system mastery on the part of the game-master to build an encounter that is fun and challenging to a party of strange characters. To control for that, the game systems really narrow/inhibit the deviations so that one class does similar things as other classes, but with different flavour text. It’s a hard problem.

This narrowing of focus, however, leaves most fantasy games feeling like semi-gritty Eurocentric medieval simulators. They don’t feel like Middle Earth, or fantasy anime. That is, fantasy novels don’t rely on semi-gritty Eurocentric medieval simulators – there are some, but there is other stuff, too. That other stuff, while great to read, is terrible to try and game, because we don’t have the right tools with our usual fantasy systems.

I hope that I have framed my problem. Sometimes we want to play weird fantasy where the characters aren’t level 1 villagers, but are instead, elevated or monstrous. I’m not thinking necessarily about superheroes. I’m really thinking about fantasy, like from books and stuff. Okay, I can’t think of any particular character. If I do, I’ll retcon the post with the main characters from the Malazan Books of the Fallen (see what happened there?).

The problem with your fairy knight avatar of Lancelot but with Merlin’s hat, is that you can’t build truly original characters with most fantasy RPG systems. So you end up creating PCs that fit the medieval Europe trope or shogun-era Japan. That is, largely historical Earth inspired settings. I submit that vast tracks of fantasy are kicked to the curb by gamemasters because it is too hard to work anything unexpected into their game of choice.

So, your players want to play Fiddler, Anomander Rake, Icarium and Karsa Orlong, how do you make that happen? Seriously, go read those books.

It’s a really hard problem. Part of me wants to say: use “Feng Shui” or “FATE” or Numenera/The Strange or some other game with light but open-ended mechanics. But I don’t think that really satisfies the tastes of most fantasy gaming tables. “Exalted” covers some amazing character effects. D&D 3.5 has tons and tons of customization abilities. Rolemaster could probably be made to work. Stormbringer probably handles the variety of powers. GURPS, Rifts and the various superhero games probably handle/allow the power imbalance well but I can’t speak from experience.

I don’t really have an answer. This post is really a rant wherein I respond to the occasional tidbit that I overhear where someone says they want to “play Firefly, but using D&D 5e rules”, and I think, man, there are so many game systems that don’t have that power curve problem that D&D has.

This all comes from a place of love for the genre. I really want things to explode outwards. The last few campaigns that I have run have involved monstrous characters and epic character concepts. I want to iceskate uphill and see what wacky stuff my players come up with. But, I’m less excited about playing Johnny McCrappyfighter, or Smelly the third level wizard. Let’s play Dragonriders of Pern!

Introduction and Intent

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Uncategorized
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I’ve been roleplaying since the early 1980s.  Back then, you didn’t need to distinguish between video game RPGs, and their progenitor, tabletop or pen-and-paper RPGs.  That is, the kind of game where you sit around with your friends with books and paper, and roll dice.  Out of belligerence, I will refer in this blog to tabletop RPGs as “RPGs.”  Video game RPGs will be referred to as “video games” or perhaps “eRPGs.”

My first memorable character in Dungeons & Dragons was an elf named Gogar.  I took the name from an amazing pinball game called Gorgar.  I was 11, shut up.  This blog is intended to document the musings of an experienced roleplayer and dungeonmaster as I explore the emergent RPG world around me.  In particular, I would like to discuss:

  • technology at the gaming table
  • technology replacing the gaming table
  • the theories behind roleplaying games
  • thoughts on games that I have run or played
  • gamemaster tips
  • short fiction and poetry

My goal is to post rapidly at first as I pick the low hanging fruit, and then settle down to weekly.

As Galadriel said to Maximus Decimus, Namaste!